LIVE from the NYPL: Building Stories Together with Chris Ware and Zadie Smith
Photo credit: Jori Klein/The New York Public Library
Shortly after receiving the Guardian First Book award in 2001 for Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, graphic novelist Chris Ware accompanied writer Zadie Smith (recipient of the prize in 2000 for White Teeth), to the Tate Britain to see Martin Creed's Work No. 227: the lights going on and off. As they stood in the empty room that would become light then dark then light again, Smith, in her mid-twenties at the time, turned to Ware and said, "Well, this is what's just won our premier art prize in England." He looked horrified and Smith empathized, especially since Ware had previously been explaining the craft and care involved in making a single page of a comic book, from faintly sketching the images and dialogue boxes in non-photo-blue pencil and then adding layer by layer of definition and color.
It was then that Smith recognized a deeply-engrained commonality between them: although both were modern artists, they did not only want to experiment with clever concepts where the reader laughed at the joke and walked away. Rather, they aimed to create innovative pieces that were emotionally stirring in the way of a Caravaggio painting or Tolstoy novel.
About ten years later, the friends gathered one evening at the ballroom-like main branch of the New York Public Library to discuss how they had approached this task in a tangible way. Doting fans, both young and old, filled the seats to capacity and overflowed into the aisles for the closing night of LIVE from the NYPL, a series of stimulating chats with distinguished thinkers. The two, who seem to move in tandem, had published books in 2012, both of which had appeared on The New York Times Book Review’s 10 best works of the year. Both pieces are especially concerned with the importance of place and how, by using location as an anchor, one can explore the fullness of time while switching between characters. For Smith’s NW, that place is Northwest London, an impoverished section of the city; for Ware’s Building Stories, a three-story Chicago apartment building.
Usually, the eloquent interlocutor Paul Holdengräber officiates the discussions, but this evening he watched offstage. Smith, pregnant and glowing, her hair in a rose-colored wrap, sat alongside Ware, whose shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses made him appear deceptively stern. “We’re going to start concrete,” said Smith, “We’re not going to talk too much about inspiration, we’re going to talk about how writers and cartoonists are made, or how we were made, one way or another, in basic terms.” To which Ware joked, “Forged in the crucible of loneliness.”
The dark monitors awoke and were illuminated with the words, “Childhood and Youth,” and a moment later there appeared a candid photograph of Smith as a girl with a windswept afro and squinted eyes, her brother and grey-haired father standing alongside her on a boat. As the two artists spoke of memories from adolescence—the bad haircuts, unrequited love, and questionable choices—they also explored their artistic development.
A photograph of Smith in loose-fitting clothing prompted her to recount when she broke her leg at 16 by falling three stories. She had thought her mother was coming up the stairs, and as she clumsily tried to hide a misdeed, she tumbled out of the window. This story began with a light-hearted tone, but Smith quickly took it deeper, saying, “I think those three things of being alone a lot, or feeling that I was alone a lot, having a much older father who you saw a moment ago, and actually that strange kind of near-death experience, that feeling of having almost seen over the wall at something else were a few things that seemed to have shaped me.” As a teenager, Smith rarely wrote, and when she did, she composed near-copies of Agatha Christie or P. G. Wodehouse stories. Instead, she read voraciously, swallowing the works of Shakespeare, Austen, and Keats whole. When Smith started White Teeth at age 22, the words came easily: “writing [was] an explosion of eighteen years worth of reading all the time.”
Ware said he followed a similar trajectory with the intensive practice coming before the storytelling. As a teenager, he would repetitively sketch men in tights “hoping that some girl would come and look over my shoulder and see the drawing,” he said half-seriously. When he entered college, he wrote his first fully-narrativized comic and began focusing on creating precise and well-crafted art.
At this juncture in college, the two began to learn how they could reproduce the fullness they had experienced when digesting great works of art (for Smith, the first book to induce tears was Jane Eyre, for Ware, it was Of Mice and Men). To illustrate this aim of rousing their audience and exposing them to a sliver of reality, they showed two distinct examples that did just that: Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress, a minimalist image that conveys warmth without being sentimental, and Philip Guston’s Head, which Ware described as “one of the most moving images of the 21st century.”
Mary Cassatt's Maternal Caress
Philip Guston’s Head
For both, anchoring the narrative in a historically rich place was one means of achieving this depth, an approach pioneered and refined by Richard McGuire’s comic strip, Here, in which billions of years pass in a corner of a room. Smith had read it shortly before starting White Teeth and for Ware it remains a source of inspiration or “thievery,” as he put it. As Smith spoke about Here, she grew visibly excited, her delicate hands fluttering like birds: “That kind of knowledge that you’re in the world, but also the world goes back some way, and that every step you take, someone else stepped on this piece of pavement or lived in this room, that was always my preoccupation, I always thought it was yours, too,” she said, turning to Ware, who agreed.
