Interviewed by Aaron Chan
Evan Munday is the author and illustrator of The Dead Kid Detective Agency, a finalist for the Sunburst Award for fantastical young adult literature and the Silver Birch Fiction Award. He sometimes makes comics and worked for eight years as book publicist for indie press Coach House Books. He lives in Toronto.
A few years ago, when I took a Children’s Lit class in college, The Dead Kid Detective Agency was the only book on the reading list written by a Canadian author. As the instructor told the class, “He’s not that much older than you guys, too.” Charmed by the snappy humour as well as the unabashed Canadiana of the novel and the sequel, Dial M for Morna, I had the opportunity to chat with Evan via email about his illustrating background, rejections, and The Postman.
When/how did you know you wanted to pursue writing as a career?
I’m not sure it is my career yet! Really, I don’t do it full-time. But I think I knew something was up by third or fourth grade. At that point, I was already writing and drawing my own X-Men comics. (I was really into the X-Men then; still am.) I really enjoyed it – kept writing and drawing these comics – so I always hoped some kind of storytelling, whether written, drawn, or both, would be in my future.
You studied English at the University of Waterloo. Did you take any courses in or study Creative Writing as well?
I did! I went to Waterloo specifically for their Rhetoric and Professional Writing Program. Like most other English programs, it included its fair share of Literature courses. But it also included mandatory courses in things like speech writing and technical writing and, yes, creative writing, as well. One of my more memorable projects involved writing a musical in the style of Oklahoma! about Oedipus Rex.
How did you plan on getting published and making a career as a writer? Did you have a plan?
After university, I decided I was going to enter the world of book publishing. At the time, my grand (but extremely vague) plan was to work in book publishing by day, and write comics by night. I assumed (or maybe just hoped) that eventually I’d become so successful as a cartoonist that I’d be forced to leave my publishing job. And while I eventually started publishing kids’ books, I never really reached that point. (That said, I am leaving my full-time publishing job to focus more on writing and illustration … but I’ll still need to have a non-writing or -illustration job to sustain myself.)
How did you get into illustrating, and when/how did you decide to pair it with writing? Since you started off as an illustrator before delving into writing (right?), was it difficult to get people to take your writing seriously when you were better known as an illustrator?
The writing and illustration came simultaneously. My obsession with comic books struck early, and soon after I started rabidly reading comics, I started making my own. As a kid, I was always doing both: sometimes writing stories, sometimes drawing, sometimes combining the two via comic books. As an adult, though, I illustrated books before I ever wrote them because – true or not – people believe drawing is a special, acquired skill. Nearly everyone believes they can write; not many people believe they can illustrate. I found it way easier to find paid work doing illustration than writing.
Despite my cartooning background, I never experienced a great deal of trouble having people take my writing seriously. The biggest obstacles were my own hang-ups. I’d been known as an illustrator (and book publicist) for so long, I really doubted my skills as a writer. Still do, but I think that’s a common issue among writers.
Your first book, The Dead Kid Detective Agency, features kids who have died in various eras of Canadian history, which, in this age of everything either Americanized or unspecified, I found to be very refreshing and just plain awesome. Why did you choose to incorporate Canadian history in your novels?
It’s strange to say so, but I think it’s due to my American background (I’m a dual citizen now) that I focused the books on Canadian history. Growing up in New Jersey, I witnessed first-hand how good Americans are mythologizing their history. American history was one of my favourite classes because the teachers told such amazing stories of the country’s past, many of which had been fictionalized and embellished over the years. When I moved to Canada, I noticed how deadly boring Canadians – almost universally – found their own history. But there’s nothing boring about it! It just needs some better PR. Those Heritage Minutes were a good start. (No joke!) But I really wanted, with my books, to impart some Canadian history in a fairly entertaining way.
The protagonist of The Dead Kid Detective Agency is a teenage Goth girl with ghosts as friends. Based on the darker content, how difficult was it to get it accepted by a publisher, especially since the series is targeted to children? What challenges did you face in getting your manuscript published?
The fact that five of the characters are, in essence, murdered children, has never been an issue. Oddly. I think children’s books often trade in fairly dark subject matter, especially those that take the form of mystery. And they have for some time. So the morbid title of the book has never led to many conflicts with schools or parents or publishers. (Though it has led to some really depressing Google Alert results.)
More of a challenge to getting the manuscript published were the CanCon, the language, and the constant references to popular culture. I was surprised at how many Canadian publishers weren’t keen on the Canadian history angle of the book, probably because so much of the children’s publishing business is foreign rights sales, and the Canadian content would limit how far it could travel. The language I use is also fairly complex for the 9 to 12 set, and editors were worried my references to older popular culture would alienate or confuse younger readers. But ECW and I solved that issue with a handy glossary in the back that helps readers learn who Robert Smith and what The Craft is.
What’s your writing process like? How many drafts did you go through for The Dead Kid Detective Agency before it was published? How many rejections did you get? (if you don’t mind disclosing)
It starts with a lot of walking. Then a lot of research of whatever time period I’m focused on. For instance, Dial M for Morna involved a lot of research into Canada around 1914. Then filling Hilroy notebooks with notes. At that point, I need to give these thoughts some structure, so I fill several pages with all the ‘events’ I envision happening in the book, then connect all the incidents with a long, snaking line that forms the chronology of the book. Afterward, I break that chronology down, chapter by chapter. The final step prior to actually writing the book is then taking all this information (the event, the chapter, the date in the timeline of the book) and entering it into a very boring colour-coded spreadsheet.
