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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Cathy Camper: Writing Lowriders in Space

Lowriders coverLowrid­ers in Space
writ­ten by Cathy Camper
illus­trat­ed by Raul the Third
Chron­i­cle Books, 2014

When did you first become aware of (or involved in) lowrid­er cul­ture?

Prob­a­bly in the ear­ly 1980’s, when I vis­it­ed a friend of mine who lived in the Mis­sion Dis­trict of San Fran­cis­co. There were a lot of lowrid­ers in the neigh­bor­hood, and since we were young women at the time, we’d get flir­ta­tious atten­tion from guys show­ing off their cars when we walked down the street.

How was the deci­sion made to make your three heroes non-human (the fourth hero, Genie, is a cat and I don’t need to ask why a cat is a cat)? They are an impala, an octo­pus, and a human … how did that come about?

Back when the book was just a day­dream, I thought up the names of the char­ac­ters first. I liked the name Elirio, and the name Elirio Malar­ia was real­ly fun to say. I’d walk around think­ing, Elirio Malar­ia, what kind of guy is he? Then one day it was as if a lit­tle voice whis­pered in my ear, “I’m not a guy, I’m a mos­qui­to!” Duh!

Lowriders cast

Heroes in Space

Lupe (short for Guadalupe) Impala also got her name because it was fun to say, and because Impalas are the cho­sen cars of lowrid­ers. She real­ly is an impala, which is like a deer, or gazelle. For some rea­son read­ers don’t seem to know what kind of ani­mal she is; they think she’s a fox, a wolf, a mouse?!? Raul and I thought it would be clear from her name, but you just nev­er know…

And Flappy…I was read­ing an arti­cle about octo­pus­es, and dis­cov­ered there real­ly is a super cute kind of octo­pus called a Flap­jack Octo­pus, because its ten­ta­cles are short and stub­by. Bam, you couldn’t ask for a bet­ter char­ac­ter.

It cracks me up when I hear the heroes described as a mos­qui­to, an impala and an octo­pus, because I nev­er thought of them as those ani­mals first. Their ani­mal nature came out of their names and per­son­al­i­ties.

For the kids who’d like to make their own comics, how did you find Raul the Third? And when you found him, did the two of you work on devel­op­ing the graph­ic nov­el togeth­er? Or was there the typ­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion of author and artist?

Lupe at the Wheel

Lupe at the Wheel

Raul and I met via a mutu­al friend, who was draw­ing anoth­er com­ic I’d writ­ten. He couldn’t com­plete it, so he emailed me to sug­gest his friend Raul might like to work on it. I nev­er fin­ished that com­ic, but sev­er­al years lat­er when I’d writ­ten the script for Lowrid­ers, I emailed Raul to see if was inter­est­ed in a kid’s book, because I liked his art and knew we both had a good work eth­ic – we like to meet our dead­lines.

He read it and wrote back, “This is the book I want­ed to read as a kid,” and start­ed send­ing me sketch­es the next day. He lives in Boston and I live in Port­land, and we even­tu­al­ly met in per­son before embark­ing on such a big project, but from the start, it was obvi­ous we had sim­i­lar goals and shared the same sense of humor and approach to get­ting things done. In gen­er­al, I write the sto­ry and he does the art, but we’re lucky that our pub­lish­ers have let us col­lab­o­rate a lot. Some­times Raul will sug­gest plot changes or add dia­log that fits with his chore­og­ra­phy of the sto­ry. Like­wise, some­times I’ll spec­i­fy some things that need to be shown in the art. It’s kind of like jazz, riff­ing off each oth­er, where jokes and plot lines move back and forth between words and pic­tures. We also both have to adjust what we do to fit our edi­tors’ and art director’s instruc­tions.

Because a com­ic book or graph­ic nov­el often lets a sto­ry be told between the pan­els, did you do more edit­ing to fit the illus­tra­tions than you might have with a pic­ture book?

Flapjack

Flap­jack

When I write the script, it’s very descrip­tive, because I’m try­ing to con­vey a whole world to Raul, my edi­tors, and our art direc­tor. When Raul draws the thumb­nail sketch­es, a lot of the writ­ing falls out, because the sto­ry has now moved into the pic­tures. So if a char­ac­ter says, “Look, there’s a falling star!” once he’s drawn it, the char­ac­ter might just need to say, “Look!” I also try to leave some large spaces where big dra­ma occurs, so the art can take over.

I think our book is dif­fer­ent in this way from books like Dra­ma or El Deafo, in that their art fol­lows the plot line a lit­tle more direct­ly, where­as Raul and I want­ed some­times to let the art just enve­lope the read­er.

