Smash Pages Q&A: Guy Delisle on ‘Hostage’

Delisle talks about the 15-year long process of making the book and its storytelling challenges.

Guy Delisle has a reputation for crafting a series of travelogue books that detail his travels and the long periods of time he’s spent in places like Myanmar (Burma Chronicles) and Israel (Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City), the latter of which received the Prize for Best Album at the 2012 Angouleme International Comics Festival. He’s also the cartoonist behind the series A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting.

Delisle’s book Hostage is a different book for him. It tells the true story of Christophe Andre, an administrator with Médecins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders) who was kidnapped in Chechnya in 1997 and held hostage for 111 days. Delisle takes this story and makes the situation of a single man in a room both dramatic and visually engaging, working in a different style and color palate that readers of his earlier books might have expected. Delisle spoke about the 15-year long process of making the book and its storytelling challenges.

How did you first hear of Christophe Andre and his story?

It was in the newspaper. I read the story and I thought, this is fantastic. Most of the kidnapping stories the guy comes back and feels really bad and Christophe said in the interview I feel like the football player who scored the goal and won the match. I got the chance to meet him because some friends were working at MSF and I had lunch with them and Christophe was there. I started asking a few questions thinking he probably doesn’t want to talk about it, but he was very open about it and he told us the whole story. This is such a unique experience. I thought right away it would be nice to do a comic of that and he said sure.

You knew right away that you wanted to turn his story into a book?

It’s a subject that has always fascinated me – people that are kidnapped. You can really relate to that situation because you think, what would I do? They’re all very different from one to the other. Since Christophe escaped it’s a nice story with a happy ending. The way he managed to escape and that he succeed in escaping makes it very interesting, but when he told me all the details of the situation I thought that it would be interesting to illustrate that.

Why did it take fifteen years to make the book?

I was postponing it all the time. Right after meeting Christophe, I did the first version. When I came back to it – I was still working in animation at the time – I didn’t like it anymore so I worked on a second version years later. Right after that I went to North Korea and then I thought first I’ll do the book on North Korea and then Christophe. Then I was always postponing it and finally went, if I don’t do it now, forget about it. This is ridiculous. I told the people around me so much about that story because it sounded almost like the book was done.

But you always knew that the book would be told from his point of view and it would be almost entirely him in this room?

Yes. I wanted to have an immersive story and I was not so interested in the political situation. For me that was not the point. The point was really how do you cope and how do you survive in a situation where you have no control over your life. He was able to tell me all the details. Where he stops to say thank you to these guys. There is another time where he almost thinks about taking the kalashnikov and then he doesn’t take it. All these times I thought were very interesting to describe.

That’s not really strange I suppose since all your books work from a single point of view – your own.

That’s right – except that this one. I like to work with small details, small observations. I recorded Christophe and he told me all the little details that happened when he was there with those people in the house and when he escaped. I put all of that into chronological order and I worked like I work on my books – except I was putting words in his mouth. After ten-fifteen pages I would send him the pages and he would give me feedback. For me it was important that he didn’t have any surprise when he saw the book.

What was it like working in that way and giving him each section as you finished them?

Well, he trusted me. That’s why he agreed on the book. He read my books and he really liked them. So he knew that the tone would be my tone probably or something like that. We did adjust a few things. The way he would say stuff. I would give him the pages and he had very small remarks. It was quite easy to do. More easily than I would have thought. At first it blocked me, did he say that at that moment? But then I tried and knowing that he would read it, I sent it to him. It worked quite easily.

I suppose the big difference here is that you can’t do research. I could be wrong but I get the impression that you do a lot of sketching and visual reference before you start a book. And here you couldn’t do that.

On this one I was more on my own, but I don’t use too much reference. For Jerusalem since there was some obvious architecture that I needed to have in the panel I would go and look for them on the internet but other than that, not so much. For China or North Korea [books], I had almost no reference. But they are more cartoon illustration that reality. This book I knew the drawing would be more realistic because the story is more serious. I would draw all day long on photocopy paper and redo and redo the drawings. I would just redo the drawing to have that feeling and then at the end of the day I would scan the best one and make the page with that. It was an interesting process. A bit long to do the montage on the computer, but that’s the way I saw the book. I wanted it to have that feeling.

You said that the book is essentially the third draft. What were the big differences between the drafts you did?

Well the first version I treated the beginning more like an action film. People running and shadows and close ups. I didn’t like it afterwards because the more you put in effects like that, the less it looks like a real life story. The second version was just trying to write the whole thing down, which I never do. I wrote the whole thing and sent it to Christophe and he said, it looks good. When I did the third version I didn’t use that at all. I was just working on the chronology day by day because you can’t really write all these details in one stroke. I had to work on every day not knowing what I would do three pages after. It was better for me like that. The second version was just text and in the third version there’s not a lot of action in the beginning. You see the guy coming in, taking him out and that’s it. I didn’t want to treat that like a Hollywood movie because it defeats the purpose.

As a storyteller, the book is about one man in a room and there’s so much drama in that, but as an artist, you’re drawing one man in a room over and over again. How do you approach that?

Well I knew where I was going right from the beginning, so I knew it would be long. I didn’t know it would be 400 pages long, but the story was so strong. I didn’t want to put any special angles or any crazy drawings. The story needed that. The story is a real experience so if you put a lot of effects you go away from real life experience so I kept it very simple, almost like the drawing is secondary. The story is the forefront and the drawing is the background, basically. Just day by day, very simple, lots of repetition because that’s what he was going through. It’s a bit boring to do, but when you start with a plan like that you have to do a little marathon and go all the way with the same decision you took from the beginning.

Having spent all this time, what’s your impression of the book and the story? Has it changed or is it what you always wanted it to be, a retelling of Christophe’s story as best you could?

I don’t see it as more than that. To tell this experience, that I found unique, as well as I could. And the way that I wanted to do it which was from his point of view. I didn’t want to go outside of the room and write “Meanwhile in Paris…”. I wanted to have time pass by almost as Christophe experienced it. I didn’t want to say, two weeks later and Christophe’s beard is longer and he’s a bit more depressed and tired. I didn’t want that I wanted almost every day to go by. It was a balance to be close to the reality of Christophe’s everyday life and to keep a little suspense at the same time. That was for me the tricky part. I’m always very careful with the rhythm of the book. This one is very minimalistic, but for me that was the goal.

So after this book are you planning on doing something funny and relaxing next?

That’s what I’m doing right now, the fourth volume of parenting stories. It’s short and fun and relaxing.

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