S1: Hazlet plus members, it’s survey time again, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate plus and Slate, it’ll only take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom Survey. Thanks.
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S3: Knowing that this was such a long shot, I, you know, poured everything I had into this pitch and it ended up being I think I was supposed to go for like 30 minutes and I went for well over an hour because I wrote out 52 episodes of what the show could be. I just figured if this, you know, was my one shot, why not just go for it?
S4: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler. Isaac, it’s been a while since we talked. I’m happy to be here with you again, June.
S5: It has been too long. The vagaries of scheduling have left us not paired up on an episode for quite a while. And it’s lovely to be here with you by here.
S2: I mean this Zoome call exactly where the band together. Vaisey exactly. The voice we heard at the beginning of the show belongs to Noel Stevenson, who was your guest this week. Who is she and what does she do?
S5: Noel is a writer and a cartoonist and I think we can say wunderkind. I think that’s appropriate here. You’re a wunderkind until you’re 30, right? And then at 30, you’re you’re booted out of the industry entirely. Anyway, she and I should mention here that Noel has recently said and has said on Twitter and in her own working that she accepts all pronouns, including she first came to broad attention with her comic Nimona, which she began in college and then became a book. And then that book made her the youngest ever nominee for the National Book Award. And after that came the remake of Shirra, which she developed and was also the showrunner for.
S2: And she also co created Anchorites, the Comic Lumber Jain’s, while youngest ever National Book Award nominee for a comic, she started when she was in college. Totally relatable indeed. What is Nimona about?
S5: So Nimona started as a Web comic and then became a graphic novel. It’s about a young shapeshifter named Nimona who decides to apprentice herself to her city’s area supervillain. It takes place in this kind of both medieval and sci fi universe. Only the big difference between Nimona and that supervillain, who is named Sir Ballester Blackheart, is that he actually has an ethics. It’s gradually revealed over the course of the book that he is not really the bad guy. Right. But Nimona is kind of a bad guy. She’s a she’s a figure of pure chaos. And as a result, it has this great kind of slapstick sense of humor. You know, Nimona is constantly turning into monsters and eating people are Ballester Blackheart doesn’t want to kill anyone, you know, et cetera and so forth. And the book gradually turns, I would say, darker and weirder as it goes along. I absolutely loved it.
S2: Of course she did. And Sheere.
S5: Well, where do we start with Sheere? Right. I mean, the easiest thing to say is that it’s a five season long animated show for children on Netflix. That is a remake of a cartoon show that I watched in first grade. But it is also and I really do not say this lightly, I think one of the great television shows of the past decade, it’s definitely for kids, but it has a real sophistication to it, particularly around its plodding and its sense of humor. And it might be the most diverse television show. Well, it’s certainly the most diverse one I’ve ever seen, so I’ll just leave it at that.
S2: Wow. I’m super excited to learn more about Noelle and her creative process. And then after that conversation, we’ll talk through a question sent to us by a listener who wonders if it’s wrong to work on art for its own sake or if you should instead use his talents to help vulnerable people. But before we get to that, let me take a second to remind everyone listening about the importance of Slate. Plus, if you enjoy this podcast and the rest of Slate’s journalism, please consider supporting us by joining Slate. Plus, those of you who are already members will hear a little more from ISIS conversation with Noelle Stevenson, ICIC. What is that segment about?
S5: Yes. So Slate plus members will get to listen in on a really great conversation between me and Noel about her recent graphic memoir, The Weight of Them, which is an autobiographical comic about her recent top surgery and the redefinition that’s caused of her gender identity. It’s a really, really beautiful short memoir that she wrote over the course of this year that’s worth checking out, as is our conversation, which you can check out if you’re a slate plus member. I think I’ve just cued up your pitch.
S2: Do you have. Thank you. That exclusive members only content is just one of the many benefits of Slate plus membership. Others include zero odds on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month and to sign up, all you have to do is go to sleep. Dot com slash working plus. All right, now let’s hear ISIS conversation with Noelle Stevenson.
S5: Noelle Stevenson, thank you so much for joining us on working this week. Thank you so much for having me. So why don’t we just start in the present moment? What is your creative process like right now? What are what are you working on and how are you working on it?
S3: Yes, it’s been a pretty weird year for everyone, I think. But I feel really lucky that I have managed to continue working, you know, because animation is one of the few industries that’s managed to, you know, keep going. It’s certainly been a little bit it’s been at a slower pace for sure than what I’m used to. Definitely coming off of Schiro, which was just kind of this 24/7, just mind consuming like it. It took every waking moment of my day. And so I’m in development. I’m working on a couple of different things that I’m pretty excited about on my end. It is development. It’s pitching. It’s kind of various Zoome meetings to talk about, you know, notes and what we’re envisioning for these projects and hoping that they all continue to move forward.
S5: And do you have a kind of daily creative practice when you’re going to sit down to, you know, write or to draw? Is there like a time that you like to do it or a ritual that you do to help engage, you know, the material?
S3: Yeah, I it’s definitely taken a little bit of a hit. I think I’m someone who if there’s something that needs to get done, I get it done. But as I think a lot of people this year have found, it’s hard to keep any kind of real routine just because everything is so strange right now. And I feel like I’m going through cycles kind of where sometimes I’m very like, OK, I wake up, I have a nice breakfast, I get straight to work. Most of the time that doesn’t happen. Most of the time I’m just like, you know, everything’s just all a little bit off, you know, like my meal schedule is just like I’m like, wait, did I eat breakfast? I have no idea. I’m like presently drinking my little, like, protein shake because I, like, forgot about breakfast again. So it’s like like I’ll go through periods where I just like sleep a lot more than normal, which I guess is like I’m trying to justify it is like a hibernation period sometimes, which is just like, well let’s catch up on my sleep I guess. And then when things really start picking up again, I’ll be well rested. So that’s the kind of way that I try to like, I guess, barter with myself about that kind of thing and just be like, yeah, you can sleep in. I mean, why not?
