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Interview: March 24, 2017

Beginning in November 2015 with WARREN THE 13TH AND THE ALL-SEEING EYE, Tania Del Rio and Will Staehle's whimsical children's series follows Warren, a Victorian bellop who has taken over the management of his family's hotel. Full of wild and wacky guests, the hotel is home to dozens of adventures, puzzles and mysteries --- oh, and it walks. In celebration of the release of the second book in the series, WARREN THE 13TH AND THE WHISPERING WOODS, we sat down with the incredible team behind Warren and asked them about their inspirations, collaborations and plans for future books. The idea behind your Warren the 13th series is an incredibly unique story complete with a walking hotel, eccentric management and magic. Where did you get your inspiration for this zany world and the characters inhabiting it?

Will Staehle: It’s a mixture of so many things. Growing up on a healthy dose of comics, having my Grandpa introduce me to the work of Edward Gorey (at probably too young of an age) and add to that the fact that my parents are antique collectors, so the house I grew up in was full of Victorian clocks, old art and various taxidermy, and it all becomes a bit clearer how Warren was created!

Tania Del Rio: As far as my own inspiration in writing WARREN, I grew up reading Roald Dahl, and I consider my work a sort of homage to his style of storytelling. He always came up with the strangest and wackiest characters with the most unusual, but unforgettable names (Trunchbull, Bogtrotter, Wormwood), and I’ve had fun coming up with some strange characters and names to add to Will’s mix! I’m also very much inspired by Miyazaki films and the magical and eerie settings he creates. While writing THE WHISPERING WOODS, I was imagining it as a Miyazaki-style animated film in my head!

KRC: Will, I’ve read that the image of Warren came to you back when you were in college.  Can you tell us more about that moment? Tania, what drew you to the image and made you want to write Warren’s story?

Will: Believe it or not, Warren popped into my head fully-formed one morning. I woke up, and I had this very clear vision of a odd-looking boy with gorgeous flowing locks of hair, and a little Victorian hotel bellhop outfit on. I quickly drew a picture of him, and labeled him as Warren (I can’t recall now if the 13 was an original element, or if I added that a week or two later) but that was how it started. I would later that year create an eight page comic of Warren the 13th, which also featured Uncle Rupert and an early version of Paleface, for my comic book illustration class. The comic went on to win a silver medal at the Adobe Achievement awards that year!

Tania: As soon as Will introduced me to Warren, I was very much intrigued. First of all, his appearance is quite striking! But I loved the fact that he was dressed in a little bellhop uniform, and that sort of unlocked all sorts of ideas for the misadventures Warren could have in his hotel. Back in college, I even began writing a novel based on Warren and I continued to pick it up and revise it over the years. A lot of what I originally wrote has changed, but the main cast, the riddles and Warren’s hardworking and good-natured personality have remained mostly intact.

KRC: I just adore Warren and his devotion to not only the hotel, but upholding his family name. He really takes great pride in his work and helping others. Is it difficult to stay true to this vision of Warren while keeping your books fun and lighthearted? How do you balance the humor with the deeper messages?

Tania: Admittedly, I often want to delve deeper into the darker aspects of Warren’s struggles than what actually makes it onto the page. Will (and our editor) sort of reign me in from getting too depressing in that regard! But I think any good book has a mix of lightness and darkness, and by book two, finding that balance felt even more natural.

Will: It’s true, I tend to be the one adding more of the fun/jokey bits to the stories. I think it makes for a good balance.

KRC: The characters of the Warren the 13th series are fun and different --- visually unlike any book I’ve read recently --- from Sketchy to Calvina, I love them all. Tania, who is you favorite to write? Will, who is your favorite to illustrate?

Tania: I know this answer is a bit of a cop out, but I really enjoy writing them all, for different reasons. But I will say I had a lot of fun writing the snakeoil salesman, Sly, in THE WHISPERING WOODS. He’s just so smarmy, but he really has a soft spot for his “babies," aka snakes!

Will: Well, I try very hard to make sure that each character has distinctive shapes (so that they can be easily recognizable even at small sizes or in silhouette) and I, of course, love to draw Warren, but I think that I smile the most when I’m drawing Sketchy or Uncle Rupert!

KRC: You both have incredible resumes filled with award-winning work, but the Warren the 13th series is a bit new for both of you, as Tania has worked mainly in comics and Will in design. How did you two decide on the format of the book?  How would you describe the artistic style and design?

