Comic creator origin stories come in all shapes and sizes. In the case of Katana Collins, we have someone with early interests in prose fiction and stage acting who later established a flourishing career as a romance novelist. But comics were always there, waiting — and now Katana’s steadily growing resume in that medium is about to get even longer.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer
Your home base: Portland, ME
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: For someone like yourself, an author who works mostly in traditional publishing, what attracts you to working in the comics format when you’ve had the chance to do so?
Katana Collins: Well, I think it’s no secret that my husband is Sean Murphy, so comics have been a huge part of most of my adult life since we met at age 18. I’ve grown to understand and know the medium both through reading graphic novels myself and also chatting about craft, both writing and art — even though I can’t draw to save my life—with Sean. When I was 18 and we had just started dating, Sean lent me two graphic novels to read: True Story, Swear to God and Blankets. Those two books are responsible for igniting my love of graphic novels.
KS: Were comics a presence in your life, either via newspaper strips or traditional “floppies,” before you met Sean?
KC: My older brother loved comics, too. So, when I was really young, I think about age eight, he gave me my first ever Calvin and Hobbes: Revenge of the Baby-Sat. From there, every birthday, every holiday, that was always my brother’s gift to me… another Calvin and Hobbes book. That launched me into reading the newspaper strips as well — Blondie, Family Circus, Cathy. I wasn’t always old enough to get the humor, but, man, I loved reading them.
KS: Your bio mentions that you used to read your mom’s Harlequin romance novels when you were younger. Aside from those, what other types of material used to feed your imagination growing up?
KC: I had an odd childhood. I was a professional actress starting from age eight. I mostly did live regional theater, but I also had an agent and did the odd commercial and films here and there as small parts. So, when it comes to what media fed my imagination? Musicals. All. The. Musicals. The other funny thing that happened in childhood for me was that I didn’t have a ton of free time because I was a working actress. I would go to school and then immediately after school at 3 p.m., I did homework or softball practice or ballet class. Then, I’d run home, have a quick dinner, and be out the door again either to rehearsal or to a performance. If it was a rehearsal night, I was usually home by 9 or 10 p.m. If it was a show night? Sometimes not until 11 or midnight. On weekends, I usually had two performances on Saturdays. So, really, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to watch movies and TV! That being said, I read. I read all the time. I always had my books with me and backstage while I wasn’t on, I’d read. In the mornings before school or on the weekends before I had to be at the theater, I loved watching Gummi Bears and Muppet Babies. Those were my go-to! As I got older, it morphed into a love of Saved by the Bell, mostly because my sister loved that show and I worshiped the ground she walked on, and Nick News because I enjoyed it, but also because my parents were strict and didn’t allow a lot of TV time, unless it was educational.
Then, as I got a little older, it shifted again to Gilmore Girls, which my mom and I would watch together. And as I got even older, I realized my love for Friends and Sex and the City— although my parents were really strict about what we were and weren’t allowed to watch. Both of those shows were on the “no go” list for my parents, so it really wasn’t until college that I realized how much I loved them.
KS: Was there one favorite comic story that really stuck out for you among all your reading?
KC: I would say Calvin and Hobbes for sure. Those stories are always with me and I randomly think of them. I was a kid who loved my stuffed animals, so the idea that one was real like that was pure magic on the page. But not only that, sharing those books was something my brother, sister, parents, and I could all share and read and discuss. It will always hold a special place in my heart.
KS: What was the first “serious” piece of writing you recall completing in your younger years? Something that you considered a big deal at the time, whatever age that was.
KC: This is a tough question because I was always writing. It came naturally to me. Every essay, every paper, every short story we had to write in school never felt like homework… it felt like fun. I guess I have two answers. The first being that when I was around five years old, I started a family newspaper where I would “report” weekly on the family news. I called it the Katana Crier. And I charged every member of my family ten cents for a copy. To me, when I was five? That was serious writing. I was a reporter for goodness sakes!
KS: There’s a difference between a writing hobby, such as filling notebooks with stories, or making one’s own newspaper and deciding to pursue it professionally. Can you recall how the idea came to you? Was there an “a-ha” moment of inspiration?
