Tag Archives: graphic memoir

An Interview with Tom Hart

21 Jan
Tom Hart is a cartoonist best known for the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is creator of the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is a cartoonist and the Executive Director of The Sequential Artists Workshop, a school and arts organization in Gainesville, Florida. He is the creator of the Hutch Owen series of graphic novels and books and has been called “One of the great underrated cartoonists of our time” by Eddie Campbell and “One of my favorite cartoonists of the decade” by Scott McCloud. His strip, Ali’s House, co-created with Margo Dabaie, was picked up by King Features Syndicate. His newest book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, about his daughter Rosalie who died just before turning two years old.

To read an exercise about giving characters a frame of reference and an excerpt from Rosalie Lightning, click here.

In this interview, Hart discusses loosening structure to escape strict chronology, editing out details to create an intended effect, and finding an ending buried in the middle of a book.

Michael Noll

The book contains several storylines: your grieving, the sale of your apartment in Brooklyn, your move to Florida, moments with Rosalie. But it also contains moments that stand alone from these narratives—events or thoughts or images that exert a gravitational force on your memory beyond their place in the sequence of events. For example, there is a single frame with this text: “Before we leave for New Mexico, I will pay for my daughter’s cremation with an ATM card like I’m buying a bag of bananas.”

You mention in the book and on your blog that you wrote and drew constantly after Rosalie’s death and the you had to piece those disconnected writings and drawings into a book. Was it difficult to find the right spot for moments like the one above? How did you find a structure that could contain both narrative and individual moments that stood out from whatever story they were apart of?

Tom Hart

At some point (when I drew a panel of me saying “This would be the only thing in my head when I entered the funeral home”) it occurred to me I could jump forward in time and never worry about revisiting the moment again. Previously I thought I was on a straight ahead chronology and that if I foreshadowed or even detailed something, I would revisit it when it’s time in the story had come (to some grand effect). Then I realized I didn’t have to do this. It was a loosening of the structure that I thought I needed, one which already was unraveling as I was working.

So in answer to the question, the structure is incredibly organic, and really I just followed my natural slow-moving thoughts. Since I’m telling a story, chronological became a sort of default, but I always welcomed digressions from the main story for thought. So, in the case you mentioned, I thought, “How am I going to get this atm/banana incident in there so it reacts against this moment I just drew out?” and then the answer was, “Put it in now.”

Michael Noll

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Throughout the book, you quote or paraphrase books, comic strips, songs, and films. Some, like the Beatles songs, are things that you encountered unexpectedly, and others are encountered intentionally, like the Herzog film. And then there are others, like the book about Louis, that are important from the beginning but whose emotional resonance changes over time. In these moments, your touch is so light. With the Beatles, for example, you give no explanation, only saying that you heard the song on the plane and didn’t recognize it. Then you give a snippet of the lyrics. But with the Louis book, you show Rosalie engaging with it. In other words, sometimes you let these other narratives and pieces of art speak for themselves, without explanation, and other times you engage with them. Did you have an approach in mind for each, or did you have to figure out for each one how much or little to explain?

Tom Hart

Thank you.

Each one was handled singly except for the ones that were stories that informed Rosalie’s imagination. I wanted to draw those out more fully, in time and faithfulness but also visually: most of the redrawn cartoons have a consistent, clean greyscale under the lines. Elsewhere in the book there is a larger attempt at visual expressionism—come what may.

But in the other instances, again, I just followed the thoughts and edited out anything that was too much.

(Side note—the Beatles line needed a light touch partially for legality sake! I think in my original draft I had a line or two more of the first song. The Tim Buckley song near the end was intentionally elided for the same reason, but I think it worked best this way.)

There were times when I had to edit down my real-time impressions and go for a literary rendition. For instance, the Titian painting is a painting of St. Christopher (I think) carrying the Baby Jesus. It’s all about Jesus, but I wanted to focus on the thought I had, which was about the heaviness. Removing some of the words from the myth. So I purposely never mention Jesus, which is quite a fib since it is very clearly a painting about Jesus.

