I’m excited to welcome to the Inkpot Barry Deutsch, author of the graphic fantasy novel HEREVILLE, about an 11-year-old Hasidic girl who wants to be a dragon-slayer. HEREVILLE has been described in Fuse #8 as “the best graphic novel of 2010 for kids. Bar none.” Intrigued?
Read on to find out about Hereville’s development from webcomic to book, how it was influenced by the Japanese comic “Swan,” and more…
Hi Barry! You have the distinction of being the first graphic novelist ever interviewed here, so I’ll start out with something I’m personally curious about: what is the revision process like for a graphic novel? Do you get editorial comments about the graphics portion of the book as well as the storyline and writing (i.e. “Mirka doesn’t seem to have the right expression here, can you redraw it?”)
Wow, I'm the first! That's really neat.
I did get editorial comments about the graphics in the book, although they were pretty few compared to comments about the words and the story. The visual comments weren't so much about big-issue things like page layouts, but little details like the occasional facial expression that Sheila Keenan, my wonderful editor at Abrams, knew were off-key, or a shrub that messed up a page design. There was also a lot of back-and-forth over exactly what the daytime color palette should be, which was more complex because more people were involved in that discussion. A lot of those suggestions improved the book, in the end.
The setting of Hereville is unique – it’s like an 18th-century shtetl brought forward into modern times. How did that setting come about -- did you start out thinking of it as a shtetl, and then decide to make it modern? Do you have any real-life template for it? And what were your reasons for choosing that sort of setting?
Hereville was always modern in my mind. A decade or more before I began Hereville, I read Lis Harris' book Holy Days, which was about Lubavitch Jews in modern America, and perhaps because of that influence I think of Hasidic communities in terms of present-day America, rather than as something in the far-off past.
Of course, the people Harris profiled in Holy Days live in Brooklyn. But I had read an article about Postville, Iowa, a small town where a large minority of residents are Hasidim, and that put the possibility of a small town into my head. (Later on, Postville became infamous because of scandals at the kosher meat-slaughtering plant.)
Probably the closest real-life parallel to Hereville is Kiryas Joel, a small town in New Jersey in which very nearly the entire population is Satmar Hasidim. But I didn't find out about Kiryas Joel until after I'd finished drawing the book!
I wanted to set Hereville in a small, woodsy town for a couple of reasons. First of all, I wanted that sort of traditional fairy tale setting, where the main character has to wander into the deep, dark woods in order for all the magic and adventure to begin. And secondly, I'm much happier drawing trees and rocks than I am drawing buildings and cars!
I think that's what most makes Hereville look like a shtetl -- there's not a single car drawn anywhere in the comic. And I wish there was a deep and compelling explanation for that, but truthfully, I just hate drawing cars.
Where did the knitting theme come from?
When I first drew Mirka unwillingly knitting on page one, I had no idea how important knitting would be for the book's conclusion. I didn't have any long range plans at all; page one was made out as I drew it.
A lot of things in Hereville are there because they made me laugh when I thought of them. I was lying in bed, and a page layout occurred to me, a dynamic knitting fight with a double-page layout modeled after "Swan" ("Swan" is a Japanese comic from the 1970s about ballet dancers, which has some of the most beautiful and over-the-top page layouts ever done in comics). That image just cracked me up. And that was the seed that the entire ending of Hereville grew out of.
There’s a section of Hereville where the story pauses while the characters observe Shabbos (the Jewish Sabbath), and Shabbos is explained to the readers. Did you get any push-back about that section, either as being too didactic or as not moving the story forward?
I've gotten some criticism saying exactly that. But for me, that section is essential. That section more than anything else, I think, gives "Hereville" the feeling of taking place in an Orthodox community -- Shabbos is so important that even the story has to stop dead for it.
I also wanted to counter the stereotype that being religious means being dour and grim. I hope people reading Hereville will get the impression that for the characters, Shabbos is, yes, a religious occasion with real spiritual meaning, but also an occasion that's full of joy.
When writing about Hasidic Jewish culture, is there any extent to which you feel like you’re writing about your own culture? Or is it the same as writing a story set in any other foreign culture you’d have to research?
I think there's a feeling of "this could have been me." If history had gone differently, if the lives of my parents and grandparents had moved in different directions, it's easy to imagine an alternative history in which I was raised Hasidic. Or if I had become Lubavitch at some point. So I think that gives me an entry point, mentally, that's useful for letting me emotionally relate to the material.
And of course, I am writing about my own culture. My life is very different from the life of Hasidim, but our ancestors were the same people, and that shared Jewish history was crucial to shaping my life also, although in very different ways.
But although it's helpful that I'm Jewish, it's not necessary. There are lots of ways of emotionally relating to a setting and culture, and if a cartoonist can find that affinity, where ever it comes from, then that'll probably make a good comic.
Hereville started out as a webcomic. Did you always intend to turn it into an actual book? Can you tell us a little bit about how you got the offer to publish it?
I always intended for Hereville to be on paper, eventually. I think the distinction between paper comics and webcomics is a bit bogus anyway -- more and more comics are available both ways.
In fact, I did a self-published paper version of the webcomic. I initially printed about 100, which I took to Stumptown, a comics convention in Portland where I live. At cons I'm pretty aggressive about selling Hereville -- I try to engage everyone who walks past me, usually by asking them "have you been hoping to find a good 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who wants to fight monsters comic book?"
Very luckily for me, at that con my table was next to Scott McCloud's. (For your readers who don't know, Scott is justly famous for his game-changing "Understanding Comics" series of books.) And Scott's agent, Judy Hansen, a New Yorker, happened to be in Portland that day and came by to chat with Scott. Of course, standing at Scott's table, she naturally overheard me giving my Hereville pitch over. And over. And over. So after asking Scott if she should check out my work -- she only takes new clients by recommendation -- Judy bought a copy from me. That's how I got an agent, and several months later, Judy found a home for Hereville with Abrams.
Thank you for being interviewed at the Inkpot! Hereville is on sale now, and you can read more about it at Barry’s website, www.hereville.com.