A cartoonist whose comic strip Big Nate debuted in 1991, Peirce nabbed a sizable audience of preteen readers with his first book-length story, which plans comic-strip panels and regular prose; Big Nate: In a Class by Himself enjoyed a healthy stay on the New York Times bestseller list. Peirce’s work is featured on the website Poptropica and has garnered over a million hits. Here, Peirce discusses Big Nate On a Roll, his third book in the six-book series.
Read other books that blend comic-book panels with text.
What’s your favorite thing about writing the Big Nate series?
Comic strips have always been my first love, and I was a little concerned that working on a story that took me six or seven months to complete might feel like a grind. But I absolutely love it. It's enormously satisfying to work your way through a story arc and realize, maybe halfway through it, that all the pieces are actually going to fit together.
I also really like the format, the way the books look. I told my editor that I wanted to write the kind of books I would have loved reading as a kid, and that's what I'm trying to do. I hope that when kids open a Big Nate book and see all the artwork, all the comic-strip symbols and language, the endpapers…that they'll think, "This looks like a fun book to read."
What was it like to start writing a book-length story after writing a comic strip? What kind of mental adjustment, or adjustment to your writing process, did creating the books require?
It's the same, and it's different. I've always enjoyed telling stories; it just so happened that the ones I'd been telling for the past 20 years were only four panels long. But having such a long history with the characters from the strip, I felt confident that I could tell a longer story. No matter how long a story is, it's got to have a beginning, middle and end.
The question, at least at first, was: How do I manage the logistics? Do I try to write the whole book in one fell swoop and then send it to my editor? How much artwork should I try to fit on each page? What's the page count per book, the word count per chapter? Stuff like that. I was apprehensive. I had no idea what I was doing.
So I said to Phoebe [my editor], “How about I just write a chapter with some rough artwork, and you tell me if you think I'm on the right track?” And it worked so well that we've continued along in that same way. I write the books a chapter at a time and send them to Phoebe one chapter at a time. For the first book, I knew exactly what I wanted the story arc to be. But for the subsequent books, I've been flying by the seat of my pants. I'm about to start chapter four of book four, and I have no clue what's going to happen.
Do you think there’s something inherently funny (or inherently awful) about middle school that makes it such fertile comic ground?
Yes. It's inherently funny and inherently awful. I made Nate a sixth grader because, in my own life, sixth grade was the most eventful year imaginable. By a mile. Sixth grade, in most school districts, is the first year of middle school, and that's a year when everything changes. Instead of having one classroom teacher, you have a different teacher for each subject. You have to get yourself from classroom to classroom. You have to carry around notebooks and backpacks. You have a locker. You're sharing space with older kids, seventh and eighth graders, and you're worried that they're going to stuff you into a garbage can or something. You play intramural sports, go to school dances. The sixth-grade boys start to notice the sixth-grade girls, who in turn are noticing the seventh-grade boys. So every day has the potential for great triumphs or crushing humiliations. It's hilarious. It's horrifying.
Big Nate’s a world-class doodler, which shows up in his schoolwork. Is this an autobiographical element?
Oh sure, absolutely. I was always drawing comics as a middle and high schooler. That was my identity—the kid who drew comics. And I felt supported in that, which isn't necessarily the case for all kids when they find something they enjoy doing. My parents, although neither of them really read comics, were always encouraging. And my high school Latin teacher was probably my biggest booster. He'd let me draw comics on his blackboard before class, and then he'd only erase them when he'd used up every other inch of space on the board.
My early cartooning efforts show up in the comics Nate draws in the books. He draws comics about his teachers and classmates that have no real subtlety to them—they're unvarnished. That's the way I saw things at age 11. And in fact, some of Nate's comic creations, like "Doctor Cesspool," actually feature characters I invented in middle school. That's the part of the books I enjoy the most. When I'm creating Nate's comics, that's when I feel like I've climbed into the way-back machine. People sometimes ask, "How do you get into the mind of an 11-year-old boy?" and my answer is always the same—I never left.