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Advice on Creating a Graphic Novel

We all grow up with a misconception that some people have innate artistic talent. While it's true that some people are born with some natural talent, succeeding as an artist requires self-discipline and years of practice. I've told my 13-year-old daughter this countless times, but as a mother, my view point sometimes falls on deaf ears.

Better to get that information from an actual artist.

That's why I was so pleased to have some input from Alison McCreesh, the artist and storyteller behind Ramshackle: A Yellowkife Story. Here is  how her experience of living off the grid came to be a graphic memoir/travelogue/diary. (That's her self-portrait below.)`

Enjoy drawing
"I had travelled a fair amount before and had always kept illustrated journals of some kind or another. I didn't give it that much thought. I just liked to draw and also liked to keep some kind of notes about my wanderings."

Draw inspiration from other artists
"It took until about 2008 for me to start discovering more indie and alternative comics and to realize that there was a whole genre of visual storytelling that actually existed and got published. A little while after that, I also started following a bunch of comic blogs and was inspired to start my own."

Set short-term goals
"My plan was to draw a few panels a week - never less than one - to document my travels. I figured that a little accountability to the World Wide Web would keep me motivated. I called the blog 'Alison a fini l'école' and started working on it in earnest when I headed out to do an internship in Halifax to wrap up my undergrad."

Exercise self-discipline
"I was surprisingly disciplined once I started and kept it up for a good three years. I made several panels a week and posted them diligently as I wandered - and as I eventually came to settle in Yellowknife. After a while of being sedentary, and of other creative projects taking up more and more time, the blog eventually fizzled out."

Build on the seed of an idea
"It seemed a shame to have done all that work and for barely anyone to have ever seen it and I always planned to do something with it. It just took me a while to figure out the precise incarnation. It wasn't cohesive enough for me just to stick it all together into a book."

Don't expect everything to be perfect
"The visual style changed over time, the drawings were sometimes sloppy and there was often a lack of context. It was a lot of raw material though!"

Decide on your focus
"In the end, I decided to go back and focus on reworking a section and that's how Ramshackle came to be. The book is directly based on about four months worth of the blog - the four months that span our first summer in Yellowknife."

A sense of humour always helps...in art and in life
"As for humour, I try to be of the school of 'the more aggravating at the time, the better the story later.'  Being under pressure (even self-imposed pressure) to draw weekly comics also did wonders for my attitude: every tiny hardship was potential gag material. Working on the story of that first summer in hindsight was also a plus. In revisiting all the old panels and strips, I mostly saw the funny side. It's easy to laugh at sleepless mosquito infested nights when the bites are long forgotten."

Read a review of Ramshackle here.

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Ramshackle: Living Off The Grid

I found myself at Montreal's Expozine again this year. This time, it was to give my daughter a few ideas for creating comic strips. She likes drawing manga characters and has been after me to come up with a story for her characters, and we've worked on some things together, but it's hard to know what is cool to a 13-year-old.  I thought that she might get some inspiration from the eclectic collection of artists at the Expozine.

While we were there, I ran into a few familiar faces from the days when I used to review a lot of books. At Conundrum Press, I was handed a copy of Ramsmshackle: A Yellowknife Story by Alison McCreesh, just in case I wanted to review it. The author was on hand with a very small baby strapped to her chest. A brave mother, I thought.

McCreesh was signing copies of her graphic novel while chatting with a few people. The St-Enfant Jésus church basement, the Expozine venue, can get really hot. Sweat trickled down my back as I waited, watching McCreesh's tiny baby who began to wiggle with impatience. I wondered how the author was going to handle the situation when the heat made him loud and cranky. In the midst of her conversation she effortlessly opened a flap, a little red face popped out, breathed and then went back to sleep. Very smooth, I thought. The woman is a pro.

McCreesh's infant-toting, book-signing feat was my first clue as to her taste for adventure.
Ramshackle is the story of McCreesh and her boyfriend's drive across Canada in a barely roadworthy minivan and their lives starting out north of 60 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. This is much more than just camping. Think large mosquitoes and no plumbing for months.

The unfathomably high cost of living and rent in Yellowknife force the 20-something couple to live out of their minivan, duct-taping the vents shut to keep the mosquitoes out. They eventually land dull day jobs and make some friends. Then they become house-sitters, the guardians of residents' pets and plants, while enjoying the modern amenities of a comfortable bed, hot showers and flush toilets, periodically returning to the minivan between gigs.

But their lives begin in earnest when they find their place and later their home in Dragon Shack Woodyard, their alternative, off-the-grid Shangri-La, in a tiny community with other like-minded people, sandwiched between million-dollar homes.
McCreesh and her partner not only like their makeshift existence, honey bucket and all, but they also thrive in the land of the midnight sun.

