Today, we have a fun Q&A with Benny Zelkowicz & Cam Baity, the co-authors of the Books of Ore series from Disney-Hyperion. The first book is The Foundry’s Edge, followed by book two, Waybound, which just came out this week! Be sure to keep reading after our Q&A for more about both books and the authors!
While studying animation at CalArts, we found ourselves sitting together at the back of an insanely dull History of Experimental Film class. We got to talking about horror movies and fantasy novels, and quickly came to realize we passionately disagreed on just about everything. Some might think that disagreement precludes collaboration, but it’s actually the “passionate” part of the equation that is vital to our creative partnership. We are both fiercely devoted to making the best story possible, and we will tirelessly argue and debate even the most minute point to its brutal, bitter conclusion. Fun, right?
When did you first decide you were going to co-write a book? What is your collaboration process?
We started out by working on animated short films, TV pitches, and screenplays together. After having the opportunity to meet with a literary agent, we decided on a whim to try our hands at writing a goofy Middle Grade book. We wrote about 75 pages, and though it never got picked up for publication, we found the experience liberating. Writing was no longer a means to an end, one disposable step among many. Instead, it was its own end, the final product, and we did not have to concern ourselves with budgets and practicalities––whatever we could imagine could happen.
As for our process, we are constantly refining and honing our methods in search of the most productive system. And of course, ever-tighter deadlines and unexpected complications constantly force us to be flexible and tinker with our ways of getting things done. But our basic process with co-authoring has been to start with a detailed outline. To accomplish this, we take a brief retreat from our families and hole up in a cabin somewhere, working long hours every day to pound through a beat-by-beat breakdown of the story. This gets refined until we have a couple paragraphs for each chapter, explaining basic elements of plot, character, and setting. Then, working solo, we divvy up chapters, drafting and trading, keeping Skype open so we can discuss any questions that arise and IM snarky emoticons at our leisure. When the draft is done, we get together for a celebratory drink to toast what we’ve accomplished and cheerfully erase of all the countless arguments that got us to our destination.
Easily the hardest aspect is the fact that Cam refuses to accept that Benny is right about everything. With his vast knowledge of everything from physics to nautical navigation to obscure facts about human anatomy, Cam should really defer to his co-author on everything, but because Cam is STUBBORN, he thinks that Benny is not quite as well versed in these subjects as he claims.
Actually, one of the most challenging aspects of writing with someone else is the constant negotiation. You have to be prepared to make a strong case for every choice in case you are called upon to defend it. We have both been forced to “kill our darlings” on the other’s altar. But as in any relationship, the ability to compromise is key, and more often than not, by bashing our heads together, we find superior solutions. Every idea and suggestion gets prodded, tested, and questioned. We like to think of writing as (a not terribly practical way of) building a boat––we each try to sink the other’s side, and if the handiwork endures the assault, it is seaworthy and makes it into the book.
Tell us a little about Waybound (and the Books of Ore series in general, for new readers).
It’s a story about two kids, pampered Phoebe Plumm and her former servant Micah, who set out on a rescue mission into a world of living metal, a place called “Mehk.” They discover that the beings here, both sentient and not, are being poached by a massive corporation called “The Foundry” and converted into all of the products and technology that make their own world so extraordinary. The second book of the series, WAYBOUND, picks up shortly after the end of THE FOUNDRY’S EDGE, as Phoebe and Micah are tasked with finding a sacred relic that they hope will allow the mehkans to save their world.
Phoebe’s father is a very important executive at the Foundry, and she has grown up in the lap of luxury. She lives in a huge manor, and although she has every gadget and luxury imaginable, she is terribly lonely. Phoebe spends her days pining for her father, who is always away on business, and she invests her time in playing pranks on people who she feels deserve it––a private form of justice she calls “sniping.” Her servant, Micah Tanner, grew up in a rural town in the Midwest, and he dreams of being a hero, but really Micah would do anything to escape his life of drudgery. We thought of Phoebe as being sort of feline––quiet, introverted, cautious, and a little bit inscrutable. Micah is definitely more of a dog––eager, excitable, and transparent. Micah was based in part on Cam as a kid, often getting into trouble and not caring too much about what he was told to do. Phoebe is based on… oh, let’s just say Benny… because that has a sort of symmetry to it that seems neat and writer-ly.
With the promotion of Waybound, you have been sharing an illustrated glossary on social media. How much of the glossary — and world-building in general — did you have to do before you could start writing this trilogy?
Before we dove into the first draft of Book 1, we started with a lot of brainstorming––rough maps, one-off ideas, images in our heads, bad jokes, creature concepts, and lists of possible characters. As the story got more involved, we found it necessary to update, re-configure, and even sometimes entirely do away with vast amounts of that background work we had accumulated. From that point, our master list expanded into anatomical layouts of mehkans, cultural traits and racial stereotypes, dense global timelines as well as false narratives believed by certain characters, and obsessive schematics of battles, cities, and landscapes. We have almost as much background material for this trilogy as we do actual published pages, and although very little of it is meant for anyone but us, it was necessary work to imbue our worlds with credible foundations.
