Chris Ware, the author of Building Stories, a new graphic novel to be published by Pantheon in October, is likely the most famous literary comics artist—graphic novelist if you prefer—that isn’t Art Spiegelman. He is the author of such works as The Acme Novelity Library, a critcally acclaimed continuing series of hardcover graphic anthologies he often uses to introduce characters and stories that eventually evolve into larger standalone graphic novels. He's also the author of the equally critically acclaimed 2000 graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon). Both Acme Novelty Library and Jimmy Corrigan have received numerous prizes and awards including winning Eisner awards, the National Book Awards of the comics industry.
His works offer powerfully emotional stories, created through the slow accretion of physical detail, emotional incident and memory, all elucidated through complex visual layouts and inventive and engaging ways to insert text into them. Building Stories is no different. The “book” is actually a large box with 14 different kinds of archetypal print formats—among them a hardcover book, a paperback book, a children’s book, newspapers and magazines, mini-comics, a board game and more—all of which carry a story focused deeply on the life of a young women, an amputee, and her sense of herself, her past and her future. Readers can pick up any publication and enter the character’s story at any point—there is no strict sequence. Like all of Ware’s works, he manages to peer deeply into the life of his characters while offering readers new ways to embrace his narrative.
PW interviewed Ware during a break from signing books at the Small Press Expo, or SPX, an annual festival for independent, small press and self-published comics held in Bethesda, Maryland.
Publishers Weekly: What would you say to a reader who isn't familiar with your comics about this new work?
Chris Ware: First of all I would probably apologize because I feel compelled to do that for everything I do.
PW: That’s fine, we’re after the real Chris Ware.
CW: Well you know I have dinner every Sunday with my good friend [cartoonist] Ivan Brunetti, and I said I don't know what I'm going to say if someone asks me what's my book about. And he said just say it’s about the last eleven years of your life. And I thought well that sounds kind of too easy, but you know the idea behind the book is to try to get at the way we remember things, the way we put our lives together in our memories and kind of rewrite our own memories sometimes to suit ourselves. Also to get at a sense of how when you are remembering something that's happened to you, sometimes you can almost lose yourself in that memory to the point where you lose the sense of the world around you, maybe just for a few seconds or something like that.
I had hoped that with this book, that if say you start reading one story and interpret it as the present and then move on to another part of the book and realize that it wasn't actually the present you were reading about, it was actually the character’s past, that that that might get at a little tiny bit of that feeling. I mean, every book is about a story happening from beginning to end and somebody changing as the story goes on but I wanted to try to create something that is maybe a little more analogous to the way that it feels in my brain, which is maybe a little more three dimensional and uncertain than that, so I don't know. I mean it’s obviously a very touchy, possibly fey and almost assuredly pretentious sort of thing, which I feel bad about. I don't want it really to seem that way, but its kind of an experiment, so...
PW: Among other things, the book lays out the experiences, the life of a young woman at the center of your story and the house she lives in. She is presented at various stages of her life and she has a handicap, an amputated leg. The book seems so much about how we construct meaning. There seem to be little hints throughout the book about this. There’s a passage at one point about how we look through the windows of houses and we see glimpses of people and their lives and very often the central character looks back on her life and creates an elaborate story or impressive narrative around some incident that she often doesn't even believe in much after the fact.
CW: Well you’re a very careful reader.
PW: So to some extent Building Stories is about how we create meaning in our lives?
CW: Absolutely, I mean really that is what it is about. People will say to me, oh, what do you do and I'll say ‘I'm a cartoonist’ or ‘I write stories’ and the response might be, oh, that sounds amazing. I can't even draw a straight line or I couldn't ever tell a story, but everybody is always telling themselves stories. Anytime you meet anybody or learn anything about them, you're writing fiction. You write fiction about people that you know, that you think you know well, because you create stories about them in your mind and whatever story that you think about, it’s probably not true.
You assemble it from evidence and anytime somebody tells you a story that immediately creates pictures in your head and you take those stories as tacit truth. I don’t know what one would consider the defining modern novel, but the idea obviously of most modern novels is to remind us that the stories we tell each other about ourselves probably fall into that category as well. And again, this is you know kind of touchy, iffy stuff. I'm not trying to say that everything we hear is imaginary but I’m trying to get at a sense of that truth and a sense of that [storytelling] mechanism and maybe make it a little more obvious in the structure of the book than it might otherwise be.
PW: When I’m asked about Building Stories, I tell people, it's not a book, it’s a library. You’ve created a book that’s 14 different kinds of print formats. So for the structure of the book, you seem to have substituted formats for chapters. Is that true?
CW: Yeah, that's a legitimate way of putting it, sure.
PW: How did you arrive at that? It seems as though every variety of the printed word is represented.
