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By Chris Tamarri
Jamie S. Rich began his career in comics as a member of the editorial staff at Dark Horse Comics, eventually moving over to Oni Press, where he served for many years as the fledgling publisher’s Editor in Chief. In recent years, Rich moved away from editing in order to focus on his own writing, which has been most prominently displayed over the past several months. Since the spring of this year, Rich has released the first two volumes of his ongoing digest series, Love the Way You Love, with illustrator Marc Ellerby, sophomore novel The Everlastin and most recently, graphic novel 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, with illustrator Joëlle Jones, all published by Oni Press. Comic Foundry talks with the writer, examining each of these projects and the mind from which they came.
Within the last year, you’ve put three new projects on the shelves, all of them in different formats (ongoing digest series Love the Way You Love, prose novel The Everlasting and graphic novel 12 Reasons Why I Love Her). How do you feel about the way each has been received so far?
I’m pleased. The critical reaction has been interesting, though mainly positive, and the fan response has been overwhelming (and as someone who writes reviews, I can say 100 percent that critics and fans are two different bodies). Sales have varied, of course, but for the most part, people are getting what we’re all doing. It’s interesting to have one book that seems to be kind of a breakout hit (12 Reasons>), one a sleeper that from what I can tell is really enjoyed by those who have picked it up (The Everlasting) and one where the reactions are all over the place (Love the Way). If they were all the same, I’d worry I was doing something wrong.
Why the formal variation from one to another? Was it a conscious exercise, or just that it was what each story called for?
It was mainly what each project called for. The most conscious it gets is that both of the comics were formats I wanted to try my hand at. Prose is my first love as far as writing, but I wanted to give sequential storytelling a shot. I think I’m more of a done-in-one kind of guy, so I’ll likely do mostly original graphic novels, but Love the Way is really providing me with a wonderful experience. It’s been really fun dealing with the open-ended nature of the story, and the fact that it’s the most light-hearted thing I’ve ever done is very liberating. Doing the scripts is like a nice break in between my heavier projects. I really think stories suggest themselves, though. I don’t generally get an idea and then wonder how I’m going to do it. For me format comes hand-in-hand with concept. I’m a firm believer in instinct; I feel creative decisions of that kind really come down to something ephemeral. You just have to let your mind work, trust it to do its job. Which may be a little mystical/new age sounding, but it’s probably just laziness, really.
What was it about each of your three current projects that suggested its particular format? Why did Love the Way You Love feel more like a comic than a novel, and The Everlasting vice versa?
There’s really no reason it happens that way. It’s just a feeling. I don’t get an idea and search around for how I’m going to do it. An idea is usually born a comic or born a novel. There’s no need for it to come out of the closet later. The exception is 12 Reasons, which I had originally come up with as a screenplay idea. I was goofing around trying to formulate what would be the perfect romantic movie. I made my notes and realized that not only was I not that interested in writing a screenplay, but no one would ever make it the way I wanted to. Whereas with a comic book, I could have it be exactly how I saw it. To my lucky surprise, it’s actually turned out better than I saw it, but that’s more down to how Joëlle Jones has drawn it, so I can’t take credit. But there was never any question of 12 Reasons being anything else. Prose didn’t even cross my mind. I just knew comics were the way to go. Valuable lesson, though: some of the best ideas happen when goofing around.
Issues of medium aside, how close is the finished 12 Reasons Why I Love Her to your idea of a “perfect romantic movie?”
Pretty close. I can’t think of anything I didn’t get in there that I would have wanted, except maybe my ultimate ending (which is saved for a book called This Is the Way the World Ends). I like that it has all the imperfections, the personality obstacles and the jumping over them and the fixing. I really like how it weaves around different aspects of what is going on between these two, that it feels full. I read it myself and it gets a reaction out of me. I laugh and I cry and I really fall for [main characters] Gwen and Evan. I know for me a lot of that has to do with Joëlle’s work. So much of what I wrote is dependent on facial expressions, and that’s where she really kicked the book into the stratosphere. “Reason 6″ may be my favorite for that, the way she handles the shift so well from a light-hearted afternoon where the characters are goofing around to the conversation getting more serious. I think there are a lot of comics veterans out there who would struggle to achieve the level of acting she has. So, yeah, when I close the book, I still want the two of them to be together, which is what I think the reader will want, too. A love story isn’t just about the love of the characters, but it’s a romance between book and reader. When someone finishes it, she should clutch 12 Reasons Why I Love Her to her chest and sigh.
Going back to the idea of comics-as-collaboration, do you find it necessary to at all reconcile the relative loss of control that’s inherent in the writer-artist relationship? How do you approach that pairing?
