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“What’s Your Secret?”: Sloane Leong Talks to Rebecca Roher

During my month-long residency at the Maison de Auteurs in Angouleme, France I decided I wanted to share as much work from my fellow residents as possible. My first interview is with Rebecca Roher, a cartoonist, illustrator and educator. Her work has been published on the Nib, Bitch Media, New York Times Now, GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine, Seven Days Alt-Weelky, Symbolia, the Media Co-op and Briarpatch. We got together after our daily group lunch at the MdA to talk about her most recent work in progress.

Sloane Leong: So the first thing I’m going to ask is what you’re working on, and what brought about the project.

Rebecca Roher: I’m working on a project called One Hundred Year-Old Wisdom, where I’m interviewing near-hundred-year-olds about their keys to long life, their histories, and how they live today. I’m making comics based on the interviews. It’s framed as if I am a news reporter for a fictional TV network. I really like the reporter voice, you know like, “Hello, I’m reporting live–”

[Chuckles] yeah.

I think it’s very humorous and a nice way to frame it and also, I was really inspired by the videos you see of reporters visiting old people on their hundredth birthday asking, “What’s your secret to long life?” and the hundred year-olds are like, “I eat oatmeal every day and stayed away from men.”

[Laughter].

Or, you know, these kinds of things.

Yeah.

I envisioned the project at first only interviewing women, I was thinking about getting wisdom from wise women and, you know, how women’s roles and rights in society have changed so much over the last hundred years, so I’m particularly interested in women’s experiences. But then as I was doing the project I just couldn’t deny doing interviews with men, they have their own amazing stories and it makes the project more inclusive and interesting for a wider audience. So, I’ve broadened it to be for men and women and I’m very happy about that. Really there are more hundred-year-old women than there are men statistically, so it’s gonna be probably mostly women anyways.

Yeah, why not.

Yeah, for sure. So, that’s what I’m doing right now. They’re short comics about three to five pages each and a few of them are going up on Popula and I’d also like to collect them into a book.

Very cool.

Yeah.

That’s awesome. And, like, what you kind of talked about – what motivated you to take on this sort of project with this theme?

Well, like I said, it was this idea of gathering wisdom from the elderly, loving those funny interviews and I – when I was writing my graphic novel, Bird in a Cage, which is about my grandmother and her decline into dementia. She was living in an old age home and I’d go visit her and I remember my mom pointed out this woman, Rose, who was a hundred. It really struck me that someone was a hundred years old, like, it felt magical that someone has lived that long, and I think they must, even if they don’t really know their own secret to long life, they must be doing something right, or I’m just curious about what it is. And seeing those videos I thought, “I can do that, I can be a reporter.” I like this absurdity of the fact that I’m not a reporter and I don’t really know what I’m doing – I’m just figuring it out myself. I think comics is a very good form for to tell these stories because they can document history and stories very well, but also are obviously influenced by my hand and my opinion and my framing of it, so I try to be heavy handed with the framing in order to show that it’s, like, I’m molding the way this story is being told.

Yeah.

Because I’m definitely cutting things out. I’m trying to be as accurate to facts as I can and I’m taking it seriously in that way. But I’m definitely weaving the storyline and the way – to make it–

Cohesive?

A cohesive comic, yeah.

Hm, that was interesting to me because I was like there’s so many tones you could take with this sort of comic. Like I feel like if I did something like this, like, it’d be really sad [laughs].

Right.

Whereas you’ve approached it with a humorous and light touch.

But that’s what I love about this subject matter with the elderly – is the balance of funny and sad because our emotion is already so heightened when you think of elderly, like, you think of death, you think of your own grandmother, grandfather and how we’re all gonna get old and it’s, like, [groans], like, it’s so – there’s so much emotion attached to all of that, but there’s also so many funny things, so many funny ways of speaking and little anecdotes and they have been developing their jokes over their whole lives. And with my grandmother and her dementia – part of the reason I wanted to do that book was also this tension of funny and sad. She got confused once and put vodka in a milk jug and put it on the table as if it was water and that’s such a weird funny story that is also sad, but, the absurdity of that, I really like playing with that. And I think since our hearts are already there, it’s kind of impactful to play with that tension.

