Jim Ottaviani

Jim Ottaviani
librarian, graphic novel author
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 9 September 2011
Temperature: 70 F
Ceiling: beadboard
Ground: porch boards
Wind: S at 7 mph

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TT with HD: Jim Ottaviani

[Ed. note: Jim Ottaviani's website is right under that link. You can buy "Feynman" at Nicola's Books. A YouTube video promoting "Feynman," which is mentioned in the conversation below, is right under that link. ]

HD: Now let's go for real. I've had some issues with creaking. It looks like we'll be fine.

JO: Maybe I need to pull back a little further to balance you better.

HD: Okay, so welcome to the teeter totter.

JO: Thank you.

HD: So I wanted to ask you, the title of this book you've written is "Feynman" ...

JO: ... that's right.

HD: But it's just the one word. And it's a graphic novel ...

JO: ... also right.

HD: And so to me, I wondered if it was meant consciously if it was meant to tap into the pattern of Aquaman, Spiderman, Superman, Feyn-man.

JO: That's a really ... I've been listening to a lot of Shakespeare lately and was thinking that Spakespeare would have had a field day with the name Feynman. He would have made many puns and all that. But no, absolutely it was not a response to that, at least not consciously. Usually, I have ideas for titles for stories. This one I completely spaced on, punted--whatever you want to say--what it should be and really left it to the publisher. And he said, it's gotta be "Feynman," that's it, we'll stop. And I've got nothing else. [Ed. note: At this point, the totter began groaning. Commentary on that is elided.]

HD: We might have to just sort of balance, instead of rigorously tottering. So that was your publisher, he said, How about "Feynman"? and you said alright, I don't got anything better. It's hard to complain, it's accurate.

JO: It's accurate, it's succinct. If you've seen the cover of the book ...

HD: ... it's the guy!

JO: It works as nice bold lettering. So it's fine!

HD: The cover also includes a depiction of Feynman himself, right?

JO: That's right.

HD: So the head shot. So for things like that, do you say to the illustrator, "I'd like Feynman's head here."? Or when it comes down to the panels on the page, when you write, do you say, "This panel will have this text and I want roughly this kind of scene."?

JO: Mmm hmm. So yeah, I'll answer the second question first. When I write the story, it's actually quite detailed. I won't necessarily start the writing with "Page 1, Panel 1, Jim and Dave sitting on the teeter totter on the porch, the house is yellow." But it will be that level of description and it will indicate the dialogue, indicate the captions, all that stuff.

HD: So it might not be each panel ...?

JO: ... it will be each panel.

HD: So each little box?

JO: Each panel and each page. So I'll specify what's in each panel and where I think the pages should break, and oftentimes, angles--you know, if you want to speak in terms of camera angles, I'll specify that as well.

HD: So do you describe it using purely text or do you do you do a crude sketch of what you'd like?

JO: It depends. Especially in terms of page layout, when I mean to suggest something that's tricky, as opposed to just a standard grid of panels, then I'll often sketch that out. And if there's something that's unusual about the way I visualize a particular scene or a particular panel, then sometimes I'll sketch that out. For this book, I did almost none of that, as I recall.

Regardless of what I do, when I've finished writing, and I've worked it over with the editors, moved stuff, added stuff, shifted things around, hand off to the artist, it goes from being gospel to being suggestion. So then--I use this phrase a lot--the "heavy lifting" in terms of telling a comic story is done by the artist. What you see, when you end up opening a book that's a graphic novel, is all the pictures. You don't see the script. You see the dialogue that I specified, but all that description--you know about yellow siding, sitting on the teeter totter, both Jim and Dave are wearing jeans, all this stuff ...

HD: ... and make sure it's vinyl siding, not historic authentic siding ...

JO: ... no, seriously, sometimes I'll put that level of detail in there, knowing that it's impossible to depict. But it gives the artist ...

HD: ... a sense of what the feel should be?

JO: Exactly so. Exactly so. So that's for the interior. Your first part of the question was about the cover. I had nothing to do with it. That was between the designer and Leland, the artist. And she gave him direction, I assume, or she said, Leland, whadday think? And he threw some sketches at her and he worked with whatever images he provided.

HD: So Leland you've worked with on previous books?