I don’t think it’s that dif­fer­ent from writ­ing a pic­ture book, except I have to use waaay more excla­ma­tion marks. There are some parts of the writ­ing I fight for, though, in order to main­tain a rhythm, a poet­ry and to retain deep­er lay­ers of mean­ing.

Did you set out to write a com­ic that had sci­ence ele­ments in it? Was lowrid­ing into out­er space always a part of the con­cept?

I love sci­ence; it’s where I get tons of my inspi­ra­tion because noth­ing is more unbe­liev­able than what is true. My first idea for this book was that it would be cool to have a car that was detailed by out­er space. So it was nat­ur­al to include not just space sci­ence but the tech­nol­o­gy of cars. I also thought it was weird that we rarely see kids’ books about cars, when you think of the big part they play in our lives, and all the jobs folks have involv­ing auto­mo­biles.

I love that this com­ic is vir­tu­al­ly read­able by any per­son of any age: was that a con­scious deci­sion?

Lowriders illustrationMy orig­i­nal tar­get audi­ences were kids in third through fifth grade, Eng­lish- Span­ish read­ers, and boys, since their lit­er­a­cy rate is drop­ping. I also want­ed some­thing that wouldn’t seem baby­ish to old­er kids read­ing below grade lev­el, since I work with a lot of kids like that as a librar­i­an. And then Raul and I are both avid comics read­ers, so we want­ed to include stuff that both par­ents and adult comics ‘ fans would enjoy. Plus a lot of it was just Raul and I mak­ing our­selves laugh.

Inte­grat­ing Span­ish into the sto­ry feels very natural—and I know a lot of peo­ple will be grate­ful for the instant trans­la­tion on each page—which feels like a nat­ur­al part of the com­ic book style. Was this a sub­ject of dis­cus­sion with your edi­tor or art direc­tor?

Both Raul and I love Love and Rock­ets comics by the Her­nan­dez broth­ers, (an adult com­ic). They always used drop-down trans­la­tions and expla­na­tions beneath their comic’s frames for things read­ers might not under­stand. Our com­ic is def­i­nite­ly an homage to theirs (they have a female mechan­ic named Mag­gie who works on rock­ets, and who is Lupe’s role mod­el) and so we thought it was nat­ur­al to do this in our book as well. I want­ed to include a glos­sary for many rea­sons, but first and fore­most, to empow­er any kid to read. Incar­cer­at­ed kids, immi­grant kids, kids whose par­ents don’t speak Eng­lish or Span­ish, or don’t read super well. I want­ed to give kids the oppor­tu­ni­ty to fig­ure it out them­selves. Also, learn­ing to use a glos­sary is a skill in and of itself, which ties in with cur­ricu­lum goals, which schools need to meet. And then there’s the kids that tell me, “I just love read­ing glos­saries! “

Have you done any work on your own car?

Naw, although my car is kin­da low and slow. It’s old and faith­ful.

Do you have plans to go into out­er space?

No, I like look­ing at mete­or show­ers, and the night sky, and spy­ing on out­er space through tele­scopes. I guess I’m not focused on just one field of sci­ence. I love talk­ing to sci­en­tists and learn­ing what’s new and cool. There’s so much to dis­cov­er, and we live in an age where a lot is going on.

Does the group El Lupe y su Quin­te­to Impala have any­thing to do with Lupe’s name?

Ha! Nope, that’s a total coin­ci­dence. Although I do love cumbia!

For class­room teach­ers who might be work­ing with stu­dents who are writ­ing a com­ic book, what advice would you give them about the writ­ing side of this?

As a writer work­ing with an artist, you have to agree to col­lab­o­rate. So you want to fig­ure out right at the start who does what. Some artists want the writer to do all the writ­ing, break down the dia­log frame by frame, and even describe what they should draw in each frame. Oth­er artists pre­fer more free­dom. And the same can be true of writ­ers. Some demand to have a lot of artis­tic con­trol about how the art will look. Oth­ers are more open. If it’s clear from the begin­ning, no one’s feel­ings will get hurt.

Do a rough form of the com­ic, pen­cil­ing every­thing in loose­ly, before you com­mit to some­thing that will take a lot more work. That way, you can work out your mis­takes before you invest too much time in it. One very impor­tant thing is to fig­ure out where each page will fall. If you look at a com­ic, you’ll see how impor­tant it is, where each pan­el lands. A big dou­ble page splash page has to land on two pages that lay next to each oth­er. So it real­ly helps to make a rough mock-up of your com­ic to fig­ure this out.

I notice on the title page it says “Book 1.” Dare we hope for a Book 2?

Oh yes, book two is in the works as I write this, and it’s big­ger and just as over-the-top as book one. Our intre­pid heroes take a road trip in the oppo­site direc­tion, into the cen­ter of the Earth! It will be out in spring of 2016.

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