I met Serena Valentino many years ago through mutual friends at San Diego Comic-Con, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She is a brilliant writer, with many different stories under her belt, and has, over the years, cultivated a devoted following from her fans.
She has written GloomCookie and Nightmares & Fairytales for SLG Publishing, How to Be a Zombie and How to Be a Werewolf for Candlewick Press, more recently Fairest of All and The Beast Within for Disney Press, and the upcoming Hell’s Cafe and Teratopia.
I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing her on her past, present, and future, her thoughts on writing, collaboration, music, architecture, and everything else under the sun.
You have been writing, for many different genres and formats, for quite a few years now. Was writing something you aspired to from an early age? Did you read a lot as a child/teen? Did you attend school to accomplish this, or did you just start writing.
When I was young I had teachers who tried to inspire me in that direction, but my interests lied elsewhere. I was more inspired by acting and singing. I actually went to school to teach theater. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s I wrote a little story and showed it my friend Ted Naifeh who thought it might make a good comic. It was the “Lex and Max” story from what would eventually be the first issue of GloomCookie.
Creators take inspiration from a multitude of places. What and who are your biggest influences or inspirations, on your writing in specific, and your life in general?
I love songwriters who tell stories like Nick Cave and Tom Waits. They are a very big inspiration in my writing and my life. I am also very inspired by history, and interesting personalties, like Delphine Lalaurie, Count St. Germaine and the like. Historical places, and indeed their architecture are also very inspiring to me, places like The Hell’s Cafe in Paris, or The Tower of Jewels from the Pan Pacific Expo in San Francisco – something about these places or people speak to me, a story evolves and takes hold until I have no other choice than to tell it.
For example, I read somewhere about a nunnery in New Orleans, it seems while its wall was being replaced many baby skeletons were found buried beneath. My mind whirled with the possibilities for reasons why this happened and came up with the Nightmares & Fairy Tales story where Dominique’s baby was given to a monster being hidden within the nunnery’s attic. Most of my stories are inspired this way. Some little spark, some little interest that takes my mind off in a direction and it just goes from there.
Your name has, over the years, become one of a handful of creators, along with Evan Dorkin, Jhonen Vasquez, Roman Dirge, Andi Watson, and others, synonymous with a certain era of publisher Slave Labor Graphics, especially the darker side of their output. How did you come to work with Dan Vado and SLG? What was it like in those days. What did you learn through that partnership, about the industry, publishing, and creating comics?
Ted Naifeh and I decided to make a little indy ashcan of the Lex and Max story and take it to San Diego Comic Con, to see if we could generate some interest. While getting my copy of Lenore by Roman Dirge signed I handed him a copy of GloomCookie. The next day while walking past the SLG booth he waved us over, saying Dan Vado would like to speak with us about it. Dan was most interested I think in Ted’s artwork and it’s appeal for merchandising.
My storytelling was very different from other sorts of comic books at the time and he even expressed his reservations about it. There was quite a bit of narrative, which wasn’t unheard of, but certainly wasn’t common in comics back then. After submitting a proper proposal and bugging the hell of Dan on a weekly basis he finally relented and decided to give us a chance. By the way, I would never recommend that as a prudent method in trying to get a publisher interested in your work, usually it only succeeds in them telling you to bugger off.
I learned how to write comics while doing GloomCookie, all my mistakes were printed in glorious black and white for everyone to see. So as far as what I learned: I learned to write for my artist, my readers and for myself. It took a while. I had no idea what I was doing in those first years, but I am so thankful I had such a loyal and wonderful readership willing to stick with me while I grew as a writer and storyteller.
With the success of Fairest Of All and your two How To Be… books, not to mention the forthcoming The Beast Within, your current workload seems to be comprised of prose writing more than anything. I know you also have the comics Hell’s Cafe and Nightmares & Fairy Tales: Annabelle?s Story, both with Pablo Santander, as well as Terratopia in development. What is next on the horizon for you, or are you busy enough as it is?
I would love nothing more than to produce another series of comic books or at least release the occasional graphic novel. Comic book scriptwriting is my first love when it comes to writing. I love writing novels, but for me it’s not as challenging. With novels, it’s just me and the reader. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the hell out it, there is a freedom and intimacy in prose writing that simply isn’t there in writing for comics.
With comics though, there is something rather incredible about sending your script to an artist, an artist that is just as inspired by your vision as you are and seeing those pages come to life, it’s breathtaking, exciting and inspiring. Aside from Annabelle’s Story and Hell’s Cafe with Pablo Santander, and Teratopia with Juan Calle, I have my Disney novels. Darick Robertson and I would also love to work together at some point. We are both just waiting for our schedules to relent, because we have a pretty exciting project in mind.
How do you go about finding such talented artists to bring your words to life? Do you consider yourself to be more collaborative or more rigid with your co-conspirators?
Usually the artists find me. Though I have on occasion approached an artist to see if they’d be interested in working with me – like in the case with Pablo Santander.
My scriptwriting has changed over the years. I used to write very loose scripts, leaving the panel and page layouts to the artists. These days I write full script (panel by panel) with extensive visual references and sources for research on all visual aspects. (Sometimes even horribly scribbled sketches of my own) However, the collaborative process is why I love writing for comics so much. I am always open to what the artist wants to bring to the project, so I’d say I am rigidly collaborative.
It has been great watching you evolve as a writer over the years. Have your tastes changed at all as you’ve grown, or have they just evolved along with you?
Thank you. I suppose they’ve changed a bit as well as evolved over time. That is life, isn’t it? Change and growth?
