Friday, July 22, 2011


At 12 feet 6 inches tall, Jonathan Auxier, is literary force of nature. Okay fine, he's not really that tall, but he is talented.  His debut book, PETER NIMBLE & HIS FANTASTIC EYES - available August 1st (Abrams) - is a darkly whimsical and sharply written tale. I highly recommend it to all.

Jonathan and I have had the pleasure of hanging out on a few occasions and it is always entertaining and awesome. He's a great guy, wonderful talent and kindred spirit. I am absolutely honored to be able to have him here at the Asylum to dish on writing and his fantastic new book.

Can you give us a bit of your background and what brought you to writing for children?

Jonathan Auxier - I’ve been working as a professional storyteller for a few years now. By “professional,” I mean I’ve been lucky enough to pay my bills through writing, if just barely. During that time, I’ve written everything from plays to screenplays to commercials to comics. A few years back, I found myself growing frustrated by the “hired gun” aspect of the entertainment industry. Most of the time, you’re working with someone else’s story ideas -- and even if those ideas are brilliant, they aren’t yours. Screenwriter Javier Grillo-Marxauch once described this to me as “marching in someone else’s army,” which I’ve always liked. Some writers really enjoy that collaborative spirit, but I’m not one of them. I think when I know something isn’t 100% mine, I subconsciously hold back.

JA - At some point, I was starting to lose sight of why I even wanted to tell stories in the first place. This desperation led to me unearthing a novel manuscript I had written in graduate school -- Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes. The draft was terrible, but something within the story still sparked my imagination. And so I started squirreling hours away on nights and weekends, revising the manuscript. Over time I realized that there was something about the nature of prose writing that engaged my imagination in a way script writing never had -- it’s a bigger canvas. 

It makes sense that my “passion project” was a children’s book because children’s literature has been the one constant in my life. My love for theatre and film has come and gone, but since a very young age, I have been an avid collector of children’s books. My wife is a Victorian Children’s Literature scholar, and pretty much all we ever do is talk about kid’s books. In fact, I first hit on her because I saw she was carrying the Blackwell Anthology of Children’s Literature!

A lot of writers have talked to me about wanting to write scripts now that they have written books. You and I have both gone from scripts to books. Did you find the transition from script format to manuscript format difficult? If so, what were the challenges you had to overcome when writing?

JA - One of the nice things about screenwriting is that it’s a very lean medium. Virtually every line of a screenplay is either a physical action or a line of dialog -- it’s pure story. That’s not an accident; playwrights and screenwriters are trained to pare everything that isn’t story out of their scripts. They’re supposed to leave those details to the director, actors, and designers. 

Fiction, on the other hand, puts those details back on the writer. A book requires that you spend a lot more energy fleshing out those raw bits of story with description, framing, dialog tags, and the ever-elusive “tone.” Even the most fast-paced novel contains thousands of words that are inessential to the “who-what-where-when” of a story. The end result is a lot more immersive -- but it’s also a lot more work!

Your debut novel sound awesome, can you tell us a bit about it? Also, what is the street date?

JA - Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes is the story of a ten year-old blind orphan who also happens to be the greatest thief who ever lived -- he can smell gold inside a rich man’s pocket; he can hear a guard’s heartbeat around the corner; he can pick any lock; etc. One day he steals this mysterious wooden box that contains three pairs of magical eyes. With the eyes, Peter sets off on this gigantic adventure that takes him across seas, deserts, and finally to a vanished kingdom where he must rescue a people in need.  It’s equal parts Oliver Twist and Gulliver’s Travels … with a little good old-fashioned wordplay thrown in for good measure.

The book hits stores August 1, which is ironic because August has long been my least favorite month of the year -- though now I think I’m warming up to it! 

How long did it take from manuscript to agent to publishing deal?

JA - As I mentioned, the first draft of Peter Nimble actually predates my screenwriting career. When I was studying playwriting in graduate school, I was really struggling -- I was very young and in way over my head. After my first rocky year, I was on the brink of dropping out. One day I sat down to write a letter explaining why I wasn’t coming back to the program … but instead I started writing this story about a blind boy floating in a basket. I wrote a first draft in three weeks (a chapter a day)
and then put it in the bottom of a drawer for two years. 

Jump to a few years later: I had managed to get my foot through the door of the screenwriting world and was already frustrated with the work-for-hire culture. All the stuff I talked about before. That’s the same time I took Peter Nimble out and started revising. And revising. And revising.

