Returning with my Authors in Isolation with a new interview! December is going to bring my annual GOTY blog series, but we’ve got a few weeks until then. Today I bring you an interview with Conservation biologist, educator and comic author Alan Hesse.
First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you write?
I am an author – illustrator of educational comic books / graphic novels about environmental subjects. My main work in progress is to finish the fourth book in a series called The Adventures of Captain Polo. This is a series of comic books about climate change and the global environmental crisis in general. While being educational, based on research and full of accurate non-fiction, the books are above all humorous comic strip fiction stories packed with both existing and fictional characters, as well as lots of action and adventure. All of the books in the series are careful to strike a positive note despite the gravity of the non-fiction subjects they address.
How do you develop your plots and characters?
My challenge is to weave my non-fiction content, based on research, into an entertaining plot with colourful yet also informative characters. To do this I first lay out the non-fiction elements of my book, and then build a story around it, providing ample space not only for including the non-fiction content but also the fiction elements. I tend to use a geographical framework, to make sure my plot stays dynamic and represents lots of varied scenarios. I create specific characters to represent particular types of people or realities, e.g. a Masai herdsman in Kenya talks about his people’s challenge with drought and tourism, whereas a fictional character like the Yeti in Tibet talks about the fact that there is less snow. My main character, Captain Polo, serves as an interpreter to draw out such conversations. Such characters serve the purpose to bring out the non-fiction content, but I also create other characters who have no such role; they serve purely to add to the fictional elements of the story, such as humour, tension, adventure etc.
Tell the world about your current project!
The current book I am working on is called Pole to Pole, the fourth book in my Captain Polo climate change comic book series. It tells the story of how my main character, an anthropomorphic polar bear called Captain Polo, find himself back out on the high seas in his sailing boat, and how he falls into one adventure after another. Polo sails from the Arctic and visits Russia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland and Senegal before finding himself in a situation aboard an oil tycoon’s (a villain) multi-million dollar super yacht in the mid-Atlantic. The book ends there on an open ending leading to Book 5, which will be the continuation of the story all the way to the Antarctic, incorporating the Brazilian Amazon and maybe another couple of places. All along the way Polo uncovers more facts about climate change, its effects on different human societies, ecosystems and wildlife.
Who would you say is the main character of your latest novel? And tell me a little bit about them!
My main character is a polar bear called Captain Polo. He walks bipedally, and he’s a gifted sailor who has a small sailing boat. Polo also knows how to speak to humans, and how to use cash, which is very handy to help get him around. At the start of the first book Polo is just a hungry polar bear whose ice floe melts and ditches him into the sea. By some miracle he manages to get hold of a small boat and in the process finds himself wearing a captain’s cap ( there is a whole comic sequence showing how this happens in the book). As the story unfolds and Polo talks to more and more people and animals all over the world he learns more about climate change and related issues that affect people, cities, ecosystems and wildlife in many parts of the world. As a talking, walking polar bear he naturally attracts attention, and in this way gradually becomes famous. As his fame grows so does his understanding and knowledge of global environmental issues and climate change and he becomes a climate activist and messenger for climate action. I guess Captain Polo could be described as a cross between Paddington Bear and Tintin.
Have you been to any conventions? If so, tell me a little about them!
Not author conventions.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
My professional background is not in literature or even art at all; I am a conservation biologist. However, in August 2018 I took the decision to quit my job and dedicate myself full time to creating my comic books. I will always work in conservation one way or another, but at that time I was becoming unhappy and frustrated with my job. I realized that if I wanted to finish my first climate comic, the 88-page paperback that has now become the Captain Polo series, I had to give it my full attention. For that reason as well as other personal reasons I quit my job and I’ve dedicated my full time to my writing and drawing career ever since. I basically leaped out into the void, and I’m still falling! Although I am still at the beginning of that particular path, I have learned an incredible amount in these past 2 years – notably about self-publishing, ebook formatting, social media and book marketing. I know I have to persist, not give up, however hard that is sometimes.
If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose?
I guess that would have to be on a sailing boat going around the world! My book would depict adventures in the places I visited, as well as on the open ocean.
What advice would you give new writers?
Given that an author nowadays also has to also be an entrepreneur to promote and market their books, the one golden rule is to keep on creating new books and learn how to promote and market them at the same time. In time, with enough books to your name, it will be easier to reach success, because each book cross promotes the others, and platforms like Amazon value volume, so the more books you write the better. I would emphasize that it’s a myth to think that if you get a publishing deal you can just sit back and reap the rewards: usually what happens is that the author will have to do a lot, if not all, of their own marketing.
What real-life inspirations did you draw from for the worldbuilding?
I would say there are two things. One is my life-long dedication to the preservation of Nature, my dream to see a human society that by and large lives sustainably, does not take more from the planet than the planet can give. This has defined not only my identity and the way I try to live, but also my professional career choices (I am a conservation biologist).
The other thing about myself that is strongly present in my books is my status as a world citizen. I have lived in many different countries on different continents. This multi-cultural heritage also defines who I am, and it shows up in my books. In my comic book series, Captain Polo the climate change bear undergoes an epic voyage around the world, and along the way he meets many characters, both human and not human, from all kinds of places and cultural backgrounds. Polo’s voyage is illustrated by maps to show where he gets to, and (thanks sometimes to Google translate!) I use real words, expressions and calligraphy in my image backgrounds, even for non-Latin languages: for example the Chinese words appearing on background signs in my images when Polo is in China are actual characters and words in Mandarin, and when he later in the story passes through Cairo the Arabic verbal expressions in the dialogues and written words on market stalls are actual Egyptian Arabic. Similarly I love to bring in the visual elements of different locations I have personally explored or lived in, it’s all in the details. Most readers don’t notice these details, but I put them in for myself!
