Smash Pages Q&A: Teva Harrison on ‘In-Between Days’

The Governor General’s Literary Award finalist discusses her graphic memoir, the first comic to be a finalist for the prize in any category.

When Teva Harrison was 37, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. This terminal diagnosis changed Harrison’s life and her work. Trained as an artist, Harrison turned to narrative for the first time and began making comics and writing stories about living with her diagnosis, coping with the many problems, and imagining a path forward. Harrison’s first book, In-Between Days, is a collection of her comics and prose, many of which appeared in The Walrus. The book was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in Canada, the first comic to be a finalist for the prize in any category, and pieces which appear in the book have been nominated for The National Magazine Award and the Canadian Magazine Award.

In-Between Days is not a saccharine, overly sunny book that claims a positive attitude is the key to survival; rather, Harrison’s work is the embodiment of Antonio Gramsci’s oft-quoted statement, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Harrison’s book is dark but not despairing, and that’s because of her personality. She is making comics and writing stories, going on safari in Africa and taking part in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade and climbing mountains. Harrison knows that cancer will kill her, but she is determined every day to not let it destroy her. The book is passionate and overwhelming and unsparing and joyous and unsentimental and beautiful and painful. It is human and humane, and it will stay with you. As Harrison put it, “Life is rich. It is absolutely an adventure, still.”

Teva, thanks for doing this. I know when the book first came out in Canada you were a finalist for the Governor General Award. And there is no comics prize, it was for the nonfiction award.

It was a huge honor just to be on the shortlist. My publisher looked this up and mine is the first illustrated book to be up for the nonfiction prize ever.

The winner was a book about the history of Saskatchewan, which is the kind of book you expect to win these kinds of awards, and being a finalist is a big deal.

It was very exciting. It also broke that wall. The idea that an illustrated book could be relevant. Years ago when Chester Brown published Louis Riel it should have been up, frankly. I don’t remember what the competition was that year, but that was a tremendous historical accomplishment. Something we haven’t seen the likes of in Canada, I think, since it’s publication in terms of scope. We have lots of interesting graphic talent up here, but that’s the one that I thought would have been the groundbreaker.

You live in Toronto, but you grew up in Oregon and you attended Evergreen College. What were you making as far as art and writing when you were younger?

When I was at Evergreen I was a painting and drawing student. Lynda Barry and I shared – decades apart – a really influential professor named Marilyn Frasca. Marilyn in my first year at Evergreen taught me the Ira Progoff journal writing workshop for creative development. The journal writing workshop is used for all kinds of things from facing terminal illnesses to helping to get the creativity out. Anais Nin used this system. I can only imagine that Marilyn would have taught Lynda Barry the same thing, too, although I’ve never spoken to either of them about it.

It was this tremendous catalyst to opening me up to creativity. Not narrowing it down to big ideas or an intellectual approach to what I was going to paint, what I had known and been familiar with, but opening up to dreams and bringing in fluidity of ideas. My work was really bright and colorful and big and not very representational at the time, but little bit of story worked their way through if you opened your definition of story to being visual story of objects and their relationships as opposed to narrative story like the work I’m doing now.

At the beginning of the book you write that this is your first narrative project and you were making art but you never had that urge to make a narrative before.

I don’t have a background as a comics artist. A comic consumer, sure, but not as a comic artist. It never crossed my mind. I wasn’t compelled. Before this work, art was a really physical thing. My intellectual brain – the part of my brain that tells a story with words – shut off. What my hands do, what my eye wanted me to make my hands do, with color or shape or the tension between those things was what was interesting to me.

When I got sick, I was so confused about where I was. About who I was! [laughs] About my own identity re-framed as a person with a chronic terminal illness versus a person with a very easy elevator pitch for a job. It took a lot to figure out my place in the world again. I was really lost and I didn’t sit down in the studio planning to draw comics. I sat down in the studio trying to find comfort. I was really surprised when what came out of hands were stories. They weren’t originally stories about cancer. The first things that came out of my hands are not in the book and frankly they don’t really need to see the light of day. They were the worst stories of my life. Those were the feelings that I was having. I was purging. Just writing down these dark stories.

