Smash Pages Q&A: Garth Stein

The author of ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ talks about ‘The Cloven,’ his graphic novel collaboration with artist Matthew Southworth.

Garth Stein is an author, playwright, filmmaker and former race car driver who most people probably know for his international bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain. His latest project adds another descriptor to the list — graphic novel writer. Stein has teamed up with Stumptown artist Matthew Southworth for The Cloven, a three-part graphic novel series being published by Fantagraphics.

The Cloven is the story of a genetically modified human named Tuck, who is a cross between a human and a goat — a Cloven. While Tuck just wants is to live a normal life as a university student, it all goes to hell when he shows a girl his hooves. It’s a story of labs, family, loss and community, set in the streets of Seattle and the surrounding area, as Tuck searches for a place in the world. It’s also a beautiful graphic novel, showcasing the talent and skill of its creators.

Part one of the planned trilogy came out at the end of July, and Stein was kind enough to talk with me about it, working with Southworth and Fantagraphics, learning the language of comics and a whole lot more.

I’ve read that when you approach a project, you do a lot of personal research into the topics that you talk about, like race cars, climbing trees and things like that. I was curious what kind of research you might have done related to goats for this book.

Well, admittedly, it all starts with goat videos on YouTube, which are way better than cat videos, just so you know. I mean, there are goats that do all sorts of crazy stuff and people record them constantly.

I did really want to get to know goats in person. I spent some time up in a goat milk dairy farm up in Marysville, Washington. They have 60-some-odd goats. I would like to say I got to know them, but you don’t really get to know goats. They’re kind of aloof. They don’t talk a whole lot, but they’re very funny in the way they just approach life.

The first time I went up there with the dairy farmer, we were standing on a hill in this big field, and they were all over on the other side way far away. I was like, “Aren’t we supposed to go and, you know, meet them or something?”

She’s like, “No, no, no. Don’t worry. They’ll come to meet us.”

Sure enough, after a few minutes one of them starts to notice us, then another one does. What happened is, one of them notices something, and kind of tells everybody else, and then they all kind of start looking.

Eventually, one of them says, “Well, I’ll take a few steps,” and then … They don’t do it unless everybody’s doing it. They’re very much creatures of herd. By the end of it, within 20 minutes, I was surrounded by goats who were arguing over who was going to headbutt me more.

They’re really kind of funny like that. Once they get over their initial apprehension, they’re quite warm and welcoming and fun to hang out with.

That’s interesting. After reading the book, you can kind of see that behavior with Tuck when he first meets the other cloven. They’re welcoming him. It seems like you brought some of that into the story.

Yeah, I wanted it to be like that he’s not quite sure if he’s in the right place even. Then the next thing you know, all these strangers are rubbing up against him, and that’s just kind of the way they welcome you, too. They know who he is right away. They can identify each other.  

To step back a little bit, even before getting to the project itself, how did you come to comics, in terms of being a reader? Had you read them before?

I have to admit, and I hate to say it, but I’m not a huge comic nerd guy. Not for any reason except that I was more of a literary nerd guy. When I was younger, I was basically raised on Mad Magazine, and The Fantastic Four was my big thing. I love The Fantastic Four. I thought it was just way cool.

When it came time to write this story of The Cloven, I tried to write it as a book because that’s what I do. As a novel, it just didn’t take. Everybody was in it, and it’s relatively the same, but it’s also completely different, and should never see the light of day. The problem was, it was the incorrect medium for it.

I’m a big believer in the integrity of story, and that story had integrity that’s greater than anything that I might want. It’s not about me, it’s about the story, and it’s about the characters. I have to be in the service of those things, and I can’t be worried about myself and what I want, and my ego and that kind of stuff.

It kind of came together that, “Oh, okay this could be a graphic novel. This could be a comic book,” and then I found Matt Southworth and he started sending me character sketches of our main characters.

I was like, “Oh, whoa. This is it. This is clearly where it’s supposed to be.” I kind of dove in full speed.

Nice. Talk a little more about the collaboration process, because I’m sure as a novelist you obviously have editors and people you work with, but you’re pretty much working on the story solo. In this, obviously, you have to get across to Matt the story you want to tell.

