Today we catch up with Chris Roberson in the mundane world to talk about some fables and Fables. Roberson is writing a forthcoming spin-off mini to the popular Vertigo title called Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love with superstar artist Shawn McManus (and very sweet covers by Chrissie Zullo).
We can’t talk specifics about the project, but we adroitly dance around it to give you some possible insight on the writer — a multiple time World Fantasy Award finalist, and a winner of the Sidewise Award for his fiction — who will be putting his talents to the much beloved Fables mythos. He is also the publisher of Monkeybrain Books which puts out nothing but the goods.
Jay — What is your favorite fable in literature. Why?
Chris Roberson — It might stretch your definition of “fable” a bit, but for years I have been absolutely obsessed with JM Barrie’s Peter Pan stories, and with Neverland in general. There are just so many terrific things about that idea that I think fly under the radar of most readers — and, sadly, fly under the radar of every writer to date who’s tackled doing a remake or remix or reinterpretation or sequel to the story. Someday I’ll find time to do my own take on the concept, but in the meantime take it from me that everyone who’s followed Barrie and done a story about Neverland has completely missed the point. (How’s that for provocative?)
Jay — Tell us about your upcoming project for Vertigo, writing a spin-off from Willingham’s incredible Fables series. How did it come about? Did you pitch for a Cindy story or was the idea being shopped to writers?
Chris Roberson — The short answer is that I was just ridiculously lucky. I’ve known Bill for years, and last year he did me the incalculable service of putting me in touch with his editor at Vertigo, Shelly Bond, and together the two of them offered me the chance to write a fill-in script for Jack of Fables, the book Bill co-writes with my erstwhile college classmate and former roommate Matt Sturges. Luckily, Bill and Shelly were both pleased with the Jack script, and they followed that up with the chance to do an inventory story for Fables itself. (For those not conversant with comic industry terminology, an inventory story is one that’s done “just in case,” written and drawn in advance and then stuck in a drawer against the day that there’s a schedule hiccup with the series in question. Some inventory stories get used, but many never see the light of day.)
Anyway, a while later I was fixing my four-year-old daughter dinner one night, and Bill called. He asked whether I’d be interested in writing a six-issue Cinderella miniseries. I believe I said something like “In the presence of my daughter I cannot use the language adequate to express the degree to which the answer is ‘Yes!’” The next day I worked up a synopsis which, after a bit of tweaking (there is always tweaking), everyone liked, and then I got started writing.
(For anyone who thinks that this was a ridiculously easy process, bear in mind that I’ve been trying to break into the comics business for twenty years, and have the countless rejected proposals and the scars to prove it. The moral to this story is, Bill Willingham is Awesome.)
Jay — Putting on the novelist hat, what is it that you think Willingham does in terms of how he approaches storytelling, that has allowed for such a long, successful run?
Chris Roberson — Bill’s strengths as a writer are manifold — he writes narration better than almost anyone I’ve encountered, for example — but I think the key elements to the success of Fables are these.
First, he respects his characters. A hallmark of a good writer is that their characters are not merely sock-puppets to express the writer’s views or attitudes. A good writer allows the characters to talk and act they way they would if they were a real person, and doesn’t shoehorn them into situations to serve either the needs of the story, or an agenda, or any such thing. The fact that readers of Fables have at different times decried Bill as being either a rabid liberal or a raging conservative based on the “evidence” of some character’s actions in the book is proof of that.
Second, he thinks through consequences. With Fables, as with Jack of Fables, the end of any given circumstances is rarely really “The End,” and what happens next is rarely what you expected. But once it happens, it seems blindingly obvious in hindsight. That sense of never really knowing what to expect really engages the reader’s interest, and like me they always keep coming back for more.
Jay — Comics and current SF/F are often both talked of as a modern answer to fables. What do you feel about that? Agree, or disagree? Whose claim do your prefer?
Chris Roberson — I think that what makes fables so enduring is their universality, the fact that readers from different cultures and different time periods can read those stories and see something of themselves reflected in them. The enemy of universality is specificity, and the more detail a story accrues the less apt it is to serve as a mirror for the reader.
For that reason, I think that the majority of entertainments intended for adults fails that universality test, and doesn’t really function on the same level as the classic fables.
