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Sarah Stewart Taylor on Writing Amelia Earhart

by  in Comic News Comment
Sarah Stewart Taylor on Writing Amelia Earhart

The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont has been releasing a series of comics biographies aimed at young readers the past few years, tackling Henry Houdini, Satchel Page, Henry David Thoreau and in the newest volume, Amelia Earhart. Featuring an introduction by pilot and astronaut Eileen Collins (the first female shuttle pilot and shuttle commander), “Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean” looks at Earhart and her triumphant 1928 crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

Sarah Stewart Taylor isn’t a well-known name for comics fans. She’s a novelist who’s published four books, and since the Center for Cartoon Studies opened in Vermont, she’s been teaching at the school, as well as helping to develop the curriculum there. Taylor has long been fascinated by Amelia Earhart, and she got her chance to look at the woman behind the icon and the impact she had on women and on America in a new graphic novel “Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean.” She stopped to talk with CBR about the project.

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How did you come to teach at the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS)?

Sarah Stewart Taylor: My husband’s family is old family friends with James Sturm’s wife’s family. When James was working on starting the school he got together people in the area he knew who were writing teachers and cartoonists. I had just published my first novel. We had some discussions about what the curriculum at this school would look like. James felt very strongly, and I certainly felt strongly, that writing and the teaching of narrative structure should be part of the curriculum. That in addition to taking of course lots of studio art classes and drawing and cartooning, the students should take what we call the Reading and Writing class, where they read literature and write short stories and focus on prose a bit to hone their narrative skills. I taught the Reading and Writing class for the first three years of the school’s operation. I had my second child last year, so I took the fall off, and then Jason Lutes and I co-taught the class in the spring. It’s been really fun for me to be a part of the school and I think it’s been really good for the students to approach narrative from a slightly different perspective.

I’m sure you have a somewhat different perspective on how to think about narrative than a cartoonist.

A lot of the students have amazing storytelling instincts. Most are people who grew up obsessed with comics, so they have a good instinct for storytelling but because many of them were art majors, they haven’t taken a lot of classes in literature. When you talk about deconstructing a literary text and looking at structure, things like that which seem simple to an English major, a lot of our students haven’t had exposure to that, so it’s been fun to introduce some of that into the classroom.

This is the fourth biography in the series from Hyperion and the CCS. How did the subject become Amelia Earhart and how did you end up being the one to write it?

Amelia Earhart was just one of those people I’d always wanted to write about. The school had this partnership with Hyperion to do these books and early on, someone decided that they wanted to do a woman for the next book. We were having discussions about who would be the right woman and I pitched it and it just came together.

I spoke with Ben Towle and he mentioned that you and he had very little contact, that you each dealt mostly with Jason Lutes.

I hadn’t written for comics before and Jason was an invaluable resource. I’d written the story and I created this narrative, but how to translate that into a visual medium. The script and Jason’s thumbnails were pretty far along when we brought Ben on. With Ben, our interaction was more along the lines of, what does this character look like and how would you represent this landscape or how would you put this together, rather than script development which might be a part of the collaborative process with other partnerships.

What made you decide to focus on the 1928 Atlantic crossing?

Before I sat down to write the script I spent months reading everything that I could about Amelia Earhart. I read biographies, her autobiographical works, contemporaneous news accounts. When I started out I assumed I would focus on her disappearance because it just seems the most dramatic part of her biography and it’s what a lot of people know about. As I got further into her biography I became much more interested in the 1928 crossing, which is the event that made her name and that made her an icon. It was this moment after which nothing was the same for her. She was a thirty year social worker from Boston before she crossed the Atlantic in 1928 and she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life and then this flight happened. There were a lot of things about the flight that I didn’t know. For example, she didn’t pilot the plane. Everyone assumes that she became famous on that flight because she piloted the plane, but she didn’t. She was passenger. She was involved in the planning and she did take the controls for a little bit but she was not the pilot. The fact that not only had a woman never piloted a plane across the Atlantic, but a woman had never been a passenger, and the idea that in 1928 that was considered revolutionary was for me this great window into what it was like to be a young independent adventuresome woman at that time.

The other books in the CCS/Hyperion series also tended to use a single event as a lens to look at the character and their circumstances.

As I was preparing I found something that James told me he found as he was researching Satchel Paige. With these very famous people it’s very hard to get your arms around the whole biography and so you really need to pick out these little moments that are somehow representative or illuminating about that person. The Amelia Earhart film that came out this year, all the criticism that I’ve read of it has been centered around, it tried to take on her whole life and as a result it’s not really illuminating about anything.

One aspect of the book I liked that you included was the fact that Amelia Earhart was not a singular figure. She was at the forefront of a movement of female aviators, but she was by no means the only one.

