Saturday, November 14, 2015

In Conversation with Nicki Greenberg

Nicki Greenberg is a writer and illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. Her first books, The Digits series, sold more than 380,000 copies in Australia and New Zealand.

Nicki’s innovative graphic adaptation of The Great Gatsby was selected as a White Raven at the Bologna Book Fair and her Hamlet was joint winner of the 2011 Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Picture Book of the Year award.

Her recent picture books include The Naughtiest Reindeer, Monkey Red, Monkey Blue and BOM! Went the Bear. She has also written and illustrated non-fiction for children, and her book, It’s True! Squids Suck! was shortlisted for the 2006 Aventis Prize for Science Books.

I met Nicki at Jumpstart 2015 and was blown away by her work. Thrilled to feature her here.

ST: Published at fifteen! You started drawing comics at seventeen. How did you figure out so early what you wanted to do? Can you share a bit about your childhood? Were books and art a big part of your life?
Books and art were very important to me as a kid. I was constantly scribbling, and I treasured my books. I remember the first “chapter book” I received – an Enid Blyton book of fairyland stories. I was too young to be able to read, but desperately wanted to learn so that I could read that book. And now I’ve watched my eldest daughter do exactly the same thing – with the same book!

ST: You must have loads of sketchbooks filled with notes and character designs. Do you doodle while you're out and about? Has that ever got you in trouble? Any anecdotes you would like to share?
I doodled constantly as a kid. My parents would get annoyed because every time they went to write down a phone message, the pad of paper would be filled with my scribbles. I even doodled on the tissue box by the phone. At school, I was often told off by my teachers for doodling in class. Most of them accepted it after a while as I was a good student. But I did have one French teacher in high school who forbade me to pick up a pen during class without her permission!

ST: On to graphic novels - What comes first, text or pictures? Or do both develop organically, feeding off each other?

This is an interesting question. With comics the two things develop together to form the narrative, and I can’t really separate them. Even when I’m adapting an existing word-based text like Gatsby or Hamlet, I see it in pictures together with the words, rather than turning it into a word-based script and then illustrating it. To me, pictures are not illustration (which sounds like an adjunct to the text), they are storytelling, ie, part of the text.

ST: Absolutely! About your graphic adaptation of The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel re-imagined with monsters and sea creatures - It took you six years! Tell us all about it, please!
This was an enormous labour of love. I worked on it for six years, and for five of them I didn’t know if anyone would publish it. But I was passionate about the work, and felt compelled to keep going. I was working as a lawyer at the time, which allowed me to support my Gatsby habit! The book is my tribute to the novel – an oddball arrangement, but very much a faithful one.

ST: The setting up of the book as an old monochrome photo album, characters' personalities reflecting in their physical features, creating atmosphere, pacing, layout, page turns, black space around the frames - We'd love to know more about the various devices that you've used, especially those unique to the graphic form, the possibilities of the medium that you've used to such good effect, and the limitations you worked with.

The photograph album device serves a number of narrative purposes. Most obviously it takes the reader to a particular time, and gives the sense of nostalgia that comes with paging through an old album. It is also a peek into the private lives of the characters. Its deeper purpose is to raise questions about the nature of the narrative itself. Nick Carraway is the classic unreliable narrator who believes himself to be objective and impeccably honest. So we see him piecing together in his album his true record of events, but of course we also intuit how he must be constructing that record, choosing what to include and how to arrange it.

I limited myself to six sizes of photo/panel, to give a sense of consistency. I find that a degree of limitation is a great spur to creativity, as it forces you to problem-solve to fit the constraints.

ST: And then you went on to stage Hamlet on the page, with inkblots as characters, using a repetition of backgrounds in a colorful theatrical world. Did Hamlet emerge fully formed as that expressive, energetic inky creature, or did the final look evolve after a lot of experimentation?

Lots of experimentation. I had the basic idea for Hamlet, but drew him hundreds of times before I was happy with him.

ST: A lot of it is done ever so subtly - was everything you rendered in Hamlet thought out consciously or was it a result of subconscious work that you caught on to? 