S5: I’d love to talk to you a little bit about Nimona, your webcomic, which became a hit graphic novel, you started that when you were in college, right?
S3: Yeah, I started it when I was, I think, 19. And it sort of came about in my junior year as a class assignment, actually. And a really good friend of a friend of mine, Amy Fleck, sort of challenged me as part of that class to make a comic with original characters. And that ended up being the first two pages of Nimona. And I had been doing I’ve been sort of gaining a following on Tumblr through fan art, but really kind of like starting to feel the limits of that and wanting to have my own original characters and my own original works. And Amy knew that, which was why she pushed me to explore that in this assignment. And so I ended up putting it on the line as a webcomic, in large part because I knew that would hold me to updating at a certain number of times a week. And I want lines are so important, so important. And for me, I’m like, I’m starting to realize this last year just how important they are. Yeah. Knowing that it’s like I have to hit this and it’s just like so much time, so many times when you’re when you’re setting your own schedule and creating your own structure, it’s so easy to just be like, well, I mean, I like, what’s the rush? What I have all the time in the world. But with Nimona, I have this like I was like this vague idea of a person in my head. And they’re waking up the next morning, they have their coffee. They’re going to read like ketchup on their webcomics. They know it’s Simonas day like update day. And the idea of that person’s disappointment, if I missed that update like that is what it would keep me like. Sometimes I’d be late on the page and I’d be like rushing at midnight the night before to finish it. But like thinking about that person and their cup of coffee, somehow there’s just little like image of that little mug of coffee. I guess it’s also how I read my favorite webcomics, but I was like a desire to not disappoint that person. And so that helped me stick to that schedule.
S5: And I think I was late only one time and the entire three hundred and fifty pages of the comic did you know there are some very big twists in Nimona that I won’t spoil and listeners haven’t read it yet. How much of the story had you worked out in advance or did you work out sort of like a chunk of it?
S3: It was interesting. It was all part of like a big journey I’d been on at school. I had a creative writing minor, but most of my classes focused on prose and focused on poetry. And so I was really interested in fantasy and genre and that was not so much supported by my teachers. So I ended up dropping my creative writing minor and I felt really discouraged about it. So I felt so insecure about my writing at that point that I came to the decision that I was not a writer, I was an artist. I was going to lean into what I was good at and just stick to that. Then I ended up in a sequential art class for comics and it hadn’t been my first choice because I didn’t again, I didn’t think I was a writer, but I ended up just falling in love with comics. And I realized that I had this new voice for telling stories, but at the same time, writing a script for me felt like it was still felt a little vulnerable. I was worried by writing a script that the writing wouldn’t be good enough that I would like just remember all the ways that I wasn’t a real writer all over again. And so a lot of the comics that I was doing in that class, I didn’t have a script. I was sort of just going freeform or I would thumbnail it and and just work from that with Nimona, especially once I realized that I wanted it to be long form, I knew I had to have a script. But in order to do that, I had to also trick myself into not really believing that I was writing. So my script for Nimona is one of the most nonsensical things I’ve ever written. It is a mess. I don’t spell out any of the characters names. They’re all just shortened to their first letter of their name. And it is like it’s the rough. It’s all in a text document. It’s the roughest thing ever. I ad pages randomly or delete them. I would sometimes be halfway through drawing a page and I just completely change a major plot point. So it was a mess, but that was what I had to do for myself to convince myself in my head. I’m like, OK, but I’m still an artist, I’m not a writer. And so the story happens when I actually draw it, not when I write it. I had no idea I would end up getting interest from major publishers, so I was very embarrassed to have to send that script to my editor at HarperCollins once they acquired it, because it is incomprehensible. I never expected anyone to read it besides me.
S5: Right, right. Did you begin thinking of yourself as a writer once? You were the youngest person nominated for a National Book Award in the awards history that did that help God?
S3: I guess so. Life just works out weird sometimes, but I was very grateful to HarperCollins and they really let me. I hadn’t finished the script when they. Acquired it. I had sort of an outline of how it ended up, and like I said, sometimes I really went off script in some pretty big ways and I was really grateful that they gave me that freedom and they let me keep serializing it online and they just kind of trusted me to do what I felt was best. I did have an idea for the ending when I first started out, which was part of what was motivating me to, like, tell this self-contained story. The original ending was a very dark. And my my older sister asked me about the ending at one point when I was home for the holidays, and I told her the ending and she got so mad at me she refused to talk to me unless I promised to change the ending. And I actually did change the ending because of how upset she was. It was like I was like, man, maybe you’re right. Like maybe this is a little bit, you know, too harsh. And I’m actually so grateful for that because, you know, I think the original ending, it was just it was just kind of edgy in a way that I don’t think the story ended up being. And so I think the ending that I ended up with is way better. Yeah, the original ending was just like most of the main characters die. So thanks, Hannah.
S5: Yeah, it’s amazing. Yeah. So I have spent a lot of this last pandemic year watching Shira because my daughter, who’s six, is obsessed with it. She kind of graduated from a My Little Pony obsession into a Schiro obsession. She is now on her tenth consecutive wow watch over the entire show. So and you know what? I’m 10 three, which still holds up. I am discovering as I watch it next year. OK, but so how did you wind up as the developer and showrunner of Schirach? Because I assume someone DreamWorks must have owned it, right?