KC: There was a big a-ha moment for me… or rather, I was shoved into my a-ha moment. My senior year of undergrad in the final semester of school, I needed a final elective to graduate. For those who don’t know, I studied at Savannah College of Art and Design where I was getting my BFA in photography. I decided to take a creative writing class, because I always loved writing and I always found myself at ease and at peace when writing, so I figured it would be a no-stress fun elective for my final semester; however, all the creative fiction classes were full. So, instead, I took a class called Creative Nonfiction with the professor Heather Dune McAdam.
I mention Heather a lot. She is the person who within the first few weeks of classes pulled me aside and asked me if I was a creative writing major. I said I wasn’t. And she said, “Well, you should be.” And truly, it had never crossed my mind that creative writing could be a job. My mind was really blown. I was questioning every brick I had laid down in my path thus far in college. Because oh my god, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a writer so freaking badly that my bones were quaking when she gave me permission to dream of what my life might look like as an author someday.
KS: Do you remember the kinds of pieces you were doing in that class that led to her initially asking if you were a writing major?
KC: I honestly don’t remember what our first assignment was. But I recall that her approach was essentially, your nonfiction should be just as fun and creative and visceral as your fiction. Essentially, there was this misconception in younger readers, writers, and students that nonfiction was this dry, informative medium. And I remember her teachings opened my eyes that really well-told non-fiction was so much more than term papers and medical journals and biographies.
KS: Did you have a next step in mind after graduation?
KC: I graduated in May that year and I asked my mom — who was also writing her first book at the time; yes, she, too, is one of the 3% who finished her book— if, as a graduation gift, she and I could go to a writer’s conference I found happening in New Orleans that same month. So, mother and daughter, we went down to New Orleans, went to panels, listened to all the presentations on craft and three-act-structure, and how to pitch an agent. The keynote speaker was Linda Ellerbee from Nick News. Yes, the same Nick News on Nickelodeon that I had watched every week like clockwork.
I bought a copy of Linda’s book and when I met her at the signing, I told her how much she meant to me and that I had just graduated. She asked what my plans were. I gave her some vague answer that I was planning to move to New York City in August, but I didn’t have any job prospects yet. She took the book back from me, opened it up to the first page, and wrote her email address in it. She told me to contact her office, because she had a film production company in New York and that she would hire me.
And she did. It wasn’t just hot air. I worked at Lucky Duck Productions as an associate producer for years working on the very show I grew up on. Literally, none of that would have happened without that one little elective I needed to graduate. Without Heather Dune McAdam nudging me to believe that a hobby could be more than a dream. When I finally finished my first novel, Heather Dune McAdam came to my first-ever book signing.
KS: Tell us about when that first novel came along.
KC: I wasn’t “young” as in college-aged or younger. I was an adult working a full-time job while writing my first book… I think I was about 28 or 29 years old. But up until that point, I’d only ever written short forms of stories, so writing an 80k-word novel where I actually typed “The End” was a massive accomplishment for me. It is for anyone. I once read that out of 1,000 people who begin writing a book, only 30 finish it. That means that 97% of people who start writing a book never finish it. So, seriously, if you are someone who has finished writing a book, take a moment, pat yourself on the back, and pour yourself a glass of bubbly —or something equally delicious that you enjoy— because you deserve to celebrate that win!
KS: There are undoubtedly millions of novels resting in peace in notebooks or on hard drives, so how did you put yourself in a position to make yours a reality?
KC: Ahhhhh. Listen, if you haven’t noticed by now, I’m kind of a scrappy person.
I knew I wanted to write a book. I knew I wanted to write a romance novel. But romance has so many subgenres, that I didn’t know what kind of romance I wanted to write. Cowboy? Vampire? Teen angst? There were so many to choose from. So, I found a publisher that was looking for a paid intern, and I worked there for several months. I read query letters and books that came into the “slush pile.” I sat in on meetings and got to see exactly what books they were buying, why they were buying them, as well as —and maybe more importantly — the books they weren’t buying and why. Then, I went home and based on all that intel I had gathered, I plotted my first book, and started writing it. That book was Soul Stripper. I not only sold that book within a few months of finishing it, but the publisher bought it as a three-book series— so I quickly had to write two more books in the trilogy!