Michael Noll

Because you’re writing about grief and shock, you’re inherently writing about things that defy an easy, simple portrayal. I really admire the way you capture this, especially how abruptly feelings can change or appear. For example, you spend several pages describing your trip to New Mexico to stay at a retreat for people who’ve experienced sudden loss. The weather is terrible, you’re filled with despair, the logistics seem overwhelmingly complicated. In one panel, there is only one word—“Malfunctioning”—and an image of a steering wheel within what appears to be a brick wall. And then, at the end, you and your wife Leela rush into the motel “and try to make a baby.” It’s a stunning, devastating switch. How do you carry the reader with you as you make decisions when the logic of them is so intensely personal and, perhaps, not fully understood even by you and your wife?

Tom Hart

Thanks for being such a rigorous reader.

That switch was just descriptive, I just described it exactly as it occurred. Or at least it felt that fast. Again, I edited out what was unnecessary (presumably we took our winter clothes off).

Like most writers, I thought only what would be the most effective language to me and assumed there would be readers like me to follow it.

It’s certainly true that scene was set up by the previous mention of a baby—as it was in life.

In this instance, though there also may be more specific answers. For instance, I think I wrote that minimalistic “malfunctioning” line in there much later, not really knowing what to do with the text in that panel. And the image in the final panel was increasingly abstracted over iterations as I realized no representation was needed. So, there was some intention there—the text becomes more short and abbreviated, and a wildly unreadable drawing is the climax of that whole scene.

Michael Noll

Since the book begins with the death of your daughter, it’s natural for the reader to assume that it will end with some kind of emotional resolution. Yet the resolutions that we often expect in books don’t always exist in life. So, I was interested in how you end on two difference scenes, one (the kiss) that is, in a way, more emotionally satisfying and one (the call from your friend) that resists resolution. How did you find these endings? Was it a matter of writing until you found them, or did you know, at some point in the process of writing the book, where you were headed?

Tom Hart

That kiss came in real life, exactly when I detailed, and at that moment I knew it was time to stop “collecting material”—to stop writing. I knew that was the end of the book. After that, I tried to put my more meditative, less shocked brain onto the larger problem of the book, which itself was a method of deepening my understanding of the event and events. So, presented with some short-term revelations and intellectual understandings, I took to the longer, slower task of internalizing them.

The second part of the ending—the phone call—was edited out of the darker (visually so), chapter early on (Chapter 5). It was too long, too different in tone and didn’t say anything about our state of mind. But it was a powerful moment I thought should be in the book. Eventually, far into the writing, I realized that the connection to the outside world it brought, the contrast to another way of grieving—and just the use of her name—made it the right springboard into the final pages.

January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Give Characters a Frame of Reference

19 Jan
Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live on in her absence.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. When his daughter was almost two years old, she died without warning in her sleep. This book is the story of what happened afterward. You can read the first two chapters of the book at Hart’s website.

How the Memoir Works

Throughout the book, Hart show the reader key moments from his daughter’s life and death, his and his wife’s grief, and their attempts to know how to live without their daughter. Many of these moments are associated with art: a book that Hart read to his daughter and films, songs, and poems that have meant something to him—consciously or not. Anyone who has experienced intense grief understands this kind of association, the way, for example, that a song can gain meaning when it’s heard at a particular time or during a particular moment.

The challenge in a book is to make the reader understand and feel these associations. A good place to start is the beginning. Make the art, religion, or words of wisdom part of the character’s frame of reference before the story really begins. In Rosalie Lightning, Hart makes the frame of reference literally the first thing we encounter.

(Note: I’m going to quote the book, but because it’s a graphic memoir, it’s best understood in its complete form. You can find the opening pages of the book at Hart’s website and at Amazon.)

Here is how the book begins:

Her favorite image

In a single night the oak tree grows to full height from a scattering of acorns in the garden.

In the next frame, we see a house with oak trees and learn the source of this magical image:

A scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro

What follows is a series of images of Hart’s daughter Rosalie picking up acorns and calling them “dideo atune” or “Totoro acorn” and also her death and its aftermath. Hart quotes his wife Leela saying, “My heart is a blast sight.”

