I don’t know about you, but when I become obsessed with an author, I become obsessed. My top author who is the apple of my eye is Jane Austen. I cannot tell you how many copies of Pride and Prejudice I have (last count was 8) in different formats (illustrated, prose, graphic novel, and gender bending). My love for Austen, over 20 years and counting, will never die. This is why I was super excited to find out UDON now produces a Manga Classics line which includes, you’ve guessed it, Jane Austen adaptations.
I was lucky enough to interview Stacy King, writer, copy-editor, and manager of UDON’s Manga Classics line, who shares a love for Austen just as much as I do.
NFNT Reviewer Lisa Rabey: Let’s start with a very simple question: tell us a little about you and about your background.
Stacy King: I have a BA in English Literature. I did marketing and communications stuff right out of university and I worked for some IT companies and in film production. My career is best described as bursts of continually falling upwards. I started taking opportunities as they came up, and that lead me to working with UDON in marketing, communications, and event planning. And then when [UDON editor-in-chief] Erik Ko originally came up with the idea of doing the Manga Classics line, I was all over it. I was like, “me! That’s me! I want to do that.”
NFNT: That actually leads into my next question. What was the inspiration for the classics?
SK: The inspiration comes from Erik, and also Andy Hung, who is the founder of Morpheus, the art studio we work with. Erik and Andy know each other through publishing stuff in Hong Kong. Erik’s mom is a retired high school principal and Andy’s mom teaches English as a second language in Hong Kong This whole time, Erik’s mom has been kinda like, “why don’t you do something that’s good for the kids? Do something that is constructive, valuable, and not this video game fluff”. So, I think part of where Erik’s inspiration for this came from was wanting to do something that was going to make his mom proud. That kind of feeling of wanting to do something really well and wanting to impress people that we really care about is something, I think, the whole team shares.
Erik came up with the idea and we started developing Pride and Prejudice, which is our first book. Then Po Tse, who is the artist that Erik had contracted to work on that book, started working with Morpheus Studios and it’s all sorta rolled together since Andy Hung was also very interested in doing something similar. Due to his mom’s ESL background, he saw a market for works which would serve as a literary introduction for ESL learners. They would have the visual component to support the prose work and some kind of cultural background as well. So you’re just not developing language skills, you are also developing and understanding some really important aspects of western culture. It puts them [readers] into the position to better understand metaphors and references when they come up.
NFNT: How many times did you read Emma?
SK: I read Emma about six or seven times before we even started this project. I read all of Austen, I think, in high school. Well, I read some of Austen in high school and the rest during university. She’s definitely one of the authors I come back to time and time again. I find her work gets more interesting, and I discover new things in it every time I read it. As I get older, I learn more and more about her world and the people in it. I can appreciate her insights of how people act. For this project, I read Emma three times in total. Usually, once the script is done, I will usually read the novel again to compare it to the script just to make sure there is nothing important that I’ve missed. I read it over enough times to feel like the pacing is reflective of the original novel, and then usually again during the copy-edit phrase just to make sure we haven’t missed any opportunities to include any additional really great lines to place in the final draft.
NFNT: Okay, since you love Jane Austen, you did Pride and Prejudice, you did Emma. Are you going to do Northanger Abbey, and are you going to do Persuasion?
SK: I would love to do Northanger Abbey! It’s probably one of my favorites as I really love gothic fiction. Austen’s send up of gothic fiction is just perfect. I actually just finished the script for Sense and Sensibility.
NFNT: Oh! Nice!
SK: We’re currently working on the third Austen book. I think the feeling is we need to leave Austen alone for a little bit, as there are a lot of other great classic authors out there we need to spend some time with. I’m not sure when Northanger Abbey [is coming out], but I continue to push for it, though I have a very long list of books. I’m also kind of like, “oh, we can do this!” and “we can do this!”
NFNT: I hope Persuasion is going to be one of those titles…
SK: I think if the lines continue, we’ll definitely get around to doing all of the Austen books. But, it’s the case of part of what we’re doing is we’re looking at titles we’re trying to build diversity into the line, primarily with Western classic literature is very challenging. Right now, we’re looking at diversity in terms of the authors we’re trying to establish. We’re trying to find more books that represent a diversity of authors and not female or male, but looking at finding literature from around the world that connects into the western culture.