S6: Yeah. DreamWorks had bought the like a classic media library that included Shirra, but not Heman, and they were looking for someone to show run this reboot.
S3: So I had just wrapped up my a writing gig at Disney for Wonder Over Yonder, which was a great experience. And, you know, I was working with Craig McCracken, who is just an incredible vision. And I was sort of looking for, you know, what my next thing was going to be. And so I found out that they were looking for someone and it was this kind of thing that it seemed so far fetched or it seemed so unlikely that they would go with someone of my age. And my experience level, I think it was twenty five at the time, but at the same time, I guess it’s something it’s sort of honestly, it’s sort of similar to that experience of writing the Nimona scripts where it’s like sometimes these things. I think the hardest thing about creating something is just like believing you can do it. And so personally, I need to trick myself into that a lot, because the second I start thinking this isn’t good enough, this is not what they’re going to want, like someone else is going to do a better job at this. That’s when I start losing my vision. That’s when I start, like, you know, getting like that’s when fear starts getting the better of me. And I and I don’t you know, it’s just is not as real it’s not as from the heart. It’s it’s stilted. It’s I think, you know, I think it’s just one of the biggest obstacles to be overcome when you create anything. And I think that was part of it. Like knowing that this was such a long shot. I just went for it and I, you know, like poured everything I had into this pitch. And it ended up being I think I was supposed to go for like 30 minutes and I went for well over an hour because I wrote out all four seasons in broad strokes. I wrote out 52 episodes of, you know, of what the show could be. I just figured if this, you know, was my one shot, why not just go for it? And and, you know, they dug it. So they ended up hiring me to develop the show. And because it was on this very, very accelerated schedule that ended up they hired me as showrunner shortly after that. And within a few months, we were in full production.
S5: It seems to me that, like, one of the obvious challenges with this is dealing with legacy IP. Right. That there’s already an existing show. It already has existing characters and fans of those characters, you know, et cetera, et cetera. So what did you feel like the speed at which you had to move kind of helped with that process because you just had to get by in four things really faster?
S3: Yeah, I think so. I think there were a couple of things that were frustrating at the time. But in hindsight, I am somewhat grateful for Netflix requires a lead time of almost six months, which is a lot I think for that’s for Translation’s. They they dub everything to make sure it has a global audience. And so there’s just a lot that needs to be done after we deliver those episodes to Netflix. We can’t change it at that point, and so the when the first season came out, we were on we were working on the last chunk of episodes already. And so in hindsight, I think that really gave us the freedom to be able to make the show that we believed in. For only the people within that production. We didn’t have to worry about people on the message boards, you know, weighing in about a plot line that we were in the process of telling and thinking like, oh, should we change that? It seems like people don’t like it. Maybe we should try something else. It was kind of terrifying at the time because you have to kind of guess you have to guess what people are going to respond to and hope that they’re in to the characters you’re creating in the plot lines are creating. I really tried to protect the crew from having too much preciousness towards the original series. As much as everyone on the crew loved it. I really didn’t want anybody to be sort of like reading fan theories are going to the message boards. We did end up, you know, we went to Power Con a couple of years running. A lot of people in the show did end up with like a really great love and appreciation of the original 80s show. But mostly I wanted to protect us from the fear of, like, not you know, it’s like if we need to change a character in a big way, then we’re going to do that, you know, and we’re going to try and stay true to the spirit of the original. But it doesn’t mean like we have to like I didn’t want people to be afraid of, like, fan backlash, which is, you know, probably good, because we did end up getting quite a bit of fan backlash at first from fans of the original, from the character design changes that we made. But like, I’m really glad that, you know, at that point, like I said, we had already pretty much locked Four Seasons of the show. By the time that first design was released, there was something oddly liberating about that, just being like, yeah, it’s done. There’s no changing it now. There’s no like you can yell at us all you want, but it’s it’s what’s done is done.
S5: Were they angry about, like, the variety of body shapes in the show or the costumes or, you know, what was the what was the substance of that backlash?
S3: Yeah, I think the biggest component of that was that the original she is she supposed to be 17 in the original show, but she is a, you know, a buxom adult looking lady. And that was something that, you know, when we age the characters down so she is less hyper feminine. She’s not like, you know, as made up and as adult looking as the original Ciara was. And so I think that it’s something it’s interesting because I found that the hardcore fans, like Masters of the Universe, still has the hardcore fans who are on the message boards who have been like have stayed fans. They go to Paracon every year. They’ve stayed fans for, you know, 30 plus years at this point. And then there was the people who really didn’t know what was going on, but they wanted to have an opinion. But in my experience, like we ended up going to Paracon after the show was announced and I talked to people who were like, yeah, I don’t like the art style. It’s not for me. But like, you know, I’m glad that it has a new life. I’m glad that people are into it. And I found so much there was so much more understanding of it, because I think when people are like diehard fans of a property that’s that old, they tend to like understand that it’s not a given that the show will come back or that it will be the show that they remember. But then there are the people who are just kind of like, I saw titties on the old one and I don’t see titties now. And that’s what I’m upset about. But these are not necessarily people who had much of an investment in Shirai. It was just this idea. It was it was an interesting time. But it was also, you know, we got this outpouring of support at the same time. And and I knew that if people just gave the show a shot, even fans of the old series who are really attached to to the Sheherazade look, I believed in what we were making enough that I knew that people would like it if they gave it a chance. And so I think over time, that backlash that really just faded. Right. Honestly, I don’t think most people even remember that backlash anymore. I know sometimes fans of the show would be kind of like in my mentions on Twitter and then someone would come along and be like, you turn Sheere into a boy and the like, shock and dismay from the from the younger fans who hadn’t really been there for that initial backlash. And they’re like, why would you say this? What are you talking about?
