For a long time, nobody knew if Anders Nilsen would bring the intriguing narrative of Big Questions to its conclusion, but the issues kept on coming, oh-so-slowly, year after year. Dogs and Water had provided a nice consolation, delivering an enigmatic journey through a desolate landscape. Now the magnus opus has been completed, and is available in the form of a hefty brick published by Drawn & Quarterly -- the opportunity to look back on what might be the achievement of a lifetime.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s a little strange to begin this interview with you, as a good starting point is usually the last book — but in your case, your last book is at the same time your first book, Big Questions.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah.
Xavier Guilbert : You indicated that it had taken it 15 years to finish the book, with 12 years for actually making it.
Anders Nilsen : The earliest strips in the book are 15 year old. But I didn’t really start thinking of it as a story until about 12 years ago — ’99, roughly.
Xavier Guilbert : How does it feel now that it’s done, and that the book is out ?
Anders Nilsen : Very good. (laugh) I — it’s especially nice because I think, now that it’s all one book, people are recognizing that it’s really all one story. Whereas, I think, as the issues would come out over the years, people thought that they were just little — short stories using the same characters, or that they were little kind of poetic vignettes, or … And the fact that it was all one story sort of gets lost. So I’m really happy that people are recognizing that. They seem to be — even people who were familiar with the work are sort of experiencing it as a completely new book, in a way.
Xavier Guilbert : That’s something that surprised me, because I read it almost in one — let’s say, two sittings, because that’s quite a big book. And it’s really impressive how it manages to flow. There are some moments, especially at the beginning, where one feels that you’re adding layer after layer, but that’s the exposition part of the book. But once you’re past that, the book hits its stride, and this despite the fact that the last issues were released about a year apart.
Anders Nilsen : The last two came out, I think, only six month apart, but yes, on average, it was almost an issue a year.
Xavier Guilbert : How did you manage to keep this consistency ? I mean, especially when comparing the first pages and the last pages… things remain the same.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah… well — I’m glad you said that. (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : Well, there are things that are more refined, there are more of those « atmospheric scenes » appearing later in the book. At the beginning, the narrative relies more on the dialogs and the exchanges, and the more you progress, there are more silent pages, sequences that establish the mood.
Anders Nilsen : That’s quite true. There’s also — I feel like it took me a couple of years to decide how I wanted to do the book, and so… I mean, it starts as just those little gag strips about the birds, and they’re very very roughly drawn — they are kind of quickly written. And then, once I turn it into a story, I begin to take much more care with the drawing. But I also, a year or two after that, I sort of felt that I wanted to try and incorporate a little more spontaneity into it too. So for me, when I look at the drawings from issue four and five, they begin to get kind of rough, again. And then, around number seven, I kind of put my — I kind of finally decide, « okay, no I really do want to do … careful, beautiful drawings ». So I — when I look at the drawings, I definitely see a little bit of ambivalence in choosing what I want to do. And I also do see — there’s also a definite process of me learning how to draw over the course of that time.
Xavier Guilbert : Were there some times when you thought — « the heck with it, I’m going to stop doing that thing », or did you always want to see it through ?
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, I always wanted to see it through. I always had — pretty much, I always had some other projects happening. So I would take breaks, and work on — you know, the Dogs and Water, the Monologue books, whatever. And sometimes I would wonder : « okay, when I come back to Big Questions, is it going to feel like it’s old work, or like I’m not interested in those characters anymore ? » But it always was — it always was rewarding to come back. And I was always interested in what are they up to now ? Like, how are they going to deal with this next problem. So it always felt totally engaging to me.
Xavier Guilbert : Was the fact that it was serialized a way to keep working on it ?
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, probably. Because there were these kind of end goals, you know. Finishing an issue, and that would feel like a complete — like I had accomplished something, I had made this step forward in the story, and then I could set it aside for, you know, six months, and work on something else.
Xavier Guilbert : I remember Charles Burns saying the same thing about Black Hole, and the fact that it was out there helped him move onward.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, and that’s something that’s going to change potentially now, because you can’t really do pamphlet comics anymore. I mean, I may self-publish a graphic novel in pamphlet form, serialized. But the publishers are not interested in that anymore.
Xavier Guilbert : I was looking at an interview you did with Matthias Wivel, from the Comics Journal. He talked with you around 2002, then 2007, and each time you told him you were nearly done with the book, and there were only something like two more issues to the conclusion. (Anders laughs) And I think at the time, there were eight or nine issues out… so how much improvisation was there in the project ?
Anders Nilsen : I always had a basic sense of — of what happened in the story, and the various plot points I wanted to hit. But then, getting from one to the other would often … you know, a new little sidetrack would happen, a little subplot, or a character would get introduced. I mean, some characters in the book like Rose, for example I think, don’t get introduced until the eighth issue or something.
Xavier Guilbert : There are the dogs too. By the way, as they are reminiscent of Dogs and Waters, I was wondering if they didn’t end up existing in their own project.
