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Cartoonist Viviane Schwarz Talks The Sleepwalkers, Children’s Literature
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Cartoonist Viviane Schwarz Talks The Sleepwalkers, Children’s Literature

Nathan chats with the author of the dazzling new graphic novel The Sleepwalkers. All Ages Welcome.

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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]”For every thought, there is a fear, and for every fear there is a dream…” But some dreams can become nightmares, causing dreamers to get stuck in them. When this happens you can write a letter, put it under your pillow, and a group of friends will come rescue you from the horrors of nightmares.

That’s the premise behind The Sleepwalkers, the dazzling debut graphic novel from popular writer/illustrator Viviane Schwarz, author of There are Cats in this Book and several others. We were lucky to snatch her away from a schedule chock full of robot workshops and crafting works that blend creative interaction with traditional media for an extended discussion about dreams, writing for children, and being part of a comics revolution.

A word of caution to those who may not have already experienced The Sleepwalkers for themselves: the following may contain spoilers and/or interpretations for some of its more ambiguous moments. We advise reading it first, if only because it’s a pretty special book and you definitely should. What are you waiting for?

Want to learn even more about Viviane Schwarz? Well, just check out her official home on the web right HERE!

The Sleepwalkers is your first graphic novel, and at 90+ pages, it’s definitely a lot beefier and more sustained than previous books. Apart from structuring the narrative, what were the biggest differences and challenges between it and previous projects?

Viviane: I felt the main difference was that there were very definite stages to it – with the picture books, the drawing, writing, planning, structuring mix together a lot more. With Sleepwalkers, there was a clear period of planing and research, then writing, editing, sketching, drawing, colouring. I set myself a lot of intermittent deadlines to make sure I kept on track, and used the Pomodoro technique to help me concentrate. My picture books involve a lot more discussion with the creative team, the work is more open – Sleepwalkers was mostly just me at my desk (or in a café sometimes) getting things down onto paper.

How long did it take you to craft the book, from beginning to end? Given your history with shorter-form works I’m curious if there was always interest in pursuing a feature-length story. Did you meet any resistance or have hesitations along the way?

Viviane: I am actually not quite sure how long it took. The project was around for a few years, it appeared and disappeared, for a while it was discussed as a game, as a picture book, as an illustrated novel… My friend Alexis Deacon and I were talking about it a lot, collecting ideas, making up the characters. I came up with the three sheep, he invented many of the other characters, and the way the world came out in the end is very much a collaboration. It took some time to decide on the best part of the whole story to tell – there is much unused material left. I know that I ended up drawing a page a day once I started, and colouring took half as long again.

I have always made up longer stories, by myself and with friends, and every few years I finish writing a novel… but I don’t often get the chance to take it through to publication. My longer stories aren’t commercial, they don’t comfortably fit in any genre, and most of the characters are talking animals. London rents are incredibly high, so I need to keep putting out picture books to make ends meet, and can only work on the longer projects every so often.

I know magicians don’t like sharing their secrets, but I’m hoping artists do. I love the messy, free-form pencil line work, which seem digitally colored. Would you mind sharing what tools you employed in crafting The Sleepwalkers, both material and digital?

Viviane: Of course!

It’s all drawn with a clutch pencil, 2B 2.5mm, and coloured in Photoshop. I put quite a lot of effort into designing the colour palette for the book – every setting and dream sequence has its own base colour, some colours signal particular emotional values. There is a shade of yellow that always denotes complete security and protection, for example. I kept a file of swatches that are all named for where they appear or what they mean. My favourite is the colour of Bono’s paws which I called “hug”, it appears all over the book.

The number of dream colours increases through the story, while the house gradually becomes darker as important characters leave it.

I love the colour control that I get from working digitally, the way that I can have formulas for calculating colour values, and keep archives. I extract palettes from photographs as well – the colours (and the patterning) of the Angry Man are taken from a photograph of my pet canary. There is a also range of purples that comes from a very big vibrant bruise I got one day while working on the book.

I built some of the sets in Google Sketchup. There is a 3D model of the Safe House that you can walk through virtually and slice up. It’s got plumbing and everything. I used a 3D model of a passenger plane as well.

You’ve collaborated with fellow illustrator/writer Alexis Deacon and Joel Stewart many times now, officially and unofficially. Are all you guys just best buds, or is there just something innate about the collaborative process between likeminded types that helps inspire creativity?

