Friday, September 28, 2007

Fabulous Sydney! Brilliant bookshops and fine, fine folk

It's been a very busy few days! I came up to Sydney on Tuesday for a combined work/work/fun trip: two days of work at the office, plus a bunch of bookshop-related events in the evenings and on my "days off".

Sydney has turned on the beautiful weather, I've met wonderful people, and the speaking gigs have gone off a treat. There's hardly been a moment spare in amongst all this activity, but I did manage to fit in an early (and I do mean early) morning walk through the Botanical Gardens, along the water and up to the Opera House. Yeah, I'm a tourist - and loving it.

On Tuesday night I entered the Den of Temptation that is Gleebooks. I wish I'd had a proper chance to explore this fabulous shop and get lost among the head-high stacks of books piled up on the tables, but I was rushing like mad, and made it just in time to do the presentation. Gleebooks runs a regular program of bookish events (big thanks to the lovely Morgan), and draws a terrific audience. There were loads of questions, lots of signings, and I had a great time. Can't wait for my next Sydney trip so I can go back and completely blow the budget in this great shop.

During the day on Thursday Allen & Unwin Publicist Extraordinaire and top chick Renee Senogles whizzed me around to a radio interview and then to visit a bunch of other great bookstores, including Better Read than Dead in Newtown (more temptation - and thanks for the delicious pineapple-mint frappe!) and Abbey's Bookshop in the city, where I met the lovely Sofia. Sofia was the first kind stranger to contact me "out of the blue" by email after Gatsby came out. She wrote me such a beautiful letter that I ended up sobbing in front of the computer. So it was great to meet her in person. We both managed not to cry like idiots.

At The Children's Bookshop in Beecroft (Beecroft - what a cool name) I met Paul Macdonald who owns the store and runs a whole raft of programs and workshops for kids, and also for teachers and librarians. We discovered a shared passion for The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, and T.S. Eliot's box-of-marvels-in-a-poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. What we didn't agree on was Daisy Buchanan. Paul described her as his most despised character in literature - whereas she is, of course, my favourite! We had a great chat about this, and I've promised Paul that I'll send him copies of some of my early "dirty" Daisy character sketches. I'll post them on the blog, too, once I get back to Melbourne. She started out as a really dirty bird!

Last night I did another talk, this time at wonder-emporium, Kinokuniya. The first thing I saw when I raced into the shop was the huge display of Gatsbys right up the front. The clever person who put this display together had also included little stacks of various editions of the original novel, which I thought was excellent. Again, a great audience, which included the fabulous W. Chew "Chewie" Chan, who is Kinokuniya's Comics/Graphic Novels Consultant (They have a consultant for this! They are so cool!!). Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Chewie nodding enthusiastically throughout the talk, which made me beam! Chewie has promised to put photos from the event up on Kinokuniya's Facebook page (naturally I left my camera at the hotel). I've resisted thus far, but I think I'm going to have to join Facebook now... As if the internet were not already eating my life.

After the gig I also had the pleasure of meeting the "Fabulous Sebastian" (this is his preferred name). This fine gent is the wrestling commentator sidekick of my buddy mister J, wrestling cartoonist extraordinaire. Truth in advertising - I found him to be fabulous indeed.

Something else quite mysterious and lovely happened at the end of the Kinokuniya presentation. A lady came up to have her books signed - and she'd bought four copies. We had a little chat, but she didn't tell me her name. After she'd left, Chewie appeared with a Kinokuniya bag, and told me that this lady had given me a present - a copy of Norton Juster's 1961 novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, with illustrations by Jules Pfeiffer. How sweet and generous! I don't know this lady's name, and I would have so much liked to thank her. If you are reading this, mystery gifter, thank you so much - and please do get in touch!

Now, Friday morning, I'm just waiting for Kinokuniya to open so I can snap a photo of that great display before hauling my overstuffed bags down to Central Station and catching the train to Newcastle for the National Young Writers Festival. It's going to be a BIG weekend...!

