An Interview with CJ Pendragon, Writer of GRANNY GOLEM
If you're a member of the indie comics community, you may have heard of CJ Pendragon. Pendragon is a busy, talented woman who wears many hats, which you'll find out in just a minute. We sat down with her to talk about writing comics, running Kickstarters, and finding time to do EVERYTHING.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Hey, CJ, thanks so much for sitting down with us.
So, first and foremost, tell us about yourself: Who are you? What do you do? What did you contribute on this project?
CJ PENDRAGON: My name is CJ Pendragon and I’m a wife, a mother, a student and a writer. I am also the creator and writer behind GRANNY GOLEM, the comic series I’m working on with Brian Middleton Jr., as well as several other works in progress.
I am also the owner and co-founder of Sirens of Sequentials, a comic book review site, and the host of The (comic) Strip Club, an indie comic podcast.
CBY: In the comic, Jewish folklore plays a major role, brought to life in “Granny Golem’s” titular character. Could you give us an idea of what elements or stories that really inspired the project? You’ve spoken before about being a Christian, but did you grow up Jewish?
PENDRAGON: Absolutely! I did not grow up Jewish, or even Christian, truth be told. I had a pretty faith-free childhood and eventually found myself a teenager who toed the line between atheism and agnostic. I felt like there was something there but I wasn’t sure what it was or if I could reconcile my personal experiences and dreams with a greater force than my own will. I converted to Christianity in my early 20s.
The story for GRANNY GOLEM was born of an idea my husband shared with me about a little girl bringing a golem to life using the ashes of her deceased grandmother. I tried my hand at a prose story and ended up with my first comic script.
I dug into the lore of golems and found myself fascinated by what I found in Judaism. I loved the idea of these creatures being brought to life as protectors and companions for their masters. I knew I wanted to use the Judaism lore as the basis for my golem pretty quickly. It reminded me of that childhood rite of burying your fears and wishes in the backyard in an old shoebox, so I decided to intertwine the two together to create a golem that was meant to provide guidance to the creator, especially since the golem is meant to be powered by the life force of the grandmother. Of course, using the Jewish lore for the golem meant I had to weave Judaism into the entire story – my main character, Ariela, grows up celebrating Hannukah and has some Yiddish spread throughout her vocabulary.
CBY: I’ve seen you talk a lot about this project on Twitter (and I was a backer!) and it seems like there’s a lot in it that’s really personal to you. Could you give us a little insight as to where the comic intersects with your own personal story?
PENDRAGON: Yeah, GRANNY GOLEM is actually deeply personal to me. I poured a lot of myself into the script and it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions to put into words.
My parents divorced when I was little, and having been a complete and total daddy’s girl, I was devastated. I spent a lot of time blaming myself and struggling with the new emotions, the inconsistency of our visitation and the bitterness I encountered. It wasn’t too long after the divorce, when I was about 7 years old, when my father moved away. I lost complete contact with him for a decade and only found him again when I tracked him down. Up until recently, even, our contact has been mostly one-sided and sporadic.
I didn’t realize how greatly this impacted me growing up. It not only hurt as a little girl – it impacted my romantic relationships, it damaged my relationship with my remaining family and carried significant weight into my own parenting. The abandonment and feeling of betrayal played a major role in my own substance abuse, my history of self-harm and my angry, rebellious behavior as a kid.
When I wrote Ariela, it was like ripping a band-aid off of a festering wound. I was able to dig up all of that resentment and anger and hurt and self-loathing and confusion and mold it into a little girl who was dealing with similar issues. One of her parents, too, has a substance abuse problem. One of hers leaves her behind. She’s surrounded by a shattered family that had always been broken and no clue where to go from there. So when she’s taken to a new home with new people, she reacts the way any child would: defiant and angry. Unable to forgive and move on. Despite the minor differences of our situations, and my lack of magical beings, unfortunately, Ariela is very much just me when I was a kid.
And her experience of a volatile divorce and neglectful parents and her inability to cope with all of it is very much the story of a lot of children across the world, especially in America.
CBY: When you approach “Granny Golem” as a writer, what do you say its about? What, to you, is its main message?
PENDRAGON: GRANNY GOLEM is hands-down about moving on and letting go. I wrote the script to encompass a lot of feelings and struggles that we don’t talk about enough as a society but the largest themes of the story circles around being able to recognize when people are good or bad for you, even when it means seeing toxicity in a loved one, and loving yourself and forgiving other people for YOUR sake. Forgiveness, I think, is inherently selfish and that’s something I think is okay and an important lesson more people need to hear.