Yeah, and I appreciate you kind of keeping a hold on that tone because it’s so easy to veer off to just like the negative aspects of this, but I like how both your style and the way you present it has – like, it’s sad but it’s equally as positive, their lives were just as rich, they have all these stories, I really appreciate that. What threads have you found so far in your interviews with these elderly people.

Well–

Like, their secrets [laughs].

Yeah, like what are their secrets? What do they do? Doesn’t everyone wanna know the secrets?

[Laughs]

I think, I mean, certainly it’s not only one thing. I think genetics are a big thing, staying active is huge, and living a balanced life. I don’t think you really have to eat healthy, per se, like religiously healthy, but you know, balance is important and – but I really think it’s more important to have a drive and a passion and a spirit. Like, if you have something to live for then your drive just continues towards that. When people go into decline it’s because they lost someone or they fell and broke their hip and then the pain and recovery is too much to continue. Often, it’s like there’s some kind of thing that happens that makes them lose their spirit and then they decline. I don’t think it’s, like, a cognizant thing, but more like the kind of person who always keeps busy and is always volunteering and is always wanting to do everything themselves and they’re just stubborn like that. Those are the people who live a long time, or people who have love ones who – they feel they need to be there for, they want to be there for. But, you know, even when that loved one dies they can still have a very stubborn spirit and want to find other things to live for because that’s the kind of person they are.

Interesting.

But it is strange. I’ve met a 96-year-old man who had ill health in his family, he was kind of negative, and his wife had died – who knows why he’s living so long. And it is a mystery, which is kind of neat that we can’t really don’t know. But I’ve definitely also read studies that social interaction is a huge thing. Having people that you make eye contact with and talk to every day, I think that leads to happiness and feeling connected and all that stuff.

That’s cool.

And the people I talk to– I’m reaching people through my social contacts and – sometimes I’m going through organizations and things, but the – the people I’m finding have people. They have someone taking care of them and that they see often and that kind of thing.

How do you approach these elderly people? What is your process going from finding them to, like, do you come at the interview kind of knowing an aspect about them that you want to talk about? What is your process there?

Well, I’m really going on leads. I’m putting the call out on social media for specific cities, particularly ones that I either want to go to or I know somebody there who can put me up or they can do a call out within their community. Really, I’m going through my connections and then, otherwise, I’ll also get in touch with community centers and religious centers and old age homes in the city I’m heading to to find people to do interviews with. When I went to London a few months ago and I sent emails to something like thirty synagogues and two of them got back to me. One of them has come through with interview subjects. So it’s a lot of legwork. Going through centers is harder because people are suspicious to allow a stranger to talk to an elderly person, there is a lot of elder abuse and they’re very vulnerable segment of society and who am I? They don’t need to trust me.

Right, right.

So, I’ve actually, in some cases, gotten my Rabbi at my synagogue in Toronto to send a reference letter for me to set people’s mind at ease, especially if they work for an organization, if they’re going to connect me with people. Usually if I go through an organization I say I prefer to have a family member there for everybody’s peace of mind, but also to help with memories and things like that. One kind of funny way– or unusual way of finding someone one time – I was in London and I went to this community center, I just walked in to ask if they had anybody above ninety who visited there and this woman was very helpful and said, “come back tomorrow, there’s a 93 year-old woman who comes here for lunch.” And I ended up arriving late because I had previous plans at that time, but I tried anyways, and another woman was at the desk who was less helpful was like, “who’re you? Oh, that woman’s not here, you better leave.” She was kind of trying to get me out the door. And, so I went outside and I was just waiting sort of at a – sitting at a café, right next to the door, or near the community center being like, “oh, man, I missed my chance, what a bummer.” And this woman came out with two canes and I thought, “oh, maybe that’s her,” and I approached her – it was a bit rude – I was like, “how old are you?”

[Laughter] are you a hundred?

