Welcome to another author interview! In case you missed it, I recently reviewed an ARC of A Fire Among Clouds by Camilo Moncada Lozano (psst, there's also a sneak peek and preorder link at the end of the review!). Now let's get to know the author!
Camilo Moncada Lozano is a Mexican artist based in Mexico City. Lover of crows, mythology, and Japanese culture. Despite his background as an animator and visual arts graduate, his true passion lies in creating characters and telling their stories. He has spent most of his life weaving a fictional universe that connects all these stories, one of which is Codex Black. The development of an obsession. His friends often can't remember the last time they saw him, some even wonder if he's actually real.
Kori: Hi, Camilo! Thank you for joining us. We’re excited to have you here at Coffee, Book, & Candle. Before we get into it, could you share a bit about yourself and your work?
Camilo: Hi, Kori! Thank you for having me. My name is Camilo Moncada Lozano, and I’m a Mexican artist born and raised in Mexico City, where I’m currently based. My work revolves around a fictional universe that I’ve been building through the years, and the stories contained in it span through different mediums like animation, series of illustrations, sculptures of its characters, and in Codex Black’s case, a graphic novel. I describe it as the development of an obsession.
Kori: I got to read about Codex Black’s evolution at the end of Book One, but could you give our readers a little insight into how you came up with and developed the story?
Camilo: As I mentioned at the end of the book, I created both Donají and Itzcacalotl, Codex Black’s protagonists, for two completely different projects. At some point in 2014, when I returned to Mexico from a season studying abroad, I came up with the idea of making these characters meet each other and go on adventures together. The idea was making a series of simple episodic chapters where they would overcome various perils, as I wanted to try my hand at writing something for real, moving away from my perpetual daydreaming phase. However, as I came up with situations, new characters, and these started interconnecting with each other, a unifying plot gradually surfaced, and the story went from the intended episodic format towards becoming an epic series, with a defined antagonist, a set of goals, and overarching plots through which the protagonists would navigate. It wasn't until late 2017 that I would start working on what eventually came out as the Codex Black webcomic series.
Kori: Codex Black is drenched in history and mythology. What was your favorite discovery while researching for this story?
Camilo: There’s been so many! However, I think one of the most valuable things I’ve learned through the research I’ve done for this is just how unique the various cultures throughout Mesoamerica were and continue to be. Most people have heard about the Mexica (commonly called “Aztecs”) and the Maya, but the truth is that countless other cultures and civilizations flourished at the time, and each one of them have their own characteristics that make them unique. One of those peoples are the Zapotecs or Binni Záa, the “Cloud People,” Donají’s people. The more I learn about them, the more I appreciate and admire their culture, and the same is true for the other peoples that will eventually be depicted as the story moves forward.
Kori: What is your favorite thing about the era your story takes place in?
Camilo: It’s extremely difficult to narrow it down to a single favorite thing, but visually I love everything related to clothing designs, colorful textiles, and the elaborate banners and flags that warriors carried to battle. Designing the characters’ attires is definitely one of the parts of the process that I enjoy the most.
Kori: Who is your favorite character, monster, or deity to write?
Camilo: Writing Donají is incredibly fun, because she’s very blunt, straightforward, and sometimes simply rude, although these traits contrast with her sweet and caring side as well. Personality-wise, she is the complete opposite to myself, so putting me in her shoes is always a treat. Likewise, Citlalmina is another character I really like to write for very similar reasons, although in her case it’s more naughty jokes and mischievous teasing.
Kori: Do you have a favorite scene from Book One?
Camilo: The daily life scenes in Donají’s village are some of my favorites. The scene when Donají and Itzcacalotl first arrive and are greeted by all the villagers is one of them. Drawing everyone’s reactions was pretty fun.
Kori: Is there anything you can share with us about the future of this story?
Camilo: It’s going to be a long ride. I can’t say much more, since mystery is pretty important to Codex Black’s story, but I can definitely say that the first book is the introduction to something much bigger. The book’s Prologue is a foreshadowing of what the main conflict will be; a fate that Donají and Itzcacalotl won’t be able to avoid. The search for Donají’s father and his unknown past, the summoning of the dark creature, Itzcacalotl’s crow wings, the appearance of monsters... Everything is related in one way or another. I hope readers stick with the series as these connections unravel.
Kori: What is your favorite part of creating this story?
Camilo: The characters. From the moment I conceive them, to the design, coming up with their backstories, writing them, and finally drawing them within the story. There’s nothing quite like finally seeing a character become alive. Some of them have been in my sketchbooks for around a decade already, and many still have to wait some time before they can make their debut.
Kori: What was the easiest part of creating this graphic novel and why? What about the hardest?
Camilo: The easiest part is probably inking. I do enjoy that part of the process a lot because I can just clear my mind while doing it. As for the hardest, I think it is balancing personal life with work. Making a book like this takes a lot of time and work, so I’ve had to sacrifice certain activities I used to do, and my friends already know I’m busy almost all the time.
Kori: What messages or themes in this story are important to you? What do you want readers to take away from it?
Camilo: One among many themes that I put a lot of emphasis in is that the world can’t be cleanly cut in black and white, good and evil. This is a dichotomy that didn’t hold any relevance in Mesoamerican thought. There was of course a clear understanding of the differences between right and wrong, but the concept of “good vs evil” served no purpose in their way of interpreting the world that surrounded them, as reflected in its mythology. I hope that it becomes clear throughout the story that said dichotomy is also a useless tool to approach Codex Black with. However, I’d like for readers to find their own interpretations of the story’s messages. Sometimes it really surprises me how they manage to read things in it that not even I was aware of.