Tania: Despite being an artist myself, the look and design of WARREN is 100% Will. I have a very different style that wouldn’t work for a book like this, but it’s been really fun seeing how Will brings life to the story with his illustrations.

Will: I’ve always bounced between the ideas of the eventual Warren story being something between an old comic strip, a graphic novel, and a Victorian newspaper. When I pitched the series to Jason Rekulak at Quirk, I had worked up a few sample pages with the illustrations embed throughout the two-column text. Jason was very excited about the series, and after they bought it we spent some time trying various formats. The almost square format that we ended up with just seemed to work the best with the two-column design.

KRC: It sounds like you two have been friends for a long time. Does your friendship make this collaboration easier?  Do you approach this collaboration and story any differently that previous work?

Tania: Yes, we’ve known each other since freshman year of attending MCAD (1998!). We quickly found that we meshed really well creatively, and collaborated on a number of projects over the years, such as self-published comic books, and an online store where we sold Will’s “Silhouette Masterpiece Theatre” artwork and “Dollar Dreadfuls,” which were short stories that I wrote and Will designed. We’ve always enjoyed brainstorming new ideas and shooting ideas back and forth. The longer we’ve worked together, the easier it’s become. That’s not to say we always agree on everything, but we’re pretty good at finding a middle ground.

Will: Even though the bulk of the work is a balance between Tania and my talents, it would be unfair to exclude our publisher and editor, Jason Rekulak, from the team. Jason has played a huge part in helping us craft the structure of the stories, and has been a wonderful sounding board as the stories are assembled.

KRC: The art in these two books fully captures the visuals that the words convey. When you two collaborate does the art come first, or the words? Or is it an intertwined process?

Tania: Usually with illustrated books, the author and artist can work simultaneously on their respective parts. But because the design and the illustrations and design in WARREN are so integrated with the text, Will has to wait for the final, polished draft of my writing to be complete before he can start working. It’s definitely more time-consuming that way, but it’s the reason why the interior of WARREN looks as good as it does!

Will: Agreed!

KRC: You received a pretty amazing response to the first book in your series, THE ALL SEEING EYE. Did the feedback you received from readers affect how you worked on THE WHISPERING WOODS? Was it difficult to get back into the story and art style when working on the sequel?

Tania: To be honest, I try to avoid reading reviews or reader feedback, so it doesn’t really affect how I write. I’ll check every now and then to see how many stars the book has on Amazon or Goodreads, and that’s usually enough to tell me that people are enjoying it! I learned during my SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH days that reading too many reviews can put too much pressure on you, and the bad ones really sting. Even now, there’s always that shadow of anxiety that people who loved the first book will hate the second one, but that sort of paranoia is just part of being a writer, and I’ve mostly learned to block out those negative voices.

Will: No one is ever going to love everything. I think for me, going to the schools and speaking to kids who tell me they enjoyed the books, or they LOVE a certain character, or better yet, they share their ideas for their own books with us --- that’s pretty much the most important feedback to me. If our books help kids realize that they can tell their own stories, and make a living as a creative person, then we’ve done our job.

KRC: When reading both books, I was reminded of beloved fairy tales, Roald Dahl novels and even Tim Burton movies. Did any of these inspire your work? If not, can you tell us some of your favorite childhood books and movies that might have contributed to your planning?

Tania: I already mentioned my love for Roald Dahl, and I’m thrilled that you made the comparison. Obviously his book, THE WITCHES, really imprinted in my mind. I found it so absolutely terrifying, and my goal was to make the witches in WARREN equally as thrilling! Growing up, I read all sort of things: comics (ElfQuest, Ranma 1/2), fantasy novels (THE DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN, DRAGONLANCE), historical fiction (anything Victorian or set in Ancient Egypt). So I think all those things have sort of influenced me in one way or another.

Will: My direct influences for Warren were: Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and Victorian dime novels and newspapers.

KRC: Can we expect another Warren the 13th book? If so, can you give us any hints about Warren’s next adventure?

Tania: Will and I definitely have an idea for Book 3 (and beyond), and we’re currently working on the early stages of the next volume. We’ve also included a secret riddle in THE WHISPERING WOODS that spells out a message as to what Book 3 could be about. The only hint I can give is: Look in every chapter. I know that sounds vague, but it’s actually pretty specific!

Will: Good luck clue-hunting! ; )