This interview was originally conducted and published August 2017.
Between the releases of two Big Nate comics collections and accepting the Milner Award for Children’s Literature, 2017 was a busy year for cartoonist Lincoln Peirce. Luckily, we caught up with him for a few minutes to talk about comics creation, funny title selection, and an all-new world of hilarious hijinks outside the walls of P.S. 38.
AMP: I think a lot of kids (and librarians) are unaware that Big Nate is a comic strip that was syndicated in newspapers for 19 years before the novels appeared. Can you tell us what it was like to create the novels based on the strip? How does your approach to creating a novel differ from standalone strips?
Lincoln Peirce: The chance to write Big Nate novels was sort of an unexpected opportunity. I was excited about it, but at that point—in 2009—I’d never written a book before. I knew almost nothing about the process. I felt confident that I could do it, though, because I’d spent so many years developing the characters in the strip. I knew their personalities and how they’d react to certain situations, so that was a good start. And even though creating a novel was a new experience, a lot of it seemed familiar. I had to create compelling storylines and write snappy dialogue, just as I’ve always tried to do in the strip—but I was doing it in a 216-page format instead of in just a few panels. On the first novel, I just dove in and wrote it one chapter at a time; I’d send the chapters (including very rough art) to my editor as I finished them, and she’d give me some feedback. Then I’d do some rewriting—again, a chapter at a time. I don’t write outlines describing the whole story arc; I never know how a novel is going to end until I’m at least halfway through writing it. One difference I noticed immediately was that I had to write differently for novel readers (children) than I did for strip readers (folks of all ages). And in the novels, it was important to make certain that I could wrap up all the story threads in a predetermined number of pages. In the strip, if I can’t finish a storyline in two weeks, I can just extend it into a third week. But with the novels, there was a page count that was set in stone. I definitely had a lot to learn. But as it turned out, I really enjoyed writing books.
AMP: You’ve got a new book releasing, A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie, which follows the last collection, entitled, What’s a Little Noogie Between Friends? Is this a theme? What’s next—Wet Willies for Everyone? Just kidding. Tell us a little about how you go about selecting titles for your books.
LP: The first several collections had fairly generic titles, like Big Nate Makes The Grade or Big Nate And Friends. But at some point—I think it might have been with the book called I Can’t Take It!—my editor and I decided that we wanted titles that somehow referred to the book’s contents. Since then, we’ve found a process that works pretty well. She’ll read through all the strips included in a collection, and she’ll look for a particular strip or a certain turn of phrase that might make a good title. She’ll send me maybe half a dozen possibilities. If one of them grabs me, and if I think I can make a funny cover drawing to go along with it, then we’re all set. But sometimes we need to do a little more digging before we find just the right title. The Noogie title and this new one are definitely crowd-pleasers. Kids love words and actions that are sort of mischievous or even forbidden. Your average kid is probably more intrigued by a book called A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie than one called Big Nate’s Greatest Hits. Not all titles are going to be home runs, of course. But our general rule moving forward is: the funnier the title, the better.
AMP: If I had a dollar for every time a librarian told me at a library conference, “We can’t keep Big Nate on the shelf,”…I’d have a lot of dollars. Why are kids so drawn to Nate?
LP: I hope it’s because Nate’s life seems authentic to kids. I try hard to make Nate sound and behave like a real 11-year-old boy, and not a miniature adult. I mean, there will always be times when you have to cheat a little bit and make your characters slightly more eloquent or philosophical or sophisticated than an actual child would be… but for the most part, I try to keep Nate and his classmates pretty firmly rooted in a realistic depiction of middle school life. Also, I happen to think that Nate’s a pretty likeable kid. He can be incredibly immature and self-centered, but over the long haul, it becomes clear that Nate’s heart is usually in the right place. I have no interest in doing a comic strip about a mean kid who’s always looking to cause trouble. That’s no fun. And doing a strip about a kid who never gets in trouble and makes the honor roll every semester isn’t my goal, either. That’s boring. Nate’s somewhere in the middle, and that’s where I think most real-life kids are, too.
AMP: Nate has made some comics of his own over the course of the series. What advice do you have for kids who are interested in starting their own comics?
LP: Well, the most important thing is to practice consistently. Cartooning is just like any other skill: the more you do it, the better you are at it. And when I say “practice,” I’m talking about drawing AND writing. Kids aren’t necessarily thrilled to hear this, but I think writing is more important than drawing for a cartoonist. We’ve all seen comics—or movies or TV shows, for that matter—that LOOK great, but the story is awful. You’re better off being a great writer who draws stick figures than a great artist who can’t write at all. Of course, all the best comic strip creators—Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Richard Thompson—have been geniuses in BOTH departments.
AMP: I understand you’re a featured author at this year’s Library of Congress National Book Festival in a couple of days, and you’re headed to Atlanta in October to accept the 2017 Milner Award for Children’s Literature (congratulations!). Is there anything else you’ve got going on this fall your fans would like to know about?
LP: I still enjoy doing the comic strip every day; I plan to keep that going for many years to come, which means there will be more Big Nate compilation books in the future. And at some point, I may decide to write more Big Nate novels, although I think the eight I’ve written so far is a nice, round number. For kids who enjoyed those books, I do have some news: I’m working on a new novel called Max and the Midknights. It’s a comedic adventure story set in the middle ages. That might sound like a far cry from the middle school adventures I’ve been writing about for all these years, but kids who like Big Nate are going to like this book. It’s longer than a Big Nate novel, but it’s a similar format—a combination of text and comics—and it’s written for the same age group. It’s an entirely new cast of characters that I’m certain kids will really enjoy, and it’s also got a few elements you won’t find in the hallways of P.S. 38: knights, dragons, wizards, and so on. All the writing is essentially done, and I’ll be spending the next 7 or 8 months doing the finished art. It’s due to come out in September of 2018.
Thanks, Lincoln! For more, check out the Big Nate page!