James Kaplan interviews Jennie Wood

We here at Panel Patter love insightful explorations of identity, combinations of different genres, and shape-changers. Jennie Wood has combined all three in the first volume of her graphic series Flutter, illustrated by Jeff McComsey. Because of its thoughtful treatment of issues regarding identity, Flutter has received acclaim from The Advocate and others.

In advance of Jennie's upcoming appearance at Boston Comic-Con (August 8-10), I wanted to get a chance to talk to Jennie about Flutter, her upcoming novel A Boy Like Me*, her involvement in Grub Street Writers**, and what's next.

James Kaplan: For those unfamiliar with your work outside of Flutter or FUBAR, tell them a little bit about yourself.

Jennie Wood: I’m a writer and musician who grew up in a small conservative town in North Carolina. Since coming out didn’t feel like an option at the time, I spent a lot of time as a kid wishing I was a boy, thinking my life would be easier as a boy. Complicating matters, my dad ran out on my family. Since I was the oldest, I became the man of the house after he left.

Even though I’ve embraced who I am and I’m now comfortable in my own skin, those circumstances growing up have definitely played a huge part in what I write about. Currently, I live with my girlfriend in Boston where I write non-fiction features for infoplease.com and teach at Grub Street.

James Kaplan: Who would you say are your creative influences?

Jennie Wood: When I first started working on Flutter, I was reading Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man, so Brian K. Vaughan has definitely been a creative influence. I think my love of blending genres comes from my background in theater and music. I attended a theater conservatory in Chicago and got really into the work of Bertolt Brecht. He was always blending theater, music, and politics.

While in Chicago, I got really into the music scene there, playing in bands. Both Flutter volumes (Hell Can Wait, Don’t Let Me Die Nervous) were named after songs by Chicago-based bands. One of my first major crushes was on Nina Gordon of the Chicago-based band Veruca Salt. I remember going to a release party for one of her solo CDs and she walked over with a plate of tater tots. It was everything I could do to say “thank you” and I’m not a shy person. Gordon was a big inspiration for Tara, the love of the protagonist in my new book, A Boy Like Me.

Music and other musicians are definitely my biggest creative influences. I never plan it, but music makes its way into almost everything I write.

James Kaplan: Given how important music is to you, was there any particular music you listened to or were inspired by when creating Flutter or A Boy Like Me? Or, is there any “soundtrack” you’d recommend to go with these works?

Jennie Wood: I wrote and recorded a set of songs to go with A Boy Like Me. They’re on my website. The songs are from the point of view of Tara, the girl who is in love with the novel’s protagonist.  The songs are referenced throughout the novel.

For Flutter, I haven’t created any original music yet, but I haven’t ruled it out. While writing it I listened to a lot of Califone and The Arrivals, the two Chicago-based bands whose songs inspired the volume titles. I also listened to a lot of Florence & the Machine while writing both volumes of Flutter. If there’s any one soundtrack, it would be the two Florence & the Machine CDs, Lungs and Ceremonials. There’s an urgency in  the songs on those CDs that matches Lily’s emotional state throughout Flutter.

James Kaplan: How would you describe Flutter to a potential reader?

Jennie Wood: It’s the story of a girl who shape-shifts into a boy to get THE girl and the inevitable chaos that comes from pretending to be someone she’s not. It’s about that time in our lives that a lot of us go through – that time when we’re willing to do anything, try anything, be anything for a shot at the person we love.

James Kaplan: What gave you the idea for the series as a whole?

Jennie Wood: For me, all my ideas for Flutter came together when I began working on it as a comic series. I’d been trying to write a short prose story about a girl who was in love with a straight girl so she shape-shifts into the straight girl’s dream boy to be with her, but the prose format felt static, flat. I was reading a lot of graphic novels at the time and started playing around with the idea as a comic series. That’s when it all fell into place. I think once you find the right way to tell the story and let go of any preconceived plans for a project, everything falls into place.

James Kaplan: I know you've spoken elsewhere about how issues of gender identity in Flutter and A Boy Like Me come from your own life and childhood. Thinking about these issues in your own life and turning them into fiction - do you find that process challenging, cathartic, or something else?

Jennie Wood: Flutter and A Boy Like Me have similar themes of gender and acceptance, but my experience with writing the two projects was very different. Flutter was cathartic because it’s closer to my own personal story, closer to my life minus the obvious sci-fi elements. While writing it, I got to revisit a time when I wasn't so comfortable in my own skin. 

A Boy Like Me was a lot more challenging because it’s a novel told from the first person point of view of a trans male and I’m not a trans male, but it’s a subject that’s extremely important to me. I started working on it in 2009 and did a lot of research before I even wrote a word. During revision, I brought in a trans man as a content consultant because it was very important to me to get all the details right.

James Kaplan: Re-reading Flutter, it’s a great combination of politics, espionage, and teenage relationship drama with science fiction/supernatural elements. Clearly you’re a fan of genre mash-ups! Was that something you were conscious of when you were creating the story?

Jennie Wood: I didn’t want Flutter to just be a love story. And there were a lot of other things besides her sexuality that Lily had to come to terms with and embrace. I wanted there to be a good reason why she could shape-shift that also involved her parents’ history, the choice they’ve made. 

