Sometimes the best interviews are the most unexpected. I didn't know what to expect when I sat down with Caleb Monroe, the writer of the forthcoming Cloaks. But as you'll read from what follows, he and I had a great conversation about creativity, communications and how to keep going as a working writer. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
Caleb Monroe: You know how it goes. You write a comic and it goes up on the shelves. You write anything else and it could be years or maybe not at all.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: It must be nice writing comics, right, and have them actually come out?
Monroe: It's beautiful. You write it and two months later, three months later, there it is. It exists in the world. It's a real thing.
CB: It's still a thrill? Or do you get used to that thrill pretty quickly?
Monroe: I don't think you ever get numb to it. It's a high, and the thing is you're starting a book and you're working with an artist so suddenly it's super thrilling again because you don't know at all necessarily how your script and their art- it's always going to create this sort of synergistic thing and even if you've seen how they write for other people, and if you've written for other artists, it still ends up being something new when you two work together. So every time there's new pages in the inbox, it's still exciting.
CB: It's a weird relationship because it's very intimate, and also with someone you don't necessarily know.
Monroe: Yeah, it's intimate, but you may have never met in person, or when I was starting out one of the guys that I did a bunch of work with Noel Tuazon, who would later go on and do Tumor with Joshia Fialkov and some other great books like that. We did a number of projects together for years and never met. We've met now, but again some of the artists I work with these days I've never met because they're in different countries or whatever. It's all email.
CB: Did you have to write specifically to get certain culture references or make sure there was no slang in the script or something like that?
Monroe: Yes and no, I try to write to the artist’s visual strengths and weaknesses, but I don't do a lot of cultural translating. My goal is to write something that if someone can read and understand English, they'll get. The dialog is always going to have slang and stuff like that but in the descriptions themselves I try to speak purely in a visual language. You know, some writers like to make it like a letter and cracking jokes and talking, I prefer to try and get as close to painting images as I can with the words. Not necessarily because I want to try and create images for them to draw, but to inspire them. So I'm trying to use words in a way that sets their brains on fire with all the visual possibilities. Which is probably going to be a lot better than if I tried to sit down myself and try and think of what the visual should be here.
CB: Well that's the way your creativity works right? You're not thinking about the words you're going to tell, especially with comics, you're thinking of the image on the page and then the best way to present the image.
Monroe: Right, so I'm trying to make my images transparent in a way so that they're seeing it in their head visually, and they're not getting hung up in my words.
Monroe: Every now and then there will be a bit of a translation thing where I'll use a term that could have two meanings, and I'll get an email saying “Which of these two meanings did you mean?” something like that, but it tends to go pretty smoothly.
CB: I work in software with a lot of international teams. Nomenclature gets very important. That kind of becomes your communication process to make your statements very clear.
Monroe: And the more I work with an artist I think we both feel more free to do some interpreting of each other's work, so sometimes I think once we get past that script or two, sometimes I think even if there might be something in the script they don't get the full meaning of that they'll just go with the flow, and it's still always very interesting and very fun and you just get something done that you would with anyone else.
CB: And then with the Ape books, too, you also have this core of reference, right? They have the films that they can watch. They have the previous story lines they can refer to, etc.
Monroe: Yes, although with the exception of one page on Dawn of the Apes, we were still basically making everything up.
Monroe: Because it takes place in the dark years, the ten years between the two movies. So there was likeness stuff as far as characters. Our first page visually is essentially the credit sequence of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Other than that it still works essentially the same as if we were making something from scratch.
CB: How much for you to have to be able to create the in between years?
Monroe: I had a lot of freedom. Last summer my editor and I went to the Fox Studios lot. They gave us a copy of the script, we sat in the hallway, read it there because we had to take it back, and just took as many notes as we could because we knew that was going to be the last time that we ever see it.
Then we did a couple of conference calls with the writer and with one of the producers. So they knew a lot about the world that they hadn't necessarily put in the script that they had thought out. So we talked to them about what they were thinking was happening. But there was just a lot to fill in.
So then after having those conversations, after having read the script, I went back and just wrote pitches. Set in the world, turned those in, and the one that got the most immediate response was the Elle story. Which interesting enough was easiest for me to write of all the pitches. Just the emotional core to that story, I just got it immediately. It just seemed the simplest- not the most predictable, but like “Boom, this is what the story is. This is who she is. This is what the situation is, and it didn't go through a whole lot of changes even through the notes process where we had our very first draft in mind and the version that came as a book.
CB: All the writers I talk to I'm finding especially this week say that this of “finding the emotional core of the character” is the most important thing, no matter who they are, no matter what their background. Who are they as a person, it's built from that. How do you approach that exercise? I'm not asking you easy questions am I?
Monroe: No, but you shouldn't!
CB: Give me spoilers on what happens in the next eight movies!!
