By Jason Harris
You Gonna Die, Fly was released last month. It was my pleasure to talk to Elizabeth Massie and Barbara Spilman Lawson about their creation. Massie wrote the story while Barbara illustrated this cute book.
JH: When did you come up with the concept/idea of You Gonna Die, Fly? Did you two come up with it together? What inspired it?
Elizabeth: A couple years ago, while at NECON (a great July convention in Rhode Island), I bought a copy of It’s Okay to Be a Zombie by Nathaniel Lambert and Danny Evarts. It’s a total hoot, wild and over-the-top, and is marketed as an “unchildren’s book.” I started thinking about how much I get a kick out of books with bright, insane artwork, especially if they illustrate stories that are equally crude, fun, and crazy. I also was aware that summer of how many flies there seemed to be – buzzing around my car, some of the bushes in the yard, and banging into the windows and into me inside the house. I started jotting down ideas for a short tale featuring a fly and his life. Then I showed it to my sister Barb, whose cartoony artwork I adore. She agreed to create the illustrations. We pretty much forgot about it for almost two years, and then we talked it over again during one of our long road trips together (Barb is a professional storyteller, and I often travel with her to help out.)
Once Barb created the character of Fly, with his one little eye/one big eye and ball-shaped body, the rest flowed like fine wine. Or cheap wine. Or stinky swamp water. Okay, like something wet that pours.
Barbara: After Beth wrote the book, she asked me if I’d like to illustrate it. My art style is bold, colorful and cartoony, so a picture book was the perfect idea. And I loved the idea of a “NOT-for kids” picture book. I write and illustrate my own picture books (actually FOR kids – I was a Kindergarten teacher for over 20 years and a professional storyteller now) but I love the chance to illustrate for a different genre. (Is a totally tacky and rude not-for-kids picture book an actual genre? If not, it should be.)
JH: Was Fly going to be the main character all along or did it start out as something else?
Elizabeth: Fly was always going to be the main character. Flies in real life drive me crazy, all buzzy in my ears and hair and banging around and crawling on stuff, but I do have a bit of sympathy for them with their itty-bitty short lives and being flies and all. So I imagined what it might be like for a fly who wanted to search for the meaning of his life, even though he only had two weeks to make it happen.
JH: Barbara, is this the first book you have been the illustrator for? If not, what else have you illustrated?
Barbara: I wrote a children’s book with Beth (Jambo Watoto: Hello, Children, Creative Arts Press, 1998), which was illustrated by artist, Marsha Heatwole. It’s a beautiful art book for kids. But that’s not what you asked, is it? I am just finishing writing and illustrating my own picture book, How Many Words Does It Take To Write A Book? It will be available in September, but not published under the Fucked Up Folktales Publishing line. ‘Cause you know, since it actually is for kids. Thought that was good move. It will be published under Stories With A Twist Books publishing.
Elizabeth: Barb forgot to mention that she has also written and illustrated a number of entertaining picture books toward the Virginia Standards of Learning for public schools under her Fun Stuff Publications imprint. These books have been a hit with kids and lifesaver for teachers needing clear, fun, practical, and memorable materials to teach the standards.
JH: Elizabeth, you have worked with Cortney [Skinner] before? Why not on this book?
Elizabeth: Cortney has been hired to do the artwork and cover designs for a number of my novels and collections – such as the ones for Afraid, Sineater, The Fear Report, Sundown, Naked On the Edge, Homegrown –and he is incredibly talented! However, I’d wanted to collaborate with my sister Barb for a while, and You Gonna Die, Fly seemed like the perfect project. I knew her light-hearted and sometimes insane illustrative style and was sure she would push it over the edge where it belonged!
JH: How long did it take to write and illustrate You Gonna Die, Fly?
Elizabeth: It took me a little over a week, to write the story. Then I let it sit and went over it again for some tweaking. Then it sat and sat and then Barb got her hands on it.
Barbara: When I finally started working on the pictures (a couple of years after Beth first wrote the story), it took about six weeks to get everything finished and ready for printing. As I completed each picture, I sent it to Beth and she checked it out and gave some input. “I really like this one!” or “Well, that sucks the big one.” You know, helpful, constructive input.
