Make Art. Make Money. Lessons From Jim Henson With Elizabeth Hyde Stevens. Podcast Episode 189

In keeping with the author entrepreneur focus of the blog recently, today I’m discussing making art and making money with Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, who wrote a book about Jim Henson’s career, which was both creatively and financially rewarding.

makeartmakemoneyIn the intro, I talk about my awesome Thrillerfest experience, Kindle Unlimited, the new Kindle pricing tool and my German book launch and first experience with a traditional publisher.

This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets kobo writing lifethrough the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is an award-winning fiction author, and she teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. She also created the Muppets, Mickey and Money LizHSresearch course at Boston University, and today we’re talking about her book, “Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on fueling your creative career.”

You can watch the interview on YouTube here, listen above or on the podcast feed on iTunes or Stitcher, or read the transcription below. We discuss:

  • Liz’s background in literary fiction and her interest in understanding how a writer could be both creative and earn good money
  • An overview of Jim Henson’s career – from early days as a puppeteer to multi-millionaire creator of TV, film, merchandising and more
  • How Jim Henson made peace with making money as an artist as it enabled him to fund further creativity
  • How larger creative projects require more people and more funding e.g. the making of the Dark Crystal or the Muppet Movie
  • The importance of owning copyright and how that enables bigger projects but keeps the control with the creator. How authors can protect themselves through contracts.
  • How time makes a huge difference and we just don’t know where we will end up, let alone where our books and characters might take us. The importance of the long game for creatives.
  • On loving your work, when work is your fun and redefining workaholism for creatives
  • How failure is just part of the creative path, and how we can learn from our failures
  • “Pure art don’t sell, you need a handle.” On learning marketing and pitching as a creative.
  • Reframing “selling out”

You can find Liz at and on Facebook/Make Art Make Money. Twitter: ElizHydeStevens.

Transcript of Interview with Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from and today I’m here with Elizabeth Hyde Stevens. Hi, Liz!

Liz: Hey!

Joanna: So, just as an introduction, Liz is an award-winning fiction author, and she teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. She also created the Muppets, Mickey and Money research course at Boston University, and today we’re talking about her book, “Make Art Make Money,” which is absolutely fantastic, and I think should be required reading for every author who’s taking this seriously as a business.

So, first up, Liz, tell us just a little bit more about you and your writing background.

Liz: Thanks, that was wonderful. Well, about eight years ago I wanted to write a novel, and thought, “Oh, well, OK, this novel will be the Great American Novel,” and I think many people have that thought, so I started working on that, went to a MFA program, I went to Brooklyn College and studied under Michael Cunningham, he wrote “The Hours,” and he’s a best-selling writer, and I graduated thinking that I was going to immediately become that. And then, once I graduated, I kind of saw that the world was a little bit starker for writers, and it’s harder out there. You know, you publish articles, or short stories, and that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of money, and I kind of realized, how does this writing plus money thing fit together? It’s kind of the same thing you look at. And it’s not easy, but there are people out there who do it, and that’s what led me to Jim Henson actually, was thinking, well, he was this kind of artist who was always doing it for the work itself and for the art’s sake, but he was very successful financially. So studying him helped me get a little bit further along in doing that myself.

Joanna: That’s what I think is great about your example, because I love Michael Cunningham as well, he’s a great writer, and it’s interesting to be able to combine both of these things. So, obviously, you just mentioned Jim Henson there, and I like that you call him “a capitalist and a staunch artist.”

Can you just talk briefly, hopefully everyone’s heard of Jim Henson and the Muppets, but just a brief overview of his journey, because he wasn’t born a multi-millionaire. So, how did his journey work?

Liz: I don’t know if I can do this in a nutshell, but Jim Henson started out as a high school teenager, he was doing set design and graphic design for the local theater company at his high school. He auditioned to be on local TV, and this was 1954, so he’s only had a television for four years, it was kind of the new medium, and you could go on local TV a lot easier then than you could now.

But he wasn’t a puppeteer, he was more an artist. Puppeteering was what eventually led him to have the global reach that he wanted, but he was interested in whatever medium he could use, so, from that local kids’ shows that he was doing as a teenager and college student, it led to his own five-minute show, Sam and Friends. That ran for, I think, six years, then in the 60s he was doing experimental stuff, he wanted to make a nightclub, he was doing documentaries, weird, wacky skits on the Ed Sullivan Show. During this time, he was also making commercials, so that was kind of a weird side-business, where the commercial work from corporations funded these experimental things he wanted to do.

