This One Summer, a comic detailing a summer shared between two adolescent women, was released last year to widespread critical acclaim. Since its release it has won Caldecott, Michael L. Printz, and Eisner awards. Writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Jillian Tamaki were both at San Diego Comic Con this year to accept their Eisner. Comics Bulletin critic Chase Magnett sat down there with Mariko Takami (Jillian was sadly unavailable) to discuss the success of This One Summer, the creative process of making it, and what comes next.
Note: The recording of this conversation begins a few moments after it began. Tamaki is detailing her scripting process at the start.
Mariko Tamaki: I don’t panel things out. I do it in terms of scenes. I try to imagine what’s happening in my head, like what conversations characters are having. I have a certain visual that goes with that, but I mostly think of it like what is happening versus what you see. That is really the most amazing part. What you see is a huge part of the story and that is a huge part of the story being written.
It is an interesting way to think of it. It’s not like words and pictures because words and pictures implies this odd division of labor. Really it is about trying to have those things be cohesive. There are times I would sort of see, like the opening scene when the dad is carrying Rose and there’s a crunching sound. I didn’t write that into it, right? That’s Jillian’s imagining the visual entry into the story. That’s the part of it that I like the best. It’s also a chance to show something happening as opposed to always directing the reader as to what’s going on.
Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: Do you and Jillian live in the same city or collaborate through digital means when figuring these scenes out?
Tamaki: No, we don’t. We’ve never lived in the same city. When I lived in Toronto, she lived in New York or Brooklyn. Then I moved to Oakland and she’s moved back to Toronto. It’s a very separate process. It is funny because the process of publicizing a book is a very collaborative process and it is when we hang out the most. The actual process of writing is very separate.
When we did This One Summer, I handed her a script. We went back afterwards and figured out a lot of stuff because there was a lot of stuff I had imagined in a script. You have to overwrite it because once you put the visuals in, there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be taken out. I am not a big fan of lots of captions. It shouldn’t be that there is an essay and then an image underneath. It should be that there is a sense of place that the caption adds to, but not explains. So we ended up taking out some stuff and also editing the character of the mother a lot. It’s hard to write somebody who is not talking. We did a lot of sort of tinkering with that character to make her feel like a person. You can create a sense of somebody and what’s she is going through.
Magnett: I think her absence actually speaks more than having her present would. You are looking at the world from a child’s perspective, and you are not seeing your mom. Just having her be not in the panel is something you instantly recognize.
Tamaki: The idea of this book is that there is this Charlie Brown method of having parents where the parents are just sort of noise. The idea was that the parents are obviously integral to the story because what’s happening with Rose’s parents is the reason why what’s happening to her in the story is happening. They are very much a presence in that. I think chemistry is always an interesting thing to figure out. I think that parents should be in stories about kids because unless it is Little Orphan Annie, there is somebody there telling you what to do at all times when you are supposed to be home.
Magnett: Normally when you see stories about children, either the parents are noise that can be ignored or the kids are orphans because it always allows them that extra freedom. For people growing up with one or two parents, it is a little harder to relate to that. Reading This One Summer, there was a sense of recognition there, so it makes it feel more real.
Tamaki: I think to me, obviously I am a Hunger Games fan, but I think it is funny that the mother in Hunger Games is like the least helpful person. To me, the adults are what makes stories about kids and not stories about teenagers or adults dressed as kids. That’s the difference for me. There are adults there.
Magnett: What made you want to focus on young adulthood as a time period?
Tamaki: It sort of happened by accident because when we wrote Skim, it was not for kids. It was a mini comic that we created for a Toronto literary magazine. The original text on the cover of Skim said, “This is the diary of Skim Takota so fuck off.” Not a really a YA book. Then we got purchased by a YA publisher who requested we take that text off the cover and also change the character’s last name because it is not really a Japanese name. It was just a name I had made up, which I try not to do any more. Then they introduced us to the idea that if it is about a teenager, it is for teenagers. I would argue that, especially in this modern market, if you write about a teenager, it’s definitely not just for teenagers. But I think the thing that you get out of writing YA is a connection with younger readers. That is something I wouldn’t have thought of.
Magnett: I never thought of it as a YA book. I recognize that they are YA characters and that was what it brought me back to. It made me reflect a lot on growing up, but it never felt like, “Oh, this is intended for young adults.”
Tamaki: I think there is such a diversity of what fits into YA. Technically Lord of the Flies is YA and Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders. Those are all great books. There is nothing about them that says they are simplified for kids. I don’t think that they are written for kids specifically. It is just about the experience of being an adolescent.
Magnett: This One Summer definitely doesn’t talk down. Everything isn’t automatically made clear. It treats itself like a work of literature. I think that is significant.
Tamaki: I don’t think you can really write to teenagers, whatever that would mean. If someone tried to write a book to me when I was sixteen, it could have been hit or miss. But if you try to be honest to the experience of what that it’s like, that’s a much easier thing to do and it makes more sense to try to be accurate. So I try.
Magnett: I think that really plays into why This One Summer was a success and found an audience. Are you already thinking what is next?
Tamaki: I am doing a bunch of things. I am doing another project with First Second, which is a teen lesbian romance type thing. I am super excited about it because it is my first distinctly lesbian thing I have ever written. It is an exciting thing to do.
I have been working on a couple other books here and there. I have a YA book that is coming out with Roaring Brook that is a prose book. You want to write about something that is interesting to you and what you are supposed to be writing. These are definitely books that are the spectrum of topics that I am interested in for my next project, but we’ll see what happens.
Magnett: Just hearing you talk about the young romance book. That’s the one where you sparked a little bit.
