Tackling The ‘Big Stuff’ In Life: Tara O’Connor On The Altered History Of Willow Sparks

by Hannah Means Shannon

This week, Oni Press released a new original graphic novel by writer and illustrator Tara O’Connor, whose autobiographical graphic novel, Roots, you might have encountered from Top Shelf. This new and fictional work is geared toward a YA audience, and follows the life and decisions of Willow aka “Willy” Sparks with a fantasy-spun twist: she discovers that she can alter the text contained in a magical book that records her life, and thereby change her life. But boy, oh boy, that does not exactly go smoothly for her.

The Altered History of Willow Sparks is a remarkably compelling book, illustrated in an emotive, well-rounded style that seamlessly draws you into the world of the story. And though this is a YA-focused work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend the book to any age of reader. You’ll quickly find yourself in mental dialog over the tough situations Willy faces, or wanting to step in and warn her about possible outcomes for the choices she faces. That kind of engagement is the hallmark of distinctive and authentic storytelling from Tara O’Connor.

O’Connor has been kind enough to join is on the site today and talk about some pretty big issues in her new book, as well as the journey the project took from concept to completion.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What was the beginning of this idea and this project, and what made you decide to create a full original graphic novel based on it?

Tara O’Connor: I got the idea a few years back while I was still working in retail, I think it was my last year of high school, or the summer of my first year of college. So, many years ago, I remember getting the idea when one of my coworkers who was going to school for library sciences was talking about how every town has a library, much like every town has a post office, etc. in order to shape the community—so needless to say I kind of took that idea quite literally. Initially, it started out being a short comic idea for Tokyopop’s Rising Stars of Manga competition (yep, it was that long ago) but I never went through with it. I really liked the idea of it though, so I kept adding to it over the years and it went through several drafts before I settled on a final script (which even then, had changed quite a bit from the final product.)

HMS: Something that I really respect about the way this story is told is that you don’t downplay the effect that a bad day can have on a young person. It’s typical for adults to say “don’t take it so seriously” but we really see how things can add up to misery for Willy and the kind of pervasive nastiness she faces from peers. How did you decide to handle the fact that Willy does have bleak experiences in her life without making readers feel like everything she does in response is smart, wise, or ok?

TO’C: I think we can all relate to Willy in some shape or form because we’ve all had bad days and similar experiences. I think we all feel for her, but at the same time, a lot of things Willy does in response to these things are all very selfish. Having Georgia there for her brings this home, and I think for the reader it’s easier to see that not all these changes Willy is making are for the best, even though we are rooting for her.

HMS: I’m going to jump right in and talk about bullying. It’s a strong element in this book, though I don’t think you are overbearing about it. There’s emotional abuse that is, unfortunately, a big part of teen life among peers, but the casual physical violence really brings the prevalence of both home.

I feel like young men are told that if someone hits you, you should hit back to let them know not to do so in future, but advice to young women is much murkier, and we see some interesting push back in this story. What were your thoughts by having such aggressive physical bullying in the story coming from a woman on other young women?

TO’C: It was hard. I did go back and forth on it—and it was rather hard to write and draw. Some of it is based on stuff that my friends and I went through, and some of it is watered down. I made sure to include both, emotional and physical abuse, because they both leave such significant marks. All of the bullying I faced as a kid was from other young women—both physical and emotional, and my responses were, like you said, murky. I think I tried to have Willy and Georgia react how I wish I had? Do I fight back, do I take it and just hope they get bored or find a new target? Do I ask for help?

I still don’t have the answers.

HMS: Sorry for all the super-heavy questions! Let’s talk about how you created the visual world of the story. What sort of architecture/town setting/aesthetics were you going for? How did you stay on track and keep the world consistent throughout a substantial page count?

TO’C: No worries! Not only did I try to make it visually interesting, but I also wanted to capture the relatable suburban town setting. I lumped a lot of the numerous places I’ve lived over the years, most of which are in New Jersey, into one cozy fictional town. Having that reference really helped a lot. Perspective and the buildings being one of my least favorite things to draw (haha) it was definitely a challenge for me to make sure everything jived well.

HMS: You seem to pick the “really big” things a young person can face and stack them together in the story, like a childhood friend moving away, getting new attention from a romantic interest. What made you want to tackle extreme situations from teen life head-on in this story?

TO’C: I think I wanted to include them because those are what most readers of that age are going through—being aimed at a young adult crowd, having something you can relate to is so important. The “really big” stuff is what tends to shows people’s character the most, their true selves, when they are at their most vulnerable, so I thought it was vital in fleshing out these characters to show how they’d react when faced with those challenges.

HMS: There’s a definite descent into being off the rails and a redemption arc for Willy in this book. And that’s a different kind of story than simply having a hero(ine) facing obstacles or troubles. What do you think that arc brings to readers that no other type of story can?

TO’C: I think having an arc that kind of leaves the protagonist grey is important and shows growth throughout the story. I love her, but she’s human—she makes mistakes, she’s selfish, much like ourselves from time to time. We all, at least in my experience, put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist while reading (comics or books), and I personally think it allows for more self-reflection when your hero(ine) is less than perfect.

HMS: Since this is a book aimed at young people, how responsible did you feel for making sure the book had positive messages that might benefit younger readers in some way? How did you balance having some positive messages while also simply creating an entertaining story?

TO’C: There’s always a bit more reflection when you realize a younger audience will be reading it, and I do hope that those positive messages ring true. I think it’s a matter of making sure the story is moving and that the characters are facing those challenges that ultimately lead to that positive message is what helps move things along in terms of creating an entertaining story.

HMS: I love the way in which fantasy is just dropped into the story and accepted to set the whole plot in motion. It’s something that comics can accomplish particularly well. What do you love about comics storytelling—as a reader or creator?

TO’C: Thank you! Comics have always been my number one choice in storytelling ever since I was little. Even when reading prose I’d oftentimes think of it all in my head in comics form. As a reader, there’s so much more emotion involved because it is so visual, not only are you reading the words these characters are saying, but you’re seeing their body language, their expressions—it really does help build a connection to the reader. As a creator, I love that everything is slightly limitless… a single sentence can be interpreted visually in so many different ways, in different angles, with different focuses. Also, while I love to write, it’s not my strongest suit—so to be able to have visuals to go along with it just further helps me connect my readers to the characters (and with any hope, make me a stronger writer as well).

Thank you so much for having me! 🙂

Big thanks to Tara O’Connor for diving into our questions so fully and for a great read in The Altered History of Willow Sparks!

The Altered History of Willow Sparks is currently available in shops from Oni Press.