Author-Illustrator Interview: Michael Wright on Jake Stays Awake and Jake Starts School

Visit Michael Wright.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer and an illustrator? How did you come to each? Where did you study and/or otherwise develop your skills?

I’ve always loved to cartoon, which to me means writing as much as drawing. I just relate to the blend of the two art forms.

I got serious about a creative career when I was accepted in the art department at the University of Utah. When I graduated, I figured I should try to do something reasonably respectable with my degree, so I went into advertising. I started as an art director, but after a while, worked as a writer as well.

I still did oddball cartoons for my own and friends’ amusement.

One day, my sister Ellen found a box of my cartoons in a closet in my home, and she said, “I think I could get these published.”

I thought she was nuts (still do), but I told her, “Have at it.”

In a few weeks, she got a contract signed for a line of greeting cards with Recycled Paper Products. Even though the money wasn’t great, the cartoons getting published meant a lot more to me than my advertising work.

A few years later, I still didn’t take cartooning seriously, or advertising for that matter, so I moved to doing set-and-graphic design for TV news. I started my own company, and it was during this time that I was hired by a producer to draw some storyboard ideas for an open to a new Fox TV comedy show. The show producers liked the look of the boards so much they thought I should do some short-form cartoons in the show like The Tracy Ullman Show had done with the original Simpson’s shorts. I told them I’d love to.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really know the first thing about producing character animation or the costs involved. After a while, I started running up a bit of a production bill and the cartoons just didn’t seem that funny to me. The producers wanted a certain style of humor that I didn’t relate to, but I did my best to keep them happy and I soldiered on as best I could. Before too long it became apparent that the cartoons were lame, they never saw air (thank God), and I went back to TV news work.

How was your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

It was in the days right after 9/11 that I started wondering if I was doing something valuable enough with my life. That’s when I had an idea come to me for a kids’ book, Jake Stays Awake (Feiwel & Friends, 2007). I jotted down the concept and drew out the spreads as time permitted. I figured, if nothing else, it was a fun creative exercise.

I finished it about a year later and plunked it in my closet with the hopes that someday, someone would find it and publish it. How’s that for dopey?

Anyway, it languished in my closet for a few years when I drug it out at a dinner party we were having. I showed it to a friend of mine who was there who worked at the parent company of a publisher. He seemed to like it. He took the comp and showed it to a friend who worked that publisher. And Holy Buckets, they bought it! They even got me an agent to put the deal together. All was grand with the world.

But soon enough, I started to get comments from the editor that certain changes needed to be made. The character was too fat. His hair needed to be wavy. The story needs changing.

What started out being a great experience was quickly reminding me of my rotten experience at Fox. I decided instead of going along to keep everybody happy, I stood my ground and got everybody unhappy.

After a year of wrestling with agents and editors, they handed me my book back, I released my agent, and my book went back into my closet.

That is, until a couple of years ago when my mom called and told me to bring myself and my book to a cocktail party she was going to at her neighbors. “They have a friend who’s an agent; she might be able to help you,” she said.

Always the dutiful son, I attended, met Paula Allen “the agent,” she saw the book, agreed to be my agent, and sold it to Fewiel & Friends in record time for their debut list.

Jean Feiwel has turned out to be an incredible editor. Great instincts. Makes changes that need to be made. Leaves things alone that should be left alone.

I’ve finished up my second book, Jake Starts School, which comes out this summer.

I’m hammering away at a third book in the Jake series. I’d tell you what it will be about if I knew yet.

What advice would you offer to beginning writer-illustrators?

Keep a journal. Ideas are precious; give them a place to fall out of you un-self-consciously. Stand up for what you think is good. Don’t be like everybody else; otherwise, you’re not really all that necessary.

If this is your true joy, stick with it. Even if it means working at “Team McDonald’s,” keep your dream alive.

By the same token, don’t be like some of those contestants on “American Idol,” the ones who stink but don’t have a clue. Take honest criticism from people who you respect. If enough people tell you that your stuff isn’t all that hot, it may not be, but then again…