Zibby Owens: I'm really, really excited to be here today with Tui Sutherland who's the author of the New York Times and USA Today best-selling Wings of Fire graphic novel and young adult series, The Menagerie trilogy, and the Pet Trouble series. She's also a contributing author to the best-selling Spirit Animals and Seekers series. Combined, she's written forty books for children and teens. Originally from Venezuela, Tui grew up in Paraguay, Miami, the Dominican Republic, and New Jersey. A graduate of Williams College, she currently lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two sons and two dogs.
Welcome to Tui.
Tui Sutherland: Thank you. Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.
Zibby: I have a guest interviewer with me today. My son Owen will be interviewing Tui with me. He is the one who is obsessed with your books and has been begging me to buy each graphic novel of the Wings of Fire series as it comes out, preordering everything, and was like, “Do you think you could talk to her?” This is my gift to Owen today, and everybody else listening.
Tui: That's awesome.
Zibby: Before we even get into your Wings of Fire books, you were a two-day champion on Jeopardy! in 2009. Let's talk about that because that is so cool. Tell us all about that. How did you get on Jeopardy!? What was it like being a two-day champion? That's the coolest thing ever.
Tui: Oh, my god, it was so much fun. Actually, I just wanted to stay. After I lost the third game, I was like, you don't have to give me any more money. Can I just stay here and keep playing? It was amazing. It was one of those things that I'd always wanted to do. My grandparents, whenever we visited them in New Hampshire, they watched Jeopardy! every single night. They had their little TV trays. They would watch Jeopardy! It was part of my childhood. I felt like it was this really important thing in life. I always wanted to go on it. Then I got married in 2007. We started talking about having kids. I was like, I have two things I want to do before I have kids. One is go to India. The other one is be on Jeopardy!
I looked into and how the whole process worked. It turned out that you could take a test online. That's the first step in the process. A few times a year they have this online test you take. If you score well enough on the online test, they give you a call or an email. They invite you in to take one in person. They have talent scouts that go around. They had a session in Boston. You go in. You take another test along the same lines. It’s Jeopardy!-ish questions. Then they also have you get up and play a couple of pretend games just to basically make sure you can make sentences and remember to answer in the form of a question, that kind of thing. That was really fun. I didn't know what would happen. I waited for a while. Then they call you and say, “You have three weeks. Can you be in California in a month?” Yes, so excited. I started studying.
Zibby: Wait, how do you study for Jeopardy!?
Tui: You have to have faith that you know what you know. There were certain things I knew that I could learn in that time, like all the capitols of the world. The presidents in order was actually really helpful. A lot of times, the question would be something like, “This sixteenth president...” You don't even need to hear the rest of the question if you can remember that that's Abraham Lincoln. I can't do it all now. For a while, I could name all the presidents in order and vaguely what time period they were. It was like, “In 1848, this president...” Then you'd be like, okay, that guy. That was helpful. I watched some documentaries on rock music because I have this giant hole in my knowledge before 1980 for music. That was helpful. There was one final-Jeopardy question that was about The Beatles. I had actually just been watching a document that morning in the hotel room. I wouldn't have gotten it right otherwise.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Was it as exciting as you had hoped it would be to be on the show?
Tui: Yeah, it totally was. Everyone there is so nice. All the people backstage are wonderful, having a lovely time, and super welcoming. They make it really fun for you to be there.
Zibby: I won a random ticket when I was in college to go watch Jeopardy! being filmed. That was one of the most exciting moments of college for me. [laughs] No, that's not true. It was a really cool moment. I thought that was really neat. Obviously, you're a genius. That's amazing. We can move on from there now that we've established that.
Tui: No, I've got to clarify that that was before I had kids when my brain still worked. [laughter] Not as much anymore.
Zibby: Seriously. The fact that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president is pretty much the only piece of trivia I have retained since I've had kids.
Tui: I get that one reinforced because my son has the same birthday as Abraham Lincoln. He's the one we talk about a lot.
