Writer and artist Matt Phelan has illustrated numerous children’s books, including Newbery Award–winning The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. In 2009, he published his first graphic story, The Storm in the Barn.
Phelan, who grew up watching old movies and cartoons with his dad, says he’s drawn to the past, which he returns to with his newest graphic story, Around the World, dramatizing the stories of three intrepid global adventurers in the late 1800s.
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How did you come to write this book?
The idea came from three books I’d read over a seven-year period. In my 20s, my girlfriend (now my wife) gave me a copy of [Brooke] Kroeger’s Nellie Bly bio and said I needed to read it…I loved it and then I put it on my shelf.
A few years later, I was in Maine on vacation and felt like reading something nautical—and [Joshua] Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World was on display. I read it and put it aside. I found the [Thomas] Stevens book on a sale table on a lunch break—I loved the picture of him on cover, it made me laugh! So I bought it.
One day I was in my studio, working on my first book, thinking about ideas for a second and I noticed these three books I’d bought individually turned out to have a theme. I asked myself, “What’s always been an interest of mine?” So here were the clues.
In your author’s notes, you say you originally imagined your task would be to dramatize the three journeys of these three adventurers. How did you end up creating your own story of their stories?
This happened during the research. When I read Bly’s book, it’s very much in the style of the feature writer of her time. But after I’d read the biography, I didn’t buy her paper-writing voice anymore. No one can be that chipper all the time…and I became more interested in what I think it was really like for her, making her more of a real person. Here’s a person at who, at 21, faked insanity to write an exposé. She fooled everyone, got incarcerated and wrote an exposé. She’s a lot tougher than her “oh my!” writing suggests.
Please tell me about your writing process and how it compares to or meshes with your process as an artist. When doing a graphic work like this, which comes first, pictures or words?
Words always come first. The idea of doing rough thumbnails then writing the story never appealed to me—I’d get off track. My first draft is closest in form to a screenplay. Before I became an illustrator, I went to film school, enough to know I wouldn’t like the movie industry, [and] I wrote four or five screenplays so I was used to the form. So I see the book in my head and write down panel by panel what’s in there. Each panel is described—“Slocum at wheel”—what’s happened in the panel and the dialogue.
This might be because for years I illustrated others’ work. I was used to getting an assignment, a manuscript, and illustrating from that. So the writer in me writes it and hands it off to the illustrator.
So Writer You passes the baton to Illustrator You?
Yes! And that’s when I think, “Oh, man—really, an ocean liner? Trains? Stampeding horses? That’s so hard!” If I wrote out the thumbnails ahead, and thought about the final illustration work involved I might be tempted to skip the hard stuff, or decide it couldn’t be done. So it’s better this way.
What does your workspace look like—do you write and draw in the same place?
Yes. We live in a three-floor row house in Philly—my studio is on the third floor. It’s a great space, I’ve got my books and ukuleles and a big old drawing table from the early 20th century. When I’m writing, I tilt it up to be parallel to floor, I make it flat for research, pile it up with books. When I am drawing, I go to a 45-degree angle. I make it a fairly sharp incline so I can’t put too much stuff on it!
What’s on your desk right now?
I’m working on the final art for a third graphic novel—insanely enough, I started it three weeks after finishing Around the World. I wanted to continue the momentum. It’s historical fiction set in 1908-10, and it deals with summertime, friendship, vaudeville and the young Buster Keaton.