INTERVIEW: Dani Hedlund reveals how they brought Gatsby, Camelot, and more to THE LITERARY TAROT

INTERVIEW: Dani Hedlund reveals how they brought Gatsby, Camelot, and more to THE LITERARY TAROT

From the nonprofit organization, Brink Literacy Project, comes The Literary Tarot! An ambitious project that collaborated with storytellers and cartoonists to create a unique tarot deck. Combining the stories of classic literature with the magic of tarot, this Kickstarter campaign brings together a diverse and talented team to create a tarot deck that features 78 unique cards, illustrated with a beautiful limited palette and foil accents.

We spoke with Brink Literacy Project’s CEO, Dani Hedlund about this amazing new campaign and how she formulated the idea and worked with such a diverse range of creatives.

Therese: This is an amazing concept, can you tell me about how you got started with it and where the inspiration came from?

Dani: Thanks so much for saying that, Therese! I would really love to tell you this was all my brilliant idea, but alas, the whole thing sparked from an off-hand comment from my partner.

A year ago, when Covid shut down the world, Brink Literacy Project was in a mad scramble to figure out how the hell we were going to fundraise for all our nonprofit work when galas became impossible. It was one of those terrible adapt-or-die moments.

But I had no idea what adapting would look like. Fortunately for me, several wonderful things started brewing around us. At the time, I knew not a lick about tarot, but a lovely short story fell on my desk for F(r)iction, by an unpublished author, Ellen Azevedo. The piece details the disappearance of someone who has tarot reading told entirely through Yelp Reviews, and I instantly fell in love.

One month later, a friend of ours (Seven Asmund) ran a very successful tarot campaign on Kickstarter. For the first time, I really took a look at tarot. And wow, was I impressed with what I found. As a life-long comic geek and publisher, the only thing I love more than stellar storytelling is stellar storytelling paired with stellar art.

And isn’t that what tarot is?

So, when my partner ripped out his own tarot deck (that I didn’t even know he had), to show me the ropes, I was instantly enchanted. After the reading, he packed up the cards and tossed out a simple, “You know, if you can’t do galas anymore, maybe you can do a tarot deck…but like, a literary tarot deck, where all the cards are paired with classics. The Tower could be Cthulhu, the Lovers could be Romeo and Juliet, that sorta thing.”

Literary TarotLiterary Tarot
Credit: Brink Literacy Project

Even as he changed the subject, I couldn’t stop chewing on that idea. I felt in my gut that he was onto something. Something that would then consume the next year of my life…

Therese: How did you choose literature when it came to picking the best stories to fit each card?

Dani: The key to making this project work is just that: ensuring the perfect pairing of classic to card.

And, for the most part, we found the best way to do that was to start with the story. The wonderful thing about writers is that we all spend far too much time agonizing over literature we love — why it works, what themes it explores, how it changed the way we looked at the world.

So, when a new author joins this project, they bring with them a deep love of particular works, and it’s our job to help them delve into what really makes that story tick. Then we help them match those themes with a great tarot card.

For example, look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. On the surface, sure, it’s about a master detective. But Mark Millar, who took up this pairing, didn’t go for the obvious pairings. He did something better. He zoomed in not on Sherlock, but on his methods, pairing the classic with the Ace of Swords (Quills for us!). This card is all about being trapped between confusion and the sharp blade of truth that cuts through it. (Can’t you just hear Sherlock whispering “It’s elementary!” to Watson?).

Therese: Can you break down the anatomy of a tarot card? For example, how do you pair something like The Hanged Man card with T.S. Eliot‘s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and how does Celeste Ng add her unique twist to it?

Dani: You know how I just said we usually start with the story? Celeste is a stellar example of the opposite. When Celeste came on board, she wanted to start with the card and pair backward.

Thus, she sat down with the Hanged Man (one of the most powerful cards in the deck) and let the themes percolate. For any tarot newbies out there, the Hanged Man is all about being suspended, a deliberate pause, surrender, or even a feeling of being stuck.

For Celeste, the most potent literary piece that embodied those themes was Eliot’s famous poem. Although our high school English teachers pounded into us that Prufrock is all about existential crisis, Celeste took that step further.

“The poem happens in stasis,” she told me, “Like Prufrock has hit pause on the world while he decides what — if anything — he will do. Will he speak? Will he eat a peach? Will he disturb the universe? Or will he do nothing at all?”

Armed with that insightful compass, our Major Arcana artist, Sam Dow, and I sat down and had a long chat about how to bring Celeste’s pairing to life.

