An Interview with Lumberjanes Writer Grace Ellis in a Cabin in the Woods on Top of a California Mountain

The minute I finally stepped off my rickety shuttle bus onto solid dirt and into the freezing night air of the California mountain campground after what had been a nearly hour-long ascension up steep mountainous roads, it finally dawned on me how long it had been since I had actually been camping. Like, REALLY camping—deep in the woods, watch out for bears, did it seriously just start snowing kind of camping. Of course this wasn’t just a personal summer vacation, it was A-Camp, a week-long LGBTQ retreat organized and operated by Autostraddle.com, the popular LGBTQ website which had recruited me this year as part of the talent roster to entertain the campers. Although I was technically there just to perform stand-up, part of me (okay, a lot of me) was extremely excited not just for late night dancing and queer-themed crafting, but for the chance to be in the very site that may or may not have inspired one of my favorite current comic titles, Lumberjanes.

CabinAs rumor (and a little bit of my own lazy research) had it, a few members of the Lumberjanes creative team were regular A-Camp staffers and campers. Therefore, naturally I assumed many of the adventures they experienced with each other on this very mountain quite possibly directly influenced those shared by Jo, Mal, Molly, Ripley, and April in the book. And then as luck would have it, one of my assigned bunk mates in our VIP (NBD) cabin happened to be Lumberjanes writer and co-creator Grace Ellis. THE ODDS, Y’ALL. Since Grace is literally one of the sweetest and most genuine human beings I’ve ever met, she agreed to sit down with me one night in our cabin in our pajamas and be interviewed via my cell-phone voice recorder propped on a pillow. Yeah, intense (CAMP PUN)!

What was the inspiration for Lumberjanes?

The real genesis of Lumberjanes was that BOOM! was looking for stories about girls and Shannon Watters, who is currently an editor at BOOM!, knew me and knew my writing on Autostraddle, so she approached me to come up something, some kind of concept for it. She and I kind of batted some things back and forth until we were like, we’re going to do a camp story. Basically we wanted to do something about rad girls who are friends with each other and this seemed to make sense. We wanted to do like a Buffy/Gravity Falls kind of thing.

That’s awesome. So does [Shannon Watters] come to A-camp?

Yeah, she’s here.

Does she usually come to camp, as in, is she also a regular?

Yeah, I think she’s been to all of them. I’m not sure. Maybe don’t quote me on that.

About the names of the girls in Lumberjanes, obviously, or at least I’m going to assume that Ripley is named after Ripley…

Ripley from Alien.

Right, so are any of the other characters named after anyone or inspired by anyone you know or are they just kind of made up?

Well, Jo got her name from Little Women. In early drafts we called her Kristy, like from The Babysitter’s Club, but we switched it to Jo because we wanted to make her little more androgynous. The other thing from Little Women that we did was all of them shouting feminist names. Like Jo yells Christopher Columbus a lot, but I was like, we can’t use Christopher Columbus because he’s a giant asshole.

Yeah <laughs>

So we switched it up. Everyone thinks that April came from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I just wanted a really girly name for her. With Mal and Molly, I was just looking for two names that went together. I should’ve committed and just done them all.

No, I think it’s good. It’s still cool that you fit some specific meanings and references in there.

I think the way I want to do pop culture references and the way I think we’ve been pretty successful so far, is if you put it in and there’s no penalty for not getting it. Like in the first issue there’s the ‘what’s the story wishbone’ line. If you don’t know that that’s from the Wishbone theme song, it’s still funny for someone to say.

I’m assuming you’re a fan of comics, right?

More or less.

What are your favorite comics?

Man, I’ve been reading a lot of the Black Widow.

The new series?

Yeah, that one and Pretty Deadly. Those are usually the two monthlies I get. I also really like Adventure Time. I think Ryan North is a genius. Bravest Warriors is also really good. I’m really excited for Kate Leth to be writing that. I think honestly I’ve been mostly influenced by web comics.

