Jen Brody and Jules Rivera, Authors
With identical green hair and a semi-spooky space-witch aesthetic, Jennifer Brody and Jules Rivera were a matched set as they filmed the book trailer for their forthcoming young adult graphic novel, Spectre Deep 6.
Brody, the award-winning author of The Continuum trilogy, graduated from Harvard University and is now a creative writing instructor. She teamed up with Jules Rivera, the Latinx artist who SyFy Wire called, “a multi-talented force in indie comics,” to do the multi-genre Spectre Deep 6. Rivera is the creator of a weekly autobiographical cartoon strip, Love, Joolz, and feminist sci-fi epic, Valkyrie Squadron, but she also worked on Barbie: Star Light Adventure graphic novels and Barbie Video Game Hero for Mattel.
Surrounded by lights, cameras, and microphones, they went through each shot until it felt perfect, working with warmth, professionalism, and humor. I was excited to watch their filming process and to interview them both at Jen’s downtown Los Angeles apartment, where we talked about craft, representation in sci-fi, and the power of team in collaboration.
Adrien Kade Sdao: Jen, I wanted to ask you about your writing process. I know you go to residencies fairly often. How does your writing process differ when you’re at home and when you’re out at a residency?
Jennifer Brody: I tend to move around. It keeps my creativity and my writing fresh to move locations. I also love being at residency programs around other writers, other creatives. I find it very motivating. I especially like programs that are interdisciplinary, which means it’s not just writers, but also visual artists, sculptors, experimental animators, you name it. I was just at the Vermont Studio Center, and that one is one of those programs. I find it takes some of the pressure cooker off of having a bunch of writers together. Sometimes I find it can be a little intense or a little competitive. Having other artists with other processes is really inspiring but also kind of balances some of the energy. And I personally, selfishly, just love to travel, so combining it with my writing enables me to do that. A lot of times I am awarded these [residencies]. They don’t cost me money, or I’m given a lot of financial aid, which really subsidizes my ability to travel. And my work is very largely portable right now, at this juncture, so I’ve been trying to take advantage. I did a program in Key West for a month. I’ve done quite a few of these.
AKS: When you’re at home, how is it different? Do you feel isolated at all?
Brody: In terms of isolation, I try to counteract that by building community, which I’ve done from the beginning, and by collaborating pretty heavily on a lot of projects. So, my individual books that I’m writing under Jennifer Brody, those can be a little bit isolating. I try to make sure, though, that I get out of the house, that I go work out, that I hang out with friends. That’s part of why I love living in downtown LA and in a community, because there are just people here who are around. I also collaborate a lot, so I tend to find people and be like, “You’re awesome! What can we do together?” That’s how I found Jules. “What crazy thing are we gonna make up and write together?” I have quite a few film and television projects and those all have teams built around them, so that kind of makes you feel less alone. I would say in the earlier stages of writing, it was definitely more isolating. As you become more of a professional author, too, you also have a lot more support structure: agents, publicists, managers, all of that kind of fun stuff. Editors.
In terms of isolation, I try to counteract that by building community, which I’ve done from the beginning, and by collaborating pretty heavily on a lot of projects.
AKS: How is writing a graphic novel different from writing a non-graphic novel, and how do you two collaborate? What does that look like?
Brody: Graphic novel is a very different medium from a regular novel. It’s actually a lot more like a screenplay. I do have background in film and television and script. The format actually looks fairly like a screenplay, where you have panel one and the description, and dialogue. To some degree, it’s easier, because you’re sort of sketching and setting the scene and writing the dialogue, but you don’t have to do everything that a real novel demands—interiority, voice—to the same degree. It’s definitely a faster process. They’re shorter. You’re looking at about 120 pages, and that also pertains to how much effort it takes to do the artwork. Like, a 300-page graphic novel would probably kill [Jules].
Jules Rivera: It depends how big the advance is!
Brody: The challenge of script is communicating a lot of information in a short span of time. One of the things I love about the graphic novel, though, is how visual it is. In my normal writing, my prose tends to skew very visual.
Rivera: I’ve got a lot of shit to do. Because she gives me so much stuff to work with, with visuals, it gives me so many options for creating iconic imagery. I’ve been thinking just getting more geometric and simpler for Spectre, just kind of stepping up my game, because sci-fi design and prop design and environment design—that is super my jam. I came to Los Angeles to be a sci-fi designer, and I also happen to be able to draw graphic novels, so that’s just a bonus.
Brody: That’s why she was so perfect for Spectre Deep 6. One of the things I love about working in collaboration is, I’ll see the imagery a certain way, but what she does with it is so much better than what I ever imagined. For me, it’s almost like working on a film project, where she’s the director and I’m the writer. So, you’re taking it and you’re framing the shot, and you’re making it come alive visually. I love that process for the same reason I like working in film and television, so this gives me the ability to do that, but I don’t need a $60,000,000 budget.