Are you 93 years old? [Laughter] And she thought it was funny and she agreed to have coffee with me and we went across the street and she was so wonderful and we really hit it off and she actually, she kept asking me, “why am I telling you all this stuff?” [Leong laughs] “Who are you again?” And she got me to write my information in her book and that was a neat way to find somebody because she doesn’t have children – you often meet old ladies because they’re somebody’s grandma, but there are a lot of old ladies who never married and I’m meeting quite a few. They decided to have a career over having a family or they just never met somebody that they wanted to settle down with and that’s not a narrative we hear a whole lot. So, her story was really interesting and then, but then I– it’s always better for me to get visual references especially in their homes. Part of the visual thing that I’m really excited about is seeing the way that the elderly have arranged their home, what they’ve kept, their old photographs and things. So, I asked her if I could, when I was back in London, come and take photos and visit her in her home and we exchanged information and when I was back there I called her, we set up a coffee date and I went over and took photos. But later that afternoon I got a Twitter direct message from her niece saying, “excuse me, I think you visited my elderly aunt, can you give me a call?” And I called and she was like, “just checking to make sure you’re a real person”. She had asked Grace if her keys were still there are the door after I left. She wasn’t too worried at that point because she had checked out my Twitter and Instagram and saw that I was doing a project and it was legitimate, but initially I think she was quite concerned. And I told her, “I’m really sorry for causing you stress, obviously, you should be worried about this.” It was unusual, the way that I found Grace, I usually wouldn’t just find someone off the street, but that sort of, under the circumstances, that’s just how it happened. I do sort of have to convince people that are not even just the person I’m interviewing, that the interview should happen or that it’s a good idea. So, it’s part of my approach to think of how I can make this seem like a really good idea to all the gatekeepers, not just the person who I’m interviewing. And sometimes, the idea that it’s comics actually gets in the way of it because they think of comics as a joke and as a gag and they don’t wanna be made fun of. I’ll send examples of the comics to show that I can balance serious concepts with a light humor. I was actually almost denied an interview by an 102-year-old woman on the Toronto Island because she didn’t like the idea that it was comics. But then when she read the comic she was sort of like, “oh, okay this is fine.”

Ah, okay.

So, she was into it. Um, but yeah, so. It’s a bit hard – or it’s another aspect of the work to actually find the people and then, you know–

Establish a connection and a trust.

Yeah, and there’re, like, translators sometimes too so it’s – yeah, I’m learning a lot about coordinating this kind of a project. It has a lot of moving parts to it.

It sounds like a lot of work to build that sort of relationship with your interviewee, I guess.

Yeah.

And their surroundings, their support system, their family, their caretakers or whatever. Yeah, that’s super interesting. Do you have a set questionnaire or bullet point of topics that you’d like to cover with them?

Yeah, I do, and I – it’s in these three areas of interests, why they think they’ve lived so long, and their advice for how to live well. And also, their histories, what they’ve lived through, their social context, political context of growing up and also the conditions of how they live today, how independently they live. The historical context is interesting, a lot of people, especially here in Europe, grew up through the Nazi occupation– I talked to some women in France who remembered their village being occupied and then later how those German soldiers became prisoners of the town, just crazy stories. And then also, in Amsterdam, the people I talked to witnessed Jews being deported, being rounded up in places, so – and also, a lot of these people grew up without electricity in their homes. Technology has changed so much over their lifetimes and now they’re on Instagram. So, it’s just a very interesting moment for reaching back over the last hundred years. And even just looking – even the technology of photographs. The fact that they have beautiful photo albums of photographs that were developed using technology so different from what we use today– it feels pertinent for me to do this right now. Especially since they are close to death– I’ve not been able to do interviews because somebody passed away before I could get to them, so it really is timely.

Yeah, very urgent.

Yeah.

What is – I’m curious, what is the demographic of where, like the locations of these interviewees? You’ve been in Europe for a while, then you were in Toronto before that. What’s the ethnic demographic that you’ve covered so far?

Uh, well, you know, to be honest it’s been very white and that’s something I’m trying to work on. Diversifying. I did about three or four in Canada, and since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been in France, UK, Denmark, Sweden, and–

I mean, that’s a very diverse pool of people so far.

It is – yeah. In terms of, like, European – yeah, but racially all white. And they are – it is very different culturally, absolutely.

I guess in like American terms we have a very kind of like slightly more binary way of looking at people of color, and like, white people and – I was just interested in how you–

Yeah, I definitely – it definitely is diverse culturally, but yes, as you said, but racially it’s not been. It’s very important for me to have voices from really all over the world. And so, I’m hoping to reach the Syrian community in Berlin. I’m going back to London soon and I just reached out to a community center that’s in an East Indian neighborhood to hopefully get an interview –

That’s very cool.