Fairest Of All has received many accolades, all of them well deserved. What first brought you to Disney’s attention? How is it working on a licensed property for you, as opposed to creator owned characters?
My work on Nightmares & Fairy Tales got Disney’s attention and they asked if I’d be interested in writing about any of their characters. Honestly I was surprised and a bit skeptical. I couldn’t have foreseen the experience would turn out as well as it has. Disney gave me much more creative freedom than I imagined. My editor and I share the same inspirations, and he really gets my vision, he asked me to write for Disney because he was acquainted with my body of work, he had no designs on changing my style of storytelling, or making it more “Disneyesque”. He’s just as pleased to receive a humorous or witty story as he is to receive my more dark and bloody tales. I feel lucky to have created this relationship with Disney – I love writing the backgrounds for their villains and I’ve put much more of myself into these books than I thought I might. I feel that I’ve really made them my own.
You seem to be really enjoying yourself with these novels. Will there be more books like this after The Beast Within is released later this year?
It is still our plan for this to be a series of novels, the next of which will most likely be featuring Ursula from The Little Mermaid. We are also discussing the possibility of another series of books (as well as the villains), but until things are sorted with Disney I can’t go into detail.
Can you share a little about Fearsome Library Publishing? What is it exactly, and what can we expect from it?
Fearsome Library is my self-publishing company. I intend to publish Hell’s Cafe, Teratopia, Nightmares & Fairy Tales: Annabelle’s Story, and a number of other projects, most likely with the help of my readers through Kickstarter under the Fearsome Library label.
The name came from something one of my characters said in Hell’s Cafe. She was musing over her desire to tell stories that stirred in the mind of her readers, instilling a terror that endures their sleepless nights, filling their dreams with shadow and fear. She went on further to say that New Orleans was flowing with such tales and she intended to add to its fearsome library. Later it struck me as the perfect name for my self published creator owned projects. Fearsome Library.
I know it’s like choosing a favorite child, but which of your works are you most proud of, and is there one you would have done differently in hindsight?
My favorites are usually the characters rather than their stories. I find myself still very fond of Annabelle and Gwen from Nightmares & Fairy Tales and inspired by Theodora from Hell’s Cafe. They are what make me want to write, they tell the stories. I know how that may sound, rather insane, but it’s my process. The characters are paramount.
Every creator I know has that one dream project they are working towards, something they’ve been building toward for years. What would yours be, or have you already created it?
Hell’s Cafe has been my dream project for many years. It’s been through its share of interested publishers, but the fit was never quite right. I’m just happy I’ve finally decided to take its creation entirely into my own hands and that of the artists and produce it myself. It’s wonderful to see it coming together as I would like it. My other dream project is a play. It’s a Twilight Zone sort of tale about a failed sculptor who meets a gorgon. I envision it entirely in black and white (including the actors), silent, and accompanied by live music, like a silent film on stage.
I know that music plays a big role in your life, and I am always curious, as a writer who is inspired a lot by the music I listen to, as to what type of music other writers listen to while working. Do you tend to listen to classical music or scores, something without lyrics to distract you like many I know, or something else?
I write to music or in silence, depending on my mood. Lyrics don’t tend to distract me, and even when I’m writing in silence I am always writing in the wake of my inspirations.
San Francisco seems like such a perfect city for you to live in, weather and architecture wise especially. Other than New Orleans I can’t picture a city that suits your aesthetic half as well. Does your city influence you as much as I expect it does?
It does, and in the ways you would expect. As I said, beautiful and interesting architecture and history play a large role in my storytelling, and I am lucky to live in a city rife with both – not to mention interesting characters to expand upon or inspire me.
Social media has obviously become a great way to publicize projects, as well as interact with fans. You are one of the creators that I see really embracing social media, and I know your fans appreciate it. Have you found that social media translates into sales, or is it just a great way for you to communicate directly with your fanbase? Do you feel there are creators out there that embrace social media a bit too much?
I find that it keeps my readers interested between projects. Also, writing is a lonely occupation unlike my past creative outlets like acting or singing. I knew when I was onstage I was doing my job if I heard laughs or gasps at the right moments – with writing, I can only do it for myself, and then, in what seems like an eternity (especially with novels) your readers start to let you know what they think of your work, and the performer in me wants to know how it made them feel.
To hear my stories or its characters somehow helped someone through a terrible time in their lives or inspired them to tell stories of their own is breathtakingly beautiful to me. I know how important art is to my life. How some music kept me going after my sister took her own life, or how escaping into another world kept me from wanting to do the same – and to hear I’ve done that for someone else, is exquisite and humbling. I can’t speak for other creators, but I like feeling connected to my readers, and social media makes is easy and rather more intimate than ever.
Kickstarter has also become huge in recent years, with many creators completely forgoing the normal channels to produce their works with this new model and get them directly into the hands of their fans. How do you feel about Kickstarter, as a platform for creators and as a publishing/distribution model? Is this the future of comics/novels/films/etc.?
I’ve only recently started to embrace the idea. Through a dialogue with my readers I’ve come to understand I really can bring my work directly to them. Ted Naifeh and I are discussing a hardbound GloomCookie anniversary edition featuring the issues he and I did together as well as some other new material (to be announced). We are in the process of researching, number crunching, and sorting out all the details – and plan to launch the GloomCookie Kickstarter within the next couple of months. From there it is my plan to do the same for Annabelle’s Story, Hell’s Cafe, Teratopia and any other creator owned project I conceive. Wish me luck.
Thank you for taking the time out for this interview. Do you have any last words for your fans, or aspiring creators out there?
To my fans: I love you! Seriously. As for aspiring creators: write what you love, write it for yourself, and hopefully others will love it as well.