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How we created The Summer of Her Life

8 May 2020

Writer Thomas Von Steinaecker and artist Barbara Yelin discuss working together on their new book, The Summer of Her Life, a story of love, loss and astrophysics.

Where did The Summer of Her Life come from, how did you end up working together?
Thomas: Around ten years ago, I scribbled a 300-page graphic novel about passengers on a train that was due to crash. Since I’m a disaster as an artist, I was looking for help and asked Barbara – who I knew only from a distance – if she’d like to work together with me on it. Very reasonably, she suggested working on a shorter piece to see how we’d get along.

I contacted a German daily newspaper, which agreed to publish a short strip each weekend. This set the tone and framework for the story. Because I admired Barbara’s Irmina, about a woman’s fate during the Third Reich (and because I hoped it would be easier for her to get into the story), I initially decided that it would deal with a woman’s life. Then I thought (since we were talking about a newspaper and the storm of daily events) about dealing with the topic of time: how fast it goes from a certain point in your life, and what remains at the end of one’s life. And voilà, that was the beginning of the story.

Barbara: I knew Thomas from his novels and his comics reviews in the arts sections of the German press. As he said, we agreed to do a shorter piece together as a collaborative experiment. I was curious about which topic he’d suggest, and it was only years later that he told me he’d chosen a retrospective of a woman’s life because of my previous work. But I liked Thomas’ idea a lot: to focus on how time passes in a single life. From the start, Thomas included me in a discussion about the storyline, which was great.
Can you talk us through how you get from the script to the finished page, what's the process? 
T: When I was thinking about the woman’s job, it occurred to me that astrophysics would be nice – where the very nature of time plays such an important role. Then again, the question arose: as a woman, why would she pick such a profession, and what would that mean at that time? And the whole story evolved in this way, like putting together a puzzle. During all this time, I stayed in constant contact with Barbara to discuss the story. Her questions - What about her parents? Does she have friends? Why is she so shy? etc - forced me to think about details that I usually wouldn’t have considered.

B: We exchanged hundreds of e-mails! I tried to find out more about this fictional person, Gerda, our protagonist. It was interesting that Thomas’ and my thoughts about the story were different sometimes. While he was focusing on the philosophical aspects, I was interested in how Gerda would deal with being an outsider in the society of the 1960s. To answer these questions, it really helped a lot to write down the words (Thomas) and sketch storyboards (me), and then to reflect on what had been revealed by doing that.

T: I could only think about the story by imagining pictures and words together, what an episode as a whole would look like and what the rhythm of the words would sound like. So the words and pictures came at the same time. Then I sent the script for each episode to Barbara, which again lead to lots of discussions, renderings and new ideas. Lots of work! But what a wonderful, inspiring process this was.

B: It was challenging, but it was wonderful! Having equal participation between writer and artist in the process of making comics is rare. I’m also convinced that the process of drawing a story constantly influences the story itself, back and forth.

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T: In the meantime, the newspaper ended our run (damn them!), and the publisher who published my novels gave us the chance to showcase our episodes in their online magazine. Again, this changed everything, since we now had more space than we’d initially thought.

B: In fact, we had as much space as we wanted… vertically. We tried to explore this space by creating overlong images that would only be revealed by scrolling. So we could show the high skies that Gerda looks up at as an old lady and as a child. And we invented a deep staircase that turned itself upside-down in an Escher-like way, which shows Gerda’s career path. 

When it was all done and the online version was finished, publishers approached us and asked us to make a book out of it. And again, the new format reshaped the story. Rearranging the vertical panels into pages, we realised that we needed little scenes in between. It added another rhythm to the narration, including the page turns. This whole process was absolutely fascinating. And it was wonderful to finally have a book in our hands!

What kind of tools do you both use to create?
B: I work on paper most of the time. Of course, sketches are the basis for every panel and sequence, and for this I use pencils. And owing to our mutual work process, there were a lot of sketches. Pencils are also my first layer in the final drawings. I don’t erase them, but instead draw on top of the sketches, finding a line with a black pencil first and then starting to bring in colours: using aquarelle colour pencils, aquarelle brushes with gouache, and also opaque white at the end.

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My drawings are always a process, and I find out while working what the final drawing will be. Sometimes I discover story ideas, too, while I’m drawing. I need a technique which is flexible and erasable, allowing me to redraw, redo, reshape and rethink. As a last step, I scan my pages and continue working digitally: retouching, bringing in the text, cleaning the white space.

T: I start with sketches for both words and images, using a pencil, but this is just for myself, to get an idea of how the two might go together. Then I go into greater detail in my descriptions (just words) on the computer.

What is the book about thematically, and what did you want to bring to the story personally?
B: I was interested in Gerda, in how she managed her life as a woman in the 1960s and ’70s, having to decide between succeeding in her profession or having a family, and the consequences of that. I was also very interested in the method of narration that we chose: showing only short episodes, single moments of Gerda’s life – and leaving big gaps to be filled by the reader. Sometimes, it felt like producing a very poetic, fragile, fragmented work, more like verses than a storyline.

T: There’s a point I always strive for as an artist, where my (invented) characters become alive (real, as it were). This is as magical as it sounds. From that moment on, I know that I’ve lost control. And this is wonderful. But it also means that I don’t fully understand my characters or my story any more. I guess this is a way of saying that while I wanted to write something about the questions we always ask about our lives and that you’d also ask about this story (What’s this all about? What does it mean?), I no longer know.

With everything that’s happening right now, what makes The Summer of Her Life a must-read?
B: Gerda’s story is a universal one. I think that many of us are now stuck in situations where we feel some futility about our (artistic and other) efforts. I feel that a lot at the moment. Maybe looking back on a life and seeing the volatility of it (but also why that life was really worth something) is somehow similar? 

Events and efforts that we thought of as being big and important might be revealed to be pointless. But at the same time, small moments become big. What remains? A summary of your whole life? A single moment There are no definite answers. But we can at least ask the right questions.