We sat down with Evangeline Lilly at San Diego Comic-Con to discuss The Squickerwonkers and her other upcoming projects.
Evangeline Lilly wants to make one thing clear: this is not a celebrity passion project. The dedication in The Squickerwonkers, an illustrated children’s book that is Lilly’s authorial debut, is to Lilly’s mother, who first heard this story 20 years ago. The book is a strange, creepy tale that will be enjoyed children and adults, and is the first in an ambitious 18 book series.
In our interview, Lilly expands on her authorial aspirations, the inclusion of her (non-canon) character Tauriel in The Hobbit films (“It’s kind of tough to watch hairy, short men for all that time”), and those Ant-Man rumours (“I can’t say anything”).
The Squickerwonkers by Evangeline Lilly with illustrations by Johnny Fraser-Allen will be released on November 18, 2014 and is available for pre-order now. An interactive, digital book will also be released. Doctor Who‘s Sylvester McCoy (who also appeared in The Hobbit) will narrate the digital book. Hypable heard a sample of his narration at Lilly’s SDCC panel, and it was dramatic, creepy, and perfect for The Squickerwonkers.
Hypable: In the dedication you said this story was 20 years in the making, can you tell me about the conception of the story and how it has changed over the years?
Evangeline Lilly: I think it is special that I ended up starting with this book because it wasn’t my intention – I was going to come out of the gate, hopefully, as a writer with another children’s story that I wrote called The Galloping Man, and I wrote that one in my 20s, so it was better writing and it was more sophisticated, and more mature. But this one I had written when I was 14, and my mother had bugged me for 20 years – “When are you going to publish The Squickerwonkers, I really love that poem, you really need to publish that one!” And then my illustrator was the guy who said, “I really want to do The Squickerwonkers,” and I went “Oh. Okay.”
What happened was it had to change. The poem I wrote when I was 14 wasn’t really publishing material, although the concept may have been and the plot was there. It needed some cleaning up – a lot of cleaning up. I probably rewrote the story 35 or 40 times in the last two or three years, and I’ve been working with different people who have been helping and influencing me. Probably none so incredible as Laura Price at Titan Books. She and I worked together on the final edit that is actually going to go out to the public, and for the first time since I started tinkering with the poem, I am 100% happy with it. And I am a perfectionist, so I am never 100% happy with anything. I was grateful and astounded to realise how valuable a good editor can be, to really guide you, ask the right questions and challenge the right moments.
Through all of those changes, has the focus stayed the same? Was it always a story about a spoiled little girl who learns her lesson from these strange creatures?
That’s exactly right. It was always about a little girl with a red balloon who runs into a motley crew of outcasts, who pop her balloon and ultimately inherit her intended fortune. That was always the plot, it never changed. What happened was, Johnny came on board. What I didn’t know in the original story was, I didn’t know what they looked like. I knew they were human, but not human. That they were a different breed of human.
I didn’t really know what that was until Johnny came along, and he had this vision for them being marionette puppets, and I just went, “Oh my god. Perfect, that’s it.” They’re human but they’re not human – that’s exactly what it needs to be. But once we decided that and we knew it was all taking place on the stage, there were certain changes and limitations that came with them being puppets, and the story had to accommodate for that. Because Johnny’s illustrations are so incredible, and I believe wholeheartedly that they elevated my story thousandfold, I sacrificed whatever I had to in the writing to make them work. It just ended up being a lot of rewrites.
You met Johnny through his work at Weta?
Can you tell me about your collaboration?
I was working on The Hobbit, and of course that’s how I came to meet Johnny – well really, that’s how I came to meet Richard Taylor at Weta Workshop. I knew I wanted to seek out an illustrator at Weta Workshop because that place is not only inspiring, it hires inspired artists. So I did, I sought out illustrators there through Richard Taylor. Johnny came forward with a portfolio literally the next day, he jumped up with his hand in the air and said, “Me, me, me!” So we started working together, and we started discussing what my visual style is and what I like to see, and what I’m hoping for with the book.
In the portfolio he showed me, there was nothing that really resonated where I went, “This is what I like,” but he was incredibly passionate and he showed a lot of versatility in his art, and Richard Taylor said he really believed in him and knew that Johnny was gifted. We started working together and I was just astounded to watch him create. I would stand over his shoulder when he was sketching an image, and these characters would come to life and these scenes would blossom. I was just green with envy, he is very gifted.
Let’s talk about the writing of the book – it is a children’s book, but it is not really a typical children’s book. Who is your dream reader?
Anybody who loves it! Johnny and I put the story together and the thing we kept telling ourselves was first of all: as children, we liked dark stories, and we like sophisticated stories. As children, Johnny and I hated being pandered to, there was nothing that pissed us off more. We would throw a book across the room if we felt like it was simple, or stupid.
We also knew that as adults, we are both the type of people who still go into the children’s section and look for the best illustrated book and buy it for ourselves. And now, as a mother, I know when you have to read a story 700 times, it better be somewhat entertaining to you also, or you’re going to want to wring your neck.
All of those factors were contributing to how we geared the story, and basically what we decided was the story that appeals to a little four-year-old boy or girl is the same story that appeals to a forty-year-old man or woman, that our tastes don’t change all that much. It’s good literature, it’s fun, it’s spooky, it’s quirky, it’s beautiful to look at, and that’s what we’re all looking for. It doesn’t really change that much.
What are your plans for the rest of the series? How many more ideas do you have for ‘The Squickerwonkers’?
They’re all laid out. It’s two series, the Origins series and the Demise series. They are both about nine books each, so it’s a series of about 18 books – this one being the first and the last. The books will start with the Demise series, and then will go on to the Origins series, because everything is turned on its head. We wind up coming full circle in the series, back to book one. That’s a spoiler right there, I don’t know if I’ve told anyone that before.
And what kind of timeline are you looking at in terms of publishing?
Right now the plan is one book a year. I have only signed with Titan for two books and we want to come out with the second book next year. In my mind, I think if the series picks up and people really love it, I would like to do two books a year and bang through the series because I don’t really necessarily think it makes sense to drag it on for 18 years. That’s a long time! Nine or 10 years, maybe I can handle. It’s like when I started on Lost, I said at the time, “Five or six years I can do – if this goes on any longer than that, I don’t know.”
It must be a different experience this year to come to SDCC primarily as an author rather than an actress.
What’s wonderful about this year is that last year I came with the book, but I didn’t come with a publisher. I came completely on my own, independent, self-published, and without a release date. It was a learning curve. I felt like every single day I was pushing myself to the limit of my ability to learn, and absorb, and keep up. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never published a book before, I had never come to Comic-Con without somebody taking me by the hand all day, every day.
When you’re here as an actor, you have security guards, and publicity, and they just shuttle you around like a ninny and you just smile and wave. So being here as a publisher, I had to set up my booth, and set up payment systems, and set up signings, and arrange to make sure everything was in order and that it wasn’t chaos. It was fun and exciting and exhilarating, and I was on cloud nine – but this year I can relax, I can calm down a little, I have a publisher who is arranging all of the things that we’re doing, and I get to be here as an author now instead of a publisher, which is better.