Yeah, and not having any experience in the medium as well, I had to get up to speed on the syntax of comics, and it’s pretty specific. I could write a great four-page scene in a novel about someone thinking very deep thoughts and drinking a cup of coffee, but in a comic book, if that scene takes four pages, people are going to die of boredom before they get to the third page.

You have to really think what the important information is, of course, but also the important essence that you’re trying to get across, and what’s extraneous to that? Anything that’s extraneous has to go. That’s the trick that I’ve found with comics.

When I started working with Matt, I said to him, “Look, I don’t know what I’m doing, so you have to tell me what I’m doing, and if something is going to take two pages, and I really want it to take two panels … We’ve got to figure out how to make that happen.”

It was very fascinating to me. I deliberately overwrote the script that I gave him, and I told him that.

I said, “There are too many words, and there’s too much description. Don’t think that this is etched in stone. This is not. I want you to know what I’m thinking, and then I want you to vibe on that so we’re in synchro-mesh. Then, let’s figure out the best way to lay it out so that it does it effectively.”

My script is really a lot of pretty, I hope, well-conceived suggestions that then he and I can hone to make it an effective story.

Thinking about the second volume, which you’ve scripted, and getting into the third one, which you’re working on now, are you finding it easier, now that you’re kind of getting the hang of it?

Yeah, definitely. Definitely. My second script was definitely much more on point. With the third one, right now, the fun part about this for me is that I have these crazy ideas and I’m like, “Why not?” I start writing them down.

I know what’s going to happen in the third book. I totally know what’s going to happen, but I have no idea what order it’s going to happen in or how it’s going to be delivered or any of this kind of stuff. That’s the tantalizing fun of it.

That was the other thing that I liked about the book, that you’ve sort of got this classic “Frankenstein’s Monster” story going on, but it’s very contemporary.

Yeah.

It’s set in Seattle, and it felt like Seattle. You’re from Seattle, right?

Yeah, I am from Seattle. I lived in New York for a long time in the middle, but I was raised in Seattle and I’ve been here for the past 20 years.

Could you talk a little about the setting then, and why you set it in Seattle? What were some of the landmarks and locations you wanted to squeeze into the book?

What’s interesting is the initial idea came from a short story I wrote for a literary center here in Seattle called Hugo House.

Hugo House had a literary series where they commission three writers to come in to write new short stories or poems based on a prompt. They have a themed evening where they get together and they read it in front of an audience, and the audience is well lubricated with beer and wine. They’re here to have a good time, and it’s a Friday night, and it’s late. It’s a dark theater and everyone’s a little loose.

Having gone to the events before I knew that one of the things you want to do is deliver some humor. Especially if you can deliver it in a very local way where it’s an insider joke, where people are elbowing each other saying, “Oh, yeah. I know that. I know that area.”

In terms of the locations that we put in for this, we set the secret laboratory on Vashon Island because everybody in the Northwest knows if something weird is going on here in the Northwest, it’s going on on Vashon Island. Even people on Vashon Island will admit that.

We have Fall City with another laboratory, which is a weird little town out in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. When they do their rompings, downtown you can see all sorts of different landmarks. There’s a volunteer park and waterfront park and the big Ferris wheel.

Freeway Park is a big place for parkour. Parkourists actually work out in Freeway Park.

Oh, cool.

We had to put Freeway Park in because parkour is part of The Cloven thing. Parkour was invented, I don’t know if you know this. Parkour was invented in France. Did you know that? Are you a parkour guy?

We watch that show Ultimate Tag at my house, which has a lot of parkour. My son loves it.

All right. It started as a self defense, stealthy kind of military exercise in France, believe it or not.

It was invented, initially, by some French Cloven. There are actually Cloven in France. The nickname for them there is Chèvre. Just saying. We’ll get to that in book four. [Laughs]

The idea of always trying to mess around with what’s real and what isn’t, that’s the fun that I love having with this. The Jungle, the whole idea of the story that I originally wrote, was to be a satire and a poke at, not just the city government and the state government here, but the residents who were so progressive in Seattle. It’s incredible. We have a huge homeless problem and no one is quite sure how to solve it. For a while, the solution seemed to be legalize urban camping.

