Today’s interview is a little different from most others that Coffee with Architects of Worlds Afar has featured, for we are joined by a father-daughter writing duo as well as by their novel’s illustrator. Isn’t that neat? 😀
Without further ado, allow me to introduce Ben and Eliza Langdon — authors of The Adventures of Charlie Conti: Small Sacrifices — and Lorin Olsen.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
BEN: I’m like most people, I guess, juggling a lot of different things while keeping them connected in some ways. I’ve got three (mostly) teenaged kids, work as a high school teacher, write superhero fiction and run a weekend place called The Imagination and Learning Centre where we offer board games, workshops and a place to buy comics and pop culture things. It looks like a lot, but each part helps with the other parts.
ELIZA: I’m nearly fourteen and live in Portland, Australia. I’ve lived in Cottbus, Germany for four months when I was little, but mostly I’m an Australian through and through. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get older but I like cooking, reading and watching TV. I’ve got two brothers and anyone who has two brothers knows what that’s like.
LORIN: Hah well I usually have a hard time talking about myself, but seeming that is the
point of an interview I’ll do my best.
I live in the USA on the East Coast in Massachusetts, and I spend most of my free time jumping from art project to art project. Basically I love making stuff, so almost all of the things I do include doing something creative, I obviously draw and paint, but I love digital sculpting, prop-making, cosplay, and making small video games. Speaking of video games, that is actually what I went to college for, video game design. Didn’t work out great as that is apparently an extremely difficult job to find. I currently work three different jobs, I do freelance illustration work, I teach children’s art classes, and I work at a store called T.J. Maxx.
2. When did you start writing/drawing?
BEN: I started writing novels about eight years ago, but before then I did a bunch of short stories and online collaborative writing – both of which was really great practice. I think the best boost for my writing came from a writing group I joined through the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, under the tutelage of Paul Collins. Having a group of other writers read and critique your work really does help, and without it, I doubt I’d ever have finished my first draft.
LORIN: Well, technically I have been drawing since I could remember, but in the past several years, starting a year or so after college, I have taken it much more seriously.
3. Why did you start writing/drawing?
BEN: I started writing superhero fiction because I wanted to get stories that went beyond the pages of comic books. I’ve always been interested in characters: their backstory, motivation and connectedness to their world. You can get a lot of that in comic books, but I wanted more. So I started writing ‘The Miranda Contract’ which explored the life of a 17 year old kid, including his convoluted family history, feelings of prejudice and being trapped by his reputation. On top of those issues, he was also an uberhuman: a kid with the ability to generate and control electricity.
ELIZA: Dad and I wrote ‘Small Sacrifices’ because I didn’t really like the books on the YA shelf. Nothing got my attention. I was really into watching TV series like ‘Pretty Little Liars’, ‘Veronica Mars’, ‘Hart of Dixie’ and a bunch of others. I liked the characters and what they did. And I wanted that in a book. Dad and I sat down and started coming up with a main character and then outward to the supporting characters and the place they lived in. I thought it was kind of like thinking up a TV show in a way.
LORIN: Well when I was little, I started drawing because it was a fun way to hang out with my dad. He would draw with me and my brothers and sometimes my cousins too, and doodle superheros, ninjas, and knights and have a great time. I think that was my original reason for loving this stuff. My other reason though, after college when I got more serious about art, was realizing I could potentially make it a profession. Finding work was very difficult, so after applying to a crazy number of video game companies for even the lowest positions, I decided that maybe that wasn’t what I was meant to do. So I just started working hard at improving my drawings to get to the point where it was a marketable skill.
4. Do you recall the moment you first conceived the idea for your novel?
BEN: Like Eliza said before, we started this project because Eliza said she didn’t want to read books anymore, and that was kind of alarming for me, an English teacher! We’d always thought up stories together, ever since all the kids were little. The stories would be really twisty, linking backstories together and basing characters on people we knew. So we took that idea a bit further – the main character, Charlie Conti, is based on Eliza. Her middle name really is Charlie. As the story grew, we started to put more subplots into it, and by the end it serves as something of a prequel to my first novel, ‘The Miranda Contract’. Going forward, characters from both series will feature in each other’s books. I don’t think it’s too confusing. The books can be read on their own, or enjoyed on a deeper level knowing who’s who and where they fit into the wider, fictional world.