Oh, really? Which ones?

I’ve been reading A Softer World since the beginning, I think. Just really weird shit. I never read comics as a kid either, just the Sunday paper.

So when did you get into comics?

I think since I started hanging out with Shannon [Watters] actually. I know; I’m such a fraud.

Oh, no. That’s totally fine.

It’s just that my background is mostly in script writing, like T.V. and movies and stuff like that. I never even thought about comics until Shannon started talking to me about them non-stop. I’m the worst.

No, it’s fine. If you were the worst, Lumberjanes would suck.

<Laughs> I guess that’s true.

Is Lumberjanes inspired by any other comics in particular? Like, what would you say if anything, comic-wise or just pop culture-wise, inspired Lumberjanes?

I think the tone I was kind of going with is ’90s Saturday morning cartoons, like The Weekenders, and Recess and Pepper Ann. As in, real high energy, but with a human core to all of them. So I think that’s kind of where I’m coming from with this. Even Doug and stuff. The things that they would show on ABC Saturday mornings. That was my jam.

Now that you said that, I think that is why Lumberjanes is so good from the minute you start reading it. As I read it for the first time, it felt familiar. I thought it was obviously because it’s a group of girls hanging out at camp, and a lot of people can relate to that experience on some level, but now that you say that, I feel like that’s it. The tone reminds you of those specific cartoons in the ’90s.

Yeah. I think there is something so distinct about that particular generation of cartoons. Just the way they were telling stories, a lot of them were just so fantastic. Like the Fairly Odd Parents. It’s such a bizarre concept. It’s about Timmy, this really weird kid. I really dig stories like that.

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So you didn’t really have experience writing comics before Lumberjanes, right?

No.

What other things have you written before? You write for Autostraddle mostly?

That’s my main body of work. It’s not that big of a body of work, but it’s the most successful stuff I’ve written. I wrote a bunch in college, but it’s all really terrible.

Speaking of Autostraddle, is A-Camp an influence on the camp in Lumberjanes or is it supposed to be just a generalized camp setting?

When we were coming up with it, we didn’t even think of it, but it would be naïve and silly to think that A-Camp didn’t influence us at all. Now when I’m working on it, I think about a lot of scenes at A-Camp. I’m working on issue #5 right now, and there’s a cafeteria scene and it’s definitely the cafeteria here. Like it’s 100% the Eagle Lodge.

You know, honestly, I almost went canoeing with everyone today just to relive that scene…

The one in Lumberjanes?

Yes! But then I thought about it and I was like, I don’t even know how to canoe. I’ll just be a burden to everyone else and then annoy them when they have to save me from drowning and I’m like, ‘I just wanted to relive the scene in the comic book!’

<Laughs> You definitely would have run into river monsters if you’d gone.

<Laughs> Speaking of the monster aspect of it, is that part of the Buffy influence?

Yeah.

So are they…I mean, I guess you can’t tell me what’s going to happen.

Maybe. Can you narrow down the question?

Is the idea that they are going to be a group of monster hunters, basically? Or will they just be encountering stuff by accident and circumstance?

Well, we’re still trying to figure it out. Now that it’s an ongoing, we’re going to decide for sure. It’s kind of going to be how when Buffy encountered monsters. A lot of it was chance, but they were also the protectors and eventually seek them out. Does that make sense?

It totally makes sense.

I mean, the first day they’re definitely JUST running into monsters <laughs>

I know this comic kind of just came together in a perfect way, but do you now have plans to write other comics?

Oh, yeah. I have a whole notebook full of ideas. I have a lot of things I’m really interested in doing. I’ve talked to BOOM! about a couple of them. We’ll see.

Well your first comic is already a hit. I mean, Lumberjanes is really popular, right?

Yeah, it’s doing really well. Actually, they won’t even tell us how well it’s doing. We’ll just read about it on Twitter and be like, oh my god!