GRANNY GOLEM is going to teach readers that forgiveness is an important part of your personal healing, but that forgiveness doesn’t mean endless chances.
CBY: Tell us about your creative team on “Granny Golem.” How did you find them, how did you decide they were the right fit?
PENDRAGON: I love my team! I was incredibly lucky in finding my fellow creators for this project.
I put out a post on social media looking for people to take on the art and letters of GRANNY GOLEM and was swamped with an overwhelming amount of replies. People seemed to be pretty intrigued by the concept and it was really kind of daunting. But Brian, who has his own book out via Scout Comics, was an accident actually. While I was searching through portfolios, my husband stumbled across Brian and sent him to me. His work is perfect. It’s a very cute, clean style that works well for the fantasy aspects of the story. I love the simplistic coloring and Brian is a pro at adding in small details to the background that add extra characterization to the respective characters. He’s a fast worker and he does the letters himself – the project wouldn’t have turned out as good as it has without his commitment and talents.
I didn’t publicly search out editors but I asked Bob Salley to oversee that aspect of the comic. I knew he did editing but wasn’t really aware of anything he HAD edited. I was confident in his skills as an editor because of his skills as a writer; he provides thoughtful feedback, answers questions and has been a tremendous help to me. Bob helped shape the current version of GRANNY GOLEM into a more simplistic, equally powerful story and gave me the tools I needed to create a script that will appeal to a wider range of audience. His work with Source Point Press is very well-done and I’m really happy to have gotten assistance from another writer who receives such high praise for his own stories. It made the editing process easier for me, too. I, like a lot of creators, can struggle to accept someone’s criticisms but it helped knowing Bob was also looking at it as a writer, not just from a technical standpoint of storytelling. He listened to what I had envisioned and used some of his own personal life to guide me to better fits or adjustments when I was willing to concede.
The cover art is from Shawn Daley, another creator whose work I love. Shawn is also the artist behind the cover for my prose novel and on SAMURAI GRANDPA, which is one of my favorite comics ever. He has a beautiful range of artistic talent and made sure to get the exact sort of emotions and impact I wanted readers to associate GRANNY GOLEM with.
"Having big emotions is scary but it’s also okay. The anger, the confusion, the despair? Everything people tell children not to feel when their family falls apart because it’s not their fault? It’s okay to feel that. It’s okay to want to scream and cry and grieve. It’s okay to feel resentful. It doesn’t make you bad or ungrateful."
CBY: What was your favorite part of working on the book?
PENDRAGON: Ah, that’s tough!
I have done a lot of research for GRANNY GOLEM. Since I’m not Jewish, I did a lot of my own reading on the lore and the different cultural aspects of Judaism. You’ll see evidence of this sprinkled throughout the story to cement that Ariela grew up with an immigrant grandmother, her Bubbe, and had taken on some of those cultural influences herself. I spoke at length with several friends as consults, rabbis in my community and my own family. My step-family is Jewish and we participate in several celebrations with them throughout the year. I learned how they celebrated as children, the way their faith influences them as adults, how they viewed their parents as young kids and based the grandmother after my own Bubbe, who came to America as a newlywed and raised her children here. It was a ton of fun just immersing myself into a new culture and finding ways to pay homage to such a rich and beautiful history and the people I love.
CBY: Who would you say the audience for “Granny Golem” is?
PENDRAGON: It’s a bit corny to say it, but I truly believe this is a story most anyone can read. While I plan to market it towards middle-grade demographics, it does touch on heavier themes. We discuss substance abuse, child neglect, divorce, death, and mental illness. I think that for young kids, elementary age, it could be a very powerful tool for parents to share with them for open discussion. But I also think that these lessons about inner strength and family are applicable across the board regardless of age or situation.
CBY: Kickstarter is a tricky thing. As someone who’s relaunching this for Kickstarter after it didn’t meet its goal last year, what are the lessons you’ve learned? What’s something you’re going to do differently?
PENDRAGON: I was too ambitious with my first Kickstarter. I went into it with the mentality of my own backing preferences: I’ll shell out for a completed or larger section of a story that is rounded up nicely. The failure of the Kickstarter was hard for me to handle, but it was a great lesson. I had to fall back and regroup – what worked? What put readers off? What could I have done differently?
The reception was positive and I had several publishers express interest in the completed work. So I felt validated in my confidence in GRANNY GOLEM as a story. Brian’s work is incredible. My goal was simply too high. Kickstarter adds a hefty percentage onto your final goal as a platform fee and that jacked the end goal up super high.