Zibby: Speaking of our sons, let's talk about this book that has Owen totally fascinated and making him really into reading, which is a gift that you've given our whole family. Tell me about the Wings of Fire series in particular -- what inspired you to write it? -- and how you even got into fantasy and all the books that you've written.
Zibby: That was a big question. You can hack that apart if you want.
Tui: I'd written a bunch of books before Wings of Fire, as you mentioned. A unifying theme of all of them is I really am interested in telling stories from different perspectives and focusing on -- my whole Pet Trouble series, each book is a different kid, but they all know each other. When you read one book, you'll see the other characters. You'll find out more about them as you read their books. That was one thing that I was really interested in. I also really just love writing fantasy. I've always read fantasy. I find it one of the most fun genres to read. I read everything, but that's my favorite. With Wings of Fire, it started with -- my agent and I were talking about all of my ideas for different projects. He said, “Have you ever thought about doing something that was focused on dragons” -- he knew that I loved dragons -- “with them as the heroes of the story?” I immediately got excited because it fit into those themes I'd been thinking about. All the books that I'd read, the humans were the heroes of the story. The dragon were there, but they were the sidekicks or the transportation or the bad guys. They never got to be the center hero. I thought wouldn't it be interesting to write a whole series where the dragons get to tell their own stories? I thought that would be really fun to do. Then I started thinking about it.
I was outlining an idea for the first five books right around when I had my first kid. That really affected what the themes of the series ended up being. It ended being a lot about, how does your childhood shape your choices and your destiny? How do different kinds of parents shape the kids, or who else you're growing up with? The first five are about those five little dragons in a cave who are taken away from their original families. Then they are growing up together under this mountain because they're supposed to fulfil this prophecy, according to a bunch of older dragons who want to tell them what to do. That question of, what's nature? What's nurture? How does parenting affect your destiny? Can you choose your own destiny no matter how you were raised? I keep joking about this saying that I think that I'm writing these books to reassure myself that no matter how badly I parent, at least I won't be like Queen Scarlet. [laughs] My kids will probably still be able to save the world, is what I'm hoping. That's the beginning of thinking about it. Owen, have you read up through book thirteen, or are you mostly reading the graphic novel?
Owen: I had started by reading the first five, not graphic novel. Then I started drifting away from reading. When I went back, you were already on book ten. Then I found out there's a graphic novel. I was overjoyed. I read them all in one day. Now I'm waiting, counting the days until the next one comes out. I also love how the names of the dragons all relate to the kind of wings they are. Clay is the MudWing. Tsunami’s the SeaWing, like water. Sunny’s the SandWing. Glory is the RainWing. [Indiscernible] is the NightWing. I thought it was really clever. So far, they’ve all been disappointed when they’ve seen their real families.
Tui: I'm trying to think what happens next. Yeah, that was a big part of it. They had these expectations. Then what's the reality like?
Owen: They're all wrong.
Tui: That's cool. I spent a long time thinking about the names. When I first dove into the series, I was like, it’s a big fantasy series. I’ll give them all crazy fantasy names that are a bunch of syllables mashed together. Then as I was writing it, I started thinking about readers like my editor, who is amazing but has trouble keeping track of all the dragons because she's a grown-up. Kids are way better at it than we are. What if I could identify them so when you read their name, you know at least what tribe they are? Hopefully it'll help you connect to where they come from. It'll help you identify the dragons all the way through. That was a big part of figuring out the worldbuilding for me. What kinds of names would each tribe have? How will that help readers figure out where they come from?
Zibby: With the graphic novel and the prose -- what do you call the difference? -- the young adult version, is your intention that people can go back and forth? Owen was saying he read one through five. Then he skipped to graphic novels. Are they basically the same stories you can go --
Owen: -- No. The graphic novels are the same books as from the beginning to the end.
Zibby: I'm holding -- which number is this? -- book thirteen, but this is book three --
Owen: -- She went over the series in graphic novels.
Zibby: You condensed it?
