ComicBuzz Chats With Chris Grabenstein

With the release of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: The Graphic Novel today from Random House Books for Young Readers, we are delighted to be joined by New York Times bestselling author Chris Grabenstein.


Could you please tell us a little about yourself? 

I’m the award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Lemoncello series, the Smartest Kid series, the Dog Squad series, the Wonderland series, the Haunted Mystery series, and The Island of Dr. Libris. Together, my wife J.J. and I wrote the acclaimed Shine! I’ve also done two picture books – No More Naps and No Is All I Know – with illustrations by the very talented Leo Espinosa.
I’m the co-author (with James Patterson) of the #1 Bestsellers I FunnyHouse of RobotsTreasure HuntersJacky Ha-Ha, Word of Mouse, Max EinsteinKatt Vs. DoggBest Nerds Forever, and many others.

 I started writing a long time ago. My four brothers and I used to put on skits and puppet shows in the basement of our home in Buffalo, New York. Admission was a nickel. We usually earned ten cents a show because Mom and Dad were our only paying customers.
When I was ten, we moved to Signal Mountain, Tennessee where I had a great teacher who told me (when I was in the 7th grade) that I would “make a living as a writer one day.”
I studied communications and theater at The University of Tennessee in Knoxville then moved to New York City with six suitcases, a typewriter, and very little money. For five years, I performed with some of the city’s top Improvisational Comedy troupes, making up scenes and songs on the spot in front of live audiences, just like they do on the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
A young actor named Bruce Willis was also in my comedy group and, from time to time, the late Robin Williams would drop by to perform with us. I also wrote for Jim Henson’s Muppets.
In 1986, my college buddy Ronny Venable and I wrote a TV movie for CBS called The Christmas Gift. It starred John Denver and can still be seen almost every year—usually during the holidays, usually on the Hallmark Channel, usually at three o’clock in the morning. We usually clear about ten dollars a year each in residuals.
I spent sixteen years as an advertising exec writing radio and television commercials for Burger King, Seven Up, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dr Pepper, and many, many others. My first boss was a very talented advertising writer named James Patterson. Now we write books together.
After my advertising career, I spent four years having everything I wrote rejected by publishers, producers, and strangers I met on the street. Now I’ve had over six-dozen different books published and I’m working on several new projects
My wife J.J. and I still live in New York City with our cats Luigi & Phoebe Squeak and lots and lots of ideas.


Can you tell us about the origins of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: The Graphic Novel?

Several years ago, the folks at Jimmy books did a graphic novel version of JACKY HA HA, one of the books that James Patterson and I had written together. I wasn’t involved in that transformation but I was thrilled and delighted when I saw the result. All those figments of our imagination sprang to vivid, visual life. I went to my terrific editor at Random House, Shana Corey, and said, “Do you think we could ever do that sort of graphic novel thing with a Mr. Lemoncello story?” Shana said, “Yes!”


What can you tell us about Kyle Keeley?

Kyle is the youngest of the three boys in his family. The only time he can beat his big brothers – one is a super jock, the other is a super genius – is when they all play board games. The germ of Kyle’s character came from my own memories of being the third son in a family of five who could never beat my two big brothers at anything except when we played board games. Kyle will do anything to win. Why, he’d even kick out a window if it gave him an edge over his brothers in a wild scavenger hunt. He is a superfan of all things Lemoncello and, more than anything, wants to be in the new library for its opening games.


When you first thought about Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: The Graphic Novel, visually, did you have style in mind?

I wanted the visual style to be as fun and fast paced as the story. As a big fan of Mad Magazine (I got my first subscription when I was ten), I also love a loaded frame filled with small, funny details. Douglas Holgate was the perfect match. His drawings are as wacky and nimble as my story.


How did Douglas Holgate, Marta Todeschini and Juliet Goodman join the team?

Through trust and faith! I am very fortunate to work with Random House Graphic. They have the world’s best (IMHO) art directors and editors. They knew exactly who to reach out to. And once they found the perfect people, they ran them by me and I said, “Wow, you found the perfect people!”


Who is Mr. Lemoncello?

Luigi Lemoncello is the world’s richest, wackiest, zaniest, and generous game maker. A bazillionaire, he builds a futuristic library for his small hometown because, when he was a kid, the librarian was one of the people who encouraged him to follow his dreams. Having been fortunate enough to work with both Robin Williams and Jim Henson, I think Mr. Lemoncello is a little bit of both. The spontaneously zany antics of Robin Williams. The creative genius and generous heart of Jim Henson.


What made Douglas and Marta the right artists for Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: The Graphic Novel?

They got the picture. Douglas took my words about Mr. Lemoncello coming on stage like “a happy grasshopper” and turned him into a lanky, loose-limbed delight. Marta’s colors are spot on – setting mood and place. Early readers have raved about how beautiful the finished book looks.


Was it a difficult process to create the graphic novel?

Not really. I spent sixteen years creating, mostly, TV commercials for big ad agencies and clients. I just had to dust off my “storyboarding” technique. I also applied some of what I know about screenplay structure and writing to the graphic novel script. Of course, the book has many more words than the graphic novel. And big chunks had to be cut. But, since the book has been out in the world for ten years, I have received thousands of reviews, emails, and fan mail letters. I knew exactly which set pieces in the novel nobody ever cited as their favorites. Those were the first bits cut. I also knew the most quoted lines from the book. They all stayed!


Do you have a favourite scene from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: The Graphic Novel?

When Kyle goes on his extreme challenge and it’s a race against the clock between him and some very scary sliding bookcases down in the basement. This was always one of the most visual scenes in the book. Now it zips across several pages with very few words and lots of fun sound effects. (I wrote some of those but I think Douglas’s are even better!)


Is there a particular character from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library that you enjoy writing?

That has to be Mr. Lemoncello. He is such a wackaloon, prone to flights of fancy and verbal gymnastics. If he’s going to give a few brief remarks, they’ll probably be a string of words like “Short. Concise. Underpants.” He is, as they say, a hoot.


How would you describe Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: The Graphic Novel?

I’ll let the starred review from Booklist do it for me: “A worthy successor to the original madman puzzle-master himself, Willy Wonka.” Now in full color and fun, action-packed panels!


Any message for the ComicBuzz readers?

Because I grew up in a time when we didn’t read books in school (we had to do color coded essays in a program called SRA), comic books were what made me fall in love with reading and storytelling. Superman. Archie. Richie Rich. Classics Illustrated. And, of course, Mad. I hope we’ve done the genre proud because the genre has done so much for me!

We would like to say thank you to Chris for chatting with us. We would like to wish Chris and the whole of the Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: The Graphic Novel team the best of luck with the book.

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