We interviewed author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi at the London Hotel in Manhattan recently. He wrote the fantastic book “The Search for WondLa.” Along with author Holly Black, he also created the fantasy book series, “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”
Tony talked to us about his latest book, “The Search for WondLa.“ He told us that the book was inspired by “Peter Pan,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz.” He did an updated version. Tony said, “As much as I loved them, I thought they were a little old-fashioned, so I wondered if I could do like a 21st century version like with robots, hover cars, iPhones, things like that. That was the idea of it, and how much I love those old books, and to be able to do a new version.”
We asked him what character he liked most in the book. He said, “Well, they’re all me. In some ways, you kind of take a personality and drop it on the ground, and it breaks into a bunch of little pieces, and you kind of water those pieces, and it grows into characters. So they’re all me in a way. Probably Eva, to be honest with you guys. I know it’s a 12-year-old girl, but I wrote her just kind of how I felt as a 12-year-old boy about the world. Like when I was 12 in my neighborhood; I grew up in South Florida, so we had like this big neighborhood and had like these certain blocks I could ride my bike past. Like a certain area I could ride around on my own. And then as I kind of started to get older, I started to kind of understand that there were places and homes and families that were like, well, beyond where I live in other parts of the world. That’s really what Eva’s journey is about — leaving home and starting to see how big the world is, dangerous, beautiful, marvelous and sad. I thought it would be really cool to do a girl heroine. So she’s probably the most like me. Also, I can get grumpy like Rovender.”
We asked him about the phrase he likes to use: Never abandon imagination. Tony said, “When you’re young, you are encouraged to imagine a lot. When you’re in elementary school you get these amazing assignments, like to come up with your own animal, come up with your own city, come up with your own planet, what do the people look like; you’re very much encouraged to be as imaginative as possible. But you will find as you get older, less and less people are going to encourage that imagination. And sometimes, by the time you’re done with high school, it’s more about getting a real career, a real job, but we still need people to design new cities, new modes of transportation, new ways to get to the moon, new ways to cure cancer or other medical ailments. And so I think imagination is so important, and that’s why I put it actually in all my books.”
How do you balance being an illustrator and an author?
Balancing an illustrator and author can be tricky, but I was an illustrator mostly before I wrote my books. And the way that worked was you get an manuscript from an author, and then I would read it and start coming up with drawings to go into the book. So really that’s all I do now. I just do both parts. In the case of The Search for WondLa or Kenny and the Dragon I wrote a long manuscript first, and I figured out what the story was, and along the way I made sketches here and there. But pretty much, I focused on the story, and once the story was pretty much done and edited, then I’d start doing all the sketches as if I was an illustrator. I’d take one hat off, put the other on.
What inspired you to become an author?
I love stories. I loved stories when I was a kid. My mom read stories to me all the time. I was always the imaginative [one]. I guess that’s what the adults called me: “He’s very imaginative.” I was the kid who sat in the very back of the classroom and was doing this. [I would] make all these sound effects while drawing and should have been listening [to the teacher]. So I was always very imaginative. I always loved a good story whether it was in a book or a comic book or a good movie. Even some cool video games like Final Fantasy or Legends. They have really cool stories. I like a good story, no matter how it’s told.
Do your fans and family motivate you to write books?
Yes. I usually go on tour for all of my books, and that’s where I really get a chance to meet with a lot of my fans. And a lot of my friends will come out. They send you all over the country. Making a book is kind of isolated, to be honest with you. It’s kind of quiet. And then, when I’m writing, it’s just a lot of either long hand — I’m writing it out in my notebook, or I’m typing it in the computer. It’s absolutely mind numbingly alone. It’s just me by myself. I’ll send it to my friends to get feedback, and then I’ll do all the drawings. But I got to do all the drawings. It’s a very long day. So when I go out on the road and promote a book, that’s when I get to meet all my fans, and they’re usually [saying] “I love your book” or “this is the first book I read by myself, or we saw a Spiderwick movie, read a Spiderwick book.” That’s incredibly validating. That keeps me going.
Why did you decide to include WondLavision, an augmented reality, as part of your books?
