Tuesday 9 February 2016

Fully charged: Q&A with Jo Cotterill and Cathy Brett on ELECTRIGIRL

By Miriam Craig

Illustration by Cathy Brett; cover design by Holly Fulbrook
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been really enjoying the resurgence of more heavily illustrated books for older children. Electrigirl, written by Jo Cotterill and illustrated by Cathy Brett, is a wonderful step further in the same direction. Part book and part-comic, it tells the story of Holly Sparkes, who acquires alarming new superpowers when she’s hit by a bolt of mysterious green lightning. Then, just as she’s learning to control her new powers, her best friend disappears. Children aged roughly 8-12 will zoom through this story.

Where did the idea for Electrigirl come from? 
Jo: From my frustration at a lack of female superheroes! And the idea that it would be cool to write one, and the idea of putting comics into a 'normal' novel. All of that combined, really – once I'd had the idea, I was determined to make it work somehow.

Why a superhero story, and why electricity?
Jo: Because superheroes are cool. And electricity – well, initially, Holly was going to have all the powers possible...! And then I realised it wasn't very practical. And electricity seemed like a good power to write about, since it's incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, and it was a way of getting Holly's brother Joe involved as her mentor. He's obsessed with superheroes and comics, so he thinks he knows how you train a superhero – and he's pretty good at it.

Holly getting hit by the lightning that gives her SUPERPOWERS!
How did you two end up working together?
Jo: Electrigirl was my idea, and as soon as I knew I wanted it to be highly illustrated, I looked around to see who might be a good fit for the idea. I knew that in order for a publisher to 'get' this project, I would need to present a package that demonstrated the concept of comic strip alternating with text. Cathy had been blogging on Girls Heart Books (which I run), and I adored her style, so I asked her if she'd be willing to team up on an untried, untested, uncommissioned, bonkers idea. Luckily for me, she said yes!

How long did it take to write/develop the book, in total?
Jo: Three years.
Cathy: It’s amazing we never gave up in all that time! I think we both felt so strongly that this book was going to work, so that kept us going; Jo with multiple rewrites and me with the sheer volume of drawing that it takes to make a graphic novel.

An Electrigirl design meeting. L-R: Cathy Brett, Gill Sore (Assistant Editor) and Kathy Webb (Editor)
What research did you have to do for the book? 
Jo: I read loads of Spider-Man comics. And tried books I'd never come across before, including the astonishing Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which is a book everyone should read. I also spent an afternoon with an electrical engineer who showed me round two substations and explained how electrical power gets from the generators to homes. That was when I was planning to have Holly sneak into an electrical substation in order to gain her powers. The engineer told me firmly not to put that in a children's book! So I didn't…!

How did you decide which sections should be text and which should be comic? 
Jo: That was fairly straightforward. When Holly is being an 'ordinary girl', the story is in prose. When she is using her superpowers, we flip into comic strip. Occasionally during development I wrote a scene that I felt would work better in comics than prose, and so I had to manipulate it so that Holly's powers were switched on for that section.

Can you tell me about the process of developing the images and how it worked?
Cathy: The process for this book was quite unlike others I've illustrated.  I usually get an artwork brief right at the end, when a manuscript has already been edited, proofed and typeset. The publisher will then decide which illustrator they will get to fill in all the gaps they've left on that pages. With Electrigirl, that convention went out the window. Jo wanted someone to develop the visuals early on, as these were so important to her comic/novel concept. It was a great way to work but very complicated and we couldn't have done it without art director extraordinaire Holly Fulbrook at OUP.

What inspires you?
Cathy: Interestingly, I discovered at our first Electrigirl meeting that Jo was obsessed with Asterix The Gaul as a child (a series of funny French comic books about the Romans in Europe). I was too and it's likely that, as a consequence, my illustration has the 'Asterix' influence. This might also explain why Jo and I have the same sense of humour and work so well together.
Jo: Hiccupping in Latin is funny! I find other authors really inspiring – the children’s and young adult books I read these days, wow. Some of my fellow children’s authors are just amazing and they keep me aspiring to be better.

How do you get unstuck when you’re writing or drawing?
Cathy: Kid's telly. Or Pixar movies. They will always get me unstuck.
Jo: Several ways: I go for a walk or do the laundry or shopping; or I might go sit outside if it’s warm enough; or I plough on through it doggedly, hoping it’ll get better; or I bounce plot problems off my husband. Often, just expressing the issue out loud resolves it. But I don’t let myself get stuck for long – I don’t have the luxury of time.

It looks like there’s going to be another Electrigirl adventure. Can you tell us anything about it? 
Jo: Yes, it's out in August and is called Electrigirl and the Deadly Swarm. Holly goes on holiday to recover from the events of Book 1 – but down in Cornwall, someone has trapped a Cornish piskie (the same as a pixie) that turns out to have a very nasty sting! Holly, her brother Joe and her best friend Imogen all feature, along with some of the other characters we've met in the first book. I LOVED writing it; it was so much fun!
Cathy: I'm still drawing it!!

What superpower would you have if you could have any superpower, and why?
Jo: The power of healing. I hate it when people are suffering. I'd love to be able to fix terrible diseases and injuries.
Cathy: I'd like to fly, I think. Who doesn't want to fly? Or teleportation (instant travel from one place to another), so I don't have to sit in traffic jams any more.

How do you want people to feel when they reach the end of this book? 
Jo: Entertained. And, subtly, that girls can be cool superheroes too.

Jo and Cathy in full Electrigirl superpower mode...

...and their characters!

For more info about Jo Cotterill and Cathy Brett, visit their websites here and here.

By Miriam Craig
Twitter: @miriamhcraig
Instagram: @miriamhcraig

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