Kori: You have experience with animated interactive stories and short films. How do you feel about these formats compared to web comics and graphic novels?
Camilo: Each of these mediums have their virtues and their flaws, without a doubt. I’m an audiovisual person at heart, and animation continues to be my favorite medium, but the amount of time invested into creating just a few minutes of animation is completely incompatible with the long epic stories I tend to envision. Furthermore, the more ambitious the project, budgets become an issue, as well as the need of bringing people in to help with the burden. That’s one of the things that I like so much about comics, and what made me realize it was the most suitable medium to bring my own stories to life. I lean more towards solitary creation, and comics or graphic novels allow that degree of intimacy that I like in my work. Despite that, I still itch to get back into animation from time to time, and it will probably continue to be one of the many mediums I will use throughout my life.
Kori: Are there any authors or artists that have inspired your work?
Camilo: Certainly. Rumiko Takahashi’s work in InuYasha had a huge impact in me as a kid, and many years later, while rewatching the series, I noticed how much it influenced my conception of Codex Black. Hiroyuki Imaishi’s over-the-top and borderline absurd work in animation has also been an inspiration ever since I stumbled upon it in my high school years. Another author that has had a big influence in my work is Elias Canetti, with his masterpiece Crowds and Power, which I find myself returning to every time I get a chance.
Kori: What is the best creative advice you’ve received? What was the worst?
Camilo: I remember a drawing class when I was studying visual arts in college. The teacher told us that “everything has already been done and told, but nobody will create it in the same way we would.” In other words, that absolute originality is no longer possible, but the worth in creating is in doing so through our own voice. My classmates walked out pale in despair, but to me those words were truly liberating. As for the worst advice, anything beginning with “art should be ___.” To me, there can’t ever be any “shoulds” nor “musts” in art. Among those, “you should stop drawing ‘manga’” is one advice guaranteed that I’ll completely disregard.
Kori: What advice would you share with other creators based on your own experience?
Camilo: Keep it fun. Everyone’s idea of “fun” is of course completely different, but there’s no point in doing something you don’t enjoy anymore.
Kori: What has most surprised you in your work?
Camilo: Probably the positive reaction it has had from readers. One really hopes people will like their work, but seeing it in reality hits different.
Kori: Now for some general writing questions. First, when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Camilo: That’s something that I have intuitively known as long as I can remember. As a kid, I already drew comics, created characters, and at a very young age I learned how to make digital animations. There hasn’t been a moment in my life where I stopped doing these things. As we mentioned before, my professional background is originally as an animator, and up until somewhat recently, that was the path I had chosen to follow. However, it was while chatting with my colleagues that I noticed a fundamental difference between us: they were in love with animation in itself, talking about animators, about studios and techniques, and about the projects they would love to participate in. But I was more interested in the stories and characters portrayed in such animations. All I wanted was to eventually be able to tell my own stories using animation as a tool or medium, rather than working on other people’s projects, animating for the sake of animation. It was upon that realization that I changed paths to pursue my true calling.
Kori: What is your writing schedule like? Do you have structured time segments, or do you work when you find time or feel inspired?
Camilo: This has to do with my obsessive nature, but I wake up every single day at 5:00 am and work until around 5 pm (sometimes even longer). I often have my scripts pretty much pre-written in the form on notes, which I accumulate through long periods of time of imagining the story beats and writing them down, so my process on writing the final drafts is more like solving a puzzle with the pieces at hand, and then filling in the gaps. As such, I rarely hit a brick wall due to lack of inspiration. As for how I come up with my ideas contained in those notes, it’s mostly through daydreaming, either during my commutes in the subway while listening to music, in the shower, or just about any moment where I can afford to abandon reality. Any good ideas or exciting moments I come up with, I write them down in small notebooks I carry with me everywhere. The downside to this approach, though, is that it only works with long-term projects.
Kori: Do you tend to plan or “pants” your plots?
Camilo: I’m definitely a planner. As of now, I have a pretty clear idea of how Codex Black will end, and to some degree, the path towards that ending. I’m not too good at improvising, and in fact, I had developed the story in my head, as well as in notes and sketches, for about four years prior to its actual beginning. I didn’t start drawing the first chapters until I was already confident about the overall plot and most details.
Kori: Do you have any rituals or routines around your writing time? Do you play music, light candles, prepare snacks, etc.?
Camilo: I generally work while listening to music, especially when drawing, albeit sometimes I need complete silence, particularly when writing. Rituals become important in the degree that we perceive a sense of effectiveness from them, but they’ve all failed me at some point, so most of the ones I have adopted through time have been short-lived. The only constant I maintain is the routine of begining to work while everyone is still asleep, very early in the morning before sunrise. That way I can focus throughout the rest of the day. Otherwise, starting anything later, especially after breakfast, is quite the ordeal for me.
Kori: Last but not least, do you have any other projects you’d like to share with us?
Camilo: As part of my fictional universe, I have several other stories in the back-burner, although for now I’ll continue to focus on Codex Black, which is only getting started. However, there’s a particular story I’d like to work on simultaneously to the graphic novels at some point. It will be about the origins of “the Crow” as a mythical being endemic to my universe, following the life of an ancient sorceress named Hoh. A sort of prequel to Codex Black, taking place tens of thousands of years prior to it. I still haven’t decided on a specific format (a webcomic? An animation? A short novel?), but it will deal with somewhat more mature and darker themes.
Thank you so much for joining us, Camilo!