The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Ames, Iowa, but by the time I was six months old my family had moved to Durham, New Hampshire. So I consider Durham my hometown – that’s where I lived until I went off to college at age 17. I attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where I studied art and art history. Then I moved to New York City, and I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Drawing & Painting from Brooklyn College.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I decided in third grade that I wanted to be a cartoonist like my hero, Charles Schulz of “Peanuts” fame. I loved all types of comics, but newspaper comic strips were my favourite. I’d read a quote from Schulz that went something like this: to be a cartoonist, yeu need to be a good writer, not a great writer, and a good artist, not a great artist. I thought that sounded like me, and I spent a lot of time creating my own comics as I grew up. So at 12 and 18, my goal was exactly the same: to create my own nationally syndicated comic strip. By age 26, I’d reached my goal.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
It’s not easy to remember just how I looked at the world when I was eighteen; that was 32 years ago. But I’m sure I was like a lot of young people who have some growing up to do: I thought the very small part of the world I inhabited was
the most important part, and I believed my own life was more significant than it really was.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
There’s no doubt the single biggest influence on me as a writer and a cartoonist has been Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.” I read it obsessively as a child, and I absorbed the rhythm of writing dialogue to fit neatly into four little panels. I loved many other comic strips as well, especially great ones from the past like “Krazy Kat,” “Polly And Her Pals,” “Thimble Theater starring Popeye,” “Li’l Abner,” and “Pogo,” to name a few. But “Peanuts” was my Rosetta Stone.
I would also point to Charlotte’s Web, written by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams, as a hugely inspiring work of art. I think it is the most perfect marriage of text and artwork in all of children’s literature. It also felt personally significant to me because it painted a picture of a world I recognized. It’s a farm story, and I come from a farm family. My mother grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York, and during my teenage years, I worked on a farm after school and on weekends.
Last but not least is a book I first read as a sixth or seventh grader, and have read many times since: Banner In The Sky, by James Ramsey Ullman. It’s a mountain climbing story, and a quite old-fashioned one. I’m not sure how many children nowadays would be interested in it. But I was fascinated. The book, which takes place in Switzerland in the 1860’s, tells the story of Rudi Matt, a young man who dreams of being the first climber to reach the summit of the Citadel, the mountain on which his father was killed. He fails to make it to the top himself, but Rudi’s selflessness and courage save the life of a rival climber and enable his friends to summit the mountain. The message of the book – that a mountain guide must put the safety of his colleagues ahead of his own aspirations – was one that made a major impression on me.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I didn’t really choose to write a novel. I’d been writing and drawing my comic strip, “Big Nate,” for about 18 years. It appeared in a couple hundred newspapers and, although I certainly wasn’t getting rich, I was managing to eke out a living as a professional cartoonist. Then along came the opportunity to write “hybrid” books – novels featuring Big Nate that are a combination of text and comics.
I’d never written a book before, but I’d spent nearly two decades creating jokes and storylines for Nate and the other characters from the comic strip. So I was reasonably confident that if I could write a good story that lasted four panels, I could also write one that lasted a couple hundred pages. And as things turned out, I’ve really enjoyed it. There are things you can do in a novel that you’d never be able to do in a four-panel comic strip. The possibilities are nearly endless.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Big Nate In The Zone is the sixth book in the series, and it focuses on Nate’s shifting fortunes. He has a string of incredibly bad luck (including an embarrassing moment involving his band, Enslave The Mollusk), followed by an improbable run of GOOD luck.
A few supporting characters play major roles: Artur, Nate’s friendly rival; Chad, his sidekick whose crush on a classmate could lead to heartache; and Marcus, an alpha male with whom Nate makes a potentially costly wager.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
My goal is always the same: to create books that children will think are fun to read.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Some of my favourite writers are cartoonists and/or graphic novelists. Ben Katchor, in his long-form comic strip “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” has created a world that is simultaneously familiar and bizarre. Chris Ware writes and draws about the inner lives of lonely, often desperate people, and his innovations in the world of sequential narrative have been ground-breaking. His most recent project, “Building Stories,” is a masterpiece.
I also love reading non-fiction, particularly American history. Some of my favourites over the years have been Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers and Thank You For Your Service. There are also two writers whose work I always admire in newspapers and magazines: Elizabeth Kolbert and James Carroll.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’m fortunate enough to have achieved my childhood dream of seeing my comic strip syndicated. Beyond that, the only goals I have concern the health and happiness of my family and friends.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
It’s usually aspiring cartoonists, rather than aspiring writers, who seek me out for advice. Young cartoonists are often over-focused on the importance of artwork in comics. My own opinion is that being a good writer is a far more important skill than being able to draw well. A great-looking comic book with beautiful illustrations will fall flat if the story isn’t engaging. But if a story has memorable characters and crisp dialogue, even stick-figure drawings might suffice. So I always advise people to make sure they write every single day. Writing is really no different than playing a musical instrument: you improve with practice.
Lincoln, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
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