Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

unspoken stories

An Interview with mariko tamaki


Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl

Mariko Tamaki is the writer behind the graphic novels SkimEmiko Superstar, and 2015 Caldecott Honor book This One Summeras well as the novels Cover Me(You) Set Me on FireSaving Montgomery Sole, among other works. She wrote the miniseries Supergirl: Being Super for DC and She-Hulk for Marvel, and is at work on a series of novels based on the Lumberjanes series. Find her online at @marikotamaki and at

TMR:  Your work often focuses on adolescent characters in pivotal moments of their lives, exploring their responses to the changes around and within them. What is the appeal to writing for and about youth?

MT:  I think at first adolescence was something that was just really potent for me. Possibly because my own high school experience was really intense. I feel like everything that happened to me in high school happened with a significant amount of strife. There was nothing that went down in high school that was easy or easily understood for me. And as a result I've spent a significant amount of time deciphering that time. At some point I'll probably move on to my twenties, which were also pretty weird.

TMR:  Is getting into that empathetic-to-adolescence mindset ever difficult?

MT:  I think you have to put yourself in that place. Which for me has never been all that difficult. Sometimes when I'm stuck I'll listen to NIN or The B-52's, then I'm back.

TMR:   As a queer woman who's written queer stories in your own novels, who is now working in the realm of shared universe comics, what sort of messages did you intend to send within your She-Hulk and Supergirl work? 

MT:  I approach writing comics the same way I've always approached writing graphic novels or novels. I want the story to feel honest. I want it to be true to the emotional life of whomever I'm writing about. I want the details to feel real. I want there to be details (which I am incredibly fortunate to work with illustrators who have provided and written those details into their artwork so fabulously).

I want the story to feel honest. I want it to be true to the emotional life of whomever I'm writing about. I want the details to feel real.

Of course, with mainstream comics there's another layer, which is this history that you are given along with the character, of past battles and triumphs and so on. And I enjoy the part of writing comics that is picking up those adventures, you know? I like writing about a superhero. I love the world, I love writing into that work. But it's still a story about a person, and I try to infuse that person's story with what I know about writing people. I want people to walk away analyzing all the little details and coming to their own conclusions. Which is what I do.

TMR:  One of Toni Morrison's great quotes is, "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." Would you say that you do this in writing? 

MT:  I'm sure part of my writing, especially in the beginning, was writing about queer stories and the queer characters, especially queer teen characters, that didn't exist when I was in high school. That said, I'm so thrilled by the people writing queer stories for teens now.

TMR:  In an interview with Comics Beat, you say, "I've decided to be the writer that I am no matter what property I'm working on." How did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

MT:  I mean, my origins are Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. I read that book and all I wanted to do was write about people in my notebook. And I did that for years. Plus poetry and some very unfortunate and overdramatic short stories. I was very lucky that I lived in a city where as a young writer (so Toronto in the 90's) there were so many venues for me to be a writer, to read my work (at its various stages of ok and good) to audiences. I grew up loving the best of Canadian literature (Munro and Findley) and having a space to become a writer. A space to flounder and get better.

TMR:  Many writers have stated that they write in order to process something, or to answer a question that's been within them. Why do you write?

MT:  I love writing. I love the act of it. I love the challenge of it. I love putting stories together. I love creating characters and writing their dialogue. I just do. I think in all that I am definitely, always, figuring stuff out. But I try not to think about that part of it.

TMR:  What is your draw to writing for graphic work? What is it about graphic novels and comics that you feel better helps you express the messages you're writing?

MT:  It's a very specific medium. On the one hand it's an opportunity to tell a story with someone else, which I really enjoy. On the other I think there's something about the ability to create a world without just words that I find really fascinating. There is something about the power of the unspoken, of the story the illustrator can tell without words combined with the story of the words, that I think is just very unique.

There is something about the power of the unspoken, of the story the illustrator can tell without words combined with the story of the words, that I think is just very unique.

