I met writer Alex de Campi two years ago, after becoming Twitter friends and chatting film. de Campi is maybe the most focused person in comics I know, and I find her drive infectious: since meeting her, I started my own new slate of projects, got an agent (same as hers!), began actually writing scripts, and started feeling like I could create my own opportunities in comics. I recently worked with her for the first time on issue one of Twisted Romance, her new weekly romance comic miniseries from Image, which I drew the lead story of. The schedule was grueling – I missed Thanksgiving, sorry mom – but I never once doubted it would be worth it. How can a writer be so compelling as to make you forget about pumpkin pie? I interviewed de Campi to breakdown her process, interests, and how she keeps her work so irresistible.
Skelly: The other day we were going to see The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but you were ill. (How are you doing?) There’s a little monologue the protagonist gives on working out of compulsion versus out of necessity or pleasure, and it got me thinking. You’re one of the most prolific comics writers I know. Does it ever feel like compulsion for you? What are your driving forces to write?
Alex de Campi: When I'm talking to baby writers, I always joke that writing is a habit, like drinking, or smoking. So much of becoming a writer is just getting over your own bullshit about finishing things and getting them out there. I have... so many strategies for this. But when you do hit this groove, it becomes hard NOT to write. If I am at rest, I will think up a new story to pass the time. I really like doing this. Writing is my favorite activity. And the day I realized I could just go write the book and it would eventually find a home, rather than pitching and waiting... that was a great day. I mean, I get to wake up in the morning, write whatever weird shit I want, and we usually sell it. That's a pretty special place to live. I have no idea how I got here, but I'm here. And I'm not even that fast a writer. I'm just always working on something.
Oh, and I'm feeling almost human again, thanks. I've been on my back with fever for ten days now. I have still been writing: tentacle porn, in my head. Because let me tell you, when you're feeling gross and delirious, erotica is the absolute best thing to write.
Are you talking like, real-real tentacle porn? Or some Possession creature porn?
Oh, if you’re trouble? You get a guardian angel. If you’re real trouble? You get a guardian demon. Who may come with tentacles. Porn ensues.
I love it. Let’s talk Twisted Romance. What’s your attitude toward the romance comic, in general? When you’re writing one, do you feel like you have to sell yourself on the genre, or are you already all in?
Oh no. I was all in. Sentimentality is a desperately under-used weapon in comics. So much of it is about the widescreen explodo. But ultimately, you never remember the explosions. You remember the stories that made you cry. That should be every writer's objective going into every story they write: make 'em cry once, make 'em gasp once, and try to give them some pants feelings at some point. William Mortensen, in his wonderfully kooky The Command to Look, paraphrases Cecil B DeMille about the three things you need for a successful picture: sex, sentimentality and spectacle. You can make do with two, for a mediocre story. And you can be macho as fuck and sentimental at the same time: I present to you the entire cinematic oeuvre of Sam Peckinpah, the man who, with Naoki Urasawa, taught me how to hold a reaction shot.
You mentioned sentimentality – I often think of you as the least sentimental writer I know in your approach. My mind’s eye vision of you is as a pulp writer sitting up alone cranking out story after story. What level of attachment would you say you have with what you write?
Oh, I’m a stone-cold calculating bitch with a moleskine. I’m there to play your emotions as hard as I can and count my money as you cry. And I have studied all the pulp tricks. They are bedrock knowledge on how to create tension and how to have the reader eagerly reaching to turn the page. It’s why everything I write ends up being a thriller. I can’t resist increasing tension wherever I can. But also — and we’re getting onto this John Strasberg “existing on several levels of reality at once” concept that comes about in Method studies — there has to be an honesty in your manipulation. When the emotions in a story are cynical or unearned, you can see it a mile off. So writing it is this constant process of checking in, is this real, is this real... I mean of course it isn’t real, it’s fiction, but everything needs to feel absolutely true and real in that specific moment of the story and the reactions have to be real and not convenient. And in order to do that, you have to be uncynically, completely in love with the story you’re writing. It’s always a full commitment. Because of my method of “don’t pitch, just write the book and worry about where it will land later,” it’s very easy to only take projects that I love. (There’s also the research commitment.) I can’t imagine pitching 5 or 10 things and only writing what lands. That would be a nightmare for me.
There's so much potential drama in every part of every encounter. And it's all based on lies and assumptions, which is such fun. In the current novel I'm working on, there's a line about how all love affairs begin in fantasy and die, later, in reality. And it's not even the high-key "she's secretly a spy!". It's, what are we assuming about the other person? How are we representing ourselves and our intentions? And in all this mess of us pretending to be cooler than we are and having false ideas about what they are like, there's still this chance of unexpected tenderness, of having these incredibly real, raw moments. And then it's gone.
Let's talk about the artists you approached for Twisted Romance. What's the common thread between them? Did anyone's choices on their stories particularly surprise you?
The only common thread is that everyone is better known as a writer-artist than an artist. Other than that, I chose for contrast, not commonality. If you’re going to have four different stories it’s best to make them really different. And again, all people I knew and liked.
