Ngozi Ukazu: comics, hockey, and pie

It is my distinct pleasure to have interviewed Ngozi Ukazu, author and illustrator of the first graphic novel to be nominated for the Morris Award. Check Please! Book 1: #HOCKEY is a charming, hilarious tale of hockey, pastry, and self-acceptance.

check please I’m not a hockey person, I admit; it’s my chief failing as a Canadian. If you’re not usually into “sports fiction” either, I would encourage you to set that preconception aside and give this a try. There’s a principle I try to live by: the best art in a genre I’m unfamiliar with is by definition better than the mediocre crap I’m willing to put up with from my comfort-zone genres. Here, that’s definitely true; the wit, charm, and humanity grabbed me right away, and never let go.

I even have my own hockey name now — Hearty! — thanks to this book, so you see I’ve come away a changed reader.

Anyway, that’s all preamble — you’re here for the interview! Without further ado, let’s turn this over to Ngozi, who is every bit as delightful as her book.

1) How would you sum up Check Please! for readers who haven’t heard of it yet — and especially readers who might be a little iffy about hockey?

Check, Please! is about hockey–but it’s also a slice-of-life, lgbtq, coming-of-age romance with found families, college friendships and baking. It’s like hockey is the fluffy crust of the Check, Please! pie, and the positive themes and fresh cartoony art style are the sweet filling.

2) I have to admit, I know nothing about hockey (despite being Canadian) and was pleasantly surprised by all the charm and humour. Your intro says you didn’t grow up with hockey either. What drew you to it, and what did you do to research the subject?

My interest in the sport began during my senior year at Yale, after I completed a screenplay about ice hockey which required an extensive amount of research. I was inspired to write about ice hockey after a Yale hockey player in my freshman German class made an off-hand, generalized, and very interesting comment about his team’s sexuality.

I’m a first-generation Nigerian woman–a black woman–and a Texan. These aren’t necessarily identities you would associate with ice hockey, admittedly. But the conservative, conforming, white, hyper-masculine environment of ice hockey was a fertile arena to tell a critical and quirky story about gender and sexuality.

I interviewed hockey players and the beat reporter for the Yale hockey team, watched movies and documentaries, and read ethnographies about hockey culture–and went to a TON many hockey games. I’ve always enjoyed sports and the intersections of sports and culture, and this very strange Canadian game has decades of history and tradition. By the time I was done with research I was so immersed that I was hooked. I was a hockey fan!

3) What’s your background in baking, and did you research that as well? (and do you need help disposing of the evidence?) My ONE disappointment was that Bitty keeps talking about recipes he’s posted, but here are no recipes in the book! Did the original webcomic have recipes? 

Alas! I can neither ice skate or bake! I have no pie-knowledge to back-up Bitty’s savant skills. 😦

4) This is the first graphic novel Morris nominee – overdue, in my opinion! – and your artwork is a big part of the book’s charm. It’s friendly and accessible, with a great eye for body language. Did you always draw? Can you tell us a bit about your techniques and processes? I assume it’s all done digitally? 

I was always interested in drawing, but didn’t take comics and art seriously until mid-way through college. After I realized I should havenever considered majoring in computer science, I pursued art more seriously and eventually enrolled in a sequential arts MFA program to learn how to create comics. I make  Check, Please! by (a) writing and thumb-nailing (sketching) out pages in a notebook, then (b) drawing the line work and coloring the pages in Photoshop, and finally (c) lettering the comic in InDesign. I would say 95% of Check, Please!: #Hockey was completed digitally. There are a few pages that I inked by hand.

In terms of style–I love being able to draw expressions and big eyes. Composition that focuses on faces and the upper-body lends itself to that. I often act out my character’s dialogue to get a good feel for how they should move.

5) Before it was a book, Check Please! was a webcomic, and I understand you ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign to self-publish collections of the strips. The Morris-nominated volume is published by First Second, and collects two years’ worth of strips. Can you tell us a bit about your publishing journey, the ups and downs, and the community you’ve built along the way? Do you go to comic cons? 

I launched  Check, Please! the summer after I graduated from college in 2013. It was originally going to be a mini-series–maybe 4 or 5 chapters–and I was using it to practice my draftsmanship and composition. But as the story unraveled and storylines emerged, I knew I needed illustrate Bitty’s freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years. While I was posting the comic online to Tumblr, I still remember getting my first piece of fanfiction and absolutely losing my mind–someone was thinking about this story after they finished reading it? And after a year of sharing the comic, I remember when I opened online orders for hand-crafted Check, Please zines that I would print out at Office Depot and staple by hand. They sold out instantly. The community had surged from dozens of people sharing fanfiction to groups of people around the world writing reviews of chapter updates and organizing Check, Please! fanfic drives and meetups.

In 2014, I printed out “samplers” of the webcomic and selling about one or two at a mini-comics convention. (I ended up giving most of these away for free.) But in 2015, I decided to self-publish Check, Please! and this initial Kickstarter raised over $74,000. If you had told me that by 2018, the cumulative amount raised across all Check, Please! Kickstarters would be well over $800,000–I would have called you nuts. But the enthusiasm the readers showed for these self-published versions is exactly what gave Macmillan and First Second the confidence to put Check, Please! in bookstores. (While letting the contents of the book remain online!)