S5: Yeah, you know, one of the things I love about the show and that I know many people have expressed their love to you about the show is the representational diversity of it. The body shapes, the sexuality is the gender identities, the races of the characters that that there is is such a variety on display in a in a children’s cartoon that I can show my kid is, you know, enormous. But it also struck me the part of why it works so well is how, matter of fact, the show is about. That, to the example I give to friends all the time, is, you know, Bo has two fathers, for example, and it is never an important deal. It’s never like we have to talk about Bo having two fathers. It’s just he lives they only exist in a world where there’s people have two dads. It’s just not a big deal. My dads don’t know I’m a rebellion fighter. They think I’m at boarding school and I’m supposed to be on break right now.
S7: So this is why you never talked about your past? I thought it was because it was dark and painful for you, but your dad seemed so nice and normal.
S5: But I’m very curious about how you kind of arrived at all of that as a creative process. Right. Because diversity in our work is a creative thing. It’s a thing to be creative. But I’m curious about how you in the writers room kind of worked through that stuff and what some of the challenges and joys of doing that were.
S3: I think it started inheriting a property like Schiro, which has an enormous cast and part of what I found initially exciting about it was that it had an enormous cast of mostly women. And they had I think for the time they had a very diverse like they had at least diverse character types. They didn’t have diverse bodies. They didn’t have diverse races. They were it was a toy driven company. And so everything was done with the understanding that these would be toys. And so they had a very practical reason for all the characters being the exact same shape, which was that making more than one model is expensive. Mm hmm. And so that really kind of drove so much of the creative decisions behind the original Masters of the Universe cartoons. All the men are kind of in the same hunky mold and all the women are in the same hourglass mold and have those toys. As a kid, I remember I have a couple of myself right now. I love them. Yeah. You know, for the reboot, not being strictly tied to toys was a huge liberating factor. We didn’t have to worry necessarily about having, you know, 80 different model types. We could really give each one of these a different silhouette. And then within that, you know, we wanted to show racial diversity. We wanted to show body diversity. We wanted to have LGBT inclusion. Part of that was just like having such a big cast and wanting to flesh out this world, showing what this world was like. And just like all of these things are just part of the tapestry of normal life in this world and part of the story. And then within that, I also felt watching the original that she has always been a really gay show. And I think that was intentional. There were a lot of gay people working on the original. And it’s something that is just like there’s rainbows galore, like Bo has his tummy out like like Tossin Spinderella were pretty much canonically married. And the original show, all of that, I didn’t I didn’t make that up. I didn’t like push that into the show. I felt that if I didn’t include that in the show, I would not be doing justice to the original. And so that’s what we tried to do. It was something where, you know, we wanted to I wanted to make it so that everyone on the crew could put stories that were important to them and that they personally related to and explore that through the show and really make it something that it felt really personal, felt really real.
S6: And so there were moments where, like, it’s interesting, there were moments like a double trouble, who we I really did not know that double trouble was going to be a landmark of non binary representation in animation. We were honestly just doing a character that we felt was fun and hard.
S8: And I’d like to introduce you to Double Trouble. They’re our newest asset and taking down the rebellion. Apologize for being rude. I was getting into character, did it work? Be honest, as always. I’m open to constructive criticism.
S3: I wanted this character, it’s like, you know, if I’m going to watch my favorite shows from when I was a kid, if I’m going to watch, like, you know, Kim Possible and I love Chicago, what if there was like a in Chicago who’s also a shapeshifter because I love shapeshifters and like, that was kind of like on our end that was as much thought as we put into them. Being on Pinery, it seems so obvious we didn’t think twice. And then we hired a non binary actor. And when that season aired, we ended up getting a lot of like kind of conversation about that, which was really interesting because for us, we had just wanted to do a character that we liked and that we related to.
S9: We’ll be back with more of this conversation with Noelle Stevenson after this.
S2: Do you have questions about the creative process, big or small, whether you’re trying to loosen up your writing style or figure out what it is you want to work on? We would love to help. You can drop us a line at working at Slate dot com or give us an old fashioned phone call at three or four nine three three w o K. That’s three or four nine three three nine six seven five.
S9: We really, really like phone calls.
S2: All right, let’s rejoin Isaac’s conversation with Noelle Stevenson.
S5: Is there a way in which it being a sci fi fantasy show, right? It’s not set on the planet Earth. It’s an alternate dimension, among other things, that, you know, you can just kind of create a world where this kind of diversity is matter of fact and accepted and celebrated. And it’s not a source of stress or trauma to the characters.
S3: This is a world without homophobia. There is no like we’re not going to have the typical coming out, we’re not going to have the typical dealing with homophobia of not being accepted. And yet there is still kind of a thread there because it’s based on real experience. There is kind of a thread there, like both his dad’s like, no, there’s no homophobia, no, there’s glimmers. Not saying, oh, my God, you have two dads. I’m so shocked by that. But there is like, you know, my dads don’t understand me. They don’t get what’s important to me. I have to hide a part of myself from my dads. And so in a way, it’s you know, it’s it’s two gay fathers and their son. But it is still like trying to have a core there that feels like something that is real and that is relatable and that people in real life have experienced.
S5: Yeah, totally. So when you became the showrunner, Shira, I imagine that was quite a learning experience that that what what did you have to.
