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“I Don’t Mind Scaring Myself”: An Interview with David Small

David Small had been a Caldecott-winning picture book artist and writer for many years when he made his first comic, the graphic memoir Stitches, which was published in 2009. The book was an international bestseller, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. An announcement was made shortly after Stitches was released that Small was working on another graphic novel, though that book and others were abandoned before he finally began working on Home After Dark, which is out now. For those of us who loved Stitches, Home After Dark feels familiar. At one point in our conversation Small cited European filmmakers like Bergman and Antonioni and others who arose in the postwar era as being influential to his thinking as an artist and never has that been more clear than in these pages, where readers are forced to consider for themselves what images mean, and where the story goes.

Like Stitches, there are aspects to Home After Dark which are solidly rooted in mid-century United States, but other aspects seem elemental to the feeling and experience of adolescence. Russell’s mother leaves and he journeys with his father from Youngstown Ohio to Northern California, though California and the road – two of America’s great symbols – offer little comfort, joy or escape. It is an uneasy book, with so many characters and their fates left ambiguous. I interviewed Small years ago when Stitches was first released and we had the chance to talk again about this book, its long process, and his love of irresolution.

Self-portrait by Smal

Alex Dueben: After Stitches were you interested in making another graphic novel?

Oh yes. Yes, I’d fallen in love with the medium. Compared to picture books, with their rigid rules on length, there was such freedom there, freedom to expand, to make a story really breathe. There’s a beauty in the compression required in picture books, which makes them akin to visual poetry, but to tell my memoirs in pictures I needed elongation. The problem after Stitches was finding another story that deserved that kind of enlargement and that kind of effort. It’s a commitment, you know, a graphic novel. It’s a major, longterm undertaking. 

We spoke when Stitches came out and you said you never intended to make a graphic novel, but that it emerged from the work you were doing. 

Well, yes, it emerged from the work of trying to gather up and organize my memories, which is like herding cats or preserving soap bubbles. I’d been trying to do it in prose but my words kept getting away from me. I’m a visual thinker. If I can see a thing it becomes more tangible, less imaginary. 

I’m not an avid comics reader, and I had no interest in trying the form until, on a visit to Paris, I saw what was being done over there with graphic novels. I was taken in by the cinematic quality of artists like Blutch, de Crecy and Gipi, as well as the serious nature of some of their works. Also by the drawing. What great drawing! So loose and so full of life! These artists were obviously influenced by the same fine artists I had and by the films I had been studying as an art form since the mid-'60s, when the great films began coming out of Europe, by directors Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Polanski. Hitchcock, of course, was and remains the great master. No one has been untouched by him. 

I can see that influence because your work is so driven by the image and working from images instead of being primarily about story. 

Yes, but the story is at the heart of everything. I’ve never taken a writing course, but I’ve read books and watched plays all of my life, and the structural rules are in my bones. You need a good beginning, middle and end. There should be nothing superfluous in the images that take away from the main themes of the story. I always write things out thoroughly before I begin to draw. There has to be, for me, that literary, dramatic undergirding to build on. Images, because of their power to convince, can and do lead one astray. That may be why the films of David Lynch — whom I admire, by the way — so often go wrong for me. He is intensely visual and he seems to feel compelled to throw in weird elements — like a flaming dwarf, for instance — as a mesmerizing image, even if it has nothing to do with the story. This leaves this viewer feeling gulled. Even dreams have a basis in logic, at least for the dreamer. The reader is the dreamer of a book or, rather, is put in that position, and deserves clarity or, at least, the means to achieve it. And if a dream is going to be included, it should relate somehow to the waking story being told, it should expand that story in a fanciful way, not (flaming dwarves here!) confuse it for the sake of weirdness.  

Where did Home After Dark begin for you?

It started with my friend Mike telling me stories about his youth. Mike is my same age, so we both experienced the culture and the styles of the 1950s, but from different parts of the country, he from then-rural Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and I from industrial Detroit. 

One morning, over coffee, Mike began reminiscing, in particular about one bucolic summer he spent with two buddies, all of them free of parental influence. They built a tree fort in the woods and, there, did guy things, smoking their first cigarettes, getting drunk, playing games in a junk-filled gully and hanging around the local soda joint watching the older teens, to see what lay in their future. To me all of this had a kind of legendary Huck Finn, quintessentially-masculine quality. I wanted to have been that kind of boy having those kinds of experiences, with that kind of freedom. So, I listened with a kind of hazy, inattentive envy until a little psychopath came into the story. At that point I sat up, paid closer attention, and taking notes. Because, I mean, who isn’t interested in psychopaths?

In Mike’s small town there was this loner kid who liked killing small animals in macabre ways. People suspected this kid – call him Benny – but it wasn’t proven he was the culprit. Benny used to hang around the edges of Mike’s little group, apparently wanting to be included, so one day they caught him intruding once again, and one of them beat the crap out of him. End of Mike’s story, except that Mike wondered for the rest of his life if they had done the right thing. Had the beating changed Benny at all? Probably not. Would he ever meet Benny again? Would Benny end up in the headlines and in prison, or would he wind up in high political office? [laughs] That seemed the basis for a good story. With Mike’s endorsement and encouragement I began drawing images and writing an outline, all of which ended up in New York in the hands of my agent and editor, both of whom could feel the energy I’d put in there. I already had a contract for a second graphic novel, which my editor – in his generosity and faith – had kept extending, so I was suddenly out of the starting gate and going down the track.

