Footnote on Curious Fictions: Conversations on Creativity
In a new series called Footnote, we pair authors and other creators for heart-to-heart conversations about the creative process. Our first conversation is between Fonda Lee, World Fantasy Award-winner and author of six novels, and Michelle Rial, designer, artist, and author of an upcoming book of beautiful illustrated charts. To get notified about future installments of Footnote, follow us here.
Jade War, Fonda Lee's second installment in the World Fantasy Award-winning Green Bone Saga, will be available July 23 from Orbit.
Am I Overthinking This? is a book of witty and insightful charts by Michelle Rial, and will be available August 13 from Chronicle Books.
It’s great to meet you! Your charts are delightful and make me grin every time I see them. The “Honest Artist Statements” wheel…I relate SO HARD.
© Michelle Rial
I used to make a whole lot of charts (far more boring ones) in my previous corporate job, so I love seeing information organized in a visual way. Now I work with words all day, go figure. But I think it’s that blend of analytical process and artistic expression that makes me love novel writing and is also what’s so intensely satisfying about a good infographic.
Your bio says you were born in Santa Cruz. Are you still in the Bay Area? I used to live there but am now in Portland, Oregon, where the copious plant life is currently trying to kill us all with allergens.
It looks like we both have books coming out this summer. How are you feeling about ‘Am I Overthinking This?’ almost being out in the world? (I feel like my answer to ‘Am I Overthinking This?’ is always ‘Yes’ and that goes double for anything related to the publication process.)
So great to hear from you! I'm so happy you like my charts! It's always enlightening to see who relates to the "honest artist statements" wheel because it's so rooted in imposter syndrome (I think??) and usually people who relate are very accomplished! Like, I'm pretty sure you wrote SIX BOOKS (with multiple awards but nbd).
“It's always enlightening to see who relates to the "honest artist statements" wheel because it's so rooted in imposter syndrome.”
What was the corporate job? Or maybe more importantly, did you learn anything from it that helps you creatively? I used to work in advertising and had a lot of random jobs throughout life that taught me little things I still use, so I like to look back and think about how each experience has shaped my process. It reminds me a little bit of what Maria Popova wrote about combinatorial creativity.
I was born in Santa Cruz! My parents had to leave Santa Cruz soon after I was born because of a visa issue that another company/university offered to fix ASAP. I feel strangely tied to the Santa Cruz fact because my dad was born in another Santa Cruz (Canary Islands) and much of my family has the last name Cruz. I also never felt a connection to where I grew up (North Carolina) but that's for another time! The way my parents talked about the Bay Area always made me want to come back. So I feel lucky to now be living in San Francisco. How do you feel about Portland vs. the bay?
Yes! We both have books coming out this summer! It's my first book and I was happy with it when I saw the proofs many months ago, so I'm hoping nothing goes wrong...*screams*. How are you feeling about yours? I'm so impressed that it's your sixth book, I feel like I've been dying to write ONE book for so long and it feels good but usually, as soon as I accomplish anything it starts to feel like it was an easy thing to accomplish and it sort of evaporates into nothingness.
Ha, yeah, I know what you mean about how once you accomplish something, it seems to mysteriously evaporate. Case in point: book launches are a wonderful career milestone but also strangely anti-climactic. It’s like, “Here, everyone, I wrote a 600-page novel and it’s on sale today! You can buy it and read it!”
*stares at screen*
*sips tea noisily*
*wonders if anyone has read the book yet*
“Book launches are a wonderful career milestone but also strangely anti-climactic.”
Speaking of which, are you a coffee person or a tea person? I’m most definitely a tea person. My writing is fueled by copious amounts of tea.
Do you have any rituals or crutches when you sit down to work?
