GMB Chomichuk and Jonathan Ball (interview), Part 2

GMB Chomichuk (writer, teacher, mixed media artist, graphic novelist and proud Winnipegger) agreed to an interview only if I allowed him to also interview me — so this is Part 2 of a two-part, twinned interview (the first part was posted last week).

Chomichuk won the Manitoba Young Writers Award when he was 15. He won the Manitoba Book Award for Best Illustrated Book in 2011, and again in 2015. His graphic novel series The Imagination Manifesto was nominated for Best Canadian Graphic Novel in the 2012 Aurora Awards. He is the founder of Alchemical Press and is always on the lookout for literary oddities. You can follow him on twitter @gmbchomichuk and see some of his work in progress at www.comicalchemy.blogspot.com.

His latest books are the picture book Cassie and Tonk (McNally) and the graphic novel Infinitum (McNally | Amazon).

Ball: One of my favourite stories is how you asked Lovern Kinderski, a local legend in the larger comics industry (having working with Neil Gaiman, among a host of others) to assess your artwork, and he basically told you that you sucked and should give up. Yet now you are illustrating a book he’s written. Tell me again how you bridged that gap.

Chomichuk: Hahaha. 

What had happened was that I was working as an art director on an ill fated science fiction project. ( Sad because it was a great property written by Steven Erikson.)  The screening was done and were sitting around having a laugh.  Lovern shows up and I think “perfect, I’ll get the insight of a true comics pro.”

Which is what I got.  I asked him what he thought and, well if you know Lovern, you know he won’t hold back if you ask for the truth. He said , “this is amateurish.  I’d think it was student work except it is so consistent.  You’ve got a long way to go to work in comics.” Which  some might think of as harsh but I asked the important follow up and listened closely.  What should I do to get better? At which time he gave serious and considered critique. Every failing he found in that work was true from his point of view and I had to learn to improve from my point of view. 

Fast forward a few years and five hundred or so finished pages of illustration and Lovern approached me to illustrate Underworld, his book with Renegade Arts Entertainment. I like to think that it had more to do with him knowing that he would be able to give honest feedback and that I could take it than anything else. Once we got to work on it I saw that it was meant to be, but that’s a much longer story. 

So, Dr. Ball: film, poetry, journalism and prose all seem to be in your wheelhouse. Are they all the same voice in different conversations or if not, how do you change your “writing mode”?

Ball: I don’t believe in developing your own “voice” and “style.” I think that’s death for serious writers, who want to have long careers — it helps make you marketable in the short term, but it dooms you to irrelevancy in the long term, since you inevitably become trapped in your style and self-parody.

I approach everything as a new project, and I work to develop a new style for that project. I work like a technician. I’m analytical and obsessive about the work, and able to emotionally dissociate from it, although I also throw myself into it as much as possible because I want it to stay visceral.

My primary concern is to master modes and then blend modes. I create a lot of work that is what I would consider a technical exercise, and then I see my main work as projects that draw on what I have learned to construct odd hybrids — that’s why I say things about my work that seem odd at first glance, like my poetry books are really fiction, and I’m really a horror writer, and so on. That’s why I have never published a collection of my poetry — most of my poetry consists of technical exercises and I publish those in journals just to prove to myself that they are of publishable quality, and then I throw them away and develop a larger project.

Things like the journalism and much of my (non-book) poetry and prose and even a film like Spoony B — while I obsessed over these projects and strived to master their forms as much as possible, I see projects like this as technical exercises, and precursors to what I consider my real work, which is to dissect and then blend these genres and modes into strange hybrid forms.

Right now, for example, I am focused on a short story collection that contains a range of works, a lot of diverse stuff, from relatively “normal” stories to stranger fare like “The War with the Dead,” which is like an essay that is also a short story (the way that “Psycho” from The Politics of Knives is a blend of an essay on the Hitchcock film Psycho and also a short story and a poem at the same time). An earlier version of “The War with the Dead” appeared in Poetry Is Dead recently. It reads like a weird Baudrillard essay:

Art, like all else, is a weapon employed by both the living and the dead. The living use art to comprehend dead objects, to imbue them with a living mystery, and in this way exorcise the demons that the dead trapped in these objects. The dead laugh. The dead use art like any other dead object. They take it from the living, draw it into the past, and cast it forward to the future, so that it ends up in the present to destroy.

Thus the art of the living becomes the objects of the dead, alien documents, incomprehensible. The dead imbue these things with death, and then return them to the living. The living, not understanding the nature of art, and of death, make the same mistake that they make when approaching all dead objects. They attempt to enliven them, to incorporate them into the realm of the living. They interpret, analyze, over-interpret, study, proclaim the undying, universal, classical nature of the dead’s art.

