Mom & Cartoonist
An Interview with Terri Libenson: Mom, Cartoonist, and the Creator of The Pajama Diaries
What’s your favorite section of the paper? It’s okay to admit it. You can pretend to like another section if you want, but I’m not afraid to admit the truth. My favorite section is the funny pages. You know what I’m talking about…the comics.
One of the comics in The Denver Post is The Pajama Diaries. (The Pajama Diaries also currently appears in more than 100 newspapers across the country, as well as online at Comics Kingdom™, King Features’ online comics portal.) Starting this week, and running through August 8th, The Pajama Diaries is traveling back down memory lane with the main character, Jill Kaplan and her husband, Rob, to a time when they were expecting their first child. This funny and poignant five-week storyline is sure to be a hit with those readers who have or are expecting their own children.
So, without further ado, let’s take a peek into the life of a mom and cartoonist and see what Terri has to say about the new project at The Pajama Diaries!
What is your background?
I majored in illustration at Washington University in St. Louis. After graduating, I came to Cleveland to work as a humorous writer/illustrator for American Greetings. I’ve always been interested in cartooning, and after college I began submitting strips for syndication. My first break came in 2000 with a weekly comic called, “Got A Life.” I ended it after two years and later created “Pajama Diaries,” which became syndicated daily. It’s been running since 2006. Denver was, in fact, one of the first major cities to pick it up. These days, I work full-time on the strip and part-time for American Greetings as a contractor. It’s a busy schedule, but rewarding.
What inspired you to start the comic strip?
I originally ended my weekly strip (about a newlywed couple) to care for my newborn and toddler, but I still had ambitions to develop a more “permanent” daily strip. I also wanted the feature to reflect my current family dynamics. I was reading a lot of books and articles about the unusual challenges of today’s overextended moms. I like working from life and thought that was a really relatable concept. Besides, how many cartoons are strictly from the mother’s (or woman’s) vantage point? I added the diary format for a little more depth and intimacy and made the characters grow older in real time.
How did you market it and land in so many newspapers?
The first step was to get accepted by one of the large syndicates. King Features only introduces 2-3 new features per year, and I was lucky enough to land with them. I had submitted a package of about 30 sample strips, and I later had to go through a second audition of sorts to broaden The Pajama Diaries’ appeal. It worked out, but there were many lost nights of sleep!
I then developed a package comprised of my best work for the sales team to peddle to newspapers. King has an outstanding sales force. The syndicate also acts as my agent, handling most of my PR. They really are a team in the best sense of the word; they leave me to my creativity but offer a helping hand whenever necessary.
Do you ever get writer’s (or cartoonist’s) block?
Oh yeah! Luckily, I’ve been dealing with deadlines for so long, I no longer panic. Also, I don’t create a strip from start to finish in a single day. I write a month’s worth of strips over the course of a week and then do all the art. That way, if I have a bad writing session, I can make it up the next day. I also work ahead of my deadlines – that helps a lot.
What do your real-life kids (and husband) think about seeing some of their stories?
They enjoy it. Well, actually, a lot of the humor goes above my 6-year-old’s head. But my 9-year-old gets a kick out of them. My poor husband is used to being comic fodder, but really, he encourages it. He willingly provides ideas. Anyway, most of our experiences aren’t written verbatim. There’s a lot of artistic license.
Tell us about the “memory lane” project that kicks off this week.
I recently did a Mother’s Day strip that flashed back to the delivery room. It sparked an idea to do a storyline that reverts back in time to Jill’s first pregnancy. Coincidentally, this marks the 10-year anniversary of my pregnancy with my older daughter, Mollie. I thought it was perfect timing since Jill’s timeline mirrors my own. I really enjoyed writing this series. I think it adds a fun twist.
Doing storylines often jump starts many ideas at once. In this case, gag after gag kept coming to me because the idea of pregnancy is so multifaceted. I came up with a whole bunch of strips and off-shoot storylines (i.e. Jill and her friends getting pregnant at once, Jill dealing with maternity leave/ job issues). In the end, I had about two months of cartoons that I had to narrow down (a cartoonist’s dream, by the way). I originally thought it would be a two-week series at most; I ended up using five weeks of material. What a pleasant surprise…like a windfall of ideas.
What was the most challenging part about this project?
One challenge was the concern of having readers see an expectant Jill mid-series and wondering why she’s suddenly pregnant. I didn’t want it to be confusing. In the end, I created headers for most of the strips, entitled “Our Pregnancy Years.” Hopefully that’ll work.
Were you surprised by any of the memories that surfaced?
I was really sick during both of my pregnancies, so most of my memories involve hovering over a toilet. Obviously, I didn’t want to revolve the series around that, but doing the storyline did drudge up some memories of being couch-confined (the other place I was when I wasn’t in the bathroom). By the way, we still have the same couch and my humongous imprint is still there from 10 years ago.
I think moms need as much support as they can get; they shouldn’t try and do it all alone. That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn since I’m such a control freak (luckily I have a husband who’s also a control freak, so he’s pretty hands-on).
Anyway, I do think we have a long way to go as a society to help out today’s mothers. We need more support systems, like affordable quality daycare and flex time. With extended families so scattered now, we’ve lost so much of that built-in help. I hope the strip helps to bring light to these issues; that’s certainly one of my goals.
In the meantime, another goal is to give these moms a relatable character that they can laugh through their tears with!
Thank you, Terri, for taking time out of your busy schedule (both of the mom and cartoonist variety!) to answer these questions! And, to all you Mile High Mamas out there, be sure to check out this new series of The Pajama Diaries!
We all have stories to tell and memories to share…whether they happened years ago or yesterday. What are your most vivid ones?