Raina Telgemeier’s “Drama” marks the cartoonist’s sixth book as a writer and artist, following her award-winning graphic novel “Smile” and the adaptations of “The Baby-Sitters Club” novels. “Drama,” like the very best stories about teenagers, manages to be awkward and uncomfortable, inspirational and funny. While “Smile” drew from Telgemeier’s real-life personal experience as an adolescent, “Drama” is the creator’s first original fiction graphic novel.
“Drama” focuses on Callie, a young theater-lover who finds herself as the set designer for her middle school’s production of “Moon Over Mississippi.” Although she doesn’t know much about carpentry, Callie is determined to create an incredible set on a shoestring budget and overcome a whole host of problems — both social and financial.
CBR News spoke with Telgemeier in the midst of her lengthy book tour to talk with her about “Drama’s” exploration of life on a high school musical tech crew, how she drew from her own experience to craft the fictional story and her personal favorite plays and musicals.
CBR News: Raina, “Drama” is the first fictional graphic novel you’ve created. What were the challenges involved in crafting this story and putting this book together?
Raina Telgemeier: I was afraid of writing fiction for a long time. I love writing autobiography, but I couldn’t help but think of it as a bit of a crutch, and I wanted to spread my wings a little. Even when I’m writing fiction, my ideas still tend to have a basis in reality, and specifically my own life — but I’m freer to go in any direction I wish. I like it!
Why did you make the choice to tell this theater production story with a focus on the tech crew and life backstage as opposed to the actors and the supporting cast?
There have been plenty of books, TV shows and movies about performers — but not everyone wants to be a performer! Theater tech is a wide world of creativity, technical skill and being involved with something larger than yourself. The inspiration came from many places for me: loving collaborative art projects, doing work on my friends’ student films during college and just remembering what it was like to look out at a full house from the wings before a play, full of dread and not wanting to go out there in front of everybody. How nice it might have been to stay backstage!
Callie, the protagonist, has a really great four-page introduction with no dialogue. Where did this scene come from and how did you put it together?
I remember going to see my first musical. Even more than the play itself — [Les Miserables], just like Callie! I remember the feeling of sitting in the balcony, the red velvet seats, the sound of the ticket-scanning machines and the expensive candy in the snackbar. The sense of anticipation as the lights went down. I wanted Callie’s early memories to feel as tactile as my own. My goal in making comics, if there is one, is always to try and capture what all five senses might, if the reader were in the character’s shoes. Comics don’t have a taste or a smell or a sound, but I want the reader to be able to imagine all of those things.
What is it that you find so compelling and interesting about writing young adult protagonists?
I have very clear memories of my middle school and high school years. Emotions seem so much stronger when you’re a young teen; every triumph and heartbreak is magnified. I like the purity of emotion that you find in twelve year-olds. Things matter to them. They still believe they can change the world. And why shouldn’t they?
You’ve done a number of books with Scholastic, including “Smile” and “Drama.” What has your experience been so far in working with them to publish your books?
I love it. I’ve worked with the same editor for my past four projects, and she’s super-smart and always willing to work with me to make my ideas better. I also love the marketing, publicity, and design teams I work with at Scholastic-everyone is great at their jobs, and they take good care of me.
What’s your favorite musical or play?
Hard to choose! When I was little it was either “Annie” or “The Sound of Music,” and in high school I fell deeply in love with all the musicals I performed in: “Guys and Dolls,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Evita,” and “City of Angels.” I’m also a fan of “Avenue Q,” “The Lion King” musical, “In the Heights,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Porgy and Bess.” Which is technically an opera, but I’ll make exceptions for Gershwin!
Raina Telgemeier’ “Drama” is in stores now from Scholastic.