TMR:  In that same interview with Comics Beat, you say that your teenage years "sucked." What were the books and other media that helped you get through them?

MT:  I want to say Jane Austen, but really, for a long time, it was just TV. I read a lot of trashy pulpy novels, like V.C. Andrews, and I watched crappy sitcoms: Golden Girls, Night Court, Roseanne eventually. Entertainment Tonight. At some point, around grade 10, I developed something like a sense of taste. I started reading Canadian Literature. I found Douglas Coupland. I discovered Alice Munro. I started going to Rocky Horror Picture Show. I fell in love with better movies, like Harold and Maude, I decided what movies were MY movies, you know? I became a nerd. Being a nerd was what really saved me. I'm so happy kids are becoming nerds earlier now.

TMR:  What inspired your 2016 novel Saving Montgomery Sole?

MT:  I had reread a bunch of older YA, specifically Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders, and I was so struck, with the latter, by the story of what it means to be part of this closely knit group, and also be an outsider, about what it means to exist in a world where you have to fight, daily, for something as basic as your existence, your safety. I had spent a few years in Toronto working for a LGBTQ parenting organization, and thinking about this new generation of kids growing up with queer parents, and what it's meant for kids who've had to deal with homophobia where homophobia connects, not to their own sexuality, but their families. And out of that just came this kid, Montgomery Sole, and it sort of went from there.

TMR:  Besides the supernatural powers that She-Hulk and Supergirl have, those comics and your own often focus on the small details of average human lives. What is the beauty of the ordinary, to you?

I love the perfection of people in this world. I love the details of how people express themselves, the little things people say over and over again without knowing it.

MT:  I think it's just something you either really dig or you don't really think about. I love the perfection of people in this world. I love the details of how people express themselves, the little things people say over and over again without knowing it. I love the randomness of it and the specific-ness of it to each person.

TMR:  What sort of fantasy do you delve into? What sort of fantasy do you think is most fitting for the state of the world right now?

MT:  I just finished watching The Leftovers, which is really a complex soliloquy on loss in the modern world. I mean, at some point, you had this whole Star Trek thing, that said, "Hey the world's a melting pot isn't it? And now we're going to go discover other planets. Amazing!" And now I feel like science fiction and fantasy is like, "Hey, the world we're living in is messed up, isn't it?" Maybe that's not fantasy, that's sci fi. I don't actually keep solid track of the genres I'm reading, I just get into whatever it is. I will say my favorite science fiction book as of late is Emily Schultz's The Blondes, which is just a fabulous book.

TMR:  While diversity in literature is expanding, the presence of characters with Asian heritage is still low. Bustle reports that only around 3.3% of characters in 2015's children's books had Asian heritage. What is the importance of representation, to you?

MT:  I'm an Asian person, so I am interested, without a doubt, in seeing Asian characters and Asian people playing Asian characters. I think that is a good thing, if only because we can shift away from a singular way of visualizing a leading character. I go to Comic Con, and I see this diversity of people in cosplay, and I think, yes, why can't this be reflected in films? This is awesome!

TMR:  Your upcoming project Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is "a story about being in love and it's a story about breaking up." Is there any personal experience influencing this?

MT:  I was so horrible at being in love when I was first in love. I mean, it was, NOT FUN. I was, I'm sure, not fun to be in love with and I was in love with a lot of people who were not great at being in relationships, because we were teenagers. I wanted to write a love story that got into all the messiness of learning to be in love, to be loving. I think there's a trope in queer and straight stories that suggests that the main goal is finding that person to be in love with, then the curtain falls and everyone just freezes in that first kiss. But really life is everything that happens after that, and that's sort of what Laura Dean is about.

TMR:  What other projects can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?

MT:  I am still working on a series of Middle Grade novels based on the Lumberjanes Series. The first one, Unicorn Power!, is out, and the second one, The Moon is Up, is being edited… right now. They're illustrated by the amazing Brooklyn Allen and they are so much fun to write. I'm working on another YA novel, and a few comic book projects that are TBA.