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Q&A: Alex Hirsch and Rob Renzetti on Gravity Falls Fandom

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Disney Publishing

Though the animated series and cult hit Gravity Falls wrapped in February after just two seasons, the show's devoted following is more dedicated than ever. Thousands of people joined in creator Alex Hirsch's Cipher Hunt over the summer, completing an international scavenger hunt that culminated in the discovery of a statue of the show's supervillain. And those same fans made Journal 3, a real-life manifestation of a key book in the series, a New York Times bestseller in a matter of days.

We talked to Hirsch and Rob Renzetti, co-authors of Journal 3, about the book, the show, the scavenger hunt—and where they get all of their fabulously weird ideas.

Journal 3 is packed with hidden info and ciphers to unravel—so much, in fact, that there’s no way fans have found it all yet. Can you give a hint to something no one appears to have discovered?

Alex Hirsch: The internet never ceases to impress me. For all the talk about how the upcoming generation has a short attention span, the moment you give these kids a riddle they drop everything and suddenly work together in perfect harmony like a military-level SWAT team to crack the code. It’s incredible. That being said, sometimes fans are often so focused on code-cracking they miss what’s in plain sight—the actual text of the journal! There are connections in there that even the savviest fans still have yet to notice.

Journal 3 reveals new details about most of the major characters, like Ford's Smash Mouth tattoo and the fact that Soos glues on his chin hair. How much of that existed as character development during the series, and how much backstory did you create just for the Journal?

Rob Renzetti: Alex could probably give you a more encyclopedic answer to this question. I think a lot of Stan’s backstory was something that he had in his back pocket during the whole run of the series. Other smaller things were definitely invented for the book. The chin hair bit was something I came up with as a throwaway joke that I thought said a lot about Soos. 

AH: I've had the backstories for many of these characters in my head for a long time. Especially Ford and Bill, and how Bill played to Ford's ego and almost destroyed the world in the process. Of course we still improvise and invent new things along the way. That’s the fun of writing—finding chances to surprise yourself. Ford's tattoo was a surprise to me, too—courtesy of our awesome illustrator Andy Gonsalves.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

One of the fun things about the Journal is that we get to dive deeper into some of the episodes. For example, Ford chronicles a few of the other dimensions he experienced while he was in the portal. What inspired those? In particular, the "M" dimension stood out to me as something that must have a story behind it.

AH: While writing season two, we wanted to send our characters through the portal into the multiverse but never found a way to quite make it work with our storyline. There were tons of drawings and jokes we came up with during our brainstorms—including the annoyingly pointless M dimension. We loved the idea of someone as scientific and rational as Ford having to fight his way out of what was essentially a Sesame Street segment teaching you about the letter M. It would drive him insane.

RR: The M Dimension came out of an unused story where Mabel went through the Portal and the Pines needed to go search for her. We were brainstorming ideas for alternate dimensions and the M Dimension was the most delightfully silly thing we could imagine.

Much has been made over how much creative control you were able to retain even though Disney’s Standards and Practices is presumably pickier than most. Was there anything you really had to fight for? Did you lose any of those battles?

AH: One day I'd love to release a coffee table book of all the crazy notes I got from Disney Channel's S&P and legal department. To give you a sense of what I was up against, one time I was told, "Make sure the target that Wendy throws a dart at doesn't resemble the target from the store Target." To which I had to reply: "The target isn't the target from Target. The target is a target."

Welcome to my hell.

Was anything vetoed from the Journal?

RR: I don’t remember any idea that we came up with being vetoed or changed. Disney Publishing is particularly awesome that way.

AH: Disney Publishing has been incredible. They didn't give me a single note on this journal. They understood the tone of the show, believed in my vision, and more importantly, trusted the intelligence of our audience. Working with them has been a dream come true. I wish the gatekeepers in kids TV were as savvy and in tune with the audience as those in Publishing.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

The Cipher Hunt was such a fun, interactive way to keep fans involved. Where did you get the idea?

AH: I spent 90 percent of my childhood playing SNES and N64, and my favorite games were the ones packed with secrets. I remember spending one summer being utterly obsessed with trying to get the legendary unreachable "Ice Key" from Banjo-Kazooie. What was so brilliant about that item was that it was literally impossible to get and just was there to torture players. Or so people thought. Until years later, someone discovered a code that let you find it. I remember thinking that if I ever had a chance, I wanted to create something that gave fans the same feeling. A last mystery after the game is over. Something so hard to find it reaches legendary status. Launching the hunt and watching the fans team up all over the world to find the clues was one of the most fun things I've ever done.

Do Mabel and Dipper's names have any special significance?

AH: I imagine that [their] parents see themselves as slightly counter-culture and chose purposefully archaic names just so their kids would stand out among the 12 Chrises and 14 Jessicas in Dipper and Mabel's preschool.

You’ve talked a lot about the real-life inspirations for many of the main characters, but I haven’t seen much about where McGucket came from. I thought it was interesting that Journal 3 showed that not only was he once a genius, he was actually the voice of reason before he got fed up with Ford.

RR: McGucket started as a throwaway joke character in "Gobblewonker" and just grew and grew in importance as the series went on. It just made sense to us that a character with such scientific and technological skill would be tied to the creation and the creator of the Portal.

AH: McGucket originally started out as just a wacky stereotypical hillbilly and a chance for me to scream into the microphone. (He was originally called Old Man McGuffin, which is a literary trope meaning something unimportant that sets a plot in motion.) But when our writers got deeper into the story we discovered that there was an exciting opportunity to connect him to our characters’ pasts and destinies. I'm very glad we did—giving Ford a friend humanizes him, as well as deepening the tragedy when they part ways.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

What's next for you both?

AH: Right now I'm developing a few different projects for a few different places, but it’s too early to comment on any of them. Like Grunkle Stan, I like to stay a man of mystery until the right moment to fleece rubes emerges once more.

RR: I’m serving as executive producer on a new show for Disney TV called Country Club created by the very talented Houghton brothers. It’s about a country family’s oversized adventures in the Big City.

Finally, a question from Lydia, my superfan 6-year-old: "Where do you come up with all of the weirdness?"

AH: I didn't come up with the weirdness. I was born in it. Molded by it.

RR: There is an unlimited supply of weirdness in the weird world around you and inside your weird self. Lots of people try to ignore it and lots of people try to stamp it out. But the best people allow themselves the freedom to be weird. Be the best, weird person you can be.

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

Book cover for Leave Me Alone With the Recipes
Amazon

Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

Find It: Amazon

2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

Cover of The Butchering Art
Amazon

Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

Cover of Its All Relative
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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

Find It: Amazon

4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

Cover of The Hate U Give
Amazon

Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

The book cover for Atlas Obscura's book
Amazon.com

An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

Find it: Amazon

7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

Cover of the Big Book of Rogues and Villains
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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

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9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

Find It: Amazon

10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

Book cover for Her Body and Other Parties
Amazon

A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

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11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

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Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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