Monroe: Who wants easy questions, right? Are you familiar with Walker Percy?
CB: No I'm not.
Monroe: He is a Novelist, a Catholic Southern Novelist. He won the national book award in the sixties.
Monroe: By the time his third or fourth book came out, he was tired basically of every time he released a novel he got all the same questions from all the same people. So he wrote a sheet called “Questions I wish they'd ask, but I know they never will” where he asked himself those questions and then he answered them. Then he started giving those to every journalist that came to interview him when he did a new book.
So yeah, no! Who wants easy questions? I am just not sure I have easy answers because a lot of it is instinctual. To try and parse it out and explain it can sometimes be a little difficult, but for me the reason why I could find the core of the Elle story so easily is because it's a story of loss.
I lost someone about the same age as the person that Elle lost in real life when I was young, so I know that story. Whether or not there is a disease, whether or not apes are becoming intelligent, grief is still grief. It's a story of loss. I could connect to that right away.
I had a woman at a booth today saying “I'm surprised that Elle was the easiest one for you because it just seems like there would be a lot of science with that. Do you have a strong science background?” and I said “No, but you know the science is the trimming. The story is always the emotions. Plus at this point as a full-time writer you get to be a really good researcher. It's like, you don't worry about if you know about the topic yet. You'll learn it so you can write it.
CB: So you can be able to communicate with it so it will make sense.
Monroe: It's actually a skill set to be able to sound authoritative on things that you don't necessarily know a ton about, but I'm always getting feedback from people saying “Wow you really nailed it!”
I’m doing a new book that comes out in September called Cloaks, and it's about a street magician that is a spy. I sat down in my research and distilled what I consider the six basic principles of stage magic, and I have a scene in the very first issue where I lay out all of those principals. Because it's kind of a challenge to the reader to see if they can figure out when they're being used in the rest of the story in the next issues.
Then I met a magician at Comic-con, and I gave him that page to read and told him “Tell me what you think!” and he's like “You got it! Everyone has a slightly different take on what those rules are, but that's the core of it right there!”
CB: You're giving one of the secrets out! Talk about spoilers, Caleb!
Monroe: You know, what's surprising is I was a little reluctant to do so much research for the magic because I thought it would spoil the magic of it, but interestingly enough the more you know about how it works the bigger the wow factor when you understand what they're pulling off, and how it fools the human brain.
But I also learned that there is a very long term tradition of all the most respected magicians basically revealing their secrets, and every time they do it it's this giant scandal but they're still to this day revered. All these major magic societies are named after them, but when they wrote their books explaining how they did what they did- it didn't end magic, it made magic better.
CB: That's the difference between Houdini and David Copperfield too, right?
Monroe: Yeah, and it's kind of the difference between I could do the same thing with writing. Distill the six basic principles of writing, give them to you, but it's not like anyone is going to run out of stories. It's sort of the same thing with magic. The principles are fairly simple, but there is an infinite variation. You're never going to run out of ways to fool an audience of tricks of being able to create that sense of wonder.
CB: The more boundaries that you have, the more freedom you have in some way. Which is always a fascinating approach.
Monroe: Yeah it's kind of like a sonnet. You have so many rules, but when you follow those rules you can do anything with it.
CB: No offense, I'm not going to buy your sonnets.
Monroe: That's okay! I've thought about, you know artists do sketches. I thought, I should do haiku or something at the brief. Give me a topic, I'll write you a haiku, but instead I gave in and I learned how to draw Snoopy doing the Snoopy dance since Peanuts is also one of the books I write. So now if anyone asks for it I can just ask for a sketch.
Even though they know I'm a writer, you still get a lot of those requests. So now I just draw Snoopy doing the Snoopy dance.
CB: That's a got to be little scary, to be walking in the footsteps of Charles Schulz.
Monroe: In some ways it's easy because part of why I love Peanuts is a lot of it feels like it comes from inside my head, but then in some ways it's really intimidating. So sometimes I'm having a day where I'm not intimidated so I can produce. Some days I'm a little intimidated and it's harder to get into the scripting. Charlie Brown is actually the hardest character to write.
CB: Is he?
Monroe: Because you have to find this almost bizarre kind of balance between perfect hopefulness and perfect despair.
CB: He'll always want to kick a football. And he'll always miss.
Monroe: He'll always try it even though, yes. And so it can be hard to find that balance with him. I've done pitches and I'm like “it's a little too much this way, it's a little too much that way” Linus to me is the easiest one to write because frankly he's just like me: a little too much in his own head, you know? He's very thoughtful, perhaps even overly thoughtful about things, and I'm like “I get you, Linus.”
CB: Is that what you're supposed to do?
Monroe: Yes! Exactly. I suspect a lot of writers find Linus the easiest.