Everything went along smoothly for a couple of months until it began to dawn on me something was wrong. The work was feeling fraudulent to me and I couldn’t say why until my good agent told me: it wasn’t my voice. I was trying to imitate my friend Mike’s way of seeing and talking about the world, but it lacked authenticity. I knew this was true, and my work came to a halt for a couple of months while I tried to let this knowledge settle and to find, hopefully, another opening somewhere.  

One day I was talking about my problem with a writer friend, a seasoned novelist, who said, “David, your agent is right: the very best books always have something of the author in them. And if you’re going to go that route, it means you are probably going to have to deal with the thing that frightened you the most when you were the age of your protagonist.”

I took that as a good challenge. I don’t mind scaring myself, and, having already looked at my childhood [in Stitches] with a clear eye, it seemed a good and logical next step to peer into my adolescence. 

Although it meant revamping the whole story, the more I put of myself into it, the truer and more believable it became. My young hero Russell, who had started out as Mike – a very self-confidant, ebullient character – became me, a much more buttoned-up, more reserved, more spiritually wounded and cagey kind of kid.  

My new Russell – like myself at 13 – has had no good example of what it is to be a man. He’s desperately insecure and will do anything to fit in. This will lead to his complicity in a real tragedy for another boy, for which it will be hard to find expiation. 

Russell

Have you been working on Home After Dark on and off since Stitches?

No. It’s been nine years since Stitches came out. Home After Dark occupied the last several years. Before that I was casting about, trying other things. None of them came to any satisfactory resolution, even though I took some of them quite far. All of those false starts now reside in boxes with my archival material. Maybe, in there, a seed of something will sprout, some day, but for now it’s all dormant. Not dead, just dormant. 

So, about how long has it taken you to make this book? 

Four years. Most likely, the thing that kept me going for four full years on Home was the pain of abandoning yet another story. Maybe, too, it was knowing that, if I didn’t finish this one, I’d have to pay back a lot of money on the advance. [laughs.]  But really, the thing is, I’m not about to let anything out in the world that seems cranked-out just to make a buck. I’m at a place in my career where I’m not desperate to get another book published. I do want to keep working until I fall over, face-first, into my ink pot, but why settle for something rushed or mediocre?

With Home After Dark, once the plot, the dialogue, and the narrative bits were all in place, I took a look at the art and decided it had to be redone. With yet another taffy-stretch on the deadline, I took the whole book down to Mexico and redrew it there, all 400 pages, on some fine Italian watercolor paper, so that my washes looked like silk. Then, at last, I turned it in. 

Stitches is of course a memoir but in the process of making the book you were constantly making decisions about what to emphasize, how to structure it. How similar was that process to starting with your friend Mike’s story and building a story with those elements?

It was similar in that I felt compelled, at first, to stick strictly to facts. but very different in that once I began telling it from my own point of view I was able to slice and dice, add and subtract in any way I felt was necessary to make the new story. That’s fiction for you. The final book has little resemblance to my friend Mike’s tale except in the basic skeletal structure: three boys spend a summer together in a certain setting, with a psycho lurking. The rest is my imagination, with occasional details thrown in from other sources. 

In the final revisions I made radical changes. I eliminated three major characters, including Benny the psycho-kid. I found that he and his gruesome deeds had overtaken the book to a degree that the essential thing – the maturing of Russell – was being lost. The animal slayings remained in the story, but now, done anonymously, they became a metaphor for something sick, violent and destructive in the culture I write about. To use the current cliché, they are symbolic of the toxic masculinity at the heart of that 1950’s culture, just as, ten years after the time my story takes place, the Charles Manson killings would become emblematic of the culture of the 1960s, a cultural break for freedom that had gone off the rails. For that matter, just as school slayings are today’s national nightmare, suggestive of something rotten at the heart of modern American society.

So, once you knew Russell was at the center of the book, this troubled, withdrawn character who doesn’t speak a lot, and you get rid of the plot, how did you go from there? 

I followed my nose. It’s hard, now, to pinpoint exactly what inspired what. My instincts told me that – referring to the thing I was most afraid of at 13 – sexual ambiguity should be a big part of my story. Another close male friend mentioned a disturbing encounter he’d had with another boy in a bedroom, when they were 11. I took that, skewed it to resemble some events that had happened to me, and the character of Warren McCaw came to life. 

I did want to bring up Warren and I think, even more than Russell’s, his story is just heartbreaking.

He’s an outsider, a loner, strange and, so, suspect in the minds of the “normal” guys. He’s someone who can get easily pasted with the blame if anything goes wrong, the quintessential “queer” whom nobody tries to understand. I took this stereotype and, basically, followed him home to learn more about him and make him a fuller character. I came to admire him for his wiliness, his strength of character and his ability to –up to a point—survive in a hostile environment. Given the odds against him – both parents dead, living with a crazy old grandmother in a run-down trailer park and, yes, probably gay – he’s resourceful and brave.  

The book is full of variations on Warren, or, I should say, Warren is another personification of one of the book’s major themes: rejection, abandonment and the consequences. It begins with a puppy abandoned on the highway. Russell’s Dad is rejected by his older sister. Russell is abandoned by both his dad and mother, and Russell learns to abandon people, too. In the pursuit of so-called real manhood he pushes love away whenever he feels its approach. The Mah’s, an immigrant couple, have also been dismissed and cast adrift to fend for themselves in a hostile world. And so on. It’s a ritual conga line, with only a few people stepping out of the dance without getting badly hurt.

At what point did the ending come? It sounds as if it was late in the process.

It was very late in the process. I had to get a page away from the ending to know how the book would end. It could have gone in several directions, but there was only one way, when it finally came, that gave me the signal. The signal that it was the one true way. That was, I choked up. 

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