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Jurga Vilė: How I Wrote Siberian Haiku

1 April 2020

Jurga Vilė is the author of Siberian Haiku. Here we spoke to her about the inspiration for the book, her grandfather's journey, and the importance of exile literature.

Hi Jurga, can you explain briefly what Siberian Haiku is about?
Sure, it’s the story of 8-year-old Algis, who in 1941 was deported with his family to Siberia. That was the destiny of many Lithuanians during the Soviet regime’s occupation. From the very beginning of the long journey, Algis decides to take it as an adventure and to stay positive for as long as he can. His story is a flash-back, which he shares while coming back from the exile. He tells us how everything started, recalls the journey to Siberia, the life far from Lithuania, and finally his return home by Orphan train. 

The story is based on your father’s experience - was this something you were aware of early on in life, was it talked about, or something that you found out about later? 
When I was little, every now and then dad would mention Siberia to me and my brothers. He would tell us in hushed tones about his family’s deportation. My dad used to tell us the story about frozen potatoes, that he was grateful to find one back there, and how he would have eaten it with pleasure. I pictured Siberia as an ice-cold place far, far away, where people lived with rumbling stomachs and icicles dripping down their noses. When I was little, I could never understand how my father being just a child had ended up in such a horrible place. His past seemed full of secrets. 
So when did you find out about his journey?
In 1990 Lithuania declared its Independence. I was thirteen and they were thrilling times. Freedom was in the air and we couldn’t breathe without it anymore. The numerous demonstrations, seas of our national yellow-green-red flags, songs and poetry till night, people’s eyes full of hope. The deportees who were lucky enough to return home started publishing their memories. These books were named “Exile Literature”, and I devoured all of them. But my grandmother’s tiny notebook which I discovered at the same time was my favourite. I read it again and again. 

Was this the catalyst for writing Siberian Haiku?
My dad‘s mom, my grandmother Ursula, was not very talkative. She was carrying Siberia inside, lots of suffering and trials. She wrote her memories about the exile in a laconic and clear way. She talked about the pain, not forgetting to mention the beautiful Siberian nature and the kindness of people. While reading these almost transparent pages written in pencil, I always felt a tender mist around. It would fall from the past in little salty drops. 

I was curious about the feeling it produced to me. A word was fluttering in my mind like a butterfly. When I caught it, I recognised it. It was a feeling of ‘haiku’. That’s how the title of a future book arose naturally: “Siberian haiku”. I wanted my book to be somehow similar to what my granny wrote. When you’re face to the ground and you feel the wings growing. I imagined my book full of light.
Was the plan always to make it a graphic novel? 
Well, there were different thoughts and one of them was a script for a film. I tried to enter a scenario writing competition in Paris, and I chose the theme of kids coming home from exile by Orphan train. Then I abandoned that idea. But not the wish to tell the story in my own way. Then I realised that graphic novels are good for approaching difficult subjects, and in Lithuania the idea of graphic novels are quite new, so I thought it would get more attention. 

How do you write, do you sit at a desk or go to coffee shops? 
I work as a translator, and sometimes I do other little jobs, like working as a cashier in a museum, making cartoon theatre performances or workshops for kids, planting plants... so I write when I can. I write letters almost every day, but most of Siberian Haiku I wrote when I had a chance to get away from my daily routine. So I could concentrate on myself. I never write in coffee shops, I gather information and inspiration in different places, and I write at home or at a place which is home at the moment of being. 

How long did Siberian Haiku take to write, were there any challenges?
It’s quite difficult to say. I carried it with me for a long time, many years. Meanwhile it was changing. But finally I imagined it pretty much as it is now. These short chapters, episodes mixing comics technique, collages of letters and blocs of texts. It took me almost a year to write the script. 

At what point did Lina get involved, was the script finished when she did, or did you work together on the final story?   
The text was written, and I was looking for an illustrator. Funny enough we noticed Lina because of her Japanese surname [Itagaki]. It drew our attention as there’s an important Japanese line in the book, but it was a predestined meeting. For both of us Siberian Haiku is a debut, and we were eager to devote ourselves to the project absolutely. Lina felt the story, dove into it and gave life to it with her very subtle drawings. She also rewrote the text by hand, which reinforces the impression of reading a little boy’s diary. 

What was it like working with Lina, what did she add to the story?  
As I didn’t know who was going to illustrate the book, I wrote it with the precise indications to the illustrator. I agree that it’s quite awful for illustrators to get this kind of script, it was my first time and I didn’t know. But Lina liked it, she said it helped her a lot. And I was encouraging her to interpret my notes as she saw fit. We worked, separated by distance. At that time I lived in Andalusia, Lina lived in a Lithuanian port Klaipeda. We were exchanging emails a lot, sometimes talking on Skype.