More - with pictures - soon.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sideshow Alley

Yesterday the Big Squid, Little Squid and I went to the Royal Melbourne Show.

I was amazed by the rides, because they were all so extreme. Apparently the thrill of swooping up and down on the Pirate Ship (always my favourite) or having your neck dislocated on the Zipper is no longer enough. Now almost every ride involves going up insanely high in the air then spinning in several different directions at once while plummeting at sickening speed, offering the illusion that you are about to be smashed face-first into the ground. The machines were spectacular - but I decided to keep my bratwurst inside my tummy, thanks.

Little Squid (who is taller than me, for the record) is not one for rides, even of the tamer sort. And being the smart young man that he is, he took the view that the showbags were "a world of crap" and was much more interested in the animals. Me too. The last time I went to the Show I was a very small kid, and my favourite thing there (and possibly in the entire world) was the baby chickens.

But the thing that interests me the most about the Show now is something that has largely disappeared: Sideshow Alley and the culture of the old-style Showmen. Last year when I was writing the second Antonia Cutlass Book, Operation Weasel Ball, I did some research into the very colourful - and largely hidden - history of carnival sideshows in Australia. Amazingly, there was almost nothing published on the subject, though there was plenty about the American equivalent. Luckily I did find one fascinating book called Sideshow Alley, by Richard Broome, which included plenty of first-hand accounts of life in the sideshows that, as recently as the late fifties, were the most popular feature of the Australian fairgrounds.

I loved writing Operation Weasel Ball, and it was a particularly enjoyable challenge to write the character of Big Tim, an elderly gent, under five feet tall, with a mysterious past as a Showie. Presenting the lost world of the sideshows - a world which modern audiences will inevitably view with some ambivalence - to a readership of eight- to twelve-year-old kids was a delicate business. But (and maybe there's a bit of the Showman in us scribblers too) I think I pulled it off.

So yesterday I tried to peer past the high-shine slickness of the Extreme Rides, and catch a glimpse of the old ghosts of Sideshow Alley. But of course they eluded me. I'm only a mug punter, after all, and those Showies guard their secrets well.

PS... apparently I am going to be on Radio National tomorrow (Monday) at 10 am, on the Book Show, talking about Gatsby. They pre-recorded it a while ago.

Friday, September 21, 2007

We're gonna be on telly!

Shaun Tan, Eddie Campbell and me - on the ABC! Yippee! This Sunday at 5pm. Here's a link to the program.

PS... Just found out that the program will not be broadcast in Victoria, because of the Grand Final. Damn footy! Never mind. Interested Victorians will be able to download it from the ABC website next week.

Aggressively strange fables

Another one for the diary - here's a whole bundle of events celebrating the amazing world of Melbourne's underground comics and animation scene. They're all in one location in fabulous Northcote, at a bar called the North Bazaar. And they're free!

There's an exhibition, a launch of some cool anthologies, panel discussions (I'm in one of them), animation displays and loads of gorgeous stuff all over the walls.

Aggressively Strange Fables is part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and it's on from 26 September to 14 October. Check out their website or have a look at the very cute flyer (click on the pic to enlarge) by superstar artist Jo Waite, who is also the curator of the show.

Sadly I will have to miss the opening night party, which is also the launch of the latest issue of Tango (excellent comics anthology). I'll be in Newcastle for the Young Writers Festival at the time (see the last post below). How did this happen? How did the Fringe and the NYWF get scheduled for the same time, I ask you??

