The Writer's Practice: Kristen Radtke

Kristen Radtke is a writer. Also, she's an illustrator and she designs book covers. Plus, she works as a film and video editor. And she's the managing editor of Sarabande Publishing. 

Radtke created the graphic novel Imagine Wanting Only This, described by the New York Times as "a story of the young writer's growing fascination with ruins and abandoned places, as she attempts to come to terms with death." The review continues on to call Radtke "a superhuman of illustration, a grandmaster." But even superhumans have to put pen to paper, have to start with a speck of a concept and grow it and grow.


A graphic novel expresses more than the simple "words + pictures" equation suggests, but still, the author/illustrator of a graphic novel must attack both pieces. When it came to Imagine, Radtke jotted early words in Apple's Notes. The first iteration of the book resembled "the document of an insane person," she told Spine. Random thoughts. Verbal rambles. But the words offered Radtke a crucial base off which to jump. "It's hard if you come at something from having nothing," she said. "I'd rather have a bunch of crap than nothing."

For the visuals, Radtke took to the storyboard, in her case drawing with pencil in a spiral notebook full of lined paper. Things tilted, shifted, changed. "When you start drawing, things expand and things shrink," she told Spine. "That's what makes the process fun." Finally, Radtke brought Imagine into Adobe Illustrator, which allows creators to play with scale, an especially helpful feature when designing a many-paneled graphic novel.


Excerpt from Imagine Wanting Only This


As for which came first, the words or the images: Neither. Both. Radtke followed where the pen led. If she was stuck on text, she moved to drawing, and vice versa. "Anything that keeps you moving, you should do."

Most of Radtke's moving on Imagine took place in spits and spots of time scattered throughout her week, peppered around her professional commitments at TriQuarterly and Sarabande Books. The former, Northwestern University's literary magazine, comes through in a few waves throughout the year, but Sarabande requires her regular weekday attention.

Sarabande's hours, like those of many an NYC publisher, start around 10 a.m. and so Radtke tries to create early, with varying degrees of success. "I always have delusions of grandeur about the amount of work I can get done in the morning. Even if I get just a half hour in, [the story] is sitting in my head all day." That said, she gets most of her work done on weekends, at locations scattered throughout her Brooklyn apartment.

"I have an office at home, it's a desk in a room with other things, but I go through phases. I find myself working in rounds. I'll get stuck in one place for a couple of days — the guest room, the kitchen."

As of late, working around the apartment involves Radtke storyboarding her next projects, a black-and-white graphic series of essays and illustrations for the New Yorker called Urban Loneliness, on its way to becoming a book, and a graphic novel about "terrible men" (her words) in color. She never considered color when creating Imagine — "black and white was just where it came out." But this new graphic novel demands color. The palette shifts as the book moves forward. At 50 storyboarded pages in, Radtke's learning to wrangle the ink.

"I made a lot of palettes that were horrible. The colors looked insane together. It was a lot of trial and error. How does this scene change if it's slightly tinted blue or slightly tinted red? How can this character change?"

Radtke has experience wrestling with palettes from her day job at Sarabande. For more on that, look for the upcoming release of Spine 7.

For more on Kristen, visit

Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.