With me today on the blog is the incomparable Ingrid Sundberg, who is—say it with me—another friend from VCFA. You might know her through her blog, Ingrid’s Notes, her website, or Twitter.
El Space: Please share four quick facts about yourself.
Ingrid: I’ve dyed my hair every color of the rainbow and shaved my head once. I love to draw silly monsters, particularly ones with horns and polka-dots. My favorite TV show is Battlestar Galactica. I grew up on an island in Maine.
El Space: Cool! Now, let’s get to your work in progress. A brief synopsis, please.
Ingrid: The Nevers is a YA steampunk reimagining of Peter Pan. There’s no magic, and Peter and Hook are the heads of rival gangs that sell a hallucinogenic drug known as Fairy Dust. Wini Darling, the daughter of a bank mogul, is lured into the whimsical and artistic world of the Nevers, a secret underground artist community, in order to help her drug-addicted brother who’s been captured by pirates. Only it’s not so easy to find her brother and leave the Nevers as she thinks.
Wini finds herself intoxicated by the no-rules artist culture of the Nevers and simultaneously mixed up in a street war between the pirates and the Lost Boys. And then there’s that thrill-seeking, drunk-on-life Peter fellow who’s got one hell of a sweet spot for Wini Darling. Sometimes, not growing up can be a dangerous adventure.
El Space: Wow! Sounds awesome! What’s challenging or exhilarating about working on this story?
Ingrid: It’s really exciting to work with pre-existing material. I get to reinterpret Peter Pan with the themes that excite me. I’ve also been having lots of fun thinking up creative ways to reference the original story while still inventing my own world. There’s a great creative energy in this process. Of course, staying too true to the original material can also be a trap. I’ve had to keep giving myself permission to deviate from the original story when I need to.
The biggest challenge for me is world building, and the sheer size of this project. In the past I’ve written small, intimate contemporary stories. Suddenly, I have a whole world to invent, rules and politics to create, and an ensemble of over a dozen characters to develop. Dang!
El Space: A great challenge. You’re an author-illustrator-screenwriter. How does your novel reflect your cinematic experience?
Ingrid: I enter all of my stories visually. I see images before I see whole scenes. Those can be anything from a wisp of hair to a dramatic landscape. I always have to start with that image and then look around and see where I am and who’s in the scene.
Imagery has also really helped with world building. I have a huge photo file for this book and have been creating character and setting collages. These help me to imagine costumes, character traits, and details in a setting.
It’s interesting to see how characters will have a color palette, or how specific details will tell me about their moods. I’ve even begun to create image systems and metaphor motifs based on these collages. I have a whole secret Pinterest page dedicated to this with 35 different boards.
Here’s an example of some of my collages:
The Jolly Roger
El Space: They’re gorgeous! What other tools were helpful as you determined the scope of your world?
Ingrid: In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby talks about having a single arena for your story. He says that the smaller your arena, the stronger the story will be, because it will have a single “unity of place.” It turns out my book has two arenas, but they’re linked together because one hides within the other. So it’s helped me to think about developing those two arenas to their full potential and not venturing outside of them.
The other idea that I’ve thought about lately is the metaphorical meaning and thematic significance of each arena. For example, Neverland is supposed to be an imaginary utopia of playfulness and wonder. It’s an island that separates itself from the real world and is outside of time. So I’ve been asking myself how I will design a landscape that enhances the wonder and keeps that magical sense of exclusivity. Meanwhile, I have to contrast that with the tick-tock of the “real world” that is inevitably heading towards old age and death.
El Space: What books have you read recently with impressive world building?
Ingrid: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor blew me away with its world building. Everything was very specific and it had a history.
It didn’t feel like it stood on the shoulders of what others had previously invented. It had a unique and compelling world of its own. It had depth and weight to it. Every detail seemed intricately woven into the whole. I saw Laini Taylor speak about this book at a signing and she mentioned that she read a lot of folklore while writing the book. She said that every culture invents its own folklore, and you can tell a lot about a culture’s values by the stories they tell themselves. Plus, Laini Taylor has pink hair, so she must be brilliant!
El Space: I think so too! So, what excites you about the steampunk genre?
Ingrid: Honestly, I don’t know a lot about steampunk. I’m learning as I go. But I think I’m visually excited about a steampunk world. I’m obsessed with the textures of it. I love the precision of intricately woven clockwork, or the allure of emerald-colored goggles. Oh, and the fashion! Can you really get enough of velvet top hats and triple-buckled boots? This world is a smorgasbord of delicious imagery that allows me to really play with language!
El Space: Love the fashions! Now, what’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Ingrid: I often get overwhelmed by the scope of this project. The best advice I got recently was to imagine a picture frame, and to only look at what’s inside that frame. Forget about the rest of the world. Focus on what I can see inside that small box of space. Write about that. Then look in a new picture frame and write about that. It’s really helped me to focus on small pieces, which amazingly seem to find their own way of linking together.
Thanks, Ingrid, for sharing your process and your collages. If you have questions for Ingrid, you know what to do: please comment below!
Laini Taylor author photo, book cover, and Peter Pan cover from Goodreads. Truby cover from macmillan.com. All other photos are courtesy of Ingrid Sundberg.