Bookseller-turned-author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (@emteehall), who has already written a widely acclaimed picture book (Also an Octopus) and a Young Adult novel (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea), is about to enter the graphic novel arena with her buzzed-about new work, Squad, from Greenwillow Books. In the following interview, Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp talks with Tokuda-Hall about the story’s origins, writing for different audiences, and her first foray into a new format.
Kevin Sharp, Fanbase Press Contributor: While publishers provide the official synopsis for a project, I always enjoy hearing the author’s version. Please tell us what Squad is in your own words.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall: Squad is the story of Becca, a new kid at an insular and privileged high school in Piedmont, California. She’s never fit in before, and so she’s delighted when she’s immediately invited in by the most popular girls in school. And when it turns out that they’re werewolves who eat terrible boys at parties? She hardly takes any coaxing to join in. To me, it’s the lovechild of Jennifer’s Body and Dexter on the set of Teen Wolf.
KS: As someone who’s written prose fiction and picture books previously, why a graphic novel? Did the idea for working in this format come first and then you crafted a story to fit that, or vice versa?
MTH: For every story I write, the story comes first and the format comes second. In the case of Squad, I’d been trying to write some version of this story — of what it was like to be a girl at Piedmont High [in Piedmont, CA] — for years. Practically since I’d graduated high school. But I could never quite pull it together. And when I decided that werewolves were the campy way to get in on that story, it was a natural progression to the [graphic novel] format, since what’s more visual than werewolves?
KS: Were comics a regular part of your reading diet growing up?
MTH: I wasn’t a great prose reader as a kid, unless it was RL Stine. Comics and graphic novels have always been a huge part of my literary education, which is why it was sorta funny that I was so intimidated by the form. My BA is in Studio Art, and my thesis project was about the interplay between text and image. I’ve written picture books, which in discipline is a very similar process to GNs. I read comics all the time. But I was really intimidated because I assumed there were a bunch of rules I just didn’t know and that formally it’d be too much to learn. Then, I found out if you’re not writing for Marvel or DC, there’s kinda no official format, and so — as long as you’re consistent — you can make up your own, which is exactly what I did.
KS: I won’t ask where you got the idea for Squad, but rather what the starting point was that you grew the piece out from. The overall premise? A specific character? A particular scene?
MTH: Squad is set at Piedmont High, which is a real place I graduated from in 2003. I left PHS really angry. I knew that things I had experienced and seen were wrong, but I didn’t have the language to express it yet. It was rape culture, but that wasn’t a term I learned until much later. I won’t catalogue the many experiences I’ve had with sexual assault and coercion and general creepiness; they’re boring and common compared to the story with werewolves. And while none of the characters are a 1:1 of anyone I know in real life, the types of people in the book are very real. The anger is real. And the desire for revenge in a world where justice never seems to come for a certain kind of criminal is real, too.
And there was no one scene that I started with, but the line that I wrote and felt like I’d stumbled onto the exact tone I wanted was:
“You don’t have to watch.”
“But it’s more fun if you do.”
KS: Once you had the idea set, was there any homework before jumping into a new format? Did you study other graphic novels or seek out advice from anyone?
MTH: I sat down with Jon Adams who is a San Francisco guy and super talented cartoonist. He was the one who told me I could kinda just… do whatever I wanted. So, that’s what I did! I’m very grateful for his guidance. He was the one who let me loose. I also read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but by the time I picked that up, I was already mostly done with the first draft of Squad.
KS: How did you get paired up with Lisa Sterle as your artist?
MTH: I am so, so lucky to work with Lisa. We were paired up by our editor, Martha Mihalick, at Greenwillow. She was the first artist Martha suggested, and I assumed Lisa would be too busy and famous to possibly work with me, so you can imagine my complete glee when she agreed to take the project on. And when she drew samples of the characters, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like these girls I’d made up were living, breathing people. She’s a huge talent, and her Modern Witch Tarot deck is exquisite, and it’s clear to me that she just keeps getting better and better. I think it’s only a matter of time until she’s hugely famous and too important to reply to my DMs.
KS: The writing process is obviously different in partnership with an artist vs. when you’re a “one-woman band” on a novel.
MTH: Yes, working with an illustrator is 1,000,000x better. Writing a novel is just being trapped in a room with yourself, and maybe you are good company, but I can speak from experience when I say that I’m not.
KS: How does the intended audience influence your creative choices on each project? There are authors who tell the story they want to tell and then let an agent/publisher/marketing department figure out the audience. Then, there are authors who stay aware of whom they’re writing for (e.g., little kids, teens, etc.) and factor that in as they create. Where do you fall between those two poles?
MTH: I was a children’s bookseller for nearly a decade, and so I always have my audience in mind. I think conversations we have at different ages are really interesting, and those categories are something I’ve had to learn, intimately, over the course of my career. To me, picture books evoke wonder at moments big and small; middle grade is about starting to understand the complexity of the world (often through the lens of family); and YA is about finding your place within that complexity. So, when I wanted to tell a story about rape culture, YA was the obvious category to me. When I wanted to write a story about telling stories, picture books fit. When I’m still feeling out a question I’m interested in, I’ll go back and forth between categories, but once I settle, the category usually reveals itself.
KS: Do you have a set writing routine when you’re working on a new book?
MTH: Lol, a routine. That seems nice. I have zero discipline. It’s a shock that I get anything done, ever. I tend to get a hot idea and run with it, and then I can’t stop writing. The rest of the time I’m pretty inert.
KS: Then, how about a favorite way to procrastinate?
MTH: Binge-watching Great British Bake Off, Top Chef, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Inkmaster, or any other talent-based competition reality show. Reading other people’s books. There’s this horrible game called Two Dots that I should really delete from my phone.
KS: To spread some love at the end, please recommend a graphic novel that you love and tell us why it works for you.
MTH: Ok, there are a lot.
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh is a perfect upper Middle Grade/Young Adult graphic novel about a little girl who makes friends with the neighborhood taxidermist/witch. It’s got generational drama, casual queerness, a mentee/mentor relationship, and the timeless story of becoming yourself. The illustrations are perfect for the age range and the story. It’s wholesome and kind, and I want to hand it to every kid who’s felt like they don’t quite fit, ever.
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden is extraordinary. It’s a YA graphic novel set in space, in a world completely inhabited by women and nonbinary folks, and these circumstances are never explained. Walden trusts her readers to follow the most essential aspects of the story, in a bewildering world, while also providing a cast of incredible, imperfect characters. There’s not an image or a word wasted, and I would have loved for it to last another 3,000 pages.
Honorable mentions include: Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon; Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa; The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag; Laura Dean Keeps Breaking up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell; Superman Red Son by Mark Millar; Sailor Twain by Mark Siegal. A lot of First Second books.
KS: Finally, news broke recently about Lionsgate winning a bidding war for the rights to option Squad as a TV adaptation. How does an author hear about their not-yet-published book being the object of multiple studios’ interest?
MTH: I got a heads up from my Film/TV agent when she went out with the manuscript for Squad, and then subsequent followups as interest and offers started coming in. It was a very exciting time.
Squad arrives in the world on October 5, 2021. Visit Maggie’s website to order the book or find out about all her other works.