I didn’t actually. My publisher came up with it. They had called me up; they rang me up. I was about halfway done with the book, and they said, “Do you know what augmented reality is?” I said “No, I have no idea what it is.” So they sent me to some websites that showed how it worked. I had no idea that it existed. I thought it was amazing. The sample that they showed me was baseball. Like trading baseball cards. They would hold it up to the camera. This is really crazy. They’d set the baseball card down, and there would be a little baseball player, and you could like throw little baseballs at him and hit him. It was amazing. So we were trying to think of something cool that we could use for one, because one uses technology, so much technology, and I just said, “Well, how do you do a 21st century fairytale like that?” So I thought about like a lot of the fronts of a book. Usually you get a map of the world, like a map of the land, like in Peter Pan, there’s a big map of Neverland. A lot of these books have these cool maps. So what if we could do a really cool different map, what would it be like. So that’s how we came up with the idea of doing a 3-dimensional map and stuff like that.
How do you think technology can encourage and hinder reading?
That’s a good question. I think technology now is tantalizing. So we have these readers. We have nooks and kindles and ipads and things like that, and I write stories on that. And they are certainly a lot lighter than a stack of books. So I think the novelty of something like that might encourage someone to read who might not otherwise read. “Oh, this kind of a cool gadget, I want to try it out, I want to read a story on this and see if I brush the screen, page turner, that’s really cool.” So I think in some ways that idea of it, the convenience of it, is probably appealing to a lot of people that might not otherwise read. How does it hinder? I feel right now that there’s a lot of technology at our fingertips. We could look up anything we want on Wikipedia. We can look up any word we want like on Dictionary.com or the source.com. We could read a lot of stories. We could download them right now, just go on the iBook and download a story. I wonder sometimes if people are retaining it all. So if they’re getting all this stuff, is it soaking in as opposed to sitting with a book in bed at night. I don’t know. I guess time will tell. Perhaps it can hinder.
You won the Caldecott Medal for “The Spider and the Fly.” Can you tell us about that experience?
Winning the Caldecott for “The Spider and the Fly” in 2003 was, to be honest, a total surprise. I didn’t think I would win it. “The Spider and the Fly” is a very old poem, very dark poem written by Mary Howitt, and obviously it’s about a spider who eats a fly, and I wanted to do this kind of old horror movie type picture book that I thought like three kids in the world would actually enjoy. But to my great delight, I found out that a lot of readers enjoyed it as well as teachers and librarians. So I was completely and utterly delighted and surprised by that. It was really cool.
How do you balance being an illustrator and an author?
Balancing an illustrator and author can be tricky, but I was an illustrator mostly before I wrote my books. And the way that worked was you get a manuscript from an author, and then I would read it and start coming up with drawings to go into the book. So really that’s all I do now. I just do both parts. In the case of “The Search for WondLa” or “Kenny and the Dragon,” I wrote a long manuscript first, and I figured out what the story was, and along the way I made sketches here and there. But pretty much, I focused on the story, and once the story was pretty much done and edited, then I’d start doing all the sketches as if I was an illustrator. I’d take one hat off, put the other on.
How long does it take for you to come up with your stories and characters?
It could take a little while. “The Search for WondLa,” I kind of played with off and on for 10 years. In fact, if you look in my sketch books, there’s early sketches of Thimbletack and Hogsqueal from Spiderwick right next to Eva Nine and Rovender from “The Search for WondLa.” Sometimes, I just have an idea or notion what I think a story’s going to be. And I have to just kind of let it stew and kind of grow over time, and then I’ll start to write a story, and as you start to write the story, you start to kind of understand who the characters are and what they’re function is. How they’ll help their hero on their journey, and then it starts to evolve and become more. It’s almost like it’s out of focus, camera out of focus; it slowly comes more and more into focus.
Did you have any input on the “Spiderwick Chronicles” movie?
Yes, I did have considerable amount of input. I worked on the Spiderwick books with Holly Black. It was based on an idea I had when I was 12 years old that I had wanted to make this field guide of fairies and goblins and trolls. When the movie gets optioned, it’s the first stage. What happens with the book getting turned into film, that’s basically where the studio buys the rights to start developing it into a movie by writing the screenplay, casting the actors, finding the director, who will do the special effects. . . Along the way, I was able to offer input and consult and advice. It’s really an amazing process.
If you could change your career what would you be?