During this time, he lived in New York, he had an agent, he was making pretty good money. But then he decided to do this new project, Sesame Street, in 1969, and that is for non-profit, and you wouldn’t think he would make any money doing that, but ironically, that’s what led him to be a millionaire, because first of all, that was broadcast to every home in the United States, so it made him a household name, then he was also able to merchandize toy products, records, learning machines and stuff like that, and so the revenue from that is what then fueled the rest of his career.

In 1975, he got the Muppet Show made, finally, after 15 years of trying to get his own show. It came out on Lord Grade’s London ITC Network, but it was broadcast in 100 countries all over the world. So that was just another level of success. After that, he made Hollywood movies, The Muppet Movie in 1979, and more movie stuff, the Dark Crystal, which was his misunderstood masterpiece, and then in the 80s, he’s a mogul by that point, because he had built up this name for himself, and he was producing other shows, like Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, The Storyteller, lots of different ideas that he could at that point make into reality much more easily.

And then, right before he died, he was in talks with Disney to start making theme park rides and 3D movies, which was kind of the next frontier and something that he needed bigger money, the big bucks to do. So it looked like the 90s would have been an even more exciting time in Jim Henson’s life, and his life was cut short by, a strep infection that was particularly aggressive, and so, you can watch on YouTube the Jim Henson funeral, and you see Big Bird there singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” and you see all of the puppeteers coming together that he basically brought together, there’s a really special moment where you look at the legacy of this one man.

Joanna: Your book has so much in, but one of the things is this retrospective look at a man who, like you said, started as a teenager and it took him 15 years to get his own show, and I love the fact that we can look at his life, like I look at Beatrix Potter as another example of a creative person who took a long time to get to the point of actually making money, but was able to, as long as you focus. I feel like as long as you keep stepping in a direction, after 15 years, you can be that overnight success.

But it’s interesting, you talked about saying in the book, “Jim Henson made peace with money, he found a way to make art and money dance,” which is a lovely phrasing. So, I wondered, how do you think Jim sort of found that mindset of peace and making money dance?

Liz: That’s a really good question. I think that he was lucky, because it seemed like he kind of fell into something profitable at a very early age, he’s in college and he’s making these skits on Sam and Friends that are just kind of wacky lip-sync stuff, very much like college student stuff, but then he has to have a sponsor, so as part of his five-minute show of that time has to be spent talking about SK Luncheon Meats, and so he had to have Kermit—well, he didn’t have to. He could have just basically ceded some of his air time.

And I think that the decision—or maybe it wasn’t a decision—for him to actually have Kermit have a banjo and sing about bacon and housewives cooking chicken drumsticks and stuff like that, it almost made sense from an artist’s point of view, because he has control over his entire show, and he gets to make it what he wants. He doesn’t have to interrupt the show, he could make the sponsor promo part of the entertainment. That was his first taste of commercials, and that, he said at the time, he liked having money in his jeans, and he drove to his graduation in a rented Rolls Royce, and I think that that kind of mindset, he had a taste of what money can do for you. And the thing it does, is it allows you to do what you want.

And he was always kind of money-hungry, but not in the way that we think of. He was kind of hungry for that funding from Lord Lew Grade, $250,000 per episode in the 1970s, to make the Muppet Show what it was, and people said that the Muppet Show was never copied or watered down like so many things are because it was so expensive to make. So he was always kind of looking for that next thing, he needed Lord Lew Grade to make a movie, to fund The Dark Crystal, or he needed Disney to fund a theme park ride, so he’s money-hungry in the right way.

Joanna: And when you talk about those things, I think in the book, we know about Jim Henson, but like you say, there were hundreds or even thousands of people that he had to work with, he was a leader of a kind of a tribe and a team, and to me, many of these big projects need collaboration, so you need money to do them.

I can write a novel on my own and self-publish it, just paying an editor and a designer, but I can’t make a TV show or a movie on my own, with my own money. So, you have to have money if you want to do these big projects, right?

Liz: I think so. And it shows up, he wasn’t spending money on needless things. He was spending it on artists. Basically he was giving other artists a job, spending money on the time that they needed to make these things. And, The Dark Crystal, I think it took five years, and it probably didn’t need to, and they didn’t need to invent a language that didn’t actually end up showing up in the film, or invent a whole species, and understand how they evolved. But when I watched that as a kid, my mind was blown. It was like seeing a cathedral, and, and thinking, “Oh, people can even do this?” It’s really a gift to humanity.

