Toronto author/illustrator Tory Woollcott is the author of Science Comics The Brains The Ultimate Thinking Machine ($16.99, Raincoast Books, First Second). The Brains is one in a series of 10 books, which also includes bats and flying machines, with more coming out soon.
We learn about the brain – from what our ancestors thought about it in the past and what we know about it now – through Fahama, “who has been kidnapped by a mad scientist (a brain) and his zombie assistant” who are “intent on stealing her brain. She’ll need to learn about the brain as fast as possible in order to plan her escape.”
I interview Woollcott about brains, including her own, writing and working with illustrator Alex Graudins.
Q. How did you get involved in this series? When? How did you get involved in the book about brains?
A. I was asked if I would be interested in writing a comic about brains by my editor about two years ago. I researched and wrote it over the course of a summer, and then my artist drew the thing.
Q. What is it about the topic of brains that interested you?
A. I’ve always loved brains – throughout history, they’ve been largely unappreciated. I think there’s something so amazing that a person can live in a skull!
Q. Do we learn about each of these topics through the main character Fahama or are each of the stories told in a different way?
Each of the stories is told in a different way – that’s what makes the Science Comics series so exciting! Another thing I love about the series is how much love is put into each book to make sure that they’re both accurate and entertaining in their own unique way!
Q. When you signed on to do this book, were you told by First Second what to do or were you able to take the story and run with it?
A. First Second approached me to write a non-fiction book about the human brain and neuroscience, but they gave me a lot of leeway with how to present the information, so I created the framing story about Fahama and Dr. Cerebrum to guide the readers through all that scientific information, and to make the learning as fun as possible!
Q. What was the goal of this book?
A. The goal is to make young readers feel more comfortable and confident with the material, so if they’re more interested, they can go forward and learn more about neuroscience. I want to make more brain surgeons and neuroscientists!
Q. Why did you choose these characters?
A. I really just wanted to see more kids who I would get to work with in schools and libraries, and I always wanted a little sister, and Nour is the kind of sister I would love to have!
Q. Did you know a lot about the brain before you started writing? How did you research? How was your information fact checked?
A. I thought I knew a lot about the brain, but as I did research for the book, it turned I didn’t know anything at all! I did most of my research by spending a lot of time in the library, reading a lot of books, and watching a lot of talks and documentaries. The information was fact checked multiple times by both a traditional fact checker and a neuroscientist. It was a lot of fun to get to work with such fun, smart people!
Q. You learn differently and were diagnosed with dyslexia when you were in Grade 3. (Your memoir of growing up in the ’90s with dyslexia is detailed in your graphic novel, Mirror Mind).
Can you please tell me how dyslexia effects the way you read and write and how you learn? How did that help in writing this book? Did you have any difficulties that other people wouldn’t have because of your dyslexia?
A. Dyslexia is often used as an umbrella term for any issue that can impact a student’s ability to read, but it does refer to a specific learning difference.
Dyslexia impacts a person’s ability to tie images to phonemes, and this makes the transition from sounding a word out to fluid reading difficult. It also impacts a person’s ability to spell for the same reason. This is obviously a very simplified explanation for how it works.
The way dyslexia impacts me when I’m trying to write is complicated, because I’ve always had dyslexia, I don’t know what it would be like to write without it. Right now, at this moment, my husband is helping me write out these answers, but often I use speech-to-text software and predictive typing software to help me write.
The positive impact of dyslexia is more felt in problem solving and, in the case of writing, outlining stories. Because my brain is wired differently than most people’s, I often look at problems and can see solutions in different ways.
Q. What did you like most about writing this book? Least?
A. I love doing research, I love brains and I love comics! So it was really a perfect project for me, as I loved doing everything! The thing that was most difficult was definitely the editing process, because I wanted to add more and more, and instead, we had to keep cutting stuff out to make everything fit!
If I had my way, it would’ve been a 600-page book!
Q. Is the writing process for a graphic novel different than a book? Can you tell me the process of writing as well as how editing works in a graphic novel form?
A. Writing a graphic novel is more like writing a script for a movie. I’ll sit down and write an outline, and then write it into a script format for my artist, detailing what’s happening in each panel, and any dialogue that might be spoken or written in each panel.
My editor will make any major suggestions or changes at the script stage, and then there’s another round of more minor changes that might happen usually during or after the artist finish with her work!
Q. You are also an illustrator. You penned and drew the book Toronto to Tuscany, among others. What do you like better, writing or drawing? Pros and cons of each?
A. I love writing and drawing! Writing is much faster to do, but for me, it’s difficult because it requires so much editing and extra help. Drawing is a lot of fun, but can be really time consuming. It’s hard to say which one I like best, because in comics they can be so interwoven together. Sometimes you just want to draw a picture, or you want to write a story, but often I want to do both.
Q. Why didn’t you draw this book?
A. For this book, it was really exciting to play to my strengths. Though I love drawing, I think I’m a much stronger writer, and it was really fun to get to work with an artist like Alex.
Q. You give a shout-out to this book’s illustrator Alex Graudins on your website. How much interaction did you have with Alex while creating this book? Did you get to choose the illustrator you wanted to work with? How much collaboration was there between yourself and Alex?
A. Alex Graudins is a genius! My editor teamed us together, and I hadn’t seen her work before, but we got along great, and worked very closely together, bouncing ideas off of each other. She also did so much additional research to make sure everything was accurate. She was an absolute pleasure to work with, and it really made me appreciate the collaborative nature of comics!
Q. What else are you working on? When not writing or illustrating books, what else do you do?
A. I am a designer, and I design enamel jewelry! In fact, I just launched a new website for my designs, and you can find them at http://www.tesseraoracle.com/
Q. Where do you get your inspiration/ideas from?
A. I get my inspiration from my life, fairy tales, and everybody I get to spend time with!
Q. What advice do you give to people wanting to be a writer or illustrator?
A. My advice is to just write and draw. The more you write or draw, the better you’ll get at it. If you set aside some time every day to write or draw, you’ll become an expert faster than you know.
Q. Anything else you would like to say?
A. It can be really easy to be scared of things like writing and drawing. They seem like things that require magic powers or secret talents that only a select few people have. If there’s one thing I could tell everybody in the world, it would be this:
You can be a writer or an illustrator, you can be anything you want,
you just have to do it.