JO: No, I haven't. I've actually worked with a different Leland on a previous book. It's an unusual enough name that you would think, How many comic artists Jim can work with on science graphic novels named Leland? And it turns out there's two. Yeah, I worked with a fellow named Leland Purvis on a book about Neils Bohr, my other big physics hero. I'm actually working with Leland Purvis again on a forthcoming book.

HD: On?

JO: On Alan Turing, the computer scientist and mathematician. But in between is this book drawn by Leland Myrick, who I've never worked with before. But I knew his work from way back, we've been acquaintances for years. And he alleges to be a fan of my work.

HD: [laugh]

JO: I have no reason to disbelieve him! I certain am, and am on record as being, a fan of his work, since way back when I was on a prize-nominating committee. One of my suggestions was Leland Myrick. It was years and years before this happened.

HD: So I saw a Tweet come through from earlier today from someone at UM library, the last name was Hage ... is that right? H-A-G-E ...?

JO: ... That's my wife, Kat Hagedorn!

HD: Ah, okay. Anyway [the Tweet said "Feynman" is] Number One on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover graphic novels.

JO: Yeah.

HD: So this is available in hardcover.

JO: That's right.

HD: Is there a softcover version?

JO: Apparently not, right now. And Leland, the artist, just sent a message to me and Calista, our editor, and said, Hey, people are asking when and if there's going to be a soft cover. And Calista responded saying, Look, it's planned for. But she didn't have a schedule for that, yet.

HD: Will there be an electronic version, a Kindle version or some e-book version ...

JO: ... Kindle wouldn't work well, because this book is in full color. So if it was going to be on anything, it would be for the NOOK, or some of the various applications that run on the iPad. I'm not aware of any plans for that, yet.

HD: What I enjoyed, there's the YouTube video preview [for "Feynman"], that's I dunno, it was like having somebody turn the pages for me, and I found myself thinking, Wow, I wish somebody would just do the whole graphic novel like that. I would like to watch a graphic novel in the same way that that was presented.

JO: Even if you couldn't control the pace of the page turning?

HD: I'm not so sure I would mind about that.

JO: Interesting. Because that's one of the advantages that people talk about with the book, codex, however fancy you want to get--say compared with film, or play or radio drama--is that with the novel or with the book, the reader controls the pace, and can go back and forth. Even though now, with video and Tivo, and all these things to mess around with how you experience it, what I'm told is that most people don't. They take a television program or a movie and they watch it ...

HD: ... straight through ...

JO: ... right, end to end. Don't pause and rewind.

HD: But maybe skip some things.

JO: Maybe pause to grab a snack or go to the bathroom, or whatever. But there's not much back and forth, whereas books permit that, and in fact might even encourage that sort of experience. So this notion of reader control over the experiencing of the narrative is important.

So it's interesting for me to hear that you'd be perfectly happy to go at the pace that the page turns.

HD: Well, to put that in context, I don't think I've actually engaged a physical book as a book in at least 10 years. I mean I have books on my shelf from my undergraduate and graduate school days that I keep there ...

JO: ... remind yourself ...

HD: ... yeah, as an artifact of, Yeah, I worked really hard that semester and that was my textbook. I like having it around, just a reminder that I worked hard. And it's not costing me too much space. But books are not something that I engage these days, so what I'm comparing it to ... a page-turning book experience for a graphic novel, it just struck me that it was very appealing to me. And I thought to myself, I wonder if I will ever actually read this graphic novel called "Feynman." So if someone would just shoot it and present it to me like that, there's like panning, there's like Ken Burns effect stuff.

JO: I made that video.

HD: Oh, really?

JO: Yeah.

HD: Just by hand?

JO: Well, iMovie.

HD: It's really nicely done.

JO: Thank you. I've not done much before.

HD: But as far as the camera? You just held it really still, or what?

JO: We can't be talking about the same thing. I don't think I've seen this version.

HD: Mmm. Well there's bongos, music.

JO: Yeah.

HD: That's yours, then.

JO: Yeah.

HD: So we're talking about the same thing.

JO: But I didn't pan through the pages or anything ...

HD: ... but it shows images from the novel is what I mean ...

JO: ... oh, you've got to have a look at iMovie. It's a really excellent tool. And they have "Ken Burns Effect," click on that, and it'll pan. You decide where your beginning point is and where your end point is ...

HD: So you just import an image, you weren't shooting with a camera?

