Author Interview: Ezra Claytan Daniels, Upgrade Soul

Today’s author interview is with Ezra Claytan Daniels, the brilliant author of Upgrade Soul. You can find a spoiler free review of Upgrade Soul here or a spoiler full review here.

I encourage you to read Upgrade Soul for yourself, you can buy a copy through the affiliate link here: Upgrade Soul

Ezra Claytan Daniels is a writer and illustrator based in Los Angeles, CA. His Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz Award nominated graphic novel, Upgrade Soul, was the recipient of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics and was named one of the best books of 2018 by Publishers Weekly, Vulture, The Library Journal, and Paste. His Eisner and Harvey nominated graphic novel collaboration with Ben Passmore, entitled BTTM FDRS, was released in 2019 by Fantagraphics Books. BTTM FDRS was named one of the best books of 2019 by Chicago Public Library, New York Public Library, Hyperallergic, and NPR.

Questions about Writing

Is writing your full time job? Do you also consider it a passion?

Ezra Clayton Daniels: As of the release of Upgrade Soul in 2018, writing has been my full-time job. It’s always been my passion, ever since I was a kid. I much prefer writing to drawing, and I probably spend as much time on the scripts for my comics as I do drawing them. Probably more. Whenever there’s a debate online about how writers get too much credit in collaborative comics because writing takes so much less time than drawing, I’m always like, ‘these folks could probably be spending more time on their scripts’.

Amanja: I’ve talked to other writers of comic books or books with illustrations who’ve said the same thing. They also need to basically write a whole story board describing exactly how the pictures should look.

What is your schedule for writing like? Do you make time for writing or do you squeeze writing in when a moment becomes free?

ECD: I don’t really keep a schedule. I used to go to coffee shops a lot before the pandemic. I had a little network of 6 or 7 seven coffee shops within a 4 mile radius that I would ride my bike to almost every day. But I’ve found I’m most productive if I give myself the freedom to run with inspiration when I’m feeling it, or go off and do something totally different when I’m not. Whenever I force myself to work through a lack of inspiration, not only is it excruciating, but I always end up having to redo the work anyway because it’ll invariably be terrible. So I never try to force it unless I’m on a deadline.

A: That makes a lot of sense, I try to give myself enough time so that I also have the freedom to say, “no, now is not the time to make the best content.”

How much planning goes in to writing before you actually write a sentence? Or do you just let the words flow and do heavy editing later?

ECD: I put a LOT of thought into the plot and theme and structure of a story before I start writing dialog. When it comes time to write dialog, I first just hammer out garbage—most of the time I’m not even writing complete sentences, but just jotting down ideas as I run through the back and forth of a conversation. It only starts to read like dialog after a few heavy editing passes. If I put any amount of pressure on myself to put a perfect sentence after a blinking cursor, I would never get anything done.

How do you handle criticism or negative feedback on your writing?

ECD: I don’t know why, but at this stage of my career, I LOVE negative reviews. With my last book, BTTM FDRS, especially, because it was designed to provoke. When people post a 1-star review on Goodreads and talk about how the book was a waste of paper, I know I got to them, which was my goal. I think part of it is because, like a lot of people, I write stories for myself before anyone else. I don’t put something out unless I love it myself. So if someone else doesn’t like it, that doesn’t really bother me because I know I have pretty particular tastes.

A: Well now I’m definitely curious about your other book! Readers can get a copy through the affiliate link here: BTTM FDRS

Do you have any tips and tricks for aspiring writers?

ECD: Being creative requires a balance of input and output. If all I ever did was work, what kind of life experiences am I drawing from to inform my stories and characters? You have to get out of your comfort zone and experience life, and not just to like go hiking or whatever, but to make mistakes, get into arguments, say embarrassing things at parties… Embrace regret! I think exercise is also a really valuable thing that creatives often disregard. But there’s no other way to build the stamina and energy to work for long hours without your brain turning to mush.

A: Embrace regret may be some of the best advice I’ve ever heard!