I would be doing this. I always dreamed of doing it since I was very young. I always wanted to make my own stories, come up with my own stories, be able to do drawings to go with my stories.
Did you have a role model when you were growing up, and do you still have one today?
I had a couple of role models. They weren’t necessarily people. Probably one of my favorite role models growing up was Jim Henson. I loved Jim Henson. I loved the Muppets and the Muppet show. I grew up on “Sesame Street.” When I was a kid, “Sesame Street” first started, and so I kind of grew up with it. And then I grew up with "The Muppet Show" and then all the Muppets. And then movies Jim Henson made in the ’80s under "Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth." I was just amazed that Jim’s imagination was so incredibly vast and to come up with all these crazy worlds and some of them were really eerie, some were really zany and crazy. But they were all part of his imagination. That really really inspired me.
What advice do you have for young writers?
The advice I have would be write a lot. Just write, write, write. Share it with your friends. Share it with your family. Don’t be afraid to get some critiques, criticism or feedback on it because you’re never going to get it right the first time. It’s not poetry when it first comes out. So write it down, get it out of your brain and on to a piece of paper and just keep doing it, and by repetition and getting feedback you will get better on it.
How did you do in school?
That’s a great question. I did pretty good. In middle school, I started to have a little bit of trouble. I started to become more sidetracked, and I loved art, I loved reading, I loved science. So the things I really liked, I focused a lot on. The things that I wasn’t as into, I tended to neglect, and my grades consequently would suffer. As I got older, though, I started to enjoy a lot of other subjects. It all influenced and effected who I am today. I did have a lot of trouble reading in fifth-grade. We were doing these book reports, and we had this great list of all these book reports that we could do in my fifth-grade class. My teacher was a great guy. We then would have to go up in front of the class and do these oral book reports. I don’t know if you guys have to do that. You have to stand in front of the class and talk about your book. I was doing really bad with them because a lot of the books didn’t have a whole lot of pictures in them. So we had these great books like “Mouse on the Motorcycle,” “Phantom Tollbooth.” Really great classic books. But for some reason, I was having trouble processing what I was reading. So my teacher said, “I’ll tell you. I’ll give you extra credit if you do a drawing to accompany your book report. You can’t copy a drawing out of the book; you have to come up with your own drawing from a scene you really like in the book.” Doing that, it almost accessed a different part of my brain while I was reading, and as I read it was almost like directions for a little movie that would just start playing in my head that I was reading. And I was able to draw all kinds of scenes, and I was able to understand what I was reading a lot more. So it was a huge change in my life, and I was probably like 9-10 years old.
Do you think “Search for WondLa” would make a good movie?
I don’t know. What do you think? Do you think it would make a good movie? Probably? They’re working on it now. Paramount Pictures is working on it, and it’s in very early stages where we’ve talked about a lot of different ways to do it. Will we do it animated? Will we do live action with computer generated aliens and stuff like that. So it’s very early on, but we’re excited.
What kind of art materials are my favorite to use?
Seriously, a number 2 pencil and eraser. That’s it. That’s my favorite thing to use of all time. That’s how all my art starts, whether I’m going to paint it, whether I’m going to do pen drawings, scan it in the computer like I did for "WondLa". . . . I usually just grab a pencil; it’s usually behind my ear or in my pocket, and I’ll sketch down on paper and stuff. That’s usually — that’s the fastest way to get an idea down, and I’m most comfortable. That’s the way I’ve drawn since I was younger than you guys. A regular 'ole drug store pencil.
How has your life changed after becoming a famous author?
It has changed in a lot of ways. Most of them good. I’m busier now, but I’m busier doing nothing but what I love, which is making stories. That’s all I do all day long — figure out ways to write my stories, do the illustration . . . if I’m lucky, I get to help the guys who are making movies based on my books. And it’s an amazing dream come true. I didn’t go to an amazing special school. I went to public school. I didn’t go to an amazing college, but I just had friends and family who were around me and encouraged me. They saw that I had potential and talent, and I’m really kind of a product of that. So if you guys have a dream, something you really want to do, you should maybe do it because you only get to do this once. Why not. Go for it. What’s the worse that can happen? No. Alright you try again. That’s what I am, that’s where I’m at today.