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Interview with Raina Telgemeier

One of the most moving and beloved graphic novels (graphic memoir, actually) to come out in the past few years was Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, the story of growing up, losing and making friends, and discovering one’s authentic identity…all because of a little (well, a lot of) orthodontia. It created such a buzz, and garnered such a following, that everyone was curious to see what Telgemeier’s next move would be in the graphic publishing world. That answer has come in the form of Drama, a fictional teen story set in the world of middle school theater, with all the attendant romance, friendship, angst, and highs and lows one would expect. Here, Telgemeier breaks down the set for us.

I’m curious how things changed for you after Smile was published. For example, did a lot of people feel like they really knew you after reading it? Did people feel connected to you, either through their own stories of similar experiences or through the way you opened up so honestly about your life?
Kids really connected to Smile. I get letters every week from kids who relate to the story, whether it’s because they’re going through orthodontic treatment, or they’re being bullied at school, or they just have brown hair and a little sister! Kids just see themselves in it. It’s remarkable.
As for adults, it seems to bring back memories. It doesn’t matter if we’re close in age or if we grew up in the same area (although I hear from a lot of people who are, or who did)—Smile seems to spiral them right back to the awkwardness of middle school. It’s nice; people frequently say they wish they could be friends with young Raina!
With Drama, you’ve moved into fiction. What inspired this story?
I was always scared of writing fiction, but I’m still using my own memories as a springboard, so it doesn’t really feel all that different. I was in my high school choir, which translated into singing in the ensemble in several school musicals. I loved learning the parts, hanging out with the cast and crew, and the buzz of opening night. I loved the experience of putting on plays…but I never wanted to be in the spotlight. I decided to write a story that spoke to those memories, but moved away from my own experiences, for the opportunity to push the story further. All of the musicals I was in went relatively smoothly, but it’s easy to imagine a school play spiraling completely out of control!
Did you work behind the scenes in theater yourself in school?
I was never on stage crew, but I had quite a few friends who were.
Is Callie’s story one that resonates with you personally?
Absolutely. Callie’s friends—twins Jesse and Justin—are inspired by two of my best friends from high school, who are also twins. Their friendship is a fictionalized version of our own, and I thought it was worth sharing. And, her journey through the ups and downs of working on a big project come right out of my own crazy, Gemini approach to getting things done. Life is a roller coaster for both Callie and myself!
Is there a theater production that you fell in love with when you were Callie’s age?
I was really into Annie and The Sound of Music when I was a kid, thanks to the movie musicals. My middle school language arts teacher took our class to see lots of plays: I remember seeing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Les Miz (possibly my first live musical?) and Starlight Express, which is all rock and roll and roller skates. In high school my friends and I learned to sing the entire Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, because that is what you do when you’re sixteen, I guess. 
You worked with design studio Gurihiru to create a color scheme for this book that perfectly complements the tone of the story. Tell us a little bit about how you went about that.
Gurihiru (a two-women team, Kawano and Sasaki) is responsible for some of my favorite art and comics of the past half-decade or so. They illustrated the rebooted Marvel Power Pack series, and they’re working on the Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Lost Adventures with Gene Yang right now. They have a really soft, pleasing color palette, so I looked to them to help create the jewel-toned world of Callie’s universe, which I love. In some cases, I had really clear ideas—the story is set in a specific part of California, where the weather and atmosphere are very distinctive. And because Gurihiru are Japanese and work through a translator, there were a few instances where they needed solid American references. Soda cans, the bookstore scene, things like that. Anyway, I got to meet Kawano and Sasaki and their translator, Aki, at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, and oh my goodness, they are SUCH sweethearts.
Your work combines both comic and manga styles. And for younger readers, comics and manga seem interchangeable. Do you think that is the future of the industry in general, a melding of these two seemingly different worlds?
I read manga and comic strips when I was growing up, and they both worked their way into my artistic sensibility, although I’m by no means a manga artist. Most of the young cartoonists I encounter these days seem to be heavily influenced by manga and anime, but I think that’s because it’s so readily available to read and watch. I don’t know. The world keeps evolving, and comics will keep evolving with it. Any time a really popular animated TV show spawns a fandom, the style of that show will start to creep into peoples’ art styles, too—right now I’m seeing lots of comics that are obviously inspired by Adventure Time, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and Avatar: The Last Airbender!
It seems surprising that this is still an issue in 2012, but it’s often mentioned how some of the characters in Drama are gay—as though that is a big deal for a book aimed at young readers. Was it an issue at all when you were writing the book?
It was always a central part of the story, and my editors were supportive from the earliest drafts. There was a lot of discussion about what ages the characters should be. I originally envisioned them as high schoolers, but Scholastic felt middle school was the right setting for the story. That meant adjusting certain elements to be more age-appropriate, but we all agreed that the finding your identity, whether gay or straight, is a huge part of middle school.
Do you have a particular favorite scene in Drama, one that was especially fun or meaningful for you to write and draw?
Well, the big dramatic closing night of the play was really gratifying to draw. That scene came to me before I even started writing the book, and everything else in the story was leading up to that moment.
Both Drama and Smile have drawn in a large female audience—both young girls and adult women—who are new to the comics format. What other books would you recommend to them to read after they finish your books?
Readers are lucky—this is a great time to be discovering graphic novels. I can whole-heartedly recommend Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol, Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, Bake Sale by Sara Varon, the A Wrinkle in Time graphic novel adaptation by Hope Larson, Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge, all of Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse collections, and Lynda Barry’s Marlys books.
Tell us a little bit about the promotional tour you’ll be doing for the book. Where can fans meet you soon?
I’m traveling all over the country this fall! My next stop is the San Francisco Bay Area, and after that I’ll be appearing at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, Maine…just to name a few! My calendar still has a few events I have yet to post, so keep an eye on my website for more dates and info!