Now, I believe that Mr Baba Brinkman, rap artist and performer extraordinary, is also going to be doing some shows at the Fringe. I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Baba in Brisbane recently, and his rap performance of the Canterbury Tales just blew me away. Very much hoping to catch one of his gigs in Melbourne. I've got the CD on the stereo right now, and it's making me nod my head with pleasure, Rikishi style. For those unfamiliar with Rikishi, I recommend this clip. Aggressively strange indeed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A bunch of events - Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle

A bunch of Gatsby-related events coming up in the next couple of weeks - all open to whoever would like to come:

Sunday 23 September, 4pm - Melbourne
Speaking at Robarta, at 109 Fitzroy St St Kilda, courtesy of Chronicles Bookshop

Tuesday 25 September, 6.30pm - Sydney
Speaking at Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe. Details here.

Thursday 27 September, 6 pm - Sydney
Speaking at Kinokuniya bookstore, Level 2, 500 George Street, Sydney (The Galeries Victoria Building). Details here.

Friday 28 to Sunday 30 September - Newcastle
Various events at This Is Not Art / National Young Writers Festival. See program for details.

...and I promise I'll do the "Myrtle" as pictured on the last blog entry.

Whew! Busy times!

Monday, September 17, 2007

"I counted the tits, and there's fourteen"

Back in Melbourne, having just repaid my first instalment of the gigantic sleep debt incurred at the Brisbane Writers Festival. And what a festival it was! Beautifully organised (by possibly the friendliest staff and volunteers in the world), packed with enthusiastic festival-goers, drenched in sunshine and perfectly located at the new, super-cool State Library complex at Southbank by day, and at the Powerhouse by night. I had a ball.

But in my rush to pack and get on the plane up to Brissie at some hideously early hour of Thursday morning, I managed to forget my camera. So I can't post any photos of the raucous evening with the other words-and-pictures merchants at the Powerhouse, nor of my various panels - including those with Eddie Campbell, Leigh Rigozzi and Baba Brinkman.

Presenting with Baba was a brand new experience for me. In stark contrast to us practitioners of the silent art of little pictures (how's that, Eddie?), Baba's work is BIG, and it's LOUD. He's a rap artist and performer, and he's written an extraordinary rap adaptation of the Canterbury Tales. Our session was titled "What a Classic", and we'd been asked to talk to an audience of high school students, about adapting classic works of literature into new forms.

Baba performed an absolutely mesmerising - and hilarious - rap of the tale of the Wife of Bath, and the kids were clearly captivated. The story was well-spiced with clever innuendo and naughty asides, and you could see the ripples of smirks and giggles and nudges-in-the-ribs going through the audience when he gave them lines like "[her] eyes kept climbing his thighs in a slimy way" or described the hero as "stiff as a wooden lance".

So you can imagine that Baba was a pretty hard act to follow - especially since this was the only session where I didn't have access to a data projector, so couldn't show any cool pictures to accompany my talk. But it actually worked out fabulously. I talked about Gatsby and passed around a copy, and the audience seemed really interested and engaged, with plenty of questions. The description of Myrtle Wilson got a particularly good response - nothing like the words "she's got these huge boobs, with twelve nipples" to get a marquee full of kids laughing. Not having any visuals available, I had to demonsrate like so:

But the funniest response happened during my solo talk about Gatsby in another session earlier that day. The auditorium was quite full, and included several school groups of much younger kids (grades five and six by my reckoning) who were not actually meant to be attending this session about a decidedly grown-up book. Realising that the audience contained some very tender young minds, I adjusted the tone of my talk so that (a) they'd understand it, and (b) there wouldn't be too much talk about sex and death. Myrtle's twelve nipples, however, got their usual airing.

Anyway, after the talk was finished, one cute little boy about eleven years old put his hand up with a question. He pointed to the montage of characters projected on the screen and informed me of my crucial mistake. "I counted the tits," he said, "and there's fourteen"!

Go Brisbane!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Glamorous windows!

Well, this had me absolutely goggle-eyed with amazement. It's the window display at Readings bookstore in Carlton. It wasn't there at the time of the launch but has magically appeared since, when I wasn't looking. When I saw it this afternoon, I sat down on the bench outside with my mouth open like a goldfish and just gaped. Amazing.

