Little Universes: An Interview with Roman Muradov

"An ideal story," Roman Muradov tells me, "is the one you read and you have no idea what you just read but you feel that the world around you has changed a little bit. I always see composing a story as putting together a set of very deliberately placed stars in a constellation with no lines drawn between them. So you come in, you see the stars, but you have to figure out how to connect them. And then the book is not the book you hold in your hands but the one that follows you after you read it and while you are connecting the dots.”

Entering Muradov’s work, one is immediately struck by its style, beauty, and inventiveness, but in line with the author’s intention, one senses the need to revisit these worlds many more times before understanding will seep in. The stories are also very funny, one will laugh while losing oneself in them. Muradov, now a professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, began his artistic career late, but his ability to draw quickly has more than made up for lost time with many stylish illustrations for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, GQ, artwork for The Criterion Collection on Truffaut’s Day For Night, two James Joyce book covers for Penguin Classics Centennial Editions, and plenty more. You can view them all at this website. Muradov’s early books – End Of A Fence), (In A Sense) Lost & Found, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art – dazzled, delighted and confused, and, as we shall see, he feels he’s very much grown since and through making them. 2018 will offer much from Muradov. Kuš! published his wonderfully fanciful new mini-comic, Resident Lover, on February 13th. Chronicle Books is releasing his first non-fiction book, On Doing Nothing, a critical look at the importance of idleness as part of the creative process, on June 12th. And a translated Vanishing Act will be appearing later this year, a book so fantastically explosive that Muradov is now including additional schema to help the reader apprehend its flow between the more straightforward comic episodes and their abstract, “batshit insane”, companions. One can follow his work (literally, he very much shows his process) on Patreon where he’ll be posting new short stories this year, and he also gives classes in illustration on Skillshare. It was a pleasure to speak with this erudite yet affable artist about his creative process and contrary nature, artistic heroes The Fall, and vast experience with and knowledge of ‘difficult’ books.

 AUG STONE: Where did you grow up?

ROMAN MURADOV: I was born in Baku in Azerbaijan, then we moved to Russia when all the racial stuff was going on. My family’s Armenian so we became refugees in Moscow. We could either go to America or Russia but because my family couldn’t speak any English we went to Russia. And then 25 years later, I managed to get out—it was a very convoluted way to get to California.

What comics did you read as a child?

I didn’t grow up with comics at all. I think my first exposure was to Ghost World or Chris Ware at the tender age of 27 or something. I never really felt close to them that much… Well, that’s not quite true, I certainly had a Chris Ware stage, and all the requisite stages that you eventually abandon. Artistically the people I reacted to were Christophe Blain, Jason (a lot), and Blutch. I certainly did study them quite a bit, where I would go through a Christophe Blain book and copy every other panel. Seth was definitely a big influence. Charles Berberian, who I eventually met and it was very heartwarming. I remember his story with Philippe Dupuy in one of the Drawn & Quarterly anthologies about Monsieur Jean and the Strand bookstore—it was definitely a big visual influence for me, everything was very nicely staged and there was a gestural quality to it that really appealed to me when I was starting out. That was definitely a direct influence, possibly a slightly pernicious one because I developed a way of drawing where every line, no matter how complex, has to be done in one go. I’m massively simplifying here but basically there’s two kinds of drawing - people who drag their line and people who just make it flow. I place myself in the latter, and it’s really difficult to do. And once I mastered that, I lost all interest in drawing attractive things, so I started thinking, ’how can I make it ugly?’

All my influences are pretty punk and lo-fi, in music and art. I don’t particularly react to people who draw or write too professionally. But then I’d always make things that look unintentionally elegant, even graceful. All through the last several years I’ve been tormented by this idea that I’m not translating my influences, or what I actually like.  Especially when I met Marc Bell, I thought well here’s the only other person I know, who’s as obsessed with The Fall as I am, it’s almost like we have a shared disease or something—and you can really tell in his work—the way he writes and the way he draws is a fairly clear translation of that influence. Whereas in mine it’s much more elegant and refined, even when I try to draw very crappily. But one of the resolutions I came to this year is just to own it and think ‘well, that’s how my hand draws, let it do its own thing’. There’s a lot of people who like punk music and they draw punk-looking things. There’s not a lot of people that like punk music and draw the kind of thing that I do. So at least I’m sort of original (laughs).

