“It’s Dangerous to Get Caught up in Anything Besides the Work”: an Interview with Matthew Forsythe

Matthew Forsythe has worked as an animator, a children’s book illustrator, and a graphic novelist. He has two books coming out in the near future.  The Gold Leaf (Enchanted Lion Books) with Kirsten Hall is out on May 26th. The Bad Mood & The Stick (Little Brown) with Lemony Snicket will be in stores this fall. 

He was recently named Concordia University’s Mordecai Richler Writer in Residence for 2017, and will be speaking in this capacity on April 20th at 7pm as part of Concordia’s Thinking Out Loud series.

Brad de Roo caught up by phone with Matthew just as he arrived in his hometown of Port Colborne for a library talk. They chatted about teaching, comics, visual culture, narrative structure, work, and the improbability of artistic satisfaction.

BdR: What does a typical day as writer in residence include?

MF: The class that I am teaching didn’t exist before this, so I had to design the class. I’m really catering to the students, so as we go I am modifying it a lot. It’s really cool getting out in the community — and especially working with these students because they are really engaged, and they are really good at what they do. Even though they are young, they seem like quick learners.

So a lot of it is teaching. But I have also been doing a lot of writing this year. I’m wrapping up three books right now. It’s like with any project, the last phase is always the busiest.

BdR: Was the original idea to get a position where you could focus more on writing?

MF: Yeah, well I had these books lined up for a couple years. These are pictures books that I’m illustrating — and writing — but I knew I wanted to set aside this year for writing. Contractually, I have to do at least one picture book this year, and I am also very excited to make a comic book, or, I guess, a graphic novel. So when they asked me to do the writer in residence thing and I found out there was a teaching component, I was worried, because I know that takes a lot of time. I’ve taught a little bit before and I know that I especially need a lot of preparation, and I knew that that would eat up a lot of my time. But I also knew that it was important to do it. As a studio artist, you’re working alone a lot, and I think interfacing with people is super important to whatever you’re doing — especially if you’re writing. It’s very inspiring to be around people, you’re getting fresh ideas and challenging things all the time. I needed to do it and its definitely working into stuff I’m writing too. 

BdR: What does the class cover? The blurb on the Concordia site says you will be looking at all the things you’ve done before — graphic novels, children’s books, animation. How do you tie all of this together? Are there underlying principles you bring up?

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MF: Yeah. Exactly. There are about 10 or 12 principles that we’ve studied together. We’ve kind of created this little vocabulary and then we’re using that vocabulary to critique each other’s work.  I really wanted to avoid the kind of class where we’re all just talking about how we feel about each other’s work, and just having emotional discussions.  Sure they’re important, but I really wanted to talk practically about things that were happening in people’s work. And to speak intelligently and technically, in a way that when we leave the class, we understand the mechanics of what’s working and why. Then we can disregard those things and work more abstractly if we want, but at least this class has given us a framework.

BdR: You want to avoid the ad hominem or subjective stuff like “I don’t like who that character is?”

MF: Yeah. Or even worse — someone who says “I don’t like the way you use yellow.” But why?!  If they leave the class being able to distinguish between personal choices and technical, craft based choices in their work, I think that’s a huge thing.

BdR: Obviously narrative is something that fascinates you. Do you ever talk about philosophy of narrative?

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MF: One-hundred percent. We talk about that a lot in the class. I’m totally fascinated by that. I don’t write screenplays, but I’m one of those screenwriting nerds who loves listening to screenwriting podcasts. I’ve read every silly book on three-act structure. And I can see now that certain media respond to structure and other media less so.  For instance, picture books and animation definitely center around one thing — three-act structure is preferable, even if you move it around in some way. But in a novel form — in a graphic novel or a longer comic — you can just go with the depth and the texture of characters and you’re less beholden [to structure]. 

BdR: In a kid’s book, is there more of a design or teleos to it, whereas in a graphic novel you can go on more tangents..?

MF: I think so, yeah. I mean I don’t think I am an expert in the creation of those things, but as a student and a fan of them, I definitely think that picture books have a design logic to them.

BdR: Would you have a different approach if giving a lecture to laypersons, not studying creative writing?

MF: Well, right now I am doing a bunch of library talks.  I am doing three library talks around Toronto and the Niagara area. It’s a younger audience, so I’ll do a more career-based discussion.  I worked on that show Adventure Time for a while, so that’s sort of an easy way in for people, and I talk about books, and use my work as a way to talk about career stuff.

One thing we talk about a lot is the role of editor vs artist.  I mean you probably go up against this a lot. No matter what you’re doing, you’re going to have a producer or an editor. And that line is so arbitrary.  You know every time you work for a different magazine you’re probably as curious as anyone what the collaboration is going to look like, how much are they going to edit you, or how free are you to go somewhere you want. That’ s a theme that’s come up a lot — how much of this is something where I just get to do what I am want, that I am responsible for with my name is on it, and how much is this nebulous collaborative thing.

BdR: Do you think visual storytelling is becoming more central to our outlook as a culture? 

MF: Yeah I do, and I think the weirdness of even asking me to take this position is part of that. I thought it was a really cool, bold decision on Concordia’s part to ask me to do this, and I think it maybe a little surprising for some people.

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I haven’t thought big picture about it, but I do know myself — I guess I am a little more ADD — and I do find when I get on a bus like just even today, picking up a comic book is more accessible than diving into an epic novel. Maybe that’s sort of a cynical interpretation of it, but some publishers have told me that in Europe there isn’t this dichotomy. In North America there is a real hierarchy, words have this prestige in publishing. Artists are down the rung a little bit. When you collaborate on a book your name always goes second. It’s just sort of established and understood to be that way.   