And below is a little picture of my drawing room with a whole bunch of large, expensive TV equipment crammed into it. The ABC are doing a short segment about graphic novels for their Sunday Arts program (date TBA), and have interviewed Eddie Campbell, Shaun Tan and me. The interview was a lot of fun - can't wait to see how it all comes out.

The black box on a long stalk is a very impressive light which imitates daylight. Ordinarily the light in my studio is quite poor, so things looked altogether different when it was filled with pretend sunshine. I am now coveting this device. Actually, it looks a bit like a pair of alien creatures are cautiously inspecting my desk for signs of earthling life.

Just a few more days until the Brisbane Writers Festival, where I'll be presenting quite a few times, on panels and solo, as part of their graphic novel program. Looking forward to it very much indeed.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Sydney Morning Herald article

Here's a link to an article in the SMH on the rising excitement about graphic novels in Australia. It features Eddie Campbell, Shaun Tan, Bernard Caleo and me - and includes a couple of pictures from Gatsby (beam!).

It is a slightly altered version of the piece that appeared in The Sunday Age "M" section a couple of weeks ago, as featured here on Mr Campbell's blog.

Friday, September 7, 2007


Last night The Great Gatsby was launched at Readings bookstore in Carlton (Melbourne). It was a gorgeous, very exciting and emotionally overwhelming event! The store was packed to the rafters with lovely people, and we all had the privilege of hearing Shaun Tan speak, as he launched the book out into the world.

Here are some photos, taken by my dad, George Greenberg. That's Shaun launching, and Erica Wagner (publisher extraordinaire) and me in an emotional moment. Plus some little shots of the lovely big crowd.

As well as being an unparalleled artist and extraordinary storyteller, Shaun Tan is a great speaker. He shared some important insights into how graphic storytelling works, and explored the sometimes troubled role of illustration. He also astonished me with his very detailed (and generous) discussion of my Gatsby characters. Shaun and I had not talked in depth about these interpretations before, and yet he was able to stand up and explain precisely how their expressions work - the set of Daisy's mouth, the uneven size of Nick's eyes - and so many other observations. I was astonished because although I have drawn these characters hundreds of times and know exactly how I want their faces to behave, I have never actually put these thoughts or intentions into words, even in my own head. It was as if Shaun had crept inside my brain (somehow managing not to trip over all the mess!), taken a snapshot of what was going on in there, and then articulated it in words. He's amazing. It was an absolute honour to have him launch the book.

Shaun was introduced by my wonderful publisher at Allen & Unwin, Erica Wagner. Erica's passionate belief in the possibilities of the graphic novel form is just inspiring, and I am grateful to her beyond words for putting that passion into my book, and bringing it into publication. Erica talked about the buzz of excitement around graphic novels - a buzz that is only getting louder here in Australia. The growing interest in this literary art form owes a great deal to Shaun's prizewinning book The Arrival, but also to Erica's years of sharing her enthusiasm for the form, and helping to bring it into the public consciousness. May it, and A&U, go from strength to strength!

I wish I could have said all these things last night, but of course the emotion got the better of me, and it was all I could do to get out some heartfelt thanks. It was a wonderful evening, a lovely celebration, and I'm so thrilled to have been able to share it with so many dear friends.

Not surprisingly, sleep has been impossible! Thanks so much to everyone who came along, and to those who couldn't make it but sent such warm wishes.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Why I drew them this way

On Thursday I gave a bunch of presentations and a comics workshop for students at Melbourne High School, a state school for boys which selects its students on the basis of academic ability. The workshop in particular was great fun - the students were enthusiastic, engaged and willing to have a go - and they came up with some terrific, original and very accomplished stuff.

