Every writer has her favorite stories she’s written. One of mine is “Sophie and Zoe at the End of the World,” which I was honored to have published in The Future Fire. I was even more surprised, and pleased, when I saw that the story had been illustrated — complete with cover art! — by Robin Kaplan.
As part of the tenth anniversary celebration of The Future Fire, plans are under way to release an anthology of the zine’s best stories. Contributors have been invited to participate in interviews and contests, write flash fiction sequels to their stories, and so on. There’s even a micro fiction contest centered around the theme of “ten.”
So, sit back and enjoy this round robin interview with Robin Kaplan, in which we discuss everything from literature to cartoons to diversity in art to “which books would you need to save the world?” Then, when you’re done, go check out The Future Fire.
Rebecca Buchanan: “Sophie and Zoe at the End of the World” is one of those stories that appeared in my head in discreet chunks. I had the opening scene, with Sophie’s mother taking her pills and lying down to die; and I had the scene with Sophie hastily filling a bag with books. But nothing else. I knew they were part of the same story, and spent a few days silently mulling over how to stitch them together into a coherent narrative. Once I realized that Sophie was gathering the books for someone else — Zoe — the whole thing just snapped into place. I think I finished the first draft in only a couple of hours.
Oddly enough, I had no clear image of the characters’ physical appearance. That happens occasionally with my stories, usually when their appearance is not central to the narrative. I knew they were female, and that Zoe had ribbons in her hair, and that they were teenagers, but that was it.
So, I’m curious: how did you determine what Sophie and Zoe looked like? Did you develop definite images in your head while reading the story or doodle until it felt right?
Robin Kaplan: This is one of the big challenges of illustrating — and I tend to be a bit literal about painting scenes rather than abstracting, so it is always on my mind when I’m given a manuscript. That being said, on my first read I rarely have a distinct picture of the characters myself, but I am thinking about what they could look like and what that would mean. Getting rid of ‘white as default’ in US culture is so hard and so necessary. Images are very powerful and very polarizing. In text, anything can happen and slip under the radar, but images are so definite that they tend to be viewed less subjectively than we’re told they will be in art school.
Rebecca Buchanan: *nodding in agreement* It’s such a rare treat when non-Caucasian characters appear as protagonists, especially in speculative fiction. Those covers immediately stand out on bookshelves — and I’m not sure if that is good or bad. On a shelf lined leather-clad, sword-wielding Caucasian heroines and brawny white guys in spiffy space suits, seeing something like Julie Dillon’s “Planetary Alighnment” (the cover of Clarkesworld, November 2011), or Ravven’s covers for Annie Bellet’s Twenty-Sided Sorceress books is startling.
That makes me wonder how many speculative fiction stories out there actually *do* feature what would be considered non-traditional protagonists, but the covers give no such indication. And if so, is that deliberate(?). Do publishers slap a generic spacesscape on a science fiction novel of a heroine of Asian descent to avoid potentially losing sales to people who would never pick up a book with her on the cover?
Robin Kaplan: Interesting that you brought up what I’m used to calling ‘whitewashing’ book covers. It definitely happens. Way more books have protagonists of color than covers will let on. Whitewashing covers is usually intentional — that is, marketing insists that it sells books to the mass market instead of branding them ‘special interest.’ It can also be the more subtle ‘white as default’ — that white characters are assumed unless otherwise notified. I don’t subscribe to that theory. For book covers and character design jobs, unless the character is very clearly described, I tend to offer a range of ethnicities, giving my art directors a chance to see the character differently than just default white. For The Future Fire I get a lot of freedom, so I try to art-direct myself!
I’m very keyed into the context of fantasy illustrations right now — who is represented, who is left out. That being ‘left out’ isn’t just a matter of political correctness, it can be a matter of life and death for people who simply don’t see themselves in the future. And this story is so much about being left out of the future. That influenced their appearances greatly, because it isn’t just appearances we are dealing with here, and sometimes artists forget that in our quest to portray a likeness.