I’m a fan of layers, sub plots, and epic stories. Y: The Last Man is still my favorite comic series. My love of epics probably started with my mother making me watch Gone With the Wind when I was five years old. It’s the first movie I remember seeing. I still remember my reaction the first time I saw that crane shot pull back to reveal body after body. I thought at the time that all movies were supposed to be that epic.

James Kaplan: Can you tell me about your collaborative process with Jeff McComsey, who’s also the mastermind behind the FUBAR series?

Jennie Wood: Jeff is wonderful to work with because he makes every project he works on better. When I first approached him about working on Flutter, he not only wanted to see the script, but also all my notes, character bios – pages and pages of character details – everything I’d done on the project.

From there, we worked on the 22-page first chapter which I self-published as a first b&w issue so Jeff’s art was completely done with that first chapter before I wrote what would become the rest of the graphic novel. And Jeff’s finished art for that first chapter definitely made an impact on where the story was headed. For example, I really loved how he drew Penelope. She was only going to be a minor character, but the character that Jeff created through his art demanded to be a bigger part of the story.

James Kaplan: How different has your creative process been, scripting short stories for the FUBAR anthology (as opposed to a longer-form story like Flutter)?

Jennie Wood: FUBAR is so much fun because I’m a research junkie and I love history so once I know which story I’m doing, it’s just a matter of researching and reading as much as I can about that historical event. Like with “Sorgie’s Choice” I had to research what was in the water with the sailors before the sharks showed up. What did they eat while they tried to stay alive? Cans of spam floated all around them. While I’m doing the research, which part of the historic event to focus on and how to bring in the zombies always comes to me. Flutter is an empty canvas with no actual events to base it on so that’s a completely different kind of fun.

James Kaplan: Has it been challenging moving back and forth between the collaborative writing process (on Flutter, FUBAR, and other graphic fiction projects) and working on your upcoming novel, A Boy Like Me?

Jennie Wood: I find that working on multiple projects feeds the creative process, especially when those projects are different. Ideally, I like to work on two things at once, but those two things need to be different – either in format or length. I like two projects at a time because when I hit a wall with one or need to put one away for a while, I can just turn to the other one. Sometimes they inform each other or I’ll have a breakthrough with one that helps elevate the other.

James Kaplan: You and I first met in a Graphic Novel writing class at Grub Street, back in the Fall of 2008, where the idea for Flutter was first born. Can you talk about the importance of that class to you, and more generally about the role that Grub Street has played in your growth as a writer?

Jennie Wood: Some classes are just special, the chemistry, the combination of personalities in the class, the instructor, etc., and our Graphic Novel writing class had that special quality. I saw Lauren from our class just last week at Comic Con International: San Diego and we talked about how special our class was.

Jorge Vega is such a giving instructor. He was so willing to share with us all the info he had on comics, publishing, even his contacts with artists. His feedback on my very first draft of Flutter – which was called Flutter Girl at the time – was instrumental in sending the project down the right path.

Grub Street provided the space and opportunity for that class. I remember signing up for a comic writing class at Emerson and it was cancelled due to low enrollment. Thankfully, Grub Street came to the rescue with our class a few weeks later. Grub Street also provided the Novel Incubator year-long program, which was where I fleshed out and revised A Boy Like Me. It’s given me a place to grow as a writer, and a community, a creative home unlike anywhere else I've lived.

James Kaplan: It's an amazing place, and this fall you’ll be taking on the role of teacher there! What are hoping to bring to your students?

Jennie Wood: My goal with teaching the graphic novel / comic writing courses at Grub Street is to equip each student who takes the class with all the info and tools they need to execute their comic or graphic novel projects. In the course, we go over the script format, how to write visually, how to find and collaborate with artists, all the comic publishing options, the best comic conventions to exhibit at and how to promote your work.

The class you and I took at Grub Street did all of that for me. When I left it, I had the tools I needed to write Flutter, collaborate with Jeff, and get it published. I just want to share all that I learned in that class and since then with others.

My favorite teachers are givers, those willing to share all the info they have and help people elevate their work to the next level. That’s what I strive to do. 

James Kaplan: I'm sure your students will appreciate your insights. Is there anything you can tell us about Flutter Volume 2 (or any other project you’re working on)?
Jennie Wood: I’m very excited about Flutter, Volume Two: Don’t Let Me Die Nervous because it fleshes out and brings into focus a lot of the elements, like the supernatural aspect, that were touched on in volume one. I don’t want to give too much away, but circumstances force Lily to stop running away from who she is. She has to face what she’s done – pretending to be a boy, etc., and she learns that she’s not the only one who has been hiding important information. We’re working to get it out next year and I’ll have a preview of it at this year’s Boston Comic Con. I’ll be at booth D717 at Boston Comic Con so stop by to check out the preview and say hello!

James Kaplan: Thanks, Jennie, for taking the time to speak with me. I look forward to seeing you at Boston Comic-Con and seeing what you do next.

* Flutter is available now from 215 Ink and from Comixology. A Boy Like Me (also published by 215 Ink) will be available this Fall.

** Grub Street is a non-profit, independent writing school in Boston offering writing classes in all genres for adults and kids.