Q&A: Stephan Pastis

Author and award-winning cartoonist Stephan Pastis talks to TFK about his first book for young readers

Mar 28, 2013 | By TFK Kid Reporter Storm Bria-Rose Bookhard
DON HEINY FOR TIME FOR KIDS

Author and cartoonist Stephan Pastis chats with TFK Kid Reporter Storm Bookhard at TFK’s New York City office.

Stephan Pastis is an award-winning comic creator and author of the New York Times best seller, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, his first book for young readers. The self-taught artist followed an unusual career path: He went to law school. Bored in class, Pastis found himself sketching characters. After graduation, he got a job at a law firm, but he didn’t stop drawing. Before long, Pastis started to submit his comics to publishers. He got a few rejections, but his idea soon took off. Today, Pastis’s comic strip Pearls Before Swine appears in more than 600 newspapers.

Now Pastis has found success with Failure. In the comedic novel, he writes about bumbling 11-year-old kid detective Timmy Failure and his lazy business partner, a polar bear named Total. The two run a detective agency, Total Failure Inc. Timmy hopes his company will make so much money that his mother can stop worrying about paying the bills. Pastis visited TFK’s New York City office to talk about his work and what it was like to write Timmy Failure.

TFK:

Timmy Failure is the name of the main character in Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. What inspired his name and the title of the book?

STEPHAN PASTIS:

The title Mistakes Were Made is Timmy’s way of apologizing because he can’t say “I’m sorry.” Instead, he says, “mistakes were made.” In terms of his name, Timmy is such a sweet, innocent-sounding name, and the word “failure” is so blunt. I liked putting those two together.

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is Stephan Pastis's first book for young readers.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is Stephan Pastis's first book for young readers.

TFK:

Is the story based on any of your real life experiences?

PASTIS:

Not directly. But I think everything that happens in your life goes into your head and kind of comes out on weird ways on the page. I do think a lot of Timmy is me as a kid.

TFK:

Timmy’s original last name was Fayleure. Is he French?

PASTIS:

I hadn’t really though about that. The original spelling of Fayleure is French, but I just needed a last name that sounded like failure.

TFK:

Timmy is 11 but has a vocabulary of an adult. Why is that?

PASTIS:

There are detective books for adults from the 1930’s about detectives Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade and they talk in clipped sentences — very short and staccato and adult. When Timmy talks I think he wants to be important like them, so he talks like them.

TFK:

As a kid did you ever want to be a detective like Timmy?

PASTIS:

I wanted to be as clever as those kids in the detective stories, like Encyclopedia Brown, and I never was. I would read Encyclopedia Brown and I couldn’t solve any of the mysteries. So, yes, I wanted to be a little smarter, I suppose.

TFK:

Do you think kids will be able to relate to Timmy and his grand business plan?

PASTIS:

I think they will enjoy reading about someone who has a grand vision and falls short. I think people like reading about someone in a worse situation than themselves— that’s where humor kind of comes from. Timmy is probably in a worse situation than just about anyone.

TFK:

Why did you choose to make Timmy’s partner a polar bear?

PASTIS:

I think because Timmy doesn’t have a dad, so he needs a protector. Total is so big that when you see him side by side with Timmy you see that protector, but he is very furry and soft, so he is a comforting protector.

TFK:

If you could have any animal as your business partner, what animal would you pick?

PASTIS:

I am partial to monkeys. Monkeys are endlessly entertaining, but probably not very productive. If I go to a zoo, I go straight to the monkey cage.

TFK:

How did you come up with the style of illustrations for the book?

PASTIS:

I have been doing a comic strip for 11 years so it is just sort of the way I draw. But the idea here is that the child is drawing. So when I sketched a drawing I would quickly ink them and I wouldn’t correct any mistakes.

TFK:

Do you think illustrations help kids connect with the story?

PASTIS:

I think they help in the sense that a page filled with a lot of words can be very dense and have the potential to bore some kids. The drawings really lighten that up and hopefully they are also funny.

TFK:

When did you notice you had a strong talent for art?

PASTIS:

I don’t know if I have noticed that yet! Art is not my strong suit. I didn’t go to art school. I was a lawyer for 10 years. So, I kind of just get by as best I can. And I avoid drawing things like bicycles and cars.

TFK:

What inspired you to start illustrating for comics?

PASTIS:

When I was a little kid I was a really big Charlie Brown fan. I just wanted to do what Charles Schultz (the creator of Peanuts) did for a living. It sounded so cool to stay home and draw funny pictures.

TFK:

What was the biggest challenge in going from creating comic strips to writing and illustrating a book?

PASTIS:

The biggest challenge was the length. When I draw a comic strip, I can hold it out at arms length and see everything from beginning to end. I can see if it flows correctly. When you’re working on a novel you can’t stand far enough away to see the totality of the book. At the start of a writing day I would find myself re-reading the entire book just to get into the rhythm. That was easy in the beginning, but when I was almost done it would mean about an hour and a half of reading before I could even start writing.

TFK:

What do want kids to get out of Timmy’s story?

PASTIS:

I want them to laugh. When I was a kid reading books I would get bored easily, but if something was funny I found it compelling. I tried to put something funny in every chapter to make it more compelling. 

TFK:

What advice do you give kids with creative talents?

PASTIS:

You have to work on them every day. It’s the same way you would lift weights to get strong or run every day to run track. It’s something you have to put time towards. Even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes in the morning, if you work regularly you get better.