That meant when I got to a point where I was ready to talk to myself – just to myself – about having cancer, that was what I was doing. I was already drawing comics so that was what I was prepared to sit down and do. When I went down to the basement and started drawing the first few comics, I had no idea what was going to come out. It obviously became more planned as I got better at it and better at articulating my thoughts. I had a lot of fun with it. I had a lot of fun figuring out different ways to break a frame, different ways to move the eye around a page. It’s the same things you think about when you’re doing fine art painting and drawing. Those technical questions became really interesting to me but it didn’t start out that way.

Crafting a narrative gave you the ability to not just articulate what you were feeling and experiencing, but provided you a needed a context for that.

Exactly.

I’ve read a number of books about cancer, and there is a lot about medical issues and there’s a LOT about the need to be positive.

[laughs] I think I do a pretty great job of being positive all things considering. I don’t need somebody else telling me to. If I’m going to be cranky that’s my right! [laughs]

But there don’t seem to be many books like this which look un-sentimentally at these issues and trying to find a way to cope.

I couldn’t find one. There may be texts out there which would do for me what I was hoping for when I wrote this book. I couldn’t find a text that just talked about in a frank and not heavily metaphorical way what it feels like to live with this disease. Anyone can learn what the technical side of things is. There’s plenty of information out there about the process of going through cancer treatment, be it for early stage or late stage. There isn’t a lot of talk about the icky feelings. Talking about things like sexual dysfunctional, feelings about guilt that are not founded, loneliness and shame. Also hope. Because the reality is we don’t just feel one way about anything.

When something like this – so sudden, so disruptive, so completely life changing – happens you’re going to have complicated feelings and emotions. You’re plucked out of your everyday life and your usual socialization coping mechanisms and isolated. Cancer can be so incredibly isolating. You spend a lot of time alone – at home, in waiting rooms. Sometimes people come with you, but when you have metastatic breast cancer, it’s with you for the rest of your life. With a short treatment – and by short I mean a year – it’s possible for someone to be with you all the time. It stops being realistic with late stage cancer.

I have friends with chronic illnesses and what you’re talking is more like that than what most of us think about when we think about cancer.

You’re totally right.

I would imagine that changes how people talk about and react to you and your cancer.

It’s interesting that you caught onto that. A significantly higher number of people than I would have expected who write to me are people with chronic pain issues or depression or other chronic illnesses. Not cancer at all. Because I think there’s a lot in the book that’s completely analogous to those experiences. They’re all also isolating. Being able to reach out to someone who’s written something that feels personally true can lead to a really meaningful connection.

You have that really amazing comic about how we disappear. I think for most people when we think of cancer we think of this as an illness that is this really intense period of time. Months maybe years and hopefully it works out okay in the end, but a limited timeframe. That’s not your experience.

No. There’s no cure. It’s a different way to live, for sure. I couldn’t have conceived of it. I honestly don’t think I could have imagined that this is what it was going to be. [laughs]

Could you talk a little about the book and how you worked on it and figured out the structure.

Everything was written before the structure was determined, in terms of the structure broken down by parts. I started with the comics. Originally I wasn’t going to show them to anybody. They were just something that was helping me with my days. The first drawings were just micron pens on 9 by 11 paper. When The Walrus invited me to migrate the comics from the blog that I built over to their website, I showed up with my drawings. The art director very kindly didn’t say a word but the next time I went in he had for me a bag of art supplies. [laughs] I studied painting and I didn’t study illustration so I didn’t know what the tools of the trade were. In this bag he had illustration board, carbon paper, tracing paper, different pencils, different nibs, brush, pen, ink, and then he sent me this email explaining what to do with every piece. He also suggested getting a 1930’s illustration book. [laughs] It was amazing what he did. He’s great. I love him. He said, I want to help you get to the next level of what’s possible. I went home and I played with them and I tried I did one just with the nib, another one I did just with the brush pen. I experimented a little bit. I found that I liked drawing with the brush more. I landed on probably a pretty conventional approach, drawing with the brush and lettering with the nib. There’s a reason people do it – because it works well. [laughs]

People have often said that about working with a brush.

