William Joyce: ‘I got 127 rejection slips before I ever got an invitation to do anything’

By Maryann Yin Comment

William Joyce may be an Oscar-winning filmmaker, but he always puts books first.

After winning the 2012 Academy Award for “Best Short Film” with The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, Joyce published that story as a picture book and an app. In a GalleyCat interview, he shared advice on apps, self-editing and writing.

Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: By pluck luck and accident. I was two weeks out of college and I sent my portfolio to Harper Collins (they were called Harper and Row then) they said come on up. I had no prospects for employment whatsoever and didn’t expect anything to happen other than to get a nice pat on the head and a cookie. I went into the office there and they gave me a book contract to illustrate Tammy and the Gigantic Fish. I didn’t have an agent or anything; they just liked my stuff. I don’t think that kind of thing happens anymore. They don’t even have readers. They don’t take unsolicited manuscripts anymore. I got in at that last golden time when you could walk in off the street. I illustrated five books before I was confident enough to do my own stories.

Q: During your visit to New York City’s Books of Wonder, you revealed that books will always come first for you. Can you talk more about that?
A: Everything that we work on at Moonbot Studios, I can see it as a book clearly and every other avenue we can take is a second choice. Not that they don’t have as much merit in emotions or intellect, but I can always see them as a book first. That’s just the way I’m wired. Making a book is complicated, but less complicated than making a movie, game or app, or any other form of storytelling. That’s not saying it’s simple, but it is less complicated because you are relying more on yourself as an individual. You’re not collaborating as much. You don’t have to deal with different mentalities, emotional states of mind, personalities and all those other things that go into a collaboration – which is part of the fun of a collaboration. A book is more of a singular endeavor.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you can offer aspiring illustrators and children’s writers?
A: I don’t know if there’s any best advice. I don’t think there’s any good advice. All I can tell you is I got 127 rejection slips before I ever got an invitation to do anything. If you can just break through that first barrier to getting published then that’s the biggest challenge and the greatest victory. After you’ve gone over the wall, or breached the battlements, or whatever you want to call it, then you just have to learn to function within the system. Getting into the system is the most difficult part. Just don’t give up because it’s changing: it’s becoming more democratic. There’s going to be more startups and new ways of publishing. Big publishers are still the best game in town but the game is changing fast. It’ll be interesting to see what’s next. Just be determined, be patient, don’t give up. There are going to be new ways to get into the game. You won’t have to wait long.

Q: As both an author and an illustrator, describe the process you undergo when you take on a project requiring that you create everything.
A: Well, first you put on your deity hat and your cloak of infallibility and decide that you are god over this world that you will now create. You have to be comfortable with that. Once you are comfortable in that, the next step depends on each project. Sometimes, I do research. We’re working on a story inspired by the Golem in Jewish folklore.

I did a lot of research into the Golem’s story and other Jewish folktales and mythology. I wanted to know more about Prague and it’s architecture. There’s always some kind of daffy research or some kind of frame of reference I’m jumping off of whether that’s 1930’s ephemera, architecture, illustration, trade magazines like Popular Mechanics from 1935, encyclopedias from back then, design elements from whatever era I’m deciding to place the story in. But never staying particularly true to that stuff, always making it it’s own once up a time.

Each one is different sometimes it’s totally wacked out with no basis in reality whatsoever. It’s just sitting down and getting the image and vision in your head of what you want the story to be. I can never tell what thing will turn the key. It’s often just totally random by accident like a photograph I see in a magazine, an illustration that has no direct correlation to what I’m working on and then POW! I see it. I’m always trolling for ideas whether I mean to or not.

Q: What do you think is the best way to self-edit your writing?
A: Self-editing is the hardest thing, at first. You have to hurdle past the fact that you aren’t a god that strides the earth and realize that you are fallible. I just try to be as exacting a critic as anyone else would be and stay true to whatever it is I am trying to do. You have to to ride this interesting fence: what you know you want your story to be and when you’re off track. And be able to admit it to yourself. Your editor can tell you but sometimes they’re right or wrong and you need to be prepared to argue your point if you are certain that you are right. It’s the hardest thing to have someone sit there and criticize what you’ve just sweated buckshot over. I fuss over stuff until they drag it out of my hands. You will never be finished. There’s a deadline that will be met and they’ll pry it away from you and you’ll never be satisfied. The hardest thing is just to know when your stuff sucks and it could be better because usually it can be.

