Interview with Alex Award winner Ryan North

I didn’t read too many Young Adult books as a teenager because I was a fool and thought I was better than them. Obviously, the joke is on me because YA books are incredible and that’s basically all I read these days. But this is one of the reasons why I love the Alex Awards. Sometimes teens just fit better with adult books and I love that YALSA supports those teens. Maybe they’ll even come to revisit young adult books in their adulthood just like me. So when we Hub writers were offered the chance to interview Alex Award winners, I jumped at the chance. When I heard Ryan North was one of the interviewees, I LEAPT at the chance.

Image via Goodreads

If you don’t know Ryan North’s work you should get on that yesterday. North is the writer of the hilarious Dinosaur Comics as well as the Harvey and Eisner award winning writer of the Adventure Time comics. North is no stranger to the Youth Media Awards as his Adventure Time comics as well as his Unbeatable Squirrel Girl comics have won entry to the Great Graphic Novels for teens lists in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Most recently his “chooseable path adventure” Romeo and/or Juliet won an Alex Award in 2017. I was able to chat with Ryan via email. Check it out!

Anna Tschetter: You’ve done “chooseable path adventure books” with To Be or Not to Be and now Romeo and/or Juliet and even your Adventure Time comic. Did you read a lot of the classic “Choose your Own Adventure” books as a kid (or a grownup in preparation to write your versions?)

Ryan North: I did! I loved them as a kid and could not understand why adults weren’t reading them. They’re books where YOU get to decide what happens next: what is not to like?  When 30 years later I realized that if I wanted to see these books I guess I should write them myself, I had two advantage, I think: there’s not a lot of books written in the CYOA style for adults, and I could write my book on a computer.  Earlier non-linear narratives tended to be of the “put pieces of paper on a pinboard and connect strings between them for choices”, which obviously limits the scale of stories you can tell, but I could use software to keep track of all the different paths and how they interact with each other – and that really freed me up to try all sorts of new things.

Just as an example: there’s a page early on in the book where you choose your character: Romeo or Juliet.  But then if you play through the book as either of these characters and follow a certain path to its conclusion, you unlock a third playable character: Rosaline!  We figured out how to have unlockable characters in books.  Normally that’s tricky, since you can’t change the state of the book, but what I realized was that you can always change the state of the reader.  So the book tells you a secret for how to unlock Rosaline, and then on your next playthough, when you get to the character select page – which hasn’t changed, obviously – you can now see a way to play as Rosaline.  It’s a neat trick, and I was really happy that we were able to get it to work so well!

AT: Do you think Shakespeare would have been a fan of Romeo and/or Juliet, if we could magically transport him to our age?

RN: I think so!  Shakespeare lived in an era before copyright, so lots of his stories were based on stories he’d read elsewhere.  Romeo and Juliet is of course based on a book he read (“The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet”, Shakespeare definitely improved the title) and the whole “star-crossed lovers” story shows up again in as “Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – characters which are themselves taken from earlier sources.  We think of Shakespeare as being this towering singular genius who invented his stories full cloth, but that wasn’t the case.  I think there’s also room to look at Shakespeare as the world’s greatest remixer, and the world’s greatest fanfic writer.  He took characters and stories he liked and he told them in his own way.  So given all that, I think he’d be into my Romeo and/or Juliet.  I think he’d be into all the Shakespeare stuff that’s around us, actually.

AT: I have to know, any particular thread or ending that is your favorite?

RN: One of my favourite endings is the one I decided on the earliest.  I was trying to look at which Shakespeare play to adapt into the nonlinear choice format, and they don’t all fit.  Hamlet works because it’s structured like a game: get a mission from a ghost to kill the king, build up to it, finally kill the final boss, the end.  It’s a total videogame structure!  But other plays don’t work quite as well: Macbeth’s structure is get a mission from a witch to kill the king, kill the king, and then feel really really guilty about it for 300 pages.  It’s fun to watch on a stage, but less fun in an interactive format: there’s only so far “turn to page 145 to be wracked with guilt” gets you, you know?

