“I Call It Education By Stealth!” An Interview with Mary Talbot

Since the release of Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes in 2012, Mary Talbot has become a key writer of biographical and nonfiction comics. That work, her debut, won the Costa Book Award for biography, and has since been followed by Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, a fictionalized account of the British suffragette movement, and a biography of the French revolutionary Louise Michel titled The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia.

Talbot’s background in academia has set the tone for her deeply researched works. Given that her professional interests lie in gender studies, it is no accident that her work has unapologetically put female protagonists front and center.

She regularly collaborates with well-established comics artist and husband Bryan Talbot on her projects. The two have created a tone of voice for the works that combines the emergency of cartoonish representations of people and settings with a symbolic use of watercolors. There is even playful, meta-textual bickering between the two of them in the margins of Dotter.

Autobiographies, memoirs, and historical (non)fiction by and about women is not a new phenomenon in the comics medium, of course. In particular, the works of Alison Bechdel and Kate Evans have special resonances with Talbot’s. Evans’ Red Rosa, about the life of leftist theorist Rosa Luxemburg, makes for a nice thematic companion to The Red Virgin. Bechdel and Talbot have deeper similarities in that both have written about their fathers, and use modernism and modernist texts as intertextual references and framing devices for reflecting on both the experiences of women and on those texts themselves.

In this interview, Talbot discusses the act of researching, comics as “useable” storytelling, and her upcoming climate-orientated book, Rain.

Nick Burman: Let's begin with your writing process: how closely do you work with the artists while researching and writing the script? Do you give directions on specific page layouts or is that part of the process more collaborative?

Mary Talbot: I always have a completed script with panel by panel detail (and a publishing contract!) before the full collaboration with an artist begins. I’m fortunate to work with people I’m close to, however, so we’ve no doubt chatted a good deal about the work in progress while I was developing it. Most of my graphic novel work is in collaboration with my husband Bryan. Once he starts on the artwork, the collaboration is extremely close, sometimes on an hourly basis, as you can imagine, with co-creators working in the same house. He’s frequently making suggestions about script improvements, page layouts, overall design and so on - a sort of ongoing input that's invaluable fine tuning for the finished book. It works both ways, of course. I’m seeing my script come to life on the drawing board or screen and giving him feedback on it. It’s an organic process.

There are no doubt many stories and voices found through research which aren’t quoted directly in the texts, but what makes you think "this has to be included," or "this should be the core of the book?"

It’s hard to say. Whatever the period and setting, I’m always looking for authentic sounding voices to bring it to life. In the early stages of a project, I’m on the lookout for some pivotal event or circumstance to structure a story around. Other than that, I’m really not certain what makes some voices and stories stand out. I guess a lot of it’s based entirely on gut feeling - instinct, if you like - about what has the makings of a well-formed story. Also, I've mentioned my own emotional response to details of Lucia’s life. I cared about her. Those kinds of emotional response to material no doubt influence me a great deal.

You've said that prior to writing Sally Heathcote: Suffragette you had relatively little knowledge on Victorian/Edwardian feminism. How did knowing that the result of your research would be a comic structure what you found through that research?

Not at all, initially. As with any other research, it involved scouring university libraries and other resources. In the case of Sally, that included several trips to the Women’s Library in London. It wasn’t until I had the beginnings of a story, rather than just a mass of historical detail, that I started to select in terms of dramatic impact and visual interest. Of course I had to be very selective indeed, eventually writing key scenes to represent a wide range of repeated suffragette activities. And I needed to think about how to make the most effective use of the verbal and visual elements in combination.

In your comics you've gone from writing about yourself (alongside a historical figure), a fictional figure, and a biography. What, if any, differences did you apply to the writing process when piecing these stories together? Were you asking yourself any ethical questions around portraying the story of Louise Michel, for example?

While I was working on what became Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, I was moved by the tragedy of Lucia Joyce’s story and I was keen to write about that in some way. For a long time I saw my own little story solely as a means to explicate hers. It shocked me that Lucia seems to have been a kind of casualty of modernism. Her father is this stellar modernist figure, with ‘advanced’ views about marriage and so on, yet the Joyces had pretty bourgeois notions about women and these eventually crushed the life out of Lucia. It was only when I could see that my idea of presenting two parallel lives was working well that I finally overcame my diffidence about memoir writing. Once I started to work on the two interweaving plot lines I could see how it would work as a single story. Then I was completely comfortable with the memoir aspect. I did ponder the birth scene quite a lot before adding it, though. I had to do masses of research into Lucia’s life. The final section about her was painful to write. In fact, I found I was starting to well up with tears every time I read through that part. I took it as a good sign, as far as the book was concerned; if it affected me so much, then surely it would do something for readers. Writing about my own past was a different matter. Obviously it’s familiar to me and the most recent event recounted (my mother’s death) was thirty years ago. The next two books seemed more straightforward, presumably because they were far less personal. I do recall that, in the case of The Red Virgin, I had to think very carefully about how to represent the ghastly ‘Bloody Week’ massacre, to neither sensationalize nor downplay. I think I got the tone about right. Conversely, with Sally Heathcote: Suffragette I wanted to make a prison force-feeding scene as gruesome as possible, so that the reader would appreciate what an appalling procedure it was.

In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel, who samples extracts of Virginia Woolf’s diary and To The Lighthouse in the book, writes about Woolf being considered a “minor modernist.” Tying this into your idea of Lucia Joyce being a “casualty of modernism,” what do you think has been the impetus behind contemporary comics reappraising the role of women in the modernist movement?