All of these actions are designed to defuse this art, to dampen its disruptive power. To cut the red wire, to stop the bomb. But the bomb has already gone off. Life crosses into its continuing explosion.

Tell me about creating your forthcoming book Infinitum (McNally | Amazon). As you know, I read it in manuscript, and was impressed at the number of narrative challenges you took on with this book. How did you approach tackling the difficult terrain of the time-travel story, and why did you choose to publish with ChiZine rather than with your own press?

Chomichuk: I love time travel stories and I’ve always been terrified by them as a writer.

They are impossible to get right. But my father always says “I didn’t know it was impossible until I had already done it.” I wanted the challenge and I had the idea so I kept at it until it had the shape I needed.

When I set out to work on Infinitum I looked at most of the tropes and rules of time-travel stories and all of them got hung up on paradox. I said to myself, I’m going to make a time-travel story that puts that out front. The machine runs on paradox, it isn’t bad, and all of spacetime doesn’t unravel if you change it. It just changes. The idea I had was this: A time-traveler would have no more affect on a culture or society than a traveller from another country has when they land in Paris. They might be able to alter localized events around themselves, but French society and culture as a whole could not be affected. It would take a society of time-travellers to really mess with things. That what the Infinitum are, a diaspora of time-travellers.

The other main thing other time-travel stories try to avoid is a character meeting themselves. This is also essential in Infinitum. 9 is able to do what he does because when the going gets tough he goes back into his past to help himself solve the problems he now has prior knowledge of. He’s his own back-up from the future.

My early draft was a mess of tangled causality diagrams. A total f**kshow of this then this then this then this before that, that before this, this cancels that and so on. At first I was caught in the mechanics of the science fiction. To bust out of that trap I remembered that the time travel alters the moves of the story, but it doesn’t change the need for moments. Stories are about the character’s interactions with each other, their moments, that’s the drama. Once I convinced myself of that, the rest was much easier.

The bigger challenge for me was making the story noir without making it totally misogynistic. Noir film has a wonderful twisted narrative structure, a dystopian bent, wonderful visual style. Noir film has a lot of good stuff in it. It also has an unhealthy in-balance of ‘woman as object,’ ‘woman as victim,’ ‘women without agency’. I didn’t want to follow that as a guideline as I had followed the other noir elements.

Technically Infinitum fails the Bechdel test, but I feel that no one can read it and feel that my main female character is just a plot device or sexual outlet. I had a scene that would have allowed me to pass the test, but I cut it for pace. Which is the hard lesson of creation verse conscience; sometimes despite your noble intentions, the story has to go it’s own way.

I wrote about whose ‘fault’ I think that Infinitum is in the foreword to the book so I won’t retread that. I will say that I chose to publish with ChiZine because they are doing great things in genre publishing and bending plenty of “rules” for Canadian publishing and I knew I’d have things to learn there. Every new project should give you new perspective, new friends and new ideas about how to do things differently or better. I pitched ChiZine two graphic novels and they took them both. Infinitum is out June 2015 and Midnight City will be out in 2016. They’ve since added Ghost Doctor Thirteen to their roster as well and the first comics short of that will be available at TCAF [Toronto Comic Arts Festival] in May.

I’ve got projects in development or placed with traditional book publishers, comic book publishers, self-published work, co-published work, work in theatre, film and television, and every new avenue or business model I try is about what is needed to get the work out there. I’ve many stories to tell and I’m always looking to collaborate. Things we can place with another publisher for mutual benefit is great, and sometimes to make something exactly as you want it, you do it yourself, which is freeing.

Some creatives need to do one project at a time. I admire that in them, that focus and self-restraint is admirable. I need to have multiple things moving to keep the momentum up. The more I work with people the more I find that it seems to be one way or the other with creatives. Which sort of creative are you and why?

Ball: It occurs to me that a lot of my stories would fail the Bechdel test simply because there are no human characters in them (often no characters at all) or only one character, which is an oddity I had not considered before.

To return to my distinction above, I can work on a lot of what I would consider “technical exercises” at a time, but I can only work effectively on a single major project at once. I used to work on a lot of different projects at once, jumping to another when I was stuck on one, but I found that I was not finishing projects. I just bailed when the work became difficult, while fooling myself and thinking that I was accomplishing something.

Then I instituted a personal “rule” — I could only work on one major project at once, and in fact I had to work on the one that was closest to being completed. Or abandon it forever. After I instituted that rule, I finished three book-length projects in short order (and abandoned many others). I actually dislike this rule, but I can’t argue with results.

