"Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like [PictureBooksReview] are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers."
-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

"The interview is so amazing! I appreciate you picking up on all these aspects of what I've been doing. It's always great to talk with someone who understands what goes into these things."

- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!


A Conversation with Matt Bergin

Matt Bergin was born and raised in the Bronx, and is the author of two picture books, both illustrated by Zach Wideman, Blank Slater, the Boy with the Dry-Erase Face and Lesky Lee, Monster of Monsters, which I reviewed here.

It was a good fit for the blog, as Halloween is now just around the corner, and it is crammed with classic movie monsters. As I stated in my review, the key moment - for me - comes when the heroine, Lesky Lee - having successfully defeated the monsters which populate her nightmares - turns to the reader and says, “Bored now.”

It's a funny moment, a clever moment, and seems to pinpoint the tone of the whole book.

I asked Matt if he agreed with my astoundingly insightful opinion.

That moment is certainly the point where readers should realize things are never so simple. Lesky had a relatively straightforward problem - ack! nightmares! - and she came up with a very direct solution: beat them up. But what she is left with after that (spoiler!) is a dull dreamscape lacking any excitement or color. On the surface, she got exactly what she wanted: monster-free dreams. But really, it was only what she thought she wanted. 

There are several takeaways from the story that all tie back to that moment: be careful what you wish for, don't make rash decisions, compromise trumps conflict. It is a tiny twist in a fairly short tale, which I hope readers appreciate both as a moment of levity and as a challenge to their expectations. The "one act" version of Monster of Monsters would end before "Bored now" with a simple moral of "face your fears" or "stand up for yourself"... but Lesky would agree, simple is boring.  

Fun fact: Attentive pop-culturists should know that "Bored now" is a nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although Lesky is clearly more Buffy than Evil Willow (for whom it is a foreboding catchphrase). 

And speaking of pop culture, my oldest daughter (who was my only daughter when I first wrote Monster of Monsters, is an October baby, so her birthdays have often had a Halloween theme and she's always gravitated towards things like Scooby Doo, Monster High, Universal Monsters, and Goosebumps. Inevitably, with so many cartoon creatures filling her brain, she would have occasional bad dreams. Rather than shelter my girl from her fiendish fun or let her succumb to the scares, I focused on teaching her that she was the boss of her brain and that it was up to her to take charge of her dreams.

We made her a "Monster Stick" - a big, polished branch with colored duct tape and stickers - to aid her in any bedtime battles, and I encouraged her to tough it out through the night. This inspired Alexa to stay strong most nights (even at 8, she still climbs into bed with Mom and Dad occasionally). It also inspired me to work out those initial rhymes that turned into the book. The very first draft of Monster of Monsters was spoken aloud to Alexa as a bedtime story, made up on the fly, to help erase any fears she might have over Vamps, Wolfs, or Witches that night. I knew I had to see this book through to publication after my first doodle of Lesky Lee shaving the Wolf-Man. 

Why picture books?

I've dabbled in other forms of writing, but I've always been most drawn to sequential art and visual storytelling. I've written some small press and self-published comics, and continue to tinker with a handful of long-in-development comic scripts. But once I became a father, my focus turned entirely to my child. That meant everything, including my creative energy. It is not that broad of a leap from comic books to picture books, and frankly, I've found my voice writing for my target audience: my kids.

There's also something to be said for the satisfaction of finishing a creative project, which is much easier to do with picture books when your time, attention, and resources are spread thin by a full-time day job and a growing family at home. Picture books, and even the non-illustrated pieces I write and post on my website, are immensely satisfying, but take a fraction of the time to write than even the shortest prose story. I can't imagine locking myself away in an office for all of my free hours hacking away at a novel that may never see the light of day, while my kids grow up and away from me and the world passes me by. With an 8-year-old and an almost-3-year-old vying for my affections, and job and wife competing for what's left of my attention, this is exactly the medium for me. 

What is your relationship with the illustrator, Zach Wideman?