Viviane: I have several great friends who I collaborate with on projects. The boundaries between work and social life are completely blurred. I am sometimes involved in projects that have nothing to do with picture books – puppet shows, music, street game design, theatre… I don’t really know how to meaningfully relate to people in any other way. I grew up making things with my sisters, my parents, my friends.

I went to college with Joel, we had a very competitive relationship creatively that didn’t really allow for collaboration. Working with Alexis is very different – there is no competition because we are not trying to do the same thing, but somehow when we get together we make up epic tales. We made up a lot of games together for creating stories and drawings, and it’s just brilliant fun. We don’t always remember who came up with what, most of the best stuff happens in conversation.

About the characters in The Sleepwalkers – while I personally adore Bonifacius the bear (I relate more to his insecurity), I think most readers will probably identify more with Amali the monkey – she climbs over everything and everyone with a confidence that’s addictive. Most people love monkeys. Where the heck did she come from, anyway?

Viviane: Do you think? I felt Bonifacius was the most accessible character, myself, and most people I talked to who read it identified with him first. But Amali is partly designed there to give those children who haven’t been quite so worried by the world an easier way in. She meant to contrast with Bonno. It took me some time to bring her to life. I tried a lot of tricks, made lists of her character traits, forced her to react to things in the story until one day when I was drawing her I realised she’d started to think for herself. She kept changing the script, getting angry when she should be sad and coming up with sudden bursts of philosophy and emotion. So I redrew her earlier scenes and just allowed her to do her own thing. Now she even sometimes takes over the @TheSleepwalkers twitter account, enthusiastically chatting with people.

I’ve read that you run workshops for children, and even create your own dresses and puppets on the side. The book has several pages helping readers craft their own goodies, like how to make a Amali-like sock puppet monkey and even a banana milkshake (to get you through tough times).

Can you share your thoughts on connecting your illustrative work to these physical exercises? Was there any creative spillover between crafting Sleepwalkers and your other recent release, Welcome to Your Awesome Robot?

Viviane: The two books are published by different publishers, so there is no official spillover, but if you look carefully you may notice that both books intersect at one tiny moment. Have fun finding it!

Like I said before, my background is all about making things together, inventing, problem solving, building. My main ambition is to encourage children to be creative and to deal with life in an inventive way. I try to put something encouraging into every book, on different novels – sometimes it’s very obvious, as a set of craft instructions, sometimes it’s hidden, like making the artwork in a way that looks simple and achievable and makes you want to try painting that way yourself.

About the Sword of Rin and its importance in the story…I first thought its inclusion was a sort of world-building exercise, that it might hold a greater significance to the overall story arc. But after its loss Amali insists upon Bonifacius they “NEED” the Sword, frustrated at the bear’s choice to don his Lucha libre mask (his “Mask of You”, as she puts it) instead, which helps his confidence soar.

Am I right to assume the Sword was little more than a symbolic MacGuffin (or Dumbo’s ‘Magic’ Feather) than an actual thing wielding any real power? Or am I completely bonkers and we can look forward to an entire numbered series of Sleepwalkers books, each with a more colorful (and marketable) subtitle than the last, i.e. The Sleepwalkers: Quest for the Sword?

Viviane: In this particular story, the sword is indeed a MacGuffin, although unlike Dumbo’s feather it doesn’t make anyone feel any stronger. Its function is to show that Bonifacius has to find his own way. Each of the Sleepwalkers have a core skill that is related to their mentor, something that may grow. Sophia’s knowledge isn’t wisdom yet. Bonno’s courage doesn’t make him a skilled warrior. Amali’s can-do attitude doesn’t mean she knows how to find solutions. They have the basics, but the only way they can grow is to work together and keep learning. It’s a story about growing up, I suppose: your parents can’t do it for you, they can only set you on the path.

However, there is a history to the sword, and to the sheep it isn’t a MacGuffin at all. If I ever get around to drawing the prequel, you’ll find out more… and it would surely surface again in a sequel. It simply wasn’t for Bonifacius, but it is an object of significance… and now it is held by the Wrong Dragon in Darkness, which is probably not a brilliant situation.

There are some hints on the Sleepwalkers website which has a growing “Sleepwiki” of information about the Sleepwalkers universe. You can discover other stuff there as well, different dream creatures, rules of the dream world, the origin of the Safe House, even the names of the three sheep.