We were just talking about screenwriting. Writers, for some reason, take backseat to the images. Whoever is cinematographer, director, actors — those people creating the visual face of those things are always hierarchically above the writers. They always talk about how writers are treated like shit in the film industry.  But it’s just arbitrary. I think these things are arbitrary. I try not to give it any weight. Writing is good, images are good, if they’re good. 

BdR:I used to be a support worker with kids and noticed an increase in visual literacy away from writing. It is not like they couldn’t read or didn’t ever, it is just that visual fluency seemed greater in comparison to my childhood or the generations before me. I mean video games were, are, huge, for example. They’ve even replaced films as the bestselling media.

MF: Egyptians were communicating in hieroglyphs. It seems like the most accessible medium — that’s why kids can jump into it at a young age. It’s weird when people are trying to teach us how to read comics, I think there’s something very intuitive about it and that’s something to be celebrated, and pushed. 

BdR: I think that makes sense. It’s something you touch on in your book Comics Class. People seem to get what is implied between panels. We might not get the whole depth of the story, that might come through the layering of lots of panels, but the initial jump seems to be one most people can make pretty quickly?

MF: It is something that’s intuitive, but when you talk about it, when you really break it down it becomes something else.  Something that is common with professional artists — and I teach this in the class — is to never repeat the text with the image. If someone writes something, then never repeat that action with an image.  “I flew to Florida last week.” I don’t want to see an image of a plane over the Everglades, because prose is quite adequate at telling that story. The images need to tell a different story, or they need to inflect the story in a way. This is something we are working on a lot in the class, and it’s really hard. It’s kind of one of those things you have to reinvent panel to panel — how am I not going to repeat myself?   

BdR: Essentially, you are trying to avoid redundancy?

MF: Not just redundancy. Repeating actually makes it a worse experience.  As readers, we know that the reader is the best person for coming up with the image for a text. If you steal that from the reader, then you’ve just subtracted all the energy from that transaction. It slows things down and it ultimately sucks when that happens, especially repeatedly.

BdR: That’s something I didn’t really think of in terms of visual narrative. In writing the reader seems as involved as the writer is — we are bringing so many expectations to the meaning of words. But I suppose it’s the same visually. We have a lot of ways we would expect or like to see things, and while it is not up to the illustrator to fulfill that necessarily, they should play with it to some extent? 

“Here’s where you start. You read as much as you can, and you measure your own work against what you read — and never be satisfied.”
 

MF: Exactly. And the best artists can play with it in really fascinating ways.

BdR: Once you get these other titles wrapped up — the Gold Leaf with Kirsten Hall comes out soon, and you’ve the Lemony Snicket book in the fall — you said you’d like to move back to a full length graphic novel. Do you have ideas for that? Have you started on something?

MF: There are few things I have scripts for and stories that I am playing around with.  But you know these things, its best not to talk about them until they’re well under way or done. I’ve done that before and then I just look like a fool 15 years later when it’s not finished.

BdR: When your multi-volume Port Colborne biography isn’t finished? Haha

MF: Haha. Yeah. The History of Port Colborne in 17 books.

BdR: Anything else you’re excited about? Anything you are reading that is delving into your questions about narrative?

MF: Comics-wise, there’s this guy Walter Scott, who did this book Wendy. It’s this really fun satire. It’s smart, it’s funny, and it’s well-drawn in a way that’s not self-conscious. That’s really inspiring. And also the new Blammo by Noah Van Sciver is really good. He does these little comics every year or two that are just pamphlets, but they’re really personal and it’s what I love about reading comics.

BdR: Is satire something that you’d want to pursue more? You played with it a bit in Comics Class.

MF: Yeah. It seems like a natural way for me to write. Hopefully, not in a cynical way, but I don’t think it’s something that I can change.

BdR: You’ve had a wide variety of experiences in illustration and otherwise. There’s probably a lot of material there?

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Matthew Forsythe

MF: Ha. Yeah. Maybe, and also academia.

I actually just started doing comics for the Walrus for this residency. It’s kind of a sequel to Comics Class, a Comics Professor thing.  I have no idea how it’s going to be released. I just sent them a little three-page comic and I’ll keep adding to it every week.

BdR: I’ll definitely look for that! 

Do you feel any pressure to be a literary representative with your residency position?

MF: Anyone who is writer knows that it tangential, it’s really an aside, it’s really just about doing the work. It’s dangerous to get caught up in anything besides the work.

BdR: It’s just you alone in your room with the work…or alone on the bus with your work?

MF: Yeah. It’s kind of amazing. This year I have a lot of gratitude for what I do. Everything I do points back to that, point back to going to my studio and working. I love that. It’s my favourite thing to do.

BdR: Is this something you’d impart to students as well – the necessity of doing the lonely work?

MF: A couple of the students said: “I really like this. What should I do? I don’t know where to start.”  Here’s where you start. You read as much as you can, and you measure your own work against what you read — and never be satisfied.   

BdR & MF: Hahaha

MF: I don’t think contentment is really in the cards if you are doing this kind of thing. But that’s okay. That’s not what we’re looking for. It’s really just about enjoying the work.

BdR: It’s a great name for a book tour. The Never Be Satisfied book tour spreading the lonely work gospel….

MF: Haha. Yeah. Coming in October.