Artist, Filmmaker, Playwright & Author Jonathan Ashley
Jonathan Ashley is an author, playwright, concept artist, and filmmaker from Arizona. At fifteen, he illustrated his first book, Mathematickle, written by his grandfather. He studied filmmaking and animation at New York University. His illustrations and designs have been featured in films, commercials, comic books, and puppet shows. He lives with his wife and daughter in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, on the Brooklyn side. He is also the author of Lily & Kosmo in Outer Outer Space in which to join Kosmo's "Spacetronauts," an all-boy crew of child space cadets, aboard their floating tree house in the stars, a girl from Brooklyn must prove that she can hold her own among the galaxy's unruliest rascals…along the way, she and another will evade the clutches of merciless minions, find themselves marooned in The Murky Way nebula, and ultimately face the vilest villain of all, "His Meanness" The Mean-Man of Morgo.
There’s a lot of nostalgia for golden era science fiction in your work, with nods to Flash Gordon and Forbidden Planet. What is it about science fiction from the early to mid-twentieth century that attracts you to that style of storytelling?
The illustrations of that time were so vivid and colorful, as in the anthologies of the day such as Astounding Science Fiction. In science fiction and fantasy movies, the aesthetics were much more handmade at that time, and I feel that quality is sorely missing from the genre today. But what I love most from that time are science fiction radio dramas of that era, like X Minus One, which dramatized vivid, compelling stories while leaving all the visuals to the imagination.
Were there any funny science fiction tropes you enjoyed making fun of in your book Lily & Cosmo in Outer Outer Space?
Flash Gordon tended to find himself in gladiator duels with various aliens, often to protect Dale Arden from having to wed some alien warlord or other. In my book, the Piranha Sisters offered me a fun chance to invert this trope to suit Lily’s role as the hero, and let Kosmo feel what it's like to be the damsel in distress.
“...the message for any kid is not to let anyone tell you who you are, and don't tell anyone else who they are.”
In your book Lily Lupino cuts her hair short in order to be mistaken for a boy, and gets accepted by the boys’ treehouse club. Is there a more important message you want to send to little girls and their parents? Is there another message there for boys to consider?
Lily knows who she is, knows what she likes, knows what she’s good at. It’s the males in her world who have a lot of growing to do. Lily’s challenge is to stand her ground and be herself, as the boys learn to think past their initial assumptions. I think all of us have been on both sides of that situation at one time or another. So, the message for any kid is not to let anyone tell you who you are, and don't tell anyone else who they are.
The kids always seem to be on the run from the adults in your book—is there a reason behind that?
For the kids in the story, Outer Outer Space is an endless slumber party in the stars, with no bedtime. Adults may as well be another species. Grownups take on the role of literal cops, patrolling the stars to put an end to the kids’ fun. At first this seems like the perfect realm for Lily to escape from her bossy dad, but it doesn’t take long for his authoritarian voice to creep into her fantasy, albeit in a disguised form.
Playwright & director, concept artist and filmmaker—your talents seem limitless. How did you come to novel writing when Lily & Cosmo originally began as conceptual drawings, and what do you feel the novel writing form affords a storyteller?
Thank you! Lily & Kosmo was first presented as a multi-media stage play by the company I work with, The Shelter, back in 2013. All the while, I was busy filling sketchbooks with conceptual art, fleshing out the look of the characters and their world. I decided to see if I could get some of these ideas published as a book, and sent proposals to many agents and publishers. You were the one literary agent who offered me some constructive feedback, which set me on the path to adapting my play into a middle grade book. Adapting the play into prose allowed me get to know the character of Lily much more deeply, her inner life, her point of view, and her personality.
The creator of Mars Attacks, Len Brown, praised your book, calling it “...a new and special look into a spectacular science fiction world.” How were able to get his attention as a debut author?
All credit for that goes to my wife's dad, Mark Jones, who began corresponding with Len Brown over their shared interest in (among other things) roots country music—Len hosts an excellent radio show on the subject. Knowing of my love of Mars Attacks and other classic science fiction, Mark introduced me to Len. Len was kind enough to read an early draft of the book and share his feedback, which was very positive.
How did you find your current literary representation and go on to get published?
I emailed query letters to several literary agents and a couple publishers for my original idea, The Book of Spacetronauts, which wasn't a narrative as much as a collection of one-page character illustrations paired with humorous poems. Then you suggested that I try a more narrative approach. So, several months later I emailed you the middle grade manuscript adapted from my play, and after a round or two of feedback, you said it was ready to be submitted, and we were off and running! A couple weeks later you gave me the great news that Simon & Shuster had made an offer on it!
With Lily & Cosmo as your major debut novel with Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, what have you learned about the book publishing process? Are there things you enjoyed or things you would do differently going forward?
Things take much longer in publishing than they I'm used to in film and animation. That took a lot of getting used to, but once things come to fruition, it's all the more satisfying for the wait!
“Be adaptable, and listen to the advice that clicks, which may also be the most challenging.”
Do you have any advice for writers hoping to become published authors?
Be adaptable, and listen to the advice that clicks, which may also be the most challenging. I started on a very different path, making a very different book, but when you presented an opportunity to try a different direction, I just went with it, put in the time, and have been very pleased with the results.
What can we expect next from the adventures of Lily & Kosmo?
I have two more books in mind for these characters, because I'd like for Lily's story arc to play out over a trilogy. I describe the second book as "Rankin/Bass meets Dune," set in a toy factory on a snowy planet, with sinister forces burrowing below the surface. Thematically, it's a chance for Lily to learn how to have positive relationships with peers, especially other girls. The third book deals with Lily sensing that growing up is right around the corner. Although she's intrigued by the promise of real world adventures and discoveries, she's nervous to embrace it, if it will mean giving up her escapades in Outer Outer Space. This tension plays out in a story in the "journey to the netherworld" tradition, reimagined to fit Lily & Kosmo's humorous, retro sci-fi setting.
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