Kicking off this week is a brand-new project combining classic literature, art, tarot, comics, and your favorite writers. It’s The Literary Tarot, which you can back on Kickstarter right now. The ambitious project involves some of the world’s greatest creators making your favorite comics today, including Jonathan Hickman, Benjamin Percy (peep last week’s interview), Vita Ayala, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Mark Millar. Seriously, that’s only a handful of the creators involved.
Working with a diverse and talented art team from the Brink Literacy Project, the creators tapped into classic literature to tell powerful stories in an utterly unique format. For an insider look at the project, I spoke to Brink’s CEO Dani Hedlund, and we discussed how the idea came to be, how they acquired this stacked talent roster, and her favorite cards, among other tidbits.
AIPT: Dani, thank you for taking the time to talk about the new Kickstarter. First and foremost, how did the idea of pairing tarot cards to literary works come to be?
Dani Hedlund: Oh Dave, I’d love to tell you this was all my brilliant idea, but it was actually inspired by an off-hand comment from my partner. (Don’t we all hate when other people are cleverer than we are?).
At the time, I had tarot on the brain. A friend of ours had just run a wonderful tarot Kickstarter and we’d just locked our first tarot story for our literary anthology, F(r)iction, so I mentioned this to my partner over dinner. He bolted out of his chair and unearthed a tarot deck, pushing our food to the side to give me my first ever reading.
Who needs spaghetti when gorgeous art is on your table!
I was so taken with the storytelling element of it, how he used both the definitions of the cards, but also the gorgeous visuals, to weave the “story of me.” As a publisher and art director, it was love at first read. This was all the joy of comics and stories and illustration with live storytelling…who wouldn’t love it?
Packing up the deck, my partner said, “Hey, you know, you should make a tarot deck. You have the art team. The authors. A cool printer that lets you do insane things. Just like, make it literary themed.”
An hour later, I was on the phone with my COO: “Helen, I have a great idea…that I did not come up with…”
AIPT: Considering the insane level of talent involved with this Kickstarter (Hickman, Atwood, Cain) I must ask, how long did it take to get these creators on board. Were there any creators that you had on your list to join the project from the start? Did you (or do you still) have a white whale yet to be on board?
DH: It’s crazy, right? I look at our author list every morning and it still makes my head spin!
To be perfectly honest, this all came together crazy quickly. At first inception, we were gonna keep everything in-house (for the simple reason that we’re a wee nonprofit and we are always shorthanded and drowning in work). Especially since we are using this deck as a fundraiser for the nonprofit, a particular need as COVID was, let’s say, not particularly kind to education and art funding.
So we needed to keep it manageable. The idea was I get one artist to do all the art and we’d just think of all the pairings ourselves, no matter how many pots of tea it took.
Up until January, this was the plan.
But then I was working on a pairing for King Arthur, struggling with the right source material. So, of course, I called up Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians Trilogy. From working with Lev on F(r)iction, I knew he’d dedicated years to the study of that myth and was, in fact, writing a book about it.
As an expert on the topic, Lev gave me sparkling, insightful advice, things I would never be able to conjure without the years he’s invested in this literary love.
And that’s when it occurred to me that we were going about this all wrong. Sure, my editors are clever and well read, but we are never going to know these classics the way the great storytellers do.
And if I really wanted to do this deck justice, I should bring in the big guns. Time and resources be damned!
We didn’t start from zero, of course. Our nonprofit already had some big hitting allies (Kelly Sue DeConnick, Charlie Jane Anders, Benjamin Percy, Stephen Graham Jones, Rebecca Roanhorse, press extraordinaire David Hyde, and, of course, Lev Grossman).
In the wildest stretches of my fanciful dreams, I hoped all these allies might do one card.
I did not anticipate that they would be excited enough to not only dedicate their time to making the world’s best pairings, but that they would also take that passion and activate the celebrity-author-phone tree.
And what big, beautiful contact trees lit up. My inbox suddenly became a portal to Christmas morning, with magic in each new email. Authors I have loved since I was a kid, comic creators that I reread every year, the people who inspired many of us to pursue literature in the first place!
We officially locked our very first celebrity on March 26th. Today, less than two months later, we have more than 60 of the whole 78-card deck paired already, including so many of our literary heroes that half of our company Slack messages are just screams of “WEEEEE” and “EEEPPP” and “BLIMEY!”
With that context, I’m gonna sound like an ungrateful asshat to say that I would ever want anyone else, but you asked, Dave—and you asked with a Moby Dick reference—so how can I refuse you?
The answer is simple: Neil Gaiman. Like everyone else who reads, I just think that gent is the bee’s knees, and I would love to bring a literary classic of his choice to life. (So like, Neil, if you’re reading this, wanna do a tarot card? I have one saved just for you…)
AIPT: Can you tell us a little bit about Brink Literacy Project and how this project fits into your mission?