Well, so far I’ve been incredibly lucky, and I’ve had good relationships with everyone I’ve worked with. It’s never been a situation where we’re both just showing up and doing a job and maybe we’ll wave in the cafeteria at lunch. And really, there’s no way that things should be that way on my side of the industry at all. Since monetary treasure is not our greatest reward, then we should at least be enjoying what we do. It was probably a little more lopsided at the start of Love the Way You Love. I was not at liberty to share the actual copyright line with Marc Ellerby due to the fact that the characters were pre-existing. Instead, I tried to extend what participation I could everywhere else and afford him a freedom in how he draws. We have a basic understanding that I’ll be a little more tight-fisted with characters like Tristan and Isobel, but I want it to look like a Marc Ellerby-drawn comic. I think we’ve really started to find that balance, and I hope he feels comfortable challenging me and offering ideas. Before I started the script for the fourth volume, I told him that was the time to tell me stuff he wants to draw and I’d try to work it in the script, because I want to make sure it stays enjoyable for him. So, yeah, I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I have full trust in the people I am writing for. If there’s any problem, I think it was swinging the other way, that Marc and Joëlle might have had a reluctance to speak up to me, to say, “This wasn’t working, I changed it.” That’s correcting itself now. And with both of them I feel comfortable writing dialogue sequences without art direction, letting them choose their panel composition. That to me is true collaboration, and I don’t feel any compromise at all.
Did you have to make any adaptations to your scripting style from Marc to Joëlle?
I think I scaled back in the same ways. In both cases, they began on scripts that predated their involvement, so Joëlle in particular I haven’t written too much for yet. I tend to get very conversational, though, and will refer to them or to things we’ve talked about, stuff I put in the panel descriptions that would make no sense to other artists. My next project with Joëlle should be interesting, as we’re going to discuss the script as I write it. It’s actually been started on her impetus. I asked her what she wanted to do next, and she said hardboiled crime. Immediately, I started making notes for a crime graphic novel called You Have Killed Me, which I describe as “Michelangelo Antonioni directing The Big Sleep.” I’d written the beginning and also a scene at the racetrack because she said she wanted to draw horseracing. As soon as she put that out there, my mind exploded with these images and I crafted some pages I’m quite proud of. I’d halted production, though, while I was waiting for her to be done with 12 Reasons so that she can have a more active role in the writing, critiquing me as I go and being involved in the shaping of the story. It’s very exciting for me, because I’ve never tried working so closely with someone as a writer. The thing is, I always have prose. If I feel the need to be a dictator, I can write another novel. I wasn’t sure how I would be as a comic book writer, because I know earlier attempts were a little rough and I can be very controlling. When Chynna Clugston and I collaborated on various things, we butted heads a little because we were both the type that would hot-dog on the field and not share the ball. It worked in its way, and we did some cool stuff—including things that never saw the light of day—but it took a little struggling and arguing. I don’t know if that was because I was still editing at the time and was not getting my ya-ya’s out or if that’s just the nature of our relationship. But I found I’ve really taken to the idea of working with an artist. I don’t know, though; Marc and Joëlle might say something different.
You mentioned that 12 Reasons began as a screenplay and of course, you’re well-know as a cinephile. Can you talk about the differences in writing for the two media?
Well, I’ve only dabbled a little in screenplays. The ones I have written will mercifully never see the light of day. From that experience and the screenplays by other writers I’ve read, though, I find them far less specific than comics. The rhythms are more open and malleable. 12 Reasons has a lot of dialogue, a lot of scenes where it’s just two people talking. In film, you can put those two people in a room and just write the dialogue and let the director and the actors block out action. In comics, you have to think about what will fit on the page and then what will fit in each panel. You have to choose carefully, because you don’t want the words to crowd out the images and you also don’t want to be stuck in one spot for pages on end. Your artist will get bored, your reader will get bored, and you’ll get bored yourself. So, you have to think about the back and forth of those characters and what sort of physical business you can give them so it’s not just static shots of their faces. In my case, fortunately, I have collaborators I can trust. I know how they work and I don’t have to worry about them being able to direct the actors, if you will. In some cases, I just write the dialogue out, split them in panels and give no specific direction beyond the initial establishment of where they are and different aspects of their mood. I think comics writers often get scared that if they didn’t choreograph everything with a heavy hand, they didn’t do their job. It’s why they overwrite and put in dialogue that’s redundant next to the expositional value of the art. We’ve all seen fans complain about silent scenes, for instance, as if it was somehow less of a story, that the writer was being lazy. This inspires the reverse reaction from the writer, where he or she overdoes it to make sure everyone knows he or she is there. I have no such fear. I realize a silent scene takes more control to write than one with heavy talking and I know that if I give Marc or Joëlle the space to do what they were brought in to do, it won’t mean they’ll eventually take my job from me. I wouldn’t have the same confidence if I were writing screenplays. I think it’s so much easier for a writer to get lost in the filmmaking process. First, you start writing in a vacuum, not knowing whom the director or the cast might be and how much any of those people might take over and reshape what you are doing. How many people actually know who wrote a popular movie, even ones with big-name writers like Munich, for example? How many times did you hear the name of the screenwriter in the ridiculous build-up to Snakes on a Plane? Never! For all we know, it sprang straight from the mind of Samuel L. Jackson. Yet fans know which Batman and Superman books Grant Morrison is currently at the helm of. There’s far more control in comics, and just because Frank Quitely is drawing All-Star Superman and he’s amazing, nobody shoves Grant aside.
Broadly, how do you approach prose as versus comic scripting?
