Thursday, September 9, 2010

EXCLUSIVE: Talking comics with Emily Perkins

Above: Author Emily Perkins. Photo by Jesse Casson, artwork by Dylan Horrocks. Copyright the respective holders.

In this new ongoing interview series I'll be talking to prominent New Zealanders who you may be surprised to learn have an interest and affection for comics.

Today I'm talking with acclaimed fiction writer and local literary star Emily Perkins. She has produced three novels, The New Girl (Picador, 2001), Leave Before You Go (Picador, 1998) and Novel About My Wife (Bloomsbury, 2008) which won both the Fiction category, and the overall Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2009. She has also written and edited short story collections, lectured on creative writing, as well as finding the time to present The Good Word, a literary discussion show for TVNZ 7.

This week she will be taking part in the Orcon Great Blend 2010, an event organised by Public Address and Orcon, in which various creative types are brought together to share and discuss their craft. The theme of this year's event is collaboration, which features Perkins teaming up with cartoonist Dylan Horrocks to produce a jam comic.

The comic focuses on their personal processes and reasons for writing, and was produced by writing and drawing a page each day and emailing it to the other author to continue the story. The 32 page mini-comic modestly titled: All Hail Elle: Destroyer of Worlds! will be performed live on the night by the authors, and available for sale afterwards (the event is sold out, but I'll keep you posted on where you may be able to purchase a copy at a later date).

AK: To start with, how did this collaboration come about; and is this your first experience creating a comic?

Emily Perkins: Russell Brown put us together for the Great Blend, which is all about collaboration, and Dylan came up with the idea of what to do - a dialogue about writing, in comic form. For quite a while I thought I was going to get away with a) not drawing anything or b) getting my son to do the drawings for me. But once Dylan and I met to discuss the project it was pretty clear I'd have to give it a go. He even provided pens.

This is my very first experience creating a comic since probably intermediate school. I haven't really drawn anything since 4th form art. So it's been an amazing surprise and privilege collaborating with Dylan who is such a talented comic artist and writer.

AK: So I take it you read comic-books growing up? Did you have any favourites or recall any particular titles or images that made an impression?

EP: As a girl I read Mad magazine avidly. It made a huge impression on me - often I'd never have seen the stuff they'd be satirizing but the whole tone was so powerfully fun and irreverent. 'Humor in a jugular vein' - !! As well as the satires and fold-ins I loved Spy vs. Spy and The Lighter Side... I have many memories of lying around at a friend's place reading the boys' giant pile of Mads and other comics.

Above: A classic Mad Magazine cover by
Basil Wolverton. Copyright Mad Magazine 2010.

Also I loved Asterix, mostly for the character-based jokes and puns, but reading them now with my kids I'm amazed at how tightly structured they are. The illustrations are so lively. And I kind of liked Tintin though more for the exciting settings and Captain Haddock than Tintin himself, who left me cold. And I loved Peanuts, especially Lucy and Schroeder and Pig Pen.

Later I was into Love & Rockets; the characters and stories spoke to me, and I love Jaime Hernandez's style.

Above: 'I Hate You Deeply', featuring Lloyd Llewellyn from Twentieth Century Eightball by Daniel Clowes. Copyright Daniel Clowes 2010.

Also around then, a friend got me into Eightball, and I especially remember 'I Hate You Deeply' - Lloyd Llewellyn, enemy of urban attention-seekers everywhere. One of the most shocking comic images I've seen was where someone (Lloyd?) visualised Lucy from Peanuts as a teenager, topless, with breasts. Wrong and brilliant! And I love R. Crumb and a lot of the Furry Freak Brothers.

AK: As a storytelling medium, comics rely on the unique interaction of words and pictures to create a story for the reader. Did you find the writing process for this particularly challenging coming from a prose background? Did you make any adjustments in your approach to storytelling?

It was liberating at first - like writing in 3D - I loved having a visual way to express an idea - though am not sure how long I'd want to go on relying on symbolism, simile, and metaphor in the fairly obvious way I have in this comic.

'Ellie' is more about our thoughts on writing rather than telling a story. There's a narrative to the dialogue but because of the way we did it - Dylan would send me a panel, I'd send one in response and so on - there was no revising. In my prose writing I rely totally on the redrafting process to figure out what's going on. I did do drafts of each panel, but once it was sent to Dylan that was it, it was going in!

A spread from All Hail Elle: Destroyer of Worlds! by Emily Perkins & Dylan Horrocks. Copyright Emily Perkins & Dylan Horrocks 2010.

AK: Digging a little deeper into the art chores: did you find the act of drawing a freeing experience in terms of communicating, or did it feel more like an additional discipline that needed to be served to produce the story?

EP: The drawing itself was incredibly freeing. It was so much fun! A very different kind of concentration from writing prose. Just the enormous pleasure in making something in shapes and lines rather than in words... I might be hooked. Of course the more I did, the more I realised how hard it is - my limitations began to be very obvious - I'm in awe of those who can get so much expression into the manipulation of the pen. If things worked in my pictures it was often by accident.

AK: Based on this experience, would you consider writing/drawing an original graphic novel? There seems to be a growing list of literary authors giving it a go: Stephen King, Brad Meltzer, Ian Rankin, James Patterson, Audrey Niffenegger among others.

EP: Well, I think it would be totally fun and daunting, learning a whole new discipline. If the right idea presented itself.... it's tempting but I might be happy just being a Sunday sketcher. I'd have to get a whole lot better before embarking on something solo like that - the collaboration was the perfect way into drawing as there was a clear premise and no solo responsibility, and Dylan knows what he's doing.

AK: In the last ten years graphic novels have firmly established themselves as a fixture of the modern bookstore, despite been viewed as something of a novelty in more conservative literary circles.. Going forward, do you believe there's a place for them in the current literary world?

EP: Yes! There's such an enormous range of writing accompanied by images (or vice versa) - from something like the Re/Search edition of JG Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, to the illustrations Taika Waititi did for Jo Randerson's The Keys to Hell or Jo's collaboration with Seraphine Pick, to more traditionally presented graphic novels or comics. It's a genre with a huge life.

Above: The cover of All Hail Elle: Destroyer of Worlds! by Emily Perkins & Dylan Horrocks. Copyright Emily Perkins & Dylan Horrocks 2010.

A big thank you to Emily Perkins for taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk about this project (don't forget to follow her on Twitter!), and keep an eye on the Public Address website for more updates on the Orcon Great Blend 2010 event.



  1. The spotlights on various artists and their thought processes is one of the highlights of your blog, and this was no exception. Great stuff.

  2. Wow! That Emily sure is a multi-tasker. I wish I could be so free - falling into a new genre.....!
    Trish Gribben

  3. I know right? Where does she (or Dylan) find the time? They are creative machines!

    Thanks for the feedback people, much appreciated!


  4. Just a note: really enjoyed 'Ellie.' Worth it.