JH: You just started Damn You, Demon. When do you think the public will be able to get their hands on it?
Elizabeth: Barb had drawn a round, red, ball-shaped demon picture for another project we have in the works and we realized that the style would be perfect for a second book in the Fucked Up Folktales line. We just came up with the idea a week or so ago, and we’re working on that as we speak. Or will get back to it after we speak here, in this interview. Anyway, I’m guessing it will be ready to order by early September.
Barbara: What she said.
JH: Is there a timetable for the publishing of your books?
Barbara: There is no set timetable for publishing, but hopefully we’ll get all our books published before we’re dead.
Elizabeth: I like selling things before I’m dead. And yes, we have ideas for books beyond Fly and Demon. Oh, we do indeed ….
JH: I loved the first one. It was informative and funny. I actually looked-up online to see if flies only lived two weeks. I didn’t want the story or Fly’s life to end. Did you do research for the book before writing or illustrating?
Barbara: I looked up pictures of flies to see what they are supposed to look like. Then I drew a ball with wings. I also gathered pictures of stinkbugs, ticks, bowl weevils, beetles and lightning bugs for reference (for the insect orgy page).
Elizabeth: Thanks, Jason! We didn’t want Fly’s life to end, either, but damn it, there ya go. As to flies’ lifespans, we checked to see how long they live. Some live just a couple weeks. Some live a month or a little more. Hey, we want our rude, crude, over-the-top, not-for-kids picture books to be based in facts!
JH: You named your publishing company, Fucked Up Folktales. How long did it take to come up with the name? Is there any significance to the name?
Elizabeth: It took about ten seconds to decide the name. I’d recently been hired to write retellings of folktales for a major educational publisher. I researched a lot of folktales and geez louise, a lot of them are messed up. In one country, about 80% of the folktales end with some dude getting his head cut off. Happy-happy folktales! So anyway, while Barb and I were driving into town for some errand or other (did I tell you we live next door to each other, out in the country, so we run errands together fairly often?) I was telling her about the crazy-ass stories. I blurted out, “Those are some fucked up folktales!” Barb got this look on her face and said, “That the name for our line of not-for-kids picture books! Perfect!” And, you see, since folktales are tales made up by and told by folks, and Barb and I like to think of ourselves as folks, we figure ours could be new folktales. Perhaps our little stories will live on into the future, told and retold, read and re-read, like those lovely ones where dudes get their heads cut off.
Barbara: Once we decided on the publishing company name, we got together with our web designer. She hesitated, angled her head a little and asked, “With that name, what if you get some people looking for porn?” And I asked, “Do they buy books?”
JH: How has the response been for the book?
Barbara: Fantastic! Here are excerpts from a few early reviews: “It’s freakin’ hilarious and adorable.” “I honestly thought it was one of the most clever and funniest things I’ve read in a long time!!!” “This book is the poop!” “I LOVE “You Gonna Die, Fly”!!!!! It’s dark and irreverent and … stinky. Perfect!”
JH: How would you describe it to people. A children’s book for adults?
Elizabeth: We purposely call it a “not-for-kids picture book.” We put the “not-for-kids” first for people who can only read and comprehend a few words at a time. Otherwise, they’ll be giving it away to babies to enjoy, and can you imagine the mayhem when babies start acting likes flies, cussing, smoking, drinking, emulating their favorite character? I shudder at the thought.
Barbara: We don’t want it mistaken in any way for a children’s book. We put a picture of Fly smoking a cigarette on the front cover, we described the book as the “Not-for-Kids” book on the back cover so we hope adults will take a little time to flip through it and see it is NOT a kid’s book. We hope it is very clear. We hope adults are that smart.
JH: Besides the website, are there any other places to purchase the book?
Elizabeth: At the moment, the only place to order them is either through our Fucked Up Folktales website, the You Gonna Die, Fly page (http://fuckedupfolktales.com/you-gonna-die-fly/) or through the You Gonna Die, Fly Facebook page (instructions are on the page.) Eventually, we’ll look into putting it on Amazon. After we figure how to do that.
Barbara: Yep, we’re working on it ….