Interview with Writer Jennie Wood
|Promotional photo of Ms. Wood from her website|
Jennie Wood was born and raised in the town in North Carolina that produced the nonalcoholic beverage Cheerwine, but currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts where she teaches writing. She is also a noted public speaker on literary and LGBT interests. I first became aware of her work at the Geeks Out Panel at C2E2 2015. She was articulate and encouraging, praising works that she enjoyed and encouraging the crowd to write the stories it wants to read. I introduced myself afterwards and picked up the first volume of Flutter. When I finally read it, I was deeply impressed and made it the first thing I covered for this blog after C2E2. I contacted Ms. Wood afterwards and she was kind enough to trade emails about the origins of Flutter, inspirations both classical and contemporary, and what she has in store for her characters.
The musical influences in Flutter are very apparent. The title actually comes from the song “Flutter Girl” by Chris Cornell and the chapter titles reference songs from everyone from The Smiths to Nirvana. “Music is the biggest influence on me, by far,” Ms. Wood wrote, “so it finds a way into everything I write, including all aspects of Flutter. It definitely influences…the whole idea of ‘less is more’ in dialogue. My favorite guitarists get that. For example, in guitar solos, it’s more about the notes that are NOT played. For me, it’s similar with writing. It’s just as much about what’s not on the page, what’s left out.”
This is most apparent in the motif of secrets in Flutter and how much information the characters keep from each other and themselves. It’s the rare comic that has wordless panels in more than just its action sequences, with dialogue scenes weighed down by what’s left unspoken. “[T]he whole idea of leaving the reader or listener wanting more—my all-time favorite CDs have that.” Ms. Wood singled out Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Hole’s Live Through This. “Both of those CDs are under forty minutes.” Likewise, it might not take long to get through Flutter, but there is a lot to unpack.
The ending leaves the reader longing for the second volume, but also demonstrates how the characters have grown over the course of the story. “[E]ach of them begins to explore [her] own voice: Saffron separate from Jesse, Lily separate from Jesse and Saffron, Penelope as a songwriter separate from doing Nirvana and Led Zeppelin covers.” I expressed my belief that Penelope, more than the other main characters, is in a better place at the end of the story, more at peace with herself. “Penelope is the most mature of the three and with that maturity comes a certain level of contentment that Lily and Saffron don’t have. There are things that have happened to Penelope—her mother’s death, for example—that forced her to grow up.” A tender scene between Penelope and Lily in which she describes her own dawning self-realization as it regards her sexuality is one of the best of Volume 1.
I asked if the different paths the characters take at the end could be seen as metatextual commentary on the artistic process or peripherally applicable to the theme of gender fluidity. “I didn’t think about it [that way], but you could. I think especially as we get more and more away from the gender binary and start to define what gender identity means to each of us, individually. And that certainly comes back to me from readers. Flutter resonates with people in different ways, for different reasons.” I was glad that to know others have had that reaction and that I wasn’t merely projecting my own interpretations.
One of the most developed supporting characters is Lily’s mother, Oriana, who invites recollections of both anti-gay authority figures being outed and legislators who came to accept marriage equality because of members of their own families. “Lily’s dad is…progressive so he’s going to support her when she comes out. I wanted someone to represent another point of view, but not in some stock, cliché way. I wanted the character to struggle with it. When I began working on Flutter, I had a very close friend who always voted Republican. She loved me, but she continued to vote Republican even though that meant voting…against my rights. And I was like, ‘Don’t you struggle with this at all?’ I wanted my friend to struggle with it. And I wanted to explore that struggle, so I did it via Oriana.
“What complicates things with Oriana is the fact that everything she does is for her daughter, Lily. She’s running for office to get into a position so she can help Lily. She’s running on an anti-gay marriage stance to get Republican support, but the daughter she’s doing this for is gay. I wanted to explore that tension, that conflict.”
The origins of the story itself were autobiographical in nature. As Ms. Wood has stated elsewhere, she grew up jealous of her male cousins who got to date girls and take them to movies. She longed to do the same, but two girls dating was unheard of in her hometown. I asked if there were any other autobiographical elements to the story. “Lily shapeshifts into Jesse to get Saffron because she doesn’t think she can get her dream girl by just being herself. That’s definitely something I struggled with and it goes beyond gender. I didn’t think I deserved to be loved or happy for a long time because I [thought], ‘Well, if my own parents don’t love me…’ It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t personal. Due to mental illness, my parents weren’t able to love me. That’s not my fault. That’s not their fault. It sucks, but it’s not anyone’s fault. And I finally moved passed that, in part, by writing Flutter.” Fortunately, reading Flutter may also help more than one person cope with similar circumstances.
Because the story was originally conceived as a screenplay, I asked Ms. Wood about what led her to write it as a series of graphic novels. Unsurprisingly, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man was a large part of that. “It wasn’t that I wanted to do Flutter as a graphic novel series after reading Y: The Last Man. It was that I had to do it as a graphic novel series. It was such epic storytelling. It got my imagination firing on all cylinders.” The scope of what could possibly be portrayed was one reason Ms. Wood chose the medium of comics, but the other was the medium itself. “I love collaborating, so the idea of working with an artist was a huge attraction to doing comics. I love it. I get goosebumps anytime an artist sends me pages of a project we’re working on together. For me, it’s the same rush as writing and playing a song with musicians.”