CB: I've done a lot of writing myself in my reviews, I have a non-fiction book out. It's the same thing, I was so caught up in my head that I'll skip meals, I won't communicate with my family for a while, hours will fly by. You know that feeling-
CB: Where you start to sit down at noon or whatever and before you know it it's eight o'clock and no time has passed. Actually I love that when you can almost get into that meditative state.
Monroe: The flow.
CB: The flow. You know, there's research to happiness that found that one of the key indicators to happiness is having a flow in your life. Whether you're a short order cook or a writer too. It's meditative.
Monroe: It is.
CB: Again, I'm not asking you about your comics!
Monroe: No, what I tell people because it is meditative, but there's a barrier. There's a felt resistance to starting.
I tell people that 90% of the writing life is essentially tricking yourself into getting started. For each of us those tricks are different, but it's like if I can trick myself essentially starting to type some words, then it sort of starts to take a life of its own and it just goes. Even though it can sometimes take me hours to force myself to write those first couple words, once I do it starts going.
CB: Right. You really have to just start. I know that feeling too. For a review in which I have to write about a certain thing I just don't feel that passionate about and I just go crazy with that.
Monroe: Yeah I think that momentum is one of the most important, and one of the least taught aspects of a writer’s life. Momentum, you know?
Someone is always trying to teach you plot points, or where the act breaks, but I think more importantly it's just to teach you how to craft and maintain momentum in your life. Starting from a dead spot, you finish something and you sort of take a break and congratulate yourself, but it's the worst thing to do. Before you know it it's been two weeks before you've written again because you've stopped. So like a shark, you've got to keep going. You want to write just one sentence after the next. Even at the end, you want to write one sentence of something else so you can sort of maintain that movement.
CB: How many books are you writing now?
Monroe: Right now just Peanuts.
Monroe: I finished Planet of the Apes, I've already written the entirety of Cloaks, so I'm putting a bunch of creative work together right now. I'm writing an original TV pilot now. I'm doing what I call “iceberg writing” where 90% of the iceberg’s below the surface. I'm doing a ton of work right now, but I can't just trot it out and say “Hey! Look, here's what I'm doing.” People are like “Well you seem like you're not doing much.” It's like “Oh, I'm doing a ton, it's just you're not going to see it for a while or if at all!”
CB: Right? Next year when you're here you'll be like “I have four new titles coming out!” and they're all “Where'd they all come from?”
Monroe: And then people are like “It just came out of nowhere!” and it's like “No, I spent a year and a half working. It's just you didn't see any of it.”
CB: The book sounds very interesting. Very much about the illusion versus the reality of what's true and what's not true. This whole different kind of collaboration with artists too, I imagine. It's got to be very specific. Very right on to make the sleight of hand work.
Monroe: Well, yes and no. It almost gets treated like fantasy magic. Like spells type of magic. You almost have to treat it the same way because the way it works is you don't always see how it works. In a comic the way that functions essentially almost all of that happens- the sleight of hand happens in the gutters between the panels. So you still have to kind of explain the rules. This is how magic works in our universe.
Even though you're explaining how magic works in the real universe because people can't really see it. It's not like the stuff where you can see. Plus it would take like twenty panels to show just how someone makes a card disappear.
CB: That's true. It's extremely difficult.
Monroe: Yeah, so I approach it from a principal standpoint. Sometimes I would just throw a caption in saying “Which realm of magics want to play here?” and let that sleight of hand be sleight of mind in the readers mind and not try to put it on the page. The point of magic is you don't want people to see it working. You want them to just be amazed by the effect. So we sort of took that same approach in the comics that you can't always necessarily see the nuts and the bolts of how it's working, but you can see the effects.
CB: Seems like you're real passionate with writing itself. A lot of people love the characters, specific characters especially.
Monroe: I love it. I mean I just figure if I'm going to dedicate my life to it I better, but yeah I just love telling stories. As you can tell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Cloaks, Peanuts, Ice Age… Even Batman- I haven't done anything that's really quite the same as anything else I've done. I like doing a type of storytelling I haven't done before because you get to stretch a whole new set of muscles, and you get to try new tricks, you get to experiment.
CB: It brings you to new places that you might not ever go.
Monroe: Yeah, and you learn something writing Peanuts that you can then apply elsewhere. Peanuts, how do you make it funny, yet again that he has missed the football. That gag has happened probably hundreds of times at this point. There is over 7000 Peanuts strips. Not to mention the movies, the TV specials, then the BOOM comics, the 1960s comics, so who knows how many times he's missed that football? But you have to make it funny each time. Then the principals behind that you can kinda go apply to a Superman comic. Like how is he going to go save the world again? How many times has he saved the world, and then how many more times is he going to save the world, but it still needs to feel fresh. And there still needs to be a sense of revelation to it.