I think because I come from a background of painting, the brush felt more natural to me in a lot of ways. My process very quickly became pencilling, transferring it onto the illustration board, and then inking. Everything in the book was done on paper. Since then I’ve had a few times where I couldn’t sit at my drafting table and I’ve had an assignment – and a deadline – and I’ve learned for the sake of those time to use an ipencil and an ipad pro. I still do the vast majority of my work on paper. I prefer it. But I have some physical challenges which sometimes dictate what I can and can not do. That’s how I work on the comics themselves. When I first put them online, on the blog before the Walrus, my original plan had been to post one comic and a little bit of writing. My publisher saw that and said, I think you have the beginnings of a book here. When we had our first meeting about the book we agreed that that would be the end product, but I continued to draw the comics and saved all of the writing for the end. I wanted it to provide breathing space between the comics. Some of them are really hard and I thought a little bit of text would help. My designer was amazing in terms of building in a lot of open white space. I felt like that was really important for the reader to have room to breathe. I did the drawings, I did the essays and then my editor and I worked together to come up with what a good format would be. I really strongly didn’t want it to be chronological. In large part because my story doesn’t really have an end. This is about the “in-between days” so I didn’t want it to be a natural time-based arc. We played with a lot of different combinations before we settled on going from the physical, the personal, the tangible to open it up to include other people like my family and my husband and society, and then open it up even wider into hopes and dreams and fears.

I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but you did have to create a new structure, a way to organize and think about your life as a result of this diagnosis. Your life in this state doesn’t function in the way ordinary time functions.

Exactly. It’s almost like stepping out of time. Because you step away from life as you knew it into this liminal space where the rules don’t apply that applied to life previously and figuring out how to move forward in a positive way.

And you keep active by doing things like going mountain climbing or marching the mermaid parade at Coney Island.

It’s Coney Island’s pre-pride parade and it’s just this dizzyingly beautiful, creative thing. In the beginning of the parade there are more traditional floats and marching bands and it starts out very family friendly with everything covered and then it devolves gradually. [laughs] They put all the really weird and really sexually heightened things at the end of the parade. Which is perfect because little kids get tired, so they see the beginning of the parade and then they go. [laughs] I just thought it was so wonderfully weird that I wanted to be a part of it. And I didn’t just want to go, I wanted to be in it. One of my high school friends lives in New York and I knew she was the right person to ask to do the mermaid parade with me. I spent a week in New York and all we did that week was work on our costumes and we marched in the parade, which was something else.

Since I got sick I have time when I can’t get out of bed, but I also have time when I can. People ask me a lot, how do you continue to be so hopeful and so positive? Well, it’s because I pushed through the months of depression where I went, I’m going to die what am I going to do this is the end. I’m still here. And since I’m still here, I’m going to do everything I can with the time I can. I went last summer to South Africa so I could go on safari and see giraffes in the wild. It’s something I never thought I was going to get to do when I got diagnosed and it’s always been a dream of mine. Every time we reach a goal we build a new one. We make them not too far out, but building interesting ideas and opportunities into life and traveling as much as I can. I’m actually going to be in New York because of a project I collaborated on got invited to the virtual reality sidebar at the Tribeca Film Festival. Someone invited me to collaborate on a piece where he asked if I would draw the environment. So I went down and strapped myself in and drew in air until there was a world. Life is rich. It is absolutely an adventure, still.

So when you’re not climbing mountains and traveling the world and making VR environments, are you still making comics? What are you working on?

I am working on something, but it’s too nascent to talk about the details. It is going to be a comic, though. It’s just too interesting a form to not explore more. I haven’t even touched the surface of what you can do with the medium. I’m interested in what else I can do. I’m also interested in exploring different ways of approaching the hybrid because I think there’s something interesting there in moving between comics and prose. I have ideas of ways it could benefit the storytelling. Did you read the Chris Hedges-Joe Sacco book? Chris Hedges is an amazing writer, but there’s something about using the visuals to hit an emotional note that’s so powerful. Whether it’s drawn or a photo, we respond to other people. That’s how we’re wired. There are different ways of approaching it. I know I’m not the leader on this. This was the only way I could think to do In-Between Days, but there are other stories that will take different forms.

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