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Writer's Room - Creating TUMULT with John Harris Dunning

20 January 2020

With his stylish psychological thriller Tumult receiving an Angoulême nomination, writer John Harris Dunning explains how the book came-to-be, his writing influences, and working with Michael Kennedy. 

What was the starting point for Tumult?
Ten years ago I was on holiday and jumped off a rock - tomb-stoning, they call it - a bit like the picture on the back cover of the book. I fell 30 feet onto a submerged rock, splitting my heel bone and damaging the lower left of my spine. It was the start of 8 years of pain and rehab, and a very difficult time physically and psychologically. I was lucky. I could easily have been left unable to walk. I had always thought I was EMO, but suddenly I realised I was a closet jock. Sure I hated sports, but I still wanted to be able to be good at them if I chose to! It made me  face my mortality and interrogate my sense of self. I became determined that something positive would come out of this experience, so I started writing Tumult
Was it always going to be a graphic novel?
I started writing Tumult as prose, and got about a chapter in. I’d written a novel before, and published a graphic novel, Salem Brownstone, previously, but I had no real connection with the comics industry at the time and I just didn’t see how it would fit into the comics publishing landscape. I started seeing certain scenes and images from the story really clearly though. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samouraï and Un Flic were big influences on the book. They’re very stylish crime thrillers inspired by American film noir, filtered through a very particular French lens. Hitchcock’s films and The Talented Mr Ripley directed by Anthony Minghella also felt like similar territory to the story that was taking shape. So despite my earlier reservations about the practicalities, I quickly realised I wanted it to be a graphic novel. 

What draws you to those kinds of noir crime mystery stories? 
I really like how meticulously they’re plotted, how the stories have to operate with the accuracy of a clock mechanism. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a crime thriller - but if it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work though. I like the challenge implicit in that.

How long did it take to write Tumult? 
I’d been thinking about it for a long time so when I sat down to write it, it had pretty much percolated. I feel like I had a lot of luck with this project. For instance, the main character’s best mate is writing about classic 80s action movies - the way the script turned is that the films he discusses chime perfectly with the main character’s romantic relationship, creating a kind of subliminal commentary on it. It hadn’t been planned that way. Something just happened subconsciously that allowed everything to really flow. It was easy when it came, but as I say, the story had been with me for a while. 
Your main character, Morgan, has a number of personalities. Is identity dissociative disorder a subject that’s fascinated you for a while?
Yes always. As a kid I’d read classics like Sybil and The Flock. I love Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run, which includes a character with multiple personalities. It’s fascinating that on the one hand it’s considered a disability, but on the other hand it shows the extraordinary potential and elasticity of the human mind. And we all exhibit different personalities to different people and in different situations. I wanted to explore that. 

So you finished the script, what did you do with it?
The next step was to find an artist, but I didn’t know many. I turned to Eisner award-winning artist Christian Ward, who we ended up dedicating the book to. He was just starting out on his meteoric trajectory back then. We’d become friendly, and were talking about the possiblility of his drawing Tumult. He went as far as doing a few pages - which were beautiful - but he was starting to get his big breaks from the States and couldn’t commit to a project of this size, so he hooked me up with the artist Michael Kennedy. I honestly think that without his encouragement and support I would’ve just left the script in a drawer. I can’t thank Christian enough. 

Let’s talk about working with Michael then. What happened once he was on board?
Working with Michael was a marriage made in heaven. He and I had started talking seriously about the project, and I promised to send the script to him with a few reference images to get him thinking. I was on a train to the Angoulême festival, and the email remained in my outbox, unsent. Mike, being the meticulous genius that he is, with just a chat and a brief pitch document to work from, got going on an epic 100 page look-book for Tumult, including a proposed colour palette. It not only matched my vision for the project, it improved on it. And magically, he included one of the reference images in my unsent email, a really obscure image of a seance table. As soon as I saw that, I knew it was meant to be. 
You had the script, you had the artist - what happened next?
I gave Michael loads of reference pictures, hundreds of images of the architecture of Hampstead where the story is set, ideas for how the characters would look and how they would dress, key colours, stills from John-Pierre Melville and David Lynch movies, comic spreads and covers I particularly like. Literally thousands of reference images. I also made a soundtrack as a Spotify playlist. Then I let Michael loose on all of that. I thought that maybe it was a bit much, but he was really patient with my obsessive research. We just had the best time creating our world. 

What were your first thoughts when you saw the pages coming through?
They weren’t how I thought they would look. They were better. Michael isn’t just an illustrator or even a comics artist – he’s an artist, pure and simple. What I love about him most is his truly singular style. That goes for his line work, composition as well as colouring. Sure he’s aware of other styles and international comics traditions, but what he does is something only he can – and wants to – do. He has a sophistication and a confidence in his vision that is extraordinary. Getting pages back was like an exponential loop of excitement – I’d ring him excitedly and we’d talk ideas, and he’d get excited and draw more pages and send them to me and... repeat. 

Now it’s out there, what’s been your favourite thing about Tumult?
Obviously the Angoulême nomination is amazing. It’s an honour, it really is. It’s my favourite comics festival, and let’s face it, it’s the most critically serious. It’s like the Cannes film festival of comics. It’s been incredible how the French market has responded to the book - we’ve also been nominated for the ACBD Comics Prize - and it's very gratifying, especially as I’m a big fan of French comics and cinema. It was great seeing how other creators I admire responded to the work. A highlight was the glowing New York Times review. The critic really engaged with the book, and got all my narrative references. It was the best review we got - and what a place to get it!  Another review that really resonated with me was the review in The Guardian. You write a book and send it out into the world and you wonder what people will get out of it. It’s great to see it connecting with a readership. That’s what we do it for.

Cast your vote for Tumult by John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy at the Angoulême awards.