Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Devin Grayson

Devin Grayson fell in love with superheroes after seeing Batman: The Animated Series. Soon after, she made friends with some of the biggest names in comics (names like Denny O'Neil and John Bolton) and was offered the chance to write. Confident, intelligent, charitable, and talented, Devin accepts all questions with grace and answers them with vigor.

Your very first published script was a short in The Batman Chronicles #7 featuring Nightwing. As a fan of Dick Grayson, how excited were you to write for a character you loved?
Beyond excited! Excited to the nth degree! In addition to being one of the greatest gifts and privileges I have ever received, it was the second or third time in my life that I’d been able to essentially will something into being. And that’s not just a heartening, gratifying experience; it’s a spiritual one, too. You reach out to something in the universe and you make a connection with it. The thing I was reaching for was a fictional entity, and to be able to take the obsessive energy of fandom and turn it into such an amazing opportunity and vocation…well, I still think about that moment when I’m down and it never fails to revitalize me. I remain overwhelmingly grateful. 

How has your experience as a stage actor influenced your writing? 
I would highly recommend acting lessons and experiences to anyone interested in fiction writing. Characterization in acting tends to be a physical undertaking, whereas in writing it tends to be a cerebral exercise—but the differences pretty much end there. Both jobs demand an ability to inhabit fictional spaces and beings and bring them to life. In theater, you learn to think in terms of motivation and scene beats; what does this character want and how is he or she going to try to get it? If you can stay close to those elements in writing, you give your characters the chance to move and speak and act in recognizable, relatable ways. Theater really nurtured my interest in and love of fiction as a tool for exploring truth. I no longer have a desire to be on stage, but I still play with fictionalized aspects of the human experience every day.

Do you feel your writing is more focused on characters or events?
Characters, definitely. Sometimes to my detriment. Characterization is the part that comes naturally for me. I have a good ear for human speech and an innate talent for seeing the circumstances and motivations that shape people—my friends joke that my super power is the ability to sit with someone for two minutes and have them immediately confess their darkest secrets. Events for me are often just vehicles to force new reactions out of characters, and I’ll admit that I have trouble ending stories sometimes, because in real life I have no sense of anything ever really ending. In other words, I understand what people do and why they do it, but the forces that shape events—or plots, as we’d refer to them in fiction—are much more mysterious to me. This is a weakness in my writing that I have had to work very hard to overcome. Carefully studying story structure has been tremendously helpful, as has working on monthly comics in which you have to constantly begin and satisfyingly end events. When talent can’t help you, you have to build a skill set.

You’ve written for some of the biggest titles and characters in comics. Is it daunting to take on characters that people know so intimately and have grown up with?
Absolutely. And you go into it knowing that by virtue of some of the simplest decisions you make, you’ll be alienating some of those fans. There is literally no way to make everyone happy, so that’s not what you try to do. I think when we’re at our best, we can hope to use our work on those kinds of characters to emphasize and draw out the qualities we find most engaging in them.  It’s great to hear someone come up and say, “You nailed that character, that’s exactly how I see him.” But it’s even better to hear, “you know, I’ve loved that character my whole life, but I never really thought about [insert character quality here]. That really added a new layer for me.” With such well known characters, too, I think it’s a mistake to take on any to whom you don’t have a personal attachment. For example, I’ve been asked to work on Wonder Woman several times, but I don’t have a personal take on her. And until I do, I think it would be a mistake to engage with her professionally, even though it would, of course, be a terrific honor.

Do you prefer writing for established characters or original worlds?
There’s not much of a difference in my mind. When I’m writing characters of my own invention, by the time I’m committing them to the page I already know them inside and out, and so although I don’t have external editors or proprietary parties telling me what I can and cannot do, I’m still restricted, to some extent, by my understanding of who that character truly is. And as I stated above, I don’t approach established characters until I have that same kind of take on them. Obviously licensed, iconic characters enmeshed in merchandising arrangements come with their own special kind of baggage, and there’s way more wiggle room in your own fictional playing fields. But once you’re deep in the actual writing, the two experiences aren’t that dissimilar.