KS: Looking back with some distance now, can you see, or at least speculate, what made it sell so quickly? Those lightning-striking success stories are so rare when one considers how many authors never have that experience.
KC: Hmmm. I think it was a combination of me doing my research of what was selling and also finding something within those findings that I would love to write. Creating that Venn diagram was paramount to success, because just writing to trends, also called writing to market, may not be good enough if you’re begrudgingly writing every chapter. And on the flip side of that coin, writing your passion project, while sometimes is enough to hit it big, may not be “sellable” in some people’s eyes. But I think I found what I wanted to write and I played with the dials until it fit the mold of what editors and publishers wanted to see in that moment. I also wrote a lot. I spent every free moment I had writing and finished that book in less than a year, which back then for me was fast. Now, I write a book in 2-3 months. Trends in publishing move fast, faster than a lot of us can write. And if it’s a comic book? It’s an even slower process because the art can take longer. So, having an idea and finding the time to dedicate to execute it is paramount to success. At the time that I wrote my first book, I had multiple day jobs and I would write in the evenings and on weekends. Sometimes staying up until 3 a.m. writing, then getting up at 6 or 7 a.m. to go to work. Admittedly, I don’t sleep a lot. I never have. So, I don’t recommend this sort of awful insomnia sleep habit, but it was good for my productivity!
KS: Imagine yourself today as a writing teacher, and that Katana from back in 2012 is a student in your class. What kind of advice or guidance would you offer her about her writing?
KC: Plot your damn book, girl. I know we’re all different in how we most successfully craft our stories, but for me personally, I need a roadmap for my books. Otherwise, things go off in crazy tangents.
Learn the GMC chart and use it as your compass for every story. Goal. Motivation. Conflict. Your main characters need them. And every time I get stuck in writer’s block, it’s usually because I’ve strayed from what either the character’s goal, motivation, or conflict is in the story. When I come back to that foundation, the story starts moving again.
Create deadlines for yourself. Again, this is very specific to young Katana, but I write best when I’m under a pressure cooker of deadlines. If there’s no deadline, I get very loosey goosey and drag my heels finishing. Under the wire Katana, however? She gets shit done. She drinks her weight in coffee and stays up until 4:00 in the morning pounding out words on her keyboard.
You can learn a lot from others, but don’t use that as a crutch to not trust your gut.
I’m a student of life. I love learning new things and taking on new challenges. But one of the problems that comes with that is I always assume other people know more and know best. I take all advice like gospel… and you know what? Some advice is great. And some advice is shitty. And some advice is great for some personalities, but not good for my personality. A lesson that I’m still learning and working on is being more discerning about what I take to heart. And knowing that what worked for one author is not a one-size-fits-all.
Take the Clifton Strengths test (i.e., figure out what your strengths are and why). And figure out where your weaknesses lie to better combat them. So, for example, I know that focus is one of my Clifton Strengths. What does this mean? It means when I lock into a task, I can be very focused —hence why a deadline works well for me. Futuristic is also one of my strengths, which means I love planning and thinking about the future. This could mean that I love to have my one, five, and ten-year plans ready… but it also means that I thrive on having a planner for daily and weekly tasks. It helps me know what my immediate future looks like.
These were facts I learned about myself way later in life, and, man, life would have been a lot easier if I’d come to know myself a little better, a little sooner.
KS: What was your first try at writing comics?
KC: Cafe Racer was my first-ever comic I wrote, which I wrote with Sean. It was super low-stakes. A story that was fun and exciting and poignant that we were using as a teaching tool for the apprenticeship we hosted back in 2013.
KS: Which apprenticeship was that?
KC: [It] was a fun experiment Sean and I did 10 years ago, where we invited five artists to come to Maine and work under and be taught by Sean and guest lecturers.
