Last November, on his birthday, I accompanied Richard McGuire to the emergency room. He was experiencing some excruciating back pain. Richard is an unusually polite and considerate man, but as he waited and waited for some relief, I began to worry about him. I asked a passing nurse about pain medication. She poked her head into our room and explained there was a “code” on the floor—the doctors had been dealing with that.
We went quiet. Richard explained that “code blue” usually meant a death.
Half an hour later, Richard was given a Valium and two extra-strength Motrin. He talked about being in the hospital with his father the night his mother died, the machines all going crazy, the medics rushing in and telling them to leave. When his father died, he said, it was different, more peaceful.
Richard was X-rayed, diagnosed with a severe muscle spasm, and discharged. We headed to a restaurant a block away where far-flung friends had gathered for his birthday dinner. It struck me, as we ordered burgers and martinis, that the past few hours could be a strange and miniature overture to his book, Here, which he had just finished. A birth date, a death date, loving and painful memories, banalities, transient spaces, and always an eye on the time. Here launched a month later and has since become a best seller.
I feel that Here is a very new kind of ghost story. Not a scary one, but a haunting one. What portion of the book was inspired by the death of your sister and parents, and what was the original strip inspired by, or an exercise in?
I think their passing set the tone for the book. You see things differently after going through that experience—the idea of impermanence is made more real, and everything seems fragile. The family home had to be sold. Just emptying it took a while. My parents lived there for fifty years, and the house was packed. My mom hated throwing anything away. All the clothes, the photos, the letters and things that had meaning to them. The only thing I took were boxes of photos and some films my dad shot. I think it helped with the grieving process, looking at all that stuff.
The book began as a six-page story, published in 1989. I had just moved into a new apartment. I was thinking about the person who had lived there before me, and the person before them. I had just seen a lecture, kind of a history of comics, by Art Spiegelman, and my takeaway from that was that comics were essentially diagrams and maps of storytelling. I thought to tell a story of my apartment as a split screen—I chose the corner because it was a natural dividing line. One half would go forward in time and the other would go backward. Then a friend dropped in and was telling me about his new Windows program, and that’s when the bell went off in my head. I could have multiple windows of time. Once I had this structure to hang things on, I started working with a lot of family photos as reference points, so the book became kind of mixed with my own past, but it wasn’t meant to be a memoir.
What does the book do that hasn’t been done before, and what’s happening to visual reading?
The way simultaneousness is presented feels unique to the medium. If you were writing this story out as text, it would be a long string of events and descriptions connected by the word meanwhile. With film, you can use a split screen to show two different events, but if you add more than two it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of what’s happening without missing something. With comics, that frozen image is easier to take in. The reader can move around within it.
And that simultaneousness actually feels close to how we think. If you stop and try to examine your thoughts, it’s always a jumble of memories and projections. We are all zooming around in time in our heads. We’re rarely in the present—we’re more often anticipating events, or thinking back to a memory of yesterday or last week or our childhoods, and then suddenly jumping ahead again.
In the book, the room is presented as a full double-page spread. The corner of the room is in the gutter of the book, so the opened book echoes the architecture of the space and puts the reader into the room. Each spread is marked with a date in the upper left corner. You time travel as you flip pages. Smaller panels with dates show other moments happening in the space at different times. The book may push the traditional formal aspects of the comics medium, but I think people are very used to reading multiple windows on their computers—it’s all clearly presented and understandable.
In one of my favorite parts of the book, a man holds up a child and embraces him—the moment exists somewhere between film, fiction, and comic strip. You don’t put words to that moment. You’re describing it to us as a filmmaker might.
I read somewhere that Stanley Kubrick said the most memorable parts of films are without dialogue—just images against music. Maybe in his case that makes sense. The spinning spaceships set to the Strauss waltz in 2001, the violent gang fights set to a Beethoven symphony in Clockwork Orange. There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories that starts with a voice-over of him describing a “perfect moment” and then cuts to Charlotte Rampling lying on a floor reading a newspaper. She looks up at the camera, which lingers on her face as she just keeps looking and smiling. No dialogue, just Louis Armstrong singing. That moment is now seared into my memory.
I was happy to discover a little film sequence of my dad and my sister at the very end of a reel of Super 8 film. My dad was usually behind the camera, so it was rare to see him in the early family photos. Someone else shot that little moment of him just as the film was running out. This shot goes by in a flash on film, and by putting the sequence on three pages in the book, it slows the motion down—it feels so much more emotional, and much more like a memory.
Tell me what inspired the various color palettes and the different styles of drawing.
I wanted the book to feel visually connected to the earlier six-page version, but I didn’t want to mimic that look. I couldn’t simply add pages to something I did twenty-five years ago. I had this trove of family photos and I went through those, looking for casual poses for reference. That’s what I wanted the most, unguarded moments. One thing I began to notice and appreciate were the different colors of the faded photos. The emulsions from the fifties have particularly strange hues, grayish reds and gray greens. A lot of the seventies photos were more golden yellow. I tried picking up on those palettes, but I didn’t want to have formal color rules. I thought I should give myself flexibility with color—the time of day or weather conditions would be a factor in changing the colors.