Several comic book writers transition over to gaming and I’ve read a rumor that you may have done the same?
I was actually a gamer way before I read, let alone worked in, comics. RPGs are another great way to explore fictional characters and I’ve been crazy about them from childhood on. But yes, in the last several years I’ve found myself doing more and more work for the gaming industry.  The script for a game plays out very much like a comic book script, except it’s even easier in the sense that you don’t have to create panel descriptions or even environment most of the time. Level venues are handled by a different team. At least in the work I’ve done so far, I’ve come in pretty late in the process, mostly just putting words in the mouths of characters that are already fully rendered visually. Sometimes all I get is the string files of the game text, and in those cases it’s more a matter of editing than writing. It wouldn’t be enough for me on its own, but it’s a great addition to the rest of the work I do.  

If you had complete freedom to write whatever you wanted, any genre, any format, carte blanche, what that would be?
I really want to do more novels. All my original training is in prose and I feel like I haven’t had the chance to push myself in that format yet. The three books I have written were all licensed characters and done on incredibly tight deadlines—fantastic experiences but not wholly satisfying on their own if I don’t get the chance to do more. I do have several sagas in my head that I’m dying to get down on paper; characters I’ve lived with for a long time whose stories I’d love to tell. In fact, I’m working on a proposal for a group of them right now.
My favorite genre to read is magic realism, but I think I’m probably better suited to straight drama or even YA. I’m actually not very invested in the kind of allegory that goes into super-powered characters and some sci-fi—I don’t think it’s necessary in explorations of the human condition. That said, the proposal I’m currently working on would technically be labeled horror genre so who knows? I just go where the characters take me.  

How much research goes into your scripts?
It depends on how much I’m making up! 
If I’m including an element from the real world—mental illness, for example, or some aspect of science—then I’ll generally do as much research as I need to be able to accurately explain the elements in the script to another layman. Unless my character is supposed to a professional; that’s harder. I’m taking an online course in herbology now, for example, because I’m working with a character who’s supposed to be very good at it. I also have experts check my implementations whenever possible. One of the challenges of writing a character like Batman is that he’s devoted years to intensive study in a wide range of topics…as brainy as some of them have been, I guarantee you that not a single one of his writers has ever known as much about the work he does as the character himself. But you do your best.
I suppose I also gravitate toward subject matter with which I already have some familiarity. But actually, one of my favorite things about writing is that absolutely everything you learn in any context is usable. Research is one of my favorite stages of writing. Right after compiling the story sound track.

You’ve said you don’t follow the comics of characters you've written for after your run ends. Why is that?
As a professional, I do my best to keep current on the story continuity of all the major players, but from a bit of a distance. It’s a little bit analogous to your relationship with the new love interest of your former partner. You’re curious, you wish them the best because this is someone you really cared about, but you’re not exactly dying to go hang out at their new place with them. Losing a book can be emotional, especially one that features a character you have very strong ideas about. But it’s also part of the job.  
I may also have been commenting on the predicament fans find themselves in when they’re reading a story line they hate about a character they love. Usually, it pays to stick it out…the writer is probably going somewhere unpredictable. But sometimes it’s okay—more than okay, imperative—to just walk away from somebody else’s interpretation and stick with your own, even if it’s just in your head. Comics as an industry (rather than a medium) are designed to make money just like any other industry. The decisions that get made are not always in the best interest of character continuity or story structure or even audience engagement. So seriously, if you’re invested in a particular version of a character, don’t let the industry spoil that for you. 