Questions about Reading

Do you think it’s necessary for a good author to also be a prolific reader?

ECD: Absolutely. You can tell when a writer doesn’t read much because they’ll write something really unoriginal as if they’re the first person to ever think of it. I know I’m guilty of that sometimes, though—I definitely don’t read as much as I should, especially when it comes to sci-fi novels.

A: I suggest Kludged Singularity as one of the best sci fi novels I’ve read this year.

How do you find time to read?

ECD: I don’t find nearly enough time to. When I’m on a project, I always feel like any time I spend with words needs to be me writing them. It seems like the only books I’ve read in the past year have been books I was asked to blurb. I’ve been reading a lot of teleplays lately, though.

Does reading give you inspiration for writing? If so what books have inspired you?

ECD: There are definitely a few formative books in my reading history that I think about constantly. Olaf Stapeldon’s Odd John, George Schuyler’s Black No More, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven are all huge influences that I think you can see really clearly in my work.

A: Great list! I wrote a review of Geek Love in the early days of my site. It’s the book that taught me I can still be shocked by a novel. There is always room for authors willing to push all of the boundaries.

Who’s an author that you think is criminally under-read?

ECD: Stapledon and Schuyler are both well known in certain circles, but they’re never included in lists of the all time great sci-fi writers. The breadth of Stapledon’s imagination is astounding. Schuyler was a Harlem Renaissance-era pre-Afrofuturist sci-fi writer who was also just a brutal satirist. He’s a huge influence on the stuff I’m working on now.

What’s a book from your childhood that holds a special place in your heart?

ECD: The first book I remember getting really obsessed with was a book called Very Special People, which was a book of biographies of the most famous circus sideshow attractions, from Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man” to Robert Wadlow, once the tallest man on earth (who my grandfather actually met!). I remember it being a really humanistic and nuanced series of portraits of people who were typically vilified or portrayed as monsters in popular culture.

Questions about Your Book

Are any of the characters in Upgrade Soul based on people in your life?

ECD: I definitely use real life people as a crutch to create realistic characters. Hank and Molly in Upgrade Soul are based on my grandparents.

What was the initial idea for Upgrade Soul like? Did it start with the philosophy or the science fiction story first for example?

ECD: I started Upgrade Soul by trying to come up with the scariest story I could imagine. At the time, I’d just moved away from my hometown, where I was kind of a golden boy artist and athlete, to go to art school in a much bigger city. I was suddenly confronted with people who were better than me at everything I defined myself as being the best at, and that was terrifying to me. I wanted to capture that fear of obsolescence, and it occurred to me that it was comparable to what my grandparents were going through as they settled into retirement. So it kind of became a love letter to them. I worked on the book for 15 years off and on, and every time I came back to it, I would layer on my new life experiences and discoveries and themes I was interested in.

A: That must be how such a futuristic concept feels so relatable. I experienced the same thing going from my very small high school to college and then the real world.

As both the writer and illustrator of Upgrade Soul were you able to fully realize what you wanted to put onto the page? Were there times when a visual idea for an illustration would affect the planned story or vice versa?

ECD: I created Upgrade Soul completely independently, meaning I wasn’t working with a publisher or editor—which meant I could absolutely do whatever I wanted. And I never had a deadline, for better or worse, so if I came up with a better idea for something I’d already drawn, I would just redo it. But like I said, the plot was very tight before I wrote any dialog, and the script was all but unmovable by the time I started drawing it. But I do tend to think visually, so there were a lot of visual ideas built into the script.

The book shines a rather harsh light on what it means to be considered human in today’s society and how a lot of that has to do with looking “appropriate.” Do you think that in an ever more digitalized world that people are becoming more or less accepting of people who look differently than they do? Maybe even not needing to see a physical form to develop a relationship and feelings?