I loved this story of resilience, a type of antithesis to our consumer culture. I especially liked the idea of introducing a woman into pop culture who forges an untraditional path that she clearly finds rewarding, at a time when most people seem to opt for luxury items, comfort and debt.

The last ten years of the planet's swing to the right has often left me searching for a way out of the rat race, but I don't quite have the same sense of adventure as McCreesh.

Ramshackle left me with a lot of questions about the author's obvious enthusiasm for living off the grid. Where did this enthusiasm come from? What sense of community was there? How was this sense of community created? There was plenty about stocking up on water and maintaining a sawdust toilet, presented in a playful way, but what about heat north of 60? What equipment and clothing were absolutely essential to living off grid?

These questions and a few others will be answered in my interview with Alison McCreesh in my next post.

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Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Adult Onset
Ann-Marie MacDonald
Knopf Canada

Ann-Marie MacDonald is an award-winning actor, playwright, broadcaster and author. Given the range and depth of her talents, readers should not be surprised to read something completely original in Adult Onset. Although there are some similarities with her two previous best-selling novels Fall On Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies, namely a father in the Royal Canadian Air Force and a mother of Lebanese descent, MacDonald’s new release does not span decades.

Instead Adult Onset takes place in real-time, focusing on just 7 days in the life of forty-something stay-at-home mom Mary Rose MacKinnon, also known as Mister. In this typical week, which starts out relatively peacefully, Mary Rose toils alone with her 4-year-old son and willful 2-year-old daughter while her partner is out of town. For unexplained reasons, she is suddenly seized with discomfort and then pain.

As a child, she had a medical condition that she has long since grown out of. The adult onset of her pain, as she slowly discovers, is the resurfacing of long-buried early childhood trauma that she has not yet come to terms with. The reader follows Mister’s every thought, slipping back to her vivid childhood memories, as she tries to pinpoint the source of her malaise.

Raising young children is, after all, when most of us are likely to revisit our childhoods. Mister’s parents, Dunc and Dolly, may not seem ideal by the standards of today’s helicopter parents. They are tough as parents were in the day when it was believed that a coddled child would not fare well. Mister is also a child who was born in Germany, where her father was stationed. Dolly, like many military wives, had to come to grips with the strain of raising her young children far from her family, while grieving the loss of two other children.

I identified very closely with Mister, as I had my two children late in life and was familiar with the obsessive thoughts about banishing BPA-laden plastic containers and finding organic ingredients year round for my children. I was also haunted by the resurgence of my own childhood trauma, which MacDonald portrays perfectly, so perfectly in fact that I was convinced that this book was a memoir.

Rather than using trauma as a literary device to propel the story, the author opted for a realistic, intellectually honest portrayal of trauma, a process of two steps forward one step back, until Mister has her epiphany. There is other trauma in Adult Onset that I found equally as moving. As a young adult, Mister came out to her parents in the early 1980s.

Although straight folk often equate the eighties with sexual openness, Dunc and Dolly are anything but accepting of Mister’s sexual orientation. While it is easy for outsiders to dismiss this as mere bigotry, MacDonald takes us in for a close-up of Mister’s relationship with her parents and shows us where the pain lies, particularly in relation to her father.

He is not horrible or narrow-minded. Instead, he is a warm, intelligent, loving father who just can’t accept his daughter’s homosexuality, which he sees as a lifestyle choice and not a matter of identity. MacDonald does a beautiful job of balancing the story with Dolly and Dunc’s acceptance and rejection of their daughter’s homosexuality, something that afflicts Mister’s entire adult life.

 According to MacDonald, Adult Onset was the most interior of her three novels and the hardest one to write. She describes it as the third book in a trilogy, and while it may appear to be a memoir, the author has said that it is about a character who is very similar to herself, living in a parallel universe.

 I was taken aback by this book for many reasons. As an army brat who grew up in Kingston, Ontario, where many of Mister’s childhood memories are set, MacDonald describes the town exactly as I remember it, right down to her father’s drive to RMC in the morning. In fact, I lived a few streets away from Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic grade school in Kingston where a clear-eyed nun identifies Mary Rose MacKinnon as a gifted child.

My personal connection to the book aside, this is a beautiful, spellbinding story. Although some may argue that it doesn’t have quite the same entertainment value as Fall On Your Knees, I would argue that Adult Onset will be one of her most enduring books. Let’s hope that there will be many, many more.

This has been crossposted at Montreal's Rover Arts.
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