Rivera: Like I said, it depends how big the advance is. We can talk $60,000,000. I’ll film that movie. I like having a lot of freedom to do crazy stuff with the visuals. Like, one scene that I’m really proud of is Bianca’s soul-sucking scene. Her soul gets sucked out of her body to show everyone what the process of making a spectre is. I wanted to make it look like a fricking nightmare, so I just had a lot of body distortion, body horror, everything is screaming orange and crazy. Having the ability to do so much with the mood—because if she had really specific visuals, I don’t think I’d have as much fun. It’d be like “Okay, I guess I’m drawing that very specific thing to spec.”
AKS: While you’re writing, how do you navigate various privileges that you have? White privilege, cis privilege. Jules, I don’t know you very well, so I don’t know what privileges you have.
Rivera: Well, I’m a cis woman, my pronouns are she/her. What are your pronouns?
Brody: That’s what I thought. But you always gotta do a recheck-in! Things can shift sometimes.
Rivera: I do have privilege. I’m second or third generation of immigrants here in America, which means I’ve been riding a wave of generational wealth. I’m able to sit around and fuck about with a graphic novel. So, there’s that. How I weigh that is, I try to get out of myself. Try to say, “Okay, I know these are the Jules Rules, but let’s just really try to put yourself in the position of…” I think Sparks was the character I really tried to connect with in terms of how his job would treat him, because he’s a brilliant engineer, but he’s black, so… [angry noise]
Brody: Which is something you went through, in your real life. She was an engineer, a military contractor; and a Latinx woman in engineering, let alone military, is extraordinarily rare.
Rivera: It’s rare for a reason! Because it sucks, if you’re not one of the good old boys. And here’s the crazy thing. Just because you’re a white guy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good old boy. You just happen to be a white dude, but the good old boys think you’re on their team, and that’s really toxic too. Very few people benefit from this type of environment. There’s only so much a Latina’s gonna put up with before we’re like, “Bitch, peace.” You have to maintain your self-respect. I put up with it for a while, but it’s fine. It’s all a big break-even thing. Because here I am being asked to write about it in a graphic novel story. Obviously, I change so many key details. I’m not saying anything about the company I used to work for, but I can bring that experience to the story and tell it from an angle from somebody who’s just been there. That’s all I strive for. Does it feel like ya been there?
Brody: I think generally what we’re talking about is the construction of otherism, and what is the other shifts over time. You can go to a different country, and it might be a different construct, potentially. All of us do have privilege that we need to deconstruct, but a lot of us have also experienced aspects of the otherism. I worked in Hollywood, for everyone you’ve seen in the news.
Rivera: [laughs] Whack-a-mole!
Brody: Of all the industries I’ve worked in, which includes publishing and Hollywood, I have to say comics is the worst. Especially if we’re a female team doing a science fiction graphic novel, we’re kind of a little bit of a unicorn.
Rivera: We’re ahead of the curve. But there are other female teams. We were just hanging out with Magdelene Visaggio, she works on Kim and Kim and Vagrant Queen. I’m really glad that we’re all a part of this rising tide. That’s what it feels like. It’s not just us. And that is so great! I would love the world to get tired of all these stories of diversity, like “Oh, my God, how dare you tell all these genuine stories again?! Can’t you throw some artifice at me?”
Brody: I think representation really matters. That’s something that in sci-fi we can do really easily, especially with an artistic component. What I always say about character is you just need to write them as three-dimensional, fully fleshed out people. We’re not writing tokenism; we’re not writing a flat kind of stereotype. We really try to go deep into them, their storylines, what makes them tick, what they’ve been through. A lot of people forget that you can’t just slap a Latinx ethnicity on and say, “Hey, they’re all the same, right?” Like, how many countries, how many places, how many backgrounds?
Rivera: There’s a lot of arguments in the Latinx community. We will argue about anything and everything. And that comes from the fact that we do have our differences. So, you gotta know, what flavor of Latinx are we talking about?
AKS: Jen, I’d like to talk about your recent essay in Lunch Ticket, “On the Importance of Young Adult Fiction.” I’m going to read you a quote: “Mostly, I inhabit the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres, but don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles of spaceships and advanced technology. My book The 13th Continuum grapples with highly topical and socially-relevant issues such as environmental destruction, totalitarian regimes, religious persecution, discrimination, the rich/poor gap, and more. My fiction employs the allegorical lens to examine contemporary problems.” You did talk about this a little bit, but can you speak a little more about why sci-fi is a good lens for examining these sorts of issues? Would you ever consider writing anything more realistic or contemporary?
