Smash Pages Q&A: Sarah W. Searle

The creator of ‘Sincerely, Harriet’ discusses the book’s themes, her creative process and much more.

Sincerely, Harriet was released by Graphic Universe earlier this year but cartoonist Sarah Winifred Searle has been working in comics for years. Searle has contributed short comics to Jem and the Holograms, Gothic Tales of Haunted Love, Twisted Romance and Colonial Comics, among many others. She’s contributed to publications like Bitch, Symbolia and The Nib about subjects personal, historical and political.

Sincerely, Harriet is a middle-grade novel that like so much of her work is subtle and nuanced in ways that reward repeated reading. We spoke recently over email about the book, her upcoming graphic memoir and life in sunny Perth, Australia.

How did you come to comics?

I’ve been reading comics since I was quite young –– writing and drawing were my favorite things to do since I could hold a pencil, and comics as a format was really appealing. It wasn’t until the Sailor Moon manga reached U.S. shores when I was in junior high that I realized making comics was what I was meant to do, though. That series opened up a whole new world of stories to me, and that’s when I started devising my own.

Where is Harriet when the book opens?

Harry’s just moved to Chicago from rural Indiana. It’s summer, and it’s hot, and her parents are rarely home as they juggle their new jobs. School starts in a month, but she’s afraid she might die from boredom before she gets there. It’s up to Harriet to make the rest of her summer vacation interesting, though it takes some trial and error to get there.

Over the course of the book you reveal that Harriet has a chronic illness. At what point did you realize how you needed to have this very gradual reveal of her illness?

Something I wanted to be very clear about from the beginning is while chronic illness affects some important aspects of Harriet’s life, it doesn’t define her as a human being. In this particular story, I felt that was best achieved by developing her as a character before naming her disability, instead introducing her symptoms as a matter-of-fact part of daily life.

I chose MS because it’s been present in my life through friends and colleagues for many years, but since the book came out, I’ve learned that two more people I’ve known for ages have it, too. I never knew that about them, but that’s the nature of invisible disabilities, isn’t it? And it rings true to how I depicted Harriet’s situation.

One reason I ask is that so many small details in the book which are not necessarily central to the plot are very subtle, understated, not spelled out. There are a lot of layers and details that a lot of readers won’t pick up.

I hope that my graphic novel is enjoyable for young readers at face value, then as they learn how to analyze and interpret the stories they consume over the years, they discover the layers underneath. One of my favorite things is returning to a favorite piece of media from when I was a kid and experiencing it in an entirely new way as an adult. Maybe this is weird to admit, but it’s part of how I gauge how much I’ve grown as a person. Wishful thinking, but maybe my book could be like that for someone else.

I do want to be clear that nothing was left understated for “plausible deniability.” Harriet likes girls, it just didn’t feel natural or true to my personal experiences for that to have to be a conversation at that point in her development as a person. It simply is what it is, her parents know and accept it, and for the queer kids who read it, I hope they feel the quiet support of the environment I’ve depicted.

The book and the setting is also a little eerie because Harriet isn’t leaving the house much, she’s inventing these stories about the mailman and the downstairs neighbor, and you seemed to like to play with the setting

I really wanted the house to feel like a character in itself! I even drew floor plans of how it would’ve looked when Nicholas was quarantined there with polio in the 1950s versus while Harriet lives there 40 years later, so I could fully imagine how it has developed alongside Pearl and the other characters.

How did you settle on the book’s color palette?

A lot of the setting came down to colors. For example, Pearl’s parlor is pink because her floor becomes a place of warmth and safety. Harriet’s bedroom is that specific blue because it can be quite bright with daylight, but easily pushed in a spooky direction at night. And Harriet’s living room/kitchen are beige both to add to the boring feeling of her seeming imprisonment there, and also because a neutral color like that can be pushed in warm or cool directions as needed for the feeling of each scene.

You’re also working on another graphic novel, The Greatest Thing, which is a fictionalized memoir. Do you want to say a little about it?

Heck yeah! I’m currently penciling The Greatest Thing, which will come out from First Second in a couple years. It’s about some formative experiences I had in my sophomore year of high school, when I was suddenly faced with the issue of not just figuring out who I was in the moment, but what I needed to do to become the kind of person I wanted and needed to be. I made some very brief but intense friendships in that time, and the themes center around mental illness management, as well as queer identity. That makes it sound heavy, but it’ll also feature some silly anecdotes and books-within-a-book in the form of some comic zines the kids make –– that part’s going to be really fun!

That book is YA and Sincerely Harriet is MG. So many of your comics have been for adults or older readers, and what do you enjoy about telling stories for younger readers?

I’m going to be real with you: I never set out to make a MG book. I wrote Sincerely, Harriet for myself, then it was my editor who explained how it was clearly meant for that market. I’m learning a lot more about writing for young readers these days, and I’m much more intentional about it going into The Greatest Thing, but the cores of all of my stories come from a similar place. I want to make empathetic books about messy people and their complicated lives and relationships with each other. All forms of intimacy are boundlessly interesting and worth depicting, whether the focus is friendship, family, or romantic experiences.

In your bio it states you moved from “Spooky New England to sunny Perth.” How did you end up in Perth, and do you think that moving to Australia had an effect on your work?

I moved to Perth to be with my partner, who’s from here. It’s one of the most isolated cities in the world, and I feel it especially during con season or the holidays. But Perth is a lot more relaxed than the East Coast culture I’m used to, which has been good for my health, and being away from most distractions probably helps a lot with my focus when I’m up to my neck in drawing deadlines. I’m privileged to have a great agent and to already have established a lot of connections before I left, so I don’t miss out on too much. All in all, working from home here is much the same as working from home in Boston or Maine, just a bit sunnier.

So, last word. How do you describe Sincerely, Harriet? Why should people pick it up?

It’s the story of a 13-year-old kid who discovers storytelling as an outlet while learning to manage chronic illness. I recommend it to people of any age who like quiet, thoughtful stories, or to anyone who knows a kid between 9-15 who might connect with those themes.

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