On a very basic level, the tools are different. For prose, I work in Microsoft Word, and I pretty much write from the beginning to the end of whatever section of the story I am working on. For comics, I use a screenwriting program and I need to think in terms of pages, panels and overall length. Since a lot of my comics are “talking heads,” I might just write a scene as straight dialogue and then break it down by panels and edit afterwards, just to let the dialogue flow naturally without the pauses. Sometimes I break away from the computer altogether and sketch some pages out as thumbnails. That helps me think in sequential terms or work out an item of the story in the space I have available. The only time I write by hand for prose is when I’m not home. I carry a small notebook with me to scribble in. The main difference is really a matter of space, though. Prose has no limits, whereas comics by nature exist within a closed structure. Interestingly, though, comics can almost provide a break from prose. I can pull back, all the responsibility isn’t on me. In a novel, I have to describe every little thing, but it comics, I can work around the edges and let my collaborator fill in the detail. There is an interesting problem I encountered recently writing the fourth script of Love the Way You Love. I am used to a malleable process. Over the course of a novel, I can change things, alter as I go. This can include the environment my characters are in. If I find midway through the book it’s convenient for me to have the television on the far side of the room, but in the second chapter it was on the opposite end, I can just go back and move it. I can’t do that in comics. If I decide to redecorate in #4 what Marc has already drawn in #2, it’s no longer possible. This means I can’t always think in vague terms, filling in the details only as I need to. I am going to have to learn to be more precise right up front. How did you approach 12 Reasons, something both written (more or less) and consumed at once, differently than you do something constantly evolving, like Love the Way? 12 Reasons had its own self-imposed structure. There were only twelve chapters and each of them could only be so long. Actually, they all had a natural length, too. One was designed to be two pages long from the get-go, another four. So, it was a pretty tight ship by design. In terms of Love the Way You Love, there’s a soap opera element to it that could conceivably go on as long as I want it to, but I try to impose limits on myself, to think in terms of arcs. Right now, I’ve been thinking in threes, like each third volume or so should have a sort of conclusion so that if that were it, if a reader stopped there, they’d receive some satisfaction. Even within each volume, I tend to have three chapters, and those are around the same length as a comic book issue. I try to plan what might fit in each of those slots, moving the story along and giving the reader a full experience at the same time. It’s been really interesting, as I’m having to learn when to let the belt out so that part of the story can breathe, or to recognize that I over-planned and maybe need to speed it up a little bit. Like, after writing the fourth volume, I realized what I was thinking would be in the seventh volume might actually be ready to go with the sixth. I guess the real experiment for me will be You Have Killed Me. That’s genre, so it has a kind of structure going in, and it’s finite, so I have to think in terms of page count and so I’ll likely have to outline a bit more than I normally would. It should be good for me, because I tend to be wordy and to exceed limits most of the time. I was the guy in school who would turn in 1,000 words when the teacher asked for 500.
Why did you choose to use the structure (for lack of a more accurate term) that you did in The Everlasting, shifting points of view and format while keeping the narrative moving linearly?
When I started out, I wanted to use the varied styles—the third person, the journals, the e-mails—to expose different aspects of Lance’s personality. The third person would be how he presents himself to the world, the journals were how he really sees himself when no one is looking. You can see that pretty distinctly early on in the book, but as he grows more confused, the lines fade. It worked for me, because it gave me an opportunity to examine the story from different angles. It’s like when you’re watching a DVD feature about special effects and they show you their 3D model for building a creature or a spaceship or something and they spin it around and show you how it goes beyond just a drawing, it’s all the angles, it’s every side. That’s kind of like what I had with The Everlasting. The different styles, it was like toggling a switch and viewing the object in a new way.
So far most of your major works—Love the Way, The Everlasting and prior novels I Was Someone Dead and Cut My Hair—have had recurring characters, all of these stories taking place in a corroborable “Richverse”, of sorts. Why?
It just seemed to make sense for whatever reason. It wasn’t the original plan. I still maintain a notion that Cut My Hair was a very definitive end for that story, as open-ended as it was. I wanted to allow readers their own opportunity to decide where it went next. At the same time I had The Everlasting and the forthcoming Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? already planned, and I was calling them a thematic trilogy, my Romance Trilogy. Judd Winick suggested keeping some of the Cut My Hair characters around, even if I left Mason and Jeane to history, and it was like a puzzle piece I had been missing. It really opened up the possibilities for me, allowed me to connect all these various things in overt ways. Also, I have a real interest in point-of-view in narrative. When events crossover in the different books, each time allows me to come at it from a different angle. Like with a room with many entrances, I can choose to step inside through a different door. It really got me thinking about characters, and how people look different to the various individuals in their lives. One guy might like you and one guy may not and when they both see you do something, they’ll have opposing reactions. That intrigues me. In one novel, a character may be the hero, in another the villain, and yet he may be doing the same exact thing in both of them. At the same time, you can just read one and it makes sense unto itself. It just depends how far in anyone wants to go.
So why doesn’t 12 Reasons belong (at least not obviously) in this continuity?
I didn’t see a need to fold everything into the one. As this was a self-contained story about two specific people, it just stood on its own from birth. Plus, since there was an artist attached early on, there were certain ownership issues that needed to be addressed. If it’s something I am going to co-own with someone else, it can’t have the regular crew as its main characters. People should probably expect me to break away from the line a little more in the future, particularly in comics. You Have Killed Me is its own beast, as is another book Joëlle and I are talking about for after that. The graphic novel Christopher Mitten and I may do is also off on its own. It will really just depend. I Was Someone Dead was originally separate, until a way to connect it occurred to me.
