Hope Larson talks "Chiggers"

While the last gasps of summer may be slowly sinking into a rainy fall haze, there's still time to celebrate one last weekend of shorts weather or at least wax nostalgic about the summer months with a good book. Luckily for comics fans, a perfect slice of summer is available to pick up any time in the form of "Chiggers," the latest graphic novel from North Carolina native Hope Larson, creator of such acclaimed indie comics as "Salamander Dream" and "Gray Horses." On sale now, "Chiggers" is published by Simon & Schuster under its Aladdin MIX line in conjunction with its Ginee Seo imprint.

"Chiggers" tells the tale of Abby, a young Carolina teen whose summer at camp is thrown into upheaval when her former best friend abandons her for life as a counselor. To make matters worse, Abby's new bunkmate Shasta is a flake whose stories about getting struck by lightening further alienate Abby from the rest of the crew.

Larson has been holding court on the summer convention circuit with copies of "Chiggers," and has one last show to hit in the form of Bethesda Maryland's SPX over October 4 - 5. CBR News caught the artist on the phone earlier this summer for a chat about her expectations of working with a major publishing house, her memories of her own summer camp experiences, and a look into the creation of her next lengthy graphic novel.

CBR: "Chiggers" is about Abby, a young, blonde teenager who goes to camp in North Carolina. While reading the book, we couldn't help but think, "Maybe there's a little bit of Hope in this character."

Larson: [laughs] Yeah. I think, physically, she's more like me than anything else. She's definitely based on how I looked at 12, 13-years-old, but in terms of how she acts, she's definitely her own person. She's not me. I never had a camp experience as exciting as hers. [laughs]

One of the things that jumps out about Abby as a character and makes her very relatable is that when someone makes a sarcastic comment, it goes right over her head. And rather than wait to see what the context is, she just blurts out, "What are you talking about?" which of course only makes it worse.

Yeah. She's pretty naive.

Is that something where you said, "This is the character I want" or did those traits evolve while writing the story set at camp?

I think a lot of that is stuff that I found out in the writing of it, but I was definitely like that, too. I'm still gullible and naive and clueless. [laughs]

Did you go every summer to the same camp, or did you bounce through different camps?

I went to one camp. I went to a National Wildlife Federation camp for three years, and I liked it, but it wasn't the center of my world or anything like that. I had a friend in high school whose family ran a camp, and they lived on the camp all year. So her whole world was camp. But it was definitely not like that for me.

Were you a good camp friend? Did you write letters to people you met there, or were you like most people and promise to do so but then forget as soon as school started?

I wrote them for like a good six months, and then I think I lost interest and then I would stop. And then I'd go to camp, and we'd start that whole process again -- I'd write for six months or whatever and then stop.

"Chiggers" is your first big graphic novel that was published by a big publisher. How much did the story change through the process of working on it, and how did you change as a creator? Did you learn a lot on this book?

I definitely learned a lot from doing this book. Well, I learned a lot about the kinds of stories I want to write; the kinds of things I enjoy writing. I think I really learned how to be a writer with this book, which is something I didn't know at all before. This is my first time working with editors and really getting feedback on story. And this is the first time that I really thought about plot and character development and things like that.

I wrote it really fast. It only took me a couple of months to write the script, and I got a lot of feedback from other cartoonists on the story, so I think that was the period where it changed the most. By the time it got to my editors, it was fairly minor stuff -- changing one reference to running up a big phone bill to something about text messaging. It was all updating the technology. [laughs] Really minor things like that.

You make a lot of cultural references in "Chiggers" that are pretty timeless. Dungeons and Dragons is an evergreen sort of nod, but when you wrote about the bands the girls liked, they were all created just for the story rather than throwing in Fall Out Boy or something. Whereas most young adult fiction goes for those references and feels dated really fast.

I was trying to circumvent that by making everything up. I wanted to make it feel sort of contemporary to now without having it age badly. So hopefully it'll age all right with the fake references. I don't really know though.

It's lucky, in that respect, that camp fashion never seems to change.

Yeah. It's like T-shirts and crummy shorts. [laughs]

You just moved back to North Carolina from Canada recently. Had working on "Chiggers" made you a little homesick for the area?

I've been homesick for a while. Basically, I've been homesick for as long as I've lived in Canada. And the book came more out of that than vice versa.

Prior to "Chiggers'" release, you were on the Simon & Schuster website answering questions from young readers.

Ah...the Pulse Blog Fest, as we like to call it. [laughs]

But one of the advantages, it seems, to publishing though imprints like Aladdin/Pulse/Ginee Seo/etc. is that they know how to get the book into the hands of its intended audience, be it through libraries or blogs or another avenues. Now that "Chiggers" is on sale, have you started to see if young readers know about the book?

Well, we went out [on the night of] the street date to the local Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, and they had it. So the book is in bookstores. It's basically a waiting game at this point to see if people actually buy it. [Laughs] Hopefully they will. But I have a good feeling about it. I've been getting good feedback from people who have bought the book and enjoyed it. We'll see.

You've also overhauled your website as a "Chiggers" minisite. Was that something you wanted to do because of your background in web design and webcomics, or was that part of a plan with the publisher from day one?

That was something we always wanted to do, but basically it came down to me having to do it. I'm really fortunate to have an intern right now because he was able to take some of the other grunt tasks off of me so I could focus for a couple of days and put that site together. Otherwise, it wouldn't have happened. As nice as it is to be with a big publisher and have a marketing team who is promoting the book, a lot of it comes down to me still.

As a cartoonist who's self-published things before, it must be an advantage that you know guerilla marketing techniques as opposed to a lot of first time YA novelists.

Definitely. I've been doing this for four years - going around to multiple cons every summer, pimping my books out, begging people to buy them - so it's not something that I'm going to stop doing now that I'm with a bigger publisher. That's going to be an aspect of my job forever, pretty much.

"Chiggers" is part of a two-book deal. The second title hasn't been announced yet, but did you jump right into book two after finishing "Chiggers" or did you take some time off?

They actually overlapped. I really did not get a break. [laughs] I started writing the next book while we were doing the lettering and final stuff on "Chiggers," and I'm in the middle of drawing it right now. I'm about 70 pages in. It's going to be a fairly long book for me, like 240 pages. So I've been working on it since February.

The hardest part is trying to balance all this promotion for a book I finished drawing a year ago with this thing I've been working on for a while already. My brain is on the next book, but I have to pull back a little bit and focus on "Chiggers" a little bit.

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