In Conversation with Simon Grennan: Part Two

By Benjamin G. Wilson & Alyanna Graham

In preparation for Simon Grennan’s talk and workshops at this year’s North Cornwall Book Festival, Benjamin G. Wilson & Alyanna Graham caught up with him to talk about his graphic novel, Dispossession, an adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s John Caldigate. This is the second half of their interview:

Ben: One of the things that struck me, as someone who’s read more mainstream graphic novels, is the very rigid page layout of Dispossession. Can you talk a bit about that?

Simon: Of course, of course. One of the tools available to us as graphic novelists, and a big one, is that there are two things going on on the page: there’s the mis-en-scene, so how you produce what scene or how the scenes look in each panel, and then there’s the arrangement of those scenes on the page as design. And those two things control how the reader turns the page. 100 panels on a page slows a reader down, 2 panels on a page can be consumed quickly. There’s a sense that the rhythm of the book is controlled by those things.

So one of the things that we did, and it’s quite radical in a way because it’s so boring, we decided that we were going to have a completely regular turn of the page, no matter what the story did or what the drama was. That dictates the panel layout, so there are these  6 panels on a page throughout. Their invariably sized, which is odd, so as a reader you start to realise that within the scenes there’s also a regular rhythmic mechanism, and it follows rules. The reader never gets closer than about 20ft, and is moved around each location in a regular change of point of view, like a kind of waltz. That rhythm impacts itself on the reading, and you start to get a very particular sense of your relationship to the world of the story.

In Trollope, there’s a sense you can never get close to the characters. Because of the ways he writes, you can only see certain types of things and not others. And then he always — particularly in John Caldigate, in the period 1870 onwards — Trollope starts to be much more equivocal. He uses great phrases like, ‘it was said about’, ‘he might have been a’, ‘but others were of the opinion that…’. So you think, ‘what does he actually think about this character?’. You never find out. And so this turn of point of view, which is almost completely mechanical, moves the reader around each piece of action. You see it from here, then there, then there, then where you were before. It gives a sense of circling around a scene, but you never really get a sense of what I think about the character.

Ben: It’s really interesting that you mention ‘I’ in this context. For people who’ve only been given the one life brief about Dispossession, ‘John Caldigate in a comic’…

Simon: Well, as a summary that would do.

Ben: But there’s also the sense of you being a translator. You add things that aren’t in the text. For example, the presence of Wiradjuri…

Simon: When I took the commision, I said as long as I can provide the commissioner with rationale, I want complete freedom with the plot. If I’d have thought we need, I don’t know, battling robots, well as long as I could justify battling robots as part of the scheme then I would have had them. When I was reading John Caldigate, as a 21st century reader, there’s a whole episode set in new South Wales, and there’s a lot of things not mentioned about New South Wales in the 1870s that I thought couldn’t be not mentioned in a graphic novel of 2015. So suddenly, I had this task of having to really produce in the graphic novel a series of relationships that are absent in Trollope, but do that without bringing the house down. So the idea of this very short Aboriginal subplot which has opportunities to comment upon Trollope’s plot, seemed a good idea. In Wiradjuri culture multiple wives are possible, whereas in European culture they are not. [In John Caldigate] you have this problem of bigamy, this problem of divorce, that you don’t have in Wiradjuri.

And also, we have this completely different way of life that’s about geography. The Wiradjuri story has to provide a window on aspects of Trollope’s plot, whilst distancing them from the reader even further. There are moments where you see developments in the Caldergate plot that are in the background of the Wiradjuri plot. The two sets of protagonists pass each other all the time, they are in very close proximity, but the plots don’t overlap. So all of this was good, very interesting, and then also the whole thing about being on a ship. Trollope really glosses the whole journey to Australia and back. They were normal, nothing lurid about them, but from our point of view they were deeply shocking and horrible. This whole thing of chucking a dead child off the back of the ship because it’s died, or sending a live baby up to first class for dinner as a joke, those are things that are recorded in letters home. There was an opportunity, where Trollope doesn’t say what’s going, to bring those things up to date.

Ben: That’s really brilliant.

Simon: Another thing about presenting the Wiradjuri, we had a problem, and that was ‘how are they going to speak?’. I decided that, because the Europeans and the Wiradjuri never speak to each other at all in the graphic novel, the Wiradjuri should speak the language that they spoke to each other in 1870. It took me 18 months to find someone who could speak it. I spent almost 2 years searching for a translator.

Alyanna: I wanted to ask about how your academic work has impacted on the creation of the graphic novel.

Simon: Quite a lot, I suppose. On two grounds. One, my academic work is quite theoretical. I’m interested in how stories are told visually. I have this interest in the mechanics, the kind of nuts and bolts of visual storytelling. When we started to work on the adaptation of Trollope, this came to the fore. We started to think about how do you make a visual equivalent to a literary style. And that’s very much to do with understanding the nuts and bolts of storytelling, what you can show, what you can’t, points of view, positioning of the viewer, rhythm. All of which, obviously, is very different in visual storytelling.

On the other hand, I also have a finger in the pie of the history of comics. I work on a very little known 19th century female cartoonist called Marie Duval, who drew in London papers between 1869 and 1885. In fact, because of when she was and what she did she will have passed Anthony Trollope in the street. So there’s an interesting period overlap in my interest in her as a cartoonist and the adaptation of Trollope.

Ben: Going back to the Wiradjuri, which I’m sure I’m mispronouncing…

Simon: The trick, I’m told is saying it in an Australian accent.

Ben: I wouldn’t dare.

Simon: Go on.

Ben: [terrible australian accent] Wirad…Wiradjuri?

This isn’t a good idea. Can I ask about the title?

Simon: Yes, of course. Go on.

Ben: I just wondered, because of the inclusion of indigenous people’s language, if Dispossession was picked for that resonance?

Simon: Yes. I mean, there’s two things going on. The full title is ‘Dispossession: A Novel of Few Words’, and I mean, that’s obvious. I think there’s only about six and a half thousand words, which is hardly a novel, of words, I mean. But Dispossession is two things, really. One, it’s a bit of a joke on AS Byatt’s neo-Victorian novel which won the Booker Prize, Possession, which has two plots going on, one set in the late 19th century and one set in the present day. And her themes, of who possesses what and how, are kind of in the background. But also, in John Caldigate, everyone is in some way dispossessed. In a sense, it seems to attach itself more, in our minds, to the Wiradjuri. But in fact, that’s not quite true. Everyone has some kind of loss, for which someone else is responsible. It seemed like an easy title to choose.

But in French… you know we have a French version of the book?

Ben: Yes, I saw that.

Simon: Well, the English word ‘dispossession’ has no direct equivalent in French. I mean, it exists as a historical legal term, but it’s not used day to day. So we couldn’t have used it in French. But in French there is an aphorism, relatively well known by the older generation, meaning ‘you can’t do two things at once’. It’s ‘you can’t hunt two hares’. So our graphic novel, in French, is called ‘To Hunt Two Hares’.

Ben: Oh, that’s very nice.

Simon: And of course, it’s a story about bigamy. So in a sense it’s even better. Has John Caldigate tried to hunt two hares at once?

Alyanna: Was there a particular reason for pursuing a French translation?

Simon: Well, we try and do what we can. If you can get your work translated then the readership is bigger. But the audience for graphic novels in French is enormous. And, also, the commissioners are essentially francophone. In Belgium the tradition of comics in French is almost bigger than the tradition in France.

Ben: This has all been brilliant, thanks so much.

Simon: Interestingly enough, Patrick’s [Patrick Gale, North Cornwall Book Festival’s Chairman]  last novel A Place Called Winter deals with the same, well, it almost overlaps in a way. So, the Canadian frontier will happen ‘there’ rather than what happens at ‘home’. It chimes. Does what happen in Australia stay in Australia? Can you act in Australia and not act at home? He’s been quite explicit talking about it, saying there are certain types of freedom on the frontier which come with certain types of prohibition. So the relationship between his ancestor in Canada and his ancestor at home kind of points up that. So that is another kind of key to what’s going on at the festival this weekend.

Alyanna: One final question, when is your Theory of Narrative Drawing Coming out?

Well, I should preface this by saying this is a very different type of book. An intense, profoundly theoretical book.  A proper, academic book of about 100,000 words. It’s for those people, like me, who are really into the nuts and bolts of visual storytelling. It’s written, and in the process of being designed now. So I’d expect it to be out sometime in the new year.

Simon, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for talking with us, and we can’t wait to meet you over the weekend!

Simon Grennan will be talking in the Main Marquee at 1.30pm today. Tickets available here.

Dispossession is published by Jonathan Cape.