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SDCC: Evangeline Lilly Hatches The Strange Tale of “The Squickerwonkers”

by  in Comic News Comment
SDCC: Evangeline Lilly Hatches The Strange Tale of “The Squickerwonkers”

When actress Evangeline Lilly set out to write a book for Comic-Con International, she knew she’d be fighting against years of skepticism around actors “writing” their own projects.

That’s why Lilly initially introduced “The Squickerwonkers” – a children’s picture book about a little girl who encounters a strange troupe of marionette puppets – as a self-published volume last year in San Diego. Illustrated by Weta Workshop artist Johnny Fraser-Allen, the story caught the eye of Titan Books who signed the creators for a mass release. After a year of revisions, Lilly and Fraser-Allen are back at Comic-Con 2014 to debut the all-new “Squickerwonkers” before a wide release to book and comic stores.

CBR News spoke to Lilly about the story she’s been carrying with her since she was 14, the stigma of actors writing projects for Comic-Con, the inherent creepiness of marionettes and the collaborative vibe brought forth by Peter Jackson.

CBR News: So I’ve got to say, aside from anything to do with the story, “Squickerwonkers” is an eminently repeatable title. I can say it over and over again, and it doesn’t get old.

Evangeline Lilly: [Laughs] Good! I’m glad because the title has been a subject of great controversy when it comes to the design of the book. It’s a brand new word that no one has ever heard before, so of course it needs to be written as clearly as possible. And yet, everything about this book is about being colorful and strange and quirky and weird. So designing the title was one of the great challenges. How do we make it look as quirky and strange as the story while keeping it clear and legible so people don’t glance at it and have no idea what it says?

From what I understand, you’ve been carrying this story with you for a long time, right?

Yeah, I think it’s been at least 20 years of its incubation – for the message to really become clear to me and to understand what that 14-year-old girl who was bored with her school life was exactly trying to say. I think for me whenever I read a script or a children’s story book for my own child, I’m very particular about choosing a story with a very powerful message. Until a message becomes clear to me in a story I’m trying to write, then I’m not that set on showing it to people.

So just recently in the past two years, that message came to a head for “Squickerwonkers,” and I realized that one of the most important things for me to tell children is to correct the incorrect notion this notion I was told as a child. That is, “The world is full of good people and bad people, and you want to help the good people and destroy the bad people.” I think that life is so much more subtle and nuanced and complicated than that. So that’s what the story is all about and how within each of us is a lovable person regardless of what we do.

Well, from the ideas in the story to the art, there is a kind of sinister undercurrent to the book. I think a lot of that may just grow out of the idea of sinister marionette people. Were you looking to write the stuff of nightmares?

[Laughs] Well, I have a three-year-old boy who absolutely loves the book and wasn’t scared by it at all. I always find that fascinating. I think as a adults we have a tendency to project the things that we think are scary onto kids, but children’s have a different sensibility. So I’m not scared of dinosaurs because I know they’re not real, but my son is scared that they’re going to bite his toes at night. And creepy marionettes scare the crap out of me, but my son isn’t bothered by them at all because he has no preconceived notion of that being a threat to him.

Does it help to have someone so close to your target audience in age to bounce your ideas off?

I wish I could have done that, but when I first started developing the book, my son was six months old. [Laughs] So he couldn’t speak or understand the story. But what was great is that between self-publishing at Comic-Con 2013 and this year, my son has grown from a 2-year-old toddler to a 3-year-old kid. So this year has brought another round of rewrites – so the version from last year is essentially a collector’s item since I’ve rewritten the book – and part of that process was testing the story on my son. I was seeing what he understood and what he didn’t, where he needed clarification and really what he liked the most. I wanted to add things to the book to keep the things he really responded to.

Your artist Johnny Fraser-Allen works in the Weta Workshop, and I get the feeling from reading interviews about the “Hobbit” films that the kind of collaborative atmosphere of Peter Jackson’s company is infectious. Was that what led you two to pair up as you worked on the films?