Actually, I hired Zach for my first book, Blank Slater, The Boy With the Dry-Erase Face. I successfully funded that book through Kickstarter, all of the money raised going toward paying publishing fees and Zach's modest page rate. It was my first picture book and Zach was just getting started with his freelance illustrating business, so he was more than fair to me with his price, and we each learned a lot from one another on that project. We were so happy with how that first book came out that we decided to do another one, and I am sure we will do more again in the future (I just need to replenish the warchest -- paying an artist is not cheap, especially when there is no money being made yet!).

My scripts are industry standard picture book scripts - the words you see on the page plus some light art direction for important story beats. I also share my own sketches. From there, I ask him for rough sketches of how he interprets the story, and then we edit.

Writing is revising, and so it goes for writing picture books. Seeing an artist's interpretation of my words might inspire me to add more words or encourage even more sight gags and Easter eggs. Zach and I went back and forth quite a bit on what monsters would appear in Lesky's dreamscape, what each one would look like, color choices, etcetera. While my script was light on art direction, we soon moved into working with a marked up PDF of rough layouts - move this here, add this there, make this pop. We also played around with the visual tone of some of the action - vampire fangs flying through the air made one image too violent, so they were nixed; a test reader thought the wicked witch was bleeding, not melting, so we revised the colors pooling at her feet. Then there's font choice, word placement, and the mechanics of building a digital proof. Quite a bit of back and forth to put something like this together. And believe it or not, it was all done remotely, without Zach and I ever meeting. We still have yet to meet or speak. Honestly, Zach may be a robot!

Great to hear the experience from Blank Slater… was enjoyable enough that you wanted to continue with another book. Were there any lessons from that experience which you've applied here? 

I've enjoyed the process of all of this: from joining SCBWI a few years back, consuming all of the critical information I could from the organization's website, newsletters, live events, and peer members; to trying and trying and trying again to successfully pitch an agent (still trying, by the way); to joining the DIY movement and figuring out how to 'Kickstart' my own self-publishing efforts. And then, of course, I enjoyed writing and refining my Blank Slater script through many incarnations (Blank's gone from comic strip to Disney pitch and a few things in between, before finally finding it's face as the book out now).

I learned everything I could about the picture book industry, best practices for first-time writers, script formatting, query letter etiquette… A huge lesson along the way with Blank was that so much of it was about timing and subjective opinions. That is the lesson that ultimately sent me down the self-publishing path and a successful Kickstarter campaign. When enough people tell you how "great" something is or how much they "love" what you've done, but it's "just not a good fit" for them "right now"... and then you see so many cool creator-owned projects launching in that other sequential art industry next door (comics), you have to make a move. That's what I did with Blank Slater.

And then with Monster of Monsters, I knew I wanted to do another self-published book and to do one more project with Zach. We were energized, we had a good system in place for working together, and I wanted to follow up Blank while that first book was fresh in people's minds and the two titles could support one another. So that was that. The rest of it is what it is. I am still learning. I could have done a million things differently with Blank, I could probably do some things better with Monster of Monsters right now, and I'll encounter a few forks in the road toward whatever becomes my next project.      

Putting "Lesky Lee" at the forefront of the title gives the impression, at least to me, that she’s meant to be an ongoing character. Will there be more Lesky Lee stories?

My next project is something tentatively called Fluffless, A Squirrel's Tail, an ugly-duckling story starring an ambitious but deluded rat. It's a longer piece, prose with spot illustrations. I'll likely release that myself in 2016 and then get back to actively pitching new scripts to agents and publishers.

Nothing officially planned for more Lesky Lee, but there's a very loose idea for a sequel or two. I talk a big game about self-publishing, but it's a not-so-secret dream that the payoff to my putting these two books out myself is that I could sell a publisher on continuing the series. "Lesky Lee, Maker of Monsters" displayed prominently in the front window of Books of Wonder next to a deluxe hardcover re-release of "Lesky Lee, Monster of Monsters" would be awesomesauce. (I should get to work on that 'Maker of Monsters' script, eh?)

What nightmares do you have?

I think real, live, wide-awake humans are way scarier than anything that might creep into my subconscious while I am sleeping. So I don't really have any nightmares or monsters of my own. 

Actually, that's not true! I dedicated Lesky Lee to my two little monsters, my kids. But they're no nightmare.

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

Be sure to visit Matt at his website, and Zach Wideman at his!

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