AMY TENBRINK: Your work is amazing—anyone who hasn’t glanced through your portfolio or spent an afternoon with M.F.K. should do so at once—but the scope of your work is also amazing! You’ve storyboarded for Dreamworks and Disney; you’ve created comics for Marvel; you’ve illustrated for other authors, such as Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad series; and you’ve written and illustrated both a children’s book (How to Find a Fox) and a graphic novel (M.F.K.). How did you find your way into doing all these wonderful things?
NILAH: Actually, I think Twitter had a lot to do with it. That’s how I first met Daniel José Older. He was editing an anthology, Long Hidden, and I may have tweeted at him or retweeted one of his tweets, but he saw I was an artist and reached out about contributing to the anthology. So we’ve known each other since then, and then when he sold Dactyl Hill Squad, he suggested my name to Scholastic and luckily they thought it was a good idea. I actually asked Kathleen Wisneski—the editor at Marvel who hired me for A Year of Marvels—recently how she became familiar with my work, and she suggested it might have been through Twitter, too. It helped that I was doing a webcomic at the time, but meeting other webcomic artists and finding a community through social media was also instrumental in building M.F.K.
AMY: I imagine that each of your projects is quite different. For example, storyboarding or creating for someone else must be very different from crafting your own graphic novel. And creating a children’s picture book must be very different from a graphic novel—and certainly your artistic style is very different in How to Find a Fox and M.F.K. How do you approach these different types of projects?
NILAH: The needs of each project come first. When I’m working for a client, usually they tell me what those needs are, haha. It can be difficult to switch from project to project, so I always take time to research and reset my brain. For picture books, I’ll go to the bookstore or library and check out what’s new. For graphic novels, I’ll do some exploratory drawing, or read through notes or scripts I’ve already written. It’s similar for storyboarding, though in addition to scripts there’s usually also animatics or design sheets to reference. And for illustrating book covers, I keep Pinterest boards of illustrated book covers to inspire me.
AMY: What do you love about all the different things you do? Do you have a favorite type of project or a soft spot for something in particular that you’ve done?
NILAH: I have a background in marketing and journalism; in those jobs I often had to shift focus at the drop of a hat. Or maybe I just have a short attention span, LOL. The point is that I enjoy moving around and juggling multiple projects. When I get stuck on or bored with one, I can move to another. The glue that binds them together, though, is story. I love storytelling in its various forms, and I gravitate to whatever medium has the best storytelling potential at any given time. It’s hard to pick a favorite because each type of project has its challenges, but I guess I’ll always gravitate to stories about girls and women on journeys of discovery, whether they’re searching for home, love, or foxes.
AMY: In 2015, you won the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics for M.F.K. What advice do you have for creators generally, but in particular for creators who are not white, cisgendered, heterosexual, and male?
NILAH: I usually answer this question with “finish something,” but this time I’ll add: trust your instincts. Because of the homogeneity in creative industries, you’ll sometimes find that you don’t have very many role models or examples for the type of story you want to tell or the type of creator you want to be. Get used to throwing caution to the wind and forging your own path. I usually create for myself and say, “If I like it, then it’s likely at least one more person in the world will like it, too.” So I create for me and that person; just the two of us.
AMY: This fall, you’re presenting a workshop intensive for writers titled “The Visual Narrative: Developing Illustrated Projects and How to Write Like an Artist” as part of the Sirens Studio. Would you please give us a preview of what Studio attendees can expect to discuss and learn?
NILAH: As a visual artist who also writes, I’ve noticed that there can be a disconnect between the two sides. The conversations I have with artists are very different from the conversations I have with writers. With this workshop, I hope to bridge the divide. We’ll be discussing art as a story-telling tool, the responsibilities of the writer on illustrated projects and the responsibilities of the artist. We’ll cover where to find artists for your project and how to approach them. We’ll also be discussing some design techniques that writers can employ to make their writing stand out. Visual arts as a medium and as an industry can feel intimidating and exclusive, but I believe there’s a lot that writers can learn about their own craft by embracing the visual arts.
AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?
NILAH: Haha, I told my mother I was stumped on this question and she said, “Well, you always have to answer with your mom!” She’s certainly where I got my deadpan sense of humor. There have been a lot of influential women in my life who have shown me the value of strength, kindness, commitment, and creativity. One such woman was my art professor Joyce Michaud. My final year at Hood College was a big one for both of us; just as I was preparing for graduation, Joyce was reinstating the art program, which had ended ten years prior. I’d been majoring in communication arts up until that point, but with Joyce’s encouragement and guidance, I took art as a second major… in my last year of school! I took more classes that year than any other year in my schooling history. It was challenging and frustrating, and Joyce pushed me hard and I was not always grateful, haha! But I made it through my senior thesis, I aced all my classes, and I graduated.
A couple years later, when I decided I was ready to look into animation programs, I went back to Hood and met with Joyce for more guidance. She hardly gave me a chance to tell her what schools I was considering when she said, “Oh, you have to go to Ringling.” I’ve since attended Ringling and graduated, and now work as a storyboard artist and writer for animated television in Los Angeles. Joyce had a pretty huge role in getting me from a college student who was particularly good at drawing to a working professional artist. Have I given her copies of my books? I should really do that.
Nilah Magruder is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles. From her beginnings in the woods of the eastern United States, she developed an eternal love for three things: nature, books, and animation. She has written and storyboarded for television studios like DreamWorks and Disney. She also illustrates children’s books, including the Dactyl Hill Squad series by Daniel José Older from Scholastic. Nilah is the author of M.F.K., a middle-grade graphic novel from Insight Editions and the winner of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, and How to Find a Fox, a picture book. She has published short fiction in the anthology ALL OUT (edited by Saundra Mitchell), in Fireside Magazine, and for Marvel Comics. When she is not working, Nilah is watching movies, growing herbs, roller-skating, and fighting her cat for control of her desk chair.