Sunday, 20 November 2011

Creation Myths - The Anders Nilsen Interview

In the days leading up to meeting Anders Nilsen, I spend most of my free moments trying to contextualise his latest 600 page opus ‘Big Questions’. As I flip through the weighty hardback, I begin to piece together my thoughts, scribbling questions and notes on a pad as they occur to me. I begin to construct a mental map of sorts, linking the birds in ‘Big Questions’ to my own experiences and surroundings, and as I do so I'm struck by the vivid memory of my daily walks to work when I used to live a stone's throw from the River Foss in York.

Every morning I would pass the river, whose grass verges would always be teeming with geese. Traversing the same route for two years, I'd become increasingly fascinated by these majestic creatures and never tired of watching them wreak havoc on the early morning traffic, as they crossed the road en masse in search of fresh grass. Over the years, as my familiarity grew, they became totems of sorts, like living sounding boards for my thoughts.

One day they'd be the ultimate embodiment of some unobtainable freedom. The next, they'd be arrogant and disdainful onlookers - sitting in judgement on river bank, pouring scorn on everything and everyone. They were whatever I wanted them to be, which is how I'd come to view the birds in Anders Nilsen's ‘Big Questions’ – as anthropomorphic extensions of the self. His philosophically inclined flock of birds seemed somehow closely related to my traffic disrupting feathered friends.

When, later that week, I finally meet Anders in a cafe in heart of York, he looks tired. He's been on the road for the best part of two weeks, touring Europe to promote his new book. Home has been other peoples' couches and living room floors. In spite of the obvious fatigue, Anders is friendly and enthusiastic. His manner is quiet and thoughtful, always taking his time to carefully chew over his words before he speaks.

With a cup of tea in hand, I begin to explain the thought process behind my opening question, recounting my journeys to work and my fondness for geese. I ask if he also thinks of the birds in ‘Big Questions’ in the same way. Are they like different facets of his own personality? A projection of his own experiences onto a cast of animal characters?

Anders smiles and ponders my words for a moment before launching into his answer.

Anders: I do get asked 'why birds' a fair amount, and I was telling somebody just yesterday that it's a question I actually don't have a good answer for. Part of the convoluted answer that I always end up giving has to do with the idea of the 'blank slate', especially in the way that I draw them. They're drawn really really simply and that allows the reader to project onto them.

Also, there's an element of what you mentioned. Each of the birds has a separate personality and they have very different takes on the situations that arise in the book. In that way they're like different facets of myself. I think of them less like different people and more like different ways of approaching the world. Any one person could go in any of those directions.

I wasn't particularly interested in birds before I starting doing ‘Big Questions’, but I do pay attention to them now, in a similar way to what you experienced walking to work. I used to live across from this giant urban park in Chicago and I would often take walks there after lunch, say, or when trying to figure out something I was working on. I just starting seeing them everywhere and began to notice how different they are, it's easy to project funny little personalities onto them.

Exquisite Things
: I think you can't help but do that, they can become something more than what they actually are. I think people tend to empathise with animals, sometimes more so than they would perhaps do with people.

Anders Nilsen: Yeah, I think that's part of why so much fiction, especially children's stories, use animals. It's so easy to associate with; to put yourself into an animal's mind.

Exquisite Things: One of the strong impressions I get from your work is that you're constantly breaking yourself down into all these disparate parts, then piecing everything back together. I see a lot of that in the ‘Monologues’ books, ‘The End’, as well as ‘Big Questions’... does that ring true for you?

Anders Nilsen: That's something I've specifically done work about, for sure. I'm interested in the question of 'what is a person?' In the Buddhist sense of asking questions like 'what is a soul? Is there such a thing a soul?' I think the basic Buddhist answer is that there isn't, if you take a person all the way apart there is no 'thing' there other than the material, and the chemicals in the brain.

That's what makes it endlessly fascinating, if there's no single core that's eternal, pure and true, what is a person? What happens if the brain chemistry is skewed just a bit? What if you get hit on the head in the wrong way and everything changes. In ‘The End’, for example, it's about the psychological aftermath of an intense experience. It really is just about me watching myself just totally change. You have to become a different person to deal with certain things, and part of that process is anticipating becoming yet another different person. What happened, in a way, was that I eventually came back to myself, I think.