Tui: Yeah, basically. The way the process works is we have an adaptor who's written a lot of graphic novels. His name is Barry. He's amazing. He reads the novel for book one. He writes out a graphic novel script, is what it’s called, with panel by panel of the dialogue and suggestions for the artist. Then I go through that. I make sure that it includes everything because he hasn’t read all the way through book thirteen. I’ll be like, “Wait, this is actually really important. It comes up later. Can we make sure to mention this?” I’ll change some of the dialogue. Usually, I'm adding a lot of dialogue back in because I like having all of my words, as many words as possible.
Zibby: Isn't that so neat? I wouldn't even have known that was a job, that there's a person out there who takes books and adapts them to graphic novels. How cool. Owen, maybe this will be your job in life. Now you know. There's another option out there.
Tui: Actually, what I thought was amazing to discover -- first of all, let me say Barry writes his own graphic novels too. He's a great author in his own right too. Then there's Mike, who does all the art for the graphic novels. Then there's also yet another person -- her name is Marta -- who comes in and adds all the colors. Her job is just coloring the graphic novel. I thought that was so amazing. She does such a good job. She's also an artist. She does her own art as well. She's really talented. It was really fun to discover that that was a job, being the person who colors the graphic novels.
Zibby: I feel like now I can have a family production team with all my different kids. I've got one who's really good at coloring. This is going to be great. Maybe we’ll be graphic novel producing by the end of this vacation we’re on.
Tui: It’s pretty fun. My son loves graphic novels.
Zibby: They can color.
Tui: That's right. It could be a creative graphic novel. They don't have to stay inside the lines. My son loves graphic novels. He draws a lot. He's in a comics class. They all look a little bit like Dog Man. He's working out his style. It’s pretty cute.
Zibby: I noticed from your bio that you've moved around a ton as a child. I was wondering, how do you think that's impacted the way that you see the world? Do you think that there's any part of you that wants to create these fantasy worlds to give some sort of consistency where maybe you didn't have one in your own childhood? You can make a place where your characters can stay and it’s all within your own control. This is my psychological theory of you, by the way. [laughter]
Tui: I really like that as an overarching theory of Tui. I do think that moving that much, there were a couple of effects. One is that I read a lot because that was the friend I could find anywhere. No matter where we lived, I could go to the library and find Anne of Green Gables. I was very attached to the books I read. It also made me really close friends with my sister because she was the only person I knew no matter where we went. We became best friends. My mom likes to talk about how living in places like Paraguay, we didn't have television, and so we had to use our imaginations. I think she takes a lot of credit for me being an author now.
Zibby: If I take the TV away, my kids will become amazing, best-selling fantasy writers?
Owen: Nope. [laughter]
Tui: That's my mom’s theory. I don't know that I agree. Right now, I'm a huge TV fiend. I watch so much TV.
Owen: I do too.
Tui: I actually love watching TV with other people, like my husband or my kids, and talking about it. I feel like you can learn a lot from the storytelling about storytelling and structuring stories from TV. I wouldn't be the writer I am right now if it weren’t for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That was my show. I loved it so much. It shaped me in terms of serious topics, relatable characters, but also really funny. That combination that it did so well is partly what I'm going for in my own writing. Moving a lot, it did make us have to create our own world wherever we went, Kari and I both. We did a lot of imaginative play and a lot of reading.
Zibby: You've actually collaborated with her to write the whole Menagerie trilogy as well. How is that process? It sounds like for the graphic novels you're also collaborating with lots of people. It’s a huge team effort. What's it like writing with your sister like that?
Tui: That’s probably the most collaborative of anything because we were really trying to cowrite it together. The original idea was hers. She was the first person to say, “Wouldn't it be cool to do a series about a zoo full of mythical creatures?” Owen, you haven't read those, right?
Zibby: Have you read those?
Tui: The Menagerie? That's okay. I just wondered.
Zibby: We’re going to order them right now. Sorry. [laughter]
Tui: No pressure.
Owen: Are they graphic novels?
Tui: No, they're not graphic novels, sorry.
Zibby: It’s okay. You can still read books. It’s okay.
Zibby: Yes, you can.
Tui: [laughs] My kid’s the same way. Actually, my kids have not read my books. They're like, “Maybe one day, Mom, if we get time in between all the Dog Man books.” With Menagerie, Kari said, “Zoo full of mythical creatures.” I said, “That would be amazing. Why don't we write it together? Let's do it.” We brainstormed a lot of the concept together in terms of the characters. We knew we wanted one kid who works in the menagerie. How cool would it be to wake up every morning and have to go deal with dragons and phoenixes and unicorns? Those are your chores for the day. Then also keeping it secret at school, you can't tell anyone. There's a reason why your backpack smells like wet mammoth. That's very hard to explain. We also wanted to have the perspective of a kid who's discovering the menagerie for the first time, that experience of walking in and being like, what is this magical place?
It starts with him finding one of the griffin cubs under his bed because they'd escaped from the menagerie. Zoe is trying to get them all back. Logan manages to help her do that. We worked that out. Then we had some big mysteries. There are a few others now about mythical creatures. It was really fun to figure out which creatures we wanted in the series to include in the zoo and also the big mystery. There's one mystery that's resolved in book one. There's others that carry over into books two and three. For the actual writing process, mostly I would write something and send it to her. She would edit it. She was an editor at the time as well. She was an editor for a long time in New York City. She has incredible instincts. Now she's an agent, actually. She's wonderful. I think she's the best.
Zibby: I will be calling her after this. No, I'm kidding.
Tui: [laughs] You totally should.
Zibby: No, I'm kidding.
Tui: She's very cool. She mostly works in young adult. She has a lot of cool young adult authors that are coming up. It was really fun to work with her and figure out how the mysteries would develop. Whenever I got stuck, I could call her, Gchat her. We could figure out the mystery together.
Zibby: That's so cool.
Tui: It was a fun process.
Zibby: Let's talk about names for a second. First of all, your name, Tui, is actually a bird in New Zealand. Is that right? Your mom named you after some bird? How do you feel about that? I've had kind of a rough time growing up as Zibby and having to explain that name.
Zibby: Because you always have to spell it. It’s sort of a pain. No one’s heard of it.
Tui: Do they always ask if it’s short for something?
Zibby: Right, yeah. What it is? My name is short for Elizabeth.
Tui: I get that all the time. Mine’s not short for anything. I always have to explain, no, it’s not. Yeah, it’s a kind of bird. Actually, what's interesting is my parents knew another Tui -- that was where they got the name from -- in Venezuela somehow. I think they just liked the sound of it. Especially at loud parties, it’s the worst when you're trying to yell your name in somebody's ear. They're like, “Julie.” You're like, nope, that’s not -- okay, fine. [laughter] Let it go. There's something cool about the uniqueness of it. I do like being the only Tui that anybody knows, pretty much. It’s funny. Growing up, part of my plan was to get famous enough that people would start naming their children after me. Then there’d be other Tuis in the world.
Zibby: It looks like you're on the right track. That's pretty impressive.
Tui: Hasn’t happened yet. Maybe one day.
Zibby: You've still chosen to write lots of books under pseudonyms, under pen names. Why did you that? Why did you choose to do that?
Tui: It’s funny because there's a different excuse for each one. There was a reason behind each pseudonym. They're all slightly different. The main reason is that -- I was an editor for a while at a couple of companies in New York. When I left to write full time, basically what I wanted to do was write as much as possible. I had a couple of things that were my pet projects that had my name on them. I knew a lot of people in publishing. They would ask me, “Do you want to work on this project or that project?” I would say yes to everything. I figured it was all good practice and it was all making me a better writer, especially the ones where I was trying to write in a particular style. For instance, the Warriors series, it’s the series about cats in the wild having adventures.
Owen: Oh, yeah. I saw that.
Tui: Have you seen those? There's a lot of them now. I was the editor when it first started. We had three authors to begin with, one who would come up with the story, and then two who would take turns writing the books. Then they asked me to join the team because the books were doing really well. They wanted more Erin Hunters, basically. Erin Hunter was a made-up name in general. Learning to adapt my voice to that style -- I also wrote a couple of Little House on the Prairie spinoffs.
