SALT LAKE CITY — Utah native Heather Dixon Wallwork loves every aspect of storytelling, from working as a lead storyboard artist for Disney to writing best-selling middle-grade novels.
Most recently, she's gotten into the holiday spirit with her newest book "The Enchanted Sonata" (The Wallworkshop, 386 pages), a retelling of "The Nutcracker" with a bit of "The Pied Piper" thrown in — the first in what she hopes will be a trilogy about music as magic.
"The Enchanted Sonata" tells the story of Clara Stahlbaum, an accomplished young pianist who dreams of falling in love and being rescued from her grief over her father's death. Then she receives a mysterious gift of a nutcracker, accompanied by a book that, when she reads it, whisks her away to a magical land of fairies, monstrous rats and a prince who needs her help. The kingdom is in turmoil after a maniacal musician's flute lures children from their beds and turns them into toys. The prince then needs Clara to use her own musical abilities to save them.
Wallwork pulled from her experience as a musician in writing "The Enchanted Sonata." She first majored in flute performance at Weber State University, but she'd spent most of her childhood drawing, and her dream since she was 14 was to become a storyboard artist, she said. When Brigham Young University first launched its animation program, she applied right away and transferred there after she got in.
It was while studying animation at BYU that Wallwork decided to take a creative writing class, thinking a storyboard artist ought to learn more about story. She started writing a novel as a homework assignment for that class, and soon found she didn't want to do her other schoolwork anymore.
"I remember writing it and really enjoying the writing process, thinking, 'I really should be doing my homework,' but I wasn’t," she said. "I was spending all this time writing."
Eventually, this assignment turned into Wallwork's first published novel, "Entwined," a retelling of the fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." "Entwined" was published through HarperCollins, as was Wallwork's next novel "Illusionarium," a steampunk original story.
For "The Enchanted Sonata," Wallwork really wanted to apply her artistic skills to designing her own cover, but she knew a traditional publisher would never let her do that. She'd also had enough issues with how her publisher had run things that she decided she wanted to publish this book herself.
"I felt so strongly about it that I just went ahead and did it on my own," she said. "My agent was very supportive and very kind about it. I’m so happy with how the cover turned out that I think I’m glad I took that step."
She said she enjoyed picking her own layout designers and editors, including her BYU creative writing professor. Wallwork also said she was able to have more back-and-forth with them than she ever could with her traditional publisher.
In addition to applying her artistic abilities to designing her own covers, Wallwork has noticed how her storyboarding experience influences the way she writes her books. She said her novels are often similar to screenplays with dialogue-, action- and character-driven scenes.
"When I’m writing, I actually see the characters in my head and how I would draw them," Wallwork explained.
She added that she'll often draw the characters of her books for fun before she writes them.
In her career as a storyboard artist, Wallwork worked out of Salt Lake City as a story lead for Disney Interactive, contributing to movies such as "Moana" and "Monsters University."
Today, she freelances for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and is the storyboarder behind the animated children's video "A Mother's Hope" — the story told by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, about his mother losing her children at a train station during World War II. She's also served as the assistant director for "The Coat," a story from past church President Heber J. Grant's childhood.Comment on this story
Between working for the film industry in her home state to being able to publish her novels on her own, Wallwork said she's grateful for how modern technology has allowed her to fulfill her dreams.
"We live in such an incredible time," she said. "It’s just astounding. Twenty years ago, you had to live in California to create movies, and you had to always work through traditional publishers to write books. Now, with the internet and software advances, you can do this in your home. … I just feel so blessed and lucky to live in this period of time in the world."