I think various art projects have varying levels of funding that you need, so maybe we don’t all need millions of dollars, but I think we could all do more, and kind of do bigger and more exciting things. And so if you think of money as the way to get there, I think that’s a good way to look at money.

Joanna: I think you have this circle, don’t you, you need the money to allow you the time to make the art, and then if the art makes some money, that means you have more time to make more art, and it just kind of goes like that. And what I love about this new indie kind of movement, like I’m doing, working with translators, 50/50 royalty split: together, we’re making more than we could make on our own, and the way things work now, many creatives can work together. Like KickStarter, there’s some amazing stuff going on because of being able to find money in different ways.

I think that’s brilliant. One of the things I wanted to ask you about: you mentioned licensing briefly. Can you talk about some of the ways that Jim, he didn’t just have a puppet, he turned things into multiple streams of income.

Can you talk about the different ways that that income can happen for creatives?

Liz: It really starts with copyright and Brian Henson said that his dad’s real genius lay in always understanding that he needed to own his copyright. So what started out as Kermit on Sam and Friends in the 1950s later grew into many more things. In 1969, when Sesame Street started, Kermit got big. At that point, you didn’t have any home video, so when you watched TV, it was kind of this fleeting, poetic thing: you experience it, and then you don’t get it back.

Then early on, the first merchandizing which Jim Henson did was the Sesame Street Alphabet album, a record album, and you can picture Jim Henson and Frank Oz in the studio, just singing these silly songs. They did it at night, you know, Jim Henson loved to work all night, work all day, work all the next night. So it started out as just a simple record album, and then CTW kind of convinced Henson that in order for them to continue their independence, they needed to merchandize more products, and they called them learning machines, but they were toys.

And so, you might have a Bert and Ernie puppet, but you might also have other merchandize, and when the Muppet Show then added new characters, then you had way more products. And so I have a Miss Piggy soap dish and little ceramic objects. Plenty of things, like Michael Frith did a calendar of Miss Piggy that took off and became huge, and she became this international, I don’t know, pin-up model. So they were doing creative things. A lot of these were in-house, but it’s still merchandizing, and merchandizing is when somebody else makes a product and you just get money, because it’s your character. So that’s an amazing windfall that Jim Henson had. And then, on top of that, home video came out, in the 80s, so then you could sell those, you could sell cassette tapes, any number of things. There was also a Muppet Store briefly, where a lot of merchandize was sold.

But it all kind of goes back to the fact that Jim Henson owned those copyrights, and in the early days of making commercials, his agent would say, “Hey, can we do this commercial, it’s going to be fifty grand or sixty grand,” and he said, “no, because they want to own the characters.” So I don’t think that Jim Henson anticipated, 20 years down the line, he’d make millions off of these copyrights, but I think that for him it was about an artist’s power, and you don’t want someone else to control your character, you want to be the one protecting it and investing in it, and helping it grow, and kind of leading it.

Joanna: Can you talk about that from an author’s perspective?

How can authors make sure they’re protected, because I know there are clauses in some people’s contracts that basically claim ownership of the entire world that an author might write in, so what are your thoughts around this from a fiction author’s perspective?

Liz: I feel like the contract that you get is always a starting point, and I think it’s really good for authors to remember, if they’re at the table and they’ve handed you a contract, they want to work with you. So read everything carefully. I’ve had a lawyer friend look over my contracts, but I’ve spotted stuff that he didn’t spot, and the kind of things that he was interested in, I said, “Oh, that doesn’t matter to me.”

So I think really taking ownership of this for you and understanding that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to miss something, but the next time you won’t be so lax about that.

There’s this great story, to go back to Jim Henson, where his agent, Bernie Brillstein, when he was getting the contract for the Muppet Show, he had worked initially with Grade’s US manager, who said, “We really like you and we want to give you this show, but there are some things, Lew Grade’s not going to be happy about this.” So it seemed like from Brillstein’s perspective, Lew Grade was the bad cop, and he was sort of playing this act, the good cop was the US manager.

