Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why creating comics brings joy to Doug Wright Award-nominated artist Joe Ollmann

The creator of the biography The Abominable Mr. Seabrook answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.
Joe Ollmann is the author of the graphic biography The Abominable Mr. Seabrook. (Drawn & Quarterly/Taien Ng-Chan)

Joe Ollmann is the critically acclaimed author of four books, including The Big Book of Wag! and Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People. His latest is The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, a biography that chronicles the strange, adventurous, controversial life of American writer William Buehler Seabrook, known for — among many things — road testing cannibalism and helping to popularize the term "zombie" within Western culture. 

 The Abominable Mr. Seabrook is currently shortlisted for the Doug Wright Award for best book. The winner will be announced on May 12, 2018, as part of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Below, Ollmann takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.

1. Tomson Highway asks, "If you were a musician, which instrument would you play? That is to say, which instrument would you choose to tell your story with?

I think I'd choose piano. For one, I've always wanted to play piano. Cartooning is such a solitary pursuit, and piano seems like an instrument that when it's played solo doesn't seem too showboaty like say guitar or saxophone. I guess a proper, self-deprecating cartoonist's answer to this question would be the kazoo though.

2. Jesse Jacobs asks, "Name the book that every teenager needs to read."

I guess that book always changes, right? Once I might have said Catcher in the Rye, but that book is probably pretty crusty and dated and out-of-touch with what a teenager today would engage with. The book they need to read is probably something I'm too old to know exists. I'm reading The Marrow Thieves right now and I think that's an important book for Canadian kids to read.

The Wide Sargasso Sea was an eye opener to me, as I loved Jane Eyre, and for me, it was all, what a great love story. And poor old Rochester, and then Jean Rhyes takes that and turns it on its head from a feminist and post-colonial perspective and turned my world around. Her book was the first time I encountered that and you know, everything like that is the start of an education. Oh hell, probably Vonnegut still. Maybe Slaughterhouse 5? There's a lot of kindness in his books.

3. Djamila Ibrahim asks, "What dream job or jobs did you have growing up? Has it or have they appeared in your writing?"

I always wanted to be a cartoonist. I guess I'm living the dream. And I'm working on a book about cartoonists right now, so it is appearing in the work too. I had a lot of factory jobs and office jobs in my life and the mundane, weird, human dynamics of those places have permeated my work, though I think one of the best portrayals of office politics is in Hartley Lin's comics (which are collected in the book Young Frances, debuting at TCAF!)

4. Lori Lansens asks, "If you could have dinner with one of your literary heroes, living or dead, who would it be? Where would you eat? What, besides books, would you talk about?"

I'm always an idiot meeting my heroes. I get blushy and gushy and over-emotional and never have anything intelligent to say, except I love them and their work. It would be a boring dinner with me and my heroes. My best exchange ever with a literary hero was after hearing Kurt Vonnegut speak in Stratford one time, I went outside the theatre to smoke in an alley. A stage door opened and Vonnegut stepped out.

He saw me and his eyes widened — is this a crazed fan? I was — but we both just lit our cigarettes and nodded to each other over them. We both took a drag and then a van came and whisked him away. That was a good exchange for everyone involved.

5. GG asks, "Do you have any rituals to get you in the right mood to work?"

No rituals per se, but I guess I'm very particular that I can only work on my comics at my old desk and draw out the panels on the same Staedtler drafting board/machine that my sister gave me for Christmas when I was 10 years old. I'd like to be more like Dave Collier and be able to draw comics in a hotel bathtub or whatever.

6. Anthony Bidulka asks, "What has been your best experience with a reader of your work?"

Whenever someone tells you what you've done has moved them, or meant something to them is always amazing. There is also nothing like seeing someone reading your book in the real world. I saw that on the train in Montréal once and I was chuckling like a rube.

7. Tanya Talaga asks, "Who is your most feared critic?"

Anonymous meanies on Goodreads? But really, I guess the accurate critics that call you out on things you didn't consider.

8. Erín Moure asks, "What part of writing life brings you most joy?"

When a project is finished is pretty good. And of course, those days where everything is going perfect and you're really just chopping wood and writing like crazy. That's great too. Like most people, I tend to be a pretty harsh critic of my own work, so the days when you can read something you've written and say, that's not so bad, is good too. There's a lot of joy in writing, right?

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