26 Jul

Bartography Express: “We couldn’t actually have murder in the mystery”


The Q&A for the July edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with Jason Gallaher, my fellow Austinite and the debut author of Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, and with the book’s Belgian illustrator, Jess Pauwels.

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a copy of this wordplay-packed picture book (published just last week by Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster), which Kirkus Reviews could not resist calling “A cracking whooooo-dunit.”

Chris: Every thriller needs a twist, and the fate of Perry the possum provides that twist in Whobert Whover. Considering the age of your audience, what were the challenges in making the case solvable by readers without that twist being too obvious?

Jason: Your question totally hits on the unique situation that this book at its heart is a murder mystery, but since this book is for young readers, we couldn’t actually have murder in the mystery.

My first clue that everything was going to turn out fine was by making the victim a possum. Among older readers, it’s known that possums who appear to have met an untimely end often times are a-okay.

So I thought with that knowledge, adults could read Whobert’s story with assuredness that Perry is going to walk away in the end, and have this bonding moment with youngsters in which they get to learn about possums and their physical hijinks.

I also did what so many writing workshops tell you not to do: I included illustration notes in the manuscript that my agent (Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency) submitted to editors. But this was only because the text of what Whobert says does not match what is being shown on the page.

And those illustration notes weren’t “Jess, you must illustrate this scene this way or else,” but more, “Here’s what I’m thinking is going on so it’s clear that Whobert’s perceptions are off.” At least, that’s how I hope those notes came across to Jess!

Jess: Usually, my job is to bring a shift between the text and the illustrations, avoiding redundancy.

Here, as Jason said, there is already a shift between the text and the scenes. It’s the whole concept. Everything happens unsaid.

Jason’s notes were super important for me to get exactly the plot. They were part of the story, as the text was.

His point was absolutely not to “direct” my work but to help me to draw what was essential.

Respecting his notes, everything was still open for me to bring my ideas about composition, ambiance, expressions, details and fun.

I saw my job here as an opportunity to bring my “visual touch” to Jason’s fantastic humour.

I just did a kind of a funny “Usual Suspects” casting to an already well-constructed movie.

Whobert Whover, Owl Detective illustrator Jess Pauwels (left) and author Jason Gallaher


Chris: Jess, Whobert Whover is your first U.S. picture book, and Jason, this is your first book, period. It’s a milestone for each of you. How did you each decide who to dedicate this book to?

Jess: Whobert Whover, Owl Detective is indeed my first USA picture book, and I’m so proud of it! I couldn’t have hoped for a better story to try my luck over there. In the USA you have a total different way of telling stories. I found it — and Jason’s writing — fabulous.

I dedicated it, “For Julien ‘Harfang,’ best owl detective ever.” Julien is my husband, He has supported me a lot since I decided to focus on illustration. And thanks to his passion for stories, images, and investigations he coached me to direct the forest drama Jason has created.

The funny part is that Whobert is a owl, and Julien’s Boy Scout name was “Harfang,” which is a snow owl. I couldn’t miss the occasion to thank him.

Jason: My dedication in Whobert reads, “To Grandma Joan, who, who always knew I would be a writer.”

And it’s true! G-Ma J knew I was going to be a writer even before I did. I was always telling her stories and always making her take me to the library when we would go visit her in Billings, Montana.

I distinctly remember the day one summer when I was about 8 and we arrived at her house where she had a typewriter and a huge stack of blank paper waiting for me. She said, “Now get writing, John Grisham.” She set that typewriter up for me from then on every time we would see her.

While I went more the Dr. Seuss route than the Grisham route, she never stopped encouraging me to write. She got to hear the news that I was getting published about six months before she passed. Even though she’s gone, I can still feel her reading over my shoulder every now and then while I’m writing, and I know she’s cheering me on.

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