And I suspect that what the thing was that he was not happy about was keeping Kermit separate from the merchandizing rights. While Jim Henson owned the copyright, he split merchandizing revenue with Lew Grade for all of the Muppet characters, Fozzie, Piggy, Scooter, but not Kermit. And Kermit was also off the table for Sesame Street, because he came from much earlier, from Sam and Friends. That may be what Lew Grade was not happy about in this negotiation, but Brillstein said that Lew Grade called him personally, and he said, “I’m not happy with this, and I’m sorry, but I can’t give you this thing that you want.” And Brillstein said that that’s the moment when he knew that he could get that thing, because the President of the company doesn’t call you if they don’t really, really want to work with you.

So, it’s a really encouraging story for me, because I felt, if they really want you, you can stand up and demand this thing, and that’s what Brillstein was saying. And the Muppet Show did get made, and they got everything that they needed to make it, so it worked out.

Joanna: I think that’s, it’s interesting, because the last show, I had David Morrell, who wrote “First Blood,” which became Rambo, and one of the things he talked about was the importance of retaining ownership of the character, and of course he never knew where Rambo would end up, in the same way that nobody would have known where Kermit would have ended up.

And I think as authors, many people listening are going, “yeah, but I’ll never be David Morrell or I’ll never be Jim Henson,” but you know, who knows, we just don’t know. And, like you say, it takes time, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve been writing fiction nearly four years, not fifteen years, and I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen in ten years’ time. So I think when we’re doing things, we have to just try and imagine what could possibly happen and protect ourselves.

Liz: Definitely, and I think part of it is the time. I mean, it’s the 10,000 hours theory which I subscribe to that, that Henson was building Kermit from 1954 to, 15 years before Sesame Street, and so, who knows? Perhaps any character that you put that much time into, and Henson never slept, so he was double 40 hours of the week that he was putting into this character, I wonder if that’s actually what makes it a profitable or lovable creation, just how much you have given to it.

Joanna: Which is really interesting.

I’m thinking at the moment, “Right, I’ve got five books in this series, maybe I should have a go at another series,” but perhaps there is an amount of time, a tipping point to success. Have you looked at anyone else and seen any kind of patterns?

Liz: Not to a great degree. Actually, the next project that I want to work on, but I haven’t gotten that far in, is looking at Nintendo, and the Legend of Zelda series, because that’s something, I think it started in 1985, the first Zelda, and as technology grew, it became 3D, and then it became Nintendo Wii, and motion control. It’s grown into almost a masterpiece of the level of The Dark Crystal. So, that to me is something where continual reinvestment in the character has, I think, led to success. But that doesn’t mean it has to be that way.

Joanna: It’s really interesting. But let’s talk about that workaholism you have the quote, “Art is work” and “The work was his cake and streamers,” which I loved, I was reading that going, “Yes!” because everyone accuses me of being a workaholic. I mean, I work every hour I can until I basically collapse with a migraine, and I love it, because I love what I do.

And I wondered if you can talk a bit about his work ethic, and the element of fun, and what is the definition of work, I guess.

Liz: I think that we have the wrong idea about work. I mean, especially, you know, the people around me, you want to work as little as possible and then go on a weekend and have fun. And if possible, you want to invest your money so that your money makes money and you never have to work. But, I think that Jim Henson loved his work, he said he wasn’t a workaholic because he sincerely loved what he did, it gave him great joy, and he chose it. I think he’s still a workaholic: I disagree with him there! That’s the one thing I disagree with him on. But, you know, he would spend his birthday working on a project, an unpaid project, just something, sketching or watercolors or writing a story. And that’s something that I do also, because it’s a gift to myself.

I think Jerry Juhl, who is a long-time writer for the Muppets, Henson did the visuals mostly, and the performing, but the writing actually came from this man, Jerry Juhl, who was with them the whole span of time. But he said about Jim Henson that the one memory that he has that sticks out above all others is something funny has happened in the studio with the performing and Jim is on the floor laughing, and he’s laughing so hard that he’s crying, and then everybody around him is just in tears, just like really enjoying this moment, because it radiated out from Jim Henson, and how much he really loved his work and enjoyed it. I think these are people who worked so hard, and they’ve got their hands up in the air, and if you try to do that for even one minute, it gets really tiring and exhausting, but this kind of working environment is something that I’ve always wished I had, because you watch these behind-the-scenes shows, and you just think, “Well, these people really loved what they did.” It was goofy and wacky and had so much freedom, and yet the satisfaction of hard work was there.

I think that Henson once said, “the satisfaction of doing a good job is better than the feeling of eating a great meal or having all this money in your pocket, it’s something that really feeds the soul.”