S1: Learn how to do to do that job, everything, right?
S5: Maybe were some big ticket items that you needed to learn how to do to kind of do that job.
S3: Being a show runner is not just like coming up with great ideas. It’s not doing everything yourself.
S6: It’s not like it’s not really you are the person who is like kind of the compass.
S3: But most of those ideas are being executed by your crew. So what your job ends up being is management. What it ends up being is, is mediation. And that was the thing that I was somewhat unprepared for because I had come from comics where you do everything yourself and it’s all about like it’s it’s the strength of the ideas themselves and how you execute them. But suddenly, you know, I’m not a board artist. I was never trained as a board artist. So now having a team of board artists that I’m working with, my ideas are only as good as what my board artists can execute. So I can write a script that is full of ideas and huge ideas. But if they can’t execute it in the time frame allowed, if I’m not making myself clear in that script and they don’t know what the purpose of a scene is or what a character’s motivation is, then it’s not a good script, frankly. And so I had to really change the way that I thought about my job as a creative person, because honestly, while the creativity was still a central part of my job, it really became more about communication and suddenly becoming someone whose job was mostly to talk to people and get resources for them and protect them so that they could do their job and hear any problems that they had and look for solutions. It was a really big learning curve for me. I think at first I was very overwhelmed by that responsibility because it was a lot of responsibility, honestly, like was someone with around 50 people just in my immediate crew. That’s not counting the post side. That’s not counting the animation studio in Korea. That’s not counting so many of these other jobs that also like come into play. Only the people that I’m directly supervising, that’s 50 people and that’s 50 people who suddenly their quality of like life. I like that comes down to what kind of workplace I’m cultivating suddenly, like their ability to get something done on time and not have to work overtime. That comes down to decisions that I’ve made suddenly, like having a work environment that is overall positive and is a good place to work and you don’t feel sapped and drained and looking for other jobs. That comes down to how I, you know, what decisions I make, which is a lot of responsibility. And it was a huge learning curve and a lot of it I figured out while falling off a cliff and hitting every rock on the way down. But at the end of the day, I also think it was one of the most rewarding parts of the job because, you know, I had now have friends from this show and people that I would work with, again, in a heartbeat, some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. And Shira is what it is because of them. All of these ideas like that’s what I find. I think that’s my favorite part of the job in general, is that when you’re creating a story, this happened on Nimona two in a microwave, like I’m drawing a page. You know what? I think I have a better idea for how I’m going to end this page and I’m going to just completely change it in the moment. Those little moments of unpredictability, that’s when the story comes alive, when you’re working with a huge crew. Right. That suddenly there are so many moments when that can happen. You can be recording an actor and they do a line in a different way than you expected. And suddenly you understand that character in a whole new way that you didn’t think was possible. Your, you know, one of your artists turns in a background and it’s a different color than you expected. And suddenly it changes the atmosphere of the scene. Every single part of this process, every single level artist, board, artists, writers, actors, animation, post, all the parts of these. There are so many moments for those unpredictable little miracles can happen and suddenly the world just changes in front of your eyes. For me, that is the most exciting thing. And so making sure that everyone has what they need to really, like, take advantage of that, that is like, you know, that’s most of what my job ended up being.
S5: It’s interesting, you know, I asked Iris, that’s my daughter when I told her I was going to be interviewing you if she had any questions about your job. First, you wanted to know if there’s going to be a Shearer movie. And I had to tell you that wasn’t finished a movie and all that. But then she asked. I actually thought this was an interesting question because we often don’t talk about kind of the emotional part of it. She asked, did working on Sheere make you happy? Which I thought was a really fascinating, weird. Question, actually. So I thought I would go ahead and ask you about, you know, because I know it was a difficult process and it was very, very consuming about, you know, navigating the emotions as part of that process and whether or not you were able to find happiness as you work through it.
S6: Yeah, that is I think I would have answered this question differently, depending on when you ask me. I think there was a time on Shirra when that question would have been. Something that was incredibly difficult for me to deal with, because my whole life like this, this was my dream job and to enter into an environment that was so often so taxing, that was so intense.
S3: Like I said, for the longest time, nearly the entirety of my brain was dedicated to Sheere. It wasn’t just the time I spent at work. I would come home and I would lie awake and I would like run through, you know, props in my head and make sure we had all the props that we needed for when we shipped the episode, I would go to a movie and I would see a plot point and I would make a mental note that like, oh, that would work great for a Daura, you know, like things like that. Like I would watch TV just like veg and watch TV. And I would be like, oh, the soundtrack is good here. I’m going to send that as a reference to a composer. There was a time when that made me feel like less of a human. It made me feel like I was just like a vessel for this show for making this come to fruition. And there were times it was an incredibly hard fight. And honestly, that time was the better part of two years. And there was a time when it really seemed like this was not going to be something that resulted in my happiness. There was a time when it seems that maybe I wouldn’t get to even enjoy the show coming out. I wouldn’t get to, like, have my victory lap. It would be just maybe bad feelings forever. And I wasn’t alone in that.
S6: There were moments when I think everyone on the show felt disheartened by that. We were up against some incredibly momentous obstacles that really, for a time made it seem that this was not feasible, that this was not going to work out. And I think that when it got the hardest, that was actually the turning point because something happened on the show and it really seemed like it might be the end of at least my employment on the show. And it was this moment when. Everyone on the crew came together and really, really supported me during this hard time, and we all kind of just like it was it was an incredible moment of solidarity where everybody just was like, no, this is our show. We are going to do the show the way we want to do it. We’re going to do this the way that we believe in it, because it’s this is this is ours. I don’t really want to get into it here. I think maybe one day I will, but I need a bit more distance from it, I think, before I can really talk about it in a way that feels honest and true. But just to say that, like. Everything changed after that, and it allowed me to sort of like.