ECD: That’s an interesting point. I think one really positive thing about social media is that it’s given everyone a platform to express their own unique styles and unique beauty. Sure there’re the mainstream influencers who conform to the same aesthetics that’ve dominated pop culture for decades, but there’s also a lot of pride and self-acceptance from people who don’t adhere to “traditional”, cis, or ableist beauty standards. I think largely because it’s easier now to find people to reinforce your confidence and validate your aesthetic identity.

The book also highlights the importance of ethics in a laboratory setting, especially when dealing with human subjects. Can you think of a hypothetical scenario in which it would be allowable to forego informed consent in order to further advance scientific knowledge as a whole?

ECD: That’s a tough one. I think ethical breaches are almost always the result of ego or greed, not altruism. I think the case of Henrietta Lacks is a great example. Her cells, harvested and reproduced against her will, helped save countless lives. But the ethical breach of not informing her about what they were doing (or paying her) had nothing to do with the scientist’s desire to help people. It was ego, greed, and a racist underestimation of Mrs. Lacks’ intelligence. If the doctors had fully informed Mrs. Lacks and she refused, would they have been justified in taking them anyway? Honestly, I don’t know. So much of this scenario also has to do with the context of the historical abuse and exploitation of Black Americans, too. If Henrietta Lacks was a wealthy white socialite who refused to donate her cells because she didn’t want to help poor Black people or something, then I would have a much easier time justifying the forceful extraction of those cells, to be honest. There’s also the context of success. Meaning, if someone crosses a line and it results in success, that ethical breach will more likely be considered acceptable in retrospect. Maybe even bold. But if someone gets hurt, that exact same breach might be looked back on as a crime.

A: Very good example. I agree that motive seems to be the main decider of if someone is going to cut those corners or not. If they want to do everything right for the right reasons they are much more likely to find an ethical way to do it. Unethical laboratory behavior likely stems for unethical motives.

Bonus question! The age old dilemma that we’re all eager to weigh in on. You meet your own clone. Do you fight them or fuck them?

ECD: Hahaha are those my only two choices??? If I had to choose, I would probably fight him. I’ve never been in a real fist fight, and I imagine fighting myself would feel really cathartic. Plus, I don’t think I could ever be sexually attracted to myself. Nobody knows more about how gross I am than I do.

A: Hahaha good points. I think I’m going to start asking all authors this question even if their book has nothing to do with clones.

Questions about You/ Just for Fun

What is something mundane that doesn’t seem to bother most people but drives you absolutely insane?

ECD: Getting my foot caught in my underwear hole. It fills me with rage, and it happens almost every day. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.

A: I think that only ever happens to me if I’m putting on fashionably ripped jeans. I have to be very cautious or I’ll rip the hole much larger than is fashionable.

What’s the best trip you’ve ever taken?

ECD: I went on a book tour for my first self published graphic novel, when I was 22 or 23. I basically lived on Amtrak trains for a month and explored almost every major city in the US. I made so many friends and had so much fun. It was very formative.

A: That sounds incredible!

What’s your favorite present you’ve ever received?

ECD: Farel Dalrymple sent me a sketch of Hank and Henry from Upgrade Soul. That was pretty amazing. Farel is one of my all-time favorite illustrators, and I don’t even know him that well, so to get that was a really humbling surprise. I don’t want to say it’s better than any present I ever received from my mom or my girlfriend, but it’s relevant to the discussion haha.

If a stranger wanted to win you over, how would they start the conversation?

ECD: I’m always down to talk about the superiority of Star Trek over Star Wars.

A: Strongly agree.

What’s something you would scream at your younger self until you were sure they heard you?

ECD: I wouldn’t want to give myself any advice. All the insecurity I felt and all the mistakes and failures I experienced have added up to a person I’m really happy to be.

Where Can People Find You?

ECD: I’m on FB, IG, and Twitter @ezracdaniels

A: Thank you so much for participating in this interview. Readers please go read Upgrade Soul, it’s a phenomenal sci fi graphic novel that will blow you away!

I love comic books, nonfiction, and everything in between! Come discuss your favorites!

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