Liam Francis Walsh is the author and illustrator of the new middle grade graphic novel Red Scare. His other books include the picture book Fish, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Reader's Digest. He lives in Switzerland.
Q: What inspired you to create Red Scare, and how did you come up with your character Peggy?
A: Around 2011 I was getting all sorts of old movies out from the library, and I zeroed in on the sci-fi ones from the ‘50s and watched every one I could find.
I loved the way they looked, and I wondered what it would be like to remix one so it better reflected the unvarnished reality of the world in 1953: kids with polio, limited opportunities for women, soldiers returning from war with PTSD, etc.
I made a big list of the events and issues of the day, including giving my protagonist a little sister with polio. She turned out to be a lot more interesting than her fairly run-of-the-mill, Boy's Adventure-style brother, and by the next draft she was the protagonist.
Eventually I had to lose a lot of the historical trivia (Conquest of Everest!), but they gave me a great jumping off place and worked well as a list of writing prompts.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I watched a lot of old movies, and read everything I could get my hands on about the era. That part was challenging, because so much of what you find about the ‘50s is about the latter part of the decade, rock & roll, cars with tailfins, etc. Nostalgia.
What most surprised me was learning about the history of nuclear close calls, (I recommend the book Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser). The stranger-than-fiction hair's-breadth close calls will turn your hair white.
A more fun historical detail that I find unforgettable is one about President Eisenhower: he loved golf so much he had his golf balls painted black so he could play in the snow!
Q: The New York Times review of the book, by Eugene Yelchin, says, in part, “The story — tightly wrought, intense, unpredictable — offers plenty of heart-stopping set pieces, but the real strength of the novel is Peggy’s gradual transformation from an aggrieved, explosive character into a selfless, courageous one.” What do you think of that description?
A: I think Mr. Yelchin absolutely, perfectly “got” my book. I loved that review. I hope readers gradually find themselves caring as much about Peggy's personal flaws and the question of whether she'll overcome them and be a whole and happy person with friends and intact family relationships as nailbiting as the pulse-pounding chase scenes.
Q: How did you develop your artistic style?
A: I've always loved to draw, but I really developed a "style" when I started cranking out drawings for The New Yorker. I had to find a coherent way of drawing that was expressive, but also cartoony -- and something I could draw fairly fast. I took all the things I love and mashed them up together.
Lots of people have noticed the influence of Herge's Tintin books, but I see a lot of Mike Mignola and Bill Watterson in there, too.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've put together several proposals so far, but haven't quite fallen in love with any of them. The amount of time and energy necessary to complete a graphic novel on your own is enormous, so I need an idea that I'll be excited about working on every day for two or three years. It's a heavy lift.
At the moment I'm excited about an idea that's closer to my experience, since it's set in the northwoods of Wisconsin and features homeschoolers going to public school for the first time -- and there's old maps and a treasure and monsters!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'm always eager to hear from readers. I dreamed of writing to authors when I was a kid, but it was so complicated! (I'll be forever sorry William Goldman died without my ever getting to tell him how much I loved The Princess Bride. It's perfect, Mr. Goldman!) If anybody has questions or just wants to say hi, send me an email -- I'll write back.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb