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Rob Davis: "How I Wrote a Fork of Books"

30 September 2019

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I struggle when people ask me to explain the three books I’ve just written. Everything I have to say about it is in the pages of the books. And do people really want me to explain, or is it just that the books have left them feeling puzzled? Well, that was partly the intention. I mean, hopefully they were delighted and puzzled in equal measure, but I happen to think that feeling puzzled is no bad thing.

With these books, I wanted to create a world that felt bewildering and mundane at the same time. I wanted to tap into the transformative power and mind-numbing boredom of being 15 without resorting to retro-cultural referencing and being confined by familiar story tropes. I wanted a teen landscape that had trauma for furniture and boredom like dynamite, where the familiar was unfamiliar and the fantastic was bland. Because that was how my world was when I was 15.

JG Ballard described the Surrealists as having "created a series of valid external landscapes which have their direct correspondences within our own minds." I don’t know if it makes me a Surrealist, but I wanted to achieve something similar.

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I wanted a world where you could be bored out of your mind by knife rain, kitchen gods and knowing the precise day you would die.

So maybe the puzzle that is really puzzling the puzzled is what kind of books these are. Maybe, with the third book in the trilogy about to appear in shops, folk want to know if this is all allegorical, or if it’s a dream, or sci-fi or fantasy... That’s probably a fair question, so I am going to try and answer it. With no guarantees that I’ll bring comfort to the puzzled.

I had grand ambitions of not falling into any genre when I started these books. I doubt I’m the first author who set out with that desire. I did not want to deliver upon expectations. I’m not against having my expectations met by certain entertainments, but I do look to art to confound my expectations and startle me, to engender a sense of wonder so that I can look at the world with fresh eyes.

As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that this is why art and capital don’t mix. People will buy a thing based upon having expectations delivered. We don’t order something through the post without knowing what it will be. And yet how we still yearn for surprise. Selling a book on the premise of not delivering on expectations is difficult, though. And with all due apologies to my publisher for embarking on such an experiment, I would like to add that creating one is also problematic.

One way I sought to navigate the expectations problem, having already created an impossible world, was by making three books that each take the perspective of one of the three main characters and offer three different readings of that impossible world. Then I realised that my three main characters were each representative of a genre. One character represents realism, one character represents fantasy and one character represents science fiction. This idea proved very useful.

1. Realism
The first book, The Motherless Oven, is told by Scarper Lee via his home gazette (which is like a cross between a diary and a talking vase that’s given to kids when they are soon to die). Scarper has three weeks left to live and is miserable and resigned. What is crucial here, though, is that he is always miserable and resigned. He is resigned to reality. His reality is one where everyone has a deathday and children make parents (rather than the other way round), but because he is resigned to this reality we take that reality as a given.

Therefore his story is more like realism than fantasy. Our narrator is not discovering a weird new world (like Alice in Alice in Wonderland). The weird stuff here is mundane to him and so to us. The weirdest thing in his world is the new girl in his class. No one gains magical abilities or powers, no one saves the world or has an epic quest. Christ, they don’t even manage to leave the town they live in. Equally, there are no explanations of this strange reality to offer some rationale for how it relates to our own world, so it doesn’t work as science fiction, either. In a sense, this is alienated-suburban-teen-reality made even more real because what it feels like is wallpapered onto the walls of the world all around us. Scarper Lee is a realist and his book is told like a realist novel.

2. Fantasy
Vera Pike is the fly in the ointment of Scarper’s world. She is that aforementioned weird new girl at school who becomes his enigmatic friend. The first half of the second book, The Can Opener’s Daughter, is narrated by Vera in flashback. Now, something different is happening here. Because Vera is not like Scarper and she is our new narrator, the way we engage with the world shifts. Vera is a fantasy character; she is heroic (or villainous, it’s hard to tell sometimes and the two can be interchangeable) and, of course, heroes are a fantasy. It’s probably worth stressing that - heroes do not exist in real life, and the moment a hero enters any story it is no longer realism. So, as I was saying, Vera’s story is in flashback, because that’s another thing about heroes: they have backstories, creation myths. (Poor old Scarper just had days of the week.) Vera has supernatural aid, thresholds, mentors, she even gets to slay the dragon (her mother) and rescue the damsel-in-distress (a miserable teenage boy in this case).

It’s important to remember that Vera is not a hero or villain outside of her own worldview (and it is that which we are concerned with here). This is because she is an idealist. It is how she sees the world. She believes she can change the world, bend it to her will.