And she wasn’t even the most accomplished woman or the best pilot. She was the most socially acceptable woman to be an American icon. That’s the thing that I find really interesting. There were these other women who had been flying stunt planes and air shows and had come out of vaudeville and had these very interesting lives and married to lots of men. None of them were deemed acceptable to make this historic flight. Amelia Earhart was.

What did you learn about crafting a comic narrative from working on this project?

The biggest thing I learned was just how incredibly time consuming it is to create a comic. It gave me such appreciation for what my students and fellow faculty members do. Writing is really hard work. I’ve always considered being a novelist a hard job. It’s just nothing compared to creating comics. The length of time that it takes was really eye-opening to me. I approached the project as though I were writing a screenplay. I had done some screenwriting and I really had to make a shift and internalize the idea of static panels. I think in my first version of the script I wrote things like, Amelia turns her head and smiles, so I had to go back because you can’t have someone turning their head in a panel. You have to show that. Why is it important that she turns her head? If you’ve got seven panels on the page, why show that? Why not do something that’s more revealing of character. You have to be economical in comics. You don’t have five paragraphs to describe how something looks, you’ve got to do it quickly and efficiently. I think that made me a better writer.

At what point did you decide to create the character of Grace and make her the central figure in the book?

Pretty early on. Amelia Earhart is a hard person to feel like you really know. She was somebody who didn’t reveal a lot of herself and her own personal writings are not at all revealing. It was frustrating. Pretty early on I realized what’s important about Amelia Earhart isn’t who she was and how she felt about her life. It was what she represented to Americans and to women and young women. I wanted to create this character of a young woman who was living at that very transitional time in women’s rights.

How has the process of working on the book affected how and what you teach?

I’m a huge believer in the revision process of writing. I always tell my students that your novel should go through twenty drafts and you’ll rewrite it again and again and that’s part of the process. Before I worked on this book I would always say that very blithely to my cartooning students. I knew that doing multiple drafts of a comic is harder than I made it out to be, but it really hit home for me working on this. It’s helped me to figure out ways of incorporating revision and rewriting into the process without asking someone to redraw their comic twenty times. In my classes I focus more on scriptwriting and outlining. Jason Lutes is a big believer in the thumbnail process and using that as a way to produce a first or second draft of a comic. It helped me figure out little things like length and how much story you can get into a comic and how focusing on something for four or five pages of a comic can be a really powerful way to structure the narrative.

We’ve mentioned Jason Lutes a few times now. A great cartoonist who serves as the series editor for the books and did the layouts. What was it like collaborating with him?

He was great. I would give him something and he would say this is working really well here or we’ve got to change the pacing here or this is a great place for a splash page of the plane so lets look at this and figure out how we can slow things down so that makes sense. Or as we got into the drawing saying, we need some more dialogue here. Ben and I had to do a lot of our collaboration via email. Jason and I were at the school and it was nice to be able to collaborate that way.

Looking at his thumbnails of your script and getting to see what essentially worked out to another draft of the book, how helpful was that and did it affect the scripting?

The overall story was set. What it altered was specific moments. Jason’s great on character development so he would say, I don’t have a good sense of this character, see if you can go back in and write more for this character, so I’d add a few panels.

The book has a few splash pages and uses them very well, and in Lutes’ work he doesn’t really use splash pages, was the inclusion of those pages you or was it Ben?

A lot of that came from Ben. One of the fun things about this project that we had these great visuals, the plane, the Newfoundland coast is very evocative, and part of it was to get across the visual impact of these things. In my original script there were a couple places where I envisioned that we might do a splash page and some of them made it into the final version and some of them didn’t. There were places where Ben said, I’d really like to focus on this, and it was very clear that it was a good idea.

We’ve talked a lot in this interview about the adjustment required for writing in comics versus writing in prose, but Amelia Earhart and all the CCS biographies are aimed at a middle grade audience. I know you have young children, but was there an adjustment in writing for kids?

Absolutely. I think initially I made too much of an adjustment. I don’t want to say that I was writing down to the age group, but there were aspects of the story that are fairly adult. Amelia’s pilot’s alcoholism. The frank talk about marriage. Initially I thought I can’t really address any of that, but as I got into it, I felt it was really important to address that. To figure out how to do it in a way that was age appropriate, although I don’t like that term. It definitely required an adjustment and then an adjustment back to just remembering how much that kids that age are aware of and how much they do want to know about the world and figuring out how to do it.

So now that your first graphic novel is out, are you eager to write another?

I would love to write another one. I don’t have a project lined up but I’d love to do more of this kind of work. It was really fun and I felt like it a really nice counterpoint to my other writing and it has been invaluable for my teaching.

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