Have you ever been so focused on a goal, so engrossed in your own creativity, that you border on obsession to a detrimental degree? Now, what if you add some possessed musical equipment to that equation?
That’s the exact situation in which a young Mexicali native named Beatriz finds herself in Suncatcher, the all-new YA graphic novel from writer/illustrator Jose Pimienta. Beatriz is a musician focused on nailing one perfect song, and absolutely everything hinges on her goal. But when her creative endeavors begin to negatively affecting her relationships, things start getting messy. Add a dash of the supernatural, and you get a YA graphic novel you’ll dive into headfirst.
Ahead of the book’s May 19 release via Random House Graphic, Pimienta was kind enough to speak with AIPT about his creative process, Mexicali culture, and music.
AIPT: Can you tell me about your creative process for Suncatcher? It seems like a heck of an undertaking.
Jose Pimienta: Sure! Making a graphic novel is a big undertaking, both in time and craft. In previous books, my process was a bit different, since I was only illustrating other writer’s stories. For “Suncatcher,” it’s simple to say that the only additional part of the process was the writing, but that’s an oversimplification.
Basically, I was learning to write as I was developing the story. I began by writing down several ideas that I wanted to incorporate in the book (not even a story yet) and then I interviewed a lot of musicians and friends who were in the music scene (producers, enthusiasts, etc.) I took a lot of notes and eventually developed a story arc from that. Then, it was a lot of re-writing to make it more cohesive. Once I got to a satisfactory stage of a script I thumbnailed the whole book and made adjustments in the pacing. The script was written on a word processor on my computer while making additional notes and the thumbnails were done on 11×8.5 print paper where each page was about… 2×3 inches? Maybe smaller?
So, after I thumbnailed the book, then I moved to penciling it on Bristol board and traditional ink it with microns. Meanwhile this was happening, I kept making adjustments to the script. Including a few additions. From there, I scanned the pages and colored them digitally. Finally, I lettered them digitally with a font I found from a previous collaborator’s page. He deserves a lot of credit for the font. And yes, even while lettering, I kept making adjustments to script. I would also like to point out that when I say “adjustments” I am also including talking to other creatives for input and suggestions. It helps to have extra pairs of eyes I can trust to double check things and make a project better.
AIPT: This seems like a very personal story. What inspired you to write it?
JP: Thank you. Yes, it’s definitely personal. The original inspiration was, “I want to make a graphic novel about music.” I love music: discovering new music, revisiting favorite albums and going to live shows, etc. At first, I didn’t even have a story, I just wanted to have a good reason to draw electric guitars and other instruments in a story. In the beginning stages of development, I just had ideas of what I like about music. So, from there, I re-wrote until I found a story I wanted to tell with characters I was excited to meet.
AIPT: Why did you choose to set Suncatcher in the early 2000’s?
JP: While I was interviewing musicians, it became natural to interview some people I grew up with in Mexicali. Eventually, it dawned on me that during those years there was a particular music scene that I had never seen on a graphic novel. So, it made sense to elaborate on that. I grew up in that place and time, I was getting a lot of testimonials from people about that place and time, and it’s a specific setting for a story I felt confident talking about.
AIPT: I’m from Asbury Park, New Jersey, which has a thriving music scene. I’m very close to many musicians and the culture is a huge part of my life, so I know all about the focus and obsession that comes with this art. Can you talk about elevating that experience and raising the stakes with the supernatural?
JP: Yeah, as far as elevating the experience and raising the stakes with the supernatural, the idea came out from my fascination with magical realism and the Robert Johnson folk tales, and other legends of that sort. It made the writing more fun and challenging because I hadn’t written anything this long and I’m not an expert by any means on folklore. It involved a lot of research to make the story better. Plus it perfectly fit with the visual emotions music gives.
AIPT: How do you tackle the challenge of portraying an auditory experience on the page?
JP: I honestly don’t have a good answer other than, I listen to a lot of music and I draw a lot. I use to draw a lot of “fan art” of bands or album covers and asked myself if it fit their sound or if the image represented the sound. I also listen to a lot of music while looking at other visual art, and if it seems like there’s harmony, then I find that inspiring. I also try to pay attention to light shows during a big concert or what their banners look like. And of course, I watch music videos and try to learn from them. It’s also, just a lot of trial and error.
AIPT: The Mexicali culture is so important to Suncatcher and these characters. Was there element of the region — a place, a detail, a tradition — that you felt was particularly important to include?
JP: I grew up in Mexicali. Half of my family is from there and the one thing we’re the most proud of is that we’re a warm and welcoming type of people. It’s a young city on the border as well, so we had the privilege of having access to American television shows and Southern California Culture, while also holding on to Mexican traditions and cultural elements. It’s a very-hot valley, so it’s also referred to as the city that captured the sun (which is another reason for the book’s title), but it’s also an industrial area, so there’s a particular mentality for innovation. Also, our regional food is Chinese food and beer (kinda-but not really, but really.), so I also wanted to include some of that in the book.
AIPT: What music inspires you? What are you listening to right now?
JP: Currently, as in right now, in the moment of answering this, I’m listening to Caravan Palace, but in general, I try to listen to different things from concept albums to musicals to punk/rock/pop and things like that, but I also love folk music from various parts of the world.
As for what inspires me? Well, I make playlists and I try to be open minded, because I really don’t know when an idea may strike or what music may be the next fad I’m into. As a kid, I liked loud and energetic musician. Then I also found other genres that shook me, so… when inspiration hits, I hope I have something to take notes with, but in the meantime, I do try to have playlists to help with a particular tone I’m trying to cruise on.
Some of the things I’m listening to right now are Screaming Females, Courtney Barnett, The Regrettes, the Hadestown musical, Cafe Tacuba’s Reves/Yo soy album, the “Over the Garden Wall” soundtrack, Letters From Readers, Chetes, Parov Stellar and Wintergatan… Just to name a few. I’d love to name drop so many awesome musicians and bands, but then, we’d be here all day.