Tom Hart on Rosalie Lightning, Graphic Memoir and Tough Topics
I saw the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning on a shelf at Barnes & Noble last month.
It's a father's story about the sudden and unexplained death of his young daughter, and how he tried to find meaning in his loss.
I almost didn't read it. The topic scared me. I can't imagine anything worse than losing a child.
But I did read Rosalie Lightning, and found the book so honest and insightful and raw that I couldn't help but love it (even though it made me cry). Last week I reached out to its author, Eisner-nominated cartoonist Tom Hart, to see if he'd be interested in doing a Q&A. He graciously said yes. Here's what Tom shared with me.
Interview with Tom Hart, Author of Rosalie Lightning
Your work is so raw and vulnerable. How did you protect yourself emotionally, while also allowing yourself to go so deep into the experience?
I don't think I did protect myself emotionally. There was nothing to protect. The book was a way to stitch myself back together, I think. I hope that doesn't seem too simplistic, but it's true. The shock of it destroyed me. I knew consciously the new way I had to conceive of the world without her, to see her as abstract, as always with us, as a source of beauty, but I was utterly incapable of it. The book was my attempt to make myself into a new person who was capable of seeing and believing those things...
What was it like to start thinking of Rosalie’s death, and the aftermath, as a narrative? Did it pose challenges, or was it cathartic, or both?
The challenges were the kinds of challenges I've always occupied myself with. I've always written and drawn, and so in some ways, creating a narrative was a familiar way of keeping busy. But it was also a way to understand what happened, and to incorporate the deeper meanings into myself. The process of making the book took three or four years, and Rosalie was only alive for two. Recovering from her loss itself was a challenge.
What was your family's reaction to the book?
Everyone has been deeply moved by it. I never really talked about the experience much, except with my wife. And I really didn't show anyone the book until it was mostly done. I feel like it needed to do the talking for me. The response from friends, family and strangers has been quite generous.
You teach graphic memoir at the Sequential Artists Workshop. What are some of the biggest challenges for your students of graphic memoir?
There are so many things to think about, you can overwhelm yourself with options. The hard thing is to find the balance between your voice and the directness of the experience, with a level of craft, narrative control and intellect to make the writing and drawing of the book something of a new experience. There's also the balance of not saying enough in an original way. Sometimes it's not enough to tell the story straightforward, sometimes you have to get into the story and point to people and say, "hey, down here! Here's the story!"
What advice do you have for people who want to explore tough personal topics of their own?
Everyone has their own methods, right? For me it was writing first, then drawing and composing. My wife Leela Corman sat on it for years and now lets it come out in smaller pieces. She is also a dancer, and this grief has made its way into her dancing in a powerful way. I think the best advice would be don't deny it. Welcome it into your body and practice, with all the tears, and ask it to bring you somewhere new.