“Even when I was younger I thought about trying to get at the four-dimensionality of space in comics,” said Ware, “I think Art [Spiegelman] has even put it that comics are the art of turning time back into space and flattening out and trying to see everything all at once.” By focusing on one apartment building, Ware can explore the inner lives of its inhabitants with ease, knowing that there is always a point of return. This layering adds roundness to the reading experience along with an edge of experimentalism as he manipulates the way we experience time. A baby matures into a girl in a way that seems to have happened suddenly, but naturally. The building’s owner, an elderly woman, is shown as a teenager tending her frail mother, and reverts to her previous incarnation in the blink of an eye.
To fully conjure these places and have them feel real, Ware and Smith placed an emphasis on fine details, from gestures to the decor of a room. As they imagined what would fill their created spaces, they sifted through Google Images since, as Smith put it, “You can imagine a lot of things, but sofas is [sic] not one of the things I can imagine anymore.” In her research folder, she had collected images of bleak North London apartments where one of her characters conducts sordid affairs; a statue of Thomas More, author of Utopia, watches over her discontent characters; and then a highway overpass where a suicide is contemplated. In contrast, the clips that Ware amassed to breathe life into his middle-class world included a maudlin prom photo; a girl being fit with a prosthetic (the lead character lost her leg in youth); and a smattering of flowers, since that figures in as a sub-theme. “I always say to my students stop worrying so much about this macro issue, the theme of the book,” said Smith, “Concern yourself with these details, because that’s what we read for and what we love in what we read.”
Photo credit: Jori Klein/The New York Public Library
What surprised Smith about Ware’s work when she first encountered it was the almost obsessive degree of intricacy. When she had previously read comics, she could breeze through them, but upon picking up Jimmy Corrigan, she was forced to slow her pace. The pages were dense with nuance and the situation was complicated because the frames did not always move from left to right, so she was prompted to create a reading order when none was apparent. Eventually, Smith learned to simply let her eyes absorb the entire page and through this tactic, she discovered that the story is always told, regardless of its sequence.
Building Stories, a boxed set of 14 distinct components, is an even more radical take on this approach of breaking apart the narrative, for the reader can choose to begin and end with any of the pamphlets, essentially determining the entire story’s order. Smith, who has read the book twice, remarked that she had finished at different locations both times and that the ending always felt like a “revelation” because she had been the one to determine the story’s structure, she had been the builder. In one of the strips, the main character dreams that she discovers a book of hers in a store. The description of this dream book, as Smith put it, “is a kind of meta-description of Building Stories; when I read it I also thought it was a description of what I’d been trying to do in NW”:
“And it had everything in it...my diaries, the stories from my writing classes, even stuff I didn’t know I’d written...everything I’d forgotten, abandoned or thrown out was there...everything...and it wasn’t -- I dunno -- it wasn’t really a book either...it was in...pieces, like, books falling apart out of a carton, maybe...but it was...beautiful...it made sense...”
Although NW’s story is contained between covers, it echoes this sentiment through its sentences, which are sometimes so fragmentary and disjointed that the reader must pause, review what has just been read, and once the temporal connection has been established, resume the original thread. One portion, the most radically constructed, contains 185 brief sections, fleeting moments, snippets of dialogue, and images recounted by one of the main characters, Keisha Blake (who later adopts the name Natalie).
Swallows, Arc. Dip.
Elevator to the beach.
Empty beach. Sun rise. Sun set.
“You know how rare this is, in Italy?
This is what you pay for -- the silence!”
He swims. Every day.
“The water is perfect!”
When reading NW, Ware said it felt like he was watching concentrated dyes bloom in water. The disjointed quality of the writing did not alienate the reader, as one might expect, but communicated what is left of reality for Keisha/Natalie in a way that we feel closer to them. Through this style, Smith also tries to remind us of how we actually remember events, which is in pieces and subjectively. We don’t recall in sweeping swaths, imbued with sympathy for everyone we have ever met, as Tolstoy does in his novels, but rather, we recall what is important to us and leave out the rest. These gaps are part of what make Smith’s novel fiercely contemporary, but they also help convey the inner lives of her characters in a way that we feel free to roam their psyches. “I really think one of the reasons to make art is to write about something for people who haven’t been born yet and to leave that behind,” said Ware, “And art is there to communicate to us about what it felt like to be alive, say, a hundred years ago and to feel the similarities not just now or then, it’s all part of the same thing.”