That’s exactly right. It’s almost impossible to not get caught up in the creative wave of working with Peter Jackson and his elaborate, extensive, warm, creative team of people who work on his films. Weta Workshop where they make all the props and set pieces for the movies – basically fabricating Middle Earth — is a hub of creation. I was in a very privileged position where I got to go in there for my weapons fittings and my costume fittings, and while I was there I got caught up in it. I thought, “I’ve dreamed about being a writer for a decade now. If ever I had the chance to do it, now is the time when I’m in this incredible creative community that could uplift me and help me get off the ground.” So that’s what I did. I went to Richard Taylor who’s the head of Weta Workshop and said, “Listen. I’m a writer before I’m an actor, and I have children’s stories, and I’d really love it if anyone on your team would be interesting in pairing with me to illustrate one of them.” And Johnny was the first person to jump up and wave his hands going, “Pick me! Pick me!” His enthusiasm and unabashed willingness to throw his hat in the ring is what made me want to work with him.

So how much of this story or its visuals did you come in with fully formed versus how much was born out of that collaboration?

Well, the book completely revolutionized when Johnny came on board. He’s like a mad scientist, and his favorite thing is character creation. He had so many ideas that he threw in when we started brainstorming about the book. We had actually originally been working on another one of my books called “The Galloping Man,” and he had read “The Squickerwonkers.” And part way through working on “The Galloping Man,” he came to me and said, “I’m really passionate about this story” and handed me a watercolor painting. He said, “Just bear with me. I know we’re working on this other project, but I can’t stop thinking about the Squickerwonkers, and I’ve got this concept drawing for you.” I took one look at it and threw away “The Galloping Man” because I knew Johnny was onto something. It was a painting of two wooden marionettes in a wagon on a stage along with little Selma and her red balloon. And I had never conceived of the idea that the Squickerwonkers were puppets. I’d always thought of them as strange, non-human creatures kind of like in Seuss’ books. I didn’t know what they’d look like, but I knew they weren’t exactly human. When Johnny said, “I want them to be puppets,” we were off to the races. He created the wagon idea, and that essentially shaped the whole story.

After such a long gestation for this project, how has your approach to writing changed now that you’ve got this fully formed book made? Are there more ideas or even sequels coming more quickly now that the floodgates are open?

I’m just floating on cloud nine right now with the fact that this is actually being published. Titan has signed me on for two books where they’ll both be in the Squickerwonkers series, though my idea is that the series will eventually be 18 books. That’s what I’ve outlined and am prepared to write. Surprisingly, this has kind of prevented me from doing more writing because I’ve been so focused on building the brand of the Squickerwonkers and building up the publishing and marketing. When I do come out of the gate as a writer, it’s really important to me that I do it as strongly as I can. I think as an actor, there’s a lot of fatigue or intolerance around those of us who have made a name for ourselves as actors and then say, “Actually, I have something else I’m really passionate about.” [Laughs] I think people are tired of actors saying that! So I know I have an uphill battle here. I have to convince the literary world that this isn’t just a vanity project but that I’m very, very serious about the writing I’m doing here. So I’ve actually not been able to do as much writing since starting the Squickerwonkers project, but the fact that I’ve been able to take it out into the world and prioritize it is a dream come true.

So you’ve worked on Comic-Con favorite franchises like “Lost” and then “The Hobbit” where passion and criticism can sometimes go hand-in-hand. Are you prepared to meet with fans over the next week knowing how intense you can be judged?

[Laughs] That’s why I love that community, and one of the reasons I self-published at Comic-Con 2013 was that in my mind having been on “Lost” and in “The Hobbit” and part of the con world for all of my career, I know those people are both the hardest to please and the most loyal. So I decided that if I’m going to test my writing material on anybody, it should be them. They’re not vanity fans. They’re very hardcore and serious fans who will tell you if you’ve made a misstep. They will really let you know. And the response I got last year was so positive that I felt like I could come back to con not in the same spirit of testing the waters but instead coming back to honor my fans. I wanted to say, “You guys were the first people to see and appreciate ‘The Squickerwonkers,’ so now you’ll be the first people to see the finished work and get the book right of the press.”

“The Squickerwonkers” will be available at Comic-Con International from Titan Books and receives a wide release soon after.

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