I decided that with the relaunch, I would start smaller. We’re going to run a basic 24-page story to help both printing and artist fees. I am planning to pay for more of the rewards out of my own pocket while adding a few smaller rewards to help them be more appealing to backers. It did require a rewrite of some pages, as GRANNY GOLEM was not written to have a cliffhanger on page 24, but that just added a new challenge to me as a writer. It forced me to think outside the box to keep the level of emotional story-telling without sacrificing pacing. But in the end, I think GRANNY GOLEM’S integrity as a comic is still intact and that readers will appreciate the adjusted script a little more.
CBY: Is “Granny Golem” your first comic? It feels so ambitious! 44 pages in your first book, with two more planned after that. Does that ever feel daunting? What drives you to put out your first work with something that large? And how do you find the time, on top of writing prose, reviewing comics, homeschooling, and just…life?
PENDRAGON: Apparently, it was too ambitious! The length was just an awkward number – too short for an OGN and too long for a single issue. I think it made people wary and I have taken that into consideration, with advice from our editor, to shorten the length of each issue and extend the run itself. That said, I have the entire series laid-out and more than half of it written. I know where it’s going to go, how we end and most of the steps in how we’re going to get there. It’s a little daunting at times but I’m an all-or-nothing person when it comes to writing. If I hit the lottery and could self-fund, I’d put it out as an OGN. I prefer to read completed stories when I can, so I like to write the same way.
I wouldn’t say I "find the time" as much as I steal it? I have everything written on Google Docs, less out of preference and more out of convenience. I wrote most of the first script on my phone through the app. When I’m helping my son with his schoolwork, cooking dinner, waiting to pick my daughter up from school or lying down to put the baby to sleep, I can often reread what I’ve written or work from my phone. Since it syncs to my G-Mail, which is accessible from any device, it’s not really hard to get to. It can be tricky to get into a writing groove when there’s so much going on but most of the time I can get an hour or two after bedtime, depending on what that day was like, to get some writing in. I tend to hop between projects so as not to neglect any, but that doesn’t always work out. I also have a bad habit of just neglecting sleep and meals in order to work, but that’s something I’m working on.
"I learned a lot about myself writing GRANNY GOLEM, and for the first time in twenty years, felt my own wounds slow their bleeding a little bit. I took steps to remove toxic people from my life and mend bridges I burned because of those people. That’s an opportunity that I want everyone to have and the best way to do that is to give them the tools as soon as possible."
CBY: Lastly, could you give us something that you, personally, feel “Granny Golem” offers that other books don’t? What’s something that’s going to really stand out when people read it?
PENDRAGON: GRANNY GOLEM offers healing and hope. Its primary purpose is teaching young people going through hard times that having big emotions is scary but it’s also okay. The anger, the confusion, the despair? Everything people tell children not to feel when their family falls apart because it’s not their fault? It’s okay to feel that. It’s okay to want to scream and cry and grieve. It’s okay to feel resentful. It doesn’t make you bad or ungrateful. And in cases like Ariela’s, like mine, it’s okay to hate your parents a little bit too.
But ultimately, I really hope what stands out is the message that it’s okay to love people who are bad for you, but in order to heal, you have to let them go. Sometimes, the only way to heal yourself, to take away that pain, is to move on with that selfish forgiveness I mentioned earlier...
The story in GRANNY GOLEM is Ariela’s, but there’s more to that. It’s about her father learning about being a parent and her mother learning how to cope with her addictions and the people around her learning how to let healing and growth happen at an individual’s pace.
Adults always want to rush in and fix things. We want kids to be safe and secure and happy.
But GRANNY GOLEM is going to tell us that sometimes we need to allow a child the right to feel scared and unsure and sad. Because that’s where they’ll find their inner strength to stop their hurt from festering and ripping open over and over, and to let it heal into a smooth scar.
I learned a lot about myself writing GRANNY GOLEM, and for the first time in twenty years, felt my own wounds slow their bleeding a little bit. I took steps to remove toxic people from my life and mend bridges I burned because of those people. That’s an opportunity that I want everyone to have and the best way to do that is to give them the tools as soon as possible.
CBY: CJ, thanks so much for chatting with us about your comic. Tell us where people can find you, and when and where they can help crowdfund “Granny Golem.”
PENDRAGON: You can find me on Twitter and Instagram, both under the handles of @CJPENDRAGON! Granny Golem will be live on Kickstarter February 1, 2020, and I’ll be promoting it on my Twitter like crazy. I can also be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.