Dan Santat on “A First Time For Everything” | Interview
You probably know artist Dan Santat as a prolific author, illustrator and cartoonist whose works include the Caldecott-winning The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, Are We There Yet?, After The Fall, and last year’s graphic novel The Aquanaut. But there was a time when Dan was a socially awkward 13-year-old from a small town in California, a boy who hated anyone to see him drawing and who was once forced to endure the humiliation of reading a poem in front of a heckling audience consisting of his entire school.
Between being that boy and becoming that artist, Santat took a life-changing school trip to Europe the summer between junior high and high school. That trip is the subject of his newest book, a winning comics memoir and funny coming-of-age tale, A First Time For Everything.
It was during that trip that young Dan had his first cup of coffee, his first beer, his first cigarette, and his first Fanta, the last of which became something of an obsession of his while he was in Europe. He went to a nightclub for the first time and he stole a bike for the first time (but he had a good reason!). And, most importantly, he had his first love, his first kiss, and his first taste of heartbreak, having met Amy Glucksbringer from Illinois, one of the kids taking the trip with those from his class. (You begin to see where the title comes from, huh?)
While the great distance kept them apart, the real Dan and Amy became long-time pen pals after their trip, and the pair reconnected as adults on social media. Talking to Amy and his other friends on the trip, and using Amy’s journal, which she shared with him, Santat reconstructed the events of that 1989 summer into a graphic novel about opening one’s self up to the world and the experiences it offers.
We spoke to Santat about the process of creating A First Time For Everything, revisiting unhappy childhood memories, and how important new experiences are for young people.
Broadly speaking, how different was working on an autobiographical book like this versus
something more fictional and fantastical like, say, The Aquanaut?
Santat: They both have their advantages and disadvantages. Fiction is great, but there is a
large investment that you have to make with backstory and world-building that requires
a lot of attention for consistency. If you aren’t thorough then you end up with plot holes
and loose story threads. You can create characters in any manner you wish, which
means you can make them as noble or as awful and shallow as you wish.
On the other hand, you already have the information you need for an autobiography because you lived it. You were the main character. The problem I faced is actually weeding out
experiences that you need to trim out because they don’t serve the story. When you
examine everything in your life it all seems relevant to you so you try to include all of it
because you feel dedicated to tell the whole truth.
The other issue is to dismiss any bias you may have had about any other relevant people in your life. People and relationships can be complex and you should do your best to understand all facets of a person so you try to be honest with your reader and allow them to formulate their own opinions.
You mention in the material that follows the story that you changed the time in the trip that you snuck into Wimbledon and who you did it with, obviously because it makes for a more dramatic and more satisfying story. Was that a unique change, or did you find yourself tweaking other elements as you went along? Would you suggest readers approach this as a true story, or more of a based-on-a-true story sort of book?
Santat: I’d really like readers to approach this as a true story. The memorable moments I had
with folks were perhaps rearranged in a different order or they were experienced with
other people who didn’t make it into the book, but everything that happened actually
Sneaking into Wimbledon was a unique adjustment because it happened on
the second day of the trip and it was such an amazing moment that it was best to serve
that scene as a final act. If that moment was told the way it actually happened on the
second day of the trip then the rest of the story would have felt extremely underwhelming in comparison. As a result, that shift meant the entire London portion of the trip had to happen at the end.
There are other minor tweaks here and there to tie up the plot points of the story, but the rest of the trip from Paris and on pretty much fell into order. The most important thing is that the interactions and feelings I had are all completely authentic, especially my experiences with Amy.
After 34 years I feel like we both hold those memories preciously to our hearts and the last thing I wanted to do was sullen those memories by presenting a story that didn’t honor those feelings. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if the book left a sour feeling in her heart.
Can you tell us a little bit about the research phase of the book? You had your own pictures
and drawings from then, I take it, and you mentioned speaking with others that were on the trip with you. You were also in the position where you were drawing very real, very famous sites as you told the story. Even though you lived the trip, I take it the research for the book about it was fairly extensive?
Santat: I must admit that I took really lousy photos from the trip so almost eighty percent of it was pretty useless, but what I could decipher jogged a lot of memories that were tucked deep into my brain that stayed dormant for 34 years. The shocking part of all this was that when I
started interviewing other folks from the trip we all started to realize that I had the best
memory out of all of us. Folks from the trip were helpful in filling in the blanks in certain
parts of the trip by describing their own experiences which would in turn unlock something in my memories.
Ultimately, it was Amy who was the most helpful in terms of research. She had pictures of us that I had never seen before and the most useful primary source of information was her travel journal, which she kindly shared with me. I have to say, she was an extremely organized girl who kept track of the names of all the hotels we stayed at, what we ate, where we visited and even what the weather was like every day.
From there I would locate the spots on Google Maps and wander the streets of Europe using the street view feature. I was actually lucky to have snapped a photo of my home stay parent’s address and found the old place we stayed at for a week in Salzburg. I actually shed a tear over my keyboard when I saw it again.
What was the character design process like? Did you already have your version of young Dan in your head before you started by virtue of having been him, or did you have to hammer out your own version of you and your classmates?
