The Okay Witch is a delightful graphic novel about friendship, family legacies, and witches. Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel is a perfect blend of humor, heart, and spooky vibes. I’m so happy to have Emma here today to talk a little bit about this book which is a new favorite of mine and sure to become one of yours too.
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer and artist? How did you get to this point?
Emma Steinkellner (ES): I’m the youngest child in a family of writers, so– I’m not sure if this is a joke– it may have never been a choice to be a writer. But I have also always been pretty naturally inclined to storytelling and making people laugh and imagining characters. I’ve also always loved drawing (sketchbooks full of half-filled pages have been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember). Starting in elementary school, I would write plays and then I would draw the characters in the play as I imagined them. And I started refining both skills more as a teenager, when I also got really into animation, which, like comics, involves illustrated actors performing a play of sorts. In high school, I started really investing time in myself as an illustrator. It was something I wanted to be good at and I put in the time. And luckily, I had a family that really believed in me (as long as I kept with the family tradition of writing as well). I went to college and majored in gender studies and even though I was studying something I really loved, I often worried if I was taking a step back by not going to an art school or majoring in studio art. But I truly believe that as long as a writer/artist uses the things they learn, everything is useful. And I know The Okay Witch would have never happened if I hadn’t done gender studies. When I graduated, I worked as an illustrator for ads for tech and video games and learned a lot about efficiency and flexibility on the job. And evenings and weekends, I’d work on comics: Quince (an indie comic created by Sebastian Kadlecik, written by my sister Kit Steinkellner, and illustrated by me, published by Fanbase Press), and the earliest versions of The Okay Witch, which my agent Dan Lazar helped me get into shape to pitch. And then we found our home at Aladdin and Simon & Schuster and the rest is history!
MP: What was the inspiration for The Okay Witch?
ES: I wanted to do some kind of story with witches for a long time. Witches as a subject open up so many thematic doors for a writer. And I was especially interested in doing a story about a teen witch because I feel there have been so many great teen witch stories with so much in common that it’s become a kind of unspoken genre. I originally wanted to do a story about Moth and her mother Calendula living as witches in Founder’s Bluff over hundreds of years and hiding and making magic as they age slower than all the mortal citizens. But as a middle grade book, it absolutely made more sense to shift the spotlight to Moth as a 21st century kid who then discovers a broad, mysterious, centuries-old history of magic in her family and town, who then figures out how she’s going to handle all that.
MP: I loved all of the details that bring Founder’s Bluff to life as Moth moves through the story and through the town. Did any real life locations inspire places in The Okay Witch?
ES: I did get the chance to visit some towns in Massachusetts while I was penciling (laying out the rough sketches of all the pages) The Okay Witch. Coastal towns with rich histories like Salem (obviously), also Marblehead and Ipswich and then Stockbridge with its strong Norman Rockwell vibes. I’m certainly not the first person to set a story with ghosts and witches in New England. My mom and I also lived in East Haddam, Connecticut in the fall when I was 10 and she was working on a show at the Goodspeed Opera House and that short time in my life gave me so many of my core sense memories. I definitely called on those, too.
MP: Do you have a favorite scene or a scene you are excited for readers to discover?
ES: There are a few scenes in Chapters 9-10 where Moth, her mother Cal, and her grandmother Sarah are all together and it was so rewarding to put them all in one place. I think there are interesting and under-explored joys and trickinesses to mother-daughter relationships. The things you want to share with each other. The things you hide from each other. The rules you make, rational or irrational. The ways in which you’re alike and where you really diverge. Plus, I got a lot of comedy out of how the imperious, immortal wise witch Sarah interacts with the 20th century (she calls popcorn “salt blossoms”).
MP: Who was your favorite character to illustrate? Who was the hardest to capture on the page?
ES: Each character is delightful in their own way– Moth with her excited, wide-eyed expressions and committed, gangly gestures, Laszlo’s floppy cat form taking on his former human body’s attitude (I used my brother and his wife’s cat Channing as a model), Sarah’s sharp, Eartha Kitt bone structure and solid, carefully chosen, balletic body language. Old Jenny, the crusty old muscle-witch. Mrs. McCorkle, the super-extra drama teacher. How can I choose? I think I probably struggled the most with Mayor Kramer because while I would have loved to make him a moustache-twirling villain-y villain who sings about how much he loves to be evil, that’s just not a type of villainy that made sense for this story. So I tried to make him a real person, powerful and threatening, but grounded in reality, too.
MP: Can you tell me anything about your next project?
ES: I’m having fun making it! And working hard to deliver some quality heart and warmth and comedy.
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
ES: There was a point midway through making this book where I was working maybe 16 hours a day, but I didn’t feel like the pages I was illustrating were any good. And it didn’t make any sense– I was putting in the hours, shouldn’t good art be coming out? Treating myself like a machine worked for a little while, but I burned out fast. My advice would be, definitely get started writing or drawing what you want to draw. Getting started is key. But giving yourself a break is also key. Make enough space in your process to stop and reflect on what you’ve already done and the lessons you’ve learned. Also make enough space to eat and sleep and shower and walk and be with other people and stuff.
Thanks again to Emma for for taking the time to answer my questions.
You can also read my review of The Okay Witch here on the blog.