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Author illustrator Julia Denos shares the process she went through of finding her story that became Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color, and letting her characters speak their story to her.
“Swatch? Is that you?”
It began over a cupcake at Books of Wonder, in NYC. By the time the cupcake was half eaten, Swatch was born.
The feeling of Swatch came first. Her energy, her movement, her WILDNESS hit me while I sat at a chalkboard café table in the bookstore, across from my husband, Matt. I think bookstore air is a little cosmic already, just like library air: all those wild worlds crammed into bindings, pent up in alphabetical order. My editor, Alessandra Balzer, had asked me the day before: “Do you have a story that needs to come out? Or a character? Send it over.” So there I was: idea-receptor (heart) wide open, sugar in my veins, in a bookstore, primed for something wild to strike. She did.
I have been writing since I was a child, just as long as I’ve been drawing, but in secret. I’ve been encouraged all along by the good souls who knew, and here was a real live open doorway. To have this this offer from Alessandra was an extraordinary feeling.
“I think the story is about a girl,” I told Matt, trying to pin down this wisp of wild hovering over our table. “And color.” Color is dear to me. Matt listened to me hunt.
“I think her name is…Babette.”
We finished the cupcake and walked out of the enchanted bookstore air, holding this new life between us. She ribboned in and out between our feet. I remember seeing bright pink crates right outside the bookstore, yellow taxis, bodega flowers.
Matt is a man of few, but important, words.
“I think her name is SWATCH,” he said.
“SWATCH?” I said. “No, no that’s not her name.”
But that WAS her name, and as soon as I’d accepted that, Swatch explained to me that she was a “colortamer“… And promptly splashed into an imaginary azalea bush.
“A color-WHAT?” I asked her.
Swatch just giggled back from the fuschia. It would have been marvelous to have the answer, right there, right then, wouldn’t it? Never how ideas work. They play hard to get. I would be asking her this question for the next three years.
When I got home to my studio, I explored what it meant to tame color. I put colors on leashes. I drew Swatch a million different ways (always with her facepaint, which she wore the day we met).
My black cat, Serif, assisted on the hunt for Swatch’s story.
Then I found this old sketch, which had been tucked away. I had drawn it years before and named him “In-Between-Gray” and Jules Danielson had encouraged me to write about him. Maybe he was familiar with Swatch, maybe could help me hunt too.
Swatch? Swatch? Is that you?
Is THAT you?
While I searched for Swatch in pictures, I also searched in words. To do this, I went to lots of cafes, drank LOTS OF CAFFEINE, and sat in front of lots of blank white things: paper, screen, napkins. But Swatch was a slippery one. I demanded explanations from her: Tell me what a colortamer is! What does a colortamer do?! How do you tame color? Next to my sketches were now pitifully imploring questions:
If words came, I scrambled to get them down on anything.
Hannaford Supermarket receipt with some unused lines:
I wrote Swatch’s story from every direction I could think of, hoping she’d approve. I tried to be clever. I tried to make it cute. It all pretty much stunk, because it wasn’t true. I had nearly 200 drafts, but still no story. I wanted the THE WILD story, the one with the ferocious heartbeat, the one that rushed at me in the bookstore years before. And I wanted it from the mouth of the colortamer herself!
Three years into this chase, I just PUT IT AWAY. Opened a drawer, shoved all the sketches in, all the drafts, and defeatedly shelved Swatch. She was nowhere to be found. I felt like a pretty miserable storytamer.
In my purge of Swatch, I had forgotten a very TEENY-TINY thumbnail sketch of a figure reaching up for a blob of Yellow. It was pinned in the corner and it looked like this:
I still remember how this next part went: On a random August evening, months later (I was NOT thinking about Swatch) I split-second-glanced at that sketch on my way out of the studio. Then I heard something.
Sweet and warbling…
Like a fleet of canaries…
But it was not Swatch’s voice…it was…Yellow’s! A color was speaking?
IT WAS THE FIRST TRUE LINE! Out of the mouth of a color, no less! Had there been a reason for Swatch’s silence through the years? Had Yellow wanted to tell the story all along? In all this time, I hadn’t considered the other half of the colortamer question: the color itself. Skilled tamers of anything know to listen to what they tame. I hadn’t yet listened to what I was taming, what was WILD.
After years of chasing the story, in one moment of quiet, there it just was. Speaking.
This quiet moment was the turning point for both of us, where Swatch and I overlapped in real time.
The moment I realized Swatch’s STORY had a voice, was the same moment Swatch realized YELLOW had a voice. We were nose to nose with something wild. Being a colortamer, being a storytamer, had really nothing to do with TAMING at all.
I wrote the rest of the story that night, in the margins of a beat up sketchpad, backward from that one line. That’s why I say Yellow was my co-author. Yellow, who resisted taming, was the first one to speak. It reminded Swatch what it meant to be a colortamer, and reminded me how to write a story.
Yellow surprised me with kindness, sentience, love, and familiarity after years of fear and anxiety. It brushed against my knee and reminded me and Swatch that the WILD had been a friend all along (remember?) And not only were we friends, but we were about to MAKE something together! So hold on tight: it was finally time to play.
I laugh when I think about this whole thing sometimes. It took me so many years just to get quiet and listen. I try to keep this lesson close. I now know that writing is mostly listening. SO simple, but NOT EASY! It takes practice to listen, because todayeverything is very, very LOUD. My personal takeaway as a new author, was the reframing of writing, reconnecting me with how I’d written as a child: honest relationship WITH a story, instead of the mastery OF a story.
Belly down, nose-to-nose with the WILD.
So I’m passing this on to you as a creator/tamer (and we all are!) if it’s useful to you: Every time you get stuck, try listening. And when you hear the Wild, and you get scared (which is nearly every day if you are a writer): try to reach out your hand. This requires immense trust. It’s terrifying to stretch from your tiptoes and reach out toward something wild, especially when that something is big (with pointy teeth!) but it’s worth the risk isn’t it?
So that, my friends, is the weird way a wild story taught me how to write (untame) itself.
And now all I had to do was MAKE THE BOOK.
No bid deal……right? Right, Swatch? Swatch? Are you in that azalea bush again?
Be sure to check out our ALL THE WONDERS of Swatch page for much more, including a look inside the book, a podcast interview with Julia Denos, , coloring sheets, a face paint guide, and an original Color Tamer game created by our team.
Julia loves words and pictures, making a mess, and cleaning up. She has worked in a variety of creative industries as an author, illustrator, and designer. Watercolor is her favorite medium because it’s the wildest. She lives near the ocean just outside of historic Boston, a good place for a time-traveling Piscean. Visit her online at juliadenos.com and on Twitter at @JuliaDraw.