As you write, do you maintain a sense of the overall arc connecting these projects? I’m thinking specifically of something like Tristan’s “appearance” in The Everlasting, nearly a decade after he’s featured in Love the Way You Love.
To go from one to the other is a bit surprising, because the first issue of Love the Way sets up a “will they or won’t they?” plotline, while The Everlasting suggests, to an extent, where he ended up. In other words, does my own content contain “spoilers”? I’m pretty aware of where everything fits and in what order the information is going to roll out. I am cursed with a mind that’s actually quite good at juggling stuff like that and I often forget that other people may not be. For instance, I always find it surprising when people get my current projects confused and need me to break it down for them. Maybe it’s because I’ve always kept track of how many bands Damon Albarn is in or how many comics Greg Rucka is writing and all that, I’m used to it. Or maybe this is just another of my mutant powers. It can be weird, because when talking to people about the work, I’m always a couple of steps ahead. For example, I recently wrote an online serial with Lance from The Everlasting that takes place six years after the novel. He’s been living all this time while he’s waiting for the book to come out, you know? But then I think it only seems strange because we’re watching it as it’s happening. Once time has passed and all this stuff has been out there, it’ll be just like any other series of stories. Philip Roth has quite a few Zuckerman novels, all taking place at different times. I’ve read the ones I’ve read in a sort of random order and I’m content with that. Again, it’s because The Human Stain doesn’t hinge on you having read The Ghost Writer. They are what they are. Comics fans do it all the time, too. Spider-Man can have eight titles, crisscrossing all over the place, drawing on several decades of history, and people process it. Sometimes in working this way, I plant seeds for myself without knowing why I did so. Only later, doing something else, do you realize, “Oh, I put this here for myself because I knew I’d need it somehow.” Love the Way You Love is interesting, because it actually grew out of The Everlasting. I knew where Tristan ended up and knew who Isobel was, but I never really knew when that would come into play. In the novel, he exists primarily as a sounding board for Lance, who sends him e-mail after e-mail raking over his past. One e-mail, however, is Tristan’s section, where he throws back one of his own experiences. It was a story I hadn’t thought about before I had written it, and when it was done, I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” It was then that I realized I had a much larger Tristan story to tell, and when I started thinking about how. That anecdote is summed up in the first couple of pages of Love the Way. Given that the first issue also posits that the Tristan and Isobel romance is all fated, it makes me think the outcome itself is not going to be as surprising to the readers as the journey there.
I suppose what I’m wondering is whether you consider this to be a single broadly landscaped story, from Cut My Hair through to The Everlasting and thereafter (or not), or if they’re relatively autonomous, the Easter-egg character and plot overlaps more auxiliary than fundamental. Certainly there’s some resonant thematic overlap…
Yeah, it really is more thematic than anything. There are no cliffhangers, for instance. No need to buy The Everlasting to find out an answer to a question posed in Cut My Hair. You get some pretty fundamental cast changes each time, and the focus really shifts. I would probably say what you’re really following is my growth as a writer and as a person, and if I backtrack in some cases, reexamine an event from a different angle, I’m looking for some deeper understanding of what interested me in the first place. By that notion, I would probably end up just recreating the same characters over and over again, so instead of someone reading about a rock star in The Everlasting and saying, “Oh, that guy’s just like Tristan from Cut My Hair,” it actually is Tristan.
Looking more closely at the thematic resonance, what unique angle do you see each of your three current projects as examining?
Love the Way You Love stands apart specifically in tone. It’s much more light-hearted—though amusingly, a lot of the people who have reviewed it have looked at it like it’s gravely serious. It’s also open-ended, in a way. I can take my time to get where I’m going, since it is intended to be a soap opera. It should end up being a vehicle for me to try a lot of different things. The Everlasting is one man’s foibles, really, a personal search. You could call it an examination of the errors he makes, and by extension the ones a lot of us make, on his way to find love. Whereas 12 Reasons is about two people, about how a couple works.
You Have Killed Me will be your second major genre tackled in comics, then, after forays into romance of Love the Way You Love and 12 Reasons. What is it about genre stories, and about these two in particular, that you find appealing?
Perhaps it’s the Gemini in me, but these have always been the two genres I have been drawn to. I love romance and I love film noir (though I hate when that term is applied to other mediums). In one way, they seem polar opposites, but in another, they really do go together. For me, probably the biggest appeal is that they both deal in very grand, solid emotions. They are also rooted in lost ideals. The detectives of the best hardboiled fiction are men out of step with the modern world. They have strong personal codes of conduct that have firm connections to the past and they don’t waver from that code lest they lose themselves to the chaos. When people all around them are losing their heads, they stand their ground. I think the boys I write about in my novels are trying to maintain a similar stance. They are all trying to restore chivalry to the world, lost knights without a kingdom. Lance even says as much in The Everlasting. He wants to love strongly. Fantastic romance is his Maltese Falcon. I almost think the case he is on is more dangerous than if he were tracking a crook or a killer. You at least know what weapons those guys are going to come at you with. I used to think my adoration of these two particular genres in combination was something I was alone in, but then Joëlle and I bonded over them. I was also working at an indie video store, and I discovered I had a lot of customers like me. Not surprisingly, they were all women. I’m what they call a big girl’s blouse.
You’ve been a public participant in comics culture for a while now, from your time as a letterhack to being one of the Oni founders through random work like freelance editing Powers. But this year has seen your first published long-form writing in comics. Why’d it take so long?
Because editing took up so much time. It took a lot of the same energy that I needed to write with, particularly in the Oni years where I had one laptop for both work and home and it went back and forth with me. After sitting at it all day dealing with whatever fires were burning in the comics world, it wasn’t the most inviting thing to sit down again and type some more. Cut My Hair was in the can through most of my tenure at Dark Horse, and part of my move over to Oni was trying to create more time to do that book. But then Bob Schreck left and suddenly I was in the full thick of it again, so even though Cut My Hair came out in 2000, not much progress was made on The Everlasting for the four years after that. Plus, as the editor-in-chief, I wasn’t comfortable trying to print my own stuff through Oni. I did occasional pitches for DC and Marvel, but I didn’t want to force my original ideas on Joe Nozemack to publish.
Did experience as an editor, having seen the process from the other side of the table, so to speak, affect your writing process at all?
I don’t know if the process affected the writing. It certainly had an influence on how I handled my manuscripts after typing “The End.” I always find myself getting sucked into the process. I roll up my sleeves and attack the post-production and the marketing as much as Oni will allow me. I look at our relationship as a partnership and I’m going to do my part. I know how much work it takes. There’s no room in the indie world for crybaby prima donnas—even though they are around. Any direct influence on the actual pen-to-paper stuff is subliminal. With all the reading I’ve done, all the back-and-forth with other creative minds, I’m sure I’ve picked up storytelling skills I’m not consciously aware of. My relationship with Chynna Clugston, for instance, taught me a lot, because she was always very interested in talking through her scripts and working out the problems with me. Coming up with active solutions like that are great learning experiences. Even if I don’t reach a point in Love the Way You Love, for instance, where I think, “Oh, gosh, this is just like that time in Scooter Girl #3,” it doesn’t mean that Scooter Girl #3 didn’t smooth out something for me. I suppose there’s a certain mechanical understanding of a comic book page and how to structure a script, too. I have a pretty good idea of what fits on a page, what fits in a book. I am sure Marc Ellerby or Joëlle Jones have pages that instantly spring to mind where it didn’t seem like I knew what I was doing, but I swear, I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.
What do you see your role in “the post-production and the marketing” to be?
Right now, I’m helping Oni by finding press venues that they might not normally reach, finding places to send the novel to get it reviewed. I’m really ready to get into it and do anything. I even said I’d go into the office and pack the envelopes. On this side of the comics fence, the creator really has to be involved in all aspects. Granted, Oni would be fine if I sat out of the game when it came to the design and printing, but I figure I’m two feet in all the way. It really is a partnership. I put up the creative time, they put up the money, and then we dive in together. As an editor, I saw what it was like when a creator didn’t want to be involved, didn’t want to get out there and push his or her book. That person is the first one to turn around and accuse the company of screwing him. Really, if you want to talk about my years editing, it really has screwed me because I know what it takes to do that job, and if you’re good at it, you’re putting in a hell of a lot of work. (If you’re bad, you’re putting in more, I’d wager.) I don’t want to let my boys down, you know? My dream is some “big” publisher will eventually come down and try to steal me and I’ll be able to laugh at them and say, “Do you know how rich Oni has made me?” So, I’m really the greatest freelancer you can imagine. I know what happens when you miss a deadline, I know how hard you can make everyone’s job if you’re full of yourself and think it’s all about you. At the same time, I’m the worst freelancer because I also know if an editor or publisher is, in fact, blowing it. I’ve sat in that chair, I know what’s required and I want to be treated the way I would have treated myself. Thankfully, I trained James Lucas Jones, so he knows what I need.
Obviously, you had more than a little incentive to continue publishing through Oni. But did you ever consider shopping The Everlasting around to a more traditional publisher of novels, to possibly garner better exposure in that culture?
Sure, and I actually did. I spent about a year talking to agents and small houses. I just never found people who I clicked with. There were plenty who liked my writing, but either I didn’t fit in with their roster and so they decided to pass, or they wanted me to alter myself to fit in with what they thought I should be doing, which to me is not the way things should be done. I can’t style myself to fit someone else’s conception of me, I have to be me. Which isn’t to say I’m blind to good advice, but just because someone tells you their opinion doesn’t make it automatically right, regardless of their title. The thing is, I don’t lose anything with Oni. That’s what I had to learn. I actually gain in some ways. I give up certain upfront monies, but I have greater control and a much better back-end deal than I’d get at a traditional publishing house. When it came down to making a decision, those were things I thought about. I had to ask myself what it was I really wanted. Joe Nozemack had put his offer on the table. He hadn’t balked for a second. He never blinked when it came to me. When I made my decision, when I said, “No, I’m doing it with Oni,” I instantly knew I was right. It was like I was comfortable again, like I had finally put on clothes that fit after spending a long time in a suit that was too small. In the end, I needed to stick my head out of my hole and look around, because I needed to appreciate what I had. I haven’t regretted staying with my guys for a second. In fact, just the other night, Joe knew I was worrying a little bit, and he took me out for some drinks and we chatted and he made sure I knew his commitment to my talent. You don’t know how great it is, how lucky it is to have a publisher like that, until you go and confirm for yourself that most places aren’t concerned about talent over the long haul. They want a quick and easy score. They’re like bank robbers hoping to get into your vault and run out and enjoy the fruits of what they take from you without ever having to serve any prison time. The guys at Oni are going to pull the heist with you and keep going down the string of banks. They are going to take the risk because they want everyone’s loot pile to grow.