That would be really cool and then when – I’m actually gonna be applying for more funding and – to hopefully travel outside of Europe as well so that would be great to go to the Middle East and Africa and I don’t know how big this project is gonna end up. But also Toronto’s such a diverse, multicultural place. I’ve already had people coming forward with people – with elderly people who could talk to me who are from not Canada, who are immigrants so, I think when I go back to Toronto I’m going to try to do a bunch of interviews there.

I was just wondering mostly in the sense of – maybe it’s not as common to find people of color who have been able to live that long, just from systematic oppressive regimes and being poor. I was just wondering if it was actually harder to find people of color who have reached that age.

Yeah, I mean, that could be a reason. And I think it also could be sort of, the fact that I’m white and – I don’t know. It’s not like I only have white friends, but it seems like I’m in sort of like a bubble or something.

For sure.

I’ve been able to reach lots of Jewish people, that’s sort of my network and just from who I’ve gone to school with or who I met in my life, and so I am trying to figure out how to get outside of my own bubble.

Yeah, yeah.

I think also, to your point as well, Europe didn’t really open up – it’s been more recent that it’s opened up to immigrants or at least that’s what I understand that it’s been more in the past fifty years or something that there have been more immigrants welcome into Europe. And so it’s so different from Canada where there’s a more settled, more ingrained multicultural society. Here it’s sort of less common, there are immigrants, I mean – it’s not as if they’re not here, but it’s sort of less common for elders to be here maybe, and maybe the language barrier as well. There’s many inhibitors to reaching people.

Totally.

Yeah.

Is there any other challenges that you’ve faced? I mean, you talked a lot about how much work goes into it – is there anything else you find is an ongoing challenge either with actual interviewing or maybe even with just your physical work and manifesting the comics?

Well, just I guess – just reaching people. Sometimes people just disappear and they’ll say, “oh, yeah, I think my grandmother will be interested,” and then they just never write back to me. And with the comics, I’m painting them in gauche and I love painting, but it does take so much time and I’m a bit worried about the actual scope of the project and the reality of carrying it through. Comics just take so much time and work no matter what you do, but there are definitely ways to cut corners, like with my graphic novel, I did it in pencil and it was just so much faster than if I had painted it, it would have taken me four times the amount of time, so maybe I’m a bit ambitious trying to do it this but I just love the juiciness of gauche and I just pictured this project that way. I’m really inspired by Maira Kalman and her aesthetic, for this project particularly. So, that’s where I’m being a bit – trying to be potentially a bit stubborn in doing it that way.

Yeah, yeah.

And hopefully by keeping the comics short, I’ll just be able to do it.

What is your process with – I’m assuming you’re recording your interviews, then you go through and transcribe and then pencil? What is your process getting it from–

Yeah, I record the interviews with video and audio – and I’ll also be writing notes the entire time in case technology fails and for my own memory – because my technology is not very good and the video keeps turning off in the middle [laughter].

Oh, no.

I don’t know what I’m doing [laughs]. But, you don’t have to write that – [laughs]

[Laughter] Strike that, strike that from the record [laughs].

“She knows what she’s doing” [laughs]. Um, but then, I – you know, it’s best if I kind of thumbnail it quickly, but often I don’t right away, but generally I write, I do bullet points of, like, point by point what is key and sort of find the flow of the pieces. Then, I’ll thumbnail it, it changes in that stage and I’ll rework it. I cut and paste with tape and scissors and move things around that way and then I – once I’m pretty happy with my thumbnails, I’ll enlarge them on the photocopier and then pencil a rough pencil and then I do a more finished pencil and paint on watercolor paper.

Okay.

After I do the rough penciling, I often will go back with cutting and pasting and moving things around because actually this needs more space or this doesn’t make much sense and I’ll get people to look at it through every stage. It’s so amazing to be in this residency right now, to have comics artists right next to me and to ask them if my work makes sense or flows. It’s an incredible place to be for this.

Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask you next. How long have you been at the residency now?

Since the beginning of November so just over three months.

Oh, cool. And how has that played into it for you, into this project besides just, like, lots of access to other cartoonists who are also honing their craft?

