Pumpkinheads: An Interview with Rainbow Rowell & Faith Erin Hicks

Author Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park, Carry On) and Eisner Award–winning artist Faith Erin Hicks (The Nameless City, Avatar: The Last Airbender) have teamed up for Pumpkinheads, a new graphic novel about two high schoolers embarking on a final night of adventure in the pumpkin patch they have called work-home for the past four autumns.

Deja and Josie are seniors, which means this particular Halloween marks the last time they will have the chance to explore DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch and Autumn Jamboree (aka the greatest pumpkin patch in the world) together before everything changes. What starts as an epic quest to find “Fudge Girl,” the co-worker Josiah has been crushing on for the past four seasons but has never had the courage to start a conversation with, turns into a night to celebrate the two friends’ relationship, their shared love of the pumpkin patch, and the importance of being an active player in your own life.

With plenty of autumn-themed delights—from succotash to corn mazes, pumpkin bombs to hayrack rides—Pumpkinheads is almost certainly the most delightful new story you can add to your to-read pile for the upcoming season. We had the chance to chat with Rowell and Hicks about bringing this world and story to life. Here’s what they had to tell us about the process of creating Pumpkinheads

Den of Geek: What does each of you admire about the other’s storytelling?

Rowell: Faith is a very grounded storyteller; you always know where you are in her stories. That’s something I really appreciate as a reader – the feeling that I can settle into a story and trust it. And I always want to spend time with her characters. She writes very kind and decent people.

Hicks: Rainbow’s stories make me feel things, often very deeply. I’ve cried reading two of her books (Eleanor & Park and Fangirl) and I totally teared up the first time I read the Pumpkinheads script. As someone who loves stories and storytelling, that’s exactly what I’m looking for when I pick up a book: I want to care. I want to root for the characters, I want them to fight and make up, and make out. Rainbow’s books stay with me years after I’ve read them, and that’s something really, really special.

That period right before you leave for college is such a rich storytelling setting, and one that has gotten a lot of love in lots of different mediums. What do you think is so fertile about this period, and was there something new you wanted to do with this subgenre?

Hicks: It’s a time of great change and upheaval in a person’s life, where you might be kinda sorta an adult but not really? When I went to university, it was my first time living away from home, and after a rocky high school experience, I was excited to reinvent myself, hopefully as someone much, much cooler (it didn’t happen).

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I think that’s similar to the experience of many teens going into university or college for the first time, although for Deja and Josiah it might be slightly different. Deja’s so self-assured already, she doesn’t need to re-invent herself. For Deja and Josiah, college starting means the end of something they’ve really enjoyed: their time working at the pumpkin patch, and that’s causing lots of heartache (on Josiah’s side, that is).

Rowell: Well, it’s that bridge between your child life and your adult life, when everything is shifting and changing, and you’re trying to figure which relationships are going to cross the bridge with you. I think it’s a really dramatic time. This book focuses on a really specific friendship – a work friendship – and how hard it can be to move a relationship from one part of your world to another. (I’ve written in this space twice before, both in Fangirl and in Carry On.)

Rainbow, you didn’t start in graphic novels. What have you learned about storytelling working in the comics/graphic novel world?

The big shift for me is that, in comics, my main audience isn’t the reader – it’s the artist. I’m trying to give the artists everything they need to talk to the reader. It’s a little bit like you’re handing all these elements to the artist as they need them. Is there a joke coming in a few panels? What does the artist need to know now to make that joke work?

Who is this graphic novel for? Did you have specific kinds of readers in mind when you were writing it?

Hicks: I like to think I make comics for everyone. Of course, not everyone in the world likes my comics, but that’s usually my hope when I sit down to draw a new graphic novel. Mostly I make comics for myself. I make the kinds of comics I want to read, or wanted to read when I was a lonely, geeky 16 year old.

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Rowell: I never think about that when I’m writing. I’m always just trying to write the best version of whatever story is in my head. But once I’d written this script, I realized there were only one or two things keeping it from being an all-ages book. So I took those things out. And I got kind of excited about having written a story that you could hand to anyone.

I wanted this book to feel like one of those classic Disney live-action movies – like The Parent Trap or Freaky Friday. Emotional and earnest, but also a rollicking good time.

Autumn, like all seasons, is a different experience depending on where you live geographically. Was that something you talked/thought about: how this story is experienced for readers who experience fall in the stereotypical ways vs. those for whom fall looks very different?

Rowell: This book very specifically takes place in Nebraska, during a Nebraska fall. It’s our best season, I think. And I really wanted Faith to experience that. She very kindly came to Omaha during October, and we visited a pumpkin patch together. (It was a blast!)

Nebraska has a very Classic Fall Vibe – changing leaves, cool weather, bonfires. And we really leaned into that in the book. Sarah Stern, our colorist, did such a good job bringing that to life.

Hicks: The look that Rainbow wanted for Pumpkinheads was very specific, and it was based on a pumpkin patch in the state where she lives in. I visited her before I started drawing the book and took lots of reference pictures, and ate lots of snacks. That visit helped a lot when I sat down to draw Pumpkinheads; being at that particular pumpkin patch and getting to experience its whimsy was important, especially as it’s something very different from fall festivals where I live in Vancouver, Canada.

There’s a lot of nihilistic mainstream storytelling right now, but I think hopepunk might be on the upswing. I think of both of you as hopeful, kind, and empathetic storytellers. For both of you, what is the value of depicting worlds that reflect these qualities?

Rowell: Well, that’s something I really like about Faith’s books — I find her characters very comforting. The world is hard. I want to spend time with characters who remind me what I like about people and why we need each other.

Hicks: I believe in a Star Trek future, where humanity eventually gets its shit figured out, and a better, more positive world is created. I’ve never had much taste for dystopia (although I did enjoy the Hunger Games books, back in the day) or stories that revel in misery, mostly because I find them exhausting, and as unrealistic as stories where everything goes perfectly according to plan.

I think the world and other people are worth fighting for, and I want empathy and kindness to be the backbone of the stories I create … at least at this stage in my life. Maybe I’ll develop more of a taste for darker stories when I’m older, but right now I want to offer encouragement to readers, rather than grind them down.

That being said, there is still prejudice in the delightful Pumpkinheads world (i.e. the kid who makes a fatphobic comment to Deja). How do you balance writing a kind and inclusive world with representing these difficult real-life experiences in vital ways?

Rowell: That’s a tricky question. This is probably my most joyful book. I wrote it during a hard time in my life, and I really needed it to be joyful and gentle. (This is maybe my only book written completely in a major key?) But all my stories tend to be rooted in reality. So there are still moments when Deja and Josiah hit bumps. I like to see characters navigate hard things. In this book, the way Deja and Josiah react to that comment tells us a lot about both their characters.

Hicks: I think the important thing about that scene is how Deja reacts to it. Josiah is the one responding to the kid, while Deja just happily notes that he defended her. I’d like to be like Deja someday, so secure in my own sense of self that cruel words don’t bother me. Deja knows she’s a great person, she’s not going to let some snot-nosed punk get her down. She’s my hero!

Would you like to write more stories set in this universe and what might that look like for such a setting (time AND period)-specific graphic novel?

Rowell: I think we’d like to come back to Deja and Josiah. (I have a few ideas up my sleeve!) But Faith and I both have stacks of other obligations. We were lucky that our schedules lined up for this project.

Pumpkinheads is out today, which means it isw now available to pick up at your local independent bookstore or via Macmillan.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.

Read and download the Den of Geek SDCC 2019 Special Edition Magazine right here!

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