Once all that serious outlining has been completed, I start writing. I’m very old-fashioned in that I have to write my first draft by hand in a series of notebooks. I have a difficult time with an empty Word document. All subsequent drafts, however, are done on my desktop computer – the first, minor edit happens as I transcribe the notebook scribblings. The Dead Kid Detective Agency must have gone through about fourteen or fifteen drafts, and was rejected by at least a dozen publishers before ECW asked to see it.
You work at Coach House Press as a publicist. Why work at a publishing house? Was it a way to make it easier to get The Dead Kid Detective Agency published?
I really do like the work of publishing. It may seem like I was trying to use book publishing as a means to having my own work published, but I’ve always loved supporting and pushing other authors’ books. I’m an enthusiast. And at Coach House, I was lucky enough to publicize some of the best independent literary publishing in Canada.
Did being the publicist at Coach House Books help get my books published? Yes and no. It certainly got me a foot in the door at some children’s publishers. The fact that I was in that world certainly helped get the manuscript read by people. But that only took it so far. Working as a publicist at a small press can be a bit of an all-encompassing job, so the drawback of working in publishing is that it leaves little time for the actual writing of books. There’s also the difficulty of supporting your own books when your priority is publicizing Coach House Books and authors to the very best of your abilities. Still, I can’t underestimate the value of knowing people at various publishers by name and face. That was a huge help.
There are little illustrations throughout The Dead Kid Detective Agency and the sequel, Dial M for Morna. Do you think also being an illustrator helped in getting published? Do you think it also helps to be an illustrator in terms of making a career and earning income as a creative artist? (ie. illustrating + writing = enough money to not work at Starbucks?)
Being an illustrator didn’t really help to get The Dead Kid Detective Agency published, but I think ECW viewed it as a nice bonus! (I’m a two-for-one deal!) That said, I had done some work for ECW as an illustrator prior to The Dead Kid Detective Agency, which made editors Michael Holmes and Erin Creasey ask to see the manuscript in the first place. They asked to see it when I’d largely given up on having the book published. I’d exhausted almost all the children’s book publishers in Canada through my submission process and wasn’t aware ECW was hoping to start up a young readers’ line. The illustration work also helps in freelancing. Librarians and schools are often looking for illustrators who can lead workshops in making comics, so knowing a few things about visual storytelling is very beneficial.
How confident did you feel about a career in writing when you first started writing? Has that changed with the success of The Dead Kid Detective Agency series?
Not confident at all! I don’t think I’m a very strong writer, and I’ve always felt my books are conceptually much more interesting than the writing itself. I really don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m surprised when people tell me they’ve enjoyed my writing. But the success of The Dead Kid Detective Agency series has certainly given me a bit more confidence, especially the nominations for the Sunburst Award and the Silver Birch. It’s terrible to say, but being shortlisted for awards and honours like those really go a long way in boosting one’s self-assessment as a writer. Not that I’d ever stop writing. I’d probably keep at it, even if I thought I were terrible. (I sort of do, after all.) Writing can be a bit of an obsession.
Now that you’re leaving Coach House, are you going to be writing/illustrating full-time?
Not quite. I’ll certainly be taking some time to concentrate on writing more Dead Kid Detective Agency books, in addition to working on some other personal projects I’ve been meaning to pursue (comic books, some T-shirt design, maybe even a screenplay?). But I’ll need to find some sort of steady work within a month or so in order to pay for groceries and DVD rentals. So, I’ll be writing and illustrating more … but that won’t be all I’m doing. (There’s no way I’ll ever be that successful.)
How do you stay inspired (and motivated) to write?
Everything I read (and to a lesser extent, everything I watch) inspires me. Any time I read a really excellent book or watch a really excellent movie, I’m inspired to just make something. In fact, it’s often the not-as-good books and movies that inspire me most. I distinctly remember watching the Kevin Costner movie The Postman in the theatre (full disclosure: I loved it) and being compelled to make some comics immediately afterward. I know that The Postman will never be recognized as a great film, but I was just so pumped after watching it. (Full disclosure, part II: I watched it three times in the theatre.) It inspired some really good teenaged comic books.
And finally, what is one thing emerging writers should do, and one thing they shouldn’t?
Mainly, keep writing. There are so many things that can discourage a person from writing their book – self-doubt, the many obstacles to publication, the sheer volume of books in print – but you can’t worry about that when working on the actual manuscript. Just hammer your way through that first draft and fix it afterward. I think it’s also important to ingratiate yourself (in a non-annoying way) into your local literary scene. Learn about your local writing community and get involved. That can really help out once your amazing book is published and out there in the world.
As for one thing emerging writers shouldn’t do? Submit their manuscript to publishers who don’t publish their genre. It takes so little research to figure out what presses publish, say, science fiction. Target your manuscript to them. It doesn’t matter how amazing your book is; a publisher that handles coffee table photography books isn’t going to be interested. Doing a little research when you’re shopping your book around can go a long way.
From Vancouver, BC, Aaron Chan’s writing has appeared in two anthologies (Best Gay Romance 2012 and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times for Teens) as well as in Wilde, Ricepaper, and Existere. His memoir piece, A Case of Jeff, won subTerrain magazine’s Lush Triumphant Literary Award in 2013. He likes cats and cheesecake.