Well, I know I’m a huge fan, my editor is a huge fan. Every time I talk to someone about it, I assume they might not know what it is, but then I bring it up and they also love it.

Wow, that’s so crazy to me.

You must be getting a crazy good response about it here at A-Camp this year.

Yes, for sure! A bunch of people have been coming up and talking to me about it and even asking me for autographs. Which is so sweet, but I don’t know how to take a compliment. I just try to say, ‘that means a lot to me,’ because it genuinely does. I know for me and I think for a lot of people, if something like Lumberjanes had existed and been in my life when I was younger, I think it would have changed a lot of things.

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A-Camp 2014

Oh, yeah. Definitely.

Not even just the queer aspect of it, but that it’s all girls. I really love The Weekenders, the cartoon on One Saturday Morning. I LOVE that show. Not very many other people do. If that show had been more about the girls, I would have been more into than I already was. Representation does matter. It’s important to see yourself in media.

Agreed. That’s why I think Lumberjanes is so great. There’s no real conversation about if and which characters in the comic are queer. It’s never specifically said, but the way they dress and their hairstyles, just little things communicate to the reader that they are or at the very least makes them relatable to queer readers which is really amazing and is so exciting just by itself. That was important to you, right?

Yes. I’ve got an axe to grind with the way the media is portraying women. There are some people who really dislike the comic. We got one comment on Tumblr that said, “Lumberjanes is a cancer,” and we were like, we’re winning! We’re doing it! The gist of it is there are all these white guys saying that it [Lumberjanes] doesn’t matter and that its, “Tumblr, the comic,” which, first of all, doesn’t mean anything.

Yeah, I don’t know what that means.

Second of all, Lumberjanes is about the story. It’s not hard to include feminist themes and practices in a story, you know? There are a lot of stories that aren’t being told. A lot. And we have a tendency to tell the same stories over and over again, which is really kind of dumb. Lumberjanes is not a crazy story. You can make comparisons to Buffy and Gravity Falls because it’s similar. The only thing that sets it apart for people is that it’s all women, which is dumb. There should be so many more stories like that, featuring all women.

Are you getting a lot of bad feedback then?

Not a lot. I basically have to seek it out. We’ve been getting much more positive feedback about it. Probably because it’s one of the few all female stories out there, or actually, specifically because of it, we’ve even gotten some weighty names behind it too. Like Gail Simone.

Gail Simone? Really? I LOVE HER. She’s one of my life heroes!

She really loves it and is always talking about it. Every time something like that happens I just want to lay down and be like, ‘it’s okay.’

Is that super overwhelming to have such high praise?

Yeah, it is, but it’s really great and I’m really glad. I’m really glad my comic can rally people.

Yes, it’s so good and it’s so inspirational. When you’re reading it, you’re basically reading a fun story about some friends having adventures, but there are unspoken aspects of it that as you read it that are just so inspiring. In comparison, the new Ms. Marvel is really great. I love it, but a lot of the story so far is introducing her ethnicity and explaining her religion to the reader, which I get, but I kind of wish it was just her, being her. It’s annoying.

Right, because white dude super heroes get that. You don’t have to spend seven issues explaining his race and where he’s from. It’s assumed.

Absolutely. The first issue is about how much she wants to be normal which is implied is white. I think the concept is great and I love the character, but that aspect of it troubles me. The first few issues, she uses her powers to morph into a white, blond Ms. Marvel. Every cover keeps showing her in her own costume as herself, but that hasn’t happened yet.

That’s so frustrating.

The writing is good and I love the artwork, I just hate that so much of it so far is her explaining her race and background to the reader like it’s weird. That bothers me.

Which is weird because it wouldn’t be to her.

But that’s why Lumberjanes is so good. There is not justification of the fact these characters are all women or that they are queer. It’s just presented as obvious and normal.

Yes, exactly and that’s what we deserve. That’s all I want from these characters, is just to let them exist. To have fun and to beat some things up.

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