Towards the end of The Everlasting, two of the characters lament that their (or your) generation doesn’t have much to talk about beyond a shared pop cultural history. Is that something with which you’re concerned?
Yes, and no. I think there is a danger to that overtaking most of our entertainment, but the statement’s existence in the book is more to comment on how Lance is relating to people. Is he maybe using his favorite songs as a barrier to block other people out and not really deal with the emotions at hand? Another character earlier on thinks so. When I’ve had to boil down what I do recently, that is often my answer. If people ask what my books are about, I say, “How people relate to one another in the modern world.” Lance definitely has communication issues, whether it’s expressing himself too much or too little. It was one of my editors, Maryanne Snell, who first observed that it’s a shame Lance’s most open relationship is with his cat. Maybe because Sadie couldn’t care less about the Style Council.
True or false: Jamie Rich’s most open relationship is with your cat.
That’s between Sadie and I, and neither of us is telling.
Let’s talk about music, specifically, obviously a subject that’s important to you. Your work is filled with specific references to music, things like the posters in Love the Way You Love, the lyric-quote and song-title chapter headings in The Everlasting and 12 Reasons, respectively, to say nothing of how often this band or that song pops up in dialogue. Why do develop such a particular tableau? Is it proselytizing, a taste test, your own inclinations unconsciously slipping through…?
It definitely began unconsciously. In Cut My Hair, I just wrote the way I thought. An average conversation with me will usually come around to music. I spend most of my time with music playing in the background. Right now I’m in the middle of an iPod shuffle, for instance, and as I answer this, the Impressions’ “The Woman’s Got Soul” has just given over to the Postal Service and “Recycled Air.” My constant inclination is to tell you that kind of thing. In fact, there is at least one proofreading draft of The Everlasting that I did with the iPod shuffling and I wrote down every song as it came up, so all along the manuscript at the bottom of the page are these songs. I’m obsessive that way. So, that’s obviously a trait Lance and I share. There’s a scene where he lays out a bunch of records in the order he wants to listen to them as a sort of jukebox of his mood, building his own mix as he goes, and that’s something I do quite often. When I first started writing The Everlasting, I had in the back of my head that people had responded well to the musical elements of Cut My Hair, and that almost tripped me up. I started to try to contrive the references, and what had been so natural became something I worried about. I eventually had to work my way backwards and remove that self-consciousness and just let it happen. Once I got more into Lance, it got really easy again. The only worry then becomes whether or not it’s too much. It’s a definite tightrope, trying to make clear the intent of the reference without overly explaining. It’s why Lance says early in the book, “Don’t worry if you don’t get it all. It makes its own sense in the end.” That said, for the next book, Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? , I gave myself a challenge to keep pop music out of the present day of the story. There are flashbacks to when the main character, Percy, is a teenager, and he and his paramour bond over Depeche Mode, but that was it. I wanted to shake up my own way of doing things. The worst insult I may have ever been delivered was from Joëlle Jones, when she said, “That guy has the best music collection I’ve ever seen,” and she wasn’t talking about me! I started to sputter. “B-b-but, have you looked in my closet? Did you see the vinyl? Did you see the vinyl?!?” She meant that he had a lot of things she was looking for, that he could not be stumped by her. That was a logic I could understand, even if I didn’t want to. On the flipside, I am sure I could stump him, and he me. I worked retail at an indie record store. First lesson you learn is that the world is full of people with favorite bands you’ve never heard of, there’s too much out there. Even so, it stung, and I could probably write a whole Lance Scott novel based on that one perceived slight.
What’s your process for defining characters, moving from tabula rasae to being able to predict how a character’s going to react to a certain sort of music, or what he’s going to order in a Thai restaurant? Is philosophy, something like the “lost ideals” you spoke about above, an important fundamental element, or is that something that comes out in the wash?
A lot of it comes out in the wash. The writing process for me is kind of like learning about people I’ve never met before. I put them in a situation and see how they react—which sounds very precious, I know. I don’t want to dig out that silly line where I say, “Then Lance told me what he wanted.” It’s more about imagining a scenario and then imagining the ways people could behave within it, at least for the supporting characters. For the leads, it does need to be a little clearer, so I have to start with some kind of foundation. Still, even there, most stories are about discovery, so I think it helps the narrative journey if the author is open to the surprise of it. Like, with Lance, I don’t think I ever made a note that said, “Lance feels misplaced in a world where chivalry is dead.” Yet, at some point, in thinking about his predicament, that became an obvious problem. Lance wants to act one way, and most girls anymore will look at him like he’s positively nuts. So, he reacts against that, and it manifests in his talking about knights and old values. I remember when Say Anything… came out, I had a girlfriend at the time who said, “If some guy put his coat down in a puddle, I’d think he was stupid.” For Lance, and I guess for myself, the world is divided between people who think that was an awesome John Cusack moment and those who think it’s stupid. Then, of course, there are those in the middle, the ones Lance would probably chase: the girls who say it’s stupid while secretly wishing some guy would do that for them. From a more technical standpoint, most of the characters a writer has chosen to use have to fit the theme of the book. If chosen properly, they serve a function within the overall purpose of the story, and so their actions are also going to be dictated by the need to advance the narrative. In The Everlasting, it wouldn’t have made sense to have Lance start off dating a girl who was ready to dive right in to a heavy commitment and get married. The story isn’t about a guy running for love, but a guy searching for that kind of ideal love. If he gets it in the first chapter, book over. I chose wrong.