S3: It just it just gave me a new strength to be able to approach this show and to sort of stand my ground and refused to be pushed out. And after that, there was a really big change that happened around that time. And it was almost like it was like the clouds parted and the sun came through. And suddenly this week that we’d all been carrying was lifted and suddenly the job became so much fun. I cannot describe how quickly this happened. And it really came from this moment of solidarity from the crew. And I would say that the show made me really, really happy. I think it is an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life. And I think the show reflects that. There are so many story arcs in it that reflect what we were going through on the show of the struggle of like, you know, adoro struggles so often came from my heart of trying to be the hero that everyone needed and worrying in your heart that you’re just not enough. And so to be able to give those characters their happy ending, I felt like that was a happy ending for us to.
S5: Amazing. Well, Noelle Stevenson, thank you so much for joining us here on working to talk about your job and your process.
S6: All right. Thank you so much for having me. This has been so much fun.
S2: Isaac, I absolutely love that conversation, and I must single out your daughter, Iris, for asking an absolutely fantastic question about whether working on Sheere made Noel happy. I appreciated the nuance of Noel Senser, but I also love the directness of the question. It’s such a central dilemma. Like when I’m trying to be creative, I often go through a phase of wondering why I am putting myself through this when I could be, you know, doing anything, balancing spreadsheets or watching TV that would make me happier because writing or bringing an idea to life is often kind of a painful process that doesn’t even always work out. So I was really glad to hear that Noel did ultimately find great happiness from the immense amount of work that she devoted to Sheere.
S5: Yes, I was very relieved that the answer was eventually yes in that story, even if there was a period of time when it was no. Are you kidding? You know, it’s so tough because creative work can be a source of such great joy, but it can also be a source of really great pain. And often you feel both those things at the same time and they actually derive from the same thing. I mean, sometimes they don’t write. Sometimes the pain of a creative project has to do with the personnel you’re working with or, you know, literal material stuff like the advance run out and you need to make money so you can eat or, you know, whatever it is. But oftentimes it’s actually because you’re digging deep into yourself or you’re digging deep into a difficult subject matter. I mean, to give just one example, you know, when Dan and I were doing The World Only Spins Forward, which is about Angels in America, you know, I was also researching the AIDS crisis. I was talking to almost every interview subject, was telling me a story of someone they love to have died and what that was like. And that’s that’s a very, very difficult thing to be in the midst of. But it’s also part of the joy of creating the work. Was hearing those stories, you know, learning this history, getting closer to it and understanding it on a deeper level. And also when you’re deep in the creative thing like, you know, and it consumes you and all your life, which is what she described, that’s actually really fun. But it also kind of sucks at the same time. And just being able to live with both sides of that is really hard.
S2: Yeah, Noel is still very young. She’s twenty nine, but she’s already made a huge amount of great and very popular work. And so that made her words about the tricks that she uses to convince herself that she’s capable of pulling off a project all the more meaningful. I mean, honestly, just hearing someone with her credits list say that made me feel like 100 percent better about my own very regular feelings of self-doubt.
S5: Yes. I mean, you know, really reveals how much of the creative process is about tricking yourself into continuing to engage in the process. Right. I love the image of the reader with her mug of coffee going to the website saying, where’s my Nimona this morning? I’ve been let down and how that that helped her keep going as an example. I mean, it really is true that so much of the work is finding a way to keep going at all costs. Not that you shouldn’t take breaks or anything like that, but just to not lose heart, to keep going to finish is so much part of the work. And sometimes that does involve creating useful fictions and then buying into them totally.
S2: Another thing that really stuck with me was her talk about how as a showrunner, she was responsible for the 50 people on her immediate crew, not to mention lots of others elsewhere. And the typical way people continue that thought is saying that they’re responsible for those people’s livelihoods, you know, paying bills and all that. But Noel talked about being responsible for their quality of life, which as soon as you. Well, as soon as I heard that, I thought, well, okay, yeah, that is the really important thing to be concerned about.
S5: Well, especially on television, frankly, I think that people are beginning to become aware of exactly how hard it is to create the TV shows that we all watch. But it is really hard. It’s really long hours. You’re in a room with your co-workers, whether you’re working on animation or on a set for a very long period of time. It’s very taxing. And so being a manager in that process absolutely means, you know, that one of your responsibilities is to make sure that it’s not hell to work on your show. But I do think there’s a part of it that has nothing to do with television that I think you can relate to as well, Jane, because, you know, this has been true when I was a director as well. Any time you’re managing people, the in many ways most important part of your job is creating the environment that allows them to do their best work. And I was really happy to hear her say it actually wasn’t that I had to come up with all the ideas. I had to make it possible for everyone to come up with really great ideas and that that was the thing that she needed to learn how to do and. I think that whether it’s a creative project or not, actually, if you were managing that project, that really is one of your paramount responsibilities, fully agree.
S2: OK. As I mentioned earlier, we also got a listener question. This week. We’re going to hear our amazing producer, Cameron Druss, read the question, Cameron. Take it away.