Zibby: That was my favorite series as a little girl, obsessed.
Tui: Really? That's so cute. It was really fun working on them because I got to do all this research about the real Laura and the real Nellie Oleson and Almanzo and what happened to him. One of them is about what happened to Almanzo between Farmer Boy and when he meets Laura. Doing all the research for that was amazing and also made me realize Laura had left me all these problems because she changed a bunch of things in Farmer Boy, like the ages of all his siblings. In order to make things make sense in the rest of his life, I had to stick with what was in Farmer Boy, but they were all the wrong age.
Zibby: Oh, no.
Tui: It was little things like that. It was really fascinating. Also, Laura Ingalls Wilder has a very different voice than I do, certainly. It’s simple. It’s a lot of physical descriptions and not a lot of witty banter between dragons. [laughs] It’s a very different style. I learned a whole lot from trying to adapt my voice to hers for those two books. It made me a better writer to get to practice in all those different styles. For that one, they asked me to come up with a pseudonym that would be shelved next to Wilder on the bookshelf. I needed to come up with a last name that started with W-I-L. I picked Williams because that's where I went to college. Then the first name, I said Tomorrow, which is my middle name. They were like, “Do you have anything that sounds a little more like a prairie girl?” I went with Heather because it’s my sister’s middle name. That's just a couple of them. The main reason is that I was just saying yes to all these projects as practice for my writing. It ended up that a lot of them involved pseudonyms.
Zibby: Where do you write? Where and when do you write now? Do you go somewhere to write? Do you write in your own office? We’re on Skype now. I'm looking at the back of your office. Is this where all the magic happens?
Tui: I was going to say, yes, exactly. I don't know if this is interesting for you, Owen. This is the office where I work. You can see I have bookshelves with some of my favorite writing books, books I'm planning to read, my own books are up there, and some of my favorite books back here. Then over my desk I have copies of those covers so that I can look up and think about dragons. I have the map right in front of me as well. I find the map really useful as I'm figuring out, where are they and how are they going to get to where they're going?
Owen: If you need any help with anything, just call me. [laughter]
Tui: That's awesome.
Owen: If you ever need anyone to proofread your reading before you give it out, just give me a call.
Tui: Excellent. I do need people sometimes.
Owen: I love your books a lot. Your books are amazing. I want to wait until all of them come out.
Tui: Thank you. If you've just read books one through five, the next one that's coming out, it’s not book fourteen. It’s a book that's set during books one through five. It’s going back to that same time period.
Owen: Which one? Which time period? What's it about?
Tui: It starts around about when -- it’s right before the prophecy starts. Then it goes all the way through to end of book five.
Owen: Yeah, I think there could be a little more around there. [laughter]
Tui: You don't have to have had read the other books to read this one. It’s a standalone. Actually, this one is from the point of view of the humans.
Owen: I feel like I should go back and start reading them now.
Zibby: What is this one going to be called?
Tui: It’s called Dragonslayer. I don't know, Owen, if you've seen the book Darkstalker.
Owen: Oh, yeah. I saw that one. I didn't read it, though.
Tui: That's okay. You shouldn't read this one until you've read books six and seven. This one is connected to what happens.
Owen: My dad used to order them all for me, which is amazing. When I go back to the city, I'm going to grab them and then go to boarding school and read them all and then wait for the new comics to come out. The comics are the best thing ever.
Tui: Thank you. I actually get so excited -- what?
Owen: At school, the teachers used to always give us books. I hated them. It drifted me away from reading. Then I finally found Wings of Fire. Then it got me right back into reading. Then the comics came out.
Tui: That’s awesome. I do think that's the hardest thing about school reading, assigned reading. If you don't love it, if they don't let you choose what you want to read, then that can happen to a lot of kids.
Owen: It’s terrible, pretty bad.
Zibby: Tui, this graphic novel, number three Wings of Fire, when does this come out?
Tui: That comes out in October.
Zibby: This comes out in October. How lucky are you?
Owen: I know, right?