How important is your relationship with your characters? How much do you identify with Mason versus Tristan versus Lance?
That’s a tough call. I tend to look at all characters as extensions of me, and as extensions of one another. For instance, one could argue that because Mason idolizes Tristan, in some ways Tristan represents a sort-of Mason in ascension. There’s definitely an element of that character that I want to be. I’d love to be that cool, that mysterious. Where this gets into dangerous territory for me is that it starts to lead into what did and did not happen, how much of the books are stolen from real life. In most cases, not a lot. It’s kind of bizarre, because it’s such a common question, I wonder if people remember what fiction actually is. I think maybe sometimes it’s the drawings in Cut My Hair in particular, there is some passing resemblance. I need to quiz authors without drawings to see if it happens to them. Lance is certainly my closest avatar. He is the guy I intend to keep around for a long time, and I plan for him to star in my final book, The Short and Happy Death of Lance Scott. I don’t know if it’s odd to have a deathbed book planned, but I do. I’ve already written the opening, but I am stopping there for now. Anyway, I dump a lot of my stupid theories and psychoses on Lance. His rants usually correspond with what goes on in my head. I like to think that if he were real, we’d be that kind of intense drinking buddies where we love to hang out but every other pub crawl ends in us beating the living hell out of each other. I hope one day to have someone draw a picture for me where Lance and I are sitting across a table from one another shooting electricity from our brains and trying to see who can break through and kill the other first, in a bizarre character-meet-author, get-out-of-my-head scenario. But like I said, this is where it gets dangerous. What happens to Lance shouldn’t be assumed to have happened to me. Because I fiddle with a LiveJournal for him, I’ve had people try to blur that line, and I’ve had times where I updated that journal and I get e-mails wondering if I’m okay. They think whatever pitfall he fell into was one I stumbled over that day. Even if it were true, trying to get me to confess is sort of like asking a magician to reveal the secret behind his tricks.
But it seems as though you’re baiting readers a bit by drawing explicit connections between character and author in The Everlasting. You and Lance share a love of Audrey Hepburn, a birthday, even an e-mail address. Aren’t you inviting attentive readers to assume a certain degree of interchangeableness?
Oh, yes. I like to play with perceptions. I did a story with Andi Watson in an Image anthology, Four-Letter Worlds, called “(T For) True.” It was all about my love affair with fiction and my particular fascination with self-mythologizing. Which is a fancy way to say that the fun of writing is being able to lie a lot and messing up what is and is not true about oneself. It turned out to be liberating, because now I can get away with anything. If we were doing this interview in person, you would see my arched eyebrow and sly smile as I answer these kinds of questions. What am I giving you this time? The lady or the tiger? If you’re present (to a degree) in characters like Lance and Tristan and Mason, it stands to reason that their objets d’amour are likewise based in experience.
But how much is this so? Have you ever been called out by an ex-girl for crossing too far over the fictional line?
No. Most of my ex-girlfriends aren’t speaking to me, and vice versa, anyway. I just don’t see anything as exact enough, I wouldn’t even feel it would be honest to say, “Oh, this is so-and-so.” Different girls may see different things that bear some relation to some things that may have happened in our relationship, but I think the moment they started dissecting it with memory, the connection would fall apart. There’s a great moment in the graphic novel It’s a Bird…, perhaps one of the best books ever written about the process of writing. Author Steven T. Seagle, through his doppelganger on the page, says that writing from real life is never really taking from real life, because the moment you start writing the whole thing turns sidewise and it’s no longer the truth of what was lived. That’s entirely true. Even if I begin and think, “I’m going to write this exactly as it happened,” it starts to morph because I see a better way. I can’t even keep a journal, because I want to rewrite too much. I don’t see any of the love interests in The Everlasting or the other books as any one person. Anyway, did Zelda get mad at Scott for the way Daisy acted in The Great Gatsby? No. She just went insane instead. Much more class in that decision. Any creative person risks angering people in his or her life. Any decision of what to write about walks a tightrope. I write about families that don’t necessarily work as well, and I risk my family being offended. It doesn’t matter how made up it is if they can’t disassociate the person they know from the book he wrote. As an author, I just have to be true to the story and try to be understood. It’s funny, because Renée French once gave me a piece of advice. She told me to never go out with an autobiographical cartoonist, because no matter how much they swear you won’t end up in their comics, you’ll crack open the cover one day, and there you’ll be.