I can only speak for myself. As an academic I used to write and teach predominantly issues around gender and language, media and power. Since retirement, I've been exploring my interests in new ways but I'm still preoccupied with the same issues and concerns. (With the latest book I’ve drifted a little - it deals with environmental issues, but they’ve always been a major concern of mine as well.) Gender politics are a key concern of Dotter of her Father's Eyes. The two storylines together - Lucia's and my own - explore women’s social history. I saw a grim irony in Lucia’s predicament. In a time of rapid social change, expectations of family and the wider world didn’t keep pace. But she wanted to be modern too! Locking up wives and daughters wasn’t at all uncommon in the 1920s and beyond.

Could you speak a little about that upcoming book about climate change and environmental campaigning; what’s been the influence behind that project and what can prospective readers expect?

I've had an urgent, and increasingly anxious, interest in environmental issues for many years. Climate change, pollution, contamination of our food and the soil it's grown in - these are terrifying things and I worry a lot about them. I'm one of those people who always reads the labels on food packets. Specifically though, Rain was triggered by the catastrophic flooding in the north of England in December 2015. I started working on it on 1st January 2016, when the flood waters in Yorkshire had barely subsided. It follows a young couple and their developing relationship, while looking at the causes and consequences of the flooding, among other things. As you'll gather, unlike our previous collaborations, this one's neither historical nor biographical. Instead it deals with the here and now of environmental degradation that threatens us all. And it’s about resistance and protest and the different forms these can take. Hopefully a cracking story too.

How have you approached visualizing climate change; have you focused on its effects or have you placed the causes and ecological imbalances in there as well?

I’ve mostly focused on its effects but I do engage with causes too. Scientific information can be incredibly difficult to communicate, but, if it’s used well, the comics medium is good for presenting complex ideas in an accessible way. So I’ve made the climate issues human-sized, so to speak, and embedded them in everyday life. The story deals with environmental issues through the lives of its characters. It follows the everyday experiences of ordinary people, while engaging with the pollution, climate change and moorland mismanagement around them. They’re learning about these things and fighting back. I also decided to bookend the story with scenes of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt’s prescient discussion of humanity’s disastrous impact on the planet, which dates back to 1799.

One review of The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia said that the book gives the political left "a usable past," was this a conscious decision behind the work?

Yes, absolutely. Political activism, radicalization, direct action – these are themes in The Red Virgin and Sally Heathcote: Suffragette that are highly relevant for us today. But they're are also just stories about fantastic heroic women - women and girls today need figures like them to look up to, to inspire them.

Rain seems to also be about producing a "useable" cultural artifact, a sort of tutorial as well as a narrative. With the likes of Extinction Rebellion currently making headlines in the UK, what are your thoughts on the current status of protest and political campaigning in the UK?

Tutorial as well as narrative? Yes, I call it education by stealth! I’m encouraged by Extinction Rebellion and by amazing young people like Greta Thunberg. I’m daring to be hopeful about some of the big ‘Green Revolution’ promises coming from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m hoping Rain will help, in its small way, to keep the conversations going. There’s a mindset that needs to change, in all of us, and it needs to start with respect. If we can’t grow out of the blind, parasitic relationship we have with our planet, we won’t survive as a species. A working title for the book was Saving Grandchildren.

Female narratives are a core aspect of your comics, often of historical voices that have been overlooked elsewhere. For you, is there anything specific about the comics medium which makes it useful in particular for telling these stories/amplifying these voices?

I do think that the comics medium is an ideal format for narrating biography and personal memoir, whether about women or not. The combination of words and pictures is an excellent means for communicating emotional content together with biographical or historical material. It’s also excellent for presenting a lot of complicated historical and political detail in an accessible way, and with an emotional punch. With my graphic novel writing I want to reach as wide an audience as possible, with the hope of introducing people to subject matter that might otherwise be seen as inaccessible, boring or whatever. For a compelling story you have to have characters that the readers care about, in believable situations. You need to immerse readers in the characters’ experiences. Hence the focus on individuals, and on strong story lines.

While the stories are about individuals they also highlight the relational aspects of those individuals’ lives and activities. Domesticity is a recurring theme in Dotter and Sally, for example. (Auto)biography and memoir are popular comics genres, but do you think more attention should be paid to the interpersonal? Or maybe we can focus on the interpersonal aspects which are already apparent in these stories?

Well, in comics generally, much of the interpersonal content is carried by the images. Gesture, facial expression and other body language - these are a key part of bringing characters to life on the page. In comics biographies and memoirs, relationships with others are very often an important element. So I think there’s a lot of attention paid to the interpersonal already.

On the case of comics as historiophoty, what are the medium's successes, and what are its limitations, in representing history and historical research?

The only limitation that springs to mind is availability and quality of visual sources. In representing history, images make the the period burst into life. With Sally, for instance, all three of us did masses of research into authentic street scenes and interiors. I also strove to make it visually interesting and varied by drawing on different media: advertising and recruitment posters, letters and telegrams, leaflets, newspaper reports and cinema newsreels and, of course, all that WSPU merchandising. The sources for those newspaper articles were very poor quality - grainy and scratched - as they were mostly taken from old microfilm. Bryan painstakingly reconstructed them.

And did you ever bring comics into your classes? I'm curious to know whether you ever discussed gender and language in terms of text and image and where those conversations went…

I've always added interest to lectures by incorporating visual elements as much as possible. It would be odd to examine language without its surrounding context anyway. You know, the case study section of my PhD looked at two pages from Jackie! I was mining examples from that now-defunct girls’ magazine for teaching purposes too; eg. I recall using a four-page photo-romance strip quite a lot. It was called “It’s My Nasty Mind” and we had a lot of fun with it. I think some of it ended up in a chapter on romance fiction in my first monograph, Fictions at Work. We looked at some of Posy Simmonds’ earlier strips quite a lot as well; “The World Turned Upside Down’, for instance. She's great for unpicking gender stereotyping in ads.