Student-teacher collaborations aren’t fiction

By Ivana Hester

The idea of lions, tigers and bears on LaSalle Street sounds pretty strange, but for a Columbia faculty member, it is the inspiration and theme for his new children’s book.

“Hackers of Oz,” written by Tom Mula, a senior lecturer in the Theatre Department, was inspired by the “The Wizard of Oz” series written by L. Frank Baum in the early 1900s, which is now in the public domain. However, Mula said his version has a 21st century twist.

“It is a modern context, and setting it here in Chicago gave me a lot of opportunities for drama, interest and humor,” Mula said.

The book follows the life of Elizabeth, a 10-year-old computer whiz who moves to Chicago and is awakened one night by a knocking on the other side of her computer screen. Two residents of the Land of Oz, Scarecrow and Scraps, characters Baum wrote about in his seventh book, “The Patchwork Girl of Oz,” insist that she let them into her world because there is trouble only she can help them with.

Things escalate when Elizabeth’s mother goes missing, leading her on a hunt for answers with the Oz characters by her side. The story’s theme is the celebration of one’s self, Mula said.

“Villains in the piece [represent] conformity and the idea that anybody is not good enough,” he said.

Mula began working on “Hackers of Oz” eight years ago after publishing his first book, “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” a spin-off of “A Christmas Carol,” a play he is very familiar with because he played Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre’s production of the holiday classic for seven years, he said.

Mula said he stopped working on the novel for several years but decided to pick it up again when he started to pursue a graduate degree at Columbia.

“I wrote this book [in 2010] as my MFA thesis in the creative fiction department and had the help of many wonderful teachers,” he said.

Mula said he looked for possible publishers, but  he thought the process would take too long and decided to self-publish. He also needed an illustrator, so he contacted Fred Nelson, an associate professor in the Art & Design Department.

Nelson sent Mula five student portfolios so he could choose one to illustrate the book. Mula chose Jason Fuller, a junior A&D major.

“Jason was a great fit,” Mula said. “His portfolio was whimsical, funny, magical and also well-crafted.”

Fuller had never illustrated a book before, but he said he would definitely do it again. He also said  he enjoyed working with Mula because he had a clear vision of what he wanted for the images.

“He was able to pull a lot of inspiration into me,” Fuller said. “He was very detailed and very passionate about his vision.”

Fuller said he admired the work of John R. Neill, who illustrated some of the “Oz” sequels, but he did not want to duplicate those illustrations. Instead, he wanted to combine Neill’s styles with his own.

The book is available on in both hardcover and paperback, and as an e-book for Kindle and Nook tablets.

Fuller said he was both nervous and excited for the publication of the book.

“I think that could be terrifying but equally rewarding at the same time,” he said.