ELIZA: I remember we went outside with two chairs and started talking about the characters and the scenarios. We got a guy to do a picture for us on fiverr.com and it was so awesome we had to get him to do the whole book. His name was Lorin.
5. Tell us a little bit about your book’s title.
BEN: We came up with ‘The Adventures of Charlie Conti’ series title first, and it just sounded right. Something about the right number of syllables. As for the book’s title, we played around with that for a while. It was important to me that the title had more than one meaning. I’ll let Eliza talk about the actual title.
ELIZA: ‘Small Sacrifices’ is about Charlie having to make all these changes to her life to make other people happy. She takes everything seriously. It also plays on the fact that Charlie’s Dad is shrunk down to the size of a Lego Mini Figure for most of the story.
6. Does your story have a moral?
BEN: Basically the story is about being your own person, and not feeling compelled to do what other people think you should do. Charlie feels like she has to be the mother figure in the Conti household because her Mum is gone, and her Dad is a complete loser. But, through the book she realizes that the world won’t end just because she can’t be everything to everyone.
ELIZA: It’s also about the pressures of being a teenager. Charlie’s best friend experiences some cyber bullying and there’s other kinds of bullying and stuff in the book too.
7. Of the characters you’ve created, which one is your favorite?
BEN: I’m not going to say Charlie, even though she is quintessentially the greatest character in the book. I’ll say I like the character of Dan in the book. He’s the younger version of the main character in my first novel. I really enjoyed writing about a younger Dan, from a time when he wasn’t a hero but was being influenced by the wrong sort of people. Knowing where he ends up is nice and it’s good to show readers that Dan is a complex character. He’s a hero, but he struggles with it, especially in this book.
ELIZA: Charlie, obviously. She was fun to create and I feel like I know her as well as I know myself. I even know where she’s going and what she’ll end up doing in the other books. I really have a hard time when readers say they love Luca – because, seriously? Little brothers are terrible. Kidding.
LORIN: Oh man, well this is a tough one. If we are talking about characters designs for Small Sacrifices, I would have to go with Charlie first, then Luca and Nakaya tied for second, they are a ton of fun to draw!
If we are talking personal characters and not characters from Ben’s book though, I would have to say Violet Feathers. Although she is more simple than a lot of my other characters design wise, I have spent more time developing her backstory and personality than most of my other characters. She is a bit like Charlie in some ways, she is tough because she has to be, but would rather be nice, she has had to deal with some difficult stuff for a kid her age and is doing her best, she isn’t as smart as Charlie is though, but she makes up for that by keeping ghosts as bodyguards.
[Picture #1 of Violet Feathers]
[Picture #2 of Violet Feathers]
8. Using five words or less, describe the protagonist in Small Sacrifices.
BEN: Trying desperately to be normal.
ELIZA: Serious, but can be goofy.
LORIN: I love her so much!
9. What does a typical writing/drawing session look like for you?
BEN: When I’m writing by myself, I use an outline of the novel and kind of write like I’m putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I use scenes and multiple points of view to keep the story moving. The actual writing can be done on the computer or by hand in notebooks – it changes depending on where I am at with the writing. The best possible conditions for writing seem to include notebooks of scribbled ideas and snatches of dialogue, together with a huge chunk of time where nothing else needs to be done.
As for writing with Eliza, we did things differently. We worked on characters first, to ensure each one had their strengths and drawbacks, their reasons for being in Henty Bay and the kinds of things they could bring to the story. We spent a lot of time discussing the plot during long drives in the car or just sitting around the lounge room. The actual writing was done in bursts, where we’d discuss a scene and then I’d write it. The pages would be passed to Eliza who would check them and add comments and lines (especially dialogue).