Nobody shocked me with any choices. Mostly it was me making happy sounds over the pages as I saw opportunities to do interesting graphic work in the lettering. I find writer-artists are great to work with. A lot of writers are scared to do this? They’re afraid the artist will see right through them, or want to change things, I guess. But I’m OK with change. Because I letter my own work, I can do things on more of a free form, jazz band basis, where I hand you the melody for a while, you evolve it, then you hand it back to me and I make it all work in the letters. It’s not a foolproof scenario, but it works for me. (I do always do a full script, though.)
If I were writing for The New York Times, I’d say something like “romance comics, it would seem, are having something of a moment,” and it would be very annoying. But it does seem like they’re steadily seeping back into the market. What, if anything, do you think it would take to make the romance comic a new releases mainstay?
It’s extremely hard with the way the Direct Market exists to have a big, successful romance market in comics. I think we’ll see more and more, led by Iron Circus Comics, but it’ll still be slow. And I’m sure folks like Harlequin have looked into the market... The cost of producing a romance OGN vs a romance prose novel, plus the much longer time frame to market... I can see them running the numbers and just being like “hahaha no.”
Let’s talk about the way you sell your work. You’re a phenomenal pitcher, which we saw in the quick turnaround of approval from Image for Twisted Romance, and what looked like almost immediate acceptance from the artists you asked to collaborate. From where I’m sitting, that’s a lot of industry clout. How typical is this of your projects, and how long was the journey to get to this place?
Except for my Image work, which I pitch myself, most of the credit honestly goes to my agent, Charlie Olsen. I don’t consider myself a great pitcher. I’m very low-key about it. I mean, the comics industry is so full of dudes shouting about bullshit all the time, it’s fun to whisper.
My main benefits are I write a really good synopsis (quite easy when the script is usually already written), and my ideas are so offbeat that they make people pause. They don’t already have something like that. The universe has channeled the lesson stay weird, kiddo into me so hard, because the projects of mine people pick up on hardest are the strange personal ones I write for myself.
When my projects are ready, they tend to get picked up very fast. I’m very privileged in that regard. Of course, it can take years for a project to become ready. Bad Girls took four years: three and a half with a completed script, waiting for an artist who kept promising to begin, then within six weeks of Victor Santos stepping on and actually doing the work, we had the book at Simon & Schuster. I have a script called Reversal which is probably the best thing I’ve ever written, a really wonderful YA graphic novel, that’s just had catastrophe after catastrophe happen to it in prep for no reason other than fate. I finally have a great artist on it and we’ve almost nailed character designs.
But this is what has pushed me into the arms of prose fiction: I am so tired of producing graphic novels. I’ll never leave comics. It’ll be more like a shared custody thing... but since I made the choice to split my time it’s made me a lot happier.
Something I like about your work is that I can tell you’re someone who’s very in tune with and interested in the world: for the story I drew you hit me with inspirations from Chinese mistress-dispelling agencies to Berlin cabarets in the ‘30s to what hair salons you could reference in ‘70s society New York. Can you tell me a little about how you collect your inspirations, and what sparks your interest as potential fodder?
I'm a magpie, I truly am. I have a very photographic memory so I see things and file them away in this giant old ragbag of ideas for future use. And then years later, I'll drag stuff up out of there and it will have an exact fit somewhere. I mean, I've also done a couple historical fiction projects where I've gone on ridiculous, over-the-top research benders... history is fun. If you're ever short of ideas for a story, read autobiographies because real life is some crazy shit. I love the world. You and I have had this conversation about directors, where I talk about how clear it is that Paolo Sorrentino really loves people and is interested in them. Cristian Mungiu's another great example of this. I love going out and watching people, and experiencing stuff, and I'll happily do it on my own if nobody's free to go with me.
In terms of how things spark my interest... I think it's part of the whole emotional openness you train yourself into as a writer. You are a very finely-tuned needle and when something makes that needle kick, you take record of it. You file it away, and pick at it a bit, then pick at it a bit more, then sooner or later you've clawed a bloody great gash in it, and that's pretty much how stories happen, trying to sew up the mess you made. For example: the story with Alejandra in Twisted Romance #2 is a riff on two minor, momentary events. One I witnessed, and one I had told to me by one of the participants. Six months down the line, I've transformed them into something else.
Noting down things as you see / experience / read them also helps. I go through an XL blank moleskine a year. It's a mess. I can't read my own handwriting, and it goes up around corners and into margins... but there's something important to my process about doing both the initial big thinking about a story, and the tiny accumulations to what will someday be another story, on actual paper. It's probably because I'm old.
I absolutely have to finish two novels-in-progress this spring. I’m mad at myself how much events have waylaid me. In comics, there’s the sequel to my spy book Mayday, which is set in Berlin in 1972 and is about infiltrating the Baader-Meinhof Group. It’s all about toxic subcultures, those groups we flocked to when young and impressionable to escape the oppressiveness of the normative — but which in their tiny, hothouse way turned out to be far more bullying and oppressive than majority culture. It’s outlined; it’s five issues; I’m also mad at myself that more hasn’t been done. Pitching a couple books (scripts done; waiting on art)... once I write all this stuff, I might write my Western. I’ve been picking at it for a long time and it has beautiful bones.
And I enjoyed the experience of Twisted Romance so much, I’m contemplating a quarterly prose/comics sex and murder ‘zine. Not sure where it should go, though... it’s not really a direct market book.