“A Different Set of Muscles”: An Interview with Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson

by Megan Giddings See all Guest Readers
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Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson will be giving the author of the story they pick this week (November 30-December 6) a copy of their forthcoming anthology, Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose. 

MEGAN: Sometimes images feel like a real trouble spot for writers. They either lean too heavily on them — image after seemingly unrelated well-written image until it’s hard to know what’s being communicated or where to focus — or stories that are so expository that the entire world is crowded out. What advice would you give to writers about how to make beautiful, but narrative-effective imagery?

SARI: I totally agree. It’s easy to fall in love with the power of images and not have to interrogate yourself about the broader narrative. Finding that narrative is so tricky and such hard, hard work. Graphic narratives can teach prose writers a lot about this process. This is because cartoonists have to commit to each image that they draw on a different level than prose writers (simply because of the time involved and space constraints). So they have to consider carefully what images they are going to use to make their narrative effective. They have to (intuitively or consciously) break a story down into imagistic beats. Prose writers can do this too. But it takes a different set of muscles, I think, than are often developed in MFA programs and writing workshops. It’s so easy as a prose writers—and I put myself in this category—to fall in love with language and the imagery that can come along with language.

 

JOSH: I agree with Sari that by their very essence visual narratives help create a balance between exposition and imagery. My challenge as a comics writer (a different hat than the one I wear as a comics artist — even when I’m “illustrating” my own stories!) is not getting so carried away with “encapsulation” — finding that perfect image that captures the entire moment — that I don’t let a story breathe. My goal of late has been — as much as possible — to make comics stories that unfold entirely via action and dialogue, with no voiceover, no expository captions. These stories take longer, often requiring many more panels to unfold, but they allow for moments of beauty and/or discomfort, elements that really make the story come alive.

 

MEGAN: When you were working on Flashed together, how did you determine the anthology’s order?

JOSH AND SARI: First of all, a bit of back story. Flashed is a very unusual project. We started with 15 flash fiction pieces (9 prose stories and 6 comics stories) and used those as invitations for a second group of writers and cartoonists to create more original flash fiction — but in the other form: comics > prose, and prose > comics. So we were always looking at the question of: What is inspiration? How can one form inspire/challenge work in another form? Finally, we did a third round, where the responders worked in the original form. So comics > prose > comics, and prose > comics > prose.

 

In then end we had 45 stories in 15 “triptychs.” For each triptych we thought about how the three pieces work together, and tried to come up with a title that evoked a shared feeling or theme. What was the common thread? Sometimes we ended up with something straightforward, like “Dystopias,” and sometimes we were inspired to go deeper, to look for imagistic connections. That was how we ended up with, say, “Mutable Architecture.”

 

Finally, we read all 45 pieces together and discussed how to guide the reader’s experience through the anthology. We wanted to vary the mood, tone, and effect — still and leave room for each triptych to breathe. It was both an intuitive process and also an analytical one. We had so much rich and wonderful material and we wanted to find ways to allow each story to shine. The whole thing was like putting together a concept album.

 

MEGAN: Josh, what five short stories do you think you could use to teach someone about writing a story for a comic/graphic narrative? Sari, what five graphic narratives/comics do you think could teach someone about writing a short story? 

JOSH: What a great question! Comics can be such an insular world — it certainly was for me, growing up — and I think it’s so important for those making comics to be exposed to other forms of narrative. I find short prose fiction to be a great vehicle for this. Even though

Josh Neufeld
Josh Neufeld by Josh Neufeld

in my own comics work I’ve hewed almost exclusively to nonfiction, I feel like every time I read a strong piece of fiction — short or novel-length — I take something from it that comes out later in my own work. And that doesn’t even cover the years I’ve been with Sari, reading her fiction in its various generative stages, learning about the craft from her and through her via some sort of osmosis. It’s so hard to limit myself to just five short stories, but here’s my list. (If you ask me again in six months, it may be completely different):

