We’re thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Barry Deutch, the author of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, a wonderful book that just won the Sydney Taylor Award.
Have you always wanted to be a cartoonist?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a vet for years and years. That plan went away as soon as I took high school biology.
When did you start cartooning?
I think I first stated drawing comics sometime in junior high school.
If you weren’t a cartoonist, what would your job be?
I think I’d be a political writer, or maybe a lawyer. I really enjoy getting into arguments.
How long did it take from finishing your first book to when it was actually published?
Well, I had a contract for the book before it was finished. I turned in the final art for “Hereville” in March, I think, and it was published November 1st.
Did you get many rejections?
Yes, I did! A lot of companies turned down “Hereville.” But there were also several companies who were interested in it, happily.
Do you find it hard to stop revising? Or do you have a definite ending point?
Well, I have a deadline, so I have to be done by then. But I can keep on revising forever, if not for that. Just brushing up the dialog here, or redrawing a face to try and get a better expression there… But eventually you have to move on, because you get better by finishing projects and starting new projects, not through endless revisions. Some of the best advice I’ve heard for cartoonists came from the Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim: “If something’s done, don’t finish it.”
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?
Plotting the book is very hard for me. That’s the closest I ever come to making something out of nothing. Once the book is plotted out, at least everything else is building on that. But I just gave you that answer because that’s where I am on my current book — I just finished plotting it, and I’m about to start writing and laying out pages. Once I’m well into doing the layouts, probably I’d say that’s the hardest part. Then, when I’m doing the drawings, that’s the hardest part.
What made you decide to write a graphic novel for children, rather than adults or teens?
I didn’t decide! I just tried to make a comic that I’d want to read, if I came across it on a bookshelf. I didn’t know it was a kid’s book until other people told me it was. In my heart, I think of it as “all-ages.”
What advice would you give young cartoonists?
Draw comics! Work really hard. Being paid for your work takes luck, but you can put yourself in a position where getting lucky is a lot more likely.
Where do you get your ideas? From real life? Or from things you read?
From both! I need real life to make things “feel” right to me, but I need reading to make more kinds of experiences and people available for me to draw on.
Where did you get your idea for Mirka, and for Hereville itself? It’s such a wonderfully realized world that I thought for certain you must be from a small Orthodox town yourself.
I wasn’t raised Orthodox. And to tell you the truth, I have no idea where my ideas come from. But so many people have asked me, I’ve acted like an archeologist, digging through my past to find the seeds of Mirka. In the past, I’ve left a couple of fairy-tale projects unfinished: A version of Rapunzel in which Prince Charming had a tough, Mirka-like sister, and an idea for a St George versus the dragon story, except with a Jewish protagonist who wouldn’t have been legally allowed to have a sword to fight the dragon with. And about 15 years ago I read the book Holy Days by Liz Harris, which contained a lot of really compelling stories of daily Hasidic life. I think all of those things went into creating Mirka and Hereville.
Of course, that’s not enough. Once I got started on Hereville, I had to do a lot of research. The book that was the most valuable to me was probably Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers by Stephanie Levine, but there were many other useful books as well.
I love the character of the pig-what made you choose a pig and not some other animal?
In retrospect, it’s silly how long I spent trying to decide on the right animal to be in the Witch’s yard. Wolf? Huge housecat? Giant ferret? But then I thought of pig, and obviously a pig was the perfect antagonist, just because a pig is the iconic “non-kosher” animal that Jews avoid eating. And once I had that, the pig’s grumpy, over-the-top personality fell into place.
Do you have any subjects that you’re dying to write about, but haven’t yet? Any non-Hereville books that you have percolating away in your head?
I have a few non-Hereville ideas. But Hereville is also a very broad canvas — after all, hundreds of people live in the town of Hereville. So I think I could happily do many, many more Hereville books, and be able to fit in a huge range of stories and characters.
I’d be really eager to do a story with a positive, fat character as the protagonist. I was really disappointed when the TV show “Huge” was canceled.
What is your favorite word?
Wow, that’s tough! I don’t think I have one. I like newly coined words, like “retcon” and “yoink.”
Who is your favorite author or book (children’s or adult)?
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is my favorite prose novel; Guns, Germs and Steel is my favorite non-fiction. I’d have a very hard time picking just one (or just ten) favorite graphic novels, but at the moment I’m halfway through the second Castle Waiting book, by Linda Medley, and enjoying it immensely.
What cartoonists influenced you when you were first starting out?
Dave Sim is probably the largest influence on my work, even though politically he’s as far away from me as Cleveland is from Venus. Scott McCloud was also very influential, and has also been very kind to me personally. Jennifer Manley Lee is a good friend of mine who has influenced my work a lot, both with her webcomic Dicebox and with good advice. My friend Rachel Swirsky, the science fiction writer, has also had a lot of influence on my work. And Will Eisner was a big influence, both directly — I took a cartooning class from him — and through his work.
Do you have a favorite illustrator or graphic novel illustrator?
I have a hundred! In addition to the influences I just mentioned, I love Bill Watterson’s drawing (Calvin and Hobbes), Walt Kelly, and for more current cartoonists, Faith Erin Hicks, Kazu Kibuishi, Eleanor Davis, and… well, I could go on all day.
What are your hobbies when you’re not writing or drawing?
I have a blog which I don’t have nearly enough time for anymore! I’m a political junkie, and I constantly read about politics. I used to do role-playing games, but I don’t have anything going at the moment, unfortunately.
Can you give us a hint about what’s next for Mirka? Or at least tell us when the next book is projected to be out?
The next book will be out in fall of 2012, if all goes as planned. The story involves one of Mirka’s older sisters getting engaged. I can’t wait to draw it!
Thanks again to Barry Deutch! We can’t wait to read that new Hereville book–or, frankly, anything else he writes! For more information on Mirka and her world, visit the Hereville website. And, if any of you are interested in the books Barry mentioned, we do have nearly all of them at the library.