Lina is very precise and hard-working, and I also liked her decision to choose quite a realistic way of illustrating. She consulted lots of photos, worked with archive materials. We actually got to know each other after the book was published. We met for the first interview about Siberian Haiku, and then we went to a cafeteria to talk and get to know each other better.

How important is Siberian Haiku as a piece of personal and cultural history?  
Siberian Haiku is a personal story, but inseparable from the historical context. It permits me to recount an important moment of my country’s history. It’s true, that the culture’s involved a lot, too. You can actually learn a bit about Lithuania reading Siberian Haiku, you can smell it and taste it, imagine its nature, hear its songs. But the main theme of the book, I think, is humanism. An innocent kid deported from his home and growing up in a cold Siberian land for me echoes like a refugee’s stories. It’s true that nowadays people often migrate by their own will, but others are still forced to leave home.

Siberian Haiku is available now.  

Cédric Taling: Why I wrote Thoreau & Me

17 March 2020

Having just released Thoreau and Me, a philosophical musing on climate change, mass-consumerism, eco-accountability, creator Cédric Taling discusses what made him create the book, and his relationship with Walden author Henry David Thoreau.   

Where did the idea for Thoreau and Me come from? 
As a teenager I read Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, which I really liked. More recently on the radio, I heard a programme about Thoreau and Walden, and the excerpts from Walden struck me as my partner and I were trying to consume less and strive towards a more grounded life at the time. This discussion made me want to tell the story in Thoreau and Me, and to highlight how in the middle of the 19th century Henry David Thoreau was already pointing the finger at over-consumption, over-information, over-capitalisation, and the need for ownership. 
Thoreau appears in the book as a spirit of the past, can you talk about this idea? 
In the story Thoreau is a kind of Jiminy Cricket, a conscience that I don't always want to hear. He is the witness of the unreasonable actions of Western civilisation during these last two centuries. In Thoreau and Me he shows how nothing has changed, or rather that our distance from nature is accelerating, whether it is ecological on a planetary scale, or even just in our personal lives. He is by my side every day in the book. 
Have you been to Walden Pond? 
No, a friend went there while I was drawing Thoreau and Me and sent me some pictures. I don’t know… I’m split. I find it a little ridiculous to rebuild the hut a few meters from where it was located, and the statue of Thoreau is just there for tourists in a way. For me it is much more interesting to read his book, the descriptions of the landscapes are magnificent. There is an incredible poetry that goes through his feelings. 

You mentioned that Thoreau and Me is about dealing with the climate crisis, eco accountability and over-consumption, when did these subjects first take root for you? 
I’ve been aware of being a consumer sheep for a long time. I haven’t had television for 20 years, don’t read the press, and cut off all sound when an advertisement is broadcast on the radio or on the internet. Many people have spoken to us about our voluntary servitude, like Etienne de la Boétie, Stéphane Hessel’s Be Indignant, Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience, and Krishnamurti’s The First and Last Freedom, and many authors have highlighted our lack of individual freedom and our desire to belong to this society by following its dogmas. It's hard to be authentic, and not to be envious. We’ve been taught to be part of the mass, to value and participate in the system when it’s anti-ecological and anti-social. It is an aberration to judge the ‘well-being’ of a country based on its consumption rate, especially when the produce is absolutely useless except perhaps to fill in a lack of love. 
What message do you want to convey in Thoreau and Me, what’s the book about? 
It’s about opening our eyes, as we are told bullshit constantly. It’s not a connected plastic gadget that will make us happier, we need to be more loving, closer to each other, less judgmental. Political powers are the guarantors of economic institutions that are ravaging everything. They will not move. I have the impression that the more we change in our habits, in our relationships with others, with nature, the less they move. Political and capitalist structures are static, they absorb the individual and also make them static and subject to automatisms. In Walden, I like it a lot when Thoreau explains that for travelling he walks rather than taking the train, because the time he saves to buy the ticket, he will have already arrived. 
Do you think the climate crisis is something that can be solved at a global level, or do we need to explore ideas like in Walden and Thoreau and Me, and live in a self-sustaining, determined way? 
As I said, I believe that nothing will come from governments. Nothing has ever come from governments except bad things. It is us and our movement towards a more socially and ecologically just world that will make change happen. I believe that if a social revolution imposes a truth instead of the current ‘truth’, it will not change again. I think that yes it would be well to let people explore their projects so that they can live their inner revolution, and this for me is exactly what Thoreau did when he left to build his cabin on the shore of Walden