  • Jorge Luis Borges, “Borges and I” (1960)
  • John Cheever, “The Swimmer” (1964)
  • Lorrie Moore, “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliché?” (1985)
  • Edgar Allen Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)
  • Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain” (1995)

I’m a strong believer that when it comes to comics, story trumps art. I always say you can make a great comic with a good story and bad art, but a comic with gorgeous art and a bad story is just a bad comic. To me, the stories listed above are a master course in narrative economy, voice, tone, framing a narrative, creating character, strong imagery, and deft storytelling — all skills vital for the cartoonist’s tool belt.

 SARI: Oh my gosh, so so many! Okay, I’ll just do a quick list—but really this is far from complete.

So many cartoonists work episodically, so writers can learn a lot from how they break down narrative and then build them up from a larger narrative. I am thinking here of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, the eight short stories that make up Dan Clowes’s amazing Ghost World, and of course each chapter of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid of Earth. Especially, I think, the final chapters.

As far as stand-alone short comics pieces, I am thinking of Art Spiegelman’s canonical “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” Jessica Abel’s beautiful and lyrical short comic “Jack London,” and Gabrielle Bell’s short semi-autobiographical stories. We include the terrific “The Hole” in Flashed.

I would also mention Matt Madden’s fascinating formalistic book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style to teach aspects of storytelling—especially tone.

Eep, and I haven’t even mentioned the raw and powerful emotional underground cartoonists like Phoebe Gloeckner! That’s definitely more than five—sorry!

MEGAN: You both have worked on projects in the short and long forms. What do you think the difference is process-wise when working on something short vs working on something longer?

JOSH: It’s true that I’ve worked on a couple of novel-length projects, most notably A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. But everything else I’ve done has been 48 pages or less — often much less. In fact, most of my comics work over the years has been stories of around 10 pages or less. And I’m MUCH more comfortable working in small chunks like that, stories that I can “hold in my head.” When it came to A.D., the reality was that I did that project on deadline, one chapter at a time for about 16 months. Sure, beforehand I created a basic outline of the events of the narrative, and the story was (in a sense) epic in scope, but the fact that I was forced to do it one step a time prevented it from feeling overwhelming. If I’d been told I had, say, two years to research, write, report, and draw a 200-page graphic novel, I would have had a heart attack! All the same, I have found the text-editing program Scrivener to be a life-saver. I don’t want this to come off as product advertising, but Scrivener enables me to gather all my research, images, thought threads, and other loose ends, and visualize whatever piece I’m working on as it comes together. Whether my project is long or short, it has became as integral to my creative process as my paper, pencils, pens, and brushes.

Sari Wilson by Elena Seibert
Sari Wilson by Elena Seibert

SARI: What he said! I love both short and long forms. Like Josh, I have to break down my longer projects (i.e., my debut novel Girl Through Glass) into scenic chunks. For Girl Through Glass  I wrote thousands of pages (most of which never made it into the novel) over the course of more than ten years. At points along the way, Josh helped me create spreadsheets and charts to keep track of my two storylines and how they intersected. My short stories and comics writing can grow organically, from an image or a question about character, but the novel form really requires (at least I found), a highly analytic component!

About the Reader:

Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson are the co-editors of Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose (Pressgang, 2016). Neufeld is the author of the nonfiction graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon), and he is the illustrator of The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (W.W. Norton). He has been an Atlantic Center for the Arts Master Artist, a Knight-Wallace Fellow in Journalism, and a Xeric Award winner. Sari Wilson is the author of the the novel Girl Through Glass (Harper, 2016). Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in literary journals such as SliceAgni, and The Oxford American. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Fine Arts Work Center Fellow, and has received a residency from The Corporation of Yaddo. Neufeld and Wilson live in Brooklyn, New York, with their daughter. www.JoshComix.com and www.SariWilson.com.

About the Interviewer:

Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly  and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016.  She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.