Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Danica Novgorodoff

A 1/2 Dozen with graphic novelist
Danica Novgorodoff

who offers language lessons on the occasion
of meeting gravediggers
from Datong, Shanxi

advice on how to quickly escape
the dark cave of our writing

and who hopes
that "happy childhood = bad writer"
isn't true at all.


Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?
My relationship with the page is a double process of writing and drawing. I try to write first so that I'm not making unnecessary drawings, but it never works out so cleanly. I often write first, start to draw, get new ideas or find flaws in the story, re-write, re-draw, change my mind about the writing, stop drawing, re-write, start drawing, and so on. The writing part is the exciting spark of of the idea, and penciling the images can sometimes be tedious. Inking is faster and looser, and hand-coloring is always an experiment. It's a challenge to find ways to continue to surprise myself as I draw the images for a story I might have written years ago. One sentence of text can take a page of images to describe.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.
Whether it's a professional editor or a smart friend, find a reader whose opinion you trust. I find it invaluable to have someone to talk to about ideas. Working alone, I'd have to put down a new draft for 6 months to come back to it with fresh eyes. An outside reader can offer that kind of perspective immediately. It's nice to not work alone in the dark cave of your own mind all the time. Not that your mind is a dark cave. But mine sometimes feels that way when I'm too close to my own project.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I like to travel to a place I'm writing about and take lots of photos for drawing reference, and to get a general feel of the place. Right now I'm working on a book set in China, so last year I traveled to China with my boyfriend, Farmer, who is socially braver than me, even though I've done more traveling. My book begins with a grave-robbing, and Farmer and I came across a field spotted with graves while we were wandering the outskirts of Datong, Shanxi province. We spotted three gravediggers and Farmer suggested we go chat with them. "But we don't know Chinese," I said, timid. "Sure we do," Farmer said. We did: we knew how to say "Would you like some tea," and "I only eat vegetables," and "I am glad." A few phrases learned from Chinese language CDs from the library. Farmer set off across the field, I followed shyly, and we greeted the three men. They stared at us for a long time. Farmer enthusiastically told them, "Beautiful China" and I said, "I am glad." They didn't understand and whispered to each other. Farmer did some pantomime. They stared at us. Then they started to ask us questions, a barrage of questions, to which we nodded cautiously, shook our heads, and finally shrugged apologetically. They got frustrated, they laughed at us, they gave up. They offered Farmer a cigarette and we squatted on the gravesite, the men smoking, all of us silent. We took their photograph and then left them to their work.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

My favorite thing to do as a child was to wake early in the morning, before my younger brother and sister were up, and go walking the 83 acres of our farm in Michigan with my dog. I liked the movement, the solitude, the fields and trees. I like to work this way, now: waking up early, working alone. I also like to run to think; I'm a much better problem solver when I'm moving.

I've heard people say that a troubled childhood and messed up family makes for a good writer. I hope the implied inverse of happy childhood=bad writer isn't true; I had a mostly very happy childhood.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
No. It's always a struggle: if I'm satisfied with the amount of art I'm making, it probably means I'm not making enough money to pay my rent. If I'm making money, it usually means I've put aside my art for too long. My new years resolution every year is "make more art." This year I really mean it.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I've worked as (among other things) a graphic designer for a publisher in New York, a horse wrangler in Colorado, an assistant to a photographer in Virginia, and a transcriber of marketing research focus groups. All of these jobs have their merits in my writing life: the first put me in touch with the publishing world and got me a publisher, editor and agent; the second inspired numerous stories about horses, guns, and cowboys; the third gave me a model for the type of artist's life I would like to one day live; and the last helped pay the bills.

Danica Novgorodoff is a painter, comic book artist, writer, graphic designer,
and horse wrangler from Kentucky who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.
She received her B.A. from Yale University in 2002.
Her work has been included in Best American Comics as a distinguished
comic of the year, has won the Isotope Award, and has been nominated for
an Eisner Award. Her graphic novels Slow Storm (2008) and Refresh, Refresh (2009)
were published by First Second Books.
I first spotted her work in the literary journal Ecotone.