I’m a big believer in page-one rewrites. I think there’s a small, but essential refining that happens each time a writer is forced to re-articulate an idea. Over the course of about four years, I re-wrote Peter Nimble twenty times. The shocking thing was that with each pass, the story, characters, themes, and pacing remained almost completely unchanged. But with each version, I was honing in on what about the story felt true. And frankly, I was also learning how prose worked. It’s a completely different medium than dramatic writing, and the learning curve is steep!

Is there any advice you can give to the many of us currently going through all or one of these stages?

JA - Wow, I love few things more than giving advice to strangers! This stuff is specific to my own experience, so caveat scriptor:

Move to New York or Los Angeles because that’s where your competition lives, and your competition will make you better.

Don’t waste time reading “how to” books or drafting query letters until you have finished writing something that is true and wonderful.

Always listen to notes; readers may be wrong about how to fix a problem, but usually they’re right about the fact that a problem exists.

Try and finish something new every six months -- you can double-back for rewrites, but you owe it to yourself to type “the end” at least twice a year.

Yeah, that last one is more wishful thinking for me. But on the whole, I can’t imagine a person doing those four things and not eventually carving out some kind of career.

You've also written for comics. Did you like the process and would you like to do more?

JA - I’m working on a graphic novel now, in fact! The biggest thing I learned from writing comics is that even when the story is straightforward, the form is incredibly hard. Drama is action, and comics are incapable of showing action … instead they show frozen moments that are meant to indicate action. Think about it: Spider-Man never punches a guy. Instead, all we ever see is his fist raised in the air, the word “THWOP!” and some thug hurtling backward. This fact became painfully clear to me one day when I was scripting a comic and wanted to write a double-take. I defy you to write a double-take for a comic book. It can’t be done!

What is a dream comic project for you? (Mine would be Batman - of course!)

JA - I have a deep and abiding love for Windsor McCay. He was a turn-of-the-century cartoonist who basically invented the modern comic strip with his brilliant, beautiful series “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Both “Little Nemo” and his more adult “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend” were major influences on my writing and art when I was growing up. Because McCay was pumping out a new strip every week -- one that had to end with the same silly punch line -- I feel like his narratives could never do justice to the amazing worlds and characters he had created. I think a part of me has always longed to take a crack at fleshing out some of those early stories!

What do you love most about writing? What do you hate?

JA - Like most writers, I hate writing and love having written. The problem is that you can’t enjoy the latter without laboring over the former.  I also enjoy the preamble -- working through a new idea before you sit down to write it. For me that involves a lot of conversation with my (very patient) wife as well as drawing lots of pictures in my journal. Pretty much every story I’ve every written started as a drawing in one of my journals.

Finally, if there was a zombie apocalypse (or I should say when -- ha ha) and you were trapped inside a building with only one book to read, what would it be and why?

JA - In the situation you describe, I suspect that Robinson Crusoe would suddenly take on new dimensions. It’s also a pretty fine book, apocalypse or not!

Well played Mr. Auxier. You might be able to at least hit a few zombies with that book before escaping to the island. Now that you've hung out with us go order, pick up, check out from the library a copy of Peter Nimble! 


  1. Two of my favorite people have found each other! And I say Hooray!


  2. Fantastic interview!! I just met Jonathan via Twitter. *hi, Jonathan* The book sounds wonderful! Just started following here. Looking forward to more.

  3. Thanks again for letting me hang out on your wonderful site, Matt! Any readers who have questions for me should feel free to leave them in the comments her so I can respond!

  4. Excellent questions, informative responses. Thanks to both for taking the time to shed some more light on the writing process.

    I'd so much rather say show my students what you guys do as opposed to telling them what to go do. I appreciate it.

    And, I have to say- These are two of the best designed websites I've come across. You both have jaguar taste.

  5. Thank you!! Sam (wink wink - one of my favorite peeps ever!), Sheri, Nevey, and Mike. So glad you enjoyed the interview.

  6. Fabulous blog you have here, D.M.

    And I cannot wait for this book. I only hears about it a few minutes ago...but I can't stop thinking about it.

    Must go order...


  7. I've been looking forward to Peter Nimble since the moment I came across Jonathan Auxier's website, The Scop. The site is simple, the sketches are fun and that might be the best "about me' section I've ever come across. So to hear Jonathan was publishing his first middle-grade this fall, literally made me giddy.