It pays to be nice.
Lincoln Peirce, a Portland resident who writes the “Big Nate” comic strip that runs in The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, received a hand-written letter from Jeff Kinney, then a 19-year-old University of Maryland student writing a comic strip for his school newspaper.
Kinney wanted advice about how to get his comic strip syndicated. Twenty years later, Kinney, author of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” returned the favor: He helped Peirce get his first book, “Big Nate: In a Class by Himself,” published by HarperCollins. Unlike the usual collection of previously published strips, the book presents a new Big Nate adventure in a story format.
Peirce grew up in New Hampshire (where his father taught at the University of New Hampshire), attended Colby College, and has lived in Portland for almost 20 years.
Q: What was the purpose of writing this book?
A: The purpose was just to find a way to tell a longer story. You are sort of limited by the format of a daily comic strip. This possibility came up, really I think as a result of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books, and with the help of Jeff Kinney, who is a friend of mine, who helped me get through the door to get some books going.
Q: What age group is “Big Nate” aimed at?
A: I think the strip and book are two very different things. The comic strip is really for anyone. I think in the newspaper, it has as many adult readers as it does the kids. The book is very specifically targeted for younger readers, 8- to 12-year-olds, although I have spoken to a lot of kids younger than 8 and older than 12 who like it. But that is the target audience.
Q: On the back cover, it says book two is coming. Is it all done and waiting to be published or are you still working on it?
A: The text is done, and now I am doing the artwork. It was recently moved up. It was going to come out in November, and now it is going to be October. It’s going to be a six-book series, with one coming out every eight or nine months, depending on how much stamina I have.
Q: Do you always write the words first? As a reader, I always check out all the pictures and then go to the words.
A: I do write the words first. Something I am always asked by aspiring comic-book artists is how to get a comic strip going, and I always say, “Concentrate on the writing.” A comic strip can still be very good with very pedestrian art if the writing is good and insightful; and no matter how great it looks, if the writing is lousy, it is going to be boring. I think it is 90 percent writing.
Q: How do you keep on writing about an 11-year-old boy every day?
A: I always say, when people ask that, is that I never left. I have a real photographic memory for events that happened when I was about that age. Ages 10, 11 and 12 are just a time when, for a lot of kids, so many things change. You go from elementary school with one teacher all day to going to different classes, with six different teachers and six different subjects. It is just a time when a lot of funny things happened. Up to this point, it has not been hard for me to come up with ideas.
Q: Are you a Maine native, or how did you end up in Portland?
A: I grew up in New Hampshire. My dad taught at UNH, and I went to Colby. I went down to Brooklyn, N.Y., to get my master’s degree from Brooklyn College in drawing and painting, thinking maybe I would be a college art professor. But all the time, I was drawing comics; that was my first love. It took a few years for me to convince my wife to move to Maine, but we moved in 1992.
Q: How long have you been doing “Big Nate”?
A: It started in January of 1991, so it’s not far from being 20 years, and I will take it. The shelf life for comics is not very long. You see a lot of them fall by the wayside. I’ve been very lucky.
Q: Have you ever considered a second strip, like Brian Basset?
A: This is enough to keep me busy, partly because of the publication schedule of these books. It is more difficult than ever to get a comic strip going with newspapers in the state they are. Comics is often the first place to make cuts. I am an optimist, and I think that people are going to want to read good comics.
Q: How many papers are you in?
A: A couple hundred, slightly over 200.
Q: You say Jeff Kinney is a friend. How did you get to know each other?
A: He wrote me fan mail — he actually had to send it by mail, it was so long ago — when he was a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of Maryland. He was a cartoonist doing a comic for the school newspaper, and he wanted some advice in getting syndicated.
I wrote him back and we had a letter-writing correspondence for a couple of years, and then we sort of lost touch. I would keep my eyes open on comics pages to see if I ever saw his name, if he went into print.
Then I got a call from him, saying he was going to be in Portland for a book tour, and could we get together. I didn’t know anything about the “Wimpy Kid” books. This was the first one. And we just stayed in touch from that, and he has been a huge help to me with this book. It is funny, having not heard from him in 17 or 18 years, and then he comes back and is such a big help.
Q: And HarperCollins is a top-notch publisher.
A: It is fantastic. They have been so great to work with.
Q: Anything you’d like to say that I haven’t asked?
A: I would like to put in a plug for this book. One of my goals was to write a book that I would have loved to read when I was a kid. … Kids are so visual. That is how I looked at books as a kid when I went to the library. I’d flip through the book to check out the pictures. This is a book for kids who like comics and who like a good story.
Staff Writer Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at: