An Interview with `Sentience’ Writer Elyse Russel

by Tom Smithyman

Launched earlier this month on Zoop, Sentience is about an android that is questioning her place in the world. Billed as a “light novel” with prose as well as comic art, Sentience is a 13-part story written by Elyse Russel and drawn by Dany Rivera. In this interview, Russel explains the concept of a light novel and why this particular tale needed to be told with female voices.

Tom Smithyman: You call Sentience a “light novel” which is a concept more popular in Japan than in the US. Can you explain what that means and why it’s the right format for this story?

Elyse Russel: We felt that Sentience would work well as a light novel, since I have a foot in both the comics and prose communities. It’s a fun format that isn’t yet popular in the U.S, and gives us the opportunity to innovate and please fans of both comics and books. For this particular story, you can have some really stunning visuals, with text wrapped around them. It’s both steampunk and dark fantasy, so why not have it be both prose and comic? It makes it a hybrid in more than one aspect. Even the main character is a hybrid of sorts. It all comes together…like clockwork!

Tom: Sentience feels like a familiar coming-of-age story of but set in a vastly different reality that combines science fiction, horror, steampunk and fantasy. What inspired you to tell the story of Kyra?

Elyse: At its core, Sentience is about forming your own sense of what is right and wrong, apart from what you were raised to believe. This felt like a very timely topic for me. A lot of people struggle nowadays with moral dissonance in their families, between generations. Obviously, I’ve taken that to an extreme here. And added some necromancy, just for fun.

Tom: This is a tale about a feminine android and her “mother,” written and drawn by two women. What kind of perspective are you able to bring to the story that we wouldn’t find if Kyra were created by men?

Elyse: It’s always been important to me to bring more female voices into comics, both on and behind the page. While I believe that people should be able to write characters who are different from themselves, the dynamics of women’s relationships are usually going to be more realistic when written by…well, women. And since there are only two male characters with speaking roles in Sentience, that’s a lot of female relationships that we can bring authenticity to: sisters, mothers and daughters, lovers, friends…and enemies.

Tom: You and Dany have said you felt like you were meant to work together. How did you meet each other, and what did your close working relationship add to the story?

Elyse: We messaged each other on two different websites within the same hour! I found her portfolio on Reddit, and she saw my post on Guru, describing my pitch. I sent her a message, and then a few minutes later, thought to check Guru, and there was a greeting from her in my inbox. We both just really loved each other’s ideas. From there, we found it very easy to communicate. We understand and feed off each other, exponentially increasing our creative output. We’ve become friends in addition to collaborators. We read books together, watch movies, send funny memes and gifs, and talk about our lives. Dany cracks me the hell up, and she’s immensely talented. I hope I get to work with her on many projects for many years to come.

Tom: What is the working relationship like between writer and artist when working on a book of this format? I imagine it’s different than a usual comic book.

Elyse: No matter the project we are working on, we’re very collaborative. We swap ideas for every panel. The majority of our communication happens on Discord, and we just message each other throughout the day with progress, tweaking things back and forth, improving upon the original idea until we feel it’s ready. I send her (awful) sketches, and she takes those basic outlines to make something truly beautiful (or terrifying).

Tom: You are crowdfunding Sentience through Zoop. Are you planning other distribution methods after that campaign?

Tim Stolinski (Band of Bards): For distribution of the Zoop campaign, Band of Bards will be doing a combination of self-distribution to the US. For all fans outside of the US, orders will be fulfilled by Buy Small Press. This is how we’re able to charge domestic US shipping for all orders. Since this is an American light novel and not a regular comic, we’ll also be using Ingram for printing and distribution services. This immediately gives us short- and long-term worldwide distribution. It also allows us to reach your regular independent and big box book stores and libraries. Band of Bards has applied to be a vendor with Diamond and is expecting to have a decision on this from Diamond by May 10th. Fingers crossed that by the end of the Sentience campaign we’ll also have distribution through Diamond, giving us three major distribution channels for this awesome book!



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