Imagine you could have 10 projects that were 80% complete, or one project that was 100% complete. Which is better? The one at 100%. Imagine the perspective of the world outside: nobody knows or cares about the 10 projects that are almost done. They can’t. They can only know and care about the one that they see, the one you can pass along to them. You need to have that one thing at 100%! Working on a lot of projects is better than not working on any, but it’s not as good as working on one project. We’ve seen study after study that shows multitasking doesn’t work, and I think the same is true of multi-project management.

As well, my temperament is that I have to focus and dig down on a project to take it where I want to go. Sometimes I need to rewrite a single page for two weeks. Not always, and thankfully not often, but if I allow myself to jump to another project then I will do that instead of finishing the stupid, stubborn page.

One thing I do allow myself, from time to time, is to break up large projects into smaller sections that stand alone in some way and then move from one to the other. It’s a way of jumping between projects that is more structured and allows for more flexibility while still letting me stay focused. The reality is that it’s not realistic, for a lot of reasons, to just work on one thing all the time, even though that is the best. But even then I try to stay focused on a single major project and just work on preliminary material like notes or technical exercises and so on.

For example, my main project right now is a short story collection. I am focused on the smaller part of this one story called “Judith.” Then I will finish rewriting a treatment for a forthcoming project, a screenplay called Edenbridge. Then I will work on a short story called “The Lottery,” also for that same book, while the director reviews my treatment. Right now, the treatment is a “minor” project but when I am actually in the scripting stage then Edenbridge will be a major project and I will basically just stay focused on that.

I might take a break from the major project sometimes too, maybe I will just write blogs for a week, which are sort-of how I do my class prep now. When I do stuff like that I don’t delude myself — I am taking time off from the major project, the book. I’m being unproductive on that, which is fine from time to time. Just as long as I don’t fool myself into thinking I am accomplishing something important. Sometimes you need a break, but I like to just write (relatively) unimportant stuff during my breaks, because you always have to keep writing. So my “breaks” are me writing things for money or other task-like writing, things that don’t take a lot of energy, like this interview.

I cried when I read your latest book, the picture book Cassie and Tonk (McNally), which I never do. I think the last time I cried with a book was reading The Road (McNally | Amazon). Why did you make my cry, Greg?

Chomichuk: For me, I look at the day as total possible creative output in the given circumstance.  I’m a teacher and a father and a husband as well as being a writer and and illustrator.  Each piece of the creative things I do fits into a corresponding shape of time in the day.  

I keep a writing schedule.  You must.  But the day is full moments that other fun things can fit into.  So I work on lots of things.  I use my schedule to finish things, and my moments to create them. 

I’d also like to say what an absolute creative partnership Cassie and Tonk became.  Justin and I have recently made Butterfly Collection (not for kids) and have a few other all ages projects on the horizon. Justin has a dozen creator-owned projects he’s got in various stages of development and I’m very happy to be partnered with him on a few of those.  

Cassie and Tonk was intended to make you cry.  We aimed for it, so to speak. Justin and I sat down and actually said, “How can we make the parents cry?” and tried to come up with pacing and beats that would make the emotional temperature.  

We wanted to make a story that addressed something everyone would have to go through and try to make the story have a simple but meaningful message.  Justin had an idea for Cassie and Tonk that spun up out of a drawing he had done. We shaped it into a story by working up the storyboards together and talking over the metaphors and he pacing. 

It was originally going to be a “silent” story. We were just going to do the whole thing with images. But as the story came out, the desire to add a layer to the narrative was too strong. We wanted the perspective from someone looking back on an important event in their childhood with a more mature understanding. I wanted a way to soften the ending with wisdom.  
  
What I am still grasping is how Cassie and Tonk has turned into a letter to myself when I would need it the most.  During the making of Cassie and Tonk my mother was diagnosed with cancer and within only handful of months, she was gone.  She got to see the book, which remains a comfort to me, but her decline followed Cassie and Tonk‘s premiere at the Toronto International Book Fair. 

It’s a story that faces a hard truth: We all have someone we love who we may lose.  My mother’s death was sudden in one sense but also painfully prolonged. Working through that last draft was what I think honest writing can be; healing and resonant.  

Some of that experience also made it into Infinitum.  I could say that the parts I needed to face as an adult are in Infinitum, and the parts I need to hear as a son are in Cassie and Tonk

The experience with my mother underlined my desire to do my own thing, my way, for my own reasons.  Plenty of people don’t know how I can write scary books and serious books and books for kids and teach in a high school and do live art in gallery shows.  I don’t need anyone to “get it”. Life is too short for that.  

I’m off to TCAF this weekend and bringing Ghost Doctor Thirteen into the spotlight there along with a preview for Infinitum.  Once I get back I have a few more questions for you, Dr. Ball.

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