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Olivia Li (’21) tells us about her thesis story, ‘Teen Spirit’

What is your thesis story titled, what is it about, and what medium did you decide on?
Teen Spirit is a full-color coming-of-age graphic novel about three kids trying to figure out their place in the world while they also have to fight off the supernatural forces plaguing their town. There’s Lily, a budding medium who would rather befriend ghosts than her peers at school; Hana, the new kid in town who’s training in the family business of ghost-hunting and exorcism; and Gabe, a ghost who’s been bored hanging out in the local graveyard since his mysterious death thirteen years ago.

Tell us a little bit about the process of deciding on telling this story. Did you always want it to be told in this medium?

I actually came up with the proto-version of this story years ago, back when I was making my first foray into comics in 2014. I was working on the first issue, which was an emotional little murder mystery, when I ended up getting completely derailed collaborating with a friend on another project (Good Morning, Gorgon!). I’ve always wanted to come back to these kids and their adventures, and I’m glad I’ve been able to return to their story after the way my comics-making has grown over the years.

What theme(s) do you want people to connect with?

I’m a big big fan of coming-of-age stories, and I believe that if you’re living your life right, centered on growth, you’ll be “coming of age” your entire life. Lily, Hana, and Gabe are at the more conventional age for this kind of story, being juniors in high school (although in Gabe’s case, he’s been a junior in high school for over a decade). And they’re all coming from different different to the same place, and a big part of their story is how their worldviews expand and their possibilities for the future open up once they let these new perspectives into their lives, and I think it’s really important, no matter what age you are, to be open to change and growth in that way.

After graduation, how would you like the thesis story to help your career?

My actual deliverable for thesis year was a pitch packet for Teen Spirit, which I am now querying around to agents. I would love for Teen Spirit to be picked up by a publisher, and become my first published full-length graphic novel!

Do you think you would have told this story if you’d never attended MFA Visual Narrative?

Yes, because I always wanted to return to it eventually, but I don’t think it would have been as good.

How did your mentor help you in the creation of the story?

Steenz’s support was invaluable to me through this process! She walked me through the whole process, pushing me through my pain points (biggest: that part between having a good concept and producing the script, where you have to outline everything in detail that helps an outsider see what you’re doing) and talking me through my insecurities. I feel like I can undergo this process with my next story pitch by myself now, thanks to the tools and frameworks I built by working with Steenz. I love you Steenz <3

What tools did you use to create the story?

This was my first time using Clip Studio Paint! It’s a little heavier than the other programs I’ve used to draw on my iPad, since it’s basically a full computer app translated onto the iPad, but with that come the benefits of a complex computer app. My favorite things I’ve used so far are actually the lettering tools, I’m used to hand-drawing bubbles because I want more organic shapes than a sterile oval, but the “curve” word balloon tool lets me place spline points to shape the bubble how I want without having to painstakingly ink it myself. Also, I need to shout out my beloved and phenomenal colorist Hailey Thurrott (haileythurrott.com), who is one of my dearest friends and whose color work always boosts my drawing to the NEXT LEVEL. I love drawing and inking but I’m very insecure with coloring, so I really do need to give her a lot of credit for everything she does for me.

If you could show your thesis story to ONLY one person, who would that be, and why?

I wish I could give this book to my high school self, honestly. I often say that this book is about and for “rock-kicking teens” (rock-kicking teen, noun: A teenager at that point in life where you’re told you’re supposed to be figuring out your entire future, which ties your stomach up in anxious knots, so instead you try not to think about it and just bum around kicking rocks), of which I was one. I was a lot like Lily at the beginning of the story, and I never would have been able to imagine the person I am today. Since I can’t give this book to teen-Olivia, I’m giving it to all the kids like her.

Anything else you’d like people to know about you and your story?

Teen Spirit, coming [date TBD] from [publisher TBD], but definitely look for it on bookshelves everywhere, I dunno, several years from now!! It’s gonna happen, we’re manifesting success!!! Agents and publishers, hit me up! (now please imagine me making a hand-phone next to my head and looking at you and winking)

Thanks for talking to us, Olivia! You can follow Olivia on Instagram and Twitter