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Interview: October 23, 2018

Get ready for some zero-gravity fun. Molly Brooks' debut middle-grade graphic novel, SANITY & TALLULAH is a delightfully humorous story about girl friendship, space and laboratory-created felines. Sanity Jones and Tallulah Vega are best friends on Wilnick, the dilapidated space station they call home at the end of the galaxy. So naturally, when gifted scientist Sanity uses her lab skills and energy allowance to create a definitely-illegal-but-impossibly-cute three-headed kitten, she has to show Tallulah. But Princess, Sparkle, Destroyer of Worlds is a bit of a handful, and it isn't long before the kitten escapes to wreak havoc on the space station. The girls will have to turn Wilnick upside down to find her, but not before causing the whole place to evacuate! Can they save their home before it's too late? Readers will be over the moon for this rollicking space adventure by debut author Molly Brooks. We talked to Molly about SANITY & TALLULAH. Keep reading to find out what she had to say about writing this adorable diverse debut and what's next on the horizon for Sanity and Tallulah. Although SANITY & TALLULAH is your first graphic novel, you have been creating and engaged with comic art for a long time --- you even used to work at a comic book company, where we sat next to each other! What was the first spark of inspiration for SANITY & TALLULAH? Did you have some doodles of characters, a general story you wanted to tell, or some notes that found their way into becoming a whole book?

Molly Brooks: I first came up with the characters in 2014, for a collaborative zine I was doing with my friend Andrea Tsurumi. We decided we’d each do a short comic on the same theme and put them together in a stapled booklet, like a double feature. Andrea gave us the prompt ‘science fiction teen girl detectives,’ and what I came up with in response was a 30-page short story about two best friends who wander off into a forbidden asteroid field and find a wrecked spaceship. Sanity and Tallulah’s first adventure! Once I realized how much I liked the characters, I started keeping a list of ridiculous situations they could get into.

TRC: Your main characters, Sanity and Tallulah, are smart, resourceful girls who are also racially diverse --- with some of the best names I’ve seen in children’s literature in some time. Can you introduce them to us? Do their names have any significance?

MB: Sanity and Tallulah are two well-meaning, intelligent girls with busy parents and not a lot of supervision. I imagined Wilnick as the outer space equivalent of a small town in the middle of nowhere, so if they want something interesting to happen, they pretty much have to make it happen themselves. They tend to cause trouble not out of an inherent mischievousness, but by getting in over their heads halfway through what they THOUGHT was an awesome idea.

The names don’t really have much significance, except I thought they sounded good! “Tallulah” sounds kind of spinny and loopy to me, and I find virtue names really interesting and thought “Sanity” would make a nice one --- especially for a mad scientist in the making.

TRC: Sanity and Tallulah live on a dilapidated space station called Wilnick. What drew you toward this more “realistic” view of space, and how did you research the scientific terms? If you lived on Wilnick, what would your role be as a member of the crew? What do you think you would you miss most from earth?

MB: The stuff I always like best about sci-fi (and sci-fact!) is the opportunities for creative problem-solving. I love reading/watching smart, highly competent and resourceful characters cobble together solutions when things go wildly off-plan. eg, nonfiction accounts of NASA’s Apollo missions, Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN, Isaac Asimov’s THE MARTIAN WAY. I made up a lot of the science, obviously. I decided early on that I’d aim for approximately Star Trek-level realism, so I tried to keep things loosely connected to reality, but stretchy enough to have fun with.

TRC: The main plot of SANITY & TALLULAH kicks off when natural scientist Sanity uses her lab skills to create a “definitely-illegal-but-impossibly-cute” three-headed kitten named Princess Sparkle, Destroyer of Worlds. What kind of animal would you create if you had Sanity’s skills and energy allowances? What would you name it?

MB: This book is a wish-fulfilment story. Sanity does exactly what I would do in her situation. Princess Sparkle, Destroyer of Worlds and I would be very happy together in my apartment in Brooklyn. Or maybe I would give the kitten bat wings instead of three heads...