We added Lorin Olsen into the mix as our book’s illustrator, and that changed the process of writing again. When we got illustrations back from Lorin they would often bring up new ideas or slight changes to what we’d planned. A major example of this is Charlie’s brother, Luca, who was supposed to be a rather useless little baby brother, but after getting images back from Lorin, Luca changed into an older and more energetic character.
LORIN: Sitting at my computer, reference on one monitor to help with whatever I am working on, music playing through my headphones, and me crossing my fingers that someone doesn’t interrupt me. As a digital artist I am tied to my computer at my home, and as someone who works three jobs I am stuck fitting artwork around my other work, so I don’t get to work on art as often as I would like and I have a hard time setting a good routine or schedule. My one real ritual to start the day off though would be warmup characters, 15 to 20 minute character portraits, like these.
10. What is your favorite book genre?
BEN: I like to read contemporary Australian writers in what would be probably called literary fiction, but I also enjoy genre fiction, particularly superhero fiction. As for comics, I’ve been a die-hard fan of Marvel Comics since 1988, particularly the Uncanny X-Men.
ELIZA: I like to read teenage books but they have to have good storylines or I’ll give up on them. I like some comics, especially ‘Saga’, ‘Giant Days’, ‘Bat Girl’ and ‘Harley Quinn’.
LORIN: Hah, well I am really bad at making choices, I can’t decide between period dramas and science fiction.
11. What are you currently reading?
BEN: I’m currently reading two books for my English classes at high school: ‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder, and ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley. Both books deal with a dystopian society and the curbing of individual rights for the ‘greater good’. I’ve really enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with students about these books, particularly the Year 10s who are studying ‘Brave New World’. There’s a lot to discuss, including the fact it was written nearly 80 years ago and yet the issues are still incredibly relevant today.
ELIZA: I’ve just started reading ‘Midnight’ by Jacqueline Wilson. I’ve read lots of her books and I really like the way she creates characters.
LORIN: I have had a really hard time keeping up with reading lately, but top of my list is actually a webcomic called Necropolis by Jake Wyatt, along with that, I have to get a copy of ‘The Miranda Contract’ and read that.
12. What is your favorite book?
BEN: Everyone hates this question. I think it depends on a lot of things but I’ll offer up two options. The first is ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee for its ability to inspire me every time I read it, particularly the character of Atticus Finch. The second book is ‘The Rest of Us Just Live Here’ by Patrick Ness because it’s a whole lot of fun and draws together a really detailed love of TV shows like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. I’d highly recommend both of these books.
ELIZA: My favourite book is ‘My Sister Jodie’ by Jacqueline Wilson. It made me cry because of the ending, but I’m not going to spoil it for you.
LORIN: I would have to pick Une page d’amour by Emile Zola. I don’t read French, so I had to read a translated version, but the visual nature of his writing and the depth of character emotion is truly stunning to me. He paints pictures with his writing in several passages that actually made me cry when reading it, and I feel super silly saying that but I have to be honest.
13. Any project in the works?
BEN: I’m currently writing ‘The Halo Effect’ which is the sequel to ‘The Miranda Contract’. It brings in alternate realities, zombies and mad scientists while continuing the story of Dan Galkin and his group of friends.
ELIZA: ‘The Friend Zone’ is the next book in ‘The Adventures of Charlie Conti’. It’ll bring in some new characters and maybe even a few bounty hunters. Wait and see.
LORIN: Too many! One would be Kidpocalypse, a series of illustrations depicting a photojournalist’s efforts to catalog the child inhabitants of the apocalypse after the fall of the adults. Sounds depressing but it actually is pretty lighthearted. Another would be illustrating a version of the Oscar Wilde story The Selfish Giant. Other than those two I have two comics I have been brooding on for a long time but am not far enough along to be comfortable talking much about them.
