ComicStoryworld Uncut: Alison Gaylin

Time to unveil more raw footage from COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION: the uncut version of my interview with Alison Gaylin, author of TRASHED, HEARTLESS, HIDE YOUR EYES, YOU KILL ME, and AND SHE WAS. Her next book, INTO THE DARK –  the sequel to AND SHE WAS – arrives in February, 2013.

In this interview, Alison and I discuss her influences, her work as a novelist, her collaboration with author Megan Abbott on an original graphic novel for the now-defunct Vertigo Crime imprint, our shared love of 1970s conspiracy flicks and why Maus is like Miles Davis.

This interview was conducted in January of 2012, so it’s an 88.5 MPH time machine to 12 months ago and appears in abridged form in Chapter 26 of COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION


You went from being a journalist to being a novelist, is that correct, or am I losing my mind?

I did. I got my Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia — I still am an entertainment journalist. It’s sort of my day job; health insurance and all that. I have always been interested in writing fiction — I wrote a couple of plays when I was in college that won awards. One was produced in Chicago way back when. This was always sort of a love of mine, so I got into a writing workshop in the city when I was working in magazines and I wrote a short story that eventually —  years later —  became the novel Hide Your Eyes, which ended up being my first novel.

You have a new one coming out in a couple months, right?

I do – yes! Beginning of March – some places say like end of February, but it’s March first basically.

What’s it about?

It’s called And She Was, and it’s the first in a new series about a private investigator named Brenna Spector who has hyperthymestic disorder meaning that she remembers every single day of her life in perfect visceral detail — it’s a very rare disorder, but I think CBS got to it before I did — it has nothing to do with mine, but I hope I can score some publicity of off it (laughs).

Is this the first one you’ve started as part of a series, or were all of your books intended to be part of the same world?

Not really. Actually, I have two standalones, which were Trashed and Heartless, but my first two books were sort of a series, but it’s only two books — HIDE YOUR EYES  and YOU KILL ME; YOU KILL ME is the sequel to HIDE YOUR EYES. I’ve been asked if that’s going to be a series, but I kind of doubt it at this point. It’s an amateur sleuth character and I feel like there’s only so far you can go with those, at least personally. My sense of logic starts to take over (laughs). But I liked that character.

Jumping to the graphic novel from Vertigo Crime… I vaguely remember reading about it, then Vertigo Crime folded. How did that come about?

Megan Abbott is a really good friend of mine. We became friends because we were both nominated for the Edgar for the “Best First Novel” at the same time, and we just became great friends.  We both lost that time; she went on to win “Best Paperback Original” for QUEENPIN. We always wanted to do something together, and we thought about possibly writing a book together, but because we both had contracts, it seemed kind of time consuming.

Actually, Megan says it was me that suggested a graphic novel, but I’m pretty sure it was her! We wanted something that sort of combined both of our talents. I’m more of a plotter, and Megan is great with character and time period — she’s a noir expert and her books tend to be set in previous periods to our own, although her most recent was a little more indistinguishable. But we just sort of had this idea for a character, a strong female lead that you don’t see that often in graphic novels.

We both are huge fans of 1970s conspiracy movies, so we wanted to combine our love of that with a strong  — like a female Dirty Harry was what we were going for. Very laconic, doesn’t speak, she’s just all about revenge. We just started writing this thing together and we found that we worked really well together. We pitched it to Vertigo Crime before it was written. We had a very detailed proposal and they bought that. We wrote it and then Vertigo Crime folded! (laughs) So now it’s ours again!

I think it’s going to end up being a blessing in disguise. I can’t say anything about it, but things are looking good.

Were you always a comics fan, or was a sort of “hey, why not?” sort of deal?

Well, Megan and I joked about this, “yeah we used to read ARCHIE when we were kids!” We weren’t like huge comics fans growing up, but since working on it [the graphic novel], I’ve just developed so much respect for graphic novels.

It was funny. When we were first doing this, really early on, on a conference call — I think it was with Megan’s agent and it might have been someone from Vertigo. Our editor at Vertigo Crime was great — Will Dennis is a huge comic fan, knew everything about comics. Somebody asked what my favorite graphic novel was, and I said MAUS. Megan’s agent, Dan, was like, “that’s like saying Miles Davis is your favorite jazz… that’s just so lame!’

But since we’ve started working on it, I’ve read a lot of the Vertigo Crime entries which I loved. Watchmen, I think, is one of the best books I’ve ever read – not just graphic novels — in terms of story, poetry, and it just showed me how much could be done, there’s so much more than just “comics.” It’s a wonderful art form; it’s visual and poetic — it really can be very poetic. That’s what really excited me about the genre. Now I’ve since become a fan!

What were the biggest challenges you faced going from prose to comics?

I actually really loved it. Coming from writing plays, the thing that trips me up in writing my novels is that inordinate amount of time you have to spend on description and creating the place with words. I love dialogue and I love showing rather than telling. As far as the graphic novel went, to me, all those restrictions were somewhat freeing.

When you think of writing, all you’re doing really is — and it’s different than a screenplay or a play too  — probably a little closer to a screenplay — because it’s not something — the script for a graphic novel isn’t something that you intend anybody to read without artwork, and what you’re doing is you’re not communicating with audience, you’re communicating with an artist. It’s like “this is exactly what we want this to look like.” You don’t need to worry so much about turning a beautiful phrase except for in the dialogue or in the captioning, you know?

You also can’t be as subtle as you can be in film. We did a lot of things with very close views because of that whole ’70s conspiracy thing, we describe a lot of close ups on somebody’s eyes or hands clutching a phone cord. But, you can’t really have somebody exchanging a subtle look. You really need to think about what’s the strongest visual statement you can make with each panel. It’s a challenge, but I think, kind of exciting.

Right, it’s all about grabbing that one iconic moment.

It’s also figuring out how many panels you want per page, when you want to do that really dramatic splash…

How much did you leave up to the artist? Did it even get to the art stage?

We ended up finding an artist and then Vertigo Crime folded! It’s interesting, I think it’s Max Allan Collins that will actually take a still from a movie and stick it in the script. “I want it to look like this.” Say we want Robert De Niro’s eyes in the rear view mirror from TAXI DRIVER. “This kind of feel.” We were pretty liberal as far as “we would like it to look like this.”

I would think that once you have a really great collaboration with an artist they might find things that you could never even imagine. We definitely did have a really specific look that we wanted to get across. We’ll see when – and if – we eventually work with an artist we’ll see.

But, just because this concept is so visual — we have this ’70s conspiracy movie thing in our minds —  I think if somebody else shares that same vision, it will be really helpful.

Would you do it again if you had the chance?

YES! Absolutely. In a heartbeat. It excites me that we’re having interest in it now — things are looking good — because this the most fun I’ve had. It’s been the most painless writing experience I’ve ever had. Probably the plays would be up there with it. First of all, collaborating with someone I can really collaborate well with, but also just the whole medium is so wonderful and freeing and exciting. I just love it.  I  like the restrictions. I find a lot of freedom within those restrictions.  It excited me in the same way that playwriting does — because there are so many restrictions, but within those restrictions you can be so powerful.