By Ariel Gordon
Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Raina Telgemeier is a San Francisco-based graphic novelist. She’s the author of Smile (2010), Drama (2012) and Sisters (2014), all of which have been No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, as well as graphic novel adaptions of Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series.
This month, Telgemeier will release Ghosts, a story told from the point of view of Cat, a tween whose family moves to northern California. Cat’s little sister Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the family hopes the climate will be better for her. The local celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) figures prominently in the book, which explores mortality and loss.
Winnipeg Free Press: As a comic-book artist (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?
Raina Telgemeier: My public events are multifaceted. I like to bring kids up on the stage to read/dramatize scenes from my books with me; then I tell stories and show slides about my process and give the audience as much Q&A time as the venue will allow. Then I sign books and meet everyone! It’s a great way to connect directly with my readers. Every one of them is a unique and interesting person with a story to tell, and I wish I got more time with each of them, but their enthusiasm inspires me to keep writing stories.
WFP: In Ghosts, you’ve set yourself a pretty impressive to-do list: honouring Latin culture and specifically the Day of the Dead, writing about illness and mortality in children and plumbing the sometimes contentious relationship between sisters. What was the hardest part to write for you?
RT: This book gestated in my mind for over a decade and went through many changes over the years. Every part of it was a challenge, and every part of it was rewarding to research and imagine and explore. Stepping away from memoir and realistic fiction was the hardest part. Those are my favourite genres to read and write, so adding fantasy and magic into my work was intimidating. Still, I’m at a point in my career where I want to stretch my wings and try new things — write far outside of my comfort zone. Open lots of doors and peek inside of them. Because the story deals with the idea of profound loss, it was also a place for me to explore losses within my own life through a fictional lens. It was difficult, but deeply gratifying to do so.
WFP: Were you at all worried about accusations of cultural appropriation?
RT: That’s a subject I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about. San Francisco is an amazing melting pot, and my childhood was spent amongst a rainbow of friends from every background and culture and where I was the minority among them. I try to reflect that experience in my stories, whether it’s as a major part of the plot or within the background, and that is going to be different in every story I tell. I consider my own background and cultural identity to be "San Franciscan." How artists represent their culture and other cultures in their work is an interesting discussion, and I’m open to the conversation.
WFP: You’ve said Canadian Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse is an influence of yours. What about it was important to you? That it had a female main character? That it wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects, such as including the first queer character in a daily comic strip?
RT: For Better for For Worse felt like an extension of my own family, my own life. There was a voyeuristic quality to peeking in on the Pattersons’ lives every day, and I couldn’t get enough. They made me feel less alone. They felt like friends. All of the subject matter Lynn tackled, difficult or not, reflected my own life. I sometimes say, "Everything I know in life I learned from reading For Better or For Worse." It had that big of an impact on me.
WFP: It seems like the traditional trajectory for comic book artists (or graphic novelists) has changed dramatically over the past decade or so. The majority of people interested in making comics don’t aim for syndication or even traditional publishing, opting instead for web comics and some combination of Patreon/Kickstarter/comic con support from fans. But, like Jeff Smith (Bone) and Ben Hatke (Zita the Spacegirl), you’ve published your stories as graphic novels and done very well. Do you think there are more opportunities for people who want to make comics these days or less?
RT: Well, Jeff Smith started publishing Bone as a serialized comic book in the early ’90s. Smile got its start on the web in the mid-aughts. Zita the Spacegirl has roots as short web-comic vignettes, too. Most of the popular graphic novels on shelves today previously existed in other formats, whether it was on the web or in self-published books, so creators getting started now have a wealth of options for getting their work to their readers and in front of the eyeballs of editors and art directors. These days, there seems to be more of a demand for comics than ever.
WFP: Have you been to Winnipeg before? What have you heard?
RT: First time in Winnipeg! I’ve heard there are big skies and friendly people. Sounds good to me.
WFP: What are you reading right now?
RT: I’m reading Martha Brockenbrough’s novel The Game of Love and Death and a couple of non-fiction titles. As for writing, I’m working on my next book, which will be another memoir. That’s all I can say about it at the moment.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.