The Different Parts of a (Mickey Mouse) Watch: An Interview with J.J. Gilbert

Jason Lethcoe’s career as an animator, storyboard artist and writer all came about in the same way - a whole lot of luck and determination.

Bob Heath’s Animation in Twelve Hard Lessons taught traditional, two dimensional animation that inspired a teenaged Lethcoe to pursue a career in it. He found an animation school near his home but when he called to inquire, he was told he was too old for their programming. However, the owner’s son-in-law worked for Warner Bros. Animation and offered to teach him on the weekends.

The first time he applied to Walt Disney Animation Studios, still a teenager, he received a rejection phone call that crushed his dreams. His dad encouraged him to not give up, and it wasn’t long after that he accidentally stumbled into his first job working for Don Bluth Productions for their 1989 film All Dogs Go To Heaven.

The second time he applied to Walt Disney Animation Studios, they called him with better news - they wanted him to take an animation test. The next day he received a phone call that said one of their lead animators was impressed with his work and that he had the job. During his first week there, he learned that his portfolio was actually meant to be placed in the do-not-call pile, and it was a complete accident that he had been called to take the animation test.

He made sure to work extra hard to prove his worth, and ended up on the Prince Eric crew for the 1989 film The Little Mermaid, which was released the same day as All Dogs Go To Heaven. He has since spent many years working for Disney, minus a brief stint animating Bugs Bunny and the 1994 film The Pagemaster, and his work as a storyboard artist helped him pursue a writing career.

“I steadily was coming back to this place of writing and thought a lot about the books I loved when I was younger,” Lethcoe said. “I was always an avid reader but I really wanted to write something of my own.”

His first series, Zoom’s Academy, started with Lethcoe receiving a call from an agent looking for his friend and instead finding interest in what he was writing. It went from a self-published book to a book backed by a publisher to a 2006 film starring Tim Allen, Courteney Cox and Chevy Chase.

He has also written two series for Disney Books. The first, Tales From Adventureland, is a trilogy based on his favorite Disney park. The second, The Mouse Watch, is a trilogy based on his favorite Disney mice.

The first installment of The Mouse Watch, released November 3, 2020, is actually written under a pseudonym, J.J. Gilbert. He took his initials and combined them with his grandmother’s last name, who he credits for his love of reading, and gave himself the opportunity to change up his writing style.

“I thought it [would be] a fun idea to use a pseudonym every once and a while,” he said. “It also put me in a different headspace. I wanted to challenge myself to do this whole world-building from a brand new perspective, and sometimes a pseudonym gives you license to play.”

The idea of The Mouse Watch stemmed from some of his favorite books as a child, The Borrowers and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. He also thought of the Disney film The Rescuers and how compelling an updated version of that storyline might be. It inspired the name of the main character, Bernadette “Bernie” Skampersky, as The Rescuers main characters were Bernard and Miss Bianca. The more he created the story, however, the more he moved away from The Rescuers and thought more about Rescue Rangers, the animated television series starring Chip and Dale.

“Gadget [Hackwrench] was such a neat character,” Lethcoe said. “I always loved inventors my whole life and she was so much fun. I thought about if she started a whole secret agent side of things and there were these little guardian angels that were everywhere... it just started getting more and more exciting.”

Lethcoe enjoys a story with a heavy theme, and this middle-grade series is no exception. He thought of a watch (a Mickey Mouse watch, of course) and all the different parts that work together to keep it ticking. Everyone can see the face of the watch, but underneath there’s so much more. Even if the smallest part doesn’t work, it’s completely useless. The same goes for everyday life - everybody has an important role to play and with that should come an excitement about discovering what that role is.

Since it is a middle-grade novel, it still has that childlike magic that not only impresses the reader but inspires them. For Lethcoe, he prefers writing stories geared towards fifth graders as he believes that is the last opportunity for a child to feel that magic and a world full of potential. He has tried to hang onto that spirit his whole life and not forget what it felt like to be that age, and that is what helps his writing the most.

Jason Lethcoe, or J.J. Gilbert, has made a career out of happy accidents. He takes his passions and refuses to give up, which is inspiring to any young artist. As for The Mouse Watch series, the adventures of secret agent mice have only just begun.