Lighter Than My Shadow, on sale now from Jonathan Cape, is a powerful, thought-provoking hand-drawn story of struggle and recovery, a trip into the black heart of a taboo illness, an exposure of those who are so weak as to prey on the vulnerable, and an inspiration to anybody who believes in the human power to endure towards happiness.
This frankly amazing graphic novel is the work of Katie Green, an artist and illustrator living in the south west of England. She has published a regular zine, The Green Bean, since 2010.
I caught up with Katie to talk about her challenging new book and her creation process…
Katie Green: That’s quite a long story, most of which is told in the book itself so I won’t spoil it too much. When I was struggling with anorexia I was frustrated with the literature I found. The message seemed to me either that I would be struggling with this illness for the rest of my life, or that recovery was as simple as thinking positively and snapping out of it.
I decided there was a need for a book that told the unflinching truth about how hard recovery is, but showing that it is indeed possible, and worth it. Writing that book was part of my motivation to get better.
downthetubes: How long did it take to write and draw? It’s a tale on a par with Craig Thompson’s Blankets in terms of length…
Katie: It depends when you count as the start! I had the idea in 2001, at which point it was going to be a prose novel. It wasn’t until I discovered comics in 2006 (Maus was my first, but it was Blankets that sealed the deal) that I decided to tell the story in pictures. Still, I only really started working on it seriously in 2008 as part of my illustration degree.
I began officially after the idea (which is all it truly was) was signed by Cape in early 2010. I then spent two years storyboarding – I think we went through six or seven redrafts of the entire book before I started drawing. Comparatively, the drawing itself was the quick part of the process because I had everything meticulously planned already. It took 14 months working full-time, six days a week.
downthetubes: Did you script the full story first or tell it visually from the a start?
Katie: I’m not much of one for scripting, and actually I try to use as few words as possible, so I was working visually all the way through. That said, I’ve never really seen a divide between scripting and drawing. Certainly when you’re one creator working on both aspects, it makes sense they’re inextricably tied together.
downthetubes: Do you draw traditionally or digitally?
Katie: Both actually, and the extent of each varies from project to project. All the line work in Lighter Than My Shadow is drawn on real paper with a real pen, but after that almost everything – the shading, the textured paper backgrounds – is done digitally.
downthetubes: Given the subject matter, and that it is an autobiographical story, was it hard to displace yourself from the character as you told the story? Did you see the protagonist as a separate entity?
Katie: I found it almost entirely impossible. My editor was diligent about referring to the protagonist as ‘Katie’ rather than ‘you’, and this helped when we were attempting objective discussion of things like structure and pacing for the most traumatic moments of my life. But for myself, I never could achieve that separation, though I often wished for it!
downthetubes: It must have been quite a step, I’m guessing to ‘bare your soul’ regarding the eating disorder that has clearly had such an impact on your life – not to mention the harrowing events that surrounded the search for a cure. Have you found the process cathartic in any way?
Katie: Not at all actually. Before I started working on the book in earnest, most of the ‘stuff’ was so firmly in the past that days or weeks could go by when I didn’t even think about it. I had to be in that place to start work on the book because I knew what would happen: dredging up the past and sitting with it every day brought it right back in to the present. It did not always feel like a healthy thing to be doing and the result, rather than catharsis, is that I’ve published something which affirms this ‘stuff’ as a very central and ongoing part of my life, something I will be thinking and talking about for a good while to come. Albeit in a different way, it is more present to me than ever (I do not think this is a bad thing).
downthetubes: What’s been the response to the story so far – have you had comment from people facing similar issues, or those who have had to live with or treat people with eating disorders?
Throughout the process, when I’ve shared tiny bits of the book at events and on my blog, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Certainly when I was struggling I often felt misunderstood, and was immensely encouraged to read or hear about someone with whom I could identify.
It’s my highest hope for the book that it might help someone realise they are not alone, or help a parent, friend or carer understand what they are going through.
downthetubes: Beyond delivering such a thought-provoking story (because it is), do you have any other aspirations for the novel? For example, do you think it will help anyone facing an eating disorder (or the issue of abuse)?
Katie: I’m wary of suggesting the book might help, because it’s not intended as a this-is-how-to-do-recovery guide. If anything, it’s a catalogue of all the mistakes I made in recovery that could serve as a guide on how not to do it! Seriously though, I gave a lot of thought to what to include (and not to include) so that the book would not be detrimental in any way to anyone’s recovery. Further than that, my intent was just to tell my story as honestly as I could.
As I said above, I hope that might help someone realise they are not alone. That would be more than enough.
Katie: I’ve just (literally, this morning!) signed off an illustrated story book, The Crystal Mirror. It’s a collection of five stories for all ages written by Tim Malnick, coming out from Vala on 13th November. It couldn’t be more different from Lighter Than My Shadow!
After that, I’m looking forward to returning to my long-neglected labour of love, my zine The Green Bean. I’m looking forward to working on something with a much shorter turnaround time.
Lighter Than My Shadow has been the longest and most intense project I’ve ever worked on and I think it will take a while to recharge enough to tackle either of the new graphic novel ideas starting to percolate in my head…
downthetubes: Above anything else, what one piece of advice would you offer aspiring comic creators?
Katie: Draw every day.
Katie, thank you very much for your time and best of luck with the book and your future work.
Lighter Than My Shadow is on sale now in all good bookshops
• Lighter Than My Shadow: Initial Impressions (downthetubes tumblr link)
• More about Lighter Than My Shadow: http://lighterthanmyshadow.com.
It’s well worth a visit, delving more into how the novel was created and I’m sure other comic creators will find it of interest.
• Katie Green’s official web site: http://katiegreen.co.uk
All images © 2013 Katie Green