TRC: When Princess Sparkle, Destroyer of Worlds escapes and starts to cause an uproar on the space station, Sanity and Tallulah really need to work together to save the space station and get their kitten back. What can you tell us about their friendship and how they relate to one another? What do you hope young readers will learn from their ins and outs and ups and downs?

MB: Sanity and Tallulah kind of take turns getting each other into and out of trouble. Sanity is definitely the Science One, but neither she or Tallulah is consistently the Reasonable One or the Cautious One. Instead, they each have their own blind spots and areas where they see clearly, and they constantly rely on each other for back-up and reality checks. Teamwork is about supporting each other, but also about leaning on each other.

TRC: With the space station and danger and Princess Sparkle, Destroyer of Worlds on the loose, there is a ton of suspense in SANITY & TALLULAH, but you do a fantastic job of balancing it with some truly laugh-out-loud humor. What can you tell us about finding this balance? Were certain elements easier to write/draw than others?

MB: The most difficult part of writing is trying to see your own work objectively. I knew I thought it was exciting and funny, but I relied a lot on feedback from my editor and friends to let me know whether anyone ELSE thought it was exciting or funny.

TRC: Speaking of writing and drawing, which came first with SANITY & TALLULAH, the writing or the art?

MB: I started by working out a tight plot outline, then drew thumbnails, then wrote the script, then drew pencils, so I guess I started with writing but it went back and forth a lot.

TRC: We discussed earlier that Sanity, Tallulah and their families represent a variety of racial and physical diversities. Was this an important part of the book from the start? How did you go about writing characters who were different from yourself?

MB: I thought having a whole cast of thin, able-bodied white people would be boring and unrealistic. In addition to that, diverse representation is super important, both in the stories we tell and the people who tell them. As a queer woman I know how much representation can mean to the reader --- I still remember the delight and validation I felt growing up, any time I encountered a gay character or a female character that I could relate to. And as a white person who wants to be an effective ally, I think it’s my responsibility to be as inclusive in my art as I can. That means telling stories about people who don’t look like me, and people who don’t think like me --- which is a lot harder! For me, the hardest character to write was Horace, because with everyone else I could approach it as “I’m not a girl genius, but I’ve screwed up and gotten in trouble with my parents before,” or “I’m not in charge of a space station, but I’ve been on a tight deadline and under stress with people depending on me before,” so I found a way to relate to each character and approach their headspace. But with Horace, I had this mental block of “I don’t know, he’s just a little brother! What do little brothers even do??” and I had to try a lot harder to find a way to relate to him. That’s why I decided he worries a lot and likes making games --- those were ways in for me, because I could understand them.

TRC: In addition to celebrating diversity and strong friendships, SANITY & TALLULAH is a real testament to girl power. Are there any other female characters you look up to, or who helped inspire Sanity and Tallulah?

MB: I adored Nancy Drew as a kid. She was clever and brave and knew how to repair an outboard motor. Her first instinct was always to solve a problem herself, rather than running for help. That occasionally got her into trouble, but it also made for great stories. I originally envisioned SANITY & TALLULAH as a cross between Star Trek (space!), LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (daily life in the middle of nowhere!), and Nancy Drew (plucky girl detective!).

TRC: Is there a sequel on the way? Can we expect grander adventures from Sanity and Tallulah? What about extraterrestrials and planet-hopping for this brilliant duo?

MB: There is a sequel on the way! It should be out next year. Without giving too much away: they go on a fieldtrip, and it goes terribly awry. :-)

TRC: Last, and perhaps most important, of all: when we worked together you used to bring these amazing mustard scones in, and I have very nearly traveled from my desk to Wilnick looking for them. Where did you get them?

MB: I passed Variety Cafe in Williamsburg on my way to the train station every morning. I got them there!