On February 15, 2013, 215 Ink will release Flutter, a graphic novel about a girl who shape-shifts into a boy to get the girl and the chaos that comes from pretending to be someone she’s not. Recently, Novel Incubator alum Kelly Ford interviewed Flutter’s creator / writer Jennie Wood about her love of comics, Grub Street’s graphic novel class and how facing her biggest fear gave birth to Flutter.
You’re involved with novel writing, playwriting, songwriting. All this writing. How did you decide on the graphic novel format for Flutter as opposed to the others?
I originally saw it as a screenplay. I had just moved back from L.A., where I was writing screenplays and working on movie sets. The first party I went to there, someone asked me how I was doing with the traffic, and I said I was listening to books on tape. She said, “Oh, you’re one of those intellectuals.” I realized very quickly that it was not a place where I could be happy as a writer, as an artist, as a person. L.A. is the lover I can’t live with, you know?
When I moved back to Boston, I started fleshing out the idea of Flutter and tried to visualize what a shape-shifter would look like on screen. All I could think of was that bad 80s TV show, Manimal. It was on for half a season on Friday nights. Was it Simon MacCorkindale?
[laughs] How do you remember his name?
I know. It’s terrible. He shape-shifted into animals. It was so cheesy. Of course, special effects are so much better now. But I had a hard time in my head visualizing it. That was around the same time that I found Y: The Last Man. I think I read all the graphic novels in a week. And I just fell in love with it, which led me to the Scott Pilgrim series, The Walking Dead, Blankets, Fun Home, Soul Stealer. All very different. I started to see the scope of what a graphic novel could be. I realized – even though I’ve been reading comics all my life – that you can do anything in the world of comics.
You mentioned that you’ve been reading comics all your life. How did you find them?
I was a big Saturday morning cartoon girl. I had a TV in my room. I would shut the door — because my parents were always arguing — and turn on Star Blazers. I identified with the protagonist, Derek Wildstar. Star Blazers was all about the Star Force. The Star Force has to leave the galaxy to save the planet earth because it’s being bombed with radiation. As they leave, everyone has to say goodbye to their families. Derek didn’t have a family; he had no one to say goodbye to. I related to him before I even realized why because I’m not close to my family.
At a comic store in Charlotte, North Carolina, they had Star Blazers comics. I was seven or eight years old, and I bought every one. Those were my first comics. From that came X-Men. Mystique, the shape-shifter, became my favorite character. Also, all the superheroes. The Super Friends. The Wonder Woman comics, Superman, a lifelong love for Thor and Hulk. I lost touch with it a little bit when I went to the theater conservatory and with my band in Chicago. But this surge in the graphic novels and Y: The Last Man and Scott Pilgrim got me back in touch with it.
Going back to Flutter, Lily and Saffron and Penelope, why them? Why these characters? Why teenagers?
I think because I felt like a teenager in L.A. I was completely uncomfortable everywhere I went. Southern California reminds me a lot of the South. It’s a lot of people being fake. I grew up with that. I remember being six years old and my grandmother would have a yard sale. People would come into her yard, and she’d be sweet as pie with them. As soon as they got out of earshot and left her yard, she would be talking trash. I got away from that for a reason. In L.A., I was reminded a lot of high school. Mean Girls and Heathers and just feeling very uncomfortable in my own skin. That was the root of Flutter.
But what made you think, I’m going to write about Lily and she shape-shifts?
Well, okay. [pauses, curses under her breath, then at me] Part of this comes from being involved in my past with a lot of women who have ended up married to men with kids. I always had the sinking suspicion that I would be happier – or I could actually have the woman I love or the woman I want and satisfy her – if I were a man. Flutter came out of that anxiety and that insecurity and that never-ending feeling that has always been there.
I’ve always, always wondered what it would be like if I were a man. My cousin, Tommy, got to date the girls I wanted to date. I used to work at the movie theater in high school. I remember one night, Tommy came in with the girl I liked. I could not verbalize any of that at the time. I was just slamming the popcorn.
