Interview with Isabel Greenberg outside the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 24th September 2013 at 12 midday – approximately 4.54 billion years on from the time of Early Earth. As we chat about her new book “The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth” she has her pens out, is drawing a picture on the inside of her book – she will also be doing this at her book launch at Gosh Comic this Friday.
Isobel, in another life, if you could come back as any bird or beast in the time of early Earth, what would you come back as and why?
Errrm, gosh that’s quite hard question, can I say that I would want to come back as one of the Gods? I guess I can’t imagine myself as coming back as an animal…! I think I would come back as one of the Snow Ghosts from the land of Nord, could swoop around and do Ghostly things…
Your book is noted as “An epic work of fiction, about the following: Gods, monsters, mad kings, wise old crones etc”. Why did you choose to write about mythological fables from the Odyssey and other biblical references rather than say, the Egyptians or Germanic fairy tales? What personal reference do you have to these mythologies?
Well I studied Homer at A-level, and also my mum and my sister are both historians. I think the classical stuff they are into, they tell me about it and I remembered. But this happens to be the stuff I have just come across, reinterpreted it in my own way, I am sure I will use different stuff in the future, I am doing a little comic about Hans Christian fairy tales with great beast, so that’s Germanic fairy tales I guess.
I like the way you have de-centred the sexism of the bible by making Noah’s god, a woman, “Kiddo”. Is it safe to say that in your book ‘Kiddo’ is loosely based on yourself? She does look a bit like you. . . and she does create a world of her own in the story. . .
I think I didn’t do that intentionally but she’s definitely my favourite character, I think maybe when you particularly like a character, you do do that a bit, I didn’t intentionally make her like that, I think she’s the one I am most fond of though, she’s got the best one liners.
I like the way your storytelling includes many types of plot: in this story there are elements of quest, comedy, overcoming the monster, voyage and return etc. The story even seems to go one step further at points, even playing with the structure of telling a story, the way it telescopically zooms from the gods and back down to the storyteller, where you make subversive references to the story itself, like how birdman spots a “convenient plot development” or how the old grandmother says “Follow your gut, storyteller, it will lead to your happy ending”. From this I would like to ask; what philosophy’s have you learned about storytelling? What is your word on storytelling as a whole?
I think really the main thing about the book is that it is a story about storytelling, I think the stuff with the gods comes from Greek mythology, you know where gods just turn up as characters in stories, I really like all that stuff, like in the Iliad, the whole Trojan war kicks off partly because of the gods arguing. I like the way they swoop in as characters, I also like the plot devices like in the story of the Arabian Nights; like where you have stories within stories within stories. I find it funny in movies and books when they just throw in obvious plot devices. Like at the end of the Encyclopaedia, when the storyteller gets transported in a random whale, I knew this was a bit naughty but I find it really funny when people do that in films, I like shoddy plotting when it is intended!
As the ancient Nords burn the local villages in “The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth” they shout “Lads lads lads waaaay”, the gods shout “Oh bloody hell” etc. This colloquial language that runs throughout the book, I thought was not only a way of making the stories more accessible to an audience, but also a self-conscious sarcasm about your own culture. Could you tell us a bit about the thought process behind how you borrow these nuances from daily life? Who are you intending these stories to be for?
I think really I just didn’t want to make it too pompous, like there are already so many beautifully written folk tales out there that you can read, and I kind of wanted to put a different spin on it , and because I was retelling it with my own voice, I thought I may as well go for it. I try and keep it serious in the narration but the thing I like best about comics is the panels can tell a different story to the narration. I didn’t realise how noticeable it would be but a lot of people have commented on this style of language, I think maybe I wrote it how I was talking in my head. I want it to be funny; I like thing s that make me laugh…
I absolutely love the invisible hunter story, it reminds me of Christmas. I also did feel that the stories you tell carry the ritual and wisdom of tribes and clans, something that our very plastic modern society has a distinct lack of. Can you briefly outline why folk tales are so important to you?
I think folk stories fundamentally tell stories about human emotion, like people still relate to Cinderella, even now, even though she doesn’t have an iphone, you know everyone can relate to jealousy and sibling rivalry, arguing with your parents and all this sort of stuff, all these folk stories contain human emotions this stuff about love, jealousy, rivalry, stuff that doesn’t change, it doesn’t matter what the trimmings of life are, basic story plots that we can all relate to. Like Hollywood is always reinterpreting old stories cause they resonate I guess.
What is your favourite graphic novel? What book are you reading now?
Can I give you a few I love?!
“Epileptic” by David B I really like,
“Hark! Vagrant” by Kate Beaton
“It’s a god life if you don’t weaken” by Seth
“Nao of Brown” by Glynn Dillon
Some good choices! Can you talk a little bit about the process of making your own graphic novel? Obviously you use ink and watercolours, but you mention light boxes and Photoshop in your comic’s diary as well. I am interested to know if you plot the whole story in a script with panel descriptions, or whether you write individual stories as you go, and link them together tenuously?
For this book I worked in a slightly unmethodical way, in my head originally it was going to be more like an encyclopaedia, like little snippets of stories, but as I went on I realised it is more satisfying to read a story with a fully developed plot about characters that you care about. So I changed it. Some of the stories I had already written, like three or four of them, like the gods. I knew how the book was going to go, and all the little stories found places. The ones that didn’t I put in the appendix at the back, Id written them and wanted to include them, thought that gave a fuller view of the world. Since doing that I have realised that it is better to work with a script, like a film script rather than prose. I don’t think it’s a problem although if I did it again I would approach it differently.
What do you wish was different about this book now it has been published?
I guess naturally you look back and always want to change things, as I was working I felt like my drawing got a lot better, now I feel like some of the drawings are weaker than others, and I think I could have easily gone on for another fifty pages! I’m 70% proud of it, 30% want to change things!
Its good to be critical but you should be proud of it! What other projects do you have coming up?
So I’m working on a mini comic, with Great Beast Comics that I am going to launch in time for Thought bubble in Leeds, and when im done with that im going to start plotting out my second graphic novel, also set in Early Earth but its going to have new characters in a totally different story.
If you had to kill someone with poisonous sausages, who would it be?
I can’t answer that it’s going to be on the Internet! No! Once it’s on the Internet it will never come off. I guess some kind of wicked dictator, Ill leave it to the readers to post some suggestions…
Isabel Greenberg’s “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth” is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99, ISBN 978-0-224-09719-2, also available as an e-book. Release date October 3rd 2013