I love San Francisco and miss quite a few things about the Bay Area including world-class dim sum, fog, crazy hills (not so much when driving), and the Stanford campus. I’ll be visiting San Francisco this September, doing some bookstore events and reading at this cool event called Writers With Drinks. Portland has been home for the past 13 years though, and I think the move here turned me into a writer. Seriously. There is something in the water here. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a writer. Maybe it’s all the rain that makes us stay indoors and make up stories. Especially speculative fiction. There’s a really fantastic community of science fiction and fantasy authors here in the Pacific Northwest. I imagine San Francisco must have a pretty robust artistic community?
“All of us who create art of some type are in the business of seeing connections and mashing stuff up together.”
My previous business jobs were in management consulting and corporate strategy. Sometimes I wish I’d found my calling as a writer earlier, particularly when I meet twenty-two-year-old debut novelists, but then again, I think you’re right: everything we experience shapes us as creatives in some way. My debut novel, Zeroboxer, was about sports marketing in a lot of ways. Also, space fighting. But I wouldn't have written it without the experience of having worked in that industry (sports, that is, not space fighting).
Read An Interview With Zeroboxer Carr Luka by Fonda Lee on Curious Fictions
The Maria Popova piece reminds me a lot of Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist (and his TED talk), which I think articulates what a lot of creatives know intuitively—that all of us who create art of some type are in the business of seeing connections and mashing stuff up together. What’s the oddest or quirkiest experience you’ve had that made it into chart form?
Agh I'm very much dreading the book release moment! I think I experienced a bit of it when I announced that it was available for preorder. I heard from my editor that the book pre-order links were ready the night before my birthday. I woke up early the next morning and posted all the things on social media, and then shortly after, I was in the ER with my dad, who had pneumonia from late-stage lung cancer. The enthusiastic support for my book was distracting me from thinking too much about things that could happen in the ER, and being in the ER was distracting me from worrying too much about who was or wasn't tweeting/commenting/sharing/preordering my book. For a brief moment, it was #1 in internet humor and social media on Amazon, so my dad got to tell everyone within earshot at the hospital that his daughter was a "bestselling author."
“My dad got to tell everyone within earshot at the hospital that his daughter was a ‘bestselling author.’”
I AM A TEA PERSON! I love getting over-caffeinated on tea. I do think there's something in the water in Portland! The last time I was at Fly Awake Cafe (their chai!!!) in Portland, my brain felt incredibly lubricated and the ideas kept coming. I also really enjoyed working at a place near the Portland Art Museum (while it was raining). So, tea is one crutch, and seltzer is another but I was drinking so much seltzer that my teeth started getting really sensitive. Coffee used to be a crutch, but I have a chart about why I quit (it's always 20 min. of false genius followed by intense panic).
© Michelle Rial, “Am I Overthinking This?”
I'm putting your event (Make Out Room!) on my calendar! I've been meaning to go to more events there.
Also, the idea of space fighting sounds so effortless, and I love that it was influenced by working in sports marketing. Having been in sports marketing, how do you feel about sports metaphors in business? When I worked in advertising I used to really hate any reference to The Ball: dropping it, keeping it rolling, the court that it's currently in, touching base, etc. I tried to make a chart about that years ago but I ultimately dropped the ball on that.
“I used to really hate any reference to The Ball: dropping it, keeping it rolling, the court that it's currently in, touching base, etc. I tried to make a chart about that years ago but I ultimately dropped the ball on that.”
I love the Austin Kleon talk and it makes me feel better about any of the times I've done something close to what someone else has done (without knowing) and vice versa. In the Venn diagram of Austin Kleon + SF art stuff, Austin Kleon had a gallery show here at Mule Gallery a few years ago. I went and I enjoyed the art, but as with most gallery openings, I felt very claustrophobic and like I was the only person who didn't belong there. Do you get that feeling anywhere?
That coffee chart is just too real!
That’s very cool that you went to Austin Kleon’s gallery show, though I can definitely see how they might be claustrophobic. I get that “I don’t belong here” feeling sometimes at literary events. I’m talking about the high-brow, MFA-crowd type events where you can tell most of the people there look down on science fiction and fantasy, and young adult fiction. I don’t get that vibe too often, but when I do, I find it frustrating that people feel compelled to draw judgmental distinctions between “high art” and "commercial art.” Of course, there are differing objectives and audiences for different types of art, but I think that as creatives, we’re all just trying to express our own truth.