What inspires you to write?
I believe that I can make positive impact on people, particularly children, through my books. I am inspired by my ability to create meaningful scenarios and worlds populated by fictional, visually amusing characters that deliver impactful non-fictional content about subjects I care deeply about. They say an image is worth 1000 words, and I know that humans make decisions based on their emotions. These are universal truths that inspire me to create books that are bursting with high quality imagery and carefully researched information, combining these elements with the time-proven elements of storytelling to really get into readers’ minds and hearts and make a difference.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Getting the right balance between making my book useful / informative / educational and also entertaining. The non-fiction vs fiction ratio. I write / draw about very complex subjects such as climate change and all of its effects around the world. It’s tough to make that into a comic book story that is good enough for readers, particularly kids, want to pick it up and read through to the end.
What is your routine when writing, if any? If you don’t follow a routine, why not?
I don’t really follow a daily routine except to try and get a morning pattern – some push ups and a little meditation or listening to a useful podcast. Then I assign specific time chunks to different tasks, to stay focused. The one I like to use is the 50 minute method where I focus on one task for that time with no disruptions.
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write in any of your books, and why?
I have several, and all are sequences of pure fun, with no non-fiction content at all. I love those because I can just let my imagination run free. One example is a scene in my latest book that I working on, where Captain Polo gets mixed up with a Russian nuclear sub patrolling the Siberian coast. This whole sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the book, it’s just in there for fun.
Did you learn anything from writing your latest book? If so, what was it?
Yes, I learned that my model can become repetitive. My model is that Polo travels the world and meets different people or animals, who tell him about their particular environmental or political issues and how it all boils down to global warming and environmental collapse. I have realised that this approach can get monotonous if I’m not careful, and I need to figure out a way to vary it and change things.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? A gardener or an architect?
A plotter and an architect! When I design my book I plan everything out very carefully. It all starts with research on the non-fiction content. Then I switch to my creative brain and imagine a story as a framework to carry that content, as well as characters. I then plot out the dialogues, the action, and visualise it all as a comic strip, usually by making a storyboard. The I start the artwork, and when that’s done I put it all together myself to create the finished book.
I have to do it this way, because I make comic books, and that means combining text with images in the best way possible to optimize both. That is harder than it sounds!
If you had to give up either snacks and drinks during writing sessions, or music, which would you find more difficult to say goodbye to?
Which is your favorite season to write in, and why?
No particular favorite season because I live on the Equator where there are no seasons. However, I would love to write / draw in winter if I could, in a log cabin in the woods with a log fire. I would need good internet though, because I need that for my research.
It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?
My main character is a bear so it’s actually quite simple to develop him, though I need to always watch out to make sure he evolves during each story somehow, and that’s not obvious. Otherwise for many other human characters I tend to use stereotype a lot. Because these are cartoon characters in a comic, I can use stereotype quite effectively to develop a character.
What are your future project(s)?
I have to finish this 4th book in my Captain Polo series and then immediately start Book 5, because that is a continuation of the same story. I also want to create more low content books for kids using the same character, e.g. activity books, picture books. I need to fit all of this in with continuing to learn more about marketing, social media, publishing techniques, etc.
What is your favorite book ever written?
It’s practically impossible to choose just one, but off the top of my head I would choose The Physician, by Noah Gordon.
Who are your favorite authors?
Noah Gordon, William Dalyrimple, Frank Herbert, George McDonald Fraser, Bill Bryson.
What makes a good villain?
Depends on the genre. I would say that in any kind of genre except humour, a good villain mustn’t be too black and white. They need to be subtle, they have to also have good sides to them. They must be relatable to the reader and have a personal story to tell, which could have tragic elements. A good example is the Joker in the Batman stories. In humour on the other hand, a good villain can be a total caricature of a baddie – that makes him or her (or it) funny.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Read, play guitar, watch Netflix with my wife, cook, play with my dogs. Travel when I can.
If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
Coffee or Tea? Or (exult deep breath) what other drink do you prefer, if you like neither?
Both! But coffee is best for creative process. Just a couple of small cups a day.
You can travel to anywhere in the universe. Where would you go, and why?
Saturn, to get a good view of those rings!
Do you have any writing blogs you recommend?
Not really. I do visit blogs and write my own, but they are not about writing per se, rather they are about the non-fiction content I write about. I use them to stay informed and up to date.
Do you have any writer friends you’d like to give a shoutout to?
Michael Ross, author of The Wand Chronicles, a fantasy world that is growing all the time.
Pick any three fiction characters. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
I pick the genie in Aladdin’s lamp, the Ratatouille rat who cooks, and Pocahontas. We would go around the world in a luxury train like the orient express and stop off to explore everything. The genie would let me do anything I wanted in each location and on the train, the rat would be the onboard chef, and I’d spend my evenings with Pocahontas!
What superpower would you most like?
Be able to fly.
What are two of your favorite covers of all time? (Not your own.)
Tarzan of the Apes, and The Blue Lotus (a Tintin album)
It’s a very difficult time right now for the world. When quarantine and pandemic comes to an end, what is the first thing you would like to do?
Travel to Europe to see my family
Finally, what is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, here on Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
Website and blog: https://alanhesse.com
Amazon authors page: https://www.amazon.com/~/e/B00TP497QA