6) OK, I lied, I have one other complaint! The two school years go by too fast. It’s an interesting choice — so many comics freeze time and no one gets any older. Where are our friends going from here, though? Is the next book two more years of college, or do you slow things down at some point? And what’s the plan after that – stick with Samwell hockey or follow Bitty out into the world? Or wrap it up and do something else entirely? Tell us whatever you can without spoiling!

The comic does jump around–and goes by extraordinarily fast. I was excited about the idea of Bitty living his life in real time (I was even tweeting as him at one point–which was a lot) and that meant drawing a year of his life over about one and half years of mine. The next book Check, Please!: Sticks & Scones slows down the pace a bit, but it does cram Bitty’s junior and senior years into a single book.

After that? I move on to a new series! Check Please will be over!

7) Lightning round!

a) Favourite writing/drawing beverage?  black coffee with a splash of almond milk

b) Favourite pie?  Apple

c) Comic we should all be reading?  Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak

d) Have you seen the Stanley Cup in person?  Never!

e) Most useful skill for the zombie apocalypse? Adaptability

Morris season is here again!

As per usual, the previous years’ Morris Award winners are going to be interviewing this year’s fine crop of nominees. My interview with Ngozi Ukazu, author and illustrator of Check Please! Book 1: #HOCKEY, goes up later today, and of course I’ll be posting links to all the others as they appear.

Congrats again to this year’s nominees!

April 21st: Come hear me sing!

Friends! Romans! Etc!

In less than two weeks, my madrigal choir – The QuasiModals – and I will be doing a joint reading/singing at McGill Library in Burnaby. It’s April 21st, from 1:30-2:30 pm. We’ve done two of these musical and literary extravaganzas before, and they’re my very favourite events to do.

This year, we’ll be singing three songs (one from each of my books) set to music by my friend Karen New, along with a couple of songs that served as inspiration for my most recent book, TESS OF THE ROAD.

Get more information and sign up HERE. The event is free, but the room only holds so many people (and we need to calculate how many snacks to have, haha).

Upcoming: DC, NoVa, Chicago

My Haverford event was cancelled, sadly, due to snow, which made me very sad. After a couple days lull, however, I am back on the pony cart again. Here’s what’s next:

Tonight, March 9th, come see me at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC. I’ll be doing a panel from 7-8 with Scott Reintgen, author of the YA SF thriller, Nyxia. Signing to follow.

Tomorrow, March 10th, I’ll be participating in a variety of panels and amusing author games at the NoVa Teen Book Fest at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington. Click on that link for more details on how to attend.

Sunday, March 11th, come see me at The Book Stall, 811 Elm St, Winnetka, IL, from 2-3:15pm. I’ll be in conversation with teen librarian and SLJ blogger Betsy Bird, followed by Q&A and a signing.

Monday, March 12th: Anderson’s Bookshop Downer’s Grove, 5112 Main St, Downer’s Grove, IL, 7-9pm. Come for a reading, Q&A, and signing.

After that, I’m off to Denver. I’ll update the blog again closer to those events.

Next: Utah!

Hey there, Utah friends! I’m in Salt Lake City now, resting up before a busy day of school visits tomorrow. I’ll also be doing some public events, of course, and I hope you’ll have time to come out and see me.

Tomorow, March 5th, 7-9pm, I’m doing a reading at The King’s English, 1511 South 1500 East, Salt Lake City.

Tuesday, March 6th, 7-9pm, come see me at Barnes & Noble, University Crossing Plaza, 330 East 1300 South, Orem.

Not in Utah? I’ll be in PA Wednesday night, and then I’m off to DC and VA over the weekend.

In other news, here’s a really nice review from Amal El-Mohtar at NPR Books.

Hello Seattle!

Good morning, darlings!

The last couple days have been a whirlwind of awesome. We had a super fun cake-tastic book launch at Kidsbooks in Vancouver on Tuesday, and then last night I came down to Seattle and did an event with Tamora Pierce and Lish McBride, which was packed to the rafters with rowdy, enthusiastic readers. The signing line was two miles long. As one of the more mildly-famous authors, I was able to get away after signing a mere hundred-thousand books; Tammy may still be signing, for all I know. Has anyone seen her? I haven’t.

Tonight (3/1) I will be in Bellingham, WA, at Village Books for their Lit Live! event at 7pm. Tomorrow (3/2) I’m on a panel called “Total Rebellion” at Emerald City Comic Con at 4pm, followed by a signing at Writers Block Table 3 at 5:15pm. Then my last Seattle-area event will be on Saturday (3/3) at Barnes & Noble Northgate, 6pm – reading, Q&A, and signing.

I just got a really nice review from The Book Smugglers. It’s a little spoilery, but I’m beginning to think that might be a good thing. Tess of the Road is an atypical fantasy novel, and readers’ expectations can sometimes be an obstacle to enjoyment. I know that’s happened to me before, where I go into a book eagerly anticipating one thing and then the book isn’t what I wanted it to be.