“I find it frustrating that people feel compelled to draw judgmental distinctions between ‘high art’ and ‘commercial art.’”
I’m impressed by people like yourself who have multiple artistic abilities like writing, design, and photography, etc. I feel like I’m lucky to have ONE artistic calling, and it’s already super hard to call upon it consistently. Do you feel like your different creative practices inform and feed into each other a great deal? And okay, I have to ask: do you have a favorite chart?
I feel the high art vs commercial art thing. It's part of what makes me feel like I have to constantly let people know I'm aware that what I do is kind of silly or "not actual art" like it says in my "honest artist statements" print.
That's nice of you to say about the artistic abilities, but I think I've just spent years trying a jack-of-all-trades strategy of trying to break into any creative field by doing all the things as best I could. I think they do inform one another, but mostly, I have to remember to take a step back and use each skill. I think it's like how you write first, then read your work as your own editor; I might illustrate something, and then have to take a break before I look at it as a graphic designer, because sometimes I just can't see it from the graphic design/layout perspective if I'm still in illustration mode.
“I start with pen and paper, get up, do a bit of crappy lighting, take a photo, go to the computer, and repeat. It's sort of a lazy art triathlon.”
What I like about employing them all when I'm doing a "real life chart" (a chart made with an object) is that I get to move around. If I'm at the computer for too long I get neck pain, so I start with pen and paper, get up, do a bit of crappy lighting, take a photo, go to the computer, and repeat. It's sort of a lazy art triathlon. By doing this I also get to let my brain breathe a bit, and sometimes that allows for an epiphany that changes it for the better. I have several charts that evolve every few months into something slightly different. Have any of your books changed in a huge way after giving them some breathing room (if time has allowed)? Also: do you have any feelings about ergonomics?
I don't have a favorite chart BUT my favorite piece of advice is from a continuing education class I took at SVA with Ed Benguiat, a type designer, who said to draw a letter, then take a sip of water, draw another letter, take another sip of water (and repeat).
I also love Earl Grey and rooibos tea! I associate Earl Grey tea with my favorite Star Trek captain, Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: the Next Generation (the Star Trek series of my youth, no doubt a formative influence in why I ended up a science fiction author). I also was not a fan of electric kettles until I switched to a completely stainless steel model and now I use it all the time.
“I can definitely relate to the feeling of having to disassociate different parts of your creative brain at different times.”
I can definitely relate to the feeling of having to disassociate different parts of your creative brain at different times. Like you mentioned, writing brain is different from editing brain, and sometimes it’s difficult to switch between them. I have this problem when I’m doing copyedits on one book while trying to draft brand new words on another manuscript. I’m making small technical choices on a well-polished, almost-complete piece of work, and then, I have to go back to my hot mess of a first draft and try to recapture enough creative momentum to keep going and not toss the whole thing out the window.
I also think breathing room is hugely important! Many of my books changed significantly and for the better after I came back to revise them after taking some time away and working on something else. I can remember times when I was stuck on a project, but saw the solution when I approached it with fresh eyes weeks or months later. It’s often so hard to find that necessary time when you’re under deadlines, though. Do you have a set schedule to your work, set by yourself or clients, or does it vary a lot?
Since we’re wrapping up our conversation soon, I just wanted to say that it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you! I’m definitely looking forward to picking up your book when it comes out, and good luck with everything!
I think this is supposed to be our last email, but pleeeease send this kettle info (note to anyone reading: this is not premeditated spon con!) *winks at no one*
I'm going to LA this weekend, and if I get to go to Wi Spa, I'll pick up Jade City so I can read it in the jade room and make it #immersive.
It was lovely talking to you and I hope to run into you in one of our home cities soon!