With Ghosts (Scholastic, Sept. 2016), Raina Telgemeier, who has wowed readers with graphic memoirs such as Smile and Sisters, moves into unchartered territory. Tackling themes of death and illness along with more familiar issues such as family and sisterhood, she deftly crafts the fictional tale of two sisters, one of whom has cystic fibrosis, who move to a town where ghosts and the dead are seen in a different light.
You’ve written graphic novel memoirs and fiction. Are there unique challenges to translating something that really happened to the page? Or is writing and drawing fiction harder?
They’re both challenging! With memoir, I have What Really Happened to guide the story arcs, but that doesn’t always lead to the most satisfying narratives. But if you stray from What Really Happened in memoir, you veer into the awkward territory of “semiautobiographical,” and when I talk to my readers, they’re very keen to know exactly which details are real and which are exaggerated or altered. And why. I try to explain my storytelling decisions, but it’s a fine line between overexplaining and letting the story speak for itself. My readers are very, very engaged, which is excellent, but it means I need to be resolute in my choices, because I know I’ll get taken to task for it.
Can you talk about addressing such serious and complex issues as illness and death in a graphic novel for middle graders?
That question dips into the territory of people’s perception of what a book of this format should and can be.
I know that when I first started reading comics at age nine, I was hooked on whatever was funny. I loved Calvin and Hobbes and FoxTrot and Luann. But sometimes, Calvin and Hobbes would have these wonderful little soliloquies on really heavy topics—dying animals or the house getting robbed or Calvin landing in serious trouble at school. As a kid, I’d sit with those ideas for days, feeling every shade of Calvin’s emotions, talking to my parents about it, and ultimately being led back to laughter as the story arcs wound up and Bill Watterson brought [them] back into humor territory. All because of a comic! I think kids are capable of handling so much weight, and it’s nice when adults trust them to do so. And humor and beautiful artwork and interesting characters are an amazing vehicle for talking about heavy subject matter in a way that resonates with readers.
While many assume that death is a depressing subject, you take a very different approach.I loved all of the Day of the Dead philosophy I came across over the years, which focuses on celebrating the happiest memories of loved ones who are gone, rather than mourning them. I treat most of my lost relationships this way—whether the people I’ve lost are no longer alive, or just no longer in my life. I’d rather focus on what was good about my interactions with [them rather] than what went wrong. I think this comes through in my memoir work, too.
Can you talk about the artwork?
My artistic choices were largely guided by the setting, coastal California, and all of the Day of the Dead imagery I immersed myself in. I had folders and folders of reference material, lots of books, and thousands of photographs I took while traveling through California’s seaside towns, missions, and hillsides a couple of foggy summers ago. I worked very closely with Braden Lamb, who colored Sisters as well as my “Baby-Sitters Club” adaptations. Braden is great with reality-based environments, but I could tell he wanted to cut loose and do something really bold and atmospheric. Ghosts presented an amazing opportunity to explain to him what I wanted and then just let him go for broke. It was a real collaborative effort, and I’m stunned with the final results.