Craig Clevenger Interviews Sara Gran

I’m just going to step back and let Craig Clevenger, the author of Dermaphoria, introduce you to Sara Gran and her new novel, Dope.

craig-clevenger.jpgCraig Clevenger: One-Eyed Fred, Fifty-third Street Jackson, Nuthouse Jim, and “…at least a dozen guys who went by Nick the Greek” are among the unwashed and unwanted characters wandering the 1950s Manhattan of Dope. One of them is the who in the story’s whodunit, but the real nemesis of narrator Josephine “Joe” Flannigan is a silent monkey on her back that she’s kept subdued for two years as the novel begins. Heroin, though, is the only habit our heroine can kick; she’s been paying for food and rent with the same sticky fingers that once fed her drug addiction. But when, after being hired to find a missing young socialite, Joe eyes her first stash in two years (“a pile of brown powder…as big as a half dollar and almost as high”), her sleeping monkey wakes up screaming.

There’s a reason I like noir. Good writing, especially good noir writing, examines the world as seen looking up from the bottom, illuminating life in a way that the perfect universe of pop culture cannot and will not. Sara Gran’s Dope is true noir at its baddest.

Sara, you have a deep understanding of mid-century New York’s con artist and grifter communities, and a real affection for them, as well. Where do these come from?

sara-gran.jpgSara Gran: Well, I’m from New York—until recently I’d been in Brooklyn all my life. A lot of the landmarks in the book like the Automat, Gimbel’s, or Alexander’s were still around when I was a kid. The Bowery was still very much the Bowery; Times Square was not the New York Disneyland. Three-card monte dealers and shell games lined Broadway. So even though the book takes place 50-plus years ago, it still felt like my New York.


11 June 2006 | interviews |

Author2Author: Jessica Abel & Alison Bechdel

Perhaps you noticed yesterday’s enthusiastic NYTBR review of La Perdida, the new graphic novel by Jessica Abel. It also got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, as did Fun Home, the graphic memoir by veteran cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The ways that these two women are taking the comics medium and using it as a vehicle for personal expression convinced me that getting them talking to each other would yield a lot of insights for readers…and as their conversation unfolds, I hope you’ll believe I was right.

alison-bechdel.jpgAlison Bechdel: La Perdida originally came out in serialized form over a period of four years. As a comic strip artist, I’m really interested in the aesthetics of serial publication, so I’m wondering things like, how tightly did you have the whole story mapped out before you started drawing? How much did you make up as you went along? Did you paint yourself into any interesting corners? Was serial publication an economic necessity? Did reader response influence the development of the plot at all? How did the constraint of the serial volumes, lengthwise, effect the structure of your larger dramatic arc? And finally, were there any major plot changes between the serialized version and the graphic novel?

jessica-abel.jpgJessica Abel: One thing I’ve figured out as I learn to teach art students to make comics is that my own method of making comics is at least unteachable, if not just plain unadvisable. There’s a huge proportion of improv that goes into it, even in the short stories, though of course, they’re really short.

Basically, I started with a vague idea for a scene (the hallucinatory scene at the end of chapter one). As I thought about who might be having that vision, and why, I came up with Carla, then Harry. I spent a long time developing and thinking about the characters and what bound them together, which led me to come up with a lot of the major plot points. I have to admit, how I got from that first idea to the whole arc is sort of lost in the mists of time. But as far as I remember, I worked out the whole story arc, then sat down and started writing chapter one. I probably started drawing it before I even finished writing it, knowing me. There were a number of directions I intended to follow to resolve the events at the end (no spoilers!) that I ended up rejecting as too byzantine or just not necessary. For example, the scene in chapter one where Carla and Harry go to meet a journalist—I had the idea that she would be instrumental later on, that the drama would somehow play itself out in the newspaper as well. But in the end that idea was just too unwieldy, and I simply left that early scene in to give some sense on context. It’s one of the few based on actual events; I met a journalist like her early in my time in Mexico, and she said similar things about living in Mexico. A lot more of them, actually.

But anyway, I dived right in before I’d nailed down all the details of the story, in order to motivate myself to move forward on the book. The thing this method had in common with my earlier short stories was the fact that I had to fit the chapter chunks into multiples of 8 pages, due to the way books are printed. In fact, it’s better/easier to print books in multiples of 16 pages, which is what I did in this case. So all along, as I’m writing, then thumbnailing the pages, then penciling and inking, I’m thinking: this has got to come out at 44 pages (to account for the title page, indicia, etc.). I’m massaging, projecting ahead, trying to shorten or lengthen…OK, seriously? I never have to lengthen. Only shorten. But anyway, it’s a strange process that I trained myself into early on, a version of what you have to do with the space for your strip, but of course a lot longer, so a lot more can happen (i.e. go wrong) in the middle. Though maybe that’s presumptuous of me. I think working in strip form—such tiny chunks of narrative—must be incredibly demanding.

Overall, I fit chapters one through four into 44- or 45-page chunks, but I still missed my length by about 60 pages (all of chapter five). I expected to finish in four 48-page books. So I obviously didn’t know what I was doing too clearly.


5 June 2006 | author2author |

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