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3. Science Fiction
In the third book, The Book of Forks, Castro Smith is our narrator. Previously, he had appeared as an outsider figure, befriended by Scarper and Vera. In the realism of Scarper’s world, he was mentally ill; in the fantasy idealism of Vera’s world, he was a mage-like figure who knew deeper truths about the world. In reality, his outsider-ness gives him an objectivity and his form of mental illness is Inference Syndrome, so he is constantly looking to speculate and make sense of the world, to look for meaning. In this sense, Castro is science fiction. His book will connect the speculative with the science. His narration takes the form of an encyclopaedia he is writing called The Book of Forks that explains everything about the world.

A side note about science fiction. Darko Suvin described science fiction as a form of cognitive estrangement, because it introduces something new to us and its presence compels us to conceive of our world in a new way. Cognitive estrangement is also the best way to describe the ‘illness’ that Castro suffers from and which makes him an outsider in his world.

So The Book of Forks offers the explanations those puzzled readers may or may not have wished for, not because they wished for them (if they did) but because it is Castro’s nature and bound to be his narrative. In explaining how a world could ever exist where children make parents, it rains knives and everybody knows their deathday, the book became a form of science fiction that grew to monstrous proportions and of which I feared I would lose all control. Thankfully, with Castro as cypher, it retained just enough subjective perspective to get it onto paper. And even if it appears to be the explanation of the world, it remains, however convincing it may be, Castro’s explanation of the world.

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So, that experiment is over and I can try and heal my splintered mind. It was quite an effort and it may be that the question I could ask myself is, “Why did I bother?”.

I have wondered in my darker moments why I didn’t just look to earn a decent living and retain my sanity working on some franchise or other. The answer I tell myself is that I did these books because I believe in new metaphors. JG Ballard (him again!) talks about the world needing new metaphors and I agree. I’m not a fan of the popular notion in fiction that everything has been done before so therefore don’t look for anything new. A culture that runs on old metaphors is one that is speaking to the past. And the past doesn’t listen. There is a world here right now that demands new metaphors. And the perfect metaphor can launch a new reality into the world.

The third and final volume of Rob Davis's award-winning trilogy, The Book of Forks, is published on 10th October.


Typex, Aimée de Jongh and Jérôme Tubiana join SelfMadeHero at the Small Press Expo

11 September 2019

It's that time of year again: this week, we jet off to Bethesda, MD for America's finest independent comic book festival. The Small Press Expo celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and the lineup includes some of the biggest names in comics, including Chris Ware, Raina Telgemeier, Eleanor Davis and Jaime Hernandez.

The festival's international guest list includes SelfMadeHero creators Aimée de Jongh (Blossoms in Autumn), Typex (Andy) and Jérôme Tubiana (Guantánamo Kid). They'll be signing on our table (W23-24) throughout the weekend, as well as speaking alongside their fellow cartoonists in some intriguing events.

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On Saturday, Typex talks about his monumental graphic biography of Andy Warhol ("Sourcing Biography", White Oak Room, 5-6pm). How do you combine rigorous research with compelling storytelling to make a biography that both informs and entertains? He'll discuss this and more with Beth Barnett (Dreamers Of The Day) and Peter & Maria Hoey (Coin-Op Comics).

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On Sunday, Dutch cartoonist Aimée de Jongh, whose Blossoms in Autumn was released this spring, joins Guantánamo Kid author Jérôme Tubiana for a discussion of graphic journalism ("Graphic Journalism: On the Road", White Flint Auditorium, 4-5pm). Ted Rall (To Afghanistan And Back) and Josh Kramer (The Cartoon Picayune) make up the panel, which is chaired by Andrew Aydin (March).

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There'll also be a chance to get your hands on some of our brand new releases, including the ABC of Typography, Mikel, Isadora and Mozart in Paris.

What more could you want? Well, actually, there's quite a lot more: check out the full SPX programme here.


USA: Jérôme Tubiana on Tour

10 September 2019

To coincide with his guest appearance at the Small Press Expo, French journalist Jérôme Tubiana will discuss his landmark work of graphic non-fiction, Guantánamo Kid, at events in Washington DC and New York City. The book tells the astonishing - and deeply troubling - story of Mohammed El-Gharani who, at the age of just 14, became one of Guantánamo Bay's youngest detainees. Written in collaboration with Mohammed El-Gharani, illustrated by Alexandre Franc and endorsed by Amnesty International, it's an extraordinary graphic novel with a fascinating backstory.

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This Friday, 13th September, Jérôme Tubiana will discuss the book at the OpenGov Hub in Washington DC (1110 Vermont Ave) in an event co-hosted by Amnesty International and the Justice for Muslims Collective. The conversation will span El-Gharani's life inside and outside of the camp, and the ongoing struggle to have the prison closed. The event is free to attend and open to all - just RSVP here.

