My Parents Won’t Stop Talking! A Tillie Walden and Emma Hunsinger Interview Joint
So, if you’re a reviewer you get a lot of email promoting upcoming titles. And frankly, it’s a lot. After a while it just sort of feels samey. This one’s about a cat. This one’s about a chicken. This one’s about a cat that’s chicken. This one’s about a chicken that’s a fraidy cat. They blur. Your enthusiasm drains and dwindles and eventually you just can’t work up the energy to feel excited about upcoming books anymore.
And then…. something changes.
You see a book. Your eyes, half-glazed, zero in on it. You feel something in your chest that you haven’t felt for a long time. Is that . . . is that your heart beating again? It is. IT IS! This book, this marvelous book, has not only gotten your attention but it’s allowed you to feel something once again.
And that, my friends, is how I felt after hearing about and then actually reading the marvelous February 8, 2022 release MY PARENTS WON’T STOP TALKING by Tillie Walden and Emma Hunsinger.
Publicists always want me to interview their authors and illustrators but this time I reached out to them and asked to conduct this interview. Why? Because I’ve got a weakness for women that can bring the funny. Something this book does to a wondrous degree. What I didn’t count on was how funny they turned out to be themselves.
Betsy Bird: Emma. Tillie. I’m just delighted to host you here today. So first and foremost, this is a brilliant notion for a picture book. I’m 43 and I identified with it incredibly. I remember trying to physically remove my mother from talking to other people at the end of church for years as a kid. So my first question is, how did this book come to you?
Emma Hunsinger: Well, it was April 2020, and we had just gone into lockdown. Tillie and I had also just decided to try and write a picture book. And because we were waiting for the virus to go away, Tillie said ‘Why don’t we write a book about patience?’ And asked if I remembered anything from childhood about being patient. Right away, I remembered trying to get my parents to leave church, just like you! Church would end, and my siblings and I would be SO HUNGRY, and desperate to go home, but my parents had to talk to so many people for what felt like forever.
Tillie Walden: That about sums it up. The concept came instantly once Emma told me the story about waiting for her parents at church. We named it “My Parents Won’t Stop Talking” on the spot, and even though we still had no idea what the book would look like, we were happy with our starting point.
BB: Church, man. Lunch singing its siren call, and your mom Just. Won’t. Leave. So I feel like the childhood desire to get your parents and guardians to stop talking to other adults is universal. Do you identify more with the kid, or more with the adults with this story?
TW: I think I have to identify more with the kids, especially Molly. What I find relatable about her plight is that she ultimately can never understand her parents, which I remember feeling. Like there was this divide, or more like a chasm, between our worlds. And her struggle with that is one of my favorite feelings in the book.
EH: I think these days I mostly relate to the parents, haha. I love chit chatting whenever I run into people, I can’t help myself. HOWEVER, it can be circumstantial – like when you get caught with someone who’s grumpy then I’m always dying to get out of there.
TW: Now that you mention it, because we live in a rural area, when we do run into our neighbor, I am always thrilled to hear how he is, how his kids are, who bought the house down the road…
EH: Tillie is actually a champion chitchatter. She can get anyone to talk. There’s been a few times where she’s engaged somebody and I’m thinking, this isn’t gonna work. But then they totally light up and next thing I know, we’re having a long conversation about the pins the person is wearing on their vest.
TW: That’s… true.
BB: A lot of this book made me laugh out loud and one of those moments was when we heard the name of the neighbors: The Credenzas. Sometimes I like to collect good names for characters. Do you do that, or does the perfect name just come to you as you’re writing?
EH: First of all, I’m so glad the Credenzas hit. We thought it was so hilarious for a name. The names in this book mostly came from a note on my phone called ‘cartoon names’ that I had been collecting since 2017. Any time I saw a funny name or thought of one, I would write it down. It wasn’t initially going to be in the book, but while we were talking I sent Tilie the list, just because it came up —
TW: And I LOST MY MIND.
EH: And it was Tillie’s idea to find a way to put the names in the book. The list was years in the making, and this was finally the place to use them all. It was a beautiful moment, haha.
