Artist Spotlight: Kyle Sullivan on Hobgoblin and the Seven Stinkers of Rancidia
Since his debut board book, Monster ABC, arrived in October 2015, Kyle Sullivan has been busy. He’s since written four more children’s board books, a 52-page picture book, and now, debuting September 17 in stores across the world, his first early chapter book: Hobgoblin and the Seven Stinkers of Rancidia.
Kyle took some time out from writing the follow-up to Hobgoblin (and various other projects) to chat about his career as a children’s author, what it’s like to collaborate with his identical twin brother, and what we can look forward to next.
HAZY DELL PRESS: Your most avid fans might have noticed that the Hobgoblin character, who makes his first appearance in Monster ABC, also shows up in each of your subsequent books in one form or another. What made you decide to include him in all the books and then ultimately give him his own chapter book?
KYLE SULLIVAN: Monster ABC is full of so many well-known and popular cryptids and monsters—Sasquatch, Loch Ness Monster, Vampire, Zombie, et cetera. But it became clear to us very early on that Hobgoblin was by far the most popular character in the book. In Monster ABC, “H is for Hobgoblin who smells like a fart,” and I think that the fart humor, combined with his dopey, innocent expression and the little flies buzzing around his head all added up to an instantly hilarious and memorable character.
We kind of stumbled onto him in the creation of Monster ABC, but he’s been too silly and original for us to leave behind in each of the books that followed. Sometimes he’s just a minor cameo, like in Goodnight Krampus he’s a plush toy owned by one of the elves, whereas in our picture book The Cyclops Witch and the Heebie-Jeebies, he’s a full-on character. We’ve been waiting for our opportunity to give Hobgoblin his own story, but we didn’t want to force it. When we decided to create an early chapter book, we knew that it was finally Hobgoblin’s chance to be the star.
HDP: When you say “we,” I assume you’re referring to your twin brother, Derek Sullivan. He has illustrated all of your books so far, including board books and a picture book. How did collaborating with him on an early chapter book differ compared to the others?
KS: It’s funny, but our collaborative process for this chapter book was pretty much the same as it was for the board books and picture book.
For every book we’ve done together, including Hobgoblin, we participate in a long and collaborative developmental phase well before I’m typing a draft or he’s creating final illustrations. For Hobgoblin, along with the other books that we’ve done together, we started with a concept—in this case we knew that the concept to build on was a Snow White parody starring the stinky Hobgoblin in Snow White’s role—and then considered all of the many directions that this concept could take us.
This developmental phase is sort of divided equally between figuring out what the foundational values of this book are going to be, and then what are all the ways we can fine-tune the details of the book to make sure it’s as fun, humorous and emotionally impactful as possible. At a certain point, I start writing and he starts drawing, and then we convene frequently as the story develops a life of its own.
HDP: How did you arrive at combining the character of Hobgoblin with the storyline of Snow White?
KS: It’s hard to say exactly how we arrived at that concept, but we knew it was the way to go as soon as it came up during the initial brainstorming phase. It’s just too perfect.
In the Disney version, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White is a very clean, very put together and responsible character. Hobgoblin, whose defining trait is that he smells like a fart, is already a far cry from the character traits of the Disney heroine. To make it work, we knew that Hobgoblin would have to exist in a world that valued his particular assets—stinkiness—as opposed to the values in Snow White’s world, where the evil queen is jealous of Snow White’s beauty. By subverting these values, we quickly realized we had a wellspring of humor to utilize as we constructed this stink-loving society—Rancidia—and all of the quirky characters that might live in such an unexpected place.
HDP: Considering Hobgoblin’s appearance in all of your books, and in reading your picture book, The Cyclops Witch and the Heebie-Jeebies, where the story takes place in a land called “Hazy Dell,” it’s evident that there’s a shared universe across your titles. Is that continued in Hobgoblin and the Seven Stinkers of Rancidia?
