Smash Pages Q&A: Kevin Huizenga

The creator of ‘The River at Night’ discusses insomnia, his process, endings and more.

In Kevin Huizenga’s book The River at Night, his main character Glenn Ganges has insomnia. One of Huizenga’s great gifts as a cartoonist is the way in which this is the entire plot of the book, but it’s not the point of the book, as Huizenga uses this scenario as a way to explore memory, our experience of time, death, deep time, the writing of John McPhee, how we experience change and those moments where people are able to step outside of themselves for a moment.

Huizenga has always been a formalist. He’s been compared to Chris Ware, but the two have very different interests in how they work. Huizenga is interested in consciousness and the subconscious, with perception and understanding, with finding ways to explain and understanding how the world works and how the mind perceives it. Glenn has been the protagonist of much of Huizenga’s work, but he uses the character as a way to explore ideas and experiences and we spoke recently about some of these ideas and trying to explore and depict these ideas visually.

Did you start out making a book about insomnia?

I didn’t plan it that way. The first chapter ended with Glenn in bed unable to sleep, and it occurred to me that that would be a good base camp to send out expeditions. I thought I could do this for years. I could always start stories with Glenn in bed saying, “I just can’t get to sleep,” and spin off variations from there. It’s ambiguous in the book whether it’s one night or a couple different nights.

It is ambiguous and then there are smaller stories of him at the library and Pulverize so it’s unclear whether one night or just this ongoing experience of insomnia.

I set out to do something that wasn’t one story so much as stories loosely tied together that are bigger than one short story. I don’t know what the form is exactly; a lot of it is making it up as I go.

The River at Night is a “graphic novel” as opposed to the short stories bundled together in other books. When you started were you thinking of something longer and bigger? Or did it evolve into that?

It evolved into that. When I started out, it was going to be a series of comic books. They were well received, so I thought I would just keep them going and see where the stories led. At a certain point, though, it became time to wrap it up, turn it into a book. That was challenging. It took me about five years between chapters 4 and 5. I took a break to do other work, and I had a couple false starts and I put it away for a little while. Then when I picked it up again, it became clear where to go. But then it took another couple years to execute.

One aspect of the book that I never get asked about about much is the metaphor of the river. Obviously Glenn’s name is Ganges, and also rivers are often used as a metaphor for time. There’s the idea about not being able to step into the same river twice. A lot of the classic readings of that line have to do with time and change. The mind is another things I’m playing with in the book, and there’s the classic metaphor of the stream of consciousness, which, for me, came out of my interest in William James, a philosopher and psychologist, but is of course a modernist literary approach associated with, like, Virginia Woolf and The Sound and the Fury and so on. Those ideas all were mixed up in the book. That all led to the title, The River at Night. It’s another way of saying “the mind at night,” and Glenn’s is awake and wandering and frustrated.

One of the things you do well in the book is capturing the way that the mind works and meanders while lying awake at night, which has it own rhythm.

Once sleeplessness became something that I was writing about, when it would happen to me I would have this doubling-up feeling, where I wouldn’t be able to sleep but I’d also be thinking, “All right, pay attention.” [laughs] One of the things that I noticed was that my mind wandering wasn’t so much a linear wandering as it was a kind of spiraling, looping, stuck in these ruts where it would keep coming back to the same issues or ideas. I built that spiral form into the book, not only the looping or spiraling, but also the thing where you’re thinking about thinking. The hall of mirrors as metaphors of that. And then screens too sneak in at the end of the book, and screens are of course black mirrors.

I didn’t want to write about TV or the internet and avoided that for most of the book. That’s something people obviously do at night when we can’t sleep, but I had a sense that if I were to do that I would date the book very quickly. It would be difficult to write about TV or the internet in a way that wouldn’t seem out of date immediately. The same thing happened with phones. I didn’t want Glenn to be using a smart phone or a different kind of cell phone and then five years later the book would seem dated. That’s just an unavoidable problem, though, when writing fiction. If you’re going to write with any detail about the present day, and technology, it’s going to become dated.

I kept thinking that so much of the book is about you expanding the frame outward – literally and metaphorically – outside of Glenn.

Comics is a fun toolbox for playing around with consciousness and perception and metaphysical ideas. I think a lot in formal terms about what’s happening with comics. I think about the panel grids and what that means to put characters into these shapes. Forms contain the metaphor and not just the content of the thing. The form itself can gesture towards the shift in thinking or mood or even metaphysics.

