When we visited Jessie Hartland’s studio a little over 2 years ago, she was working on a picture book biography of Steve Jobs. Well that book just came out a few months ago, not as a picture book but as an accessible and engaging 240-page graphic novel for adults and teens called Steve Jobs: Insanely Great. We met up again recently to discuss the process.
Robin: When did you decide to write a biography of Steve Jobs?
Jessie: Two and a half years ago. I was trying to think of who I wanted to write about and then he died. I just decided right then and there. I went out to the newsstand and picked up everything about him that I could. I got the Isaacson book which of course I’ve used. It’s a great book. There’s this one chapter about Silicon Valley, growing up in the 60’s, and the whole music of the era and it’s so great.
Robin: Did you pitch the idea to your editor first or did you show her a dummy?
Jessie: I just pitched the idea to Schwartz & Wade and they went for it. I think they pictured it as being like the Julia Child book, in color and much shorter. They wanted me to end at the Apple 1. I was struggling with that because that’s not what he’s famous for. I really looked into it and found out in detail everything he had done. He had like five careers in one relatively short lifetime. There was some back and forth and I said, you know, I really want to write about his whole life.
We decided to do a graphic novel for teenagers but the book just kept growing and growing. An editor at Pantheon, which is also part of Random House, suggested it should be for adults and that it would trickle down to teenagers and middle graders.
Schwartz & Wade is a children’s imprint and this is the first adult book that they have ever published because it started as a children’s book but turned into an adult book. I like that we’re aiming for adults actually. I’m hoping this book will be for people who are interested in Steve Jobs but don’t want to read a 600-page book.
Robin: Did you have to rewrite much of the text to change the voice from middle grade to adult?
Jessie: Not that much changed. I wasn’t dumbing it down so much. Some definitions came out, like defining “CEO” and “bootleg.”
Robin: So this is a complete biography?
Jessie: Yes, from beginning to end. It’s been licensed in 13 foreign markets.
Robin: That’s fantastic. The book is all hand-lettered. Do they have artists who are redrawing your words in different languages?
Jessie: No, they had a typeface of my handwriting created. John Martz did it and he did a really good job. He had me do many versions of each letter. Originally I had offered to handwrite all of [the different language editions] actually but they thought I was nuts.
Robin: Did you start with a manuscript and then do the drawings?
Jessie: I hear about how other people write first but that’s not the way that I think. I think in pictures and words at the same time because I want to also think about what makes the best image. It definitely goes hand in hand.
Robin: Is this the longest book that you’ve ever written and illustrated?
Jessie: Yeah, it is. I’d like to do more, I mean I could just do this forever. I’m glad that graphic novels are gaining in popularity. I’m really drawn to taking very complicated material and simplifying it with drawings and words.
Robin: Did you do any character studies for Steve?
Jessie: Yeah, his look changed a lot [throughout his life] so sometimes I think, God, every picture of him looks different. I just drew and drew and drew and then I got to the point where I could just sit down and draw from my head.
Jessie: What was really hard about this job was trying to understanding everything in detail so that I could simplify. I love writing and illustrating but the writing is very challenging. Is it too many words? Is it not enough words? It seems more nebulous. When I’m drawing I often get an idea for a picture, it just kind of pops into my head. I don’t have to think about it that much. With writing I feel like, well, you could turn the sentence around another way or you could move it here or there.
Robin: I can imagine. And if you’re writing a novel you can just cut text out, but with a graphic novel if you cut something, now you have a big hole in your page. I could imagine when your editor asked you to cut or expand something it could be a big deal. It’s a huge puzzle. Most people would find it daunting but you found it a fun challenge.
Jessie: Yeah, I enjoyed it. At times I felt like Steve Jobs was this really irritating roommate that I couldn’t get rid of. He was just always there.
Robin: What are you working on now?
Jessie: I illustrated a picture book over the summer about Ada Lovelace for Paula Wiseman Books. Right now I’m illustrating a book for Nancy Paulsen books. It’s about a cowgirl and it takes place on this longhorn ranch. I went out and visited a longhorn ranch in December out in California which was just great. I learned all about it. I’m also writing a book about this truffle hound, an Italian dog that sniffs out truffles. I’m starting to write a book about my childhood too, a memoir, about growing up in D.C. in the 60’s.