S10: Thanks, June, this listener writes, I’ve always liked helping people in need. I regularly volunteered for a myriad of organizations when I was younger and started a career in nonprofits when I graduated college. I’ve gotten very good at helping vulnerable people. About eight months ago, I was let go from my job, which was a blessing in disguise. I started drawing and writing again for the first time in years. I had forgotten how alive these things made me feel. I’ve been able to make a modest living slightly above unemployment for several months now, and I’m seriously considering trying to support myself with my art. The only problem is I feel like this is a very privileged way to live. I spent most of my life helping people who had very little. If I focus on my art, part of me feels bad that I would probably only be helping privileged people. My art and my writing aren’t about social issues, so there’s no kind of political impact and I would have to work full time at my art to make money. So working part time at a nonprofit probably won’t work. Also, volunteering would most likely be a waste of the many talents I have developed over the years. How do I figure out how to move forward?
S5: June, I know you have some thoughts on this ready to go. So actually, I’m going to punt to you and let you go first on this one.
S2: Well, thank you, Isaac. OK, talking to you, listner, you’re spending too much time and brainpower worrying about what you could do, which leaves you actually doing nothing like they say on planes. Put your own mask on before helping others. It sounds like this is a time in your life when working on your art will make you a happier, more productive, wiser person. And if you decide to spend your time and energy exclusively on your own work right now, you’re not committing to doing that forever. Perhaps your next act will involve the kind of nonprofit work you’ve enjoyed and are good at that you’ve done in the past. And if you end up being wildly successful, by which I guess I mean making lots of money from your creative work, then you can help people in need by making donations or volunteering. And so, in short, I would say stop worrying and get on with it. Getting on with it, probably meaning do your thing like it sounds like what you really want to do right now is at least try to do your own art. So I say go for it.
S5: Yes. To all that June I to say go for it. But I also just want to say that I so recognize what this person is going through. When I became a full time writer, I quit a job at a think tank, an anti-discrimination think tank that was doing important work that I that I really loved and valued and continue to think is important. But I couldn’t do it and meet my deadlines for the writing stuff at the same time. And so I decided to leave and maintain a friendly relationship with them. Most friends I know who are full time artists feel the same way about all of this stuff. Wouldn’t it be more useful to the world if I did X? And so I’m just going to say, please do not feel guilty. It is wonderful that you want to try to make a living from your art. And I would not undersell continuing to volunteer as a way of feeding your soul and of helping people. But I do also think that nonprofits tend to create an atmosphere where they make people feel like the only way they can do something that matters, the only way to continue to have worth is to continue to work at that non-profit, usually for terrible wages in an exploitative environment. And there are lots of ways to contribute to the world. But I also recognize this feeling in general. This is one of those I’m going to go ahead and call this big picture fears. And as an artist embarking full time on creative work, you are going to have all sorts of big picture fears along the way. Here are some other ones, some that maybe maybe I’ve had. Who knows, will I be able to make enough money off of this? To live is the thing I am currently creating any good? Am I doing this subject matter? Justice is my work, exposing me in a way that I will find ultimately humiliating. What if I fail, et cetera, et cetera and so forth. And the solution, as June actually talked about, is to focus on the work immediately ahead of you, break that big picture up like a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle into its component parts and then focus on those parts in sequence. You can’t solve all of your problems day or all of the works problems or all the world’s problems. What you can do is work on one piece of it, and that in turn becomes preparation to work on the next piece of it tomorrow and tomorrow and so on. And eventually through doing that, you will have space to actually see the picture and then figure out what the problems actually are. And I think you’ll be able to do it in a way that is less provoking of anxiety, whatever form that anxiety might take. So that to me is the way through this particular problem, to be completely honest. And I hope it goes well for you.
S2: Yeah. Are you feeling anxious about almost having quoted the Scottish play?
S5: That I almost did because the Scottish play at the end, he’s saying that life has no meaning and all ambition is for no purpose because we die. And I realized halfway through that I was about to do that. And so I decided not to tomorrow and tomorrow. Tomorrow does not creep this petty pace day by day. Actually, it’s how you get anything done. Indeed.
S4: Thank you for your question, and we hope that this has been helpful. As for the rest of you, we hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have remembered to subscribe or wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you a sleepless pitch slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero odds on any slate podcasts. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence are more important to us. You’ll be supporting the work we do here on working Sony one dollar for the first month. And to learn more, go to sleep dot com slash working.
S8: Plus, we’d like to say thank you to Noelle Stevenson for being our guest this week. Thank you to David Hamlin and Emily Briese for some preparation help and thanks to our amazing producer, Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with audiobook narrator, Abby creator, or as you might say, audiobook narrator Abby Crape. Until then, get back to work.
S5: Hello, sleepless listeners, thank you so much for your support. We really cannot do this without you. I asked Noel a couple of extra questions about the new webcomic that she put out. And it’s really great stuff. And so this is for your ears. Only hope you enjoy. You did recently publish a kind of short memoir comic called The Weight of Them really, really beautiful piece documenting your decision and experience of of having top surgery. How did that piece come about? What made you decide to, you know, write about it, to do it in comics form, you know, et cetera?