Do you have any upcoming projects coming out that we can look forward to?
Yes, I’ve been working hard on a trilogy of graphic novels, the first of which should debut sometime next summer. I can’t share many details yet but will definitely be blabbing my head off about it as soon I get the go-ahead from editorial. What I’ll say now is that it’s for a company I haven’t previously worked for, and that they’re original scripts based on someone else’s (awesome) books. It’s been a really wonderful collaboration. 

How did you hear about Womanthology?
Renea De Liz contacted me directly by email and explained her vision for the project. Normally, I stay away from stuff that’s explicitly female-only, because normally the female part of it is done as a sales gimmick of some kind, and I think that can often hurt the cause of female creators more than help them. But three things about Womanthology jumped out at me right away: 1) the caliber and range of the people participating, 2) the clear objective of showcasing the work of new female creators by partnering them with experienced creators and 3) Renea’s obvious sincerity of purpose: she clearly and professionally explained what she was setting out to do and was intent on donating proceeds to female-friendly charities. That’s about as far from a sales gimmick as you can get. Later, when she sent me links to the artwork of some of the newcomers she was hoping to support, I was even more impressed. These young women are serious artists with real talent and developed skill sets. There used to be anthologies like this back when I was breaking in to the industry, and I’m delighted to be able to help support one now.   

Any hints about the story you’ll contribute to the book?
The theme of the story is “heroism,” so obviously that leaves a lot of room open for all kinds of stories! What Eugenia, my artist, and I have been discussing are the different perceptions of heroism…we all want to have super-powers and slay monsters, but the business of our day to day lives are also pretty heroic in many seemingly unremarkable ways. So the story explores and contrasts some of those perceptions.

As you mentioned before, you’ve been outspoken against banding women who work in comics together simply because they work in comics, having nothing else in common. What makes Womanthology different?
I think I answered most of this question in the response above, but I’ll add that there’s a huge difference between saying “women creators are cool!”—which doesn’t really mean anything except that you experience them as being a category unto themselves—and “these aspiring creators are cool, and I’d like to find mentors for them.” The first scenario groups us together because we’re supposedly “different” (separate but equal, anyone? I didn’t think so…). The second groups us together so that we can assist and celebrate each other and highlight new work from new creators. I remain deeply divided on the idea of whether or not there are predictable differences between male and female writers, but when it comes to social action, the idea of using your good fortune to help someone who has not yet had the same opportunities is something women band together to do the whole world over. 

Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to aspiring creators?
Believe in and commit to your dreams. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Learn about the realities of the industry you’re aiming to join and develop your skills to suit that reality. And, of course, don’t let anyone tell you can’t do it. If you’re willing to put in the work and the energy, you are already ahead of the game.   

In honor of the show that inspired this blog, we'll end with the questionnaire developed by Bernard Pivot:

What is your favorite word?

What is your least favorite word?

What turns you on?
Curiosity and imagination.  And a capacity for passion—about anything.

What turns you off?
Small-minded, hateful, self-aggrandizing, faux-religious, unrepentant, money-grubbing, blindly right-wing hypocrites.
What sound or noise do you love?
 Rain on glass. And music through good headphones.

What sound or noise do you hate?
White noise and hate speech. And an animal crying out in fear or pain. 

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’d love to be a botanist specializing in ecology.

What profession would you not like to do?
Any work that involves toxic components or an excess of biological liquids.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Well, first of all, I’d be quite dismayed to find actual pearly gates.  And I also hope and believe that there’s not a god in any traditional sense of the word. If there is, I’d like him to say “okay, okay, it isn’t really working, you’re right, let’s talk.” What I hope about death is that whatever our spiritual essence turns out to be—quantum energy, star dust matter, or even just a conjecture of consciousness—it has some experience of cosmic re-consolidation as it passes out of our mortal frames.

Want more Devin Grayson? You're not alone! Check out her website for other interviews, a comic checklist, and all kinds of tidbits any fan would drool over!

 True to her charitable form, Devin is attempting to collect donations for the EAC to help train new hypoglycemic-alert dogs. Help save a life by donating to the cause!

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