Drawing myself felt natural. I’ve stared at myself in the mirror for over 47 years so I know all
the little quirks and facial expressions that I make when I feel a certain way. I had no problems
I have to admit that I took some liberties of simplifying the other kids on the trip
because I knew I’d be drawing them repeatedly for hundreds of pages so their design was
created with efficiency in mind. There were unique traits about each person that I would
highlight, and after drawing those same characters over and over again over a hundreds of
pages they also eventually became second nature.
What was it like revisiting the bad parts of that time in your life, like, for example, the scene
where you have to recite a poem in front of a rowdy student audience. Was it–I don’t want to say painful, but perhaps harrowing to discuss those sorts of things, or has time eased those feelings?
I came to terms with those painful moments years ago. As time went on each year was
easier once you got more distance from those moments, though I will say that I realized
I wasn’t completely free from it all once I started writing about it.
The beauty of writing about your pain is that you can control it. It’s painful to hyper-analyze every second and every detail of that moment, but it forces you to think from the perspective of others and provide answers for their actions. What you conclude may or may not be the actual truth but it gives you closure and peace of mind.
The thing that I realized when I was writing this book was that if those painful moments had never happened to me, I would have never gone on that trip to Europe, and I would have never written this book. If I had a time machine and could go back in time to prevent all those painful moments in my life from happening, the strange thing is that I actually wouldn’t change a thing. I would do it all over again because they made me into who I am today.
How’s that for self therapy?
We learn that young Dan wasn’t comfortable letting anyone see his drawings or watching him draw, which is interesting considering we know that he grew up to be a successful professional artist. When did you become comfortable enough in your art that you knew that it was something you wanted to do for a living, which obviously meant showing the world your work?
It was a process. A lot of the insecurity came from younger kids growing up around me
and having a very binary reaction to things. It was either the greatest thing ever or the
worst thing ever. Whenever something was off in one of my drawings another kid would
remind me that it was the worst thing they’d ever seen comparing it to professional
work, while also admitting they could never draw anything like it.
You also had your group of other artist kids who would size you up because they wanted to be known as “the best artist in school.”
To be clear, I think everyone had known at a certain point that I was one of the better artists growing up but I never let anyone watch me draw. I only let them see the end product. Something I could share on my own terms that I felt safe sharing because I made it as perfect as I could. I was more insecure about people watching me draw rather than seeing the end product.
My mom started entering my art at local county fairs and I would win ribbons and that gave me confidence, but there was something about the anonymity of not being around the art while it was being judged that made it seem okay. I think the evolution of my confidence came when kids around me slowly matured and learned empathy, but that wasn’t until later in high school when I was finally confident in sharing my work with only close friends.
Once I found my group of friends in college they would see my college notes and see how well I drew certain parts of cells. (I was a Microbiology major.) It was my college roommates who actually encouraged me to apply to art school in the first place.
These days, if you see me at a book festival or a school visit having to draw in front of everyone on a large pad of paper you’ll still see me look uneasy. It’s not nearly as bad as when I was a child, but I guess there are parts of your life that get hardwired into you over time.
You stress what a positive experience this trip was for you. I take it you would encourage
young people to travel if and when they get the chance?
I think everyone should go out to see the world, but I want to emphasize that travel isn’t
the sole message I want my readers to take away from the book. It’s really all about
trying new things and breaking out of your comfort zone. I understand that travel can be a privilege to most people these days so I don’t want to give the impression that travel is
the only way to free your mind. I just know from experience, that opening your heart to
the world and trying new things will make life more interesting. Trying a new ice cream
flavor could be that experience, or going off to college.
I think a big part of this cultural divide that we have in this country is this small town mindedness that you don’t need anything beyond the borders of your community. You defend those beliefs because you feel safe where you are and whatever deviates from your beliefs is considered “odd” or “wrong”.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the small town life, but you can’t
stand on your perch and judge others who have lived their lives from a different
perspective. I think that if you reach out to others with an open heart you’ll realize we’re
all much more the same than we realize. I think a person can get to a certain point in
your lives where even the most foreign places will feel new and exciting.
About five years ago I was lost in the jungles of Kauai for about eleven hours with my father-in-law and best friend. Our car was stuck in the mud and we had to hike our way out of a crazy
maze of muddy trails just to get back home. It was a miserable experience where by the
end we walked seventeen miles and were covered in mud and cuts and scratches in
Waimea Canyon, which we later discovered is one of the top five darkest places on Earth.
Around midnight, we took a water break and when we looked up into the night sky we
could see the Milky Way with our own eyes because it was so incredibly dark and clear.
It was from that moment I realized that despite being miserable for eleven hours I would
experience all of that all over again just to see those stars.
At that moment I felt fortunate just to be alive in this world. To see billions of stars and realize that we still haven’t encountered intelligent life. Don’t spend it sitting on your couch watching TV, or going to the ice cream parlor and ordering the same flavor over and over again. One life to live, so live your life to the fullest.
Have you been back to Europe since that trip?
I went back to London in 2019 to do research for the book. Our family was hoping to go
to Paris this year, but airfare to Europe is so expensive right now. I’m sure we’ll go
Can you talk about your next project at all yet? And have we seen the last of young Dan in
I’m in a transition, right now. I originally thought I was going to do another memoir, but
now I’m shifting gears to a middle grade project that involves urban legends in Los
Angeles and a silly picture book idea that has been floating around in my head for the
last few months. I have one more memoir in me, though. I just need an emotional break.
Do you still like Fanta?
Always and forever.
Filed under: Interviews
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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