Over the course of a long, circuitous journey from lawyer to cartoonist, Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis found inspiration and support from colleagues like Peanuts’ Charles Schulz, Dilbert’s Scott Adams and Get Fuzzy’s Darby Conley. So when it came time for Pastis to create his first illustrated book for young readers, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, it made sense that he would turn to the most famous name in that genre: Diary of a Wimpy Kid creator Jeff Kinney.
“[Jeff] … gave me a few tips,” Pastis says by phone at the start of a book tour that will bring him to Salt Lake City March 7. “One of them was deceptively simple: Just focus on being funny. The foundation for him is the jokes … so I took from him the notion that you just want to make each chapter funny. It has to carry the plot, but, primarily, it has to be funny.”
There’s plenty that’s funny in the story of the titular grade-schooler, who fancies himself a great detective but generally has trouble deciphering even rudimentary clues—as when a search for a schoolmate’s missing Halloween candy leads him to the kid’s chocolate-smeared younger brother Gabe, from which he merely deduces “Gabe: not tidy.” With the help of his pet polar bear, Total—his partner in Total Failure, Inc.—Timmy tries to solve crimes, including recovering his mother’s stolen Segway that he “borrowed” without asking.
Pastis acknowledges that another celebrated comic strip—Calvin & Hobbes—likely had an influence on the creation of his teacher-and-parent-infuriating only-child hero. But he also credits his own childhood, growing up with two sisters who were 10 years older, “so, effectively, I was raised alone,” he says. “As an only child, you spend a lot of time in your own head, creating your own realities, and that’s what Timmy does.
While Pastis took some cues from the Wimpy Kid books in terms of humor and basic design, he approached Timmy Failure from the standpoint of a more traditional novel’s storytelling structure. But that did require some trial and error in terms of figuring out how to write while integrating illustrations. “[Initially] I’d write the chapter without illustrations, finish the chapter, then go and illustrate; if you saw my draft to that point, you’d see ‘words words words words words,’ parentheses, ‘Timmy in laundry hamper looking to left,’” Pastis says. “And sometimes I’d lose the spontaneity of what I really wanted him to do.
“So, in other chapters, I would literally stop writing, then go and draw, then come back and keep writing,” he continues. “But then you lose the narrative. So it was a tricky balance.”
Pastis also took a chance on introducing some possibly surprising real-world elements into Timmy’s life. His single mother faces financial problems when her work hours are cut, eventually requiring them to move to a smaller apartment; Timmy also struggles to accept his mother’s new boyfriend. “I don’t think I went too heavy,” Pastis says. “I think the boyfriend, that’s something a lot of kids have familiarity with. … I think certain kids will be able to relate to that. Then you can’t just dismiss it as silly. It gives [Timmy] a little more dimension. And I like that.”
Pastis likes Timmy enough that a second book is already completed, with ideas accumulating for a third. Pastis also hopes to continue working on screenplays—whether for a possible Timmy Failure or Pearls Before Swine adaptation, or original material—a new writing direction that has already included writing the new 2011 Peanuts special Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown. Juggling his various projects has required him to set a very specific schedule, writing eight to 10 Pearls strips a week for 43 weeks a year and taking the remaining time to tour and work on Timmy books. During that time, Pastis says, “I was not conscious of Pearls at all … because if you go back and forth—a little Timmy in the morning, then Pearls in the afternoon, then start Timmy again the next day—you lose the flow of the narrative, I think. It takes too long to get back into that head space.”
For now, then, Timmy Failure looks to be a long-term part of Pastis’ career plans—despite a comment he wrote in one Pearls Before Swine treasury that “if I name a character Timmy, he’s probably going to end up dead.” Pastis recalled that with a laugh, saying, “After I wrote [the first Timmy Failure book], I had to go back and look at that commentary from the treasury, because I’m writing the next [treasury commentary] and I like to be familiar with what I’ve said; it was the first time I saw that since I wrote Timmy, and I thought, ‘That’s gonna come back to haunt me.’
“So no, there are no plans for Timmy to die,” Pastis says. “That would really bring real-world stuff into the books.”