I wondered if she has a process for writing. “I don’t have a set time that I write every day. That works for some people. Different things work for different writers. The key is to find what works for you.” This is in keeping with her exhortations to inspire other writers. “I’m lucky that I have a lot of projects and deadlines that keep me writing constantly. And everyone around me is lucky, too, because if I go too long without writing, I turn into the Hulk. And no one needs to see that. Ever.”
The inspirations for what and who gets her to write are diverse. “I’m incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by some amazingly talented, giving people who work in comics. They inspire me every day. JeffMcComsey, the artist for Flutter is one of them… [H]e does everything with a true indie spirit… [H]e’s published his comic anthology series FUBAR through his own imprint and stayed true to what that series, what indie, [are] all about.
“Boots & Pup creator John Yuskaitis, who I sometimes share a table with at comic conventions, is…always pushing me to work harder, dig deeper, go beyond what I think I can do. That’s what he does. The work ethic and wide-ranging talents of Enrica Jang, writer, editor and founder/Editor-in-Chief of Red Stylo Media, also blow me away. The quality, number, and range of books that she writes, edits, and publishes are amazing.” Ms. Wood elaborated on the idea that talent does not develop in a vacuum. “These are the people who, when it’s late at night and I still have a mountain of stuff to do, their work ethic [which is contagious], talent, and dedication…inspires me, pushes me through. It’s a gift to have them in my life.”
Another pivotal influence for Ms. Wood is from modern literature. “Orlando’s one of those books that has stayed with me. I got obsessed with it in high school and with Vita Sackville-West, the woman who inspired Woolf to write it. Sackville-West would dress as a man so she could take her female lovers away on romantic getaways. She did this while also leading a life as a famous author (at the time her books outsold Woolf’s) and as a diplomat’s wife. The whole thing about leading a double life, having to be a guy to do what she wanted—there are seeds of Flutter in my teenage obsession with Woolf, Sackville-West, and Orlando.”
I had mentioned Virginia Woolf in my original blog post about Flutter because I saw it as a bridge between genre and literary comics. I asked Ms. Wood what she thought of such distinctions. “That’s funny because I think my two favorite genres (if I had to pick two) would be science fiction and coming-of-age. Flutter could definitely be…a mixture of both.” Does this matter how we classify literature in this regard? “I think genre distinctions do matter on some level because it helps us find things that interest us. There’s so much out there in the world—so many creative people producing so much amazing work. It can be overwhelming. And you can miss stuff if there’s not a way to find it, a way to categorize.”
There was one potential criticism of the story on which I wanted to briefly touch. At the panel at C2E2, someone criticized making Mystique bisexual as a way of trying to make her sexuality more palatable to a straight audience because she’s a shapeshifter. I wondered if that had been a concern for Ms. Wood when crafting the story. “No, not at all. I really just wanted to explore what it would be like if a girl could shapeshift into a boy to get the girl of her dreams and the implications of that. I didn’t think about the audience beyond wanting to be a good host for the reader and provide [an] entertaining story. I think if we worry too much about externals, about reactions of audiences and things we can’t control, then we get away from what matters most: the story we need to tell.” Personally, I would tell anyone to read Flutter and let it allay concerns; any criticism of the story is unfounded.
|Preview art for Flutter, Volume 2 from Kickstarter|
What can we expect in Volume 2? “[We] continue…to explore [Oriana’s] struggle.” As for the main characters and the themes: “Even though there’s a shift in the relationships of the main characters, Lily is still forced to take responsibly for her Volume 1 actions in Volume 2. Lily sees the damage her behavior has caused to the people she cares about, to herself, [and] to her relationships. Accountability, every choice and action having a consequence: [these] are major themes in Volume 2.”
Ms. Wood reassured me that Volume 2 would not be the end of the story, either. “I’ve always seen it as three volumes. I do have an arc and an ending in mind…However, I’m aware of how long it can take between volumes, especially since Jeff and I have other ongoing projects, so I wrote Volume 2 with an ending that would be a satisfying place to leave the reader for a while.”
There was a 20-page preview of Flutter, Volume 2 at San Diego Comic Con that I was sad to have missed. According to Ms. Wood, “We plan to have Volume 2 done by August and debut it at Baltimore Comic Con the following month. It will also be available online via my website, Amazon, ComiXology, and 215ink.com.”
While Ms. Wood’s humility led her to praise the work ethics of her fellow creators, she clearly has a lot on her plate. I wrapped up my interview by asking what other projects we could expect from her. “I’m extremely excited about 27, A ComicAnthology, inspired by members of the infamous 27 Club. It’s the latest project of Red Stylo Media and Enrica Jang. I’m so proud to be part of this book. I wrote an original story for it that’s inspired by Amy Winehouse, which was a thrill to do.
“Amy Winehouse is one of my all-time favorite musicians. I got the chance to see her live in 2007 just before she really started to go downhill. Then soon after I got a job writing nonfiction features, one of the first things I had to do was write her obituary in 2011. That was the hardest and saddest thing I’ve ever had to write. So getting to write a story for this comic anthology as a sort of tribute to Ms. Winehouse was a gift. It’s a way for me to come full circle and remember this artist that I love and why. It’s just another reason why I love what Red Stylo Media does with these anthologies. They provide such a great outlet for artists and writers. [I]t builds a community. 27, A Comic Anthology is coming out this fall, but you can support the project and order a copy right now via [its] Kickstarter that’s running until August 4.”
It’s always fascinating to learn about how great works are created and the people who create them. I was honored to get this glimpse into Ms. Wood’s creative process and the network of professionals who help cultivate it. I’m certainly looking forward to more of her work and you can expect a post about Flutter, Volume 2 here as soon as I get my hands on it.