“Hopefully You Reach a Few People Here and There”: A David Collier Interview

David Collier’s work is much too personal, much too idiosyncratic to pass as straightforward nonfiction. His book Morton: A Cross-Country Rail Journey is no exception. It is a book about a series of train trips that Collier took with his family, and a book about the history of Canada, but it’s also about an adult Collier retracing and revisiting his life. It’s a celebration of trains and travel, of community and Canada. It is a deeply difficult book to summarize, but it is rich and complex, all drawn in Collier’s detailed style.

His recent books have felt both more personal but also more expansive. Like some of the best nonfiction writers, he wants to share his fascinations and obsessions, tracing the roots of these interests in his own life, but also trying to consider what they mean. The result is a book that demands rereading. More than a travelogue, not just a history, Morton is a David Collier book in the very best sense of the word, and possibly his best book to date. This is a book about change and trying to make sense of what that means, about trains and streetcars, the army and history. Collier and I talked about the book and many other topics. It was a conversation, in other words, that felt very much like a David Collier book.

Alex Dueben: What is Morton?

David Collier: It’s about us traveling all over the place. That was the impetus for it. Whenever you travel there’s all this serendipity and weird happenings. The book is made up of about seven train trips. Just before one of these trips my friend John Morton died so we went back to where he was from. We always had a kind of psychic connection. It’s a lot about Canada, it’s a lot about growing up. I have been working on this book for about seven years and there were a couple deadlines for this book. One of the deadlines was my son James growing up. I started the book when he was a little kid and people were starting to ask me to do other projects and I had to put them off. There came a point when I would look at my son and he’s taller than me and I was like, I’ve got to finish this book. Life is going so fast. That was one of the deadlines, to get this thing done before he left us [to go to college]. The other deadline was Canada’s 150th anniversary, the sesquicentennial. It’s a lot about Canada. The original title was Morton: A Cross Canada Rail Journey, but the US sales rep for Conundrum Press thought it would be better if it was a “cross country rail journey”. There’s a popular radio show in Canada called Cross Country Checkup that’s been on for like fifty years, so it’s a real Canadian title after all.

It’s interesting that one of the deadlines was your son going off to college, because of course the book opens with the death of your grandmother.

You try to capture this stuff. I did this comic about my grandfather in Collier’s #4 that happened after he died and after my first marriage broke up, so all that loss resulted in that. There’s a section in the book where I’m getting back to work on Chimo. A lot of this book was because of Andy Brown. Andy wanted more of a bridge so I drew this section that bridges the death of my grandmother and the start of this train trip as I’m finishing up Chimo. Andy Brown is unique in comics. I’ve worked with Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly and other presses, but this is the first time I’ve ever really been edited. It happened with Chimo, too. He’s quite a hands-on editor and he really did a lot with this book.

How did the idea of looking at train travel and your life and Canadian history first come together?

It just came after Chimo. I was in a weird state where I did this military story and I’m still in the military – our version of the American National Guard – so I can’t do a lot of things that I maybe would have if I wasn’t in the military. I was kind of scared publishing Chimo because in the military they always say, keep in your lane, don’t talk about things that aren’t your concern. I’m like the lowest ranking guy in the army, so you always have officers telling you, keep a lid on it. I’m also part of this artist program where they made me a captain, or at least an honorary captain. So I was in this weird situation – and I still am in this weird situation. I’m an artist recognized by maybe a few people at National Defense Headquarters, but it’s like my part time job. I’m like a truck driver who works a little at the warehouse. It’s a weird situation.

To get back to your question, Chimo was about the way my life is, and Morton was trying to loosen things up a bit. It came about because the military and their families were able to ride for free on the train during the height of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. With my military ID I could get free train travel during the month of July, which is historically the slow season for commuter rail in Canada. I had this unique opportunity to travel and my family could travel for free, too, so we took it. We went to places like Churchill, Manitoba, which has this really archaic trolley train system, and Lac Saint-Jean in Quebec, and places we normally wouldn’t have traveled to.

So you had this chance to travel every July, which is amazing, but how did you decide where to go? I mean Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, but otherwise what interested you to visit different places?