I was experimenting with different mediums, too. I didn’t want it to be all “hard edge” vector art. I wanted a warmer look. I was playing around with watercolor and gouache and pencil, making rough drawings. I never really intended to use these experiments as finished art, but when I started to do some test layouts, I was surprised by how nice the contrasts looked together. It began to look like a scrapbook, which was the right direction. The layouts were ultimately composed with the computer, but first it was all a big collage on the wall of my studio. I was cutting and pasting, and rearranging constantly.
The e-book version blows open the possibilities for how stories can be read on tablet devices. Are you more excited thinking about that medium?
Each medium has its strengths. The book form works perfectly for telling this story, but I also wanted to push the nonlinear aspects of the storytelling. I imagined an interactive version that could randomize all the panels and backgrounds and reshuffle them, and with the new combinations come new connections within the story. I spoke about this possibility at a lecture I gave, and by luck there was a developer in the audience, Stephen Betts, who knew how it could be done. We collaborated on that for two years, right alongside of the making of the paper version. Stephen wrote a lot of programing for what became the e-book. It’s unlike any other I’ve ever seen. It also incorporates animated GIFs and, for me, those little looped movements feel the closest to single memories.
There’s crossover in the playfulness of the book and your work as a children’s author.
Ideally, I’d like my work to be both entertaining and avant-garde. This book is close to a picture book in its format—the double-page spreads of single images, the limited text—but it also feels just as much an artist book to me. I’m much more interested in creating hybrid projects. There are elements of comics that work really well, but I’m not at all a purist in that sense. I’ve made comics, but I’m not a cartoonist—most cartoonists have a world they’ve created and fine-tuned over the years. I get restless and need to keep trying new things.
What was doing research for this book like?
The majority of research was done at the main branch of the New York Public Library. I was looking up everything from glacier activity and projected climate maps to types of dinosaurs, fashions, furniture, and wallpaper details. I read diaries and newspapers on microfilm. I searched photo archives. So much of the research never found its way into the book, but it became more clear to me what the book was. I wasn’t writing a history book—it was more about tiny things, casual things, undocumented moments.
In the short story, I never mentioned where the location of the room was. I thought of it as Anyplace, USA. Once I started back in on the book seriously, I knew it was important to choose a real location, to give it a solid foundation. At first I resisted using my family home as the location—I didn’t want to face all that came with that—but it became obvious that it was at the heart of the matter. I knew a little bit about the history of that area, but not a lot. I knew the place across the street had something to do with Ben Franklin. I found out it was William Franklin, Ben’s illegitimate son, who lived there. William was the governor, a loyalist, and Ben visited to convince him he was on the wrong side of history. When the revolution erupted, William was arrested. It’s surreal to know Ben Franklin must have walked through the space that would one day be my living room.
Still, I felt I had to downplay this heavy historic information. I had to reduce it to an argument between a father and a son. I had a motto when I was working—make the big things small and the small things big. You’ll see the end of the world talked about on TV, for example—how the sun will absorb the earth at some point—but you just see a red dot on the screen with a voice-over.
What did you feel as you were drawing on family snapshots for reference?
When you study the photos closely, you really get a sense of each person as an individual. I could see my parents as kids, and with other partners before meeting and raising a family. Seeing my sister at different stages, knowing her life would be cut short, I had more empathy for everyone. I was seeing them so often through the photos that I started having dreams about them. I had a dream I was in the house talking to my mom and I asked her where my sister Mary was. As I asked, I saw Mary out the window, a younger, teenage version of her. I opened it and stuck my head out to call to her. It was very windy and my hair was blowing in my face. When I woke, I realized that when I had my head out the window I became younger, too, because I haven’t had long hair in years. I used this idea in the scene with the old men in the future looking at the floating panels, one of them becomes younger by putting his head through the frame.
Can you talk a little bit about getting the tone of the text right?
The text was constructed as collage just like the images were. I collected lists of conversational lines, pages and pages that I kept paring down. I used a separate notebook so I wasn’t distracted by the images. I wanted it to read like a poem. I heard it mostly as one voice, even though there are all these different characters speaking. I wanted to keep the tone of the text as casual and everyday as the images. In some sections, the text is grouped according to themes, like loss. There’s a crescendo that goes from a fight to a flood of insults. And sometimes the lines were only about sound—I was trying to make equivalents to the visual echoes.
How does this book allow you to think about new work? I was once given the advice to always “go weirder.”
I love that advice! When I’m a little scared with new work, I know it’s usually the right direction. I like challenging myself. Reinventing the short story and expanding it into a book was a challenge—it took a long time before it started to reveal itself to me. Now that it’s in the world I’m getting offers to push the idea of it into new mediums. I knew the e-book would be one way to do that. Now I may be able to do a virtual-reality version. It’s a new set of difficult problems to solve, but it’s exciting to have the possibility. I was also asked to collaborate on a version that would use projections with live musical accompaniment. Both could be really cool to do.
As far as new work, I’ve been playing around with some experiments I started years ago with space and sound. I have some friends who are dancers, and I’ve been trying to find a way to collaborate with them on a project. And I have an idea for a feature film. It’s big and it scares me and I’m writing notes for it—live action with animated effects. I have a few ideas for book projects I’m excited about, as well. I’ll get to everything in its own time.
Leanne Shapton’s most recent book is Swimming Studies. She coedited, with Heidi Julavits and Sheila Heti, Women in Clothes.