Hard core fans of The Simpsons may recognize Mimi Pond’s name—she wrote the first full-length broadcast episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” in 1989. Pond has been a professional cartoonist and illustrator for over 25 years, but never tackled creating a graphic novel until now. Library Journal calls Over Easy, “… a lively, funny, and sometimes rueful read.” SLJTeen asked Jeremy Engel, who oversees the graphic novel collection at Douglas County Libraries’s Lone Tree branch (and an artist himself) to catch up with author/illustrator on the creation of her debut graphic novel.
Over Easy is quite the coming-of-age story and magnum opus. What were the most compelling reasons to focus on this period of your life while waitressing at the quirky and hip Imperial Cafe in 1970s Oakland, California?
It always felt, from the very first day I went to work there, like being in some movie I didn’t know the end of yet. The manager hired people as though he was casting his own anarchic punk opera. He hired from the ranks of the recently graduated art students to the strangest weirdos. Some people were divas, others were spear carriers, all in a story that was unfolding before our eyes.
How long had the story of Over Easy, um, percolated before ideas were put to paper? What decided the fitting green tone for design?
Percolate? Well, I started working there in 1978. Is that long enough for you? I took notes over the years, little by little, I visited there again and again, I talked to many of the people who had worked there at the time. I was determined to get it all down. Life kept going by. I’d have the occasional near-death/near-miss traffic experience that would leave me shaken and thinking “I’ve GOT to write this book!” The restaurant itself, which is really the still-thriving Mama’s Royal Cafe in Oakland, has a Chinese restaurant interior of red and green. I was trying to keep it simple and I just liked that shade of green, which is Winsor-Newton Viridian, by the way.
The Imperial Cafe’s diner is filled with a cast of interesting and complex characters. What was your decision process of who to include in the storyline?
That was really hard. There were legions of fascinating characters who came and went over the years, including an entire extended family of siblings and cousins. I made long lists and an outline and I just had to go with characters who would serve the narrative. A number of them are composites. I didn’t see any reason to go all Russian novel on my readers. You have to strip it down.
Although Over Easy might target an older demographic of readers, many teens are looking to find their own unique voice while still struggling to fit in. Do you hope they will connect with Over Easy and through it find inspiration as they journey through the maze of youth to adulthood?
I certainly hope that kids can connect with the story. It’s a pretty universal story. You stumble through and make mistakes and trust the wrong people and that’s how you learn.
There are several instances where the Imperial Cafe provides a setting or safe place for those who may not fit society’s status quo. How do you think this locale and set of personalities— Imperial’s employees as well as the customers—will resonate with teens?
I think the nature of youth is [that] we tend to gravitate towards people who will negate our views, because we’re insecure and we want someone to confirm our worst fears—that we don’t know ANYTHING. When you’re young it’s really easy to find someone who will do that for you, usually someone slightly older who’s on a power trip. It’s the old “Oh, man, you should have been here five years ago. THAT’S when it was really cool. The scene now? It’s just OVER!” It’s harder to find people who will validate your view of the world, but it’s extremely important to do so. You need a support system. You need mentors and cheerleaders. The most important thing that the character Lazlo did for me was to agree that we really were artists and this job was just a role we were playing—a goof, really— while we took careful notes about all of it so that later we could turn it into art. That’s what made it tolerable, and really, [what] made it fun and inspiring.
I enjoyed how the story paralleled the changing art and music culture in the mid-70s with hippie peace giving way to angry punk. Today, punk and all things retro are back. Do you ever get a sense of dé jà vu when observing the teens of today?
Sometimes I see teenagers walking around who look like teenagers from the early 1970s. Bell-bottom jeans with Frye Boots. Total dé jà vu. My own daughter, who is 18, has a stunning sense of flair and style with her clothes, all of which are thrift store purchases. I think kids should be more creative with their fashion. You see so many young people who have exactly the same cookie-cutter style. This is the time in life to get crazy with it! When you’re young you have so much license to go nuts with different looks and look daring and fabulous. Once you’re past a certain age, unless you’re very careful, the same thing looks like you’re just an old crackpot.
There are some intense and graphic scenes ranging from peer rejection, loneliness, and gut-wrenching heartbreak. How do you think young adults might respond to these types of scenes?
I hope they can relate to them. Peer rejection, loneliness, and gut-wrenching heartache are fairly universal.
Many industrious and creative teens desire a future in various artistic fields including illustration or creating webcomics. Can you give words of wisdom from your own journey?
Lately everyone wants me to tell them how to “monetize” this. And this word everyone has begun using, “monetize”—is it even a real word? It sounds like a Harry Potter spell. “MONETIZE!” And a bag of gold appears. HA! Good luck! I don’t know if you can tell, but I am not in it for the dough. I stopped making any real money from comics and illustration in about 1998 when the internet ate everyone’s career. I am fortunate enough to have a husband who has subsidized this project, and it has been so labor intensive that I have not looked up from my desk to try to figure out how to find other work. I would encourage people NOT to work for free. It hurts everyone. I think developing a website and a following with that is a good tool to market yourself and develop, as they say these days, a brand, but if you are asked by someone else to do work for free because it would be such good exposure for you, just tell them to “expose this” and make a rude gesture.
Do you have any personal favorite scenes from Over Easy?
I am partial to pages 112-121. Although this is a work of fiction inspired, as they say, by true-life events, this incident actually did happen to me.
Pond, Mimi. Over Easy. Drawn & Quarterly. April 2014. RTE $19.99. ISBN 9781770461536.
Jeremy Engel is an adult services librarian at Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado.
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