DH: I sure can! Brink is a nonprofit dedicated to using storytelling to change the world. We do this in a bunch of zany ways. First, we have a big focus on making sure great storytellers (especially diverse and marginalized voices) are heard. So we run a bunch of rad programs from comic incubators to a sparkly literary anthology, F(r)iction, that publishes debut talent and stellar celebs (like those listed above) side-by-side to elevate emerging voices and reinvigorate the reading experience (because, you know, wouldn’t it be great if people read? Yeah, we think so too!).
But creating great stories is only one part of the battle if communities living on the brink don’t have the access or resources to be read them. Thus, the other big aspect of our mission is to work in marginalized communities (maximum-security prisons, low-income high schools, homeless shelters, etc.) to use these stories to increase literacy rates, foster a love of literature, and empower people to turn the page toward a bright future.
And part of turning that page for our nonprofit is this tarot deck.
For over a decade, we threw in-person events to raise funding for all these great, free programs. But then, you know…COVID. And suddenly, the funding that supported everything from our work in prisons to the payments to our authors dried up.
But, like any good tarot reader will tell you, no matter how dire your reading, you can always pivot. And this, Dave, is our pivot.
The profit from the sale of this deck will go to support all the great programs we run, which is one of the reasons that big, beautiful list of celebs signed on. And let me tell you, I’m so humbled and moved by how many of the world’s greatest living storytellers have galloped into battle with us, tossing their considerable wit and insights into the fight.
It’s one thing to make a super cool literary deck. But making a super cool literary deck that helps us change lives? Now that’s some magic, eh?
AIPT: Are you partial to any specific card in this set?
DH: Oh what a cruel question! Next you’re gonna ask me to rank my favorite contributors and which puppy I would save first in a fire!
But fine, I’ll bite…by just mentioning the card I worked on this morning.
Marjorie Liu took up the mantle of the Queen of Quills. Instead of starting with a classic (as most authors did), Marjorie, conversely, chose a card first, then scanned through her big, literary brain for a stellar fit for the themes exemplified by that particular arcana.
The Queen of Quills (Swords, for all you tarot geeks out there) is a strong female figure, pulled between positive traits of independence, intellect, and fairness…but when pushed, she can be malicious and unforgiving as all get out.
Marjorie tossed around a lot of ideas (from The Scarlet Letter to A Little Princess), but she landed on something that totally surprised and enchanted me: Beowulf, zooming in on Grendel’s mum. ‘Cause that lassie will calmly rule over her bog…until you f--k with her son, and then, let me tell you, she’s gonna show you the sharp edge of her maternal rage…
AIPT: Might one who reads tarot cards use this deck in any special way?
DH: We designed the deck to be used just like the Rider-Waite deck (for all you tarot newbies out there, that’s the most common tarot deck). Thus, you can do readings in the typical way (ask a question, select your cards, tackle anything from a 3- to 9-card formation).
But one thing I find particularly fun is a trick I picked up from the ever-amazing Kelly Sue DeConnick. She draws a card in the morning and uses it as a way to critically evaluate her day, thinking about how it may affect her current personal and creative choices.
The Literary Tarot Deck is not only for the experienced tarot reader, but also for anyone looking for a unique way to be inspired by literature.
Did I draw Patrick Rothfuss’ brilliant pairing of Don Quixote and The Fool? Perhaps I should be a little more careful about this new project, because I don’t want to be chasing windmills.
Or maybe I snag Margaret Atwood’s pairing of Jane Eyre with the Queen of Light, and I realize that there’s a fire to be put out somewhere, and I should go toss some water on it like Jane soaking the sleeping Rochester?
Or, heaven forbid, I draw Victor LaValle’s pairing of Lovecraft’s’ “The Outsider” with the Tower…because, you know…no good comes from that!
AIPT: Which of the cards in the set surprised you most?
DH: Lev Grossman’s pairing of King Arthur is the first to pop to mind. Remember when I told you that we were gonna do all this in house? Well, the problem with that is it leads to us pairing the easy wins.
So when I was thinking about King Arthur, The Emperor card was the first to pop into my mind. You know, manly, authoritative, ruling over Camelot and his Round Table.
But Lev had other ideas…better ideas.
Instead of going for the easy win, he dug into the deeper themes, how the creation of Camelot is not just about the victories, but also the defeats, about a group of people joined together, fighting for something that will, inevitably, end.
So, instead, Lev paired Arthur with The World, a card that’s all about striving for an ideal, but accepting that in reverse, the world is circular, and this too must end.
AIPT: Did you happen to read last year’s X of Swords (I see Howard and Hickman supplied a card here in fact) and what did you make of their use of the tarot cards?
DH: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read it yet, which is just terrible because Hickman and Howard are two of my all-time favorite comic writers…who combined forces with writing something SO in my wheelhouse.
But alas, The Literary Tarot has consumed all my pleasure reading time. But you KNOW that gorgeous issue is sitting on my deck, calling out to me like a siren, whispering, “When you finish this project, I’ll be waiting. Come crash against my pages!”
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