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Jimmy Gownley's Big Idea

For Jimmy Gownley, life after AMELIA RULES! looks a lot like life before it. Gownley ended his much-beloved YA graphic novel series after 2012’s HER PERMANENT RECORD, and now he’s back with a brand-new book, THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER! In this one, he draws on his own personal experience, detailing his difficult transition from grade school --- where he was tops in his class, both academically and on the basketball court --- to high school, where illness and increased academic pressures took their toll. Gownley’s solution to his falling social status? Create his own comic book! Here’s the story behind Gownley’s big IDEA.


How does it feel to be starting something new after so many years working on AMELIA RULES!?


Weird to be sure.

Amelia took up so much of my life and creativity for so long that it was hard to think about other projects while I was working on it. But while I was working on the seventh volume of AMELIA RULES! I knew that I couldn’t keep going past the eighth and final book on my contract. It was just taking too much out of me. Amelia ran for almost 1,300 pages and I wrote and drew them all myself. It was nice to know that I was winding down, actually, because it allowed me to write an ending to AMELIA RULES! and that was really important to me.

But starting something new was tremendously exciting! Especially working on a project like this, which is a real privilege. How many people get to tell a story this personal and have it published by a world-class publisher like Scholastic?

So I really took the opportunity to look at all of the experiments and techniques I spent a decade developing in AMELIA RULES! and put them to work in THE DUMBEST IDEA. But to do it in the most unobtrusive way possible.

The idea was to strip away as many of the eccentricities I put into AMELIA RULES! and make this book streamlined and clear while keeping it formally creative. That provided its own challenge, because in many ways it was a more complex story, but I was choosing to use simpler storytelling techniques. There were a few points where I allowed myself to go full on into Amelia-style flights of fantasy: a chat my character has with Death, some Wizard of Oz color effects, a flashback created to look like a late 1970s marvel book, and a fully painted trip inside some 19th-century impressionist masterpieces, but for the most part I kept it to a traditional comic book grid.

I think the strangest and most unsettling part of the whole process was the feeling that I was working without a safety net. I couldn’t count on the goodwill that was generated by Amelia and her friends to carry over to this. The publisher was different, the editor was different, the subject matter was different, it was nonfiction. There was a good chance I could have made a mess of it, and a very public mess too. It’s great to see that the early reviews have been so positive!

What made you decide to try memoir?

It was originally the suggestion of my agent, the brilliant Judy Hansen. Her idea was that maybe I could attempt a funny prose memoir somewhat in the style of Jean Shepard. So while I was off touring for AMELIA RULES! THE TWEENAGE GUIDE TO NOT BEING UNPOPULAR, I started working on a memoir about becoming the father of twins. I structured it so that every other chapter would be a flashback to an earlier time in my life. It was big and difficult, and it wasn’t really working, so I put it aside. 

Some time after that, she called me saying that Scholastic might be interested in a graphic novel memoir. This was after the success of SMILE by Raina Telgemeier, and I believe the thinking was that a memoir featuring a boy might be a good idea. So Judy suggested I rework one chapter of my prose memoir, a chapter dealing with my high school experiences as a self-publishing cartoonist, into a proposal for a graphic novel. I did. Scholastic loved it, and that became this new book.


Was it more challenging to do nonfiction than the fictionalized universe of Amelia?

They are both challenging in different ways. In fact, they are almost the opposite of each other in some ways. When you are writing fiction you only need to add enough details so that your story seems real. And that’s actually fewer than you might think. On the other hand, real life is infinitely detailed, and a writer can follow any one of those details 

and end up really distorting the story he or she is trying to tell. So a major challenge of writing this book was to stick to the story of “how I became a cartoonist.” Any other anecdote, or character or setting that might be interesting in and of itself, if it didn’t relate to me becoming a cartoonist, it had to get cut.

It’s surprising though how many other elements remained because they DID tie in to that theme…schoolwork, basketball, dating, friendship, all of that was still wrapped up in my quest to become a cartoonist. Which is great, because now I think that even if a kid has zero interest in comics, they can find something to engage them within this story.


THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER! depicts a time in your life when everything changed for you --- and resulted in the beginning of your illustrious comics career. What do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t doing comics?

I have absolutely no idea. I never had a Plan B. I actually don’t believe in Plan B’s, because they are really just excuses to give up on your dream as soon as possible. I hear high school kids say all the time…“Well, I want to be an artist, but I’m going to college to major in computer programming, because it’s my Plan B.” No, it’s not. It’s your major. When you graduate, you will immediately look for a job in the computer field. You will never become an artist. Ever. Which is fine because the computer field is lucrative and we need computer programmers, but it’s not great to kid yourself about it. Even way back when I had to have a day job, it was only ever to make sure I could one day be a cartoonist fulltime. And all of my day jobs were art-related.