Luckily for us, Celeste not only armed us with the right themes, but she also gave us the perfect reason to suspend Prufrock upside-down as in the traditional major arcana imagery. “Prufrock sees the world from a different angle,” Celeste noted, “as the Hanged Man does quite literally.”

And let me tell you, he’s gonna be suspended between some gorgeous cosmic options…and some peaches.

Therese: How much back and forth was there when it came to creating the cards with the artists? Obviously, tarot cards are infamous for the amount of detail that goes into each card and how aspects can be interpreted.

Literary TarotLiterary Tarot
Credit: Brink Literacy Project

Dani: Oh Therese, so much! But luckily, I have the world’s most incredible art team.

As the Art Director for our nonprofit (yes, I know, I wear too many hats), it was my honor to put together five incredible artists to bring this project to life. With an artist manning each suit, we selected five lovely humans who all compliment each other’s styles (all very intricate illustrators with a strong emphasis on visual storytelling/comics).

It’s a really diverse team, from seasoned professionals I’ve worked with for years, like Ejiwa “Edge” Ebenebe (whose works have graced the covers of ImagineFX and Marvel Comics) to Isabel Burke, who’s making her debut with this as her first professional gig ever).

When we bring a card to life, I sit down with the chosen artist and discuss the themes that are important to the celebrity author who paired them (what moment in the book to zoom in on, what characters are clutch, the sort of “mood” of the pairing). But we also brainstorm ways to bring in some of the classic elements of each tarot card.

So, for example, take a gander at Bradley Clayton’s artwork for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Roxane Gay paired this beauty with the King of Parchment (our Pentacles suit). Since the King of Parchment is a cocky gent — pulled between the upright meaning of abundance, luxury, and sensuality, and the reverse tendencies of greed, recklessness, and even cruelty — we wanted to show the juxtaposition between the swaggering man-about-town and the monstrous tendencies he hides in his painting.

King of Parchment CardKing of Parchment Card
Credit: Brink Literacy Project

But for the tarot expert out there, you’ll spot that Brad snuck in elements that echo traditional tarot. Dorian is on a throne, like most of the king cards, and there are grapes and a bull woven into the chair design, both strong symbols associated with this arcana.

Therese: I love that the minor arcana suits have been changed to reflect literary tools, can you explain how you came to that idea and how you chose which new suits to replace the old?

Dani: Oh thanks for drawing attention to that! It’s one of my favorite parts of our collection. For the seasoned tarot reader, you’ll know that each minor suit resonates with particular themes.

Thus, we set out to equate each of those themes with a part of the creative process:

  • Swords, a suit about how we parse the world, became Quills
  • Wands, a suit about logic, willpower, and inspiration, became Ink
  • Cups, a suit about imagination and intuition, became Light
  • Pentacles, a suit about the material world, became Parchment

I’m particularly tickled about our renaming because none of these “items” can actualize without each other. To create beautiful stories (both literally and metaphorically) you need to nurture your intuition and imagination (light), translate it into language and logic (ink), conjure it into existence through action (quills), and then commit the damn thing to the material world (parchment).

If you’re new to tarot and that all sounds like gibberish, fret not. All of our decks will come with a swanky little guidebook, penned by the incredible authors who paired each card, to walk you through each card and its meanings. Also, you know, it’s pretty as hell:

Literary TarotLiterary Tarot
Card art by Shan Bennion and book design by Ejiwa “Edge” Ebenebe.
Credit: Brink Literacy Project

Therese: As an avid tarot reader, I know there is so much interpretation when it comes to tarot cards, whether it’s major or minor arcana. How did you go about deciding which authors and artists paired the best with each card?

Dani: Great question — one that cuts elegantly to the heart of what we’re building here. tarot, to us at least, is so much like picking up a good book. Each card offers you a little glimpse at meaning, some positive and negative traits, the hope of a positive outcome if we can navigate our personal plots correctly…or a warning of how badly it could turn out if we choose poorly.

Stories are just like that. We empathize with them. We choose to learn from the folly of these characters or reject the comparison.

And we wanted to bring this same spark of meaning to each card. And I hope we have done that… mostly by getting out of the way of the people who know these stories best.

For how the artists are paired with each piece, that was a decision we made by suit. Each of our five artists certainly has an aesthetic leaning, and before we started the project, we thought really hard about which artist would work best with each suit.

For example, Shan Bennion, the Suit of Light artist, leans into fantasy art and dramatic lighting, so it made great sense to pair them with our renaming of the Cups suit.

