Smash Pages Q&A: Kelsey Wroten

The illustrator and cartoonist discusses her debut graphic novel, ‘Cannonball,’ from Uncivilized Books.

Kelsey Wroten is an illustrator and cartoonist who’s made an impact with her comics like Crimes and her illustrations, which seemed to have appeared almost everywhere in the past few years, from The New Yorker to Vice to Lucky Peach and elsewhere.

Her debut graphic novel is Cannonball, which was just released by Uncivilized Press. The book is the story of Caroline Bertram, a young writer who struggles with failure and goes on to have an even greater struggle with success. The book is more than simply a great character study, but throughout the book, Wroten is also illustrating in very different styles, the stories that Caroline is writing. In the final chapter of the book the story comes to a head not through text, but by utilizing the art as the real world and the world of her novel come crashing together in a striking way.

It’s a brilliant debut, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Wroten about writing complicated characters, structure, and color – as Avril Lavigne played in the background.

How did you come to comics?

I don’t know. They’ve been there my whole life. Ever since passing sheets of notebook paper in 8th grade Math, pretty much. It’s why I can’t do algebra. When I started college I did it as a hobby. When I went to college I studied computer programming and it was not going good, but then I took some art classes and my teacher said, you seem to enjoy this so more than your other classes, you should go to art school. He wrote me a letter and I transferred. I did comics because that’s what I’d always done. The illustration work is what I do now as my “job.” Comics are a thing that I’ve always done. I’ve just always enjoyed writing and drawing.

How do you describe Cannonball?

When talking about a book as complex as Cannonball is for me I think an author has to develop a script. The script for this question is “Cannonball follows the story of Caroline Bertram, a recent graduate and writer, as she contends with the struggles of existing as an artist in the “real world” and the conflict that arises with her friends and her own ego as she does so.” If I were to go more in depth, I would describe it as a story about the nature of success and how it is falsely linked to happiness and self worth. It is also about the pain of a fiercely romantic and idealistic person when confronted with the banal realities of adult life, jobs, money, success, debt and loneliness.

I remember seeing one description for the book was “Art School Confidential for the Tumblr generation.” I don’t really know what that means.

I don’t either! I saw that and I quit reading them after that. [laughs] I’m glad people are writing about it. I’ve seen that and someone referred to it as a satire and I went, maybe it is? I never really thought about that. The thing that keeps it from being satire for me is that I still have a lot of sympathy for the main character – which no one else seems to really feel. [laughs] That’s because I made her and I know that she’s not all bad, but on the page she’s pretty bad.

Yes a character like Caroline inspires a lot of negative reactions I’d imagine. Although so much of the book made me think, “This is life after college in my 20s.”

I started writing it my senior year of college. I’m in my studio right now and I don’t know if you can hear but someone is blasting Avril Lavigne right now, which is the perfect level of angst. [laughs]  Depending on who you talk to, graduating from college is the light at the end of the tunnel or it’s incapacitating because you have to go into the real world and you have student loan debt to deal with in six months. I was getting anxiety attacks. In a way I think Cannonball was a way of dealing with that. Another thing I’ve learned after talking about it is that there is a lot of myself in Caroline – but all the negative parts of me. That in a way was me dealing with it.

I would imagine that creating a character like Caroline and spending so much time with her means that you have a very difference experience of her than a reader will. What have you learned about the character and how you think about your work as you made the book?

What I’ve learned about myself – or maybe just where we differ – is that I want my work to communicate, but I’m okay with people having different interpretations of what it is doing. Whenever you’re creating something – a book or any sort of art that’s meant to be understood – it’s for whoever wants to pick it up.

You can’t attach yourself too it too much. This, of course, is easier said than done. Releasing a work that is close to your heart into the world is like crawling through a field of needles in some ways. Every word uttered about it pierces you, but eventually you make it to the other side, or at least I hope you do. And the next time you’ll know what to expect, or how to avoid the crawling all together. If Caroline had typed in her book on GoodReads to see the reviews I think she would have thrown her computer out the window or tripped a stranger on the street into traffic. That stuff hurts. I finished the book a year and a half ago so it’s been a little while and I’ve had some time so I can deal with it as an object and not as a limb on my body.

So you’re dealing with success better than Caroline?

(Laughs) Well we don’t know yet. We’ll see. I could still have my breakdown. It’s not too late.

I feel like the characters around Caroline understand her better than she understands herself. One comments that she’s always dissatisfied because it’s all about the wanting.

When they are stoned, Caroline tells her friend that she feels hungry but she kind of likes it, to which he says that makes total sense for her. She loves being hungry and hates being full. I think that the quintessential question you have to answer for any character you are creating is what do they want? With Caroline the answer is, whatever she doesn’t have. That is the perfect formula for creating an very particular type of asshole that i’m sure we’ve all met at one point or another.

As far as the structure of the book, did you know the story from the beginning?

I knew the shape of it. I worked on a shorter version of the story which was almost a highlight reel of all the important moments. It was more a series of one or two page vignettes. I had this overarching story that I knew I wanted to tell which would explore dealing with rejection as opposed to dealing with acceptance. I don’t want to say that much, but it’s not that different.

The book is divided into two parts and the first part is a series of failures that ends with her at her lowest and the second part is a series of triumphs, which she’s enjoying only slightly more than the failures.

(Laughs) I think what she has the most fun with is existing within her vivid internal world. I think that’s when she’s at her happiest.

The two parts echo each other in different ways. Part One ends with her at her lowest and Part Two ends with her sort of at her highest.

The highest point and the lowest point.

Yes, it’s very much both. And that last image echoes the first image.

There’s a running visual motif that she’s always landing on her face and no one can pick her up. It’s the first part of the book where her family is watching home movies of her learning to walk and falling on her face and that happens throughout the book.

As far as the last scene, I don’t want to spoil anything, but how did you decide how you wanted that scene to look?

In the book there are stories in different styles. You have a different color palette and sometimes a different style for Caroline’s stories. There’s another style to the main secondary narrative which Caroline’s book. The end sequence is an evolution where those two styles – the fantasy story and the real life story – are merging. At this point Caroline is compared to a character named Nora in her story by another writer. This character is troubled and often sad. She denounces it, instead comparing herself to another character, a magic dog called Alceron. Alceron is the symbol of compassion and acceptance in the book. She sees herself as that, or it what she wants to be. This is her idyllic nature coming into play. She is the only one who really cares. This is of course, not true. The final sequence is a bunch of crazy stuff but I wanted it to feel like this weird falling into the world of her imagination and confronting herself. She sees herself as the antithesis of the title character, a professional wrestler named Cannonball, who symbolizes power and real success for Caroline. All the while, she’s actually passed out on the ground.

You used the style and color to bring the story thematically to a head in a really interesting way that was very striking.

I had a lot of fun with that. [laughs] I mean it’s not “fun”, but you know.

It’s an exhausting scene for a lot of reasons, but incredible. How did you end up at Uncivilized?

Like I said I had that short that I wrote that was more or less the general arc of the book. I was at TCAF a few days before I graduated from college and I just gave out copies to whoever would take it. I ended up having a conversation with Jordan [Shiveley] through that. It took a little while but that’s how it happened. That would have been TCAF 2015. Then I just had to make the book. [laughs]

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