The term “prodigy” is used far too often to the point where the word’s meaning has been diluted. However, there are certainly cases in which the word is truly apt for describing someone with great talent.
With that talent comes great responsibility, and illustrator Tillie Walden is using her gifts in a way that’d make any parent proud. The 20-year-old Austin native has consistently proven that age is not important when it comes to creating brilliant content that speaks volumes. The best part about her work is that she clearly enjoys it — something all creatives out there should be able to empathize with.
So, we got Tillie aboard the ship and picked her brain about the creative process, her inspirations, the accolades she’s achieved and even those fish ships she loves to draw. Check out our exclusive interview with the lovely Tillie Walden after the drop!
Welcome aboard the ship, Tillie! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.
We’ll start off with “On a Sunbeam.” What was the main inspiration behind the comic and how many chapters do you see it having when its all said and done?
Well, the story initially started out as just being about a kid named Mia at a boarding school in space. And that was inspired by a boarding school that I did a summer camp at. It was a very large and sprawling school, surrounded by trees and fields (it was in Vermont). And I only spent a few weeks there but it was very memorable, and I’ve always wanted to do a story about a boarding school since then. But after that initial idea I knew I wanted more to the story, and more to Mia. So I added in the other storyline.
And the inspiration for that storyline is pretty clear. I like buildings, it seems like it would be a fun job to work on them. And it gives me an excuse to draw lots of buildings.
You’ve put together a few books that each tell some wonderful introspective stories. It’s not an easy thing to put yourself out there like that, so what was the biggest challenge you faced when putting those books together?
Thank you! It’s not easy – it’s not easy being vulnerable. And the memoir I just finished drawing is like that idea times 1000. But with my first couple books I only really put a part of myself in them, and then smothered the rest of it with fiction. “I Love This Part,” my second book, was based on a true story, but ended up playing out differently in the book then it did in real life.
But I’m getting sidetracked – you asked about challenges. The challenge for me was being able to move my pen fast enough to keep up with my mind. Once I start a story my mind starts to race through the rest of it, and I sometimes struggle to keep up with my trains of thought. But I feel like I’ve learned since then to hold on to ideas, keep track of them, and move quick to keep the momentum up.
Gotta ask — what’s with the fish ships? (They’re incredible, by the way)
Haha, thanks! I get asked about the fish ships a lot. Also, ‘fish ships’ is really hard to say. I need a new name. I mean, basically I don’t know anything about sci-fi or proper space ships. I didn’t feel like learning either. So I figured I should just pick a basic shape or concept to help me through designing ships.
And in my third book, “A City Inside,” I drew a bunch of floating fish. Not for any reason, they just looked cool. And I remembered that and decided I should try and expand the floating fish into space ships. And now I’m just too lazy to design any other kinds of ships, so everything has just ended up fish-themed.
The incredibly complex architecture in every panel of “On a Sunbeam” is something that (at least to me) requires a good examination before and after reading the speech bubbles. Have you ever considered being an architect?
You know, I’ve thought about it. But I think that actually I wouldn’t have the patience for it, though that may sound funny. I’m not really interested in learning how to design buildings properly, and I’m definitely not interested in learning how to design a building that could be real.
I think what I enjoy so much about drawing architecture right now is that my designs are so improbable, and in most situations not possible. And I think learning genuine architecture might bog me down with the technical aspects, and I’ll start overthinking everything. I prefer to have my buildings influenced by feelings and thoughts, rather then practicality or realism.
Aside from your own life experiences, what and who (aside from Dahl and Togashi) influences your work and what (that’s not the sound of a train) gets your creative juices flowing?
Hmmmm. I always struggle with questions about inspiration because it feels like it’s constantly changing. As cheesy as it sounds I think wherever I’m living at the moment always makes a huge impact on my work. I walk a lot and really try and soak in my surroundings, and that always gets the creative juices flowing.
I would also say going to the movies – I get inspired by movies themselves but also by the experience of sitting in a dark theater. There is something very bizarre and interesting about sitting quietly with other humans and collectively eating and watching a thing. After I leave a movie theater I always want to draw.
There’s certainly some Ghibli in your work especially when it comes to conveying emotion, and you’ve previously mentioned that “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” were two films you’re very happy to have grown up with. So what about his message and his work really strikes a chord with you?
I’ve thought about this a lot. And I think the biggest part of Ghibli movies that I find so engaging and wonderful is how they always come across as so genuine. There’s never a moment in Kiki’s where Kiki is like ‘OMG look I’m flying a broom and I’m a witch, how CRAZY is that!’ She just gets on the broom and does her thing.
The same with Totoro; the kids are shocked by this crazy being but never ask themselves ‘hey this can’t be real.’ And I think what I took away from that is that in my own work I can make reality be anything. I can put my characters on a kind of living fish ship and no one has to blink twice. Ghibli movies don’t explain their magic – they simply present it and let you live in it. And that’s something I try to do with my own work.
