King of the Mole People: An Interview with Paul Gilligan (Now with 50% More Mary Worth References!)
Guys, the last thing I want is to be considered predictable. I’m a wild card, baby. You never know WHAT kind of book for kids I’m going to like next. It could be a mystery. It could be a board book. It could be some nonfiction title for 7-year-olds on banking. It could be . . .
. . . could . . . uh . . . hey. Wait a minute. What’s that book over there? Does that title say KING OF THE MOLE PEOPLE?!? Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you, gimme gimme gimme!!!
*sigh* Okay. Fine. I’m as predictable as they come. You could set a watch by me. Is the book about something downright goofy and created by a syndicated cartoonist? Are there mole people? Yup? Then that’s a Betsy book.
Even so, not all syndicated cartoonist middle grade novels are created equal, and that’s why I was rather surprised and touched when one Mr. Paul Gilligan agreed to be interviewed. Mr. Gilligan is the creator/ illustrator of the Pooch Cafe comic strip that’s been featured in outlets like the Washington Post. And as it just so happens, King of the Mole People is Paul’s debut novel.
Betsy Bird: Okay. So let’s put all our cards on the table. I need to come clean from the outset. Having grown up with a true and abiding love of syndicated comics, I’m pretty intrigued by everything to do with them. So this first question regards young Paul Gilligan. What strips did you read growing up that made you want to make it your life’s work?
Paul Gilligan: All of them! From favorites like Peanuts, to “grown up” ones like Mary Worth that I didn’t even understand. I’d read them really slowly to squeeze every minute of pleasure I could get out of them. I resented comics like Henry that had no words because they’d be over so fast. Of course then I discovered MAD Magazine, and built a shrine to Don Martin in my bedroom.
BB: Just gonna sit here and imagine what a Don Martin shrine might look like. In any case, your strip Pooch Cafe is syndicated, and yet you’re making the leap over to, not a graphic novel, but a middle grade novel with art in it. So I guess my questions for you are (A) Why write a book at all? and (B) Why not go fully graphic?
PG: I love graphic novels! And my first project beyond Pooch Café could have easily been one. But the Mole People idea felt like it needed more internal dialogue than a graphic novel usually has. Also, there’s very little light down there in the Mole tunnels. A graphic novel version might have ended up having quite a few pages of black panels.
BB: Well, another method I’ve seen is for a syndicated comic to go the easy route and just slap a bunch of strips together and put on a binding. Your book is wholly original. Plus it also contains Mole People (which, I mean, right there makes it better than 50% of the other titles published today). So why write a story about Doug Underbelly? What is it about him that makes him your hero?
PG: Aw, thanks! I love Mole People too! I remember hearing an old radio play when I was a kid that claimed there was a place only 5 miles from where I was right now that no one had ever been, and that place was five miles down. That always stuck with me. We’ve been all over this earth, but who knows what’s going on under it? I combined that with my favorite kind of hero — a reluctant one. Who would be more fun to watch trying to escape from a tricky situation: G.I. Joe? Or Jughead? I’d rather follow someone ill-equipped, but who might ultimately learn a few things along the way.
BB: In a lot of books for kids, the hero is an outsider in some way. Doug fits the mold, but if the kid had an “I Want” song it would probably be about his desperate desire to be “normal”. One might extend this a little and say that most middle schoolers would give their right shins to be normal (if not having a right shin was what it took to be part of the crowd, of course). So where do you go from there? What’s Doug’s journey going to tell kids who can instantly identify with his desire?
PG: Uh oh, now Doug’s going to be worried about having normal shins! Doug’s journey to become normal is really about his journey to accept that abnormal is okay. Maybe even better! Who doesn’t want to be friends with Mole People? Well, Doug doesn’t. But he just needs some time to get to know them better. And to accept that smelling like mushrooms all the time isn’t really so bad.
BB: Especially morels. If I smelled like morels I would ask for nothing else in life. So will we be seeing more of Doug? Or for you, for that matter? What are you working on now?
PG: Definitely more Doug on the way. I’m currently writing book 2 of the series, which is called “Rise of the Slugs”. We meet more underground dwellers, and Doug and Magda continue to grow, and learn things like how to get slime out of clothing and what flavor of breath spray is most favored by baby slugs. Every time Doug thinks he’s out, they drag him back in!
All right. That interview probably contained a 25% increase in references to baby slug preferred breath spray and Jughead, so I declare it an unmitigated success.
Many thanks to Paul and the good folks at Macmillan for the keen interview.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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