On Thursday evening, March 15, my wife Mich and I were fortunate to attend a smart, intimate, charmingly informal panel discussion at Chevalier’s Books with Jen Wang (The Prince and the Dressmaker, In Real Life), Cory Doctorow (In Real Life, Little Brother), Molly Knox Ostertag (The Witch Boy, Strong Female Protagonist), and Tillie Walden (Spinning, On a Sunbeam). Wow, what a lineup!
Chevalier’s, in L.A.’s Larchmont Village, has been open since 1940, making it the oldest independent bookshop in Los Angeles. We had never been there before—but I expect that we’ll be back! Nice shop, cool space, and welcoming, with real personality and what appeared to be carefully chosen stock (the graphic novel buyer seems to have a definite POV).
We arrived a few minutes late to the discussion, which took place in the children’s alcove, surrounded by books. A few rows of wooden chairs had been set up for the audience, but the space was fairly tight and the crowd small, maybe a double handful of people. Jen Wang served as emcee of sorts, sometimes referring to her phone for questions but mostly letting the conversation float along in an easy, unforced way. Yet the conversation was rich in information and insight, and covered a lot of ground: from writers’ habits (with Doctorow marveling at Anthony Trollope’s famed productivity and self-discipline), to artistic inspirations (movies, immersive theater, theme park rides, music), to elements of craft (layout; scripting versus improvising; research).
The speakers were at times disarmingly honest: Wang confessed that there are times she prefers not to draw, especially when she has recently finished a project as big as The Prince and the Dressmaker. Walden confessed that the response to her memoir, Spinning, has caught her up in its own momentum in ways that impinge on her current work. Ostertag likewise admitted that she worries about the success of one book making her too self-conscious or eager to please in her future work. Walden admitted how tough it could be to field difficult, sometimes heartrending, questions and stories from young readers, especially queer readers in search of advice and assurance (she mentioned that writing a memoir seemed to open her to this kind of response). Doctorow revealed how his fiction-writing is often fueled by anger over political events, and his need to free his social media use from the constant pressure to respond to provoking political news. All showed a keen interest in each other’s work and in sharing process (Ostertag, initially somewhat reserved, seemed to open up when discussing Wang’s new book!).
I loved the way the discussion wandered through big issues of audience, genre, and the depiction of sexuality and gender identity, to minute nuts ‘n’ bolts issues of page design and drawing (comics nerd moments: I just eat those up). All four creators gave me a sense of being extraordinarily busy and productive—every one of them has new irons in the fire, new books forthcoming, and so on. They got on well, unsurprisingly, with a nice collegial vibe (there were jokes about everyone now being in the First Second family, so to speak).
In sum, an amazing panel—and so chill and easygoing, for such an amazing gathering of talents. After the panel, we chatted, then Mich and I bought some books and got ’em signed. I talked up this blog a bit, and informed Molly Ostertag and Tillie Walden that they had been nominated for Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards earlier that same day (they hadn’t heard!). I spoke with Jen Wang and (I think) Jake Mumm about the splendid CALA festival that they help to put on every year. A delightful experience—then I read Ostertag’s The Witch Boy when I got home (because man was I overdue).
Thanks to Chevalier’s for hosting such a strong comics event!
See Hatfield, comics and children's culture scholar