In this third part of our interview with The Squirrel Machine author, we discuss Rickheit’s writing process, the proper distance for an interpretation of one’s own work, and how an organ built out of pigs’ heads is reflective of the human condition.
The story feels fairly organic in terms of plotting. How closely do you script it?
It was not at all scripted. I had a vague idea of what was going to happen, where it was going to go. It really has to work that way for me. I can’t work from a script. If the book were really tightly scripted, I promise you I’d lose interest in it, and I might force myself to draw it, but the artwork would just become a lifeless thing. The book would suffer dramatically. I could force myself to draw it, but I wouldn’t enjoy it. I like not knowing what the next page is going to have. That’s sort of what makes it interesting to me, what’s going to happen next. That gives me the impetus to continue drawing it and hopefully render it as best as I can.
So you’re almost approaching it as a reader.
I have no clue where it’s going to go. It’s as mysterious to me as to my readers. I have no idea what’s going to happen next. It would not be interesting to me if I was not surprised by what I’m going to draw next. And unfortunately, it’s not always that way, but it’s gratifying when it is.
Does that also make you unable to really explain the book in a succinct manner?
I think it’s interesting to reexamine the book after it’s done. My other graphic novel, which was funded by a Xeric Grant, Chloe, I was able to examine it a year or two after it was published and sort of understand what I was drawing and why I was drawing it and what it was really about. That’s sort of the same thing with The Squirrel Machine. It’s all semi-autobiographical in a regurgitated form with everything tweaked and manipulated to obfuscate the truth.
Do you know what it’s about yet? Do you have the proper distance?
On the surface, I think it’s about growing up in New England. It’s about my friendship with E. Stevens when we were youngsters. And there’s a lot of other personal things that it’s about. But the truth is, for any reader, it’s really up for interpretation what it’s about. The book to my mind is designed in a way that each event cumulatively adds to an interpretation that can make the book very different for every person reading it. The resultant whole will be up to that individual reader. It’s designed that way. There’s no one interpretation. Each and every possible interpretation could or could not be correct, and I’m not likely to argue with any interpretation.
Do you find that your work is conducive to having readers come up to you and explain what the books are about?
I love it when they do that, especially when they come up with something completely random that sounds like they read a completely different book. My friend who wrote the introduction explained the ending to me in ways that I’d never thought of. And it was actually a much better interpretation that my own. That’s something I’d hoped would happen. I was looking forward to that.
When something is so loosely scripted that it’s essentially being written page by page, when is it clear that it’s time to stop?
It’s not that loosely scripted. I know in my mind where certain events have to occur, and I know the shape of the story and where it’s going to end. And certain things have to occur at certain points in the story. A lot of the nuts and bolts I don’t know and often times when I’m drawing, I’ll realize that something I’ve just draw changes the whole flow of the story and alters everything afterward. But for the most part, I did know where everything was going to go and what was going to happen. So that wasn’t really a question in my mind. It was clear when I got there that it was the ending.
It’s seems important for you to express—and this was reflected in an e-mail you sent prior to this interview—that the purpose of the work is not to shock.
Well, I don’t want to say that it’s an accusation, but that seems to be everybody’s immediate response and then they shut off thinking about it. I’m aware that there are things in it that will shock people, but to me they’re not shocking. I’m sort of out of touch with the rest of the world. I don’t really know what’s shocking to the rest of the world and what isn’t when I’m drawing something, it’s because that’s what looks like belongs in the thing that I’m thinking in the moment. It’s either reflective of what I feel is an honest accurate depiction of the human experience. And if people find that shock, well, I can’t predict what will shock people, to be honest. I guess I do worry that because people write it off as shocking material, they just won’t think of anything beyond that. I guess I like to try to negate that attitude.
You feel like an organ made out of decapitated pigs heads is reflective of the human experience in some way?
I don’t know, just as much as the fact that people wear shoes made out of cows’ hide. We’re using animal parts all the time. this is one step closer to the source material of a lot of the stuff we do. But really, it does look like a neat idea [laughs]. a friend of mine who makes artwork that often uses the carcasses of animals, he was telling me that when he moves around a dead pig, even though it’s dead, the oxygen, when he moves it around, still makes grunting squealing noises. I don’t know if pigs have larynxes or not, but you could take a bunch of pigs heads and make an organ out of them and it might work. I don’t encourage people to hurt animals—quite the contrary, but to me, if you ask if that’s related to the human experience, I’d say, “yes.”
Shoes don’t look like a cow, so we’re removed enough so that it takes that horrific image out of the process.
Yeah. I can look around my room and see plenty of things that were made from the part of the animal, but we removed the parts that look too much like something that you would empathize with. People get more upset when you perform medical experiments on monkeys that on rabbits, because monkeys look more like people, so you empathize more with them. But I’m pretty sure that monkeys and rabbits feel pain the same way.
We’re used to seeing people get shot and tortured and killed in movie, but that’s never really happens to the cute animals.
I suppose not. But I guess we’re at a stage now that if you want to look at the horrible mangling of any creature, you can look it up on the Internet, if that’s what you want to do.
[Concluded in Part Four]