Joanna: I always think that we’re so lucky as authors, that really, we can write until the day we die. I know PD James talks about how scared she is that she’ll die in the middle of a manuscript, and she doesn’t want anything that’s left unfinished when she dies, but she keeps not dying, she’s 96! She’s still alive, and she’s like, “Should I start another book?” and I love that, and I feel that with Jim, as well: he was probably happier to go whilst still working, you know.

Liz: Oh yes, definitely. There were only two times he didn’t want to work, is what his son said, and it was these moments like, why didn’t, say, The Dark Crystal work, why didn’t people like it and go to the theaters and the critics like it, and so he kind of was reflecting during those few times, but every other time in his life, he wanted to work. He wanted to go into work, if he needed surgery, he got it on his lunch break and then worked until 8pm, and then probably the next morning, flew to a meeting somewhere else.

It’s not the middle-class life that we think that we want, but I think it might be more exciting and more enriching.

Joanna: I was like, “Yes, you know, he’s the man, that’s how I live,” so I’m really happy about that. But you talked about The Dark Crystal there being a bit of a failure, like you, I remember it, and I actually remember that very vividly, and I write very dark things; maybe that’s his fault!

But I wondered, how are his failures as important as the successes? Talk a bit about the things that went wrong, because it wasn’t just all cake and streamers, was it?

Liz: No, there were many failures, and the thing about successful people is they just kind of don’t put that into their biography. So, we typically think it’s, it’s very easy for somebody to be successful, like famous writers, they always have it easy. But there was just so much failure.

To get the Muppet Show made, for instance, Henson pitched, really pitched his heart out, and made these great pitch films, and gave them to all the major US networks, NBC, ABC, CBS, and they all passed on it. They said, “Puppets will not work at night time for adults, that’s just not the American market, puppets are for kids, we don’t think that this will work.” Henson of course was right, because once it got on TV in the United States, it was syndicated right before prime time. And it became wildly successful, it was viewed by 200 million people, and Time magazine said it was the most watched show on Earth.

So he was right, but it just took so much failure and so many pitches to come in and get meetings with the network executives, try to convince them. You can actually watch the pitch reel if you go on YouTube and search for Muppet Show Pitch Reel. It’s amazing, Jim Henson saying “Hey, this show is going to get a forty share of the ratings, it’s going to appeal to everybody, everyone in the country is going to watch it, kids, parents, hippies, intellectual eggheads, you know, do it for kittens and puppies, and for apple pie, it’s the best thing.” And it didn’t work, this is a failure. But that didn’t stop Jim Henson, so he dusted that pitch tape off and sent it out to Lew Grade, and it worked for him.

Joanna: And now, I guess, people are making YouTube videos and more and more of them, and eventually getting noticed, so it takes, it takes time, it’s so important.

But another thing that was interesting is you talk about “if the pure art don’t sell, find a handle,” and that branding spin and the marketing spin, that’s very difficult for authors, especially literary fiction authors, I’m sure you know. So, do you have any tips for the sort of pitch man approach?

Liz: That was a lesson that I needed to learn, so all of the lessons in the book are basically to me, as a younger person, saying, “This is what you need to learn”! But that’s great, because that’s what I wanted to do with the project, to actually grow as a person.

With “if pure art don’t sell,” that’s based on this quote that Jim Henson had about Kermit, that Kermit was not initially a frog, he was just a thing, like an abstract sock puppet, basically, and Henson liked that better because that was more kind of symbolic, and what he was doing in those days with these abstract aliens, it says something about humanity, and it was more cerebral.

But he realized that people need a handle, he said, and he used that word. So, if you make Kermit a frog, or you make Rowlf a dog, that makes them instantly, understandable, and you can grab the handle and people understand it. So it’s more accessible to the audience.

And so that was something that I kind of realized for myself: maybe these long paragraphs that I was writing describing a leaf on a tree, maybe that didn’t need to be there, or maybe that needed a handle! A better handle! That it could be geared towards how are people going to understand this? And I guess that essentially comes down to working against an audience.

Workshops I think do that to some extent, but in a lot of fiction writing workshops, you’re dealing with other writers, and so they’re really excited about these long paragraphs, too. So I think, as much as I can now, I want to work, with real readers, and kind of try things out. Because I think, the way Jim Henson worked is like many artists, where you experiment, it’s trial and error, and that’s really the best way to learn, because he said if you learn too much from what other people have done, you’re going to do what everyone else does.

So, to answer your question, you asked how can literary writers sort of think about marketing.

I have a great piece of advice, and it’s another YouTube video, Jim Henson had this weird side-business, after commercials. He stopped doing commercials when Sesame Street started, because that seemed wrong, to have, say, Cookie Monster selling cookies or something like that, understandably. But he kept making these little pitch films. It started out as something that he would do to bring into a meeting with one of these corporations and say, “Hey, I’m going to make you a movie,” and it’s kind of a funny little skit version of his pitch, so he eventually, in the 70s, was making all these corporate sales films, basically a business could rent this and show it to their sales people. And it was entertaining, and it kind of made fun of how boring meetings are, and it was work stuff, workplace humor.

If you go to YouTube and search for Muppets Sell, Sell, Sell, there’s this great video, and it’s Jim Henson, and this is a man who called himself shy, this was a man whose agent said, “Well, he rarely spoke above a whisper, he never got mad, he wasn’t this boisterous, charismatic, aggressive person.” He was, like most writers, shy, quiet, maybe a little bit bookish, but you can see him in this video actually pitching his heart out, and he’s saying, “Hey, get out there and sell, sell yourself.” And it’s very similar to what he was actually doing in his career with the Muppet Show Pitch Video: in fact, they’re almost the same character, and it’s almost the same script. But if you watch Jim Henson, he’s worked himself up into this state of mania, almost, trying to get what he wants, or trying to say, “Hey, give me this show, I can do this. I’ll show you what I can do.”

It’s really inspiring to me, watching somebody who I know is shy doing that, it makes me think, “OK, I can try to market myself better.”

Joanna: And then going a bit further on, on you, how are you thinking about your next book, as in what have you learned with writing this book? Because Liz, of course, you’ve got fiction and non-fiction, I also have fiction and non-fiction, and it’s difficult to have both, and you market them in different ways.

But what are you doing around marketing for your work?

Liz: This is something that I realized: this is the test spin and I learned a lot, but I really think that I need to, in my next book deal, really make sure that I can partner with somebody. I don’t have enough people right now to help me to get my work out there. It’s time-consuming, and then it’s also an area of expertise that, a writer, well, I don’t have, and it naturally doesn’t come easy to me, to send my work out to a million people. I can do that once a week, but when that’s kind of something that’s on-going, it almost seems like that should be somebody else’s role who is really great at that, and gets a kick out of that, rather than me, because, you know, as a writer, I love to communicate, but I also find myself being shy and I have to kind of psych myself up to go do this.

So it’s the introvert’s dilemma, probably, because I can kind of turn it on and be the extrovert, but that’s not what gives me energy, doing the work gives me energy.

Joanna: Yes, although I like this podcasting we’re doing, it’s just you and me, there’s no one else here, it’s great. And then you never know who’s going to see it or listen to it, and to me, it’s interesting how this kind of intimate chat actually is, is good for marketing, and yet it’s pretty fun. Well, I’m having fun!

Liz: Yes, I’m having fun!

Joanna: That’s cool. It’s interesting, though, I actually think that these days, audio and video can be more effective, even though we’re marketing a written book, because there’s so much noise and so many books out there. Like with Jim, obviously, it was the visual stuff, his work was visual, but it’s just so interesting how that works.

Liz: Yes, it’s true, I think he had such an advantage. I think when you’re working in multimedia, movies, animation, it’s all levels, it’s sound, it’s audio, it’s visual, and that was Jim Henson’s strength, that’s what he was great at. As I said, his writer, Jerry Juhl, I sometimes think, “Well, maybe I’m more like him,” because he really was the glue that kept all of the characters together, and he really gave a lot of the nuanced, interpersonal stuff to the characters. Of course, that was also the performers themselves improvising and adding dimensions, but I think Jerry Juhl, needed to find a Jim Henson, because as a writer, you just have your words to kind of call up pictures and create characters, and it’s hard to compete with, as you said, the visual media.

So I think as writers, it makes sense to utilize that in whatever ways we can, and I’ve heard artists before, too, try to render characters they have. You know, if you have something visual to show people, even before you have a book deal, that could be something that gets interest.

Joanna: That’s a good point, actually. OK, I want to tackle head-on the people who may still be listening who want to talk about selling out. I read, was it in your book, about when you sell out—selling out is a good thing, it means your seats are all full, and if there’s “sold out,” on a shop door, it’s great, it means it’s so popular!