I liked that quote you had on Patreon - “The Fall had a huge influence on my methods, and my entire artistic approach, more than any writer or visual artist.” Can you say more about that?

I started listening to The Fall when I was about 18, when I couldn’t really speak English particularly well. I sort of learned English through The Fall (laughs). A bit of an abstruse route. I realize that a lot of my pronunciation is from The Fall and that Mark E. Smith’s actually not pronouncing very well so...(laughs) They were possibly my earliest artistic influence in my entire life, and also the most lasting. Because English is my second language I had the benefit of experiencing The Fall as a pre-linguistic awakening. I would listen to it and not understand 90% of the things he’s saying (laughs). But there was a force to it that really appealed to me, and it’s the same force that I recognize in, say, James Joyce, who I also couldn’t understand, because my English wasn’t up to the task. But I could still feel it in my guts. And it’s this very primal feeling, words connecting, sending a shiver down your spine—the whole idea that the sound of the words is actually much more meaningful than their meaning—and that’s something I’ve carried through my entire work. And with The Fall there are many other things. First of all, they had this whole amateurish approach to art-making. I change my style quite a lot as I’m sure you’ve noticed, so when I decide ‘ok, the next one will be in paint’, there’s a voice inside me that goes ‘hang on, you can’t paint’. But then there’s a little Mark E. Smith in my head that says ‘well, it doesn’t fucking matter. Get these three random tubes of paint and start painting. You’re not going to take classes or lessons. That is not how it’s done.’ So in a way I treat myself like he treats his musicians (laughs). Of course it’s even more unhealthy, I am my own tyrant and my own servant.

 You’ve said that you get intensely bored the moment you feel confident with a medium. Despite this, do you have any mediums that are your favorites to work with?

I’m fairly confident with most of the things that I’ve tried so far. But the most enjoyable would be simple pen and ink, or brush and ink—it feels most natural. But I constantly switch between mediums and I don’t allow myself to draw in a certain style for a period of time, so that I can lose that confidence. And then when I take it up again it feels like I have to re-approach it. For instance, after I developed something of a reputation as a person who’s very good at drawing with brush and ink, I just gave up on it entirely for a year or so. And then when I came back to it a couple years later, I had to re-teach myself and it was a different style altogether. I think it would not have happened had I just carried on drawing everyday like most people do. For me, natural media are always preferable to digital media, even though I do both. Because in a natural medium, you are much more likely to fuck up, and mistakes and accidents are a huge part of both my aesthetic and my creative approach. And also it’s much closer to writing, and I treat drawing as a form of writing.

To me the worst thing that can happen is when you sketch something out, you know exactly how it’s going to turn out, and that’s exactly how it turns out. This I consider to be a colossal failure (laughs), even if it’s beautiful and conveys whatever you want it to. There’s the Fall song ‘Paintwork’ where he accidentally records a bit from TV and that’s part of the take. I think it takes a certain kind of genius, that is not a musical genius, to allow this to happen. Because a proper musician would just go ‘well, let’s record it again’. In the same way, it’s not natural for me to write in English, and it’s not natural to draw, because I started drawing pretty late in my life, I was already in my twenties – I never drew as a child or a teenager – so I always work in a medium that is not comfortable for me.

What led you to drawing?

I don’t know. I just seemed like an easy thing to do, compared to writing. I thought ‘even if I’m really good at writing, how do I make people read my words?’ And I still wonder about that. Drawing is a very simple way of attracting attention. It’s like wearing a fancy suit. Then I can trick people into reading my horrible, horrible, difficult books. But of course once I started drawing, it became something else entirely. So it did start as a mere excuse to get attention. But then I discovered people like Saul Steinberg and I realized ‘oh, you can actually write with drawings’.

I do obsess endlessly over every single detail in my stuff, even though I draw very fast. But I can re-draw the same chair 100 times until it’s just right. And that doesn’t mean it has to be a beautiful chair or a particularly stylish chair, but the chair has to be as perfect as the sentence it replaces. I don’t do thumbnail sketches, I don’t plan my books like a normal cartoonist. I usually write them like you would write a novel. And then I replace all the sentences with sequences (laughs). Which is pretty stupid, and people who know me sometimes say ‘why don’t you just write a novel?’ But then I think ‘well, that’s the sort of thing that one would do’.