TW: Ok so what are some of the names we didn’t use, from the list, because we couldn’t fit them all (a tragedy): Claudia St. Cone, Tito Rips, Chianti Phillips, Hans Dongdanger, Barth Letters, Coco Pozol, Chester Connecticut.
EH: My ultimate cartoon name is Tatiana Shakespeare, which I’ve been holding on to for a long time. But we just got a kitten, and named her Tatiana. So that name has also found its ultimate use.
TW: Tatiana Shakespeare Walden Hunsinger.
BB: You both realize, of course, that you are just dropping gold ALL OVER this blog. I am going to have to physically restrain myself from stealing Hans Dongdanger from you. Now I expected the book to really overplay the drama of the situation (“My parents will be talking to the Credenzas forever”) but I didn’t expect the subsequent descent into madness. Your book crescendos beautifully, ending in a wonderful wordless two-page spread. Did you always have the format in your head when you wrote it or did this change with subsequent edits?
EH: So we both went to the Center for Cartoon Studies, where there is a unit on picture books. We learned about picture books’ typical lengths, and how good picture books use patterns to heighten to a climax. So when we were writing the book, we initially wrote it so that within each beat Molly’s hysteria or grandeur would heighten. I think a lot about how the song ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ is a perfect map for a picture book, because of the way it builds, and gets more exciting as it goes on.
TW: We were lucky too to be working with Connie Hsu as our editor, because she helped us take the initial draft much further. I remember Connie picked up on the fact that the Mom was listening to a meditation podcast, and started wondering aloud about mentally transcending. Emma and I then worked with that, and it brought us to what we called ‘The Meta Sequence’ in the book. I think what we’re both so proud of in this book is that it goes beyond where you think it will go.
EH: It’s true, Connie really helped push us past our initial climax, and we love how it ended. It’s so dramatic.
TW: I also think our experience with comics and graphic novels has led us to be very comfortable with a big silent spread at the end of a book. Comics is all about showing and not telling.
BB: I think that’s a lot of what I’m picking up on. As a lifelong lover of comics, your beats are what I’m picking up on. Let’s talk about your intended readers, then. What advice would you offer kids whose own parents are moving at a glacial pace?
EH: This is a hard question. Especially now that I’m a chatty adult. Kids, I think your best bet is to start performing a detailed monologue as loud as you can about how life is ephemeral and childhood even more fleeting; ask your audience is it truly fair to force your child to hang out in a boring auditorium just so that your parents can talk about when they had shingles in grad school with their other adult friends?
TW: Eavesdrop and use it against them later.
BB: What was your favorite sequence to illustrate? The book offers you all kinds of opportunities to go crazy, so I’d assume the section on “infinity” was the best, but maybe not. Anything you particularly enjoyed coming up with?
TW: I do remember having a particularly raucous time working on the drawing of Molly with her piano teacher. We both grew up taking music lessons, and kept cracking up about all the little pictures on Mrs. Gruyere’s wall, like a picture of piano, and a high heel shoe, and her son Pierre Gruyere. The big spreads, like the Big Bang one, with the dinosaur, was a lot of fun in the sketching stage, but in the final art, it felt pretty overwhelming to execute.
EH: I feel like I got away with something making this book, because how it would work, is I would draw the characters, and then hand it over to Tillie and Tillie would really bring these pages to life. Tillie is so good at capturing an environment’s essence. My favorite spread is the big waiting spread, between the wallpaper at the dentist’s office, the massive sky in the road trip, Tillie floored me with how well she depicted these things, and made the story so much more vivid. Also: when we were drafting that spread, Tillie put a rug in the dentist’s office that just said ‘Teeth’ on it and I nearly cried. It was so funny.
TW: You’re too kind, Emma. Because Emma took the first stab at each page with the characters, all I had to do was read the expression on Molly’s face, and look at her little crazy body, and I knew exactly how to draw the background around her.
