This interview was guest authored by Samantha Hahn. The photos are courtesy of Molly Young and Atisha Paulson.
I’m excited to bring you an interview I conducted with these two talented jack-of-all-trades women: You have most likely seen Joana’s illustrations on the wall at The Wing or in New York Magazine. Molly may have recently stumped you on the latest New York Times crossword she designed. I am curious to know who is doing what and the process of working on a book together.
Samantha Hahn: You’re both visual and literary. Is there one area that feels more like catharsis and one that feels more like work to you?
Joana Avillez: I think the pleasure of both is what you can’t say with the other. Visually, you can show something so subtle that may seem heavy handed to describe. I read an interview with the creators of Ren & Stimpy who said they actively tried to animate indescribable facial expressions. I thought that was incredible. Secretly, I love writing so much because I feel I can get something “right” more than I can with drawing.
Molly Young: When I’m in a good mood they are both fun and when I’m in a bad mood they are both torture.
SH: How did you meet each other?
MY: We dated the same dude in college (*NOT AT THE SAME TIME), so we have been “aware” of each other for many years. The common boyfriend has long since vanished into the ether but we gradually migrated towards each other and are now firmly in the same orbit.
JA: Yes, boyfriend exited stage left and made room for Act II, and the rest is herstory. (Sorry.)
SH: Your upcoming book, titled The City, will be published by Penguin Press, fall 2017. That’s exciting. Congratulations. How did that come about? Did you think up the idea and flesh it out a bit and then work on a proposal? Do you have an agent? Did the publisher come to you?
MY: Publishing is a byzantine world where everything takes a long time and many processes are shrouded in mystery. Coming from a workplace that is tech-centric (Warby Parker), I’m always intrigued by the ceremonial rites and secret handshakes of publishing. Here’s how it worked for us:
We thought up the idea for The City together and drafted a proposal, which we showed to our individual agents. The book proposal included a few pages of writing—a description of the book, its origin story, some ideas for how we would promote it—and dozens of sample drawings. Our friend Teddy Blanks, who is a partner at CHIPS, designed the proposal so that it had appropriate visual dazzle.
Our agents gave us feedback on the proposal. Since there are two authors and two agents, one of the agents acted as “lead agent”. In this case, it was my agent, Seth (of The Gernert Company). Seth sent out the proposal to publishers and scheduled meetings with all of the publishers who were interested. Then Joana and I went on a little tour of publishers, meeting with editors and talking about the book. After the tour was over, Seth held an auction where publishers bid on the book. We landed on Penguin Press, where an editor named Will Heyward acquired it. We love Will. He Gets It.
JA: What she said.
MY: Now we just have to finish writing and illustrating it.
SH: What is the collaborative process like? How did you know that you’d work well together? Do you each feel clear and delineated about what you are supposed to do? Do you feel everything is even Steven?
JA: I think early on we established a level of openness that lets us be effectively unselfconscious. I’m always charmed and tantalized by where Molly’s mind will go, and I think we’re both entranced by the other’s knowledge, so that it truly does feel like two minds are better than one. We’re each whoring our own talents for the benefit of the other.
SH: Can you give us a little glimpse into your book? What should we expect to see/read? What do you want readers to get from it? Do you see this as a one off or perhaps the beginning of a long collaborative book making partnership?
MY: The City is an illustrated puzzle book in the key of New York. It’s hard to describe but (hopefully) a delight to experience. It is brain-tickling and smile-inducing. As for the partnership, I like to think we’ll continue our tandem mischief-making for years to come.
JA: The book we’re making is almost like a game, you can read/play/do it alone or in a group. I feel like it gives a lot of confidence to the value of what a book still is and still can be today. It may bring about a level of engagement that could make you forget entirely about your iPhone.
SH: Ok, let’s go back in time a bit. You are both city girls. Joana you were raised in NY and Molly, SF. How do you feel being raised in an urban setting influenced the way you think and see? Any favorite local bookshops to mention?
JA: I don’t think I realized what a New Yorker I was until a few years ago. The city gave me everything I’m interested in, in terms of style and humor. I was people-watching from my stroller! There used to be an outpost of The Strand in an old building in The Seaport, where I grew up. We were there all the time. But trolling my parents’ bookshelves were where I learned everything.
MY: Being raised in a city gave me an appetite for sensory clutter: noises, smells, sights, loudly competing stimuli, etc.
I learned everything I know about sex from the dirty books in the upstairs annex at San Francisco’s legendary Green Apple bookstore
SH: Let’s stay back in time for a minute. Can you recall some books you looked at and read as kids? Please list some favorites here. Any favorite characters or authors?
MY: Canonical youth-era books of my past include The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, and Uncle Fedya, His Dog and His Cat by Eduard Uspensky. What these titles have in common is that they are all about kids who are bizarrely adultlike in their decisions, mannerisms and affinities. I think all kids enjoy stories about omnipotent kids. I still do.
JA: Molly, I have to get some of your titles immediately! My parents each had their favorites to read with me. My mom was all Beatrix Potter, Margaret Wise Brown (Little Fur Family, Wait Till The Moon Is Full, The Sailor Dog), all books illustrated by Garth Williams. My dad read me every William Steig picture book, Petunia by Roger Duvoisin, and the German proto-comicbook Max & Moritz. He also gifted me a Little Lulu collection when I was around seven that was very important.
SH: What are your current reading habits? How do you carve out space and time for reading with your hectic creative lives.
JA: I’ve been reading more than ever lately because TV, frankly, isn’t enough of an escape.
MY: Lol at “carving out space for reading” because all I want to do is read and it takes 100% my self-control not to evade my work and reread Henry James novels, which ultimately feels like the most productive use of my lifespan. Thank GOD I have a modicum of restraint.
SH: What do you like to read/look at now? Can you list some favorite genres and books we’d see on your shelves and nightstands?
MY: Every title by Henry James, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Agota Kristof, and Iris Murdoch; most titles by Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Margaret Drabble, Evan S. Connell, and Amelie Nothomb.
JA: Last night I read the compendium of the webcomic Super Mutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki which is so hilarious, smart, and deft. I’m rereading Mrs. Dalloway because I think I’ll get more out of it at thirty than I did at eighteen. I’m always in some state of reading Nabokov, because the perfection of his writing flummoxes me to near irritation. Sometimes I’ll just place a Maira Kalman book near my bed, even if I’m not reading it, because the power of her bending every rule just radiates from the book as an object.