One thing I respected most about The Sleepwalkers – and your work in general – is how much is left for readers to discover for themselves, especially in the book’s full-sized pages (the “Gross Section” in the prehistoric bird made me laugh). There’s little guidance here, especially when the characters enter some of the darker and scarier parts that inevitably must come from nightmares.

Were you ever worried how some parents might react to these parts? Do you ever catch yourself thinking, “Maybe I should tone things down; I don’t want to scare younger readers?”

Viviane: I was a bit worried at times, but it can’t be helped – it’s an honest book, meant to actually help children with nightmares, and it would be dishonest to tone them down so much that they aren’t scary any more. Then a child who actually has bad dreams would just think: well mine are worse, and feel alone.

I did, however, try to make the nightmares openly scary in ways that are easily explained. A child could explain easily and completely what bothers them about them, and there is always a solution offered to return to relative safety. I decided against making the dreams fragmented and surreal because I feel that triggers a sense of peril and confusion which would have been off-putting. To be honest, I don’t think the nightmares are the scariest parts of the book. You can always wake up from a nightmare. It’s life that’s scary. To me, the scariest moment is when the white sheep spills her tea and doesn’t even notice, because the time for drinking tea is finally, irrevocably over.

There’s something uniquely European about The Sleepwalkers, at least from how I interpreted it. I’m not sure if its with your fluid imagery or the emphasis on self-discovery and adventure versus a more straightforward approach. Do you think there’s a difference between American books for children versus their European counterparts?

Viviane: I’m sure there is a difference! But I don’t think Sleepwalkers quite sits in the European tradition neither. It’s an odd book.

The UK comics scene is reforming at the moment. I think it was just about to take off when recession hit, and it got hit hard. No one can expect to make a fortune any time soon, and so we might as well make strange, ambitious books. But I don’t feel I get to waffle on about this because hey, this is my first comic album, I’m a picture book artist out on a limb…

It’It’s frustrating to see the phrase “children’s book” applied pejoratively, especially by so many critics and reviewers, as though writing intended for younger readers is inherently handicapped. Have you noticed or experienced this for yourself? What do you think about that?

Viviane: Ah, there is a lot of stuff said in the world. Some people aren’t happy until they’ve stacked everything vertically and sat on top of it crowing “I’ve Got Status”. I find it an useful indicator for who I don’t need to bother with in life. Children’s literature is serious, important business, and anyone who thinks it’s easy hasn’t tried it.

It might sound like a basic question, but I’m curious who your favorite inspirations have been, and if there were any in particular that had (or continue to have) a profound impact on you?

I think Tove Jansson is an obvious answer. I had her books as a child, and they were very important to me. There were a number of other artists but I doubt you’d have heard of them because most of them were German artists of the 70s – I am still tracking them down one by one because half the time I can only remember the book but not the title.

An unsorted list of famous people I do remember being fascinated with as a child: Leo Lionni, Max Ernst, F.K. Waechter, Jan Pienkwoski, Kveta Pacovska, Picasso, Alexander Calder…

Following that up, are there any artists you follow these days and would recommend?

Viviane: Well, Alexis has a great blog now where he shares his drawing secrets and experiments. (alexisdeacon.co.uk)

I enjoy following a lot of creative people on Twitter… Sarah McIntyre in particular is at the heart of the network of UK picture book artists, if you follow her you’ll quickly discover pretty much everyone else!

On the final page – the final frame in the museum – it’s almost like you’re asking readers to think in reverse, to recognize the familiar ‘traits’ in objects they may have seen before as characters previously. Was it a conscious decision to leave the story with such an ambiguous ending?

Viviane: I thought about that last scene a lot… yes, I wanted to keep it ambiguous. You can choose whether you think the sheep are still in there. I think they are, they are just resting. I liked showing how old they really are, how much time has passed, and how we don’t know what their experiences have been, but we have a bit of an idea from the story of Bonifacius… they have been someone’s treasure, handed down through generations. I hope that people can imagine that their own important things could become a Sleepwalker in their dreams.

So So what should fans expect next? Are there any more full-length graphic novels on the horizon?

Viviane: No Graphic novels in the pipeline. There are ideas and scripts, and I hope to do another Sleepwalkers book at some point… but first I need to make a whole load of picture books. Alexis just wrote a new one, and I have two more on the go myself… or three…

Check out the official website for Viviane Schwarz’s The Sleepwalkers at thesleepwalkers.co.uk!

About the Author: Nathan Evans