BB: Let’s talk about those visual gags. Part of what makes this book work as well as it does is how beautifully the illustrations complement the writing. For example, let’s take the little brother Seth. Seth is almost entirely expressionless in this book, but like a picture book Buster Keaton he’s funnier because he’s so calm in the wake of his sister’s extremism. Whose idea was this derivation of Seth?
EH: Who’s idea was that?
TW: It might’ve just been both of us.
EH: Yeah, I think it happened pretty organically. We knew she would have a little brother and it didn’t seem right to have him getting worked up as well.
TW: It was one of those things you do in the beginning of the book, and then as we went on, we just kept having him be calmer and calmer, and the gag grew and grew.
EH: My first love in cartoons were New Yorker gags, and it’s where I got my start as a cartoonist. So funny drawings have not only been important to me, but also a powerful tool. Tillie’s body of work skews serious but Tillie has a great sense of humor both in person and in her art, you can see it a lot in her sketchbooks. I’m glad I got to work with her on something so funny; she really has great humor chops.
TW: Now hold on a minute. I’M the lucky one to be working with Emma. I feel like the humor in this book just came from a place of wanting to make each other laugh as much as possible. We’re lucky in that we’re both funny in different ways. I could never draw a kid looking as funny as Molly the way Emma does. Which brings us back to Seth – Emma’s drawing of his little smile, big glasses, and perfectly tiny and relaxed posture, killed me every single time. So I think ultimately, we have Emma to thank for Seth’s perfection.
EH: Funny side note, sort of related: When we made this picture book, we didn’t even think we could sell it, and we were really just trying to make each other laugh, and one of the things that cracked us up the most is we named the kids after our agents, Molly O’Neill and Seth Fishman. We love our agents, and it made for a very funny call when we were on the phone talking about Seth and Molly to Seth and Molly.
BB: Aw, shoot. I know Molly and Seth! As kidlit nerd inside jokes go, that thar’s gold. Okay, there’s this sequence early on where we’re told that Molly is good at waiting. And as far as I’m concerned, this is the sequence that made me truly fall in love with the book because her expressions are fantastically hilarious. Are there any artists you’d cite as funny influences? Because you have sight gags DOWN!
EH: That’s a great question, again New Yorker cartoons were a huge influence on me. George Booth, Roz Chast, Ed Steed, and Jules Feiffer are always in the back of my mind when I’m drawing a character’s expression and gesture. And lately there are a lot of rowdy indie comics that also inspired me to have fun while drawing, like anything Peow Books publishes or Disa Wallander’s work.
TW: My biggest influence is Emma Hunsinger. I learned so much about drawing from her in this process. I never think to manipulate a character’s features or body language beyond the real world much, and Emma always seems so comfortable taking a character further and further. The way she drew Molly’s teeth will stay with me forever.
EH: We actually got a note to tone down the teeth, so the world is getting a much less “creative” mouth in the printed version.
BB: I hesitate to ask this, but I just gotta know. What’s next for you both?
EH: I have a graphic novel coming out with Greenwillow in 2023 that I’m working on now.
TW: I’m working on three graphic novels for The Walking Dead, kind of a different audience from this book. As well as two other unannounced *cough* middle grade *cough* graphic novels.
EH: But Tillie and I are dying to do another picture book. Because we love this one so much.
TW: We’ve been tossing around the idea of making a book about surrogacy and adoption, which is how my family came to be. I always wanted a book about my kind of family that wasn’t so serious and careful. There’s so much that’s silly and fun about family origin stories. So who better to work on this topic with than Emma Hunsinger…
EH: We’ll see what we end up doing next. Either way, we’re so happy with this book, thank you so much Betsy for reading it and your kind words!
TW: Thank you so much! From us, and Tatiana Shakespeare Walden Hunsinger.
BB: Man. You two are the best. I don’t want this interview to end. We better see another picture book out of you and sooner rather than later. So sayeth the masses.
Now THAT is how you do an interview, people! Ye gods. Thanks to Morgan Kane and the folks at Macmillan for helping me set this up. MY PARENTS WON’T STOP TALKING is out February 8th in bookstores everywhere. We’ll just have to wait for it until then.
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