In your somewhat fictional bio at the end of Jacob Bladders you mention writing ‘the great Armenian graphic novel’. Do you hope to do that?

Yeah, it’s in the plans. I’m definitely writing a book at some point that will be called ‘My Great Armenian Graphic Novel’. The only question is when and what it actually is going to be. I have collected a fair amount of notes. I think I would like to write a story about the whole immigrant experience and the whole refugee experience. And also about small cultures trying to cling to their ways in a strange, oppressive society like 80’s Russia. But I think right now it’s quite normal for people to write these sort of things, and I don’t want to be part of it. Again, I’m contrarian, so I don’t want to be seen as an ‘immigrant writer.’

Ideally when people pick up my books I want them to have no idea who I am. I even kind of resent putting my name on them. I think you can actually find out a lot about me from my work, because I often have people walking around with suitcases—everyone is always looking for some semblance of a home, usually unsuccessfully. So this permanently failed quest for companionship and comfort and a place that you can belong to is definitely a huge part of my work, and I think if it wasn’t for my life experience, it would not have evolved this way.

You read a lot of books.

Well, I’m well-read for a cartoonist. (laughs) I think any writer should, first and foremost, be an extremely good reader. Whatever you write is secondary. And I think pretty much every great writer conforms to that. I gave up drawing for about half a year, almost entirely, and I just read a lot. And then I thought ‘well this is the sort of thing that I want to do, but I can make it interesting for myself and try to translate these ideas of constraints and short experimental writing into drawing’. That was a ‘Eureka!’ moment for me. Suddenly everything made sense. People would tell me later on ‘oh you were fine, then suddenly you became excellent. What happened?’ ‘Well, I stopped drawing’ (laughs) That was the best thing I’ve ever done. So I always tell my students ‘when in doubt, just stop doing what you’re doing’. The worst thing you can do is just plow through.

You’re a big fan of the process. And keeping track of the progress of the process, to show that afterward. Have you always been that way?

Yeah. Again that circles back to The Fall. You can tell how the songs are made when you listen to them (laughs). You can sometimes hear him flipping the page of his notes or someone tuning. I remember reading an interview with a translator of César Aira and she said something like ‘César Aira is like a painter who allows you to see the brushstrokes’. And I thought to myself ‘well, if I’m painting, I should definitely allow people to see the brushstrokes’. That was a year ago, and it solidified what I already thought. In general, I always want to make sure that you can see how my stuff is made. And I never apply excess polish. It’s much more difficult and challenging and fun to make a drawing with three or four lines that looks convincing than to just render the fuck out of something. Anyone can do that. The only thing you really need to draw well is a kind of stubbornness.

What about to write well?

Writing for me is an extremely mysterious process. And I think one of the reasons I’m so attracted to writing is that it’s impossible. I know I can be very good at, say, drawing a nice, pretty picture with a brush, but I will never be good enough with writing. It’s going to be an eternal struggle and I enjoy every miserable moment of it. Don’t get me wrong, I do have fun with it, but it’s also an insane amount of work because I obsess over every word. Titles occasionally come naturally. For instance, when I left for Europe this summer, I was coming out from the subway station in Moscow, and the phrase ‘Resident Lover’ popped into my head. I wrote it down and I knew that at some point I was going to write a story called ‘Resident Lover’. And then I did. But I didn’t think about it, I didn’t think what it means. I would say it’s a feeling from these words that pop in your head, they come from the sum of your experience and your breathing and your thinking, and that sum, at least in my case, is much larger than my capacity for comprehending it. And that seems mysterious.

Generally, I never sit down to write. I just walk around with a notebook, and occasionally, nowadays at least, I start hearing a voice. The voice is not necessarily mine, very often it’s a female voice, which may explain why quite a lot of my protagonists are women (laughs). And that voice will be saying something to me in sentences and I just write it down, of course with some slight editing along the way. But it’s a very intuitive process, that I trust implicitly. And then after this creative phase, I would usually let it sit for a month or a year, and then I revisit it and when it makes sense to me, I start rewriting and editing it. And this more intellectual phase can take also months, sometimes years. I can spend months rewriting one sentence. And not necessarily to make it perfect, but again to find a certain rhythm, a coherence of language that feels complete. And that may mean making a sentence uglier than it used to be, adding unwieldy repetition, breaking the rhythm. But again, I trust my intuition because I know when something is finished and when something isn’t. That voice I hear is actually very strong. And most of the stuff I like in my writing doesn’t feel like I wrote it at all. It feels like it’s much better than what I can write (laughs).

