Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the release of your graphic novel, Genius Animals?! For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the graphic novel’s premise?
Vali Chandrasekaran: Genius Animals? is a comedic mystery about a half-Indian girl named Alexandra Lakshmi who thinks her relationship is going well. Then, one day, her significant other disappears and when she tries to figure out what happened, she can’t tell if she's been ghosted or has to save all of humanity.
We were going to release the book through an indie publisher. Then, the pandemic happened. So, partly to distract ourselves from quarantine and partly just to experiment, we put the book online for free at geniusanimals.net.
BD: How would you describe your shared creative process in working with artist Jun-Pierre Shiozawa to bring this story to life, and what (or who) were some of your creative influences in terms of the characters and tone?
VC: When Jun and I started making the book, we had no idea what we were doing. It was thrilling. We discovered how to work together while discovering how to make a comic book and I think it resulted in something more textured and interesting than either of us would have come up with on our own. Furthermore, having spent most of my career as a TV and film comedy writer (My Name Is Early, 30 Rock, Modern Family), I found it creatively invigorating to work in a different medium.
Jun is primarily a painter and teacher, but has spent his whole life studying comics. We eventually settled into a very iterative process, very similar to how a TV writers’ room works, where we continued to revise the book until we were both happy.
Tonally, when writing, I thought about The Crying of Lot 49 and The Big Lebowski a lot. For the art, Jun drew inspiration from the world of fine art and the comics of Fiona Staples.
BD: Given you previous work writing for TV and film, how would you describe your transition to writing for the sequential art medium?
VC: I’ve spent most of my career writing for hyperverbal characters and amazing actors who could get their mouths around any line of dialog. If it was funny, Tina Fey or Julie Bowen could find a way to make the speech feel natural and human.
With comics, however, every reader reads in a different voice. I have no input into their line reading. To account for that, I wrote less dialogue and stayed away from jokes that were “performance based.” I also worked with Jun to find comic timing within the art. Fortunately, Jun came into the project with a lot of great instincts. And with some additional trial and error, often informed by studying our favorite newspaper comics, we landed on something that at the very least made us laugh.
BD: At Fanbase Press this year, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Genius Animals?’ story will connect with and impact readers, and why do you feel that this story was important for you to bring to life?
VC: I wrote Genius Animals? because I was particularly interested in WHY humans create stories. Why do we have an urge to take a set of observations and set them to a narrative? Why do we have to extrapolate beyond what we have seen to create a narrative of what led to a certain moment or what might come after?
One theory is that this ability to not just create stories but also share them amongst a group appears to have given humans an evolutionary advantage; however, it also created “the problem of consciousness,” that constant dialogue in one’s mind, that voice that all those mindfulness apps and books try to help us quiet.
In Genius Animals?, I wanted tell a story that explored this tension between the benefits of storytelling and the maddening noise of our mind constantly churning out stories. I wanted to make Alexandra Lakshmi choose between two unappetizing options: (1) not believing her own mind thus admitting she’s insane or (2) believing her own mind which is feeding her the most insane story imaginable.
BD: Are there any other upcoming projects on which you are working that you are able to share with our readers?
VC: Jun, who is half-Japanese, half-French, is working on a memoir comic that explores his parents’ life stories and the near-impossibility of their meeting. I’m in the middle of some TV and movie work but hope to return to comics soon.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Genius Animals? and your other work?
VC: The whole book is available for free at geniusanimals.net. Jun and I had a lot of fun making the book and we hope you have as much fun reading it.
Also, Jun and I met when I took a terrific landscape watercolor painting class that he taught. I had no prior painting experience and learned a lot and loved it. He’s now doing the classes online during the pandemic and I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially for artists who typically work in another medium, like writers. It was really creatively freeing to make something that my brain wouldn’t immediately start judging. If you’re interested, Jun posts about new classes at his website, junpierre.net.