GMB Chomichuk and Jonathan Ball (interview), Part 1

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 1 of a two-part, twinned interview (the second part will post next 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).

Jonathan Ball: Why did you decide to start Alchemical Press?

GMB Chomichuk: I had been getting serious about the idea of visual story telling. I had a conversation with a friend who said that a people need to sell their strengths and buy their weaknesses, and on the same day got a call from a producer asking me to come and talk about doing a comic adaptation and some set design. When I was asked to use the likenesses of the cast for the comics, I figured doing so under the umbrella of a legal entity would be prudent. It just seemed the time. All ideas have their time, and I guess this was the time for Alchemical Press. Lots of things were changing in my life, and alchemy is change.

How does a poet/horror writer make a movie and sell it to The Comedy Network?

Ball: Don’t say horror, or I’ll never get published again. I used to say something else, like my work is “struck through with Gothicism” or “darkly fantastical” (I owe Hiromi Goto for that one). Since I am what people call, redundantly, a “literary writer,” I have to feign a pretentious investment in the marketing term “literary fiction.” Although to be honest I have gotten bored with that stance and started to call myself a “horror writer” in the press recently, even when not talking about horror.

I believe in the value of always doing something. I’ve been writing seriously for about 15 years at this point, which is about how long you have to work in order to reach Square One. The film you’re referring to, Spoony B, I decided to make a number of years ago, in order to learn the basics of filmmaking. I figured if I wanted to do some screenwriting, I should learn to think like a director, and the best way to do that was to become one. So I cobbled together about $500 and thought, “What kind of film can I make with only $500?”

I knew I couldn’t afford lab fees, so I developed all the film by hand in buckets and transferred it from my kitchen wall with a digicam. I put my friends in it and shot it as a silent film, like an old Keaton or Chaplin film, so that I didn’t have to record sound, because I couldn’t afford to record the sound well.

It turns out I have a small bit of talent for being a director (very small!), because The Comedy Network bought it almost immediately. Really, it was a happy accident that the film ended up being any good, and then Matthew Etches, who was the distribution coordinator for the Winnipeg Film Group managed to sell it, it was one of the last things he did before he quit that job. In many respects, I don’t know how it was sold, basically it sold because the Winnipeg Film Group sold it for me. The rights are available again now, if somebody wants to license it from the WFG!

What are your goals for Alchemical Press, and how do you see it as different from other presses?

Chomichuk: Alchemical Press is not a traditional press, it’s a story engine. We are a mercenary strike force of creative people that use art and words to fight our battles. We are a collective of innovative storytellers. We publisher the work of others, and we publish our own in collaboration with Absurd Machine Films and Vagabond Brigade, and Electric Monk Media web services, which allows us to be peer-reviewed while retaining creative control.

Too often peer review means “Give someone else the rights and revenue potential but keep the credit.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the book industry, but they do their thing, we do ours. Alchemical Press is a hybrid model that works with the direct sales market of the comic stores and the returnable market of the book seller, and the online make-it-up-as-you-like markets of the Internet.

Poetry, Prose, Pictures, Collage, Video, Digital Art. We aren’t interested in you doing things our way, we’re interested in getting things done.  If people have an idea worth sharing, we want to help.

Our goals are to get talented people the exposure they deserve. To allow those who are working with the medium of story for the medium of story, (Guys like Dave Ryan and his War of the Independents) to get their ideas out there and inspire people.

What’s your creative process, from idea to gestalt? Concept to page? Tell me your secrets I’ll tell you mine.

Ball: I never go out in search of ideas, because I have so many, a huge backlog of projects I will never have time to complete. Some of them are great projects too. But when I get an idea I stop whatever I’m doing and roll the idea around for a while. I make a note or two if I’m concerned about forgetting something, just a good sentence or two. Then I just let the idea retreat and go back to whatever I was doing.

The idea has to compete for survival amongst the thousand other ideas. If I find myself sticking with it, turning my mind to it over and over again, making more notes, and not letting it go, then eventually I’ll schedule some writing time to work on it. It might be years from when I think of an idea to when I write word one.