And looking at Romeo and Juliet, the one thing that I always found so frustrating was the ending.  It’s a tragedy, and so the tragic ending works, but part of that tragedy is how close it could’ve been to a happy ending.  Juliet (and here I should warn about spoilers for a 400 year old play) fakes her own death, Romeo sees her and thinks she’s dead, kills himself, Juliet wakes up right afterwards, sees Romeo is dead, and kills herself.  THE END, everyone died.  But if Romeo had just delayed five minutes on his way to go see Juliet’s body, just five minutes, then he would’ve arrived when she was waking up, and it would’ve been the happiest ending ever.  I love how that one minor choice – stop to get Juliet some flowers – could swing the story from “total tragedy” to “ridiculously happy ending” so easily.   And so while it was one of the last endings I wrote – I went through the play almost chronologically – it was one of the first endings I knew I wanted to get to, and it’s one of my favourites.  After spending all this time with these characters as I wrote the book, I just wanted to give these kids at least one perfect ending, you know?

AT:.You’ve collaborated with a bunch of other amazing artists for this book, as well as in your work in comics like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Adventure Time. What is that collaboration process like? And what is your favorite thing about working with other writers and artists?

RN: My favourite thing about working with other artists is getting to see their version of what you wrote.  It’s the greatest feeling in the world!  Even though you were imagining these people in your heads when you wrote it, seeing them drawn – especially by people so talented – makes them real in a way I can’t duplicate.  I can’t get enough.

The process began by meeting with my friend Kate Beaton, who did the original character designs for Romeo, Juliet, and Rosaline.  We’d talk about the characters and what they’re like, then she’d send me some sketches that evolved into final art!  Once we knew the basics (Juliet’s amazing dress and muscles, Romeo’s heart-shaped belt-buckle) I’d send those sketches to the artists, along with a complete map through the book that led to their ending – each ending is illustrated, so each artist got a map to reach their particular ending.

Rather than go to each artist and say “you must draw the characters like this”, I’d say to use Kate’s illustrations as a benchmark, but not do whatever they wanted in their own style.  I think it’s not a HUGE surprise, given the nature of Romeo and/or Juliet, I’m big into seeing other artists’ take on the same source material, and part of the joy of commissioning that art (and, hopefully, in seeing that art as you unlock it with each ending) is seeing the different ways these characters are realized, and how different artists make them cartoony, realistic, emotional, slapstick – the works.

Once the artists had read their pathways and come up with an ending illustration, they’d send over some sketches, I’d approve them, they’d do final art, and we’d put it in the book!  For Noelle Stevenson’s cover, we came up with the idea of showing a bunch of different scenes with Romeo and Juliet and putting arrows between them, and she just took that ball and ran with it.  The result is super great: there’s smooching, there’s fighting, there’s running from a giant robot – everything you want in a cover (and in a book, really)!

AT: Do you have any plans for another Shakespearian Choose Your Own Adventure? Maybe an Othello where he realizes Iago is a jerk or a less power hungry MacBeth?

RN: Haha, I don’t just yet!  I put all the Shakespeare I could think of into this book.  When Juliet fakes her own death she has a dream (a Midsummer Night’s Dream, if you will), that you then get to play through, and when Romeo is banished to Mantua he can visit the library and read his own choose-your-own-path book based on Macbeth called Fair Is Foul and/or Foul Is Fair (I decided it did work well as a mini adventure after all!), and on top of all that there are tiny cameos and segments crossing over with other Shakespeare characters.  But even after all that there’s still lots of Shakespeare left, and it would be interesting to see what Othello is up to….

AT: Finally, are you reading anything right now that you’re really into that you think teens might like, comics or otherwise? (Assuming that they are already really into Dinosaur Comics, Adventure Time, and Squirrel Girl….)

RN: Oh man, there’s so many great books out right now.  Comics wise, you can’t go wrong with Giant Days, Lumberjanes, or Ms. Marvel.  Those are all ongoing series, but a great standalone graphic novel is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.  Book wise I’m a huge fan of books that make me feel smarter after reading them, so I’d recommend Thing Explainer and What If, both by Randall Munroe. Thing Explainer explains things using only the 1000 most common words (it’s hilarious, but you also learn how Saturn V rockets work) and What If takes ludicrous premises (what if you could throw a baseball at the speed of light?) and explores them fully using science. Spoiler alert for the baseball moving at the speed of light: it does not work out well for ANYONE.

Thank you so much, Ryan! We were so happy to chat with you and congratulations again on your Alex Award.

-Anna Tschetter, currently reading The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi