For those who had or have had young children, they know the challenges they face when they are starting middle school. More often than not, they are faced with having to make new friends and get adjusted to new classes and schedules. This can be challenging enough but think about making that adjustment while suffering with OCD. That is the situation young Maggie deals with in Veronica Agarwal and Lee Durfey-Lavoie’s new book, Just Roll with It by Penguin Random House. One of the mechanisms that Maggie uses to cope is her RPG dice. Decisions are much easier to manage when you let your dice help you decide your course. The story of Just Roll with It was so well done and handled with such sensitivity that when an opportunity to talk to the creators came up, we jumped at the chance. So, let’s welcome Veronica Agarwal and Lee Durfey-Lavoie to GVN’s Talking Comics Interview.

Preview Book

GVN: Thank you both so much for giving us a bit of your time. So, Let’s jump right in. Just Roll with It is a charming book, but I understand it was not your first version of it. You originally started with a 12-page preview book. What was the inspiration for the initial story, and while you worked on that project, did you have plans at that time to expand the story?

Lee: The 12-page mini comic was really a test for us: can we tell a story about mental illness that’s fun and doesn’t demonize mental illness, and can we do it in time for Flamecon (a queer centric comics convention typically held in June in NYC)? And the answer was yes! The mini has a lot of similar elements to Just Roll with It; Maggie struggles with OCD (though she doesn’t know the name for it yet) and turns to something she finds comfort in: role playing games, and specifically a D20, to give herself direction.

She deals with bullies, makes friends, and learns how to live with her OCD. In Just Roll with It proper we add elements and expand upon topics like living up to family expectations, managing and making friendships, standing up for yourself, and of course the monster that lurks outside her school. I think what I relished expanding on the most was Maggie’s relationship with the RPG club—kids are weird, silly, and can have all sorts of fun that adults forget how to. So, letting Maggie have FUN with friends, despite dealing with many fears and problems, was such a thrill.

Veronica: The concept for the initial story was ‘a child with OCD using their dice to help them make decisions.’ We always wanted to make it into a full-length graphic novel, but Lee has more experience with prose writing and I have more experience in comics, so we started with a 12-page mini comic to do a test run on a number of different things, most important of which was assessing how Lee needed to write the script in order for me to adapt it into a comic page. As a prose writer, he normally would spend more time describing a scene, setting or character. But with a graphic novel script, you don’t need to do that as often. Rather than focus on what a place looks like, you have to also put a lot of thought into how a page is structured, which is something that’s rarer in prose. We’ve had a lot of fun bonding over how incredible comics are over the course of adjusting Lee’s script work for this project, and it’s been nice to see how his prose writing has informed his graphic novel scripting, and vice versa.

Other Story Ideas

GVN:  Just Roll with it was your first collaboration together on a story. Was this your only story idea or did you have other possible storylines before you chose this path?

Lee: While we did a lot of work on other story stuff between us just for fun, Maggie’s story was one we really wanted to tell. Veronica first drew Maggie in, I believe, 2016 and by the time we got to the mini, let alone Just Roll With It, we had already loved her character so much. We felt like we had a lot to say, and Maggie had a lot she wanted to do… So “Just Roll with It” was definitely the story we wanted to tell first.

Veronica: We had been together for a year or two before we started this project, so we had been collaborating a lot for fun up until that point … but this was our first long form story we developed together.

Digital Art

GVN: One of the strengths of Just Roll with It is the way it approaches mental health in a way that is accessible for both children and adults alike. Part of that was the charming artwork by Veronica and the sensitivity that you both obviously gave to the characters in word and image. Speaking of Miss Veronica’s art, I see that you work in digital format. Was that a recent adaptation or have you always worked digitally?

Veronica: Thank you! I’ve loved digital art since I was young—I think I got my first Wacom tablet when I was 12 or so—but I really drew on whatever I could get my hands on back then (school work, napkins, canvas, etc…) In college I was able to experiment with a lot of different types of media and found digital worked the best for me when it came to making comics. It let me experiment a lot more because I could adjust things as many times as I wanted without scarring a physical page. I still have a soft spot for all traditional media though!! Every type has its charm, and I miss the days when I got to work with all different types simultaneously.

