Julinda Morrow Interviews Nicola Streeten
I met Nicola Streeten at the opening reception of the 2102 Comics and Medicine Conference in Toronto, Canada. Her welcoming smile immediately put me at ease.
Nicola is the author of Billy, Me and You, her very personal and very true story of losing her two-year-old son following heart surgery for problems diagnosed only ten days earlier. Billy, Me and You first appeared in serialized form for Liquorice Magazine and was subsequently published as a book in October 2011.
Nicola was recently Highly Commended by the British Medical Association in the Popular Medicine category at the Book Awards 2012.
I thank Nicola for giving me the opportunity to ask her candid questions, and for replying so honestly.
Julinda Morrow: Let me just start by saying that I think you are an incredibly brave person for sharing your story of such loss. Billy, Me and You is remarkable for its honesty. Graphic novels are not typically or immediately associated with the kind of emotional intimacy in the work. Why did you choose sequential art as the medium through which to tell the story of losing your two-year-old son to congenital heart problems?
Nicola Streeten: I began the project twelve years after Billy died. Part of my story is that, at the time, I drew as a form of catharsis. I did not draw about the experience but instead drew humorous cartoons about parenting. This kick-started my career as an illustrator and, twelve years on, my illustration style that combined text and image was established.
Meanwhile, I had become familiar with publications such as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan when, following his winning the Guardian first book prize, he was reaching a wider audience. I came to the form as part of that new and non-comics fan audience. I recognized that the language was one I could learn easily and feel comfortable with to tell a longer narrative. I began a subscription-based zine, called Liquorice Magazine (liquoricemag.com) with my daughter Sally who, at that time, was 11 years old. This is where chapters of my graphic memoir were first published and where they were seen by UK publisher Myriad Editions, who published it as a book.
JM: How did you come to the point where you realized you felt compelled to tell your story? And in view of how close to you the subject matter was, what kind of experience was writing Billy, Me and You? At the risk of seeming trite or insensitive I would like to ask if it was – intentionally or not – a therapeutic experience?
NS: Both John and I knew at the time it was an abnormal thing to happen within our culture and that it was the biggest experience we had had. We realized that something would come of it and talked about something collaborative emerging one day. When, after I was first published, the point came to make it happen I signed up to do a masters degree. Once the project became official in that way, it felt right to revisit all the written diaries and memorabilia we had kept. Before that point, I had been emotionally unable to revisit these items. It was important to me that it was the story about me and John, so in that sense it is collaboration.
On reflection, I think, first, it would have been a very different story if I had done it at the time; I think it would have been very inward and angry. Revisiting it from a distance has enabled me to incorporate why and how my very individual story is relevant to you, the reader. I have widened the issues beyond the specific instance to examine death and bereavement in our society. Secondly, the book has received a lot of press and media coverage. If I were not comfortable making such a private story public, it would have been very difficult to engage on that level.
The experience of working on the project was a joy. That may sound odd, but the narrative is about the process of grief and recovery. At the time following Billy’s death, John and I very consciously worked to digest the trauma. As a result, over a decade later, my aim was something different. I am not a broken person, and I was not approaching the project in a raw state. I wanted to evoke in the reader the emotional rollercoaster that is grief, which we experienced at the time. This meant a very consciously created narrative. Although the style and presentation looks immediate and “rough” this is also conscious. My motive was to create a narrative. It also became an academic project. Emotionally it is a little as if I am telling someone else’s story. It has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done.
If you read the book there is a section about the catharsis. It is the most often-asked question. I find people ask who are not familiar with what catharsis even means. It surprises me constantly how unquestioningly embedded a Freudian “understanding” of the word is in our society. So – I say – the narrative can perhaps be understood as cathartic in the Aristotelian sense of the word!
JM: Billy, Me and You is by its nature a very personal story. Reflecting on the artistic process, would you say that the medium of the graphic novel lent itself naturally, so to speak, to expressing what you wanted to express or did you have to consciously bend and shape it to your intentions?
NS: As above, yes, consciously bent and shaped. The form creates immediate impact; the text and image must work hard with little. That is, there is no room for padding; there was a lot of editing in the process to ensure that was achieved.
JM: Your book resonated, among other audiences, with parents who are grieving the loss of a child. Have there been particularly poignant or otherwise memorable responses from parents that you would care to share with our readers?
NS: I am glad to say that of the responses I have received, many are simply from readers who have experienced grief or bereavement. This was my aim. I am surprised when men and people in their twenties respond positively and I am surprised when women with children don’t respond! I have been unable to specifically categorize the reader who gets something from the book; I see this as a good thing!
JM: Has your work left you with aspirations for the medium itself? Do you hope that other people are encouraged by your work to, may I say, express themselves as intimately through sequential art, or is that not something that you have thought about?
NS: Yes, while working on the project I set up Laydeez do comics, with artist, curator and academic Sarah Lightman. This is a London-based monthly graphic novel forum, modeled on the artist salon idea. We invite artists to present their works and encourage people from a non-comics background to be both guests and audience. It is not women only, but it is women led. We set up in 2009 and now attract a regular audience of 70 people and have this year had meetings in New York, San Francisco, Toronto and places around the UK. I think it’s an interesting way of representing memoir, a form women have used within prose to tell their personal stories to make political points.
We are very excited to be hosting Alison Bechdel at our November meeting in London.
JM: I first heard of your work through mainstream media outlets. How has the comics community as a whole responded to your story? Were you surprised by the response?
NS: The reviews I have received have been positive. It may not be to everyone’s taste. I would not expect a superhero reviewer to have any interest in the works I am immersed in, any more than I have interest in superheroes! As a whole, the comics community in the UK is a small, friendly and supportive one. I love being a part of it!
JM: Has your daughter read Billy, Me and You? Has she spoken to you about it?
NS: She read it critically, having read other graphic novels I liked, so she could give me useful feedback.
JM: Will you continue, for the foreseeable future, to write graphic novels? Do you have any other projects in mind that you would care to tell our readers about?
NS: Yes. I am currently working on my second graphic novel, which is based on women’s choices around reproduction. Whereas with my first book, I was aiming to create powerful emotional responses in the reader, with this work I want the reader’s response to be, “Bl-o-o-dy HELL”.