You said that the process of the book took years. How do you work?

Along the way I worked on other projects. For better or worse, I approach my comics as playing around, and I play with whatever I feel like playing around with at the time. I try not to turn it into homework. I allow myself some freedom, and I guess you could say some irresponsibility. I could stand to be more focused. I don’t know. It’s difficult to step back and judge. It feels like things develop on their own the way that they’re going to develop. Whenever I’ve tried to force something there’s a sort of counterforce that makes it take the same amount of time.

Glenn works on his own schedule.

Yeah. [laughs]

Was a lot of that time spent writing?

I spend the most time reading and researching. That’s the thing I enjoy the most – reading. If anything keeps me from being as productive as I should be, it’s that given the choice between sitting down with a blank piece of paper and working on something or sitting with a book and a notebook, I’ll always start the day with a book and a notebook. 

Are you taking notes? Drawing? What does that notebook end up looking like?

It’s a mixture of notes and not drawings necessarily so much as ideas in boxes that have lines that lead to other boxes. The author might say something like, “This isn’t so much a pair of concepts as a constellation,” or they’ll say, “This is a triad, or a flowing dialectic of dynamic forces in balance.” Something like that where it becomes interesting to try to diagram out the ideas. I’ll play around with stuff like that in my notebook, and it’s something I really enjoy.

Lately I have been taking notes more on notecards. I recently read a book about a system for researching using notecards, and linking them together with numbers and cross-references, and the book made a very convincing argument for ditching notebooks. So I’m playing around with that. From the beginning I’ve loved to mixed research and comics, for instance the material that went into my book Gloriana – the stuff about the moon illusion, the story that talked about the European starlings and flocks of birds – I did some research on all that. It’s the most enjoyable way to approach work for me, a mixture of research and fiction, then trying to figure out a way to put that together within some kind of comics form. It’s naturally how I approach making something. Other writers might naturally think more about dramatic form, or families of characters, or improvising, but my work usually comes from what I’m reading and researching.

After you take notes, do you draw the book by hand?

I work on paper and then scan it into a computer and fix it up. I’ve been doing it that way since 1997, when I was first exposed to Photoshop and had access to a scanner. I was already scanning my pages and adding tones and rearranging panels then. The way I draw comics people now call “traditional,” as opposed to “working digital.” I guess it bothers me because calling something “traditional” seems to smuggle in some ideology, some sense of old-fashioned or something. So I prefer to say I draw “on paper.” But at the same time, I bring up that I’ve always used Photoshop too, because it’s never been only on paper. When I realized that any mistake that I made on paper I could easily fix with the computer, the computer immediately became part of my process, but I still do all the pencilling and drawing by hand on paper. I also think there’s some pretty legitimate reasons for still valuing the tactile, the analog experience. And one’s approach depends on access to resources and technology. Anyways I’m happier when I leave my computer and my phone and I go to the library and work on paper. 

Another huge part of my process is putting all the pages on the floor so I can stand and look at them all at once. It difficult to recreate that experience with a screen. I can look at all the files at once but they’re all small thumbnails. It’s a different experience to have everything on the wall in front of you or laid out on the floor. The God’s-eye-view has always been an important part of my process.

What do you think being able to literally take a step back and look at the story helps you do?

I look at it and I will immediately see something and get to work fixing it or changing it. Sometimes I have a sense of the musical shape of what I’m working on – is it going to be something fast that slows down, something loud that gets quiet and then gets loud again? When I have it all spread out in front of me I can see it, almost the way you look at a wave form of a sound file and you can get a sense of the abstract form of it.

So do you plan to keep making more stories with Glenn and playing around with ideas you have, ideas you run across?

That’s all I think about. I can’t wait to get back to it. We’re talking right now while I’m traveling, and I’m not good at working while I’m traveling. I need to get better at working through all the distractions. I have ideas for more stories, and where to go next with Suburban. That’s what I plan on working on next. I could tell you the plan, but I’m sure those ideas are probably not going to play out the way that I expect.

That’s pretty typical, the idea changing throughout the process.

To paraphrase something I heard Dash Shaw say, “It isn’t so much that things change or stay the same, but some third thing where they stay the same and change in a way that language doesn’t fully capture.” There are all these binaries and concept pairs, but you realize as an artist, it’s neither, or both-and. It’s neither your idea nor did you steal the idea – it’s both. Did you plan it out or did you improvise it? You discovered a plan within the improvisation. I start with a plan and I let it evolve.