That said, there is a great wealth of children’s entertainment that functions in much the same way as the fables did. Like fables, these are characters that are reduced to a few key signs and signals — Evil Stepmother, Fairy Godmother, Midnight, Glass Slipper — but don’t have much of an established personality beyond the rudiments of their plot. As a result, readers — both young and old — are able to invest more of themselves into the characters, the lack of detail making them a better vessel to hold the reader’s own feelings, thoughts, and anxieties.
I don’t think it’s any accident that children’s books often have a much longer shelf life than adult books, so often outliving their authors and continuing to be read decades, even centuries, later.
(The problem with comics, I think, is that the characters might often be universal, the stories in which they appear too often are not, and are instead the product of a particular time, or culture, or whathaveyou. But that’s a whole other can of worms.)
Jay — I know your are, as all people of proper refinement and sophistication, are a comic book fan. Can you explain the differences in the process of crafting Fables for Vertigo, and for crafting fables and SF in your own novels or short fiction?
Chris Roberson — The two disciplines are related but distinct. In both cases, the place where I always start is the characters. I spend time getting to know them, figuring out who they are and how they’d respond, working out what motivates them and what it is that they want.
Then I work out the mechanics of the plot, figuring out What Happened Where and When. The first draft outlines for one of my comic scripts isn’t much different in form or function from the outlines for one of my short stories or a chapter from a novel. I am somewhat notorious with some of my writer friends for doing extremely extensive outlines, and that’s no different in comics than it is in prose.
It’s when I get to working out the structure of the thing, figuring out How to unfold the plot, what elements to include and which to leave out, that the differences start creeping in. But at this point, having worked out the outline in detail, it’s just a question of using the tools appropriate to the job. In prose, it’s a question of narrative voice, or tense, or figuring out whether to beginning at the beginning or in the middle of things, while in comics it’s more a question of pacing, of how many panels to fit to each of the 22 pages in the comic, and how much information to encode into each panel.
Jay — I am assuming that you — like me — that you are a fan of Willingham’s series in general. His use, adaptation, and manipulation of fables we know (and at times don’t know) is always assured, and at times breathtaking. Is there, however, a Fable that you yourself would want to insert, or use that you haven’t seen used?
Chris Roberson — There are one or two, actually, and having found myself in the unique position of being able to insert them, I put them all into Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love. I won’t spoil it by saying yet who they are…
Jay — Shawn McManus! What does it feel like to walk into the biz with Shawn McManus putting pictures to your words? I was wondering where the two of you are at with the project. Seen any art?
Chris Roberson — I am ridiculously lucky to be working with Shawn, whose work I’ve been admiring for more than half my life! I’ve been a fan of his since I read “Pog” years and years ago, though I think his run on Omega Men is probably my favorite.
I’ve actually seen the first half of the first issue of Cinderella, and it looks Freaking Amazing. I am unbelievably stoked about the whole thing, and can’t wait to see what Shawn does next.
Jay — What’s your favorite Fables arc or story thus far?
Chris Roberson — My favorite story so far has got to be Boy Blue with the Witching Cloak and the Vorpal Sword working his way across the Homelands to the Emperor’s court. That just represents a perfect union of Bill’s scripts and Mark Buckingham’s art, in my eyes, and explores aspects of the whole conception of Fables which to that point we hadn’t yet seen.
That said, I’m loving the ongoing backup story at the moment featuring Mowgli and Bigby’s brothers in the Indian homeland. Now that Cindy’s gotten her own miniseries, I think it’s only fair that Mowgli get one next!
Jay — Tell me of this cabal, and how close is Mark Fin to writing a Fables project and thus completing the master plan in the form of dominion of the Clockwork Storybook over Fabletown?
Chris Roberson — Plans are indeed afoot for Clockwork Storybook’s world domination, but I’m afraid that I can’t share any details as yet. Top secret, you know.
Jay — What do you know about Fabletown Super Spy, Cinderella, that we don’t know until this very moment>
Chris Roberson — Mmmm. That she is entirely awesome and made of win?
I can tell you that we learn some important secrets in the course of Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, including the final fate of Cindy’s Fairy Godmother, the identity of Cindy’s opposite number from the Bagdhad homeland, and the answer to the burning question, Who runs the shoe store when Cindy is away?