JO: Right. And just stitched some things together, because some of the things I wanted to show crossed over pages, in which case it would have included a page turn and holding a camera very steady.

HD: So you're headed off on a tour, a book tour to promote this thing?

JO: Yes!

HD: So how long is that going to last and how many miles are you going to cover?

JO: Because I'm the kind of guy that I am, I actually calculated the number of miles I'm going to cover--about 12,000.

HD: Wow. Are you going all the way to China?

JO: I'm not going all the way to China. It goes from Ann Arbor to Stanford, to Los Alamos, to Washington D.C., ...

HD: ... so you're hitting the hotbeds of physics ...

JO: ... oh, I skipped UT Austin ... to Washington D.C. to New York City, to Yale, to Boston, back to New York, to Durham, to Ann Arbor again, where I'll be talking locally, and back. And then to Miami.

HD: The reason I asked about China, is that I wanted to make sure I asked what the back story is to being refused beer in Qingdao. [JO's website alludes to this without elaborating.]

JO: That was a long time ago, in the true People's Republic of China, this was in the mid '80s. I was there as an exchange student for a summer, with a number of other undergraduates from the University of Illinois, where I was a student. I was actually between the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. And after the formal part of the program, my friend Dennis Li and I did some more travelling, and unlike me at the time, he was a big fan of beer. He loved drinking beer. I've only recently acquired a taste for beer--now that my metabolism has slowed, now I like beer. Great! So he wanted to go to Qingdao, where the most famous beer in China was made. Apparently there'd been a German settlement there for a long time ...

HD: ... excactly ...

JO: ... and so we get there, we go to the brewery, they won't let us in, they won't let us have a beer, they won't let us do anything. We beg and plead. And I trotted out some of my weak Chinese and that helped, I guess. Dennis was Taiwanese, his folks had come from Taiwan, and certainly at this time, that was not a postive.

HD: I imagine not. So was his Chinese okay?

JO: His Chinese was splendid. And mine was rotten. You know, enough to get by--I could order food, I could order train tickets, I could have light conversation, but I wasn't good. So anyway, they still didn't give us any beer.

HD: So the end of the story is you never got the beer?

JO: No, we ended up getting some beer, but not at the factory. We had to buy it just like everybody else.

HD: My Qingdao beer story is that ... my wife and I lived in China for two years teaching English, and when we were travelling around, we took a boat across the Yellow Sea, from whatever city is opposite Qingdao, but anyway, we wound up in Qingdao. [Ed. note: HD is mis-remembering. The Yellow Sea passage was preceded by a visit to Qingdao. From Qingdao, he traveled by rail to Weihai, and took a boat from there to Dalian.] It wasn't getting the beer that was the issue, it was getting overcharged for the beer. That's a standard thing.

So with my weak Chinese, I was trying to make the following argument: Look, I'm from America, I can get the exact same bottle in America for 10 times less. This is made here, where it should theoretically be less and you're charging me 10 times more, and that's just not fair. So I was trying to convey that argument in my weak Chinese.

JO: That's too much abstraction. Unless you're fluent. That's something you learn very quickly when you travel. I knew the word for "flower," but I certainly did not know the word "Iris" or "Dahlia" or "Daisy." Then to take it the other way, and to go further abstract and talk about concepts like "fairness." What did you end paying?

HD: I think we ended up paying something less than what he wanted originally, which is always a victory. But I mean you don't want to haggle over every meal. That's not enjoyable. The first time, it's fun, the second time it's still entertaining, the third and fourth time, it just wears on you.

JO: We didn't have too many of those problems. How long ago was this for you?

HD: This was the year after Tiananmen Square.

JO: Okay, so 1990. I was there in 1986. I imagine there were similar difficulties, perhaps even worse, with travel and being an outsider. You probably encountered that. My experience was that we were probably new and weird, but not threatening necessarily. Now, you're less new ...

HD: ... the novelty has worn off ...

JO: ... but it's possibly more threatening, because you could be sympathizing with students, or who knows.

HD: Listen, before we dismount, the one Richard Feynman story I know, is the O-ring episode ...

JO: ... the Challenger investigation ...

HD: ... Did that make it into the book?

JO: It did. It had to.

HD: Good. I have to imagine that if I had the book in my hand I would flip through it looking for that.

JO: Good!

HD: To validate that, you know, I know this one thing about this famous physicist, it's the one thing I know, I just want to validate that it was important enough to make it into the book.

