Saturday, October 13

Graphic Novel Author Interview: Mark Siegel

I am so excited about today's author interview: Mark Siegel, an author, editor, and publisher of graphic novels—a veritable graphic-novel-genius extraordinaire! And, with this being my first foray into graphic-novelist-interviewing, I'd say this is a pretty awesome way to start. Our particular focus today is on his series, 5 Worlds, with The Sand Warrior (which I reviewed back here, and garnering several awards and starred-reviews) and The Cobalt Prince, the recently released book two. 


EA: Hi Mark! Thanks for doing this interview. I have never had the opportunity to interview a graphic novel writer (graphic novelist?), let alone an editor of a whole graphic novel publishing office! So that being said, I really want to focus on the importance of graphic novels and the writing process. First up: how did you get your start in graphic novels?

MS: After college I spent a decade getting rejection letters on all my submissions—picture books and graphic novel projects, which I was sending to publishers in the U.S. and in France (where I grew up)... In order to make a living, I learned book design and eventually moved to New York, where I worked for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. That same year, I got my first break in picture books, with the beloved editor Richard Jackson, who launched the careers of many luminaries, including Judy Blume, Chris Raschka, and Cynthia Rylant. Our first project together was SEADOGS: AN EPIC OCEAN OPERETTA, on a Lisa Wheeler manuscript. This was pure fun, through and through, and I did it in a European comics style. It went on to win the Texas Bluebonnet award.

Our following project was written by my wife Siena, and was called To Dance—a comics memoir of ten years of her life in ballet, as a student of George Balanchine in the School of American Ballet. That won a Sibert Honor. Meanwhile, the big publishing houses were all turning their focus to graphic novels, and so those two books got noticed... I was developing a vision for an American, literary graphic novel house—and in 2005, Macmillan offered me an imprint to run at that crazy dream. And that's how First Second Books began. I never stopped working on my own projects alongside of that, though.

Wow, what an opportunity! So why did you choose to make 5 Worlds? And in particular, why did you decide to write to a kid audience?

The best projects feel like they choose you, more than you choose them, don’t you think? They grab you and don’t let go! 5 Worlds has been like that. Originally, as sometimes happens, it started with a picture in my mind.… 

It was a moving picture. A far away world, with beautiful, colorful buildings, a city, and in the middle of it—a sand castle. A giant sand castle. And in my mind, I’m zooming slowly towards one of the towers of this sand castle, and inside this tower there’s a girl, sitting alone in a large hall. And I’m even closer, and I can see she’s reading a letter. And she’s crying.


Then it’s like pulling on a live string—pulling with questions. Why is she crying? What’s in the letter? What is she doing there? And from that, the whole epic adventure of 5 Worlds began.  

My brother Alexis and I teased the story out, one question at a time. And we played with this close-in, intimate story, as well as the big picture—these five worlds, each with different cultures and atmospheres, and ancient histories. And we were so caught by what we discovered there that we just had to share it in the real world. 

As for the audience—we didn’t start with an audience in mind. In fact, in my first sketches, the characters were all adult! But then along the way, Alexis and I got stuck, and put the project aside for a little while. Later it occurred to us to wonder what would happen if the characters were much younger...and suddenly the story took off. So maybe the story itself wanted it this way.

Tell me a little bit about the actual writing process. How does it start? How does one get published? How long does it take?

I think it was Hemingway who said “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” While that may not be absolutely true, it holds truth for me. Often times, the hardest stage is coughing up a first draft, and not minding if it’s lousy. But then you have something to work, rework, kick around, and knead like pizza dough.

One of my favorite books on writing is Brian McDonald’s Invisible Ink. So much of good writing isn’t what you see on the page, it’s all that invisible preparation, thinking, asking questions—what goes on behind the scenes. Much of writing isn’t done in a word doc, or at a keyboard, necessarily. The cooking, gestating, growing your story like a garden—so, when you sit down to start writing, you’re ready—that’s work, too.

Graphic novels are an especially labor-intensive format, at every stage. And writing and rewriting occurs in words and in pictures. For 5 WORLDS, Alexis and I develop a working script, but we’re giving that a thrashing at the thumbnailing stage, and then we’re rewriting and refining dialog throughout every art stage.

5 Worlds is a very unusual process, too. We are a team of five creators. The basic steps are script, thumbnail (like a rough storyboard in film), then pencils, line art, color, and final touches, like sound-effects, clean-ups and corrections.

I had a student the other day who told me that his mom doesn't let him read graphic novels. Totally bummed me out. So I'm curious, what would you say to parents about the importance of graphic novels?

Yes, such stories are not unusual. In fact, just this morning, one of my 5 Worlds teammates wrote to me, saying a friend’s child wrote a book report on 5W1: The Sand Warrior, and her teacher returned it to her, saying it shouldn’t be on a graphic novel, but on a “real book.” Undaunted, the young student asked that her teacher read The Sand Warrior before deciding if it was a real book—which the teacher did, after which she accepted the book report!

Still, I’d say on the whole, in America today teachers and other educators, including librarians, are embracing new forms of literacy, including visual literacy. The American Library Association established a new Graphic Novel Roundtable this year, in fact. Graphic novels are being taught in every grade, and increasingly they are winning the most distinguished literary awards—because there are more and more works of depth and quality, in the comics medium. And booksellers are embracing them, too, as it’s the fastest growing category in publishing. Barnes & Noble just expanded its graphic novel section for young readers, nationwide.

As you point out, though, and as many of these people will tell you, the last real holdouts—are parents! I understand, having children of my own: we ought to care about their reading diet. But nowadays, the best comics can be just as challenging, and meaningful, and nourishing as quality prose books.

What I would tell parents:
  • The Graphic Novel is a format. It’s a medium. It’s what authors do with it that makes it good or bad. Some might even argue that in every medium humans work in—novels, music, movies, you name it—up to ninety percent of what’s out there might be...garbage! But the other ten percent is what makes the medium worthy. The ten percent is what adds to the human heritage of great works, great stories, new insights and inspirations. And nowadays, in graphic novels, there’s A LOT being produced, that belongs in that ten percent.
  • Even if you’re not especially into comics, there are important and outstanding works that should be in any well-rounded reading diet. Find out what they are.
  • If you want to, check out the graphic novels that have won a National Book Award, the Printz Award, the Caldecott—see why these prestigious prizes were given to them.

What else would you add or want to tell people about in regards to your career?
I hope you’ll come by and visit … You can sign up for my quarterly newsletter, in which I share highlights from both my lives, as an editor and as an author.

And finally, my favorite, the lightning round:

-favorite color?
  A small, bright orange accent in a blue field.
-favorite dessert?
-favorite comic strip?
  Still Calvin & Hobbes.
-As a kid, you wanted to be ___ when you grew up:
  At the time, not knowing better, I used to say a bookmaker. I never wanted to be far from words and pictures.

Thank you, Mark, for sharing your expertise and insight!

Mark Seigel was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and raised in France. He graduated from Brown and lives in New York.

Mark is the author and illustrator of several award-winning picture books and graphic novels. He is also the founder, and Creative and Editorial Director of First Second Books, Macmillan’s graphic novel house. First Second offers an ambitious collection in every age category, in a wide range of themes and styles, with talent from all over the world. Mark has appeared before thousands of librarians and educators to speak about the graphic novel renaissance. Learn more at

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