Exquisite Things: In ‘Big Questions’, you use a lot of imagery that has close parallels to the Garden of Eden. The landscapes are very open and barren and there's a small cast of human characters exploring their immediate surroundings. Those human characters introduce god-like objects into the birds' world; the egg, or bomb depending on whose viewpoint you take, and the giant metal bird / crashed plane. It’s a lot like a creation myth... Are you interested in ancient myths and the theological? Did that feed into ‘Big Questions’?

Anders Nilsen: Yes, for sure... Hugely.

Exquisite Things: You mentioned Buddhism already... but I guess I'm coming at this from a very Western Christian point of view...

Anders Nilsen: My interest in theology does come from a very Western Christian point of view. I'm not religious at all, but I'm very interested in religion because I'm very interested in stories and telling stories. To me, that's what religion is; it's about people telling stories in order to make sense of the world. That's what ‘Big Questions’ is all about. You mentioned the Garden of Eden, in some ways the book is about this loss of innocence for the birds. There are these grandiose tragic events, and a confrontation with death.

Exquisite Things: Yes, you present some pretty opposing views of those events. On the one hand, you have Curtis who's the sceptic, he doesn't buy into the more colourful theories the birds come up with. On the other you have Charlotte, the evangelist... who treats it as a massive religious revelation.

Anders Nilsen: Yes, they both witness exactly the same thing happen but come to very different conclusions about it. That's what I find so interesting and wonderful about religion… even though I also happen to think that Christians are wrong! (Both laugh).

Of course, I know they think I'm wrong too.

Exqusite Things: But there's no reason that can't all still feed into your stories...

Anders Nilsen: Yeah, even though I disagree with Christianity, I'm still fascinated by the fact that they've invented these enduring traditions and amazing stories. As a storyteller, I almost feel that there's little point in trying to come up with new stories. Just messing around with existing stories is actually more interesting in a way.

Exquisite Things: Speaking of myths, I also noticed there's a strong allusion to the Orpheus myth in ‘Big Questions’. The search that Algernon undertakes, whereby he's determined to retrieve his partner from the underworld. This seemed like a very intense sequence to me, I know you experienced the loss of your fiance to cancer some years ago. I read that you’d drawn the sequence before she was diagnosed. Was that a very strange experience? To have your own work of fiction foreshadowing events in your life?

Anders Nilsen: Right, that sequence was written before she ever got sick, but I didn't get to the point of actually drawing it until some time after she died. So, there was this very weird moment where my life was following the work, as opposed to my life informing my work.

Exquisite Things
: What did you make of that?

Anders Nilsen: By nature, I'm not the kind of person who makes much of it. It's part of who I am – in the work that I do I deal with serious subject matter. Dealing with death, love and loss seems to come naturally to me. Obviously, these things happen in life all the time, so at some point it was bound to come around.

Exquisite Things: It's definitely an odd experience, did you find that you ended up pouring those experiences back into the sequence when you came to finish it? Did that add to the intensity of things?

Anders Nilsen: Honestly, I don't know. Of course, it's inevitable that your life experiences are reflected in your work. But with ‘Big Questions’, the story was already in place, it already existed independent of anything else. It really is just me trying to record the story as accurately and as faithfully as possible. All the things that happened in my life haven't really affected the story that much. Except maybe the flaws... which I blame myself for! (Both laugh)

Exquisite Things: Speaking of foreshadowing, one thing that interested me greatly was 'the snake' character in the book, primarily because the symbology attached to snakes is so historically rich. Many ancient cultures interpreted the snake’s unblinking, lidless eyes as a sign of great intelligence, and they were deemed to live by reason and not instinct. I think the most prominent signifier for me was the Snake as guardian of the Underworld or as a messenger between the upper and lower worlds. Your snake, like those in myth acts on reason and goes against the instincts you’d expect. Did these historical interpretations of the snake feed into the character and the purpose the snake serves?

