Author Interview: Alan Hesse

About Alan J Hesse
  1. Name, please!

Alan J. Hesse

  1. We’ll skip the “tell us about yourself” because coming up with something on the spot is, truly, the bane of an author’s existence. So, let’s start with something a little easier! Tell me what you’re working on at the moment.

I’m working on a lot of different things, but I guess my main activity is to finish the 4th book in my educational comic book series about climate change and the environmental crisis. I’m also spending a lot of time promoting and marketing all my books, and always learning through webinars, courses, etc.

  1. In as much detail as you would like, tell me about your book(s) that are already out/on the way.

I write and illustrate educational comic books, all with an environmental theme and usually with a message about getting involved and taking better care of nature. It all started about 10 years ago when I was still active as a field biologist living in eastern Bolivia, which corresponds to the southern Amazon basin. One of my mentors, friends and colleagues is a renown ecologist called Louise Emmons. She was doing a lot of research in my neck of the woods and I was always involved. Louise was a big fan of my cartoons, and we decided to write up her research as a comic book. She wrote the stories and I did the artwork. This led to my self-publishing my first comic book, Fables of the Amazon, which is a book of short stories as comic strips, all with an ecology lesson drawn from Louise’s own research, and some from my own. Years later I got my foot in the door for a consultancy with the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos Islands, and one of the products was my second comic book, all about Darwin and his legacy. I didn’t get back to being an author until about 7 years later, when my publisher asked me to do a comic book about climate change. This was a subject that was not yet mainstream at the time, it was about 2015, and I was myself facing a challenge in my conservation job trying to understand climate change, so I jumped at the chance to create a comic about it. With a full-time job and family life, it took me about 3 years to finish that book, an 88 page comic. I did all the research first, and that took months because it involved consulting experts, interviewing them, reading papers, trawling the news and a whole lot more. It was finally published in December 2018, and I’ve been promoting and marketing it ever since. Around mid-2019 I converted the paperback book to 3 ebooks, thus making a series. Just getting it from paperback to ebook was in itself a huge challenge and I learned a lot in the process. The book is all about climate change obviously, as seen through the eyes of the main character, Captain Polo, aka Polo the bear. Polo is an anthropomorphic polar bear with a gift for human languages, sailing and use of cash. These skills enable him to get around the world and meet many colourful human and non-human characters who range from Colombian guerrilla fighters to the Yeti! All have a story to tell that relates to the global environmental and climate crisis, and in this way Polo gradually teaches the reader more and more about the various ways global warming is impacting all life on Earth. The book also covers many climate solutions that are already underway, thus giving a sense of hope and positivity. It ends with Polo’s climate classroom, where the reader is taken through a glossary of technical terms and a somewhat deeper explanation of the more technical aspects of climate change, in illustrated prose rather than comic strip format. Book 4 that I am now working on is the sequel to this story, and sees Polo once again globe-trotting to different countries. This book has an even more playful feel to it, since I am inserting fictional characters and sequences for pure fun, that have nothing to do with anything technical or serious. For example Polo gets mixed up with a Russian nuclear sub, and spends half the book escaping from a crazy fisherman and his motley crew of ruffians. This book will be produced in two editions: one in full colour as usual, and one in black and white as a colouring book.

  1. As far as the writing process goes—including such things as conception of idea all the way through to money in the bank—what is the least favourite bit? (Everyone has one!)

Marketing! This is an area that does not come naturally to me, and I found by bitter experience that I actually do have to do it myself; not even my publisher does it, which is why I have actually terminated my agreement with them. I am now 100% self-published, and I have no choice but to learn how to market my books.

  1. Conversely, what is the bit of the writing process that gets your writery brain grinning?

I love researching my locations and settings, which I do using Google images. It’s like travelling around the world right in my office.

  1. If you could steal any author’s ability to improve your own work, who would you steal from and why? (e.g. Tolkien’s language skills, Douglas Adams’ humour, etc.)

I would steal Albert Uderzo’s artistic ability (he was the illustrator of the Asterix comics, which are legendary in Europe and many parts of the world, if not in the US), and the textual wit of Goscinny, Uderzo’s script writer and co-creator of Asterix. I would also steal Hergé’s, creator of Tintin, story-crafting genius. Lastly I would steal the marketing savviness of Dav Pilkey, the creator of the cartoon Captain Underpants and Dog Man books that are always topping the best seller charts in Amazon.

  1. Now for some fun! The main character of the book you’re working on (or have recently finished) has kidnapped you for ruining their life. How will you explain that what you’re doing is for the best?

In my case this would mean that I’ve been kidnapped by Captain Polo the polar bear. The only way I would have ruined his life is either by setting him up to be a globe-trotting hero whose books don’t sell, or by coaxing him out of his traditional existence hunting seals in the Arctic. I would plead to him that my intention was only ever to draw him out of his harsh existence in a melting Arctic with ever fewer things to hunt (this is a climate-related reality) to actually transform him into a messenger for positive climate action, make him a celebrity and set him up so that he will always have as many seals to eat as he wants!

  1. You, your main character(s), and the protagonist of the last book you read are playing poker. What are the stakes? Who will win and why?

So I’m playing poker with Captain Polo, his arch enemies Conor O Connor the crazy fisherman, Tex Greadyman the oil tycoon (a character from my next book), and Marine Private Riley from Jeff Shaara’s The Frozen Hours. The stakes are my career as an author versus Polo’s precious cap, Conor’s old tub of a fishing boat, Greadyman’s 250 million dollar yacht, and Riley’s combat boots. Naturally I will win because I’m the one who made this whole poker game up, and therefore I can do whatever I want!

  1. Let’s face it, writing is hard. What do you think are some traps to avoid in your particular area of expertise? (Whether that be your genre, your knowledge of plot, your character building, your world building, etc.)

A big challenge I face is getting that equation right between education and entertainment. Because I write educational comic books that also need to be fun to read, this is something of a pet subject of mine. My comics have to be great to read, full of action, humour, adventure. But they also have to deliver their message, achieve their higher purpose, without overloading the speech bubbles. Large speech bubbles take up space, and so the more text the less cartoon graphic artwork is visible. How do you explain something as complex as climate finance or the relationship between climate and war refugees to 9 year olds in a comic book without losing all sense of fun? I also struggle to define my genre, and indeed my audience. Many adults who have read my books find them hilarious, as well as informative. Most kids nowadays don’t read at all if they can avoid it. Yet comic books like the ones I make are traditionally classed as children’s books. Another trap I often fall into is stereotype. Humour is by definition the use of stereotype, in my opinion. All the stand-up comedians use it heavily. Look at Monty Python, dated yes, but nevertheless heavily oriented to using stereotypes. I get a lot of flak for this, but as I always explain, if I make use of cultural stereotypes I’m not doing it to make fun of anyone in particular; everyone gets hammered, and in any case this use of stereotypes for me is actually a celebration of diversity.

  1. Anything else you’d like to add? Plots to take over the world, for example. Upcoming release dates, links and things, maybe even your favourite chocolate cake recipe.

My Captain Polo character also stars in related books and products, like my climate change calendar, and my short picture book stories and activity books about Halloween and Christmas, all of which feature Polo and have a climate message. I’ll probably soon start making Polo merchandise as well. Another thing to note is that I had to change Polo’s name, which risks causing confusion. At first he was Polo the Bear, but then I found out that the clothing company Ralph Lauren have a product, a teddy bear, called Polo Bear. To avoid potential problems down the line I changed my character’s name to Captain Polo. I hope that will do the trick, but it’s very annoying to have to do that kind of thing.

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