Paul Gilligan is a freelance illustrator, comic creator and now author. His middle grade book King of the People ($18.99, Raincoast Books, Macmillan) came out Aug. 27. Book Time asked some questions and got some answers.

King of the Mole People
Toronto author/illustrator Paul Gilligan wrote and illustrated middle grade novel King of the Mole People.

Q. Congratulations on your book King of the Mole People, which came out Aug. 27. What has the response been so far?
A. I’ve been deeply flattered by the positive reviews from actual readers and not just those close to me who have to tell me nice things no matter what they think.

Q. This is your first novel. What made you decide you want to write a book rather than illustrating or creating comics?
A. I’ve been illustrating all my life, so I’ve been flexing that muscle for some time. Writing is a totally different brain muscle, and I’ve been enjoying flexing that one more and more as time’s gone by. But I love graphic novels, too, and I have some ideas percolating, if I’m not all flexed out by the time I get to it.

Q. What was the inspiration for this book? For Doug?
A. When I was young, I remember riding in the backseat of my parents’ car, and a resonant voice came on the radio and declared that there was a place only five miles from where I was right now that no one had ever been. How could that be? I thought. How did they even know where I currently was? And then the voice announced that the place was FIVE MILES DOWN. That idea always stuck with me.

As for Doug, I’ve always loved the reluctant hero more than the super competent one. I’d rather watch Jughead try to get out of a jam than G.I. Joe.

Q. Was it always going to be a novel (rather than a graphic novel or comic book)?
A. It was always going to be a novel. It might have ended up being a little too dark for a graphic novel with so many scenes underground.

Q. How long did it take to write King of the Mole People? Can you tell me about your  journey?
A. I pitched three fleshed out ideas to my now-editor Christy Ottaviano at Macmillan Publishing. And while I was waiting for her to respond to those, I came up with the Mole People idea, which was just one paragraph. When she saw it, she shoved the other ideas unceremoniously aside and said this was the one she wanted to pursue. So I wrote the first few chapters and an outline and Christy loved it and offered me a two-book deal. I’d say it was about two years from that point to publication.

Q. This book was written for eight to 12 year olds. What do you think they will like about this book?
A. I don’t know if any author wouldn’t answer that by saying “they’re gonna love it!” But the reason I want to say that about my book is because this is the book I would have wanted to find when I was that age. It takes a world we’re familiar with and turns it on its head. And I’ve tried to make sure the humor never reaches down. I believe kids can handle “grown up” humor as long as the subject matter appeals to them.

Q. Why did you write a book for this group?
A. It’s way more fun. Humor for adults can often be too smug or cynical, and the stories often too bogged down. Writing for the group is more like the writing of a movie script. The story has to swing along and be sharp all the way through. I’ll have to leave it up to readers to see if I pulled it off.

Q. Do you hope to write more about Doug and his friends?
A. Definitely more Doug on the way. I’m currently writing Book 2 of the series, which is called “Rise of the Slugs”. We meet more underground dwellers, and Doug and Magda continue to grow, and learn things like how to get slime out of clothing and what flavour of breath spray is most favoured by baby slugs. Every time Doug thinks he’s out, they drag him back in!

Q. You have had a varied career. You were the on-staff illustrator for The Ottawa Citizen newspaper, winning awards in illustration and design, and a freelance illustrator, creating work for Time, Entertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, Disney, and Wired, and had a comic in Mad magazine, which you grew up reading. What do you love about freelance work?
A. That I get to wear pajamas all day. Also that my days have no structure. I can eat lunch whenever I like. And I can work on whatever project feels right for me that day. Unless the book deadline is looming. Then I have to put on pants and work on that.

Q. How do you do your design work? (programs, pen and paper, both?)
A. I was on a path to being the last cartoonist still using paper. I’d tried the Cintiq, but found it hard to adjust to. I was told you needed a month to get used to it, so I was like, “who’s got a month?” But then I tried the iPad Pro and found it much more to my liking (and more portable to boot). Now my only regret is how much my leg hurts from trying to kick myself for not going digital sooner.

Q. You are also the author/illustrator of Pooch Cafe. Do you still create this comic strip? Where can people see it other than in book form?
A. Oh yes, I still put out a comic every day for Pooch Café. It can be found on the GoComics website, and in about 200 papers around the world.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. The second King of the Mole People book. And a proposal for a younger, more illustrated children’s book. Also some animated TV shows, but those are still in early development stages.

Q. What is your dream project?
A. Honestly, this book series is a dream come true, and it’s so fresh that I don’t have the gall to dream another dream project just yet. So I’ll just dream about these really amazing buttertarts from this bakery I know about.

Q. You are married and have kids and live in Toronto. When do you do most of your creating? Where do you get your inspiration for your work?
A. Yes indeed. One wife, one boy (5) and one girl (3). I do my creating in the gaps between these immense and inspirational forces of nature. My wife is a huge help in making sure the gaps are wide enough for me to get work done.

Q. Anything else you would like to say?
A. Doug’s journey to become normal is really about his journey to accept that abnormal is OK. Maybe even better!

Who doesn’t want to be friends with Mole People? Well, Doug doesn’t. But he just needs some time to get to know them better. And to accept that smelling like mushrooms all the time isn’t really so bad. I hope everyone decides to join Doug and Magda and Moles on their journey! I promise a fun, muddy ride!

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