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On Sunday 15th September, as part of the Small Press Expo's programme, Tubiana joins Andrew Aydin, Ted Rall, Aimée De Jongh and Josh Kramer for a discussion of graphic journalism ("Graphic Journalism: On the Road", 4-5pm, White Flint Auditorium, North Bethesda Marriott). They will explore the peculiar power of the graphic novel to tell real-life stories.

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The following week, Tubiana heads to New York for two more events.

On Friday 20th September, he is joined by multimedia artist Laurie Anderson at the French Embassy's Albertine book store (972 Fifth Avenue, NY). Anderson collaborated with Mohammed El-Gharani on an installation and performance piece, “Habeas Corpus”, which took place at the Park Avenue Armory in 2015. Expanding upon her work fusing storytelling and technology, the project interweaved film, sculpture, music and video to examine El-Gharani’s story. The event, which will explore the ways in which artists can give voice to such stories, begins at 6.30pm and is free to attend.

And finally, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Tubiana joins Ben Passmore and Mark Alan Stamaty for a discussion of comics as satire and witness ("Everything is Horrible", Brooklyn Historical Society Library, 128 Pierrepont St, 12pm).


Rachael Ball, Typex and Jérôme Tubiana join the Edinburgh Book Festival lineup

26 July 2019

This August, three SelfMadeHero creators make the trip to Scotland for the highlight of the literary calendar. This year's Edinburgh International Book Festival programme includes events featuring Rachael Ball, Typex and Jérôme Tubiana.

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Dutch cartoonist Typex joins Keith Hartley, Chief Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Art, for a discussion of the pop artist Andy Warhol. Typex's Andy (an Observer Book of the Year) is an exhilarating and playful portrait of the King of Pop Art, while Hartley's Warhol and Eduardo Paolozzi canters through the ideas of two artists inspired by photos and adverts. The two authors will interrogate Warhol's glib self-assessment, "There is only surface, with nothing underneath" ("Keith Hartley & Typex", Sat 24 Aug, 11:00-12:00, Garden Theatre).

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Rachael Ball's masterpiece of magical realism Wolf, which centres on a family torn apart by tragedy, was described by the Times Literary Supplement as "poignant and elegiac". She joins fellow cartoonist John McNaught (Kingdom) for a discussion of families in graphic fiction ("Rachael Ball & Jon McNaught", Mon 12 Aug, 19:00-20:00, Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre). She then leads a masterclass in creating comics on the difficult subject of grief ("Drawing on Grief", Tue 13 Aug, 14:00-16:30, Kimpton Charlotte Square Hotel).

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French writer Jérôme Tubiana's Guantánamo Kid tells the incredible true story of Mohammed El-Gharani, one of the camp's youngest detainees, who was held and abused for seven years without charge or trial. Illustrated by Alexandre Franc, and written in close collaboration with El-Gharani himself, this is a landmark work of graphic non-fiction. Tubiana visits Edinburgh to talk about the book's fascinating backstory ("Jérôme Tubiana", Tue 13 Aug, 14:15-15:15, Garden Theatre). Tubiana will also take part in a free-to-enter Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers event, organised to mark the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child ("The Kids are Alright", Tue 13th August, 17:30-18:15, Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre).

The full Edinburgh Book Festival programme is available here.


Celebrating 50 years since the moon landing with Matt Fitch and Chris Baker

8 July 2019

On 20th July 1969, mankind set foot on the moon. Backed by the brightest minds in engineering and science, Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins boarded a rocket and flew through the void – just to know that we could. Today, 50 years on, the mission remains one of humanity’s greatest exploratory achievements.

To mark five decades since the moon landing, writers Matt Fitch and Chris Baker will visit Soho's Gosh! Comics to sign copies of their masterpiece of graphic non-fiction, Apollo. You'll find them there on Saturday 20th July from 1-2pm.

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Fitch and Baker's graphic novel, illustrated by Mike Collins, tells the breathtaking story of the Apollo 11 mission. It does a brilliant job of capturing the moments of high drama and astonishing risk. But it is also a fascinating insight into the lives of three men who, in the most extraordinary of circumstances, are separated from their families and loved ones.

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Scientific American praised Fitch, Baker and Collins for their smart handling of the "suspense-filled" story: "They convey surprising depth and emotion, as well as rich historical details of the era. The book explores the political tension around the space program at the time, the nerve-wracking anxiety experienced by the families of the crew, and the heart-stopping moments of the mission that proved to be such a milestone."

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For more information about the signing, head over to Gosh! Comics' website.