This introduction is important because it presents both the tragedy and the mental framework that it enters. As Hart and his wife try to make sense of their loss, they fall back on that framework. Hart clearly shows us their attempts to make sense. For example, there is this scene early in the book:

I look for help in art and images. Wondering what makes them work. Wondering what’s going on in my brain…

I read Roland Barthes

“The relation between thing signified and imagine signifying an analogical representation is not ‘arbitrary’ as it is in language…”

He is writing about an ad for Italian spaghetti.

What it signifies, what it semiotizes, and how the layers of semiconscious signations and intents correlate with the

Forget it—I pick up the vault of horror

Obviously, Roland Barthes is not to everyone’s reading taste. What matters is that Barthes matters to Hart and that Hart looks to Barthes’ words to help understand his grief. In Barthes matters to the story because his words fail. Hart eventually turns away from them. In some ways, the book repeats this sequence: Hart seeks out a book, film, poem, or song, and he finds something helps or he doesn’t. Sometimes the art arrives in his life unexpectedly—arrivals that are possible only because the memoir has created space for them.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s give a character a frame of reference, using Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart as a model:

  1. Give the character a general frame. In short, what kind of person is your character, generally? Hart reads Roland Barthes and the poet Ben Lerner (who is quoted in an epigraph to the book), watches films by Miyazaki and Kurosawa, and reads the work of cartoonists and graphic novelists. He’s not watching Transformers or reading Tuesdays with Morrie (at least not in the book). Make a list of the sort of books and films your character prefers. If the character is religious, what texts does she turn to? Be specific. If the character is a Christian, don’t say she turns to the Bible. Identify the books in the Bible or passages that she recalls. What stories does the character like to tell? Does she tend toward patriotic myth, like the story of George Washington and the apple tree? Toward the mystical, like the various stories that pop up on Facebook about people holding hands and praying around a lake and, in so doing, altering the chemical structure of the water molecules?
  2. Figure out why the character turns to the frame of reference. In Hart’s case, his daughter died, and he was trying to make sense of the personal devastation that remained. Tragedy often forces people to question the meaning and essence of things, and so they turn toward prayer or art. But a story doesn’t need tragedy to do this. Case in point: whoever won the Powerball last week has experienced something good and life-changing. That person will almost certainly fall back on their frame of reference in order to understand how to be rich and what to do with the money. Anything that significantly alters or redirects a character’s life will likely force them to develop a new or revised or refreshed understanding of the world and situation they find themselves in.
  3. Find the applicable parts of the frame of reference. Hart no doubt watches many films and reads many books, but in the wake of his daughter’s death, it was particular films and books that he recalled and sought out. Return to the general frame of reference that you created. Which parts apply to your character’s situation? Some parts may be easy to identify. For example, certain Bible passages are read at funerals and weddings over and over again. Other parts may be idiosyncratic. Not many people might think of Roland Barthes when grieving, but Hart did, and that fact reveals something particular about him. So, find the particular films, books, stories, passages, and words of wisdom that your character would turn to.
  4. Introduce the frame before the story. In Rosalie Lightning, we see acorns and Miyazaki before we’re introduced to Rosalie’s death. Consider when/how your character might think about or talk about the film or book. When would she talk about it? Often there are objects that, when seen or encountered, prompt us to think about certain things. Or when someone we know has experienced a particular situation, we tend to tell the same stories as comfort. Try putting your character in one of those situations before introducing the major conflict. Don’t worry about the situation’s proximity in time to the conflict. Prose, unlike film, has all time and memory at its disposal. Hart begins with acorns. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald began with this sentence: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” That’s the frame of reference that Nick Carraway carries with him when he meets Gatsby. It’s important to begin with the frame because if it appears only after the conflict, it can seem artificial, like something introduced to induce some emotional response in the reader. If it’s introduced before the conflict, then it seems simply like part of the character.

The goal is to give a character the chance to make sense of the world, and that sense-making cannot happen in a vacuum. The character needs some frame of reference, which is what you’re providing.

Good luck.

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