Rebecca Buchanan: *nodding in agreement again* I remember reading an interview once with Nichelle Nichols, in which she recounted her meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. She had been considering leaving Star Trek, but MLK convinced her to stay on. He told her that what she was doing was important: she was giving African-Americans a place in a future that was too-often depicted as relentlessly Caucasian. And now, of course, Lt. Uhura is considered a trail-blazing character, paving the way for so many others.
Robin Kaplan: In the USA, my home, race and class are still much more connected than we’d like to admit, and while I didn’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes, I saw no reason not to have the reader sit with a black heroine and grieve with her for her lost future, and empathize with her over her book choices and her last kiss. I loved Sophie and identified with her so strongly. Often characters like her will be default white because everyone assumes they will connect with more people that way. That’s BS. There were probably a gut-wrenchingly unjust number of black Sophies in this story, whether our heroine was or not, so why not go ahead and force the issue. Zoe’s appearance isn’t any comment on class, but I didn’t see any reason to make her white and act as though no one else exists. I loved these characters and didn’t make it through a first read without sobbing. I love books and found myself agreeing with Sophie’s choices and hoping Zoe would appreciate them — but of course she will.
Rebecca Buchanan: I am so happy to hear that the story made you cry. *insert evil grin here*
Also, I totally agree with you about a connection between reader and character being dependent on ethnicity. Horsefeathers. Themes like love, honor, freedom, the search for wisdom, and the quest for self are universal; they cross ethnic, gender, and religious lines. My library would be a very poor one indeed if I limited myself to stories featuring Caucasian, middle-class, modern American women — as would my bibliography. As a reader and as a writer, I can empathize with many different types of characters.
Robin Kaplan: None of that answered how I drew them with their exact faces, but I sketch people all the time so I can basically cast characters for projects from my sketchbooks. Determining exactly how big a nose or thick an eyebrow should be isn’t something I think about — I have my own preferences for which faces are interesting, but I also don’t like associating features with personality traits too much since it doesn’t really work that way (sorry, Disney.)
Using codified facial features is such a cop-out. Character is determined by actions and behavior, not facial features and physicality, though those things of course have an influence. Now, we all have different aesthetics and to some artists all my faces are too cute/pretty because of what I focus on and what I leave out, but I like to make appealing faces! I just think appeal falls across a very wide spectrum.
Rebecca Buchanan: You mean big eyes don’t mean innocence and guilelessness, and narrow eyes and a hooked nose don’t make one the villain? Shocking. 😉
That actually reminds me of a Thundercats episode I watched years and years ago (yes, I was a total cartoon fiend). The Thundercats met two aliens, one all gold and white and aesthetically pleasing, the other lumpy and ugly and gray. They initially trusted the pretty one just based on its appearance, and learned the hard way that doing so was a very bad idea.
Robin Kaplan: Are all the books Sophie chose books on your own shelves? Did you think about what books someone else might choose or are they the most important ones to you, personally?
Rebecca Buchanan: The books are a mixture. Some have personal importance to me: Catherynne M. Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects, Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères,Walk Now In Beauty by Janine Canan, Sarah Kennedy’s The Witch’s Dictionary, The Epic of Alexandra by Dorothy Drayton, Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden, Imogene’s Antlers by David Small, Jay Williams’ The Practical Princess, and Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess. I love those books. When I worked at a Girl Scout summer camp, I took along The Epic of Alexandra and The Paperbag Princess, and they were a hit with the campers.
The rest I settled on through research or second-hand exposure. I started thinking about what kinds of books Sophie would want to send along, what kinds of books Zoe would draw upon to (hopefully) rebuild in the future. The kinds of books that would *not* be packed away for safe keeping by the powers that be. I started digging through old grad school curricula, and various “best of …” and “classics …” lists online, and I queried my well-read friends. I ended up with a selection of books that I figured would make a good foundation for a more egalitarian, more intellectually curious, more politically sane society.