For the majors, which embody all “moods,” Sam Dow was a stellar fit. Sam is a comic artist by trade, and they’re always down to explore anything from the darkest reaches of hell in Dante’s Inferno to some courtly romance in The Age of Innocence. They also have the most experience making decks — they did the art for the Normal Tarot Gold edition! — so Sam was the perfect artist to jump in with me in the beginning and create the design brief, color palette, and format for the whole kit and kaboodle.

Therese: Did the designs have any basis off of the Rider-Waite decks and their design?

Dani: The artist and I always took the traditional representation into account, not just because we thought that would enhance the reading experience, but also because we wanted to do right by all the tarot lovers out there.

But with that said, when it clashed with the story, we let the story win.

For example, Dracula as death would look silly on a horse with a white flag, so instead, we snuck the skull imagery into the card (you’ll see Mina is holding a wee candle castling a skeleton outline), but we let that vampire loom over her with all the dread we yearned for.

But for cards like the King of Quills, which Kelly Sue DeConnick paired with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, artist Isabel Burke worked hard to pull in the nobility of the king and fun visual tributes to the Rider-Waite deck (like that blue cloak and the butterflies).

Death CardDeath Card
Credit: Brink Literacy Project
King of Quills CardKing of Quills Card
Credit: Brink Literacy Project

What is your own personal connection to tarot? Do you do readings yourself?

Dani: A year ago, I had not an ounce of connection. In fact, if I’m honest, I’d venture to say I actually disliked tarot.

You see, I’ve always considered myself to be one of those practical, boring, I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it people. I understand the hypocrisy of that—what sort of “practical” person starts a nonprofit when she’s a teenager, dedicated to the belief that stories have the power to change the world?

But, hell, aren’t we all just balls of contradictions?

It took me making this deck, working with so many of my literary heroes, with artists who dazzle me daily, to see what was obvious to everyone else: that tarot deck is a portable portal to the magic of storytelling, to understanding ourselves.

Assuming this campaign goes well, I very much hope to keep making tarot decks until they rip my computer away from my old, dead, tired fingers.

Therese: Oftentimes, I’ve noticed that tarot decks can embody a “mood” of their own. I have some decks that I use when I’m doing a more light-hearted reading, ones that I use when I’m after serious answers. What kind of “mood” do you think this type of deck exudes, if any at all?

Dani: I totally get that! And you know, I really thought this deck would fall into the playful camp. The very first card we made was my Alice in Wonderland pairing with the Moon—gotta love a story all about illusions and falling down the rabbit hole of imagination—and the art was just fun.

Look at wee Alice wandering down that surreal staircase, chasing a rabbit in a suit. How whimsical!

The Moon CardThe Moon Card
Credit: Brink Literacy Project

But what I realized as we brought on more and more authors was that each card couldn’t be tied down by one “mood.”

For example, Wicked + Divine author, Kieron Gillen, paired Crime and Punishment with the Five of Swords, a card that cuts to the heart of short-lived triumphs leading to serious downfalls. Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, paired The Great Gatsby with the Five of Cups, one of the loneliest, saddest cards in the deck because, despite those elaborate parties, Gatsby is always pulled away, staring off into the past, unable to move on. Hell, Stephen Graham Jones’ pairing of W. W. Jacob’s short story “The Monkey Paw” with the Three of Swords is damn heartbreaking.

The point is, I was wrong to think of this deck as a collection, something like the lit journal I’ve been running for years. It’s not a collection curated around a particular theme. It’s a library, where every card is a magical tome you slide off the shelf, true only to the story it needs to tell.

Therese: Finally, do you have a favorite card from this collection?

Dani: This is SUCH a cruel question!

Okay, if I have to choose — and I’ll probably change this answer every other interview, but for now, I’ll go with my gut—it would be Lev Grossman’s paring of King Arthur with The World.

But not just because Sam just slayed the art, but they did (come now, the lady in the lake emerging from the round table. Damn! And look at all the sneaky “World” imagery they pulled: scantily clad lassie in the middle, snake in the trees, a big, circular figure in the center!).

The World CardThe World Card
Credit: Brink Literacy Project

The reason I really love this card is that it was entirely unexpected. When Lev said he wanted to pair King Arthur, I instantly thought of cards like the Emperor, leaning into the commanding nature of the King. Or even the Magician, because, you know, Merlin.

But then Lev explained that he kept coming back to the King Arthur myth (he’s actually writing a book about it as we speak) not because of the heroism of our titular character. It wasn’t the triumphs…it was the failures that got him.

For Lev, Camelot is all the more beautiful because it’s not permanent. Because no matter how hard Arthur and his knights fight, the dream of Camelot ends. Giving birth to something new.

And isn’t that what The World card really means? Fighting for an ideal, for something beautiful, but, in reverse, knowing that all things are circular, that this too will end.

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