Do you have any favorites of what you’ve done?

I quite like that short story Quarters, it will be in the third issue of NOW, that’s definitely a stand-out for me. And also a big breakthrough, because it’s probably the most readable thing I’ve done to date. It’s very easy to follow but at the same time it has quite a lot of stuff going on in the background. A lot of complexity that is not shoved down your throat. What I want to do with my work is actually to get away from difficulty, and do books that are very fun and pleasant to read for everyone, but that have the same level of complexity and the same obsessions that I have in my more irritatingly difficult books.

As I get older, I feel much more sympathy for the reader so I think I should be as entertaining as I can. It’s not that I want to have a wider audience, but it’s more that I’m going for a lightness—of style, of language - and a lightness of overall feeling. So like I said, I want these stories to feel like you opened a little universe somewhere far away and you don’t really know what it is.

Chronicle Books is releasing On Doing Nothing in June.

It’s my first non-fiction book. It may sound like a self-help book but it probably isn’t, although it may help someone (laughs). Basically, it is an exploration of idleness and the search for quietude and nothingness, but in a very artsy-fartsy way. It’s about artists who use delay and not writing in order to create, people who’ve retreated from art for one reason or another, people who started late. There are slightly unusual stories and I talk about people who are fairly obscure but there’s fairly well-known names like Duchamp and Joyce and many others. There’s a chapter about silence, a chapter about repetition, a chapter about getting lost, and a chapter about cows. It’s called ‘Cows and Things Other Than Cows’, and I think that’s my triumph as far as titles are concerned. That’ll be on my tombstone.

I’ve read a lot of stuff that people nowadays don’t read. And I want to get it out to people without turning into a stodgy academic and saying (adopts old professor voice) ‘why don’t you get your asses to the library and do what I did’. So in On Doing Nothing, I carefully condensed and shared some stories that deserve to be less obscure than they currently are.

Among them George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, which is definitely my favorite novel that’s ever been written. Perec is very much my patron saint—over the summer I read his exhaustive biography and it really made me cry in the end. In his life and in his attitude towards art he embodied so many things that I love. He was very depressed and he lost his parents and he had a hard time connecting with people. So he used his intelligence and constraints and experimental writing to approach these difficult emotional territories. And to me, that’s very much what I do. I don’t do this experimental, constraint writing because I’m trying to show off how clever I am. I think you arrive at a more profound emotional truth through a convoluted route than if you approach it head-on. And it can also surprise you if you take a convoluted route, instead of saying what you think you know. I learn about myself quite a lot when I read my books, so they’re all for me.

How do you feel about End Of A Fence and (In A Sense) Lost & Found?

Ah, they’re fine. I don’t think they’re great but they’re necessary steps in my development as an artist. I think they very clearly show my influences, which is why I dislike them.

Which influences?

Kafka, mainly. But a lot of things. Those books feel immature to me. They feel like the kind of book you do in your twenties. There’s quite a lot of showing off, of all the many books that I’ve read, there’s too many references. They’re over the top. I don’t despise them, but the guy who wrote them irritates me to no end, I want to take a red pen and just cross out all the puns and all the crap. So what I like about things like Quarters or Resident Lover is that they’re much, much more subtle. And as a result of that I think they’re much easier to read and much more enjoyable. Re-reading my early books it feels like you’re being stabbed in the face with my erudition (laughs). And I really dislike that. Of course I understand why this happened and I think there’s no way I could have arrived where I am now without namedropping all the obscure references two thousand times per page. You can’t achieve maturity without making blunders and without doing needlessly difficult books.

Now that I’m a bit older and kind of softer (laughs) I realize I’m actually a very simple person. I think that love is all and all we need to do is eat nice food and take care of each other, write funny books. So those are my aspirations at the moment.