Anders Nilsen: I remember reading that for many ancient cultures, the snake was seen as very wise because they were so close to the earth. I don't think I knew about them being seen as guardians of the underworld. But the pilot kills the snake...

Exquisite Things: and in turn meets his own demise fairly soon thereafter...

Anders Nilsen: Yeah... I'm not sure when exactly I devised that perfect little ending for both characters, but it was the ending that was necessary. I liked the circularity of it. Speaking of foreshadowing, the snake does talk about his own death before it happens; in a conversation with the owl. He knows his death is inevitable, but he also knows he's not just going to fade away. He has a purpose.

Exquisite Things
: Now, I may be reading into things here, but I couldn't help but think of Ouroboros, the symbol of the snake eating it's own tale. ‘Big Questions’ itself also come full circle as it concludes; and after much upheaval, death and loss in the human and avian world, we revert back to two birds discussing how great doughnut crumbs are. Bad things happen, the birds try and make sense of them, but life ultimately goes on...

Anders Nilsen: Right... the 'bad things' are life. I think of the book as having two endings, or two 'bird conversations' that wrap it up. There's the one you referred to, which is literally the last page, but there's also a conversation between Betty and Charlotte. Betty has moved on and the implication is that Betty is building a nest with Curtis. Basically, she hasn't completely reconciled all the horrible things that have happened or the guilt she felt, but life goes on. She's not really telling Charlotte 'you're wrong', but she just doesn't have time to deal with it any more. She's just getting on with things.

The story did evolve over time, and within a couple of years of starting it, I had the main plot points all figured out. But the idea of having that last conversation about the doughnut crumbs came to me very late on in the process. I decided I wanted to end the book in the same simple gag strip kind of style that I'd started it in.

Exquisite Things: Yeah, looking back at the really early strips that are reprinted in the back of ‘Big Questions’, I see a real affinity for gag strips. A lot of ‘Big Questions’ is quite visceral and serious but it's always balanced with the ridiculous. I loved that very early 'fuck you' bird strip in the appendix. Do you think it's important to maintain a sense of humour, to represent both dark and light?

Anders Nilsen: Oh yes, that's super important to me. There are a couple of ways I think about it, one is just to have an emotional range. The art that resonates with me most often is art that has a wide emotional range.

I mean, for example, I'm not even a huge Bob Dylan fan, but on some of his early records, and some of the bootleg connections, he'll do 'Bare Mountain Pick-nick', and that'll be immediately followed by the most heartbreaking song about a woman whose father is killed and she's forced to sleep with the Sheriff. That contrast multiplies the impact, I think. In my work, I really want both of those things to be able to coexist. I'm trying to make a serious comment on life, but I'm also really really interested in entertaining people. I think that's part of where my interest in the humour comes in.

Exquisite Things
: I think even your most harrowing material has a humorous side. ‘The End’ for instance, I found a really hard emotional read. It documents the fall out of you dealing with the death of your fiancé. It's pretty serious stuff, and yet, there's something darkly funny about it.

Anders Nilsen: Yes, it's supposed to be funny. The strip 'I can do whatever I want all the time'. It's a totally absurd situation. When you're going through something like that, there's an element of you being detached and of you observing yourself going through it. You're doing the dishes and you break into tears. Part of you is upset, but part of you is also watching yourself and thinking 'huh. this is weird, I was doing the dishes, and now I've collapsed and I'm on the floor crying'.

Exquisite Things: ‘The End’ was a companion piece to ‘Don't go where I can't follow’, and I have to admit it's the only book I haven't read. For some reason I didn’t pick it up when it came out and now I can’t get hold of a copy. I read you chose not to opt for a second printing. Can I ask why? Was it too close to the bone?

Anders Nilsen: There's a couple of reasons for that, but let me first say that the book is actually going to get reprinted next year. When I first started the book, it wasn't intended for public consumption. It was done as a memorial to Cheryl, then it took on this character and I wanted to do it in colour, and I needed a certain number of copies. I couldn't do it myself, it was just too expensive. It was intended for family and friends, but was published by Drawm & Qiarterly because that's the only way I could afford to get it out there. I was never 100% settled about that, and I'm still not, perhaps I never will be... The book seemed to really resonate with people though, and I got more response for that book than I'd ever had for anything else.

