Interview: James Sturm Pt. 4 [of 4]

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In this final part of our interview with the Market Day artist, we discuss the fine line between real life and fiction in Sturm’s most recent book.

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three]

When you’re drawing events from real life and running them through a filter of fiction, at what point in the draft making process does it become clear that this piece of your life is best told through the story of a rug salesman in turn of the century Eastern Europe?

Well, I don’t know. I’m not quite sure how to answer that. I think every novelist and any storyteller puts a little bit of themselves in every character, or else they couldn’t have created it. So, in that sense, that certainly holds for me. I think a lot of it starts with images. I know I wanted to set a book in eastern Europe. Over ten years ago—probably 15 years ago, I bought a stack of books of photos and drawings that I eventually used for reference in Market Day. I was just really attracted to these images, and I knew that someday I was going to use this as the setting for a comic.

I interviewed Jason Lutes at San Diego Comic Con, and that sounds very similar to the story that gave birth to Berlin.

Uh huh. Yeah, I think certain images work as an attractor. You’re sucked into it, and they resonate with you on some level that’s a little deeper than just language. For me, it was a matter of coming back to these images when I was thinking about another project—a children’s book. That evolved into Market Day.

Have you traveled there at any point?

No, I’ve never travelled to Eastern Europe. And, of course, the Eastern Europe in that book doesn’t exist anymore.

Do you think that might have helped the process?

No, no, not for that. There’s a certain kind of storybook quality to it. There are certain aspects of Market Day that aren’t very historically accurate. The emporium—I don’t even know if there was such a thing.

The mini-mall of the day.

Yeah, it’s like Wal-Mart. Did such things exist? Maybe, maybe not. The interior of that was based on this place down the street from my studio called Vermont Salvage.I went in there, did some sketches, and took some photos, and voila, you have an Eastern European emporium.

And there’s also some landscapes in there that look very Vermont and New Hampshire [laughs]. So, I’m concerned with making it convincing. I think, on one level, if it’s emotionally convincing, people will buy the environment. In my work, too, there’s a lot of telling details, but I try to strip out things that would really give me away.

You’re certainly not hiding the fact that there’s a lot of autobiography in there, though.

No, no. I’m not hiding it [laughs]. The guy’s wife’s name is the name of my wife, Rachel. But to tease apart what the differences are between what’s my life and what’s this guy’s life, there’s a ton of difference. What writer doesn’t mine his own life for material? Phillip Roth and Paul Auster—they’re characters within their own novels. But I think it would be a mistake or misreading of their work to say that this is strict autobiography. It’s a discredit to their literary imaginations, as well.

Do you feel like straight autobiography is too well-tread at this point in comics?

If it’s done well, it’s not. Any historical fiction could be lame. Is it well-tread? Certainly there’s been an interesting tradition of it in comics, especially over the last decade or two. And there are people who are really good and can do it in a compelling manner, and there are people who do it and it doesn’t feel so inspired. I wouldn’t shy away from it. If I felt I could do it well, I would do it in that way. I just don’t feel like, given my own toolkit as an artist, that that’s the best path for me.

Is it something that you would steer students away from? In some respects it almost feels like a default mode.

No. I would never discourage any of my students from pursuing a genre that they felt passionate about. There are a lot of people doing autobiographical comics and journal comics. And maybe this is their throat clearing before they utter something a little more profound. Maybe this is where they’re going to learn the material that’s readily acceptable to them and excites them.

I encourage them to do it. I Just try to ask pertinent questions and suggest people that they would like, and go from there. I do autobiographical comics, too, but they’re usually in my sketchbook and not for public consumption. But no, I don’t have any problem with the genre itself.

You have a sketchbook of full comics that you never want to release?

Oh, sure. I’ve got full sketchbooks that are just comics. And, again, if I felt I was going to publish them, I would probably have a different approach toward making them. Usually when I’m involved in a graphic novel, it’s pretty all-consuming, and I’m not sketching and doodling as much. And then when I’m spinning my wheels, waiting to get traction, I’m usually very active in my sketchbook. And sometimes sketchbooks have a certain theme. Market Day came out of a sketchbook drawing. I definitely mine that material for other projects.

When you do a graphic novel, every panel has a story of something you’re trying to articulate. The drawings can’t have as much fun in a way, for the way I work. In the sketchbooks, the drawings are the boss. You go with it. And I think that approach to it is probably more apparent in my drafts, where, before I nail things down, I try to have a dialog where things are being blurted out.

–Brian Heater