Smash Pages Q&A: Tara O’Connor

The creator discusses an expanded edition of her ‘Roots’ comic from Top Shelf and her upcoming book from Oni Press, ‘The Altered History of Willow Sparks.’

Tara O’Connor’s Roots begins with her divorce as she falls into that fugue state familiar to many that accompanies the collapse of a relationship, moving back in with one’s parents and the very specific kind of depression that comes with those life-altering events. It also depicts how O’Connor pulled herself out of this, through work and starting a new project, and what happened when she traveled to Ireland to research her family history. The trip didn’t turn out the way she expected, and neither did the resulting book.

Roots was originally self-published a few years ago, but Top Shelf is now publishing a new, longer version of that story. In addition, O’Connor has The Altered History of Willow Sparks, a fictional graphic novel coming out from Oni Press early next year. Both are about changing one’s life and O’Connor sat down to talk about her work.

Tara, how did you come to comics?

I originally did some webcomics when I was younger, very manga-esque style, both in artwork and in storytelling. I liked superhero comics but the style just wasn’t something I wanted to replicate, personally. I found indie comics when I got to college—comics like Lost at Sea and Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Salamander Dreams by Hope Larson, and French Milk by Lucy Knisley got me thinking about comics in a different way. I immediately fell in love with that loose inky style and shortly after I started my first printed mini-comic, Puddles, in 2010. Since then, I haven’t slowed down!

So what is Roots?

Roots is probably one of the most personal comics I’ve ever done. It started after my divorce in 2014, I was going to be an O’Connor again so I wanted to know what that meant, I wanted to explore my family tree and see where exactly we all came from. That’s when the idea of the travelogue/memoir came from. I was emotionally reeling and needed a focus. Comics have helped me through some rough patches before, so that was my plan this time around as well.

You originally did this as a Kickstarter. Do you want to talk a little about the background of the book, because you had been making comics for a while when you first planned this.

Yes, it was a Kickstarter in 2014! I had the trip planned but I needed to cover costs for printing as well as shipping. I figured Kickstarter would be the best way to go ‘cos it was a much larger piece of work that I was used to doing—it would give me the incentive to make it the best it can be, and get it in as many hands as possible. There’s also something about being financially responsible that’s an incentive in itself, I didn’t want to let down my backers. I hit some low points throughout the project, just ‘cos of the sheer amount of emotion involved in it, but they all supported me through and through!

The title page and the coat of arms in the background. Is that the O’Connor coat of arms? What does the motto mean?

Yes that is the coat of arms! The motto simply means: From God Every Help.

Had you been interested in genealogy and doing that research for a while?

Yes! I’ve always been interested in looking into it, I knew only so much from my folks and that knowledge kind of stopped at my grandparents, so I wanted to go further. I wasn’t able to find much more than they knew, but it was more than I could’ve imagined.

Have you been trying to assemble the rest of your extended family tree?

The tree kind of stopped around 1840ish with Patrick O’Connor whose birth certificate has not been located. Every so often we get more leads—I thought I had a good one going where I was able to find a farm near enough to where my great-grandmother lived, and thought perhaps the people who were selling the property could point me in the right direction, but unfortunately that didn’t lead to anything. My mother, however, who also has Irish roots, recently did one of those ancestry DNA tests and found out that her family was likely from Ulster—so that does give me a new lead on her side that I’m looking forward to diving into.

You depict yourself drawing at different points in the book. Did you start out making a very different book from this?

It definitely started as a different book than what it ended up being. It was intended to just be me galavanting around Ireland trying to find ancestral farms, records, and the like. I did manage to find the town my great grandmother hailed from, but the farm was long gone, and once I reached a certain point, the trail went a bit cold. I’d say with meeting John almost at the start of my trip it started to become less of a travelogue and more of a memoir of opening my heart again.

Obviously you didn’t expect to fall in love when you went to Ireland, but what did you initially think Roots would be?