KS: As a novelist, you’re pretty much a “one-woman band” until your manuscript gets into an editor’s hands. What were the mechanics of not only co-writing, but doing so in a new format for you?
KC: Co-writing can be tricky, but also it’s really great and rewarding if you can allow yourself to compromise. I’ve found that for comics especially, I really love it. It takes a lot of the pressure off, too. You have an extra brain to bounce ideas off of, and it’s almost like having multiple editors working on one book. Google Docs also completely streamlined the process, too, because we can all be in the document working at once while on video chat.
KS: Most comics fans will recognize your name from the world of Batman: White Knight. Aside from being fond of the creator of that series, what appeals to you about those characters and that type of story? It’s so different from the types of work non-comics fans know you for.
KC: I’ve been a big fan of Batman: The Animated Series for some time now. When Sean first wrote Harley Quinn having children? I was just hooked into that idea. I had so many thoughts and concepts about what this woman would be like as a mother, how she would change, and the emotional roller coaster she would go through. That alone was enough for me to crave writing a story where the heart of it would be about her struggle in not only finding the new version of herself as a mother, but also a reformed villain making her way in this world. It’s a struggle that I think many parents can relate to! Okay, maybe not the villain part, but you catch my drift.
KS: Does your comics writing process differ from that of plotting a novel? Obviously, you don’t need to describe a lot since it will be illustrated, but as far as crafting story and breaking down plot on your end…
KC: It doesn’t really differ that much honestly. The breakdown of an outline is different but the key elements are all the same. Good storytelling is good storytelling no matter what the medium. The process is still very similar— first creating an overall plot outline for the whole story, including the main milestones, climaxes, etc.
From there, if it’s a comic, I go through and find natural breaks where the issues would be within that plot. Then, I go deeper and break down the scenes within each issue. If it’s a novel, I do this to and map out the major scenes I want to happen within the book, just a few sentences for each scene to jog my memory as I write.
Lastly, I go back through these scenes— issues if it’s a comic — and really amp up the intrigue and find what might be really good cliffhangers and openers. It’s really different shades of the same process!
KS: You mentioned this briefly before when listing the advice items, but in your opinion… Writers’ Block: myth or real monster?
KC: For me, it is very, very, very real; however, I’ve learned the triggers for me. It almost always comes at about the 40% mark of a book. And it’s usually because I lose focus of the story and/or characters. Like, if a book is going a little off the rails and I’ve lost the heart of the goal, motivation, and conflict— hence why that GMC chart I mentioned is so imperative to my success as a storyteller.
KS: Would there have been an acceptable Plan B career if writing never worked out?
KC: Photography! I was a photographer for many years, and I still love shooting portraits. After working with Lucky Duck Productions for several years, I opened and owned my own portrait studio where I specialized in boudoir portraits and newborn baby photos.
KS: What’s a hobby of yours totally unrelated to what you do for a living? Something you study, collect, practice…
KC: As my friends like to say, I’m really a student of life. I have a lot of hobbies, including but not limited to knitting, dancing, reading obviously, but I’d have to say of all my hobbies, theater is the one that I’m most immersed in. I’ve been an actress since I was eight years old and being on the stage is like coming home for me. It’s centering and creative and I find that even though I’m so busy when I’m in a show, it gets my creative juices flowing. So, even though I technically have “less” time, I am far more productive in writing, the busier I am.
KS: Finally, tell readers what they should be on the lookout for in the rest of 2023 and beyond.
KC: My new book, Cherish, with Dynamite is out and almost complete! It has one more issue to go. It’s a really fun sci-fi revenge/vigilante story that is packed with action and mystery. I’m also so excited to finally be able to announce and talk about the next book in the White Knight series, Generation Joker! I’ve been sitting on that one since July! I’m co-writing it with Clay McCormack, and Sean is obviously involved with overall content and story. Mirka Andolfo is our incredible artist, and the wonderful Alejandro Sanchez on colors!
On top of these comics, I have a new romcom book coming out in May called Wingwoman, as well as three more novels slated to hit preorders later in 2023. Needless to say, it’s going to be a busy year!