I also have a Big Idea post up at John Scalzi’s Whatever, which will give you another angle on the book, where it comes from and what it’s for. Many thanks to John for this opportunity.

All right, well. I promised myself I’d hit the gym before the long haul up to Bellingham, so I’d better get to it. My husband is back home becoming a better fencer while I’m on the road, and I can’t let him get too far ahead of me!

Tomorrow: TESS!

Just a little reminder to all and sundry that our Vancouver launch party is tomorrow evening, 7pm, at Kidsbooks in Kitsilano. I will read, answer questions, and sign books, and there will be cake. Other snacks, too, I mean, but cake is the fa-la-la of foods. It’s how you know you’re having a good time.

And then Wednesday evening – the very next evening! – at 7pm, I will be appearing with the legendary Tamora Pierce and Lish McBride (author of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and other hilarious books) at University Book Store in Seattle.

I just leap from one amazing thing to the next. It’s going to give me whiplash. NICE whiplash, I mean, if there is such a thing.

A big thank-you to everyone who’s made all this possible: my agent, Dan Lazar; my at-large editor, Jim Thomas; my in-house editorial and advocacy squad, Mallory Loehr, Jenna Lettice, and Michelle Nagler; my hard-working publicist, Josh Redlich; the Canadian team, including Lynne Missen, Evan Munday, and Trish Kells; transcendent cover artist, Simon Prades; Phyllis Simon and all her amazing staff at Kidsbooks; my intrepid beta-readers, who helped me out of a hole; and of course my lovely, patient family.


Here’s a family member now, the loveliest, although possibly the least patient. Una says, “Leap after that book! Chase it down, and when you catch it, SHAKE IT SHAKE IT SHAKE IT!”          Photo credit: B. Oser

Nice review roundup

Just a few that have come to my attention:

At The Geekiary: “‘Tess of the Road’ Isn’t Your Usual YA Fare, & That’s Awesome”

A review from Sarah Foil

Another from The Literary Phoenix

And one more at The Fandom

And finally, if you’d love to see my smiling face, an interview with Christopher Paolini

Coming soon: spring, and the TESS tour

I don’t care that it’s below freezing, I’m going to keep on pretending it’s spring. Here, have some crocuses:


Moments later, my dog stepped on them.

Some of you have seen it already, but let me just call your attention to my Appearances page, where the Tess of the Road tour dates are up! Yay! A few dates and times toward the end are still hazy, but it’s mostly all there.

I was hoping I might make it to the Celsius Festival in Spain in July, but it turned out they want me to come in July of 2019. Guess I can’t complain about that! I used to have pretty good Spanish, so this gives me abundant time to refresh my memory.  The Duolingo Owl is really relishing the opportunity to peck at me again.


Young and sporty

So I’ve been having some occasional knee pain. I visited Dr. Google this morning — yes, even Canadians with our lovely healthcare still sometimes put off going to the real doctor. They (I refuse to gender Dr. Google) suggested it was possibly Chondromalacia Patella. That matched up with my symptoms pretty well, and in addition, Dr. Google suggested this was a common injury in “young, sporty women.”

That clinched it. Young and sporty describes me to a T. (I ignored the next sentence about it also occurring in old, arthritic people)

All right, fine, I’m not young. I’m forty-five. But I have been sportier in the last year than in all the other years of my life put together, and I’m engaged in a rather knee-intensive sport, so I’m pretty sure that’s it.

What sport are you sporting, Rachel? you might ask.

Friends, I have taken up fencing, and it is the greatest thing ever. My husband and I took it up together, in fact, because he’d read an article that said the happiest couples are the ones who try new things together. I think we can both attest: stabbing your spouse with an épée is fun and good for you.

This sport requires far more athleticism than I am actually capable of. I’m sort of terrible at it, but as Carla Speed McNeil used to say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I think that goes double for fencing.

Last night my husband recorded one of my matches. Alas it was one of my losses (the odds were about 50/50) but even so, I present it here for your amusement. No, I’m not embarrassed. I’ve belly-danced in restaurants; I left my shame under a rock somewhere.

I know, it looks nothing like Olympic fencing. Our teacher is almost 80, and he was trained by (possibly) Aramis, Athos, and Porthos. We’re learning the old classical style — no fly-flicking or bounding around like caffeinated squirrels. Which is fine, because I am literally using every athletic bone in my body to produce these magnificently stodgy results.

Oh is it fun, though. Oh does it force your brain and body to work together in ways they don’t usually have to. I know it doesn’t look like it, because you can’t see us thinking (and we’re not doing much feinting in this match), but it’s like full-body action chess. In fact, unexpectedly, I’ve been playing chess with my son recently and I find I’m looking at THAT differently, faking him out over here so I can jab him over there.

There is no sword-fighting in TESS OF THE ROAD, alas — I’d finished writing that book before I took up fencing — but in book 4, the one I’m working on now? Oh hell yes.