JO: Exactly right. That's the thing you have to do anytime you're writing a book. What is the important stuff? And with Feynman, there's so much original raw material to work with that we had to throw away so many great anecdotes and so many stories. But that [the O-ring anecdote] is one of the important things.

HD: It's kind of like, I guess, when a rock band from the 1980s plays a concert now, like when Bruce Springstein performs, there's certain things he's gotta play, he's gotta play those songs or people are going to be disappointed.

JO: Yep.

HD: And for the biography of a physicist, the physicists will be disappointed if they don't see certain things in there.

JO: Yeah, I believe that's true.

HD: But I'm wondering, did you throw in any stuff where you figured, Nobody will expect this, this is an unknown thing and maybe not an unknown thing and maybe arguably isn't important, but it's just an extra, an extra thing.

JO: I'm trying to think of specifics. There are things I drew from original materials, stuff that's never been published before, that I got access to via the Caltech archives. But it's difficult for me to answer that question, because all of the choices we made have the air of inevitability--well, of course we did it that way, because that's what we did ...

HD: ... right, it was obviously important because we put it in there!

JO: But I think I understand the question, and I think it's a great one.

HD: Well, let me give you the context for why I'm asking that question. When we write up meeting reports for The Ann Arbor Chronicle, for a lot of people, they feel like we just put everything in there. And we do put an awful lot in there, but there's choices that get made ...

JO: ... yes, yes ...

HD: ... a lot gets pared away and organized. But on occasion, I will include things which, at the time I'm including them, I think are not actually historically important in a sort of a grave and historic sense, but I want to add it anyway--to convince the reader that it was a human being who put this report together, just as a little value-add, a little bonus, knowing full well that that thing I added is not the most important thing. I'm choosing to add it precisely because it's not necessarily important.

JO: Okay, I get what you're saying.

HD: But it made me think that if I had somebody who could draw fast enough, it would be entertaining, at least once, to write up a city council report as a graphic novel.

JO: Oh, sure! Yeah. Do that, please, is all I can say.

HD: I don't think a publisher would give an advance for that kind of work.

JO: Eh, probably not. But I think everyone, including the city councilmembers, would be delighted to read that version.

HD: It would be much shorter, I imagine, than the text we normally put together. We'd have to choose the little bits of text that themselves ...

JO: ... yeah, because comics in that sense are brutal. The rule of thumb, that was first put forth I think that I know of by Alan Moore, the guy who wrote Watchmen, you get about 35 words per panel.

HD: Holy crap.

JO: That's about what you get. Beyond that, it starts to look really crowded. I've never seen anybody try to prove that one way or the other. But I've noticed that I start to feel that things are looking a little crowded once you get up around 40.

HD: Things are looking a little cloggy?

JO: Yeah. So in the context of a city council where it's pretty much all talk, talk, talk, talk, that'd be rough. It'd be interesting.

HD: You'd have to say, Okay, what's the one thing that person said during their five-minute speaking turn that I can let stand for everything else.

JO: But you do have the pictures. And the question of what we did that might surprise folks or that might look less significant, its embedded more in the visuals, than in the choice of the actual anecdote or the scenes themselves. It's the details that you throw into the background that build out the environment ...

HD: ... like when, I forget if I saw this in the video that you made or some of the other promotional materials, but there's the anecdote about the diagrams that are named for Feynman that he's presenting in a lecture. The diagrams are on the blackboard behind him in the panel, and they do a lot of work in telling the narrative.

JO: Yes.

HD: So if you know what those diagrams are, you instantly "get it."

JO: When you're doing comics, you never want the words to simply repeat the pictures and the pictures to just reinforce the words. Kind of like the old "Dick and Jane" books. See Dick run! Here's your picture and who would have thought: It's a picture of Dick running! That's boring, and it's no good to do it that way.

So you've got these two tremendously valuable tools--you've got words and you've got pictures. Use'm both and use'm to the fullest extent that you can. And don't make either of them waste each other's time--I'm anthropomorphizing words and pictures here, which I shouldn't do--by just repeating the stuff. So, I think I lost--I always say this at some point in an interview or a discussion--I think I lost your original question, by finding a soapbox that I could stand on!

HD: I think we arrived at a good place! Is there anything else you wanted to get onto the record on the teeter totter, before we dismount?

JO: No, this was great!