Welcome to a very special spotlight post! I am absolutely delighted and honoured to have Canadian cartoonist and illustrator Eric Orchard here for an interview, organized by the lovely folks at Raincoast Books.
Eric is an award-winning cartoonist and illustrator who has published such works as the graphic novel Maddy Kettle: The Adventures of the Thimblewitch. Most recently, he published the unforgettable, unique and incredibly illustrated graphic novel Bera the One-Headed Troll. Read on for my interview with Eric where we talk in much more detail about Bera, fairytales, favourite artists and future work…
Did you always plan to write a graphic novel based upon your mother’s mental illness and raising children on her own, or did the idea of Bera the One-Headed Troll morph into a story about your mother?
I definitely noticed as the story unfolded that Bera was a lot like my mother. I never intended to her to be like my mother but it just happened that way. I started to see similarities in how Bera confronted her fear and feelings of inadequacy and how she kept going and tried to make the best decisions. I had drawn Bera years ago, a long time before I made the comic and I didn’t even notice she looks like my mother until I started drawing it.
From your initial idea and conception of Bera the One-Headed Troll, how much changed? Were there any major or surprising characters or plot points there in the beginning that changed or were dropped?
Well, there was always an owl involved! There are three versions of Bera I went through. Initially Bera was much darker. I think my work has just lightened in recent years and that’s reflected in the book. In the early version there were lots of ghosts and an even creepier mood. Later I wrote Bera more like a simple fairy tale. This version was lighter than the final version. And the baby was stolen by a dragon. It was in the second version I decided Bera has three basic trials to overcome. And finally I wrote the final version which more or less combines elements from the first two versions.
Readers’ perceptions of Bera the One-Headed Troll, or their overall experience with Bera, may change upon reading your background and history with mental illness. Is this something that ever gave you cause for concern- I.e. that readers might be missing a key component to Bera’s story?
Not really. I really want the book to be able to stand on [its] own. I want people to be able to take what they want from Bera. I wanted to talk about mental illness because I wanted to do my part to destigmatize it but not as a frame work to understand the story. Bera is, arguably, a darker tale- in both colour palette and of course in subject matter.
Did you always plan for the story to be written and published (and marketed) for a younger/youth audience?
I did yes. I hope anyone can enjoy my books but I think of myself as working very much in the tradition of books for young readers. To me it’s the most exciting audience and the most exciting aspect of publishing. My favourite children’s book artists are Arthur Rackham and Maurice Sendak both of whom happily acknowledge both the joy and darkness of childhood. I like to think Bera is emotionally honest in that regard. It’s silly and strange and dark and joyful, all things that are an integral part of childhood.
To what extent has your work, and Bera in particular, been impacted, if at all, by your own experience reading fairy tales?
I’m always really pleased when people mention this because this is really at the heart of the book. I very much wanted to honour the wonderful, strange world of fairy tales. I can’t imagine I’ll ever grow tired of fairy tales. I still read them every day. And I find they are both a wonderful escape and an amazing way in to the world. I read fairytales from every corner of the world and am constantly bowled over by the sense of wonder they give me.
Which artists, illustrators and/or writers have been some of your biggest influences or inspirations in your approach to artwork and narrative?
This is such a hard question! It’s a massive list and I’m always forgetting some of the most important names. Maurice Sendak and Arthur Rackham for sure. I have a real love for fairytale artists. Lizbeth Zwerger is a big influence as is Tony Diterlizzi and Brian Froud. And there are so many cartoonists too. George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Jeff Smith and Charles Vess are big influences. I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch of very important names!
What kinds of books or genres were you most interested in while you were growing up? Did you always have a big interest in graphic novels or comics?
I’ve always loved comics and have collected them as long as I can remember. I’ve always read a lot of genre fiction, fantasy and science fiction. The sci fi fantasy section in bookstores was always a favourite. The first story I remember writing myself was a ghost story.
Do you think you might ever branch to a different genre- e.g. move into picture books or mixed-media children’s novels?
I’m pretty happy doing comic books but they are an incredible amount of work. I keep thinking I should do an illustrated novel but I’ve been doing comic books so long I always go to them first as a way to tell stories. Illustration [is] something I love very much and would love to do more of. The problem is that comics take up all my time.
What have been some of the highlights of your 2016 reading year?
Another tough one! I read a lot and it’s hard to narrow it down to a few books. I really loved Oyster War by Ben Towle, and anything Raina [Telgemeier] does. Astronaut Academy by Dave Roman, Battling Boy by Paul Pope, Margo Maloo by Drew Weing, anything by Ben Hatke, Korgi book 4 by Christian Slade, Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell, anything by Emily Carroll, Eth’s Skin by Sfé, The Dreamwalkers by Viviane Schwarz.
If you are able to, I would love to hear about any upcoming projects you are working on! And do you ever think we might have a revisit with Bera and baby?
I’m always thinking ahead! There are three books I’m currently working on. The first is the second Maddy Kettle book, a sequel to Maddy Kettle and the Adventure of the Thimblewitch. I’m well into working on that book. And I’ve been working on a fairytale comic about a fire breathing duck who comes home to the farm he grew up on. And finally a story using the folklore and history of my home province Nova Scotia. A little place jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean just brimming with strange tales. I would love to do another Bera book! I’m just waiting for the perfect story to come along.
Thank you so much for your time!
Thank you so much! It’s been a pleasure.