After I have a first draft, I produce a summary/outline based on that draft. Then I make all my major editing decisions based on this outline. I’ll cut pages, note where to add things, restructure, and so on, based on the outline. Then I’ll retype the entire document, rewriting as I go. I don’t go back and edit the original computer file, I type a new one so that I don’t feel bound to the first draft in any way and feel freer to rewrite rather than merely revise.

I hope to abandon this practice soon, because it is so time-consuming, but it works great so I can’t. I’m getting close to where I think I can let go of the practice, however. I started using Scrivener (Mac | Windows), and it separates the formatting from the text in a sense (because you have to output and finalize the formatting in Word, since the publishing industry uses Word). So far, I feel like mentally I’m not bound to the text when I play around in Scrivener, so maybe it will finally let me kill off this unproductive but useful practice.

After the second draft every draft is a revision unless there are some major issues. A structural edit might also entail changing things entirely, like turning it from a poem into a short story, or cutting out whole scenes and chapters and characters or whatever. Unless somebody has requested the manuscript, I think about where to send it when I start the revision process (usually with draft three, although I often complete up to eight or ten substantial drafts). Then it’s just a matter of finishing it, sending it wherever, and getting started on the next thing.

I used to work on a lot of projects at once but wasn’t accomplishing much. Now I try to stick to no more than two, switching when I get stuck on one.

What about your process? If I remember correctly, The Imagination Manifesto was at one point a novel called Strangeseed. So how did the idea develop, and go from being a prose work to a graphic novel?

Chomichuk: The Imagination Manifesto (McNally | Amazon) began as a prose novel that was just too visual to remain as text alone. Because my writing style often references allusion and mythology as a literary device, but sometimes I’m talking about figures from mythology, I realized that the book contained too many things that seemed like metaphors, and too many things that seemed like descriptions which the reader can misattribute.

If someone is described as like a snake, but they look human, you know it’s just an adjective, but here the women who looks like a snake is a snake-woman. I had started getting a bit of work in film, and the storyboard needs of some projects really solidified, at least for me, that this part of the tale had to be illustrative. There are many chapters of the tale that will contain long bits of prose, but only when words say it better than pictures and vice versa.

It sounds a bit silly as I write it, but most of my ideas come from dreams. I believe firmly that we can go looking for things when we sleep. Our memory is built up from patterns, but dreaming really lets one experience their own lives in a unique way. If something follows me back from a dream, I take notice, and try to give it somewhere to live. Sometimes as a character, sometimes as a setting, sometimes as a line of dialogue. I do my best to give my dreams a good home.

Ball: I’d like to hear about your process also insofar as how you choose or develop projects. I know you’ve turned down work in favour of edgier fare, and have often turned offers to “work” into offers to be a creative contributor — what’s your attraction to edgier, unconventional work, and why does having some degree of creative control mean so much to you, even when you’re working as a gun-for-hire?

Chomichuk: Collaboration is the point for me. The whole idea of alchemy is the process of mixing strange ingredients and intents and creating something new and vibrant.

When I do work-for-hire art I offer different pricing. One price is for the work I do with the understanding that I keep and control the original art and the right to remix the original images into new work as I see fit. The other price (much higher) gives the client control of the original art. What this usually does is open a dialogue about what art should be and the strengths of collaboration versus outright control.

When everyone is invested in a project, both creatively and financially, the discussion orders itself around the work, and the story, rather than who is in charge. There is a lot of ego floating around in this business, and I find that if/when I set the terms like this, then people I would not enjoy working with for the long haul aren’t the ones interested in working with me anyway.

A person’s portfolio should reflect the work they want, not just the work they’ve done. We all start somewhere, but you need to be assertive about what you want for yourself from any creative endeavour. I want creative autonomy when I work with someone, and I’m interested in working with people who want the same things.

Read Part 2 of my interview with GMB Chomichuk!

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