Tamaki: Yeah! I am so excited about it.
Magnett: You want to talk about this, so now I want to talk about this. Do you know who you are working with on it?
Tamaki: It is still in development, so I don’t have details. Right now it is a story. It is being edited right now.
Magnett: Is this one of those ideas that you’ve had on the back burner for a while?
Tamaki: You sort of get an inkling of something and you are just like, “I think that’s something interesting to write about.” I am really interested in starting to push. I will probably never write a romance, but it is interesting to try to figure out what that means to you, to try to figure out where your interests fit into this particular topic. This One Summer is a romantic story in parts because it is about these broken relationships and it is about this relationship between these two kids, which is a loving relationship. So I write about love, but I have never written about teen love. It’s a new thing.
Magnett: In This One Summer you have people who are human beings who care about each other, but aren’t always good at reflecting it or don’t always understand how they are supposed to do so.
Tamaki: Nobody’s good at reflecting it, right? At the best of times we are all doing our very best.
Magnett: We are all trying to show each other that we care, but we are often really bad at it. I think that comes across because you like all those characters a lot. Maybe it’s not not romance; it’s actually just realistic romance.
Tamaki: I think too that a lot of romance is about an attempt to connect with another person. On various levels, everything that I’ve written so far is about trying to figure out yourself and figure out the people around you and figure out how to bridge those two things. Skim was a very kind of isolated book about somebody who was just trying to figure out herself. This One Summer is more about those kind of relationships and figuring yourself out, but also how you figure out yourself when you are intimately connected with people in a family. Every step of writing for me is the next step. What’s another kind of connection that I haven’t talked about yet? So I am working on that.
Magnett: Looking at all of your work, even those going forward, it seems like it is all coming from a very personal place. Do you ever touch upon autobiography at all?
Tamaki: No, I have tried really hard to avoid that. Every writer has a story that is about a personal struggle. The first book you get out is usually that story. I actually wrote that story when I was twenty-two, so I got it out of the way. It was a novella that there is probably only a hundred copies of in circulation. After I wrote that story and you got it out of my system, then everything else from then on for me has been how do I take something that feels really real to me and translate it into something that I can describe? To me, that’s the fun challenge of it. When I started thinking about what’s next, I was inspired by my friends and I was inspired by my family. But I don’t want to just recreate my family on the page.
Magnett: You are taking the personal and finding a way that it connects to the universal.
Tamaki: In the universal I find characters whose lives are very specific. I think Wendy is a really specific character, but it is not anybody in my family or anybody that I know. Although it is funny I have a lot of friends who have kids now and I find their kids so inspiring. Kids today are not what I remember kids being when I was a kid. Mostly because I was terrified of other kids when I was young. But now that I am adult, I feel I have some sort of authority. I am more fascinated by them in the way that they interpret stuff, like the language that kids have. Now a kid can say something like ‘overwhelmed’. Kids have that kind of emotional dialogue.
Magnett: You hear that and want to ask, “Where did you get that from?”
Tamaki: I know! I am like, “You are overwhelmed? Okay, you are amazing. How do you know that you are overwhelmed? When I was a kid, I would just cry and you know that you are overwhelmed? That’s insane!” So I find that stuff and I think that’s kind of nice for me to pull what I see instead of changing things that kids understand today and to connect that with my own experience of what it was like to be a kid.
Magnett: I want to jump back to your relationship with Jillian and you two working together. When you send her scenes, do you have a sense of what you are going to get back?
Tamaki: No, I usually send her the whole script. I wait until I am done, I go off and do my thing for a very short amount of time, and then send her the script. Then we have this conversation back and forth for a bit before she goes off and does the heavy lifting. She has to go off for however long it is going to take and really make this thing happen.
It is a real trust game. She has to trust that I am going to do something that she is going to want to work on. I completely trust her to turn that into whatever she is going to want to turn it into. It is very hands off, which is necessary with this. I can’t imagine dictating.
To me, that’s the most interesting part. She pulls out things. Jillian is an intensely talented person and she finds things in the story that I will sort of see her highlight that to me was a small thing. But when I see her pull it out, I see how much it adds to the story when she does that.
Magnett: Where do you think that trust stems from?
Tamaki: Well, I think we have a mutual desire to work together. And not every collaboration works like this. I also know people who collaborate who are intensely controlling about how things are going to look. For whatever reason, we just have this alchemy of people who enjoy our particular process of working together. I have been really lucky to have every collaboration be different, but also be intensely rewarding.
I don’t know where it comes from. I think we also have a very kind of familial way of dealing with stuff. We come from a very laid-back gene pool. Our dads, who are brothers, have a very similar sense of humor and a very similar sensibility. I think some of it comes from them.
Magnett: With every collaboration being an opportunity to grow, what do you think your biggest lessons you’ve taken away from This One Summer are as writer and as a collaborator?
Tamaki: I think This One Summer is the most complicated book I’ve ever done. The cast is bigger than I would normally deal with. What that brings to a story has definitely been an enriching thing for me to think about. It definitely influenced the prose book which I just finished. It made me think about the kind of layers of people and conflicting realities. The thing that I got out of Skim was the power of contradiction. You can have a character say one thing and clearly not believe it. Just that idea and how that relates to miscommunication. The idea that this character has this really intense inner monologue and it is not manifesting in her daily life and what that experience is like.
This One Summer has these conflicting perspectives on a single thing, like how you have a bunch of people all not talking about the same thing and what that looks like for various people and how one informs the other. The idea in This One Summer is that there is this thread where these kids are overhearing various things and that informs their sense of what’s going on. Not because they just take it at its word, but because they interpret it. How that works to construct a story, to me, is really interesting.