I definitely didn’t expect the book to be what it was when I first started planning it out. I imagined it more being me going from place to place, finding leads to new places and maybe discovering new branches of the family tree. I sort of felt going into it that I would be a different person when I came back, and I very much was. It was a life-changing trip, but just not in the way I expected—or what my readers expected for that matter. I had one or two people annoyed that I didn’t focus on the “family” portion of Roots as much, and that they thought the book was too focused on romance/relationship aspects. Which, to be fair, is reasonable based on what I thought the book was actually going to focus on. I do feel it’s important when doing memoirs/travelogues/etc not to do too much directing or forcing. I let things happen, ‘cos that’s life.

The work of yours I’ve read is short comics – work like Puddles or In Your Wake – what was it like telling a longer story like Roots? Did you know this would be a longer story or were you just trying to figure out how much space it needed?

I knew from the start it was going to be a lot longer than my previous works that usually only spanned about 30-odd pages. It was an experience for sure, cos while I wanted everything to be scripted and laid out proper, I wanted it to feel organic and not lose any of the emotion that I was feeling. Page by page, I didn’t write anything until I had to letter it after it was drawn. I had an idea of what I wanted to say, but wanted the immediacy of writing it off the cuff. As far as how long it was going to be, I had a goal of over 100 pages, and the kickstarter edition was about 115—the Top Shelf version is 148 pages.

How did you end up Top Shelf?

It happened pretty randomly actually! I had been looking to reprint it, and also add onto it, but was looking to see if I could submit it anywhere for consideration. My first thought was Top Shelf but I thought it would be a long shot, but hey, never know ’till you try—so I e-mailed the wonderful Chris Staros and attached the entire book and a proposal, if they’d be interested in publishing it, and either way, I wanted to share it. Within a few days I got a response and that’s where it all started! I couldn’t be more grateful, they’re an excellent company and I’m so humbled to have Roots be part of their catalog.

You said that this edition is longer. What did you add?

I’ve added at least 40 new pages—some of it spacing out some of the family history, with a bit more info both family based and also some very personal stuff, and then also giving the book more closure. I originally wrote and drew it in late 2014 early 2015. At the time I had no real idea where my life was going at that point, so it was very open-ended and abrupt.

You’re also in the new Dirty Diamonds anthology. You’ve been in previous ones, what do you like about them? Do you want to say a little about your piece?

Yes! I’ve been in one previously and the upcoming one due out in September as well. They are so much fun to work with! The books and themes give me a chance to kind of narrow down my focus when creating short one or two page comics. I was once asked to draw a 6 page comic once and it wound up being about 30 pages! So yeah, writing small and concise short comics can sometimes be harder than something in a longer form. The theme this time around for their September release is: Sex. I did a two page comic about my affinity for fancy underthings as well as various levels of sexual awakening. Another personal comic for sure, but it was a lot of fun to do!

You also have a book coming out from Oni next year, The Altered History of Willow Sparks.

Yep, Willow Sparks is due out early next year! It’s about a high school student and her struggles with her looks and her place on the social scale. Things start to change when one night while working at her local library, she stumbles, literally, into a secret room. In there she finds a book that can literally change her life, ‘cos she gets to actually write it out herself. She slowly learns that all her actions have reactions, and it’s not as harmless as she thinks. It’s definitely been a long time coming for Willow and company—I think I started the concepts for it in early 2008 and with every other project and job I took on, it got placed further and further on the back burner, but over the years I always came back to it. I’m excited to finally have it out there for people to read and hopefully enjoy!

So you have a new updated volume of Roots from Top Shelf, you have a new graphic novel from Oni in a few months – both of which are about people rewriting and changing their lives. Does it feel like you’ve leveled up? Yes, I am making a shameless Scott Pilgrim reference, but does it feel like you’re at a new stage in your work?

Hmm! I hadn’t thought about it that way but yes, I think you’re correct—it’s been such a busy year, work wise, that I’ve definitely felt I’ve grown and am starting a new stage in my work. Though, I do feel I’ll constantly be moving – hopefully forward – and learning as I continue to draw comics. I have a couple projects currently that I’m fleshing out a bit to hopefully pitch around, and I can definitely say that I’ve learned a lot from working with both Top Shelf and Oni, so I’m looking forward to using that knowledge.

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