Yeah, it’s been really perfect to have this home base to travel from. The studio is wonderful, I have great studio-mates who are focused on their projects, but are also very friendly and we just have a good feeling together, we talk and it’s very nice but we can also focus on our own stuff. I have my studio space to do the correspondences from and, you know, do my work, finalize comics, and my desk has a light table built into it, I have a photocopier downstairs, everything you need is provided. I have an apartment here that’s provided, so I can come and go as I please and everybody seems fine with that, they knew the project when I came in. But really, I’m trying to keep the trips short, I do feel like when I’m away for a few weeks, it feels like a bit of a waste because you can only have one year with housing at this residency and I don’t want to waste that time, so I’m trying to keep my travels short. There’s even a legal aid guy who you can talk to about copyright stuff or taxes. Not that I’ve used that yet but it’s – yeah, it’s very supportive.

That’s cool. So many resources [laughs].

Yeah, it is. And inspiring. I’m learning about techniques, how – you know, everybody has their own way of approaching making a comic and that’s so fascinating to me and I’m seeing really neat ideas that I never would have thought of myself, so it’s very cool to be meeting so many – such a diversity of artists, who are also talented and, you know, special in their own way. It’s very cool.

Very cool. Um, let’s see, my last question is… well, we talked – this is kind of, like, saucy, but what are the negatives of working here or maybe like living in England or France. I’m trying to get like–

My gosh. I want to move here.

You love it?

I love it. Um, I mean, it’s a bit hard to get to the airport.

[Laughter] yeah, yeah.

I have to take a train to either Bordeaux or Paris.

Right, yeah.

I mean, boohoo, that’s not really that bad. Um, I guess – I don’t know. I’ve been here for three months and I’m really loving it. Maybe after some time it might feel small and it is very quiet – I don’t know, that’s ideal for getting work done for me, like, I was in Toronto feeling very overwhelmed with commitments to family and friends and, I mean, which I want to do, but it’s hard to focus on my own work when there’s all of that and I love the quiet here and the fact that I don’t know that many people, even the people that I know are enough to keep my life busy with friends. So, I don’t want for social interaction, but you know, maybe if in a few months I would feel, it would feel stuffy. But the fact that I’m traveling keeps it fresh.

Yeah, yeah, that’s true.

I think that I’ve heard, though, that some people who have done residencies here for extended periods and don’t leave, that they get a little, a little stir crazy.

Ah, yeah.

So, I was kind of anticipating that and I knew that this project would help me avoid that.

Right.

Yeah.

Very cool, but it’s been – it sounds like it’s been really ideal for you, which is really nice.

Yeah. I really don’t have complaints, I just really want more – if we had, if the shared kitchen had more light in it that’d be nice [Leong laughs] Like, honestly doesn’t matter.

You only have nitpicks, but other than that it’s great.

It’s so good to be here.

Awesome. Last question is how do you feel about your comics scene in your own hometown and do you feel like it’s changing? Give us maybe like an overview of how you feel about your current comics scene.

Well, I think that it’s really it’s very active and there’s quite a big scene. Toronto – TCAF is incredible and that unifies people a lot. The Beguiling comic books store is a big center for comics events and cartoonists and they organize TCAF, and that in addition to Canzine, which Broken Pencil puts on are wonderful centers for people to get together and share their work and meet. It’s very nice because I have friends in the States, I went to The Center for Cartoon Studies and often people come up for that and so you get to see all your friends from everywhere. In terms of the comics scene, I think there’s many scenes and that they all, you know, there’s different circles that all kind of overlap in TCAF and different places, but it feels like there’s sort of little cliques or something that everyone sort of peripherally connected with each other, but maybe they are closer to one circle.

Yeah, yeah, for sure.

And I think there’s a bit of celebrity status as with any comics scene, but everyone’s really approachable and actually very nice and that’s one thing I just love about comics, you get to meet your biggest inspiration so easily at these comics festivals and, you know, exchange emails and meet up, it actually feels like an approachable scene.

Yeah.

Yeah.

Very cool. Um, I don’t know if you have dates yet, but do you have an estimated time for when your book might be done?

I’m hoping to be done May 2020, so in a–

Spring next year.

Spring next year.

Nice. And like publishers? Can you say?

I don’t want to say yet, but a publisher I love is interested and wants to see more pages, so that’s good!

Nice, very exciting.

I’m kind of hoping for that, but we’ll see how it goes.

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