Karina Wolf is a writer interested in a variety of media. She’s written about food, fashion, film and art; scouted and developed scripts for feature films; and worked as a writer-producer of documentaries for several national museums.
Here, Wolf discusses her first children’s book, The Insomniacs, which arose from her own struggles with sleeplessness. She also describes her happy collaboration with the book’s illustrators, the Brothers Hilt.
You work in TV and film production. Yet here you are, with your first children’s book. Can you tell me how that happened?
Children’s literature is the reason I love reading and became interested in writing of all kinds. Since films tend to be the construction of a narrative through visual media, I think of the experience—the scripts, the direction, the editing—as writing, too. As a child, kids’ books were a map to finding wonder in the world—those books, Greek, Irish and Norse myths, the work of Dr. Seuss, Lloyd Alexander, Anne McCaffrey and many others, led me to a lot of rewarding hobbies and countries and jobs and friendships. The lure of writing is always the hope of creating a story that produces that same kind of pleasurable alchemy.
But why write about insomnia for kids?
The idea for the Insomniacs' story came to me before the form did. I didn’t have time to consider that I was writing a kids’ story until I was reading through the first draft. The first things I ever wrote were poems. And the idea for the Insomniacs came to me the way a poem does, with the first line that was like the handle to a trap door that I tugged on and the rest of the Insomniac story came tumbling down after line by line after.
The first book I owned as a kid was a dog-eared collection of Charles Addams cartoons—not a traditional book for children, but I was fascinated by it. A few readers have connected the Addams family to the Insomniac family, which makes me very happy! The Insomniacs are maybe less mordant/morbid, but equally committed to their alternative lifestyle.
At the time I wrote the story, I was wrestling with a long bout of insomnia. I had a realization that my older brothers are all insomniacs and so are my parents—which made me realize that in all likelihood I’d already slept the most soundly and the longest that I was going to sleep, ever. I started thinking of a story about an insomniac family that paradoxically finds a way to enjoy sleeplessness. I wrote the story to consider all the wonderful things that you can observe at night, at first a consolation and then a celebration of not sleeping!
This is your debut children’s book so it’s also your first experience having your work illustrated. How did you feel when you saw the illustrations?
It’s so thrilling and exciting. This came together in an untraditional way—Ben [Hilts] and I became acquainted as fans of each other’s blogs. So this wasn’t a situation where a publisher acquired the work and months later I was presented with a series of spreads. It was more that we were friendly—and I’d seen Ben’s paintings, which border on the abstract and the figurative. He asked to see my work and I sent him The Insomniacs, which I'd just written. He responded right away and said, “My brother and I want to illustrate this!”
Ben and Sean came back to me with these really charming sketches of the father and the house that the Insomniacs live in…I’d had no preconceptions about the illustrations, but when I saw the characters they’d created, I felt these exactly fit what I wrote. Their very atmospheric illustrations had a real resonance with the characters and the tone of the story, yet they also expanded the world of the book in a very considered way.
Do you see any more children’s books in your future?
Yes. One thing that I learned I enjoy about children's books—it really allows you think about what gives you pleasure, what's playful and fun. The act of writing [this book] unlocked some other ideas and a different approach to writing. Writing for kids has to be something that you enjoy. There's something ego freeing about it in a way! This book has led to some other ideas that I hope will be out in the world someday.
How are you sleeping these days?
The other part of my life working in film and television turns out to be the perfect antidote to sleeplessness. I find working a 16 to 18 hour day will make anyone sleep soundly!