A couple of the guys were drawing really impressive architectural backgrounds with wonderful fluency. I find architecture very challenging. It is something that I had never attempted before The Great Gatsby, and therefore something I had to consciously work at learning. When I commented on this, the archi-talented student seemed surprised. He said that backgrounds and buildings came very naturally for him, but that he found facial expressions very hard.

I have always taken for granted the fun and ease of creating lively, emotionally resonant facial expressions and the characters that use them. So I wonder what sort of "learning" is involved if you want to become more fluent in this aspect of creating characters. To a very large extent I think it is intuitive - which is not to say that such intuition can't be developed and improved.

Probably the most important thing, if I try to analyse my own scribbling experience, is learning to fully inhabit your character. By really exploring and getting to know the creature you're drawing, you have a sense of how they move, how their face expresses emotion, how a twist of an eyebrow conveys a particular attitude and so on. And when the pen is in my hand, I find that I also inhabit the character physically: my face will always take on precisely the expression that I'm trying to draw. Lots of other illustrators have told me that they do exactly the same thing.

In The Great Gatsby, I've taken the expression idea one step further, and tried to make each character's entire physical form embody the complex personality bestowed on him or her by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Just before the book came out, my wonderful publisher at Allen & Unwin suggested that it would be a good idea if I also wrote a few lines on each character to explain why I drew them this way. It was an interesting exercise, trying to concisely summarise the long, complicated, delicate and largely intuitive process of interpreting Fitzgerald's written characters in visual form. The one I find most difficult to summarise in words is Daisy. Daisy is my favourite character. She took a lot of thought and preparation and experimentation, but once I got her as I wanted her, I really do believe I got her just right.

It is hard for me to explain in words why Daisy looks as she does, but happily enough there is another picture that can help - and it's at the top of this post. About three years into the project, when I'd already finished a large slab of the book, my mum sent me a newspaper article which included a photograph of Fitzgerald's first love, the gorgeous debutante Ginevra King. It is said that Ginevra appeared in almost all of Fitzgerald's beautiful, unattainable female characters, and particularly in Daisy Buchanan. When I saw the photograph, I was overjoyed. Ginevra King, a woman deep in Fitzgerald's mind and heart, bore an uncanny resemblance to my version of Daisy.

And, for those who are interested, here are the very brief explanations that I wrote for Allen & Unwin.

Daisy Buchanan: Daisy is a complex character: charming, careless, morally compromised - and disappointed. Her feather-light flightiness and air of luxury are conveyed by her white, fluffy round head, while her slender, elegant neck and hands suggest both seductive charm and vulnerability.

Tom Buchanan: Everything about Tom’s personality is overbearing, arrogant and brutal, as embodied in his big, hulking, hyper-masculine body and brutish face. He occupies more space than anyone else, suggesting substantial social and financial power.

Nick Carraway: Our narrator is a gentle, somewhat ambivalent person, so I picture him as a smaller, soft-bodied creature. Nick’s expressive feelers give form to his sensitive ‘moral antennae’ which, although finely tuned, are also susceptible to swaying.

Jordan Baker: Cool, slippery and not to be trusted – Jordan is a slim, haughty squid-like creature, difficult to pin down and emotionally absent.

Myrtle Wilson: Poor Myrtle Wilson is all vulgar, overripe sex and loud, ugly pretension. She is unsophisticated and inelegant, but oozing sensuality: one big eye, an indiscreetly wide mouth, and enormous, multi-teated breasts. A bad end is almost inevitable…

George Wilson: Myrtle’s downtrodden, cuckolded husband is a nervous, sickly-looking, hand-wringing creature. But his tail looks a little like a scorpion’s, foreshadowing the violent consequences when George is pushed to the limit.

Jay Gatsby: Gatsby is a self-made enigma, a mystery deepened by its contradictions. He is simultaneously heartbreakingly sincere and utterly fake, noble and corrupt, glamorous and gauche. His form is inspired by the seahorse – a gorgeous, impossible-looking animal that seems to have been put together from bits of other creatures.