Liz: Not from mine, but that’s a great sentiment.

Joanna: I read that somewhere else, then.[It’s from Austin Kleon – Show your work]

But what do you think about this “selling out” and how can people deal with that negativity?

Liz: I think it’s hard, because there’s always boundaries you don’t want to cross, and I think it’s right to say no to things. That’s how you keep the characters who they are. That’s something I read about with Jim Henson and Walt Disney, that they would tell people, “No, Mickey wouldn’t do that” or “Kermit wouldn’t do this.” And it would drive people crazy, but if you know something, you should stand up for that.

But then, definitely there are lines, for Jim Henson, the big example for him was, merchandizing, and he thought that that was selling out, he literally said, “I don’t want to sell out.” His agent said, “You should do this for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that you’ll get creative freedom with all this merchandizing money,” and so Henson did what he literally thought was selling out.

And because of that, we know the Muppets. And I think of a brilliant painter who paints a masterpiece but if it’s in a coffee shop in some little town, and nobody ever sees it, what kind of legacy does that person leave, what kind of gift do they give the world: very few people get to receive it. So distribution is on my mind, because that’s something that I need for my book, and that’s not for the profits, but this is why I wrote it, this is going to sound crazy, but I wanted to change the world, because I thought, well, if all the artists I knew suddenly became entrepreneurial geniuses, and could go out there and achieve what they wanted, what a different world that would be.

I think we often think, “OK, well the hedge fund managers, those are the people who are going to run the world, and that’s just how it’s got to be,” but I think, what if you had educators and artists running the world, creative people, who kind of, I don’t know, thought about life in the round?

So in my mind, distribution is that kind of thing that’s the holy grail, and that’s really selling out, it’s reaching more people, reaching all the people, which I think was Henson’s goal, also, to have everyone in the world sit in front of their TV at the same time, and watch this one thing.

Joanna: I think, if we all just think, I certainly grew up with Fraggle Rock and with the Muppets, and I think we all can feel that that helped us all in some way, and I think that’s brilliant. That’s fantastic.

Because we’re coming to the end of our chat now, and we’ve talked about your non-fiction, just tell us about your fiction, so that people know.

Liz: Great, well, one story that I did a few years ago was called “Wolf Memoirs,” and it’s a story about a scientist, the journal was a very little publication, that had a small distribution list, so I’m an object lesson in this, where I spent years working on this gem of a story, and then how many people saw it, I don’t know, 500. So it’s on my website if you want to take a look at that, if that’s your bag. My novel, the Great American Novel of the future, is the story of a 100-year-old man and he becomes enlightened—that’s the spoiler! Basically he’s on a journey of self-exploration at age 100, that involves a life extension drug and a trip to the Amazon!

Joanna: And is that out?

Liz: No, that’s not out yet, but I’m coming back to that.

Joanna: Fantastic! Excellent.

Liz: Jim Henson is still my role model, and he never gave up, so that’s something that I’m still going to make sure comes out some day.

Joanna: Fantastic. So, tell us where people can find all your work and you online.

Liz: On Facebook you can find the Make Art Make Money community. I’m on Twitter as ElizHydeStevens, and then my book is out on Amazon, and you can get that as a Kindle or as an audio book or paperback.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Liz, that was brilliant.

Liz: Thank you, that was fun!

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  1. says

    Love the interview. Joanna, thanks for asking how the copyright issue applies to fiction writers. I was wondering the same thing; publishing contracts come with so much legal jargon that copyright issues become confusing. We want complete control over our characters while we’re writing, but it’s more of a matter of what a writer is willing to accept and work with once outside publishers become involved.

    And that’s the beauty of creative writing – it’s already so fulfilling and satisfying creatively that it doesn’t feel like “work” at all! It’s a hobby, but at the same time as a lifelong passion.

    Elizabeth, listening to you talk about how Jim Henson worked “all the time,” like sketching an unpaid project, reminded me of the idea that practice makes writing better over time. I think it’s completely true. No unpaid project is ever a wasted use of time, because it just causes one’s writing to improve. Whenever I thought of “Jim Henson,” in the past, “author” never came to mind – but your research on his life has made me realize how many valuable lessons authors can learn from him!

    • says

      Hi Pema, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I actually think we need to learn more from other creatives sometimes – we can get stuck in our silos otherwise!

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