CW: Well, we're seeing sort of a threatened disappearance of [certain print formats], like, you know, the magazine. Everybody's acquainted with it. It’s a shape and a feeling that you and I grew up with that I think maybe my daughter might not grow up with. Newspapers especially are kind of unreasonable and untenable forms but we've just gotten used to them because I guess it grew out of somehow printing of broadsheet newspapers and then maybe folding them in half. It’s not a very convenient thing to read on the subway, like you have to fold it.
PW: Yes, the New York newspaper subway fold has virtually disappeared and I suppose the papers themselves will go next. You never see it anymore on the subway now that people read newspapers on their phones and that’s kind of sad. It was this distinctively New York thing that you always saw on the train, at least when I first got to New York in the early 1980s, but yes it's disappeared.
CW: Well as for the 14 formats themselves, I just did what felt right, which is not what you're supposed to say after you go to art school. You're supposed to have a really complicated explanation, but that is the explanation. But the sensation of going through the print formats is obviously something that is disappearing. Everybody's doing the gesture, the movable image and electronic imagery now. So the book is trying to give a sense of a feeling of the past in the format itself, whereas the story itself is not necessarily about that.
PW: More than most cartoonists, you seem to come up with new formal vehicles to carry your narrative forward, be they visual and or even physical.
CW: Sometimes I worry that it is a way of shielding my doubts about what I do and that it might be a little to concept album-y or something. I wanted with to make something that gave the reader the same feeling of excitement that I get from artwork like Joseph Cornell's boxes and boxes of ephemeral things or objects or papers. There's something about that that I find really thrilling. It seems to promise something and it kind of gets at this feeling of, you know, almost like affection. A normal book seems almost kind of masculine and poised in a way so this seems a little more yielding and forgiving in a way. But, it could also seem a little pretentious.
PW: Creating three dimensional art-things seems to have always been a part of what you do and obviously what you love to do. So you have a book in a box and whether you’re opening a box or opening a book, both offer moments of surprise and discovery. You’ve added another nuance to the reading experience.
CW: I hope so. I'm worried that it’s a little gimmicky, but you can't control those things. I hope that it’s everything, a rewarding experience, a pleasurable experience, something like that.
PW: I think what keeps the work from being some sort of novelty is the power of your story and this single life that you’ve invented.
CW: I didn't want it to have a detective novel quality to it. I didn't want there to be a plot like where was that missing note placed. I don't want it to be like that. I wanted it to be very bland or to seem bland or to seem ordinary even though there’s necessarily not super ordinary things that happen in it. There are larger painful questions hopefully but there’s not like a plot, there’s not some secret story arc to be discovered or anything like that. And [physical publications] kind of define each other. Maybe it might seem exotic to somebody else. I have no idea. Yeah, its embarrassingly close to my own life in a lot of cases, shamefully so.
PW: Most artists fold some of their lives into the work that they do. Is that the case here?
CW: Yeah, somewhat. It’s kind of a weird, it’s kind of like a number of notches off but I live in Oak Park, Illinois, and half the stories set there. Part of the story is set in an apartment building in Chicago which looks kind of vaguely like a weird bad memory of or a mis-remembered version of two different apartment buildings that I've lived in, sort of recombined. But the inhabitants are completely fictional. So it takes the bland idea of a dollhouse sort of idea or something where everything seems so blandly uncharacterized but then hopefully is characterized once you read it and it has a little bit more to it.
PW: Well let’s jump to the house. The house is a dollhouse or even a kind of a museum case to display the details of these people’s lives. Did the story start with the New York Times series, where some of this story was originally serialized? Where did the germ of the idea for this story start?
CW: I guess I've been doing something like it for a few years now, but in this particular story it was most obvious in [story that originally began in the] New York Times pages. I'd done a few similar stories before that for various magazines that eventually went defunct. I seem to have that effect [on some magazines]. I think the idea of using a [visual] cutaway, which is an analogy between page and time and space, I use quite a bit, so, but, yeah
PW: I was very conscious of how the text was used in the early parts of the story, how you actually weaved the text around the house in a way that it sort of became a part of the infrastructure of the building. Literally moving in and out and around the structure much like the other characters do. I mean I found that really unusual and demanding
PW: Ha! That's alright, reading is not necessarily supposed to be easy. But in a weird sort of conceptual way, the effect heightened the sense of the house as a sentient thing that is speaking to us.