KS: Yes, definitely. In a lot of ways, I feel like an anthropologist or a medium or something just letting these characters and these realms reveal themselves to me. As they reveal themselves, I take careful notes and then rearrange those notes into a publishable form. It’s clear to me that all of the characters from the stories that I create with Derek for Hazy Dell Press are all coming from the same universe and are part of the same extended story, regardless of how different they may seem or which age group they are packaged for. They all stem from Monster ABC and we have developed them and expanded from there, keeping the torch burning with each additional title.
HDP: You mentioned earlier that part of your process is determining the “foundational values” of the book. All your past books, regardless of the intended age of the reader, seem to have a clear moral compass. For Hobgoblin, what are its foundational values, and how did you take into account your older audience?
KS: The foundational values of Hobgoblin came into focus during the development of the central villain—King Fiddlefart the ogre. We knew we needed a villain to play the role of Snow White’s evil queen, and that he needed to be someone who was repulsive and self-centered enough to be jealous of Hobgoblin’s phenomenal stench. King Fiddlefart, it became clear, was not someone organically “royal” by nature in the fairytale sense, and he was not someone who would ever be democratically elected under normal circumstances. This being the case, it was obvious that King Fiddlefart was a tyrant who had overthrown a democracy and placed himself at its center—a thin-skinned autocrat fixated on his own supremacy.
The Seven Stinkers of Rancidia (Grody, Yucky, Icky, Musty, Fusty, Poot and Toot) are exiled democratically elected officials of the once-thriving democracy, and the underlying story of the book became the battle between tyranny and democracy—something that feels very important to explore in this specific moment in history.
To answer the second part of your question, we made sure that this underlying narrative tension, and these underlying values, never bogged down the story or got in the way of the fart jokes. In fact, we really believe that a humorous story about a stinky hobgoblin’s political awakening is, in many ways, an ideal means of delivering a story about the importance of a healthy, inclusive democracy. It comes across as a fun, silly adventure story, as opposed to a dry, pedantic lecture. But the lessons and the values shine through just as well.
HDP: Your first book, Monster ABC, was published in 2015. What was your background prior to that and how did it lead to a career as a children’s book author?
KS: I can’t say that I always knew I’d be a children’s book author, but in hindsight it makes a lot of sense. Derek and I have always collaborated on making up stories since we were very young. At a certain point, he focused on drawing and I focused on writing, which only strengthened our teamwork. He went on to art school to hone his illustration craft, while I got degrees in creative writing and English lit. After respectively embarking on our careers—him as an illustrator and art director, and me as a writer and creative director—it was only a matter of time before we got serious, in a professional sense, about our collaborative efforts.
When we collaborate together, our sensibilities skew toward the things that amazed and engaged us as children, which makes sense because that’s when we really fell in love with storytelling and conjuring worlds out of whole cloth. In a sense, all of the work we do now is carefully designed to honor and impress our childhood selves.
HDP: The back cover of Hobgoblin and the Seven Stinkers of Rancidia says this is Hazy Fables #1. What are you currently working on, and can we expect a Hazy Fables #2 in the near future?
KS: Yes! We are currently right in the middle of developing the next book in the Hazy Fables series. I am delighted to give you the exclusive scoop (don’t worry, I received permission from my people first): It’s called Zombie, Or Not to Be and it’s a parody of Hamlet.
It takes place in the nation of Deadmark and features a zombie teenager named Edda during a very confusing period of her life. And don’t worry—children (or adults) need not have read Hamlet to have fun with the story. I can’t say much more, but I can tell you that the book will be published in September 2020.
All of Kyle Sullivan’s books are available in the Hazy Dell Press shop, and in stores across the country. Hobgoblin and the Seven Stinkers of Rancidia will be available on September 17, 2019—you can pre-order your signed copy here. Head to the Hazy Dell Press events page to find out where and when you can meet Kyle and Derek, and have books signed, in person.