We did an event at a local elementary school and were happily surrounded by about a dozen ten-year-olds who were bouncing up and down with excitement, asking all sorts of questions about the upcoming book, all shouting over each other to tell about their favorite characters and moments. A rare treat.
Pretend you each have less than a minute on the clock: What are your three favorite books of all time? Go!
NORTHERN LIGHTS (AKA THE GOLDEN COMPASS) by Phillip Pullman – We talk a lot about this book and how it inspired our work, but I can’t emphasize enough how much it means to me personally. To create a world that is familiar and yet entirely alien, to say big and meaningful things without feeding it to the reader, to push the boundaries of what fantasy is and can be––these are Pullman’s gifts that I aspire to emulate in whatever small way.
TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE by Bohumil Hrabal – I discovered this book while spending a month in Prague, and it absolutely changed my life. Not only is the plight of “Hanta,” a drunken and introverted waste-paper baler, heart-wrenching, but his manic creativity is something I have always related to. It also serves as a poignant observation of the effects of Communism on Eastern Europe in a way that is stark, visual, and unforgettable.
HITCHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams – It’s a rare thing for a book to be able to make you think, feel, and laugh all at the same time. This relentlessly satirical sci-fi had me in its grips from the very first page, and I’m not sure it ever let me go. It’s one of those imaginary worlds that contributes to your perspective on the universe and your place in it forever after.
NOTRE DAME OF PARIS by Victor Hugo – I read this many, many years ago and it moved me like nothing else. “Quasimodo” is a hero for the ages, and the shallow venality of “Esmeralda” and “Phoebus” broke my heart. Plus, the world it creates is so vivid and immersive. LES MISERABLES meant a lot to me, too, but this is the one I re-read three times.
WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams – The last two hundred pages of this book had me breathless, and when “Bigwig” faces off against “Woundwort” and utters one unforgettable line entirely in the made-up “lapine” language, I literally shouted aloud with excitement. No other book has elicited that response from me.
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster – I still know much of the first chapter by memory. A perfect combination of adventure and whimsy, endlessly funny and charming.
When you are not writing or drawing, what hobbies do each of you enjoy?
We formed a “band” called Bronson with another friend of ours, which consists of us watching the worst action films of the 80’s and 90’s with the sound off and playing live, original soundtracks. There are few things more gratifying than getting together and making a racket with instruments, especially when we know that our music will never be worse than what we are playing over.
You have shared on social media that book 3 of the trilogy is with your publisher. When can readers expect to see that book? And what is next for both of you?
ORE Book Three will be available next spring, and we are very excited to finally share the grand secrets we have been keeping. One of our goals with the series was to keep readers off balance in regards to the big picture, so that as soon as they think they understand what’s going on, the rug is pulled out from under them. Suffice it to say, our heroes will find themselves in greater danger than ever before, and they must return to where the story began in order to face their very worst fears and bring about some kind of resolution.
As for the future, we have a stack of projects, writing and otherwise, that we have been itching to get to. First up is a Middle Grade fantasy book that goes back to our very first collaboration eighteen years ago. With the beast of ORE under our belt, we can’t wait to dust that old idea off and make it happen!
For Phoebe Plumm, life in affluent Meridian revolves around trading pranks with irksome servant Micah Tanner, and waiting for her world-renowned father, Dr. Jules Plumm, to return home. Chief engineer for The Foundry, a global corporation with an absolute monopoly on metal production and technology, Phoebe’s father is often absent for months at a time. But when a sudden and unexpected reunion leads to father and daughter being abducted, Phoebe and would-be rescuer Micah find themselves stranded in a stunning yet volatile world of living metal-one that has been ruthlessly plundered by The Foundry for centuries and is the secret source of every comfort and innovation the two refugees have ever known.
Phoebe Plumm and Micah Tanner are a long way from home and entrenched in a struggle with no end in sight. The Foundry, an all-powerful company that profits off the living metal creatures of Mehk, is unleashing a wave of devastating attacks to crush the rebel army of mehkans known as the Covenant and capture Phoebe and Micah, dead or alive. But the Covenant believes that their ancient god, Makina, has chosen Phoebe for a sacred task: to seek the Occulyth, a mysterious object they hope can turn the tide against the Foundry. With her father gone, Phoebe’s once unshakable determination is broken, and while Micah tries to uphold the vow he made to protect her no matter the cost, their enemies are closing in and time is running out.
Benny Zelkowicz studied animation at CalArts and made the award winning film, The ErlKing. He directed and starred in the BBC/CBC animated series Lunar Jim, and worked on The LEGO Movie as well as several TV shows including Robot Chicken and Moral Orel.