CW: Well that’s nice. I don't want to give too much away, but the idea behind that is supposed to be that the main character is doing these stories for a creative writing class and those stories are part of the stories she’s written for the class. She's used the building as a character itself and its sort of this self-conscious way for her to get inside of it. I left it very vague. I didn't make it super explicit, which is probably a mistake. It’s not necessary to the understanding of the story. But I think anybody who's read Pale Fire by Nabokov eventually ends up wanting to make a book where the book is the reason for its own existence--if that makes any sense at all--which again is probably thinking about it too much
PW: Well, you know, that’s what artists do, they think a little too much sometimes. What about characterization, what I call the methodical drip, drip, drip of Chris Ware’s characterizations, slowly building the prosaic lives of characters one small or larger incident after another over time. Obviously the evocation of time is important to you.
CW: Well I think it’s the way you get to know anybody. You know, you first meet them, you learn a few things about them, and then you start to put together pieces about them and then before you know it, they might end up being friends. Then you start confiding in them or offering them your own personal secrets or painful memories, that sort of thing. It’s sort of the same thing with characters. Except with characters you start imbuing them with those painful characteristics. You can't always predict which characters you're going to feel most sympathetic with or feel through.
PW: How much do you plan out your works? So much of how you define your characters emotionally happens visually, rather than in the writing, in complex page layouts. The way you use icons and special panel layouts seems to key the reader into what’s happening.
CW: I can't plan that stuff
PW: I thought not. It comes out of the moment when you sit down over the period that your working on any particular page.
CW: I have an overarching plan and I have lots of notes, but otherwise I don't know why I would draw comics [if I knew everything that would happen in advance]. The thing about comics I find most fascinating are the things that happen when you draw something. When I draw something on a page and that particular image prompts some memory in my own mind that I never would have other wise predicted. So it’s the closest thing I can think of that, or the closest analogy I can think of that comics writing has to actual prose writing, which has a certain buoyancy to it. It’s almost like you’re creating rivers and you're rowing in it. Comics are very awkward. It’s like carpentry--bad carpentry basically.
So it’s like you're trying to finish building the house before it starts raining. Our minds are very organized things because we think in language and after language takes over it affects our brains in weird ways. So if you trust that structure, and I think that structure is directly reflected in a lot of ways in comics, you can almost see it on the page. It’s surprising sometimes the things that will connect, sometimes it’s surprising the things that also don’t work. As a cartoonist, you have to learn to trust certain things and let other things go.
PW: Your stories are complex visually and intellectually. How do you balance invention and clarity? How to manage the need to be imaginative, inventive and to create something new with getting the story and its nuances across to the reader?
CW: That’s a great question. That is the number one thing. No one has ever asked me that before, but if I showed you my sketch books you’d see that that is the thing that I think about probably the most. If I would think about something formal, it’s that you don't want to lose the reader.
Well, it’s hard because I try to write in a way that hopefully reflects something of how I experience life happening. That is my goal and with all that implies. What it’s like to be inside a body experiencing the world with all the myriad multi-layers of thoughts and memories that happen at the same time. And then the way that those things contradict each other and then the way that we think of ourselves as people, somehow all layered together. Of course if you try to imitate that exactly then it’s just going to be a mess. So as you're saying, to me trying to have a sort of clear chaos about the thing, may not be a good approach necessarily but its kind of what I try for.
I just re-read my stuff as I'm writing it, dozens if not hundreds of times and I try to be as honest as possible with whether it makes sense of not. And sometimes accidents will happen. I'll think, oh that makes better sense than what I was hoping and other times I'll read it and think that is utter garbage. That I need to erase that and start over, so it’s a really [tough question], nobody has ever asked me that and I think that’s actually one of the most important things to any writer actually—how to balance those.
PW: What about digital. How do you see digital in the future of your work?
CW: Well there are three pages in this book that were done originally for Wired magazine. They invited me to do a strip for either the first or second iPad issue and I wrote the strip about how touching goes from affection to aggression in a lot of relationships. I thought, well, I'm going to be using something, a device, that is touch sensitive. But it became so complicated and memory hungry that they couldn't use it and McSweeny’s offered to work on it. It came out right, but when the final thing was done it just felt so insubstantial. It’s like you’re buying compressed gas or something. It just doesn't feel, really honestly it doesn't.
I much prefer a tangible physical thing. There’s something about the ideas and thoughts and feelings and uncertainties that go into books that demand a certain opposite and opposing structure to contain them. It’s almost like an aesthetic necessity that the books have, they have to confine and protect these ineffable things in a way. Maybe it could just be my generation that thinks that or maybe there is something wrong specifically with my brain. I think it’s great for newspapers and magazines to have news be an electronic stream but I prefer art to have boundaries and edges. The writer John Updike gave an address to the ABA in 2006 about how--he put it so elegantly and beautifully—about connecting booksellers as a kind of dividing edge between writers and readers and how books themselves had edges and needed that division between ideas and, oh what am I trying to say, well he put it so much better.