It got me thinking, what would it be like if I were a guy? And could take a girl to the movies? What if you could shape-shift into the perfect man? What does that do? What does that do to that person who shape-shifts into that? That’s where Flutter comes from.
So you had this idea. Had you written a graphic novel at that point?
Because I didn’t have any experience and I didn’t know anyone, I thought I needed to take a class. What I know now is the community of creators and writers and artists that do comics, they’re so helpful. But at the time, I didn’t know that. And I didn’t know anyone, so I took a class. Grub Street had a Graphic Novel Writing course taught by Jorge Vega. He is an amazing, very giving teacher. Long after the class ended, he is still a mentor to me. Any advice I’ve needed, he has been right there. He also had collaborated with Jeff McComsey [creator of the New York Times best-selling Zombie anthology FUBAR] on a comic called Nine Months. It was actually Jorge who thought Jeff would be a great fit.
What was it like to work with Jeff?
I had a more standard superhero in mind when I first started. I do a lot of writing outside the actual story. I did character sketches of every character in Flutter, down to their horoscope, what’s in their refrigerator, all the character stuff. But also family history, back-stories – pages and pages. Jeff wanted to see all of it. Casting – he wanted to know who I had in mind. And he didn’t always follow that.
Jeff loves doing everything: He’s the letterer, he does the inks, the coloring. He would rather do that than hand it over. Aside from it being his first full-color book, people get to see him do something completely different from FUBAR. Flutter would not be what it is without Jeff. He took my idea and my script and made exactly what I had in mind and sometimes even better. He became, in my mind, the perfect artist for Flutter. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more right about anything in my life.
What’s an example of some story element that was elevated by Jeff’s involvement?
Penelope (aka Smoking Girl) was going to be a supporting character. And I fell in love with that character, the way he drew her. She became the character that the whole thing spins on by the end of the graphic novel. Really, the series.
The larger story of Flutter is, Lily’s father is a mad scientist who lost his mother to Leukemia. He wants a way to prevent that, to build up our immune systems so our bodies can fight off disease, diseases that are happening more because there are toxins and pollutants in our environment. That is why Lily becomes the way she is. For me, that’s a very personal thing because I lost a good friend to Leukemia. The doctors believe that he got it from toxic well water and from swimming in polluted water as a kid.
So Flutter also pays homage to my friend, Matthew, and what he went through. Every time I go to Chicago and have an extra day, I drive out to St. Charles and sit at his grave. He encouraged me to keep writing at a time when I didn’t have as much confidence as I do now. He wrote me a letter two months before he died about how much he believed in my writing. I pull out that letter whenever I’m lost and have a moment of self-doubt. The first thing I always think is, this guy had two months left to live and he spent time typing a letter to me. Fuck, you know? So Flutter is for him, too. The next time I go, I will have a copy of that graphic novel and leave it at his grave. And, I will no longer feel like I haven’t made good on that.
Going back to the beginning, L.A., did you ever dream you’d be talking about the imminent publication of Flutter in 2013?
No, not a graphic novel. I don’t regret the move to L.A. at all because it led me here, to this work. I went there looking for external validation. I wanted a city to give me happiness. I wanted a community to give me happiness. A film community. And even when I moved back to Boston, I was still in that mode. When all of that faded away, I just had an idea. And it became about fleshing out that idea. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about sitting in that room and asking, what is your biggest fear? And my biggest fear is that I would have to be a man to have a woman love me. That’s Flutter.
Jennie Wood is currently revising her first novel, A Boy Like Me. Her graphic novel, Flutter, Volume One: Hell Can Wait, is available for pre-order now on 215 Ink. She is a contributor to the award-winning, New York Times best-selling comic anthology, FUBAR: Empire of the Rising Dead and the upcoming Vic Boone: Bourbon and Buckshot anthology. She writes non-fiction features for the educational website, infoplease.com, including a series on transgender-related issues. For more, go to www.jenniewood.com.
Kelly Ford recently completed Grub Street’s pilot year of the Novel Incubator Program and her first novel, Cottonmouths. She received a 2011 Literature Fellowship Grant from the Somerville Arts Council and can be found tumblin’ at www.kellyjford.com.