This is your first graphic novel, what made you decide to create this style of book? 
I needed to produce a drawn object in which I could be as authentic on the subject as I was being graphically and colour-wise. I have been a painter for more than ten years, navigating the throes of the contemporary art market, and I am tired of that industry. In a graphic novel, I have all the time to explore my story, I have fun having fun with drawing and colours. I wanted to share my anxieties, my questions, my contradictions in the face of climate and consumption issues and it was a real pleasure to speak to the “I”, especially since in the case of a drawn self it was a very cheerful and beneficial “I”. 
How did you find the creative experience of making Thoreau and Me? 
When I was little, I wanted to become a comic book writer. I studied for it, but in the end it was easier for me to have a career in painting. I think being a comic book author is the ultimate creative experience though; we are author, director, actor, photographer, we take care of the decor of the light - it's a full adventure. I love to go back in history with the characters wandering around, and it's much less static than painting. I also found that I could break the frame’s boundaries, it takes a long time, but I have time to take the time. It’s great, I find it much more creative and exciting than painting. 
Finally then, what are your top tips for living a sustainable life? 
Really I have no advice to give, I am far from being an example. Maybe just to fully embrace the experience and learn from it. I believe that you have to get rid of ideas and advice so that an experience is really lived. And be aware of what is really necessary for yourself and others in a form of happy and just sobriety. 
Thoreau and Me is out now.   

Panel Breakdown with Tumult's Michael Kennedy

27 January 2020

With the psychological pulp thriller Tumult receiving an Angoulême nomination, artist Michael Kennedy breaks down a key page and shows us how it's done. You can also read how John Harris Dunning wrote Tumult here.   

Which page from Tumult that stood out for you, and for what reason?
There’s so many to choose from. The whole thing was a trial by fire, so there are pages that represent the highs, when I was on form, and pages and scenes that didn’t quite reach their potential. To choose the art that I think nailed the book, and I suppose had me feeling like I’d cracked the puzzle, would be the hell-hound sequence in the midpoint featuring Zoltan, Leila’s childhood defence mechanism personality. John was supportive in all the scenes of the book, but there was a trick or two here that really speak to the nature of collaboration in comics.

How did you develop the page, did John (Harris Dunning, writer) discuss it with you or did he just let you get to work?
Well, the scene was set on Hampstead Heath at night, I had an idea of that based on my earlier visits. Lots of muted out layers trees that make you surprised you’re even in the middle of London. Although I was operating on a minimalist background policy I’d seen enough of the Heath with John to have a feel of that particular landscape.

It was funny at the time as I wasn’t too sure why I had taken 100s of photos of Hampstead Heath. I later realised the multitude of things John had relayed to me about the book — most of which didn’t feature directly — had, through osmosis, influenced my decisions. I now think a lot about things like texture when thinking about writing, and Tumult had that in swathes. I believe that’s what drew me to the script, the sheer amount of field work John had done gave it the authorial presence it has.

For this scene though, a key reference placed in the script was the image of Zoltan the demon dog. So as I was preparing to draw, then later colour. I knew I had some dark colours to work with along with that laser green from his eyes. Mixing that with the geography and experience of the heath it was one of the more fully formed scenes in my mind.

Where do you start once you’ve seen the script, do you sketch, thumbnail, or get straight to the serious work?
I thumbnail as best as I can in the time I have. By that point in the book, most of the blocking and language for storytelling had been set. I enjoy restrictions and limitations to the form and was probably at a rhythm where I could’ve plowed through as if it were like the other pages. Comics inertia perhaps? I set about it that way. In fact, at that point the deadline was so pressing, my thumbnails became the pencils. 

At this point in the narrative, the character Adam had suffered his identity crisis and we were beginning Leila’s story. The masochistic turn was exciting as a reader and I was beginning to have a lot of fun turning Adam into a more cartoonish person on the page, alluding to the Chaplin references earlier. In the pages prior, a gang had pushed him over in an ode silent slapstick. Secondly I had to juxtapose this with the fantastical occurrence within Leila.

Where in drawing the book did this page sit, how long did it take to complete?
It came at the midpoint of production, but most pages were finished. There were still so many tiny edits and things to tie up and polish though. Just before this point though there was an interesting piece of collaboration, of which there were many.

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I had to turn in evidence of progress, so submitted pages that had inked characters but no backgrounds drawn in. I can’t remember the particulars of the interchange but John had highlighted that the pages on that scene were quite interesting as they were, with no backgrounds and such. 

