Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sarah Laing Interview

Auckland cartoonist Sarah Laing was recently awarded a six-month University of Auckland residency from the Micheal King Writers Centre to work on a graphic novel about Katherine Mansfield that is part-biography, part-memoir and part-fiction. Laing's comics have frequently appeared in Metro magazine and she is also a novelist, graphic designer and mother of three. A prolific output of auto-bio comics have featured on Laing's blog Let Me Be Frank in recent years. I asked her a few questions via email about her upcoming residency.

Are you the first author to receive a Michael King Writers Centre residency to work on a cartooning project?

I'm the first at the Michael King Writers Centre, but it's a joint University of Auckland residency and I see that Dylan Horrocks was awarded it in 2006:  But yes, it's rare for a cartooning/graphic novel project to be chosen for a residency! It's great that such a project is now being considered a serious contender. 

When did you first experience Katherine Mansfield's writing?

Somebody read me 'The Dolls' House' when I was in primary school and it all came alive for me - she's such a visual writer; I can still picture everything she described.  I remember my grandmother telling us that Mansfield's family, the Beauchamps, lived down the road from her family when she was a child in Karori. My first writing prize was for a poem I wrote in 7th form, called 'At the (York) Bay', after Mansfield's story. I spent lots of summer holidays in Eastbourne as that's where my grandmother and great aunts lived. Later I lived in a little lane off Tinakori Road in Wellington, where Mansfield was born. My first book published by Random House was a collection of short stories, and I felt like I was following in a tradition established by her. She really is still the most amazing short story writer, the way that she sets up a scene and then disrupts it entirely. Her writing still feels very contemporary.

Will your project be purely comics or a combination of prose and cartooning?

This project will be a cartooning one - a book-length graphic novel. Language does play a big part in my comics though, and I will be working hard on that. There is so much of the visual world to explore - Mansfield was stylish - she had that great bob - and she lived in the 1920s and 1930s, and she hung out with all the modernists and the Bloomsbury set (Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence) She pushed a whole lot of social boundaries, redefined literature, had lesbian affairs, was the only writer that Virginia Woolf was jealous of. She moved to France and Germany to try and cure her TB, but she died young, at the age of 34.  Recently I read Kiki of Montparnasse and I think graphic novels are such a great way of bringing historical figures to life.

What will your residency at the Writers Centre entail?

I will be given a studio to work in at the top of Mt Victoria in Devonport. It was built in the late 19th century, so I'm hoping it will get me into the right era. Also I will have an office at the university and access to the library, where I hope to read lots about Mansfield. I think I might have to give lectures at the English department too, so I'll be hustling comics and graphic novels.

Do you have a projected scope for the size of this project and when you'll complete it?

I'm hoping it will take me no longer than a couple of years. But then I'm still finishing an illustrated novel (to be published in July 2013) that I started almost 4 years ago! I want to explore Mansfield's life, and also I want to couple that with memoir, exploring how my own fascination with her. I imagine that this will be a reasonably big book - 300 pages maybe, and I want to do it all in inks and watercolour. I've recently been reading Brecht Evans and I love his style and his way of story telling. I'm also a fan of Joann Sfar and Vanessa Davis, who also use watercolours a lot.

How was the experience of your short term residency at the Michael King Writers Centre in 2008?

It was really great - it was just for 6 weeks but I really got to concentrate. At the moment I work at home, on the dining room table, and I have 3 kids, so when they're at home I have to clear everything away or else they'll want to augment my art. The other thing that I've done when I've been on residencies is minimise my internet access. I waste such a lot of time! Then again, it's a brilliant resource for picture references so I won't be able to cut myself off entirely.

You've indicated on your blog that you've had an interest in doing a longer comics work for a while, did applying for the residency help consolidate commencing this project or was it already underway?

I thought this would be a good kind of project for a University writer-in-residence - I'd have access to all the English department expertise and a library full of books! I also had a lot of other ideas jostling around - mostly memoir ideas. I still have a whole host of short stories I want to draw in comic form - I'm hoping to get a few of those started before the residency begins.

All images copyright Sarah Laing 2012

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