Popular New Yorker cartoonist Will McPhail, who is based in Edinburgh, branches out with his first long form graphic novel In, to be published in May by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In tells the story of an exceptionally awkward young New York illustrator named Nick, and his funny and poignant struggles to present his authentic self to others, in particular a woman named Wren with whom he becomes involved. In a series of inelegant attempts at conversation, Nick also provides comic portraits of his mum and sister (and nephews), Steve the plumber, a collection of his neighbors, and a string of the mordantly named coffee bars (“Gentrificchiato,” “The Drip Hole,” “Exhausted Corduroy Coffee”) where he spends time.
PW talked to McPhail, usually a single-panel cartoonist, about storytelling with all the extra space of a graphic novel and the availability of color, and the ability to riff on serious issues like mental health and the need for human connections—either through small talk or more intimate conversations.
Publishers Weekly: How autobiographical is your protagonist, Nick?
Will McPhail: Someone (I forget who) once said that the autobiographical aspects of writing a story are like the stones that you rub together to ignite the spark of creativity that makes the story. So, it's a bit like that. I was really fascinated with the mechanics of conversations and how specific words in the right order can be used to change a discussion into something that stops being a performance and suddenly becomes just you and the person immersed in this thing. And I've had a couple of conversations like that previously, with friends and family members. So that felt like a rich enough idea to dive into and build a world around. So yeah, those aspects are autobiographical; that I've transcended conversations where I feel like I've stopped performing.
Is the subject of connecting with other people an important topic for you?
When those meaningful, genuine conversations have happened for me it's really stood out. Because I'm guilty of performing a lot in my conversations with people. And just as the book depicts, saying the bare minimum of words just to get through the interaction. When you lose yourself and speak openly and stop performing, it stands out and you remember it. It was always the transition that interested me, where it goes from one to the other.
I would watch a lot of particularly American talk shows where the host is trying to connect with the guests and it's not happening. And I would study the kinds of words that went wrong, what put up that wall. And then studying other exchanges where it had worked—just because it's thrilling when it's happened to me. I've had this sense of almost embarrassment—privileged, as if I don't deserve to be in this world that they've led me into. I'm definitely not like Nick, the main character, he's more desperate for connection than I am. I've been fascinated by how connections have happened and what made it happen and why the certain words affect conversations in ways that other words don't.
Is there any key scene that reflects those transitions?
The breakthrough that Nick has is with the plumber who comes to fix his toilet. That's the first moment where he realizes that he doesn't have to perform. That if he just opens himself up, if he's lucky, the other person could open up to him in return. It doesn't always work. He tries it a few times and it doesn't happen. But that's where we see Nick isn't just going to be a lonely guy walking around in coffee shops. He’s going to try to genuinely communicate with people.
Do you think there's any value in engaging in what we call polite conversation?
There definitely is. I really didn't want to get across the idea that small talk is bad and that you should just straight away talk about abortions or whatever, because I use light conversation all the time. Sometimes it isn't appropriate to do what Nick does, trying to force these big connections. And small talk isn’t just a tool to get to a better conversation. Sometimes that is all I want: a peaceful, easy interaction with somebody that is just small talk. You know, I've met a person today. Nick is starved of genuine connection, so he's desperate for it.
There’s this new place in him that was he locked off to, he hadn't found it before. One of the most difficult parts about writing this was capturing the trajectory of Nick’s mental health throughout the book. He could have stayed on that early trajectory, where from the start to the end he only sees everything from the outside. He goes from feeling nothing at the start, which he could have easily done throughout the rest of his life, to feeling everything at the end, even if it's really sad stuff. I wanted to show that deep, real, genuine sadness is healthier for him than feeling nothing at all. I think you see that he's going to be all right. And as the story progresses, I think we see that though there'll be many ups and downs, he's on his way.
Did you like working in this longer graphic novel format?
I usually do a single-panel cartoons for the New Yorker. It was weird at first, but it was very freeing, having all this space. I didn't have to cram a premise, a set kind of punchline, into one little space and build a world in one panel. I could go really slow and I didn’t have to be funny. And then I went back to the New Yorker cartoons when I finished and thought, 'Oh no, this is actually more freeing: I can just write and draw parrots!' But it's just a different muscle. It can be jarring for me to change gears and go from one to the other. But I enjoy both. Now the New Yorker cartoons feel like a sprint. It's just like, there's the idea, and I draw it. Whereas with the graphic novel I got to soak in it on my own and work on it for a long time.