NFNT: You just answered my next question.
SK: It’s a little difficult for me. It’s challenging because I’m a big proponent of diversity…
NFNT: Not all dead white males, with the exception of Austen.
SK: I’m trying to avoid the dead white male phrasing, but that is definitely an issue when you’re looking at classic literature of any kind. And part of the chances of there being great classic novels or the number of great novels that would fit with that, but they tend to still be under copyright. Licensing can often be challenging. Once you start adding in approvals and copyright holder sort of things into this, it gets more expensive and also it depends on how long you can finish the book due to the back and forth that goes on. So, we’re eventually going to start looking into things like To Kill A Mockingbird and things like that. That is going to be a little bit down the line once we have a better feel for how long it’s established and what kind of financial problems could occur, like budgeting.
NFNT: How long does it take you to do produce a book?
SK: It sort of depends. Pride and Prejudice took about two years.
SK: We’re generally looking at about an eight month cycle right now with production, from when we start working on the script and character designs to when we have a final edited draft ready to go.
NFNT: How many titles do you currently have in the classics line and how many do you have upcoming, in addition to Sense and Sensibility?
SK: Right now, we have five titles in the line. So that’s Pride and Prejudice, Les Misérables, Emma, Great Expectations, and The Scarlet Letter. The goal is to be doing four to five books a year.
NFNT: So what do you have upcoming?
SK: Our next releases are going to be Jane Eyre by the same [creators] who did The Scarlet Letter and Sense and Sensibility, myself, and Po Tse. In the fall we have The Count of Monte Cristo.
NFNT: Emma was around 300 pages. So, you’re going to try and keep it (other books) around that?
SK: We’re going for around 300-400 pages. That should make them relatively uniform so that you can wrap them all together as Manga Classics on a bookshelf, hitting those teen readers who tend to be manga fans and shelf browsers. They tend to be waiting for the next volume of Naruto and they tend to like lots of books in a series, so if we can convince them Manga Classics is a series, then we’ve got them.
NFNT: Since we’re talking about the adaptation of the books, what kind of challenges are you coming up against?
SK: Oh, well, definitely pacing and length is a big challenge. Even for some of the shorter novels, there’s generally so much density in the original books that it’s really challenging to try and capture all of that. So part of what we’re always doing is looking and asking ourselves what can we keep, what can we trim, and how do we make this flow? We just try to make the adaptation as true as possible, and as faithful as possible to the original book while still making it an enjoyable read and within the length constraints we’ve established for ourselves. That’s our biggest challenge.
NFNT: Did you have a difficult time with language? Did you experience any difficulty translating Austen into more contemporary usage of language, specifically her slights,in-jokes, and all that other good stuff?
SK: Definitely yes. Working with the language is very challenging. One of the things that is very important to me is trying to keep the voice of the original author. I want for people, after they’re done reading Manga Classic, to feel comfortable when they open up the original nove. I want them to have a sense of how the author works with prose, the ribbons of their language, things like that. But I also need to adapt the dialogue and narration to work with a digital format.
The copy-editing process is actually quite intense because I’ll write the script and then once I have the final artwork, I have to revisit everything and ask, “does this work the way I thought it would? How much are the visuals telling the story? Is this where I need to cut back on dialogue? Are there places where I need to expand on dialogue? How do I deal with that if the artist hasn’t left me much room?” There is a lot of fine tuning around the text itself during the copy-editing process.
Wherever possible, I try to take wording from the original book, but then there is a little bit of tweaking that could happen to certain lines, either to make them flow a little bit better or to make it less confusing to the modern reader who might not be comfortable with an older language style, and that might be slightly changing the word choice or providing context for that word choice. There is something like if I were to mention fortnight, I would need to make sure you know what that is. Things like that. I used fortnight because I need to establish those kind of things but you also need to kind of accommodate readers who are coming to the book, particularly those who are coming to the book as fiction readers or maybe even just as manga fans who don’t necessarily have a lot of exposure to more classic authors.