Zibby: I am the coolest mom in the entire world?
Owen: Yeah. I think you should work a little more on the next graphic novel, and I’ll help with it. I want my page in the table of contents. I'm kidding.
Tui: [laughs] Actually, that's the next thing I have to do. I just finished that Dragonslayer book I mentioned. I just turned it in. I know that she's been holding onto the script for the fourth graphic novel waiting for me to be done with that one so she can unleash it on me. That's what I’ll be doing.
Owen: I'm here. If you need anything, I'm right here.
Tui: Thank you.
Zibby: That's coming next. What else aside from that? Do you have any thoughts about turning all of this into TV?
Owen: That's a good idea. I loved the colors you turned Glory into. It’s amazing.
Tui: Actually, to talk about book three for a second, the graphic novel, it’s my favorite so far. I love what Marta did with all the -- poor Marta, the colorist. We were like, “Here's a book where all the dragons are different colors. Also, they're chameleons, basically, and can change colors in every page. Could you just make them a different color in every panel?” They change colors when they're having emotions. When Glory’s mad, she has to turn red. There's different colors for the different things that they're feeling. It was a huge challenge. She really rose to it. It’s beautiful, all the different colors in it. Plus also, the RainWings, that tribe that they end up with, they have pet sloths. There's a pet sloth on every page. I was really excited about that.
Owen: It was amazing.
Tui: What was the question?
Tui: I feel like that would be amazing on TV. I'd love to do that.
Owen: I can be the voice of Clay if you need anything.
Zibby: Oh, stop. [laughter]
Tui: I would love to see it as a TV show. It’s in the hands of my agent. There's a film agent that's working with us. Hopefully they’ll find the right people for it. I don't want to say yes to anything. I want to find the people who understand the books and really get it and are going to make it look good.
Tui: And also figuring out the right animation style. I watch a lot of TV with my kids. I'm constantly thinking, would this work? Would this work? What should it really look like?
Owen: Those Disney cartoons, those are not like your kind. Anime is not really that kind of cartoon. It might be good.
Zibby: Okay, we’ll get back to Owen.
Tui: It’s such a hard question. I'm going to try watching a series called The Dragon Prince. Have you seen that one? It’s on Netflix.
Tui: Just from watching the trailer of it, I kind of like this style. I need to watch a little and see if I really do like it. Then also, my two favorites are Miyazaki -- the Miyazaki movies are really beautiful -- and also Into the Spider-Verse.
Zibby: That was great.
Owen: That’s amazing. That was great.
Tui: Right? It was so brilliant. Can't I just have that? Whoever did that, come and do my books. I'm sure they're not busy.
Zibby: We’re almost out of time. Owen has to get to camp. [laughs] We’re almost out of time for the podcast. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Tui: Wow, yeah. I feel like I have so much advice, but I don't know how much of it is useful.
Zibby: Pick one piece of useful advice.
Tui: I feel like the most useful advice is to find what you love about it and keep going back to that. For me, whenever I get stuck on a book, I have a document full of notes. Usually at the top of it, I've written the main things I want to focus on. There's how I want the character to change. Theme is such a woogly word. It doesn't convey quite what I'm trying to go for. What are the questions that I'm exploring? In the new books, in books eleven through fifteen -- I've only written eleven through thirteen so far -- it’s really about, can you empathize with the bad guys but also resist the bad guys? There's a lot of trying to figure out, is this character too empathetic? Is this character too fierce? Can you be too fierce when there's bad guys you're dealing with or too empathetic if you're just that kind of dragon? Can you save the world if you're a Hufflepuff instead of a Gryffindor? that kind of thing.
Zibby: Tui, thank you so much. Thank you for all this time. Thank you for sending us this book early and making Owen’s entire summer. Thanks for talking books. We are going to order book six as soon as we hang up here, on the way to camp.
Owen: I have it.
Zibby: You have it? He has it. Nevermind. Thank you again for everything. I really appreciate it. Hopefully we’ll meet you in person soon. Stay in touch.
Zibby: Bye, Tui. Thank you.