You’re allowed to pitch a tent on city property anywhere in Seattle. Then, a lot of people moved underneath the freeway. The freeway, Interstate 5, is kind of up against Beacon Hill as it goes through the city. It’s kind of like a lean-to in a weird way. It’s a little bit protected from the elements.

You go under there, it’s like deafening. We’re under a freeway and cars are constantly going over and it’s just not a pleasant place to be. Yet, for some reason, everybody sits back and says, “Well, you know, they’re okay in The Jungle.” I just don’t believe that’s the solution to the problem, see?

I would agree.

Part of it was I wanted to just bring some attention to this concept and how we avert our eyes from the distasteful things that we don’t want to see, such as homelessness. That’s why The Cloven find it so easy to hide in plain sight with the homeless encampments.

One of the things I found very interesting about the book was the overall structure. We’re getting this timeline of Tuck’s life, but it’s not linear.

Right.

It’s almost like little puzzle pieces of his life that the reader has to put together. Was that what you were going for when you were laying out the structure?

Yeah, absolutely. That’s definitely what we were going for.

It’s really funny when you’re a novelist and you’re sitting there working on something for a year or two years or three years, you normalize everything in your mind like, “Of course.” Then, other people start reading it and they’re like, “What!?” It is interesting that it didn’t even occur to me, necessarily, that we jump around a lot.

What happened was, when I write novels, I do lot of jumping around in terms of time because that’s what, for me, in storytelling, what it’s all about. I mean, what’s happening right now is important, right? That’s the main thrust of the story, what’s going on right now, obviously.

There is a large part of a story in a novel that is, “How did we get to the now, and what’s the baggage that’s being carried?”

You have to know all of that stuff. For me, when I tell a story, I always have a lot of the background that needs to be fed in to inform the present. I wrote a whole thing, and then I wrote the script of it, and it was really jumbled in that first draft. I showed it to Matt and he was like, “Whoa, hold on a second.”

The first big lesson to me was people who read comics think in 20 to 24 page chunks. I said, “Why is that?” He’s like, “Well, that’s what floppies are.”

You read a weekly floppy and it’s about 24 pages, and then it’s a break, and you have to wait. I was like, “Ah, well, thank you for that. Brilliant. Now I’m going to rewrite the script thinking that.”

That’s how it evolved to where it exists now. I used to go back and forth a lot more, but he said it would be too jarring, visually, to the reader. I said, “Well, I’m jumping forward in time in this stuff, Matt, and I don’t always want to have ‘Two years later’ or ‘Four years earlier,’ or all that kind of stuff. What are we going to do?”

We came upon the idea of the color palette. At each chapter break, you’ll notice that the color changes pretty dramatically.

It’s a signal to the reader that it’s a new beat. It’s a new thing, and that they have to be aware that you may be relocated, not just in space, but in time.

That’s how we started to go through it, and I think it works for me, and I hope that it works for our readers too.

Yeah. I was thinking about that while reading it. I have a friend who is a colorist, and he talks about how coloring isn’t just applying a layer of color onto the page. You can use it to set tone and change a scene and help tell the overall story.

Absolutely. I encouraged Matt to play it up, to be very dramatic with it. He had all sorts of crazy ideas, and he would call me and say, “I’ve got this crazy idea,” and I would say, “Do it.” He was like, “You say, ‘Do it’ to the crazy ideas so much. It’s great.”

Speaking of the artist, the book is beautiful. One thing I was going to ask you about was at the end, there’s the four-page spread. Was that you, or Matt, or did you guys come up with that together?

No, that was Matt. The way that scene was written … Matt’s like, “I want to do a foldout,” and I’m like, “No, Matt. No foldout.”

He’s like, “Oh, man,” he’s like, “Oh, come on. We need to do a foldout.”

I’m like, “Matt, we’re trying to sell this baby in Europe and foreign markets and all this. You know someone is going to drop the ball on it at some point.”