So, at that time, I was very unsure about the reprint. I had been working on the book again with the intention of reprinting. At about that time an article was published about it, and I was beginning to see somebody new and it just felt like there was this thing in my life, that I was beginning to move away from was on my heels. Having the book out there seemed to be preventing me from moving on with my life, or at least, it made it complicated.

Now, I have moved on. At this point I don't think the book is going to define me. I think I can frame it for the readers in a way that won't colour how they read rest of my work. I have a new 600 page book out now… I don't think it will overshadow ‘Big Questions’.

Exquisite Things: Turning to some of your other work now, your two 'Monologues' books' are really very different. They're more loose, more 'stream of consciousness' in their approach. Even the corrections and mistakes are left in. There seems to be a conscious effort to maintain a sense of immediacy as opposed to the very detailed style of ‘Big Questions’ and Dogs and Water. How do those two sides of your creative approach differ?

Anders Nilsen: I think of them as very different, but the truth is they do actually feed into each other. I began the ‘Monologues’ stuff after I was deep into ‘Big Questions’ and ‘Dogs and Water’. So I was doing a lot of very deliberately paced, carefully drawn work. The thing is, ‘Big Questions’ itself actually started as these really rough drawings of little birds having weird conversations. I found that really compelling and it lead me into interesting territory. So I went back to working in that way, and that became ‘Monologues’, I wanted to see what would happen if I kept it rough and immediate. What has happened, is that like ‘Big Questions’ it has coalesced into a bigger story and has developed its own structure all by itself. I'm trying to keep that off-the-cuff feel and looseness.

Exquisite Things
: That's interesting, because I think like many cartoonists, you come from a 'fine arts' background and then subsequently found your calling in comics. Was it sense of fun that made you decide comics were for you?

Anders Nilsen: Totally, that's what was so refreshing about finding comics again. It's fun, it's entertaining, it's easy... Well, it can be easy... It can be horribly hard also. All art has to have a relationship with an audience, and that was one of things that really struck me about comics. I could make a little mini comic and give it to a bunch of friends and it was instantaneous, you make your own audience.

Comics are a form that's very much about your audience. To me, comics are about communication. Paintings are about communication too, but they're these static objects that get hung on the wall and get looked at. Where as with a book, it's something you can get sucked into. I've done a lot of installation work, and I feel books are a little like installation work in that way, it's something you can become enveloped in.

Exquisite Things: Definitely... For me, the great thing about comics has always been the focus on how they convey information, and how they differ to other mediums in that way. I often find myself coming back to Eisner's musing on how comics hang together in terms of form, rhythm and pacing. I mean, a reader’s perception of time and the flow of events can be changed by simply changing how you arrange panels on a page. To me, that's really potent stuff.

Anders Nilsen: Maybe that's part of it... the rhythm, how you panel things out and arrange things. Comics are created to be read, they're for the viewer. Over the history of painting, there has been this idea that's suffused painting; that it's almost pure and maybe the viewer is not necessary. It's pure art, it's just an image. It is what it is whether anybody's standing there or not. I do paintings too, but comics have a more direct, necessary relationship with your audience.

Exquisite Things: So, what's on the cards for the future?

Anders Nilsen: I think I've already started too many projects! I will start a new proper graphic novel, but probably not for a year or two. Before that I'm going to do a book of my sketchbook strips. I have a show of drawing and painting coming up next summer. There's a third and final ‘Monologues’ book that I plan to do. That's not even everything, but that covers it for now.

Interview by Matthew Dick.

Quick Links:

Anders Nilsen Official Website
The Monolinguist - Anders Nilsen's Blog
Drawn & Quarterly

1 comment:

Purge+audit said...

Great interview, I appreciate you getting into the themes and motives behind the books. Recently read the book and was quite affected by it.