14. How long does it usually take you to write a book or draw a picture?
BEN: I don’t know if there’s a ‘usual’ in that question. I’d say it takes a bit over a year to two years to get a book done. I’m still working on my craft so projects will move along in different speeds. There are plenty of ideas, so running out of them is never going to be a problem. It’s mostly dependent on what else is going on around me, and how much time I can shift into the actual writing part of writing. It’s hard work – if anyone tells you something else, they’re (probably) lying!
LORIN: Well, for Ben and Eliza’s book, the illustrations ranged from an hour and a half or so for the simplest, to probably around six or seven hours for the most complicated. That is just actual drawing and painting time though, I mull over the details and description provided for a piece for a good while before I ever start sketching.
15. What advice would you give to aspiring writers and illustrators?
BEN: Decide why you want to write and don’t let other people hijack that reason. If you want to be an international success, then that’s fine. If you don’t, then that’s fine too. Always make sure you’re writing for you, first. Unless, of course, writing is your one and only source of income and then it becomes your career and that’s different. For me, writing is about balancing my life rather than taking it over. And ‘write’, obviously. Don’t just think about writing a novel, actually go and do it.
LORIN: Draw a lot! Sounds stupid, but if that is what you want to do for a living, you really have to actually do it. I can’t tell you how much time I see people spent looking for a magic answer to getting good when the answer plain and simple is practice. Other than that, be kind to people. It is better to have friends who you work with than clients who are just another boss.
And now for a game of “Which Do/Would You Prefer?”
1. Books or movies?
BEN: Both. It really depends on my mood and the story. Deadpool is a great movie but I don’t like the comics. And there are so many fantastic books out there that are not made into movies.
LORIN: Movies: they can more easily be enjoyed with others.
2. Dogs or cats?
BEN: I’ve learned that I’m not very good with animals. I’d like to think I like dogs more.
ELIZA: Dogs, especially King Charles Cavalier Spaniels.
LORIN: Cats, even though I am allergic to them.
3. Summer or winter?
LORIN: Winter, sweaters and hot teas are the best.
4. Nights out or nights in?
BEN: Nights in are easier to use for writing.
ELIZA: Nights in
LORIN: In, the outside is a terrifying place.
5. Having telepathy or having telekinesis?
BEN: Telekinesis – nothing better than to create force fields out of nothing!
LORIN: Telekinesis. I have read and watched enough science fiction to know that telepathy is a curse.
6. Making a phone call or sending a text?
BEN: Texts are much more convenient.
LORIN: I hate both. I prefer email or face to face.
7. Being Spiderman for a day or being Batman for a day?
BEN: Batman…. It’d be good to be a billionaire for a day. I’d be doing a lot of bank transfers!
LORIN: Spiderman. He swings more!
8. Being able to speak and understand every language known to humankind or being able to speak and understand every language known to animals?
BEN: Human languages, but I’d take either.
LORIN: Human languages. I don’t want to know what animals are saying, seems scary!
9. Being two inches tall or being two stories tall?
BEN: If it’s a temporary thing, I’d go two stories tall. The Dad in ‘Small Sacrifices’ gets shrunk and he doesn’t have a good time at all!
ELIZA: I’d go short.
LORIN: Two inches tall. I don’t want to be chased by peasants with pitchforks and torches. Though things were never that good for Thumbelina either…
10. Finding yourself trapped in the universe of The Walking Dead or finding yourself trapped in a slasher film?
BEN: Hmm, Slasher film. There’s a chance you can beat the bad guy and things go back to normal after that.
ELIZA: Walking Dead. You’d survive longer.
LORIN: Slasher film. I would rather die quickly than be whined at by the cast of Walking Dead for seven seasons. I just hope I would get a cool death rather than one of the embarrassing ones…
Thank you for joining us, Ben, Eliza, and Lorin!
Readers: want to connect with Ben and Lorin? You can find Ben on Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook; also, be sure to check out his author website. You can find Lorin on Facebook and YouTube; he invites all to visit his website and blog, too.