Art is something that’s clearly been a part of your life from very early on, but what other fields would you like to explore and how do you think that your art can help you do so?
I play cello – I have since I was 11 or so. And I think playing and understanding music really informs my art. I also play a little guitar and I love to sing. I may even love singing more then I love drawing, which is saying something. And that’s something I want to keep playing with and engaging with.
I’m also really fascinated with prose and would love to try writing a regular old book one of these days. I read exclusively prose these days, no comics for me. I find reading comics completely dull at this point, which is pretty funny to me.
I know you’re a fan of Murakami (as am I), and I see elements of his kitchen table fiction in your works. So what I guess I’m asking is: can you take us through your creative process?
It’s a pretty typical process, I think. I have an idea and I go for it. I don’t spend too long figuring things out. I usually avoid any sort of character design or planning. They slow me down. So I take an idea and draw it. And along the way I figure out the details, like plot and a characters background.
I’m mostly traditional, when I’m working on a comic I just grab some paper and make it happen and keep doing that until I reach the end. But while I’m working on a comic I get very engaged with it. I lose track of the real world, I dream about it and lose myslf in it.
Back to “On a Sunbeam” for a minute — what drove you to draw the comic with all female characters?
You know, no one has pointed this out yet, but OAS actually has not a single male character. Not even in the background. Which wasn’t how I originally planned it but here’s what happened: I knew I wanted to make a story with an all female/queer cast, because that’s really all I like drawing and the world needs more content with focus on females/queers.
And I was describing this to my friend/editor/confidant Ricky, who then said ‘why not just make it an all female universe.’ And I thought that was great and just went for it. There’s no mentions of Dads, no characters have brothers. Logistically, I don’t actually know how anyone exists. But I don’t really need a reason.
You’ve earned a fair bit of critical acclaim at such a young age, what has that been like and how have you been adjusting to the wave of plaudits you’ve received as well as the criticism that some [jealous] folks have due to your age?
I mean for me it’s been amazing. I feel really lucky – I do comics full time now and I don’t have to struggle too hard to get my bills paid, which is a huge luxury. I avoid reading articles and things, though. But yeah, like you’ve said I’ve definitely run into a fair bit of jealousy.
There was a lot of that at school. I mean I’m sure I was tough to be around – I was the youngest in the class and getting book deals and awards and plenty of attention on social media. But it was tough to deal with because people really seemed pissed about it, and were not afraid of sharing that with me. I wouldn’t tell anyone when I got another book contract or an award because I didn’t want to deal with what they would say. But I’ve since graduated and gotten better at dealing with this.
My hope is that I’ll soon hit a point where I stop being ‘young’ and people will just leave me alone.
What are some of your favorite literary works and which of them would you like to see get a film or comic adaptation?
Something less serious — what’s your favorite snack?
You don’t like loud music, but what kinds of music do you like and are there any in particular that you listen to whilst sketching?
Lots of classical – especially cello concertos. But also lots of soundracks.The soundtrack to the TV show Broadchurch has gotten me through a lot of drawing. And the show is ridiculous but the Downton Abbey soundtrack is usually in my rotation, haha.
What new kinds of projects do you see yourself creating in the future and what are you working on right now (that you can tell us about) that you’re most excited about?
God, I don’t even know! I’m so focused on On A Sunbeam I can barely think ahead… But I see myself diving further into the YA and middle grade space, I like making comics for younger audiences. But other then that I really have no clue what my future art will look like.
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives out there?
Oh jeez, that’s tough. Because aspiring creatives come from all different situations, and saying just ‘work hard!’ is not always fair advice. I would just say that when you have the time and resources to create, don’t focus on making something good. Focus on finding joy in the process of making.
Don’t stress or think about the final image, that’s not what matters. If you want a creative career then you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your process, so try and search for a way to make that process enjoyable and interesting.
And finally, the floor is yours — give a shoutout to whomever and spread your message!
Well, shoutout to my publishers Avery Hill Publishing who do great work. And to First Second who continue to publish amazing creators, and I will soon be joining those ranks. The creators who really interest me right now are Sophia Foster Dimino, April Malig, KL Ricks, and Sophie Yanow. Also check out the Quang comics anthology from Korea, some seriously amazing comics are being made in there.
And there you have it folks, a deeper look inside the mind of the award-winning Tillie Walden. Make sure to follow her on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram to stay up to date with her latest work. Also, be sure to check out her website to view her sketches and other works.
You can read every chapter of On a Sunbeam right here, and we really urge you to do so. Thanks again to Tillie for agreeing to this interview, and stay tuned for our next edition of the #Captain’sQuarters interview series.