Researching OCD

GVN: As you developed the story, did you research how OCD and self-esteem issues affect children and their ways to deal with it, or did you go by your own personal experiences?

Lee: We tried to be very extensive in our research, and there was a mix of both for sure. However, there was always a balancing act between our personal experiences, what we felt that Maggie herself would do, and the knowledge that since OCD and self-esteem issues can be SO broad, we wouldn’t be able to fit all of them into the book. We tried to find a good spot between clinical research (from online journals, conversations with our respective therapists) and personal experience that could help kids—or really anyone reading—understand mental illness and give readers a way to talk about issues they might be navigating.

Veronica: When we were developing the story, admittedly I went solely based on my own experiences. I had recently been diagnosed with OCD and I think a lot of this book was me exploring that and sharing what I’d learned. Lee did more research into how the disorder affects children, and we also got some wonderful feedback from friends who work with children in regard to how they act, as opposed to how we remember ourselves acting, haha. I think it was also easier for Lee, who has 8 younger brothers and sisters, as opposed to me, who’s the second youngest in my family. I was never around anyone younger than 4 years my junior regularly growing up, whereas Lee had experience with babies almost all of his adolescence.

Using the Die as a Coping Mechanism

GVN: The use of the dice seems like such a great coping mechanism and literary device. How did you decide to incorporate this into the story (aside from your love of role-playing games)?

Lee: Well really …  this was Veronica’s idea from the start—and at the beginning it was because role playing games were what we were both into at the time. As we developed the story more and more it just became really clear to us that it made sense. For Maggie it’s an item of comfort and enjoyment, and also it can provide clarity and assurance. The paralyzing fear of ‘am I making a good choice?’ is lifted from her shoulders; she doesn’t need to know the answer, she just needs to act according to the roll of the die.

Readers Take Away

GVN: What would you like and hope that readers would take away from Just Roll With it?

Lee: My goal for Just Roll With it has always been, simply, for readers to find a modicum of peace. I hope Just Roll With it can help readers find out that they’re not alone, that they’re not freaks or damaged, and that things CAN and do get better. It’s a book I would have really appreciated in the beginning of my depression in middle school—to have the chance to be able to give somebody that comfort is what this book is about, for me.

Veronica: One of my fears when making this book, and even now, is that we didn’t get to cover all the ways that OCD and anxiety can affect a person. I wanted this book to be someone’s “a-ha” moment, to help them realize that there’s a name for something they’re feeling. It’s hard to do that when mental health affects everyone differently. I realized that while we can’t hope to have represented all facets of mental illness perfectly, what we can hope for, is to make mental health easier to talk about, especially for people who aren’t as well educated about it as we are. Discussing mental health wasn’t really taboo in my family growing up, so I always felt I had a lot of resources to point me in the right direction when I had questions. However, I realize that for some people, they may be completely in the dark and not even know where to start. So, if this book can help them connect to other resources, then I would be able to say it’s done its job.

Following on social media

GVN: Thank you both so much for your time. For my final question, do you have any other projects coming up you would like to talk about either individually or together and how can our readers follow you on social media?

Veronica: Thank you!! Right now, I’m working on the second story in the “Just Roll with It” universe, which has been really fun and exciting. My twitter is @anuanew and my portfolio site is wisbafolio.com !!

Lee: As a matter of fact, we do! “Just Roll with It” has a planned sequel in the works right this second! It doesn’t yet have a title, but you can follow us on Twitter at: @anuanew and @Leedurfey for updates on “Just Roll with It,” its sequel, and events we have planned in the future!

Veronica and Lee: Thank you so much for your time and this opportunity! It’s been an absolute pleasure!

Penguin Random House’s Just Roll with It by Veronica Agarwal and Lee Durfey-Lavoie releases on December 14th, 2021, where all great books are sold.

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