When we finally talked to Eric Reynolds, our editor at Fantagraphics, I’m like, “What do you think Eric? Like, no, we shouldn’t have a foldout right?”

Eric was like, “I kind of like the foldout.” I was like, “Aww, man.”

It turned out beautifully. They were absolutely right, of course. I was just being a little cautious on the commercial side of it, but I guess that’s not my job, that’s Eric’s job.

I also said, “The problem is, Matt, with a foldout like that, what are we going to do with book two to top it, and then in book three to top that? I don’t know.”

Oh, yeah. You’re going to be poster size by the time you get to book three.

I don’t know. I think I at one point jokingly said that maybe book three has to be a pop-up book. I don’t know.

Oh, nice. I look forward to that.

Complete joke. It’s not happening. [Laughs]

So Matt is currently drawing volume two, right?

Yeah, we have the script done, but I’m rewriting also, which drives Matt crazy because I’m like, “Here’s some new pages.” An update on some of the new things that are going on and some of the things I’m discovering. Also, just making sure that we’re sealed up tight, but he’s working hard on the artwork of it. I know that.

Our goal is for a San Diego 2021 launch.

And hopefully you can do it in person, knock on wood.

I know, we were so crushed, man. We really wanted to go down there, and do Emerald City, and we were going to go to New York, and just everything got blown up by this virus, man.

Yeah. Now that you’ve been working in the comic format, do you have other ideas or plans for future work once you get through the trilogy?

Geez, I don’t know man. I mean, honestly, like I said, we’re planned for three. Our deal with Fantagraphics is for three. If people like it, and if Matt is happy, and if I’m happy then we’ll keep going.

I mean I could keep going forever. I’ve got book four a little bit laid out. I know where it starts. I know where it starts for sure. They’re fun, man. It’s so energetic and so much fun. I’m loving it. Honestly, with this whole virus thing going on … The more I learn about the reality of this stuff that I’m writing about, the more unsure my horizon of expectation is. How’s that for a quote?

There you go. That’s awesome.

I’m thinking, we get this book going, we’re going to be doing some book store events, virtually of course, this fall. I’m going to get out there. I’m going to work on my other stuff, but I’m looking to next summer, hopefully, if the comic cons start up again, we can hit it.

Then, in 2022, we’ll have book three. That’s really as far as I’m thinking out right now. I kind of like that. I like that idea of being in this world. You’ve got to check out the website. It’s called www.theclovenproject.com. The idea is to make a giant rabbit hole. Just a giant black hole, rabbit hole. You should be wondering what is real, and what isn’t. I put up all sorts of my research that I’m doing.     

I’m just saying, there’s a lot of directions we can go in here, and there’s backstories with the different characters that we could go into. There are a lot of things to explore. I’m pretty excited about it.

Like you said, it’s a beautiful artifact. It’s a piece of art. I hope that people pick it up and enjoy that aspect of it, and maybe get provoked a little bit by the story. We end on a bit of a cliffhanger, but a lot of things will be explained in book two.

There will be more questions, and then we’ll explain those in book three, and we’ll see where we are.

How has it been working with Fantagraphics?

I’ve written a bunch of regular, traditional books, and published on all sorts of different levels with small presses, with the biggest of big presses, the whole deal. It’s been the pleasure of my professional publishing life to work with the people at Fantagraphics. They’re terrific. I know they’re small. One could say small is nimble, but also small sometimes can be limited in resources, but what they’re limited in resources, they make up for with enthusiasm and just pure smartness about the whole process.

 It’s been a real pleasure. I’m just going to kick back and do nothing but Fantagraphics books for the rest of my life. If that’s on the table, I’ll take that.

Matt, of course, he’s my partner in crime here. Matt Southworth is incredibly talented, and we, the two of us, are really on the same separated-at-birth wavelength, honestly. I’ll say something that sounds like complete nonsense, and he’ll repeat something back to me that sounds even more illogical, and then he’ll draw exactly what I was hoping he was going to draw.

There’s something going on there that really we both are connected on the same level, and our approach is very much the same. It’s worked out. It’s really been a lot of fun.

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