NFNT: Who is your audience for these particular books? You mentioned using them in the classroom, but you also mentioned using them for ESL learners, as an introduction to manga users, is that kind of it? Or do you have other audiences in mind?
SK: We would like them to be for general readers. I would like to think that somebody who wants a fun introduction to the classics or who has always been curious about a classic book but whose not the type of person to devote time to reading it, will pick up one of these as a way to get to know the story and characters. A little bit better than say book notes or just watching a movie adaptation. We generally describe them for being a symbol for 12+ general audience and then we’re working with exhibiting at library association conferences and things like that to try and connect with librarians and educators, so they can use them as a supplement in classroom learning. Ideally we’d like to see that they can work for general audience but we also know there is a value for a few niche audiences. We’re trying to do outreach in those areas as well.
NFNT: How many people do you have working on a particular book?
SK: Well there’s the author, and then when Crystal is writing the book and I’m also coming in to do an English language script as she’s actually working in Chinese, which is a whole interesting process to get into for some of our arguments. Victor Hugo is my favorite one because I’m reading an English translation of the French novel and she’s reading a Chinese translation of a French novel and then we’re debating about wording we’re going to use.
NFNT: This sounds like a bad Google translation.
SK: We have a lot of fun trying to get the process worked out. We’ve got it down now as we’re on our fifth book, were we’re like it’s going pretty smoothly now. On the art team there is a lead artist, and I think two or three assistants that work with them. Then on the administrative side, Erik and Andy are overseeing all of our production stuff.
NFNT: So about eight people?
SK: Yeah, about eight or nine people.
NFNT: What’s the reaction been so far?
SK: The reaction has been really positive. We gotten a lot of great feedback. Obviously whenever you do an adaptation, some people who are a little annoyed you slighted their favorite character or favorite scene or just annoyed at the idea of an adaptation at all. I understand where some of those people are coming from, but we have worked really hard to try and make them, our adaptations, to be very faithful.
A lot of the time, these kind of stuff happens because people think this is, kind of, a quick money grab, I guess. Where it’s sorta got, we can pump these out and we know they will sell this amount and we’ll get this much money, and so on. For Erik, it’s definitely about introducing a really high quality book. That’s kind of driving how the rest of the team is working on it as well.
Generally, yeah, we’ve been getting really great reviews. Les Misérables was on the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Great Graphic Novels for Teens’ list…The critics reviews have been in the four star range, all of our books have been in the four star range. We haven’t gotten Kirkus coverage yet, but we’re hoping.
Generally, what’s been most exciting for me is I’ve been getting a lot of great reader feedback via Facebook and Twitter and they say, “I’ve really enjoyed this. It’s inspired me to go pick up the original book.” That for me is the most satisfying thing to make someone understand these classic books aren’t just that wall of prose but you see when you crack open that front page, they’re actually exciting, wonderful stories, with this great list of characters and that’s why they’re classics. There is so much in there for you to explore and enjoy. If I can convey that to a new reader that is quite the best thing for me.
NFNT: Have you seen the Marvel adaptations?
SK: I have. I go looking at other adaptations, I watched all the films. I research!
NFNT: I saw that you have a strong social media presence. How has that impacted with the success with the Manga Classics? Are fans reaching out to you through that method or are they mainly going through email channels?
SK: Most of the fans who have reached out have done via the Goodreads website. It actually has a great author set up. It allows people to find out very easily if you’re reading a book the author is also on Goodreads. There are message boards and messaging to communicate with the author. Facebook is also a new channel right now.
NFNT: For people coming into manga, what series would you recommend for them to start with other than the Manga Classics?
SK: See, it’s hard because there are so many things are extended series and I’m not a huge fan of those. Books I know I really quite enjoyed are Emma, which is actually not based on Jane Austen’s novel but is a series about a Victorian maid who falls in love with an upper class aristocrat, so there are social challenges that keep them apart. It’s about 10 books. So that’s a nice, kind of manageable series for someone who is interested in exploring manga. Lone Wolf and Cub is just amazing, which is basically about a wandering samurai who is traveling with a small boy. I really enjoyed Death Note, but I know it’s not for everyone.
NFNT: Thanks Stacy!