Sometimes I read criticism where I realize the critic didn’t understand what I was going for. There’s a point where you ask, “did I not do my job because they didn’t see that?” It varies on the personality of the critic, you can’t please everybody. There are critics I respect and who don’t like things I adore, not just my work but other people’s work. I have a good friend who is a great book critic and we have books that we will get in a fist fight over, you can’t think of it as pleasing everybody. Maurice Sendak told me early in my career, if you’re not pissing off at least 25% of the people, you’re not doing your job.

Q: Creatively speaking, you have worked in three different mediums: film, apps and children’s books. Describe the different approaches you take with each of these different kinds of projects.
A: I only drink coffee with apps, wine with films and opiates with children’s books. That’s a joke.

Two of those are collaborative. A book is more singular. It’s all about getting a story right. The approaches only differ in the number of people you are collaborating with.

Q: Do you have any tips for those who want to create or work their own children’s books apps? What about writers who want to consult with a tech company to transform their book into an app?
A: If you are trying to do a book app, please do everyone a favor and don’t think of it as a book. Use what the technology gives you to tell a story within that medium and don’t try to pretend it is a book. Don’t regurgitate a book experience. Make it an interactive experience and make those interactions apply to the story. Make them in ways subtle and obvious, in ways that advance the story and not be just for the sake of putting your finger on a thing that will jump up and down. Don’t think of it as a gimmick, think of it as an extension of telling a story.

Q: With The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, what steps did you undertake to make sure that each project (the picture book, the app, the short film) could stand on its own?
A: There’s a thousand ways to perform a play with the same lines and story. It’s where you choose to emphasize things, the tone you’re going for or the information you are going to impart. So anything that seems to depart from the story you are trying to tell: cut it out. But if it departs in a way that enriches the story: then keep it. If your instincts are good enough, you’ll know when you are helping the story or hindering the story. It was our goal in each of these three different ways to make each stand on their own. They all tell almost exactly kind of the same story but because of the different mediums, we had different ways of making bits of emphasis.

So, in the book, Morris Lessmore repairs books when he gets old, that’s basically a spread because we only have about 50 pages. In the short, we can make that a three minute sequence. We could have done a whole 50 page book describing that one event, but that’s not the story we wanted to tell. Picture books are reductive. They are about leaving things out and hoping that the reader fills in the blanks. In movies, we show you everything. The app is something in between, you are expected to use your imagination to a point perhaps to find where the interactivity is. So you are drawn into the interactivity, we try to not have it screaming at it so you. It’s always more fun to find things than be told.

Q: Vampires, dystopian, greek myths; do you have any predictions on the next big IT trend in children’s publishing?
A: It’s my secret and you’ll know when it comes out. Wait, it’s coming out next year and Moonbot is doing it!

Q: What’s next for you?
A: We’ll be doing three books a year with our Moonbot Studios imprint at Simon and Schuster. We are currently working on several games, including Diggs Nightcrawler for the Sony Wonderbook as well as a few storybook apps.

I’ll continue working on the Guardians of Childhood book series as well. With this book series, every movie studio in town wanted to buy the idea from me but I always had this plan. There would be thirteen books, including picture books and novels, that tell the story of these guys and the feature length film would be set 200 years later. I didn’t want an adaptation of the book: this world is bigger than that. I wanted to set up the world in the books and then show how they deal with their lives in the movie when their ancient enemy returns in Rise of the Guardians. I didn’t want to be stuck trying to be true to something we’d already done. I didn’t want the audience comparing the movie to the book and I didn’t want the audience to know what happens in the movie. No studio in town wanted to do both the books and movies this way. Dreamworks was the only studio who liked the idea of them being separate. They liked the idea that the audience would have a surprise narrative they would be experiencing for the first time. I’m super stoked.