Lac Saint-Jean is like the end of the line in Northern Quebec; that’s actually the city where Canada’s political class go to learn French. If you go to Montreal you can by with English, but Lac Saint-Jean is a very French place and very nationalistic Quebecois place. My son has been in French immersion his whole life in school and I wanted him to have this experience.

What was interesting is that this wasn’t just a book that really gets into the history of these places, but it’s about your life and your history in these places.

You’ve interviewed Gabrielle Bell and I was on a panel with her at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival a couple months ago with Jason and they called the panel “The Monsters of Autobiography.” I don’t know. Kim Thompson was always on my case about that. He didn’t want autobiographical comics, but I always thought you’ve got to put a bit of yourself in if you want to do history. Putting stuff in about yourself puts it in context, gives people a little bit of gossip they might be interested in, and then they might be more interested in the history that you’re interested in, too.

I look at Morton and your other work and you’re writing about history and culture and other topics much more than people writing memoir are, but you’re also writing about yourself more than most people writing nonfiction about a particular subject are.

I really like Nicholson Baker. He wrote Double Fold about the New York World and how he’s got this big warehouse to save old newspapers. He puts himself in there and you’re really sweating when you read his stuff, how the hell is he going to pull this off. I’ve been inspired by a lot of other people, maybe not comics though.

You talk about this in Chimo, but for people who don’t know, you took part in this artists program that the Canadian military has. I’ve talked with Americans who have been war artists, but I’m not sure many people know that it exists. What were you doing in the program?

I was on a ship. I was with two other artists. We had an office to work out of and we lived on the ship and went on patrol in the North Atlantic in winter. It was cold. We just tried to gather our impressions and regurgitate them and make some kind of art out of it. One of the other guys, Francois, is a sculptor and when he got back to his studio he made a pretty cool piece that toured. The other guy, Andrew Wright, was a photographer and he made pictures of sailors holding things that they didn’t want to come to sea without. I went home and made a comic book. The experience took so long. It took years after I was accepted before I actually went. I was always watching the phone wondering what was going to happen. That’s when I decided to rejoin the military as a reservist. The founding manager of the artist program says I’m still the only guy in uniform who ever was in the artist program. I’m still the only artist in uniform.

You mentioned that you wanted the book out for the Sesquicentennial and it is this Canadian travelogue that looks at people and places.

I was born in 1963 so in ‘67 Canada had its centennial. My parents had this thing called The Centennial Library which was a ten-volume set of red hardbound books with different themes. They were made by newspaper men and women. I was really inspired by them. So much of my work has come out of these books. I would be looking at these books instead of watching TV and I just wanted to pass on something like that to the kids of the future.

It has this very personal feel. Like when you’re in Quebec, it’s this very personal tour of what you know about the city and what you love about its history.

I’m pretty excited for James because Quebec is like our New England. Quebec is one of those places in Canada where everything started. There’s so much history there. I’ve never wanted to be a chamber of commerce guy or some kind of tour guide, but when I was in the full time army, I was a combat engineer on a base about ten miles outside Quebec City so I’d go into Quebec City all the time.

The art being done in Canada up until the modern era was all done by military guys. It was military officers in the 1700s who were posted there from the British army. Canada was – and still is – a kind of harsh place to live. The military class back then was the only educated people who had watercolors and material. I grew up reading Vonnegut and Joseph Heller and their books mocking the military, but it is a great place for adult education and it is a little more educated than the general society. The American military eliminated segregation way before anyone else. The Chief of Defense for Canada is marching in the gay pride parade in Ottawa. When you have top down guys saying, this is what’s going to happen, change can happen quicker in the military sometimes than in society as a whole. It’s funny.

You said that you don’t want to be a kind of chamber of commerce tour guide, and for all your love of trains, your trip runs into a lot of problems. This is not an advertisement necessarily.

People were saying, you should get Canada Rail to sponsor your book. I was like, no, I don’t think they’d like it. Bad things happened like when all the trees fell on the tracks or when the employees went on strike or at the Montreal ticket counter when the person thought that we couldn’t understand French. That’s all the bad stuff, but you’ve got to make it entertaining and bad stuff is entertaining.