I thought seriously about every line of the play and how I wanted to deliver and perform it, and I did a lot of research. But definitely, there is also a lot of the subconscious at play! It is like being an actor – I had to inhabit all of the characters, which involves putting my own personality, likes and dislikes, reactions etc into the characters.

ST: One of the (many) challenges of a graphic novel is that it has to work as a whole, seamlessly. How do you ensure all five hundred glorious pages come together as one?

Consistency is a real challenge. Mostly I have tried to refer very frequently back to earlier pages to make sure the most recent ones still have the same feel. Also, having firmly developed the characters and the style beforehand is a big help.

ST: You were a part of Zubaan's Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, a graphic anthology of feminist speculative fiction for young adults. The project emerged as a response to the horrific cases of rape in India and Australia and features the work of some of the finest writers and illustrators from both countries. Please tell our readers about your piece and those of the other contributors that struck a chord with you.
My piece is a riff on Hamlet. It’s Ophelia’s decision to ditch Hamlet, Shakespeare himself and the play, and go off to make her own story. I felt that Ophelia’s tragedy was even greater than Hamlet’s – her agency was ground out of her to the point where she was unable to choose any direction in her life, and lost her mind. So I wanted to show her rejecting all of that.

I loved the graphic pieces in the collection. Priya Kuriyan and Kate Constable’s piece, ‘Swallow the Moon” was so beautiful, and I loved Mandy Ord and Annie Zaidi’s retelling of the story of Anarkali. Mandy’s chunky brush work is perfect for showing the characters trapped in stone.

ST: You've created graphic novels for adults as well as several picture books for the young - how different is the approach and the process?
Very different. With graphic novels I was free to let my fancy run wherever it pleased. With picture books there is a limited format (generally 32 pages), and there is the age of the audience to keep in mind. I love the challenge of the constraints, though! Being much shorter, picture books have to be very tightly written and the pace has to be just right. There is no space to meander. I work very differently with picture books – in general I write the text first and approach the artwork as a separate task. Though if the book is all dialogue, I will do the two things together like a comic.

ST: Give us a peek into your studio. How do you play with the space to keep yourself stimulated?

I fill up the walls with sketches, reference images and samples of whatever I am working on, as well as lots of drawings by my kids. There is no better reminder to keep your work fresh!

ST: You were at the office full-time as a lawyer while working on an all-consuming project like Gatsby, before going part-time, and then creating with a toddler and a baby in the house! What was that like? How do you keep grubby hands out of your art supplies, and manage to make time for work? 

Since my girls arrived, I have been doing children’s books rather than massive graphic novels. It is a moveable feast – each year things change: nap times, kinder, school. The trick for me has been to grab whatever time is available and not waste a minute of it. So if the babies were asleep, I sat down at the desk. Now I have a reliable 5 hours twice a week when school and kinder coincide. It feels like a luxury. But I am greedy – however much I work, I’d always like more time. Housework generally suffers.

ST: Please tell us about your experience at Jumpstart Delhi and Bangalore, leading the illustrators' masterclasses. Also your impressions of India - it was your first time here, wasn't it?
Jumpstart was a whirlwind. I was only in India for five days, so my impressions were much too brief, and I very much want to visit again. I loved it. Coming from a very sparsely populated country, I was gobsmacked by the traffic and sheer numbers of people. But at the same time, very impressed at how cooperatively people navigate the chaos! Everyone I met was warm, friendly, interesting and super accomplished. The masterclass participants were amazing, and a pleasure to work with.

ST: We're always on the lookout for more children's books and YA fiction. We've featured Jackie French earlier on ST, and we’re huge fans of Shaun Tan. Your recommendations - graphic novels, comics and picture books, from Australia and elsewhere?

So many to choose from! Some authors that readers might want to check out include Trace Balla, Michael Camilleri, Ursula Dubosarsky, Andrew Joyner, Gregory Mackay…

ST: And finally, what would you like to say to budding visual artists?

Find what you love to do, and find a way to devote time to it regularly. Routine – sitting down and just working at it, regularly, day after day. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but it is how the work gets done! And once the motor is running, the ideas tend to come.

[cover images credit, pics courtesy Nicki Greenberg]

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