Brody: Those are great questions. There’s a myth about science fiction, where people think it’s about the future. Science fiction isn’t about the future, or even in the case of Star Wars, the distant past. Science fiction is about right now. We’re in dialogue with the present. If you look at the waves of preoccupation in science fiction, which do change over time, it usually has to do with the prevailing environment when it was created. So, we’re actually writing about right now. But what is going on in the present—maybe even a little worse than it has been in recent times—is you have this divide. People are on their teams, and it is very unlikely you’re gonna change their minds, because they’re very committed to their teams. Science fiction allows you to abstract from the present a little bit and reframe the issue in a way so that people actually might be more receptive to seeing a point of view that isn’t their own and that may even be persuadable. It’s kind of this cool sleight of hand we do in sci-fi. We’re like, “Look at the fun space kablooey, but here’s a gay character! And she’s awesome and she’s a princess and she has a lightsaber and she’s an alien…!”
Rivera: She’s an alien who’s not allowed to love other aliens just like her! You put enough salad dressing on it, people don’t notice they’re eating spinach.
Brody: That’s about right! There’s a reason Star Trek had the first interracial kiss on television. This is the least weird stuff going on in Star Trek. Another example is immigration, which is something I explored in a recent story called “Let Me In,” which I wrote and published in an anthology. I’m in the process of adapting it into a graphic novel. It basically takes the issues that we’re grappling with now and reframes them. It was inspired by when Trump did his Muslim ban. I remember being, like many people, really upset. I was like, what if we reframed it—what if it was Earthlings that needed a new home? The story is about a bunch of kids in internment camps on Earth and their families, and a utopian alien race sends a ship and offers them asylum. It’s a climate change story as well. We pick them up when they’ve been in transit for a long time to this new alien world. They don’t know a lot about the aliens, they don’t know a lot about where they’re going, they don’t understand the language entirely. When they get close to the alien world, there’s a regime change on the planet that shuts the atmospheric borders and leaves the Earth people stranded in space. They can’t go home. They have nowhere to go back to. They’re running out of fuel and supplies. What do they do? To a degree, it’s supposed to inspire empathy for the plight of someone who needs a home. We’re saying, “What if all Earth people are suffering, and we all need help, and it’s the aliens that are helping us?”
Rivera: And we’re asking the aliens for their help. That is the most crucial point, putting humanity at the mercy of a benevolent alien species. When you see the issue is, no, really put yourself in these people’s shoes, then hopefully that can inspire some, at least, thought. Introspection.
Brody: We get the ability to do some fun work too. Another thing I love about a lot of my work is it does speak directly to younger readers. I’m writing a middle grade series right now. I know, it’s so exciting. I have two middle grade books publishing next summer, but I can’t say a lot about it.
Rivera: And there’s a collaboration that she and I are working on.
Brody: We speak directly to younger readers, so it gives us the ability to reach kids, and kids are really the future. I always say that. Don’t underestimate them. Don’t talk down to them. They are listening, and a lot of them aren’t happy with how a lot of things are being handled right now. That could be everything from how we’re handling climate change currently to gun control to a lot of other issues that are directly affecting them and will dramatically affect them in their lifespans. So, I think writing for younger readers is super important.
AKS: Also in your essay, I came across the term “cli-fi.” I know that The Continuum trilogy was originally inspired by the BP oil spill and footage you saw of that. I specifically wanted to ask about Spectre Deep 6. Are there going to be environmental messages? Can you talk more about cli-fi and what that is to you?
Brody: Yeah, I’ll talk about cli-fi. Spectre Deep 6 isn’t grappling with that quite as heavily as some of my other science fiction. Spectre is dealing with more geopolitical stuff. They’re grappling with the fact that they’re back here against their will. There are no permissions. We’re dealing with issues of consent, and they’re a little bit like indentured servants. They can’t leave, they’re stuck in containment, they have to carry out these missions. Some of the storylines involve, how do we release them? Could they be released? What would that do? Especially if it threatens the world. We’re dealing a little more with some metaphysical stuff, I would say, in Spectre. Cli-fi is climate change science fiction. If you’re not factoring climate change into your world-building currently, you’re doing it wrong, because climate change is already significant, and within the next twenty, thirty, forty years will be incredibly significant. So if you’re not taking it into consideration, even if it’s not what your book is about, you’re kind of messing up. You can factor in a fix for climate change. I actually am a believer that there are technological solutions, but there would need to be an incredible amount of willpower behind that, and capital investment, and that’s not currently happening. I think you can’t deal with Earth, especially Earth in the future, if you’re not grappling with the fact that fire season in California is forever now. We had a hurricane that developed over land recently. It’s really rare. It’s a storm that started over the US, moved over the Caribbean, built steam, and then went to New Orleans as a hurricane. Crazy stuff is happening. Hurricane season is more intense. We can see the heat wave that was just in France after I left there. People are dying. A lot of things like the immigration crisis we’re seeing is very much driven by climate change. It puts pressure on areas of the world that are already under a lot of pressure, and it exacerbates. When you see these waves of immigration, they are largely, to a degree, driven by climate change. That’s why I say that cli-fi is my new favorite term.