I did love the story about the band who got a free rail pass and they just had to perform twice a day. That is a great program.

It is a really nice community. It’s kind of like my version of On the Road for Canada. The thing about Canada, the thing about the North – and I have gone up to the Arctic, up to Resolute Bay – is that you’ve got to work it out. You’ve all got to work together and get along somehow. Up at Resolute Bay where it never got above -40 for the better part of the two weeks I was up there, you can’t just wander off and say, I’m doing my own thing. My story is a little bit of a reaction to On the Road because in the States you can just drive anywhere and in Canada you can’t. Most of our land mass has no roads. Churchill doesn’t have any connecting roads, but it does have this train track, so when you’re on the train it’s like this little community. It happens often in Canada where you find yourself in this little community and you’re just huddled against the cold – or the mosquitos or the shitty weather or whatever – and you’ve got to somehow all get along. We look at the stuff that’s happening in the States where people are at each other’s throats for the last few years, and it’s incredible. We can’t do that because we’ve got to get along. Or else! Go up to Resolute Bay, the Inuit community doesn’t say, I did this or I did that – it’s, we did this. It’s always the group, the community.

That sense comes through. I wouldn’t have thought of it as a reaction to On the Road, but the book is a story about community in different forms.

I’ve been reading about what to do when the neighbor you liked puts a Trump sign on their lawn. It’s so divisive. I’ve been reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books. He’s this Norwegian writer and he’s a Norwegian in Sweden and so he’s always comparing the two. I feel like Norwegians in Scandinavia are like Canadians, a little rougher or more like yokels. I don’t know. But you’ve read his stuff, what he’s doing is a little like comics, eh? I started his first book and I was like, Crumb was doing this forty years ago. The writing feels like comics a lot. Someone should ask him if he reads those old comics because he mentions growing up reading comics.

I know that Morton came out in Canada earlier in the year. What has the response to it been like?

I’ve been getting some good response. I could complain, but what do you want? I mean, what was the response when War and Peace came out? Who knows. It takes a long time to digest this stuff. John Morton’s relative in the book, the woman in Manitoba who took us to where he used to live, I sent her a copy and she wrote back and said she liked it. I’m happy about that.

I got a review in The Globe and Mail and The London Free Press. Geist magazine had an except; they’re a Canadian version of Harper’s. I can’t complain. I went to Montreal and just bombed during the launch. I had a headache and a sore throat and I sold one book. But that one book was for this little girl, maybe twelve, and her mom said she read the review in The Globe and Mail and she’s been waiting to meet you. She had this German train t-shirt on. That was worth the trip to Montreal. Have you read that D&Q is reprinting the history of Japan [Showa] by Shigeru Mizuki? That’s an epic, epic book. In an interview he was asked, what was the reaction in Japan when this came out and he was like, nothing. There’s so much going on, hopefully you reach a few people here and there who really appreciate it.

Have you started thinking about your next project?

My old boss from when I was 17 contacted me when I was working on Morton. He wants me to do a book about him. A lot of people have been bugging him to do a book and he wanted me to do it. This guy started The Roxie in Toronto. When I was a teenager I was part of the crew that unloaded stuff and did security during shows, and sometimes even worked the spotlight. It’s a really interesting story about him – and it’s about me too.

His grandfather escaped anti-Semitism in Poland and moved to Northern Ontario in 1905 and set up this clothing store. Gary’s father took over the clothing business in Northern Ontario, but his father didn’t want Gary to follow in his footsteps. Gary screened films and then he started promoting shows. He brought the Ramones to Toronto in 1976 and The Police the next year or maybe ’78. All these bands who later became big and they all stayed loyal to Gary and his business partner, Gary Cormier. They were known as the Two Garys. By the time I was eighteen I’d seen every band I’d ever wanted to see. It was such a great experience. All the people who worked there were like a family. I practically had groupies, all these punk girls who would come and hang out. It was the late '70s and early '80s. It was quite a time. I was so young, but I was around these older people who taught me a lot and didn’t fuck me around. There are some good lessons there.