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January 3, 2010

Behind the Scenes with Writer and Comics Educator Sari Wilson

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Sari Wilson is a award-winning writer, editor, and educational consultant, and her work in graphic books has led her to become a valuable consultant for such clients as Diamond Books (Kids Group), Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures (First Second/Macmillan), and Random House academic marketing. She’s also the wife of Josh Neufeld (A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge), and she herself has been published in Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics, Keyhole, SMITH Magazine online, and in the forthcoming anthology The Big Feminist BUT. Her prose work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and she’s also appeared in several literary journals.

We took some time to get to know her for Behind the Scenes.
 
Do you remember your first comic book or graphic novel? If so, what was it?
How about three? Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Little Lulu. My grandfather was one of those old-fashioned doctors with his office attached to the side of the house. When we’d go and visit my grandparents, I’d sneak into his office waiting room through the “forbidden” door in the house, and since it was always after-hours or on holidays that we visited, the waiting room was totally empty. In this dusty, antiseptic-smelling room, I’d spend hours reading the comics on the tables. I loved the surreal world of Casper, and the blend of the fantastic and the real in Richie Rich. Since then, I’ve always equated comics with sneaking away, something forbidden and joyful.
 
What do you love about the graphic novel as a format for storytelling?
I love it because it has such incredible range. The form—sequential narrative using pictures and text—encompasses such a wide range of subject matter and styles; from wacky entertainment for kids to something as meditative and profound as poetry, to the sprawling and novelistic, to the hard-nosed journalistic account of real-world events. I love it because it is in the midst of a renaissance in this country. That is so exciting to see. I also love it because it is so darn hard and unforgiving—as a writer in the form, you have to be so clear about what each image contributes to the forward movement of story.
 
Whose work do you admire?
Oh, there are so, so many. I love Maus and Persepolis, of course, for their economy and distillation of the use of the form’s elements, and for what both have done to reach the educational community. I also really admire this young cartoonist Miss Lasko Gross, who published A Mess of Everything with Fantagraphics last year. It’s great. I just finished Forget Sorrow by Belle Yang, which Norton is publishing this year, an epic tale of her mainland Chinese family’s journey through the last century and the rise of Communism—it felt Dostoyevskian. Though not a trained cartoonist, Yang is doing some different and interesting things with the form. Dan Clowes is a master of Raymond Carveresque ironic restraint and underlying pathos. I love Jessica Abel’s Artbabe series and Megan Kelso’s Queen of the Black Black for their perfect evocation of a time and place I knew well. I think Nick Bertozzi is a fabulous storyteller too, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. Would it be too nepotistic to say that I really admire my husband Josh Neufeld’s work too? I’ve watched him grow tremendously as an artist and a storyteller. A.D. is a triumph of narrative nonfiction comics and the new book he’s working on with Brooke Gladstone about the history of the media is going to be a genre buster too.
 
Who do you read outside of the graphic novel format?
Lots of prose writers—Toni Morrison is one of my favorites and Margaret Atwood—these great women masters of the novel form. I’ve recently been drawn to Philip Roth again because of the sheer power of his writing. Jennifer Egan is a younger novelist I read; as for nonfiction, Nick Flynn’s harrowing and cathartic memoirs, most recently The Ticking Is the Bomb.
 
How many graphic novels do you read a month? How many of those are manga?
My husband is always reading comics and you can’t walk anywhere in our apartment without tripping over one, so I read bits and pieces of a lot of comics, but I finish probably two a month. I am looking forward this year to exploring manga more.
 
How did you first get involved in the field professionally?
I got involved in the field professionally from two angles—first through being partnered with a cartoonist. We’ve been together for over 15 years. I’ve watched him—as well as a whole generation of cartoonists—basically come of age. Josh and I have done a number of collaborations together—first for his comic Keyhole (cocreated with Dean Haspiel)—one of these pieces later got anthologized in Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics—for SMITH magazine, and now for the forthcoming anthology The Big Feminist BUT.
 
Then, concurrently, my own prose-based writing and editing landed me a job as a curriculum developer and editor for a leading educational publisher with their popular literature program that is used in tens of thousands of classrooms throughout the country. Because of a host of factors, there’s an increasing amount of interest in comics in the classroom and I became someone who could bridge that gap. I could talk to teachers and administrators about the possibilities of comics as a form of literature and as a teaching tool. I believe a fundamental change in the definition of literacy is going on—from text-based to image-based—and that comics have a role to play in that shift.
 
What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people what you do?
Nowadays, people are generally pretty into it. Comics, or rather “graphic novels,” are hot and most folks are really excited to meet someone who is involved in the field. Almost everyone I meet and talk to about comics professionally tells me about a teacher they know who wants to use comics with their kids “who can’t read.” Then they look at me earnestly and say, “Have you ever heard of this book called Maus?”
 
Do you collect comics? What is the most valuable piece of art, graphic novel, or comic book in your collection?
I don’t collect comics—I’m just not a collector type. But I have thousands in the house at my disposal, thanks to Josh! For my teaching, I keep a copy of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, a collection of Bradbury short stories in comic book form (good because teachers are familiar with these stories at the middle and high school levels), Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art, and of course Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
 
Is there something you covet adding to your collection?
I recently read one of the Usagi Yojimbo books by Stan Sakai for a workshop I was teaching and really got into it. I want to read the rest of them now!