AKS: What advice do you have for working writers, or working artists?
Rivera: I could advise on a zillion things. Make sure you include revisions in the contract. Don’t let them run you through revisions 50,000 times. Give them two and get out. Actually, give them one if you really want to be a dick. So, that’s a start. Protect yourself. You’re an artist. There’s a lot of people out there who want to exploit you. You have a talent, and somebody wants to exploit that talent for cheap and make sure you do not reap the benefits of that talent. Make sure you’re always signing work-for-hire contracts, make sure you’re always keeping up with the freelancer’s union. Make sure that you’re recording invoicing—when somebody stiffs you at that thirty-day plus point, just make sure: “Hey, I want to check in on that invoice that was sent thirty days ago.” Start owning your power, because a lot of artists don’t know how to get paid, and it sucks. We need to stop letting people exploit us so that we’ll finally start getting the pay that we’re really worth.
Brody: Things that are artistic tend to be undervalued compared to a lot of other industries. Most artists or writers generally do struggle to make a living wage. A lot of us juggle a hundred different gigs and jobs. Most of us write books, but we might also freelance. Do work-for-hire, book coaching. I do that. I teach novel workshops. There are a million ways to try to put your income together. Another thing is, don’t give up your day job until you’re really ready to do that. The reality is that book advances are down across the board, and most writers I know do not make a living full-time from writing. I’m lucky that I’m getting to a place where that is happening, largely, but there are a lot of factors. And, as Jules knows, as I know, it’s a lot of project-to-project work.
Rivera: That’s an artist’s life, like, “Okay, I’m done with that thing, let’s move on to this thing.”
Brody: I’m great this year; what’s gonna be next year? Another challenge that a lot of writers and artists face now is health insurance, which is so expensive, and so difficult for us. I would love to see progress on that front, as would a lot of people. I mean the Writer’s Guild and the screenwriters have a lot of protections. We don’t really have that through an Author’s Guild. We also tend to get more exploited on deadlines, on a whole lot of other things. Jules is right—don’t sign anything without having someone review it.
AKS: What are you reading right now?
Brody: Nothing—no, I’m just kidding! I’m just so living in the land of this book I have to write. The truth is that when I am working intensively on a lot of my own stories, it’s actually really hard for me at this stage of work to read a lot of other people’s stories, because they tend to seep. Things that tend to work best for me when I’m writing big worldbuilding stuff is to read a lot of memoir and nonfiction. The recent two memoirs that I loved were Maid by Stephanie Land, which is about being working class in America, and Rock Needs River by [Vanessa McGrady], which is about her very open adoption of her daughter. They’re both really fantastic memoirs. But I guess that’s about 180 degrees from what I write; they’re real people stories, real people issues. The other reason I love memoir as a writer is, if you want to know how to write characters, if you want to know about a hundred people’s lives—read memoir. It is a huge insight. I do tend to watch more television and film right now, which is also related to my bandwidth. Recently, I saw Us, the Jordan Peele movie, and it was so good! Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to read this—House of Leaves [by Mark Danielewski]—and that short story collection, Friday Black [by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah]. I got this at Judy Blume’s bookstore in Key West.
Rivera: I am a trashy, trashy person. I mostly read the books that my friends give me, because I’m a graphic novelist. It stands to reason I would know other graphic novelists, right? Let’s see. I read a lot of graphic novels lately. I found this one that’s basically a take-off of Calvin and Hobbes. It was just called Spencer & Locke, but it’s basically Calvin and Hobbes aged up and a grim and gritty detective story. It is so effing crazy. It is cuckoo bananas crazy. There was another one that I got last year that was Mech Cadet Yu. It’s such a beautiful little story; it’s basically like a kid-robot story. It’s written by Greg Pak. I also backed his Kickstarter for The Princess Who Saved her Friends and, oh, my god, that story is such an adorable story for little girls, and how to resolve conflict amongst your friends. I mean, I feel like it’s good to read kids stories, too, to remember how to relate to being a kid. We spend so much time as adults, doing our mouse wheel or whatever. We forget what it was like to sit around and be a little goober and have little goober problems, where your biggest problem is your friends aren’t having a good time playing music together and we have to figure out how to play friends but still play music and not scream at each other, right? It’s important, applicable problems, but to explain it in a way that kids would understand, I feel like that’s an art. That is an absolute art, and I always like to see good examples of it. What’s another one I loved? Motor Crush. I know I’m a little bit late to that party, but Motor Crush is a really cool one. It’s about a black female motorcyclist. Basically, she’s a motorcyclist, she races, she has bad guys after her for reasons.