You have to go through a journey just as the character.

Yeah, but it’s a journey where you don’t go anywhere. [laughs]

There’s that great scene about Eleanor Rigby, and Glenn says “I won” because his wife is crying, and she says, “I’m not crying because of a song, I’m crying because we’re old.” Which made me laugh but I also thought, “That’s a book right there.”

It’s weird how it works. You’re in control the whole time while at the same time some kind of deeper level you is also working on it. A lot of books are coming out right now by cartoonists and friends who have been working on their books for a long time. I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about this, but one of the things that you experience when you get to the end of the project is that it’s like a circuit has been completed. You reconnect with a younger version of yourself – in a way that the day-to-day version of yourself that lived through all that time can’t see – and you connect to some deeper level of yourself that lives at a different rate of time. I wouldn’t say that that’s an eternal version of yourself, like a soul, but it’s some other level of yourself, something close to that. I don’t think I would have experienced it until I got to the end of the project and the circuit was complete. I can now see myself backwards in the past connecting to this moment in some ways I couldn’t back then. You can’t see it from day to day, but you can maybe glimpse it at certain times of your life when you see the larger scope.

I guess it’s similar to not feeling really different now than I did when I was 25, but in other ways I’m very aware of the differences.

Right. But you can also say that at 25 you didn’t feel any different than you did when you were 40 – you just didn’t know it yet. [laughs] 

Was ending the book one of the hardest parts?

I had to do it in a way that felt satisfying to me. I wanted to pull off a worthy ending. I don’t know if I did. The idea was to go meta in various ways. Also, if we went into the past, hundred of millions of years, we now had to go back into the present moment. I picked two minutes. In the same way that millions of years became a refrain in the book we come back to two minutes, meditate on two minutes. In the same way that I worked with a certain kind of grid for most of the book I wanted to shift the grid without actually changing the grid, and this increased the density of the pages towards the end.

Is this one reason you like shorter work? You can get away with different kinds of endings in shorter work, and especially in a collection of them.

Ambitious cartoonists have had to figure out how to approach longer form comics in the last few decades. When I was younger I planned out a long story and I realized quickly that I didn’t want to be shackled to that one plan forever. I realized that guys like Charles Schulz or The Hernandez Brothers or other cartoonists work in short bursts that on their own took on larger shapes through repetition or more natural ways of accumulating a large form, rather than approaching it as a god-like architect who sees the whole plan ahead of time and then sits at a desk for years and carries it out. Comics is modular, in that it is literally boxes on a page that you can cut up and reorganize. My compromise – which I don’t think is unique or original to me – was just to start thinking in terms of shorter pieces that then would accumulate into something large. I think any cartoonists that are working this way over many years have worked that way where you get glimpses of it and as you move forward, you try to keep the past in mind not as a straightjacket but as something to build on and develop. Almost like you crossbreed your work with itself to find different hybrids or species.

I think the ending worked, but also the ending wasn’t the point and isn’t what people will necessarily remember best and take away from the book.

When I’m reading a book I often want to quit a book before the end. I think its rare that the end of the book is what you remember or what’s memorable. In some ways I think the hardest trick with ending a book is not ruining it, ruining the mystery and sense of possibilities. When a story is about endlessness, you’re not going to end it a conventional way, and you’re going to have to end it through gesturing at infinity in some way. Because the book is set up in all these shorter stories, it became possible that the book just ends in all these different places because many of the stories end with “the end.” There are many endings, and the story can start again anytime too.

The big geological spiral in some ways felt like the end, because of how it gestures at infinite time. Once mirrors became part of the story it became obvious that not only can you gesture at infinity, you can use a mirror to create a hall of mirrors of infinity. Then it became a formal, almost mathematical situation, where many things throughout the book appear twice, doubled, and for me a mirror situation always implies a third, the viewer, or in this case the reader. So I could gesture at infinity by making Glenn a character in a book who reads characters in her book who is conscious of being a character. Is Glenn going to be a character in his wife’s comic? Is Glenn going to be a character in a comic that Glenn reads? It becomes a web of levels of consciousness. That was the moment where I was like, “I don’t think I can take it that far, let’s walk it back.” [laughs]

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