12 Reasons has what I think is the most well-developed romantic relationship in your work to date, possibly because the story seems more interested in this relationship than in the idea of relationships in general. Is that accurate, that you’re more concerned here with character than with theme?
Very much so. The title, after all, is why I love her. That seemed to demand a laser-like precision in the writing. In the script, a couple of the chapters even have descriptive moments where I explain to myself and Joëlle, “This is how Evan knows what he is telling us in this section.” I was very conscious of the point of view. Which half of the couple, Evan or Gwen, do you better identify with now? It varies from chapter to chapter. I think in romantic entanglements I’m most often the Evan, the guy a step or two behind who puts his foot in it when he tries to catch up. But there are some moments where I channeled myself into Gwen, too. Maybe it’s a lucky scenario where I’m dating myself. One reviewer tossed the autobio tag at 12 Reasons, and my response was, “I wish! My life would be so much better. I’d be dating Gwen!” Are you adverse to happy endings? Not at all. I just feel they have to be right. I Was Someone Dead has a happy ending, and I think you can argue that Cut My Hair does as well. In terms of a trilogy, The Everlasting is the middle, so it’s the dark one. I refer to it as “Love Fails.” That would make Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? the capper where “Love Reigns Triumphant.” You’re just going to have to slog through a lot of sad stuff to get happy. If you want to really get down to brass tacks, though, I don’t see a lot of happy endings for Lance at the present time. Given how much we have discussed his connections to me, how much his fictional life reflects my real life, I would say you wouldn’t be too far wrong if you said that element reflected a certain cynicism in how I live my life. I’m not sure it’s ever going to work out for either of us when it comes to matters of theheart.
Would you describe yourself as cynical? Would those close to you?
I can’t make up my mind on that one, to be honest. I lean more toward saying I am cynical, with the full awareness that a cynic is usually a natural-born romantic and thus contradictory by nature. How other people see me varies, I suppose. I am often bemused by the different views on me. My fascination with Mercutio is no accident. I think my friends hold me in a certain high regard that I don’t understand. I’ve been called trustworthy, and all I can think of is the times I have not been. I’ve been called generous, and all I can think about is what a selfish prick I am. Maybe I’m just more aware than anybody that I have an ability for masks and a well-honed skill at making my cynicism sound melodramatic and thus come across as false. Maybe this is my mask, this whole, “You think I’m good, but I’ve been a bad, bad girl” routine. I’m not being coy here. Most of the time, I don’t know. I’ve taken to saying, “The actions of the body are to atone for the sins of the mind and heart.” In other words, if I play well with others, maybe it’s just to make up for the darkness I carry. Which I doubt makes me special, just human.
Does your writing at all constitute emotional problem solving? Are you putting these characters through something that you’re either unwilling or unable to address directly?
I would say yes to the first part, no to the second. I discovered in adolescence how writing was definitely therapy, and I can use fiction to sift through my own issues and try to puzzle them out. I don’t necessarily feel, however, that I do so as an avoidance tactic. It’s probably happened from time to time, but usually I’m looking backwards and trying to find perspective so that hopefully I can avoid the same problems again. If it’s something I’m mulling over in the present, then it’s with the same goal. Except if we’re talking unrequited love, because then the bets are off for the obvious reason. Part of that is about the secret, about keeping it to oneself, and fiction can allow you to say the things you want to say but aren’t allowed to. Despite my hermit lifestyle, I feel pretty engaged with life at the moment. Is unrequited love more romantic than requited? In some ways, I think so, because it maintains its intensity. The past relationships that still smolder the most for me are the ones that never happened. They never had their chance to go sour. In fact, the only time I think I’ve really looked through at the other side and seen the real deal, it was with someone whom circumstances kept me apart from. The effects still linger. Whereas anyone who I actually went with for a real period of time and then broke it off with, I’m done with them. I don’t see the point of being friends, none of that, so if love was there, it has died. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t jump at the chance to make an unrequited romance cross over. To not try is worse than failure.
Back to the writing, why do you do it? What draws you to the work, what keeps you there, what do you get out of it?
I don’t really think that’s an answerable question. I write because I have to. Sometimes I have to work on something just to get it out of my head, to stop thinking about it. I’ll chew and chew and chew and finally spit it out just to get some peace. Which isn’t to suggest it’s not fun. When I hear writers complain about what painful, hard work it is, I want to kick them in the nuts. I don’t know what their problem is, maybe they haven’t eaten enough shit in their lives. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. It’s tiring. A full day of writing can wear you out just like any other job. But geez, when it’s working, when the words are clicking, what a blast! So, maybe I’m chasing that feeling, that joy of creation. But really, the stories keep coming in ways I can’t explain, from places that I can’t point to, and they really insist upon themselves.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve written, whether a complete story, a scene, a line of dialogue, whatever?
There’s a part in the first chapter of 12 Reasons where Evan says the line, “Me? You!” I’ve been waiting for what seems like forever to use that line. Over the years, I’ve written countless arguments in my head, both for stories and as rehearsals for fights in my own life. In each and every one, I’ve had someone respond to an accusation with, “Me? You!” Yet it never made the cut. Given how well Joëlle did with it, I’d say it was worth the wait. When I’m 60, I want people to walk up to me on the street and just say, “Me? You!” and then keep walking.