S3: It’s you know, I think it’s one of those things. Again, I feel very lucky to be able to say this about the year at all, to say that there are kind of these mysterious little blessings interspersed in this supremely shitty situation. But this last year gave me a ton of time to be able to just, like, sit with myself and explore my own identity and my own feelings about myself, which I think, you know, in the past five years or so, working on Shirra and being so busy, I just didn’t have the time for that. I didn’t let myself have the time for that to really think about those things. There was just too much going on. And so suddenly I have this year where I’m not seeing anybody. I’m not going into work. I’m not going I’m not walking on the street or going to the coffee shop or any of the places I would have been going before. And suddenly it’s just me. And the only time I’m really seeing people is just, you know, from the shoulders up. It’s this thing that is just it both makes you question, I think, yourself as like like it makes you feel like a little less real as a person. But on the other hand, it’s also like you could see yourself more clearly as a person as well. And so I started realizing that I was having these feelings about my gender and about my body related to my gender in a way that I had just never really let myself have before. So and it was interesting because I never wanted to like I had had the desire for top surgery before. This had been something I’ve been thinking about for years. But it was always like, well, how do I know I’m not just doing this because of the way I am perceived? Or is this some reaction to being seen as a woman? And I’m trying to rebel against that because I don’t want to be a reaction. I want it to be something that I just do for myself. And so suddenly I was able to just be in my own little world was just me and my wife and not have to worry about the way I’m being perceived by other people or what they view my presentation as or like whether they’re confused or not, it just didn’t even matter. And then I realized that this, you know, desire that it had for years, that this was something that was really a part of me and something that I really, really wanted for myself and for my own reasons, because that was like, you know, it’s a part of it’s a part of me. And so it was something that I realized, again, like being in in lockdown and having this time where I could be at home and recover. It seemed like the perfect time. So I ended up pursuing it and ended up moving along very quickly. And and yeah. So in October of last year, I had top surgery. It went very well. And I think after that it was it was a question of how I wanted to break the news to, you know, the kind of wider my online audience to people, to my family, to my friends outside of my very close inner circle. And at first, I think before the surgery, I wasn’t even sure I totally wanted to. It was something that I was doing for myself. It was something that I was doing for my own reasons. And it did feel very personal. And so the question was like, is this anyone else’s business other than mine? But what I discovered as soon as I had the surgery, all I wanted to do was talk about it. So it was this incredible relief. It was this incredible just I was like walking on Sunbeams for months. I mean, I still am somewhat, although I’ve gotten, like, really used to it at this point. It’s actually more strange to believe that, like, I ever didn’t have this chest. It’s almost like impossible to wrap my head around. But I decided I really did want this to be something that I was open about, partially because the reason I even felt that I could get this surgery was because I had friends who were not binary transmen, who are not on testosterone, who had gotten type surgery. And so I realized it was something that I could do without necessarily needing to be, you know, a binary man. And so I wanted to kind of, I guess, pay that forward and show other people out there who were also considering this for themselves, but didn’t feel like they were the right, you know, that it was necessarily for them or that they were the right type of person to have it, that it was an option, and that it is something that if this is a way that you feel about your own body, you know, it’s a. Possibility, this is something you can do. And so I yeah, I just I really wanted to be open about it and I really wanted to talk about it. I went back and forth about the best way to do it. I thought about posting it as a Twitter thread. I was really scared, honestly, to share the news, but I ended up settling on selling it through Gumm Road. It’s a free download, but any kind of donation, I pledge to donate that to people of color transition funds. And I ended up I think right now I ended up making a total of about thirty five thousand dollars. Oh, wow. Which is wild. And I just you can never underestimate the generosity of of just human beings. Like I was blown away by their generosity. And all of that has gone back in to go fund means and mutual aid funds for trans people of color. And I just feel, you know, I think it’s something to really realize the privilege of, especially for me just being like, I want top surgery, I have insurance. I can approach a surgeon. I live in Los Angeles and I can, like, get it done fairly easily. That is not everybody’s reality. And so I think being a trans person of of, you know, whatever however you identify, whether binary or not, we all sort of like need to pay it forward to our community and we need to make sure that other trans people are getting those opportunities as well. And so I was really I felt very fortunate to be able to, you know, be able to just pay it forward and send money to people who are actively working towards their own transition. And and I hope that it’s really, you know, helped people get to their goals.
S5: Amazing. Amazing. You know, one of the things that I love about the book are the page layouts. I just find them. There’s something so beguiling. There’s almost no panel borders. It’s often just one or two kind of sketched in images and the words kind of wrap around them. How did you figure out the rhythm of those pages? Was it just kind of totally intuitive or, you know, how do you think about that when laying out a page?
S3: It’s a process that I developed over time. And I think it’s been very influenced by the social media platforms that I was on, starting with Tumblr and then going to Twitter. There’s a sort of rhythm I find with comics, and I find that the negative space is an important part of that rhythm. So Tumblr was where I sort of got my start and I was first posting comics there. I did start out with panels, but it actually tended to make it feel a little claustrophobic. And so I ended up kind of going a little bit bigger and going without panels, mostly partially in part because a lot of these comics are so free form for me. I don’t necessarily have a script or plan when I start them, I just go in and sort of pour my feelings out and feel that rhythm as I go. But Tumblr has more of that infinite scroll models, so you can just keep scrolling and scrolling. But it’s just it’s interesting for me, I think that online comics have and every cartoonist has their own approach to this. I remember, you know, years and years ago Emily Carroll’s comics that she did that really embraced the medium of being digital, where you would, for example, fall. I don’t know the name of this comic. It’s just gorgeous. It’s stunning. You follow a trickle of blood throughout this gigantic Web page and it leads you from panel to panel. And you’re just scrolling all through this gigantic Web page. And it’s something that can’t be printed. And I find that just so intriguing. So to be able to tell a story and I guess the weight of them really was more of a traditional comic in that it is a PDF. It is something that you can read page by page and it could probably be printed as well. But I used a lot of the same methods that I had been sort of honing through posting these comics on social media. And so that I think that white space ended up being such a big part of the rhythm that I was going for with those comics.
S8: All right, that’s it for this week. Thank you again so much for your support, Sleepless. And we will be getting you more material in seven days by.