Friday, May 10, 2013

More with Lincoln Peirce and Big Nate

(all images by Bruce Douglas for Adventure Theatre)
Yesterday, the Washington City Paper ran my interview with Lincoln Peirce about the current adaptation of his Big Nate comic strip to a musical at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo Park. The show runs through June 2, 2013.

Peirce also took questions from the children in the audience after the show.

Q. Are you going to make any new books?

LP: I'm working on it, I'm working on it. There are two kinds of books. There's the chapter books and then there are the compilation books which are collections of the comic strip. The compilation books they just assemble from the strips I work on every day. The chapter books come out once a year. The most recent one came out in February so that means the next one's coming out next February. I wish I could write it as fast as you could read it.

Q: What is your favorite book and why?

LP: I can tell you that my favorite book when I was your age or a little older was a mountain-climbing story called Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman. It's the story of a boy who tries to climb a mountain on which his father was killed. I read it many times. I probably read it twice or three times a year from when I was ten until when I was sixteen or seventeen. That's probably my favorite book ever from when I was a kid. Sometimes kids ask what's my favorite book of the Big Nate books and I always say I like them all for different reasons, but I'm especially fond of the second chapter book, Big Nate Strikes Again. It's got all the Ben Franklin comics in it because I love Ben Franklin. The fourth one is call Big Nate Goes for Broke and it's a winter story. I wanted to write a story about winter because I wanted to be able to draw winter scenes. I'm particularly fond of those two.

Jenny, Gina and Artur
LP: "Why do I make Big Nate hate Artur?" Well, here's the thing. It's a fine distinction. Nate doesn't hate Artur. Nate is jealous of Artur. Nate understands that Artur is a nice guy and that's what bothers Nate. When I brought Artur into the comic strip, I brought him in because I wanted to give Nate sort of a friendly rival. At the time I was writing a lot of comics about chess. Nate's a chess whiz. So I brought in Artur who's the champion of the entire country of Belarus so he can be better than Nate at chess. And then I thought wouldn't it be funny if Artur is just a little bit better than Nate at everything? I personally think we all have an Artur in our lives. We all have somebody that we want for our friends and yet they are always just a little bit out. So Nate does not hate Artur. He hates Gina.

Q: Have you ever written anything else besides Big Nate?

LP: Probably not that you've ever seen. Nothing's that really been published. I tried to write some cartoons for Cartoon Network, but they never quite made it. Down the line, I certainly plan to write some other things after I'm done writing Big Nate, but I can't tell you what those are now.

LP: "How long have I been writing my books?" Not all that long. Most of the kids here hadn't heard about Big Nate until a few years ago because that's when I started writing the chapter books. The first one came out in the spring of 2010 so that's only three years ago. But Big Nate's been around as a comic strip for years and years before that -- it started in 1991. So Big Nate has been around for twenty-two years and he's still eleven years old.

Q: Have you ever thought about making a movie about Big Nate?

LP: Well, I can tell you why there has not yet been a Big Nate movie, and that's because the offers we've received have been to make a live-action movie with real-life performers playing the kids. I've always said Nate's a cartoon character. One of the things that's so great about this show is how much it uses the art from the comic strip and the books. For me, it would be difficult for me to accept seeing a real-life ten or eleven year old wearing a Big Nate wig and trying to act like a cartoon character. If we can find a way to make a Big Nate movie or a tv show that's a cartoon? Then we'll make it happen.

LP: "Why did I come up with the name Nate?" Because that's my brother's nickname. I'll tell you the story. My brother's name is not actually Nate. It's Jonathan. When we were kids, I realized if I took the first two letters off his name, J-O, I was left with Nathan. So I came up to him one day and said, "I'm going to start calling you Nathan." He said, "No, you are not." Then I said, "Well how about I call you Nate?" and he said, "OK." I called him Big Nate because he's my big brother and he's a big person. It's one of those family names that almost nobody calls him except me. It's sort of like a secret name, and I've always loved the name. When I started the comic strip it was a way of me fulfilling a dream of doing a comic strip, but also having the name Nate attached to it is just a reminder for me of my brother and how much I love my brother.

Q: Are you going to ever have Nate grow up?

LP: No, no, he's never going to grow up. There are two kinds of comic strips out there -- there are the ones where people stay the same age all the time and there a few -- For Better or For Worse is one or Gasoline Alley is another -- where the characters age. Here's why I don't want Nate to grow up. I would have to teach myself how to draw him differently each year that passes. I'm too lazy for that. I'm just going to keep him eleven years old.

Enslave the Mollusk
Q: Where did you get the name Enslave the Mollusk?

LP: I'm often asked do you get ideas from real life, and usually the answer is no. It's not that often that I get ideas from real life, but when our son, who is now nineteen years old, was in sixth grade some friends asked him to join a band they called Enslave the Mollusk. Their illustrious career lasted for one rehearsal. Then it was over, and now they're just a legend.

Q: How do you get your ideas for Big Nate?

LP: A lot of times, if you're a writer or cartoonist, you're submitting ideas and your editor will tell you to write about what you know best. So I'm the sort of person -- I don't have a really good memory for recent events, but I remember in vivid detail almost everything that happened to me when I was in sixth grade. I remember the first day of sixth grade better than I remember yesterday. So I thought when I was trying to get this comic strip going, I thought I'd write about a sixth grade boy because that's who I was and what I remember best.

Q: Why does Nate like Jenny?

LP: Nate kind of likes the idea of Jenny more than he likes Jenny. Over the course of time... Jenny's been around in the comic strip since the very beginning, so for all of these twenty-two years, he's liked her. But if any of the other characters asks Nate why he likes her, he never really has a great answer. It's not that they have a lot in common. It's not that she treats him real well. It's just that she's an ideal. She's a dream. That's why I loved it when Jenny came skating out [in the play] with the wings and everything. That's exactly the way he thinks of her. A lot of times, especially when you're a young person, you think you're feeling something really intensely, but what you're feeling is something different. In Nate's case, he doesn't quite know what he's feeling. He thinks it's love.

Q: Would you ever make Jenny dump Artur?

LP: I don't know. You know, Artur has not been in the comic strip since the beginning and before Artur came around, Jenny had a few other boyfriends. So I suppose it's possible that she could still have yet more boyfriends, which would mean that she and Artur could break up. When I do the comic strip.. the comic strip that appeared in the paper today, I actually did about three weeks ago. So I'm right now doing comic strips for July, and into August, so as of August, they're still together.
Mrs. Godfrey, Nate and Gina

Amanda Russell: For the playwright and the writer of the music, how many drafts did you do?

Christopher Youstra & Jason Loewith: We had drafts, but it was more evolutionary. There were probably four or five really big drafts. We had a workshop in December and we spent a week and made a lot of little changes. We made sure the characters were in the voices that were in Lincoln's head and then once we got here, there's was a lot of cut and change. The music changed far less.

Christopher Youstra & Jason Loewith: Lincoln, you've been living with these two-dimensional people here in your head -- which of these actors sounds the most to you like what you've got in your head?

LP: Gina.

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