Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Q&A with Jay Hosler




Jay Hosler is the author and illustrator of the new middle grade graphic novel Santiago!: Santiago Ramón y Cajal--Artist, Scientist, Troublemaker. Hosler's other books include The Way of the Hive. He is a biologist and cartoonist who is on the faculty of Juniata College.


Q: Why did you decide to create a graphic novel about artist and scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal?


A: I was introduced to Cajal as a graduate student and was immediately inspired by a scientist who made his mark with his artistic and storytelling skills. That was a very personal connection for me and I think that is what is required to tell good stories in general but especially stories about science and the natural world.


His struggles and his doubts were also things I could relate to, and that helps me to enrich the story and art.


Cajal wanted to be an artist as a kid but his dad told him he had to be a doctor so he figured out how to do both and he won the Nobel Prize. Obviously I share his love of art and science, but I was also drawn to his differences. Cajal was a troublemaker as a kid. I was (am) a goody-two shoes. Telling his story allowed me to embody my inner naughty middle schooler and it was a blast.


Another difference that was interesting to explore was his conflict with his parents. I had amazing support as a kid, but I think most of us can imagine how tough life would be if we hadn’t. It was a painful to write that conflict because I could feel his disappointment, even though I had never experienced anything like it.


I imagine there are many kids who have had to deal with this and I hope seeing how Santiago navigated things may be helpful for them.


Q: How did you research Cajal’s life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I used several sources to verify specific elements of his past, but relied most heavily on his 600-page memoir Recollections of My Life. He outlined his youth in remarkable detail, which made it possible for me to construct a story about his early years with so much interesting detail.

What surprised me most was discovering that he had actually written several short fictional stories that he used to explain the science of the time. I thought it was cool that I was trying to use narrative in the same way he did to explain his life and his scientific discoveries.


Q: The book's subtitle is "Artist, Scientist, Troublemaker." How did Cajal unite the three, and what do you see as his legacy today?


A: Cajal was a troublemaker as a kid but the trouble he made was often in the defiance of his parents demand that he not make art. This led his to work on his artistic skills in private, often manufacturing his own paints and tools.


This time working and hiding away from his folks led him into nature and a deep appreciation for the natural world. Soon his art turned to focusing on subjects in the wild and the skills he had developed as an artist became useful for recording what he saw and capturing the specific beauty of the natural world.


He united what I consider the three fundamental aspects of human creativity: science, art, and storytelling.


The legacy of his work researching and illustrating the nervous system was to fundamentally change how we think about thinking. He provided conclusive evidence that the nervous system was composed of several separate cells that talked to each other to send information around the body. His work laid the foundations for modern neuroscience.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Slapstick humor and stylized, exaggerated representations of an impish Santiago contribute to the story’s liveliness and fast pace.” How did you create your illustrations, and did you work on the text and illustrations simultaneously?


A: I start from a script which I essentially act out and read aloud to be sure I have decent flow of language. When I think I’m close, I print it out and prepare to draw.


As I’m writing I can generally envision what the page will look like, but when I start putting pencil to paper the staging of scenes or camera angles of panels start to feedback on the script. So, I take the script and thumbnail a page and those thumbnails may feedback and make me adjust the scripts which may in turn change the art and so on.


Once the cycle of feedback starts it can end up altering the trajectory of the passage, the personality of a character, and sometimes the entire book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a book about a cartoon ant who was born into a real world of ants.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that I am grateful for this opportunity to talk about Santiago! I love that kid.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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