Having already done comics for years and years, though, I could see wanting to try different things. I just cowrote a screenplay, which was an amazing experience, so I’d be interested in doing more of that. I could see myself teaching comics or teaching creative writing, but all of that would now come after having already accomplished what I originally set out to do.


Given that you began creating your own self-produced comics when you were a teen, have you offered advice to other teens about doing the same thing?

Over the years, I’ve met many kids who wanted to get into comics. At conventions or school visits there are always one or two kids who can’t wait to make their own comic books or strips. The advice I give is always the same. First, think about WHY you are doing it. Not just why you want to make comics, but also, why do you want to make the PARTICULAR comic that you are producing? Because the world doesn’t need one more miserable Batman rip-off, y’know? And if a kid can answer that, they are much further along than most of their peers.

One of the big moments in DUMBEST IDEA EVER is when my friend Tony says I should write comics based on real life. It was a huge gift, because it instantly stopped me from producing my bad superhero and sci-fi rip off comics and put me on the road to finding my own voice as a writer. The comics I made were still bad, of course, but they were much more original. Then it was just a matter of spending years and years trying to develop the craft I needed.

The other piece of advice I give is to finish what you start. An idea has no value if you can’t execute it.


Have any self-published comics from young creators caught your eye?

There have been several kids over the years who have impressed me with their abilities…going back to my pre-Amelia Rules! days. Kyle Carroza was a teenage cartoonist whose work I published in one of my old comics, and he’s a professional in the animation industry now. There is a young girl named Mary Jane DeCarlo who I met two years ago at the Baltimore Comic-Con. She had tons of questions about producing her own book, and sure enough, the next year she was back with her own comic. That is always great to see!


Did you have fun revisiting this time in your life for DUMBEST IDEA? Did it bring back a lot of good memories?

Fun? Ummm…I guess parts of the process approached something resembling fun.

Mostly, it was weird. I mean turning 41 years old and spending every day with your high school yearbook on your desk? Sounds like a midlife crisis. Of course, if you’re going to have a midlife crisis, I highly recommend having one that comes with a book deal from a major publisher.

It didn’t really bring back memories, though, good or bad, because honestly those memories were always there. The closest thing I have to a natural talent is my memory. I can recall things going back to age two with absolute clarity. It’s as much of a burden as it is a blessing, really. So the challenge became to focus on the good, because that is the type of story I wanted to tell. Anyone can look at any three-year period in their life, and it would be a mixture of good and bad. But when you’re trying to craft a story you have to decide which elements you want to focus on, because life just doesn’t have the shape a story needs to have.

What WAS fun was just getting the opportunity to write this book. I mean, yes, it is hard work and kind of stressful, but on the other hand the cover to the first comic I ever made is now  in a gorgeous hardcover from Scholastic Books! So is my first real date…and the little girl who lived down the street from me…and my parents. It’s kind of amazing. And on top of that, I really think that this story can be useful to a kid just starting out and trying to find a way into comics or some other creative field. In a way, it was like I was writing the book to the 15-year-old me and sending it back in time to him. That was great, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it.


Have you shared the book with any of the people featured in the story?

I have! And let me tell you, that is a nerve-wracking experience. But everyone has been great…totally complimentary and supportive. Ellen Toole, whom I cowrite Gracieland with, is a character in the book. She read the earliest drafts and was hugely supportive. My friends Mark Olson and Marnie Marquardt got to read the first finished draft, and both were very happy with it. So that felt really good, y’know? These people mean a lot to me, and it was great to have their support on this.


Do you plan to continue your story in further memoirs?

Not plans exactly, but I’d like to try. I kind of have this weird idea for memoir that’s kind of a cross between Archie Comics, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, and early Bill Cosby stand-up.  We’ll see if that comes to anything.


Any word you can share about the film adaptation of AMELIA RULES!?

We are working with Vivek Tiwary, who is the producer. Vivek has had lots of success on Broadway and is a bestselling author in his own right. He hooked me up with screenwriter Chris Parker (HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, MULAN 2), who is amazing. Chris very generously wanted me to contribute to the screenplay, so we wrote it together. I have to say…it’s kind of awesome. It’s funny and touching and I think it would be a different type of family film than we usually get to see these days. Keep your fingers crossed.

Of course, Dumbest Idea would make a great film too! The only problem is who would play a teenage me? It’s too bad Bradley Cooper is too old. Otherwise, he’d be a dead ringer. ;)