I was so set in my ways at that point I couldn’t imagine myself comprehending immediately, but with a bit of faith in what John saw, I eventually saw that potential as well. There were many instances such as this. Just takes a bit of time to see it from a different angle as opposed to being in the trenches of the work.

Were there any other challenges that stand out?
The next big challenge came later with colouring, where I had to get things in the individual page and larger scene to pop as best they could. A limitation I’d decided to put on myself was to colour pages in these 10 page chunk as they felt like natural episodes, with ideas and languages within themselves. This was following the sweatshop guys in the 50’s from whom I took inspiration with regards to their approach to the storytelling; a pastiche really but I’ll get there. 

The dark muted colours that dominated the idea of the scene had to take a front foot, and the final page worked well in isolating those shapes, Leila staggering, Adam crawling. My challenge was in having to apply that backwards. Meaning, I had to find a way to present the previous pages of the sequence that, at least in my own framework, prepared the reader for that final page. This involved finding the right colours for the flash back, removing borders and backgrounds on characters and what I liked most, eerily colouring the gang in an alien blue colour to the scene. Along with the yellow knife It was probably the closest I really came to those 50’s horror guys.

Finally then, what equipment do you use and why use these specifically?
The saving grace of the production was the digital aspect. Initially I wanted to make it traditionally but It wasn’t feasible money wise and production wise so I used my Wacom bamboo, a 13” Macbook, and Photoshop. I wouldn’t recommend doing a 170-odd page book this way, as it felt so myopic, kind of like looking down a telescope at a single panel. Nor was I insured.

However, what I’ve learnt going forward in my cartooning practice — along with being as organised as possible — is having multiple layers within the art file. I kept the borders on separate layers from the art, and the speech bubble on a separate layer too. It made a lot of things easier especially with such a complex operation as Tumult was, and It’s given me so much more confidence in my cartooning, period. Had I done a brush and ink job, I would have had to have bought a gallon of tip-ex to dunk fully inked pages into.

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

Introducing our Spring 2020 lineup

20 January 2020

Here we are, mid-way through January and the temperature is dropping fast. But don’t worry, we’ve got the perfect solution for warming your collective cockles – the SelfMadeHero Spring list! 
That’s right, we’ve just announced our seven amazing spring titles, with books that cover everything from challenging the climate crisis and climbing the alps, to the realities of ageing and life in Siberian exile. 
We begin the list with March's Thoreau and Me, Cédric Taling’s philosophical exploration on the causes and consequences of the current ecological breakdown and climate crisis. Blending humour, philosophy and fiction, Taling follows a forty-something painter living in Paris who has begun to question his life choices, aided by the spirit of proto-environmentalist and author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau. 

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Alongside this we'll also be bringing you the award-winning Siberian Haiku, which tells the story of Algiukas, whose family and friends are forcibly deported to Siberia from their rural Lithuanian village by the Soviet Army. Based on the true story of her father, writer Jurga Vilé, along with artist Lina Itagaki, offers the unforgettable tale of Algiukas, who learns to escape the daily rigours of his harsh conditions through the inventive power of his imagination, and a book of Japanese haiku poems. 
Then, coming in April is Jean-Marc Rochette’s epic Altitude, an exhilarating account of his early life as a mountain climber, and the journey that would inevitably lead him to his life as an artist. Together with co-writer Olivier Bocquet, they craft an impassioned tale of how physical endurance can help scale dreams and mountain peaks. 
Also in April is The Summer of Her Life, a beautifully nuanced reflection on the day-to-day realities of getting old. Award-winning creators Thomas Von Steinaecker and Barbara Yelintell tell the story of Gerda Wendt as she contemplates her younger years, and a heartbreaking choice between love and her passion for astrophysics.   
Rounding out the Spring titles are the two gorgeously illuminating graphic histories of Wine and Medicine
With Wine, French journalist and wine specialist Benoist Simmat uncorks the story of the world's favourite drink, and explores the cultivation, art and science of wine-making, from ancient Greece to the vineyards of Burgundy and Napa Valley. This is the perfect accompaniment to any glass of chablis or merlot. 
And in Medicine, Surgeon-turned-writer Jean-Noël Fabiani dissects the significant moments in the history of medicine, from aspirins and blood-letting, to viagra and X-rays highlighting the often surprising medical breakthroughs that have contributed to our current state of healthcare, offering an entertaining and educational tonic. 
As always, get ready and stay tuned, it's going to be a hot spring!

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.