Anders Nilsen : Not so much. I think I wanted to — I don’t know, I mean, for a few issues, the story moves into a night time. You know, moves into the kind of night that falls, and I wanted to… the dogs, I think were a way to introducing a bit of … danger and … kind of a random element that was uncertain.
Xavier Guilbert : They appear in but one issue.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, they kind of come and go. I like the idea, also, of — it’s like the dogs in Dogs and Water turn out to be rather friendly and become companions of the main character, and I kind of wanted to — I sort of wanted to bring those same dogs in, but have them be sinister or frightening or whatever.
Xavier Guilbert : Were there other big elements that came out as a surprise, something that wasn’t expected from your original plan ?
Anders Nilsen : Erm… well, yeah, I don’t know, that’s hard to answer. You know, in some ways, that’s all sort of a surprise. But …
Xavier Guilbert : Reading it, there was this strange moment — you’ve got a lot of bird characters, and only two human characters, the idiot and the pilot. And at some point, the humans are silent, while the birds remain very chatty, a kind of inversion of roles. There’s also this moment when the pilot is about to brush his teeth, and then throws the brush away, in a « what’s the point ? » gesture — in a way, forfeiting civilization. And at the same time, the birds are facing those big questions on religion and social organization. So you have those kind of opposite trajectories…
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, each character, like the birds or the pilot are all in these different character arcs. I don’t know, it’s funny to think about something that would have been surprising, it all feels like… I mean, authors talk about this, but it feels like the story arc sort of exists, and you’re just writing it down, almost like it’s not surprising because it was already there, or something. So even stuff that you don’t really anticipate, that you invent or discover later on, it’s almost like remembering more than discovering something.
Xavier Guilbert : I find interesting the way you manage to bring to life different characters among the birds. Because from a visual point of view, they are very similar. They just have a name, and even thanks to the length of the book, they have time to grow on you, they are all very different. Betty, who’s mourning and doesn’t want to eat anymore and kind of wishing to fade away ; there are the birds who have some kind of epiphany and are born again… where do those personalities come from ?
Anders Nilsen : It just sort of happened. Probably the earliest intance of that is when the bomb first falls, and there are three birds who are just eating. And it’s like, instantly, they are split. And this event forces me to really articulate three different, three completely different takes on this single event. I don’t know, I think there’s something about the birds that I feel like, made it — because they are so blank, it almost made it easier to have their personnalities be very particular. Just not having to be cut up and how they dress and their facial expressions and sort of human particularities. (pause) I don’t know. I think that’s the sort of thing that was compelling about the birds, before I had any idea of what I was going to do with them. It was like, here is this perfect blank slate, very easy to fill up with personnalities.
Xavier Guilbert : The title, Big Questions — was it a kind of joke at the beginning ?
Anders Nilsen : Yeah. I mean, it originally came from one of the strips in the first issue. So, yeah, it was kind of ironic. You know, those birds don’t even really understand what they are talking about. And I — I didn’t expect to even do a second issue, I wasn’t really planning on it. By the time I got to the third issue, where I started to expand the story, I really wasn’t interested in that title anymore. But I felt I was sort of stuck with it. So I started putting those really big overblown subtitles, which I had a lot of fun with, and that became a continuing element of the book. But at a certain point, I think that something happens where a band or a book or whatever can have a title, and it might be just a terrible title — which I think, « Big Questions » is actually a terrible title. (laugh) But hopefully, if the book itself is good, or if the band is really amazing, it sort of — the title takes on the content from the book. Takes on a feeling from the book or the music or whatever, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a good title or a bad title. So at a certain point I was just like — you know, this is what the book is, it’s going to have to carry this title.
Xavier Guilbert : Then again, when you look at the themes that are present in the book, it fits. There are a lot of questions about death, relationships, religion, the afterlife, rememberance… there are also moments that are definitely reminiscent of myths. There’s a reference to Plato at some point, there is the sequence with Algernon going down to Hades, with the figure of the Snake — who is, by the way, a rather enigmatic character, and even turns out to be quite a positive one. So it did fit, in the end, this title.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, I just hope that — because I feel like, early on, I was worried that people would take it earnestly. That it’s like : (pensive) « I’m really trying to understand and explain… » — it sounds kind of pretentious, I think. Potentially. Hopefully, people read it with a little bit of irony.
Xavier Guilbert : Well, it’s a story about talking birds. (Anders laughs) So there’s definitely irony from page one.
Anders Nilsen : Right. So I think it was an appropriate title, even if — if I had more time to think about it, I wouldn’t have picked it up ultimately.
Xavier Guilbert : You’re on this kind of tour about the book right now. Is there a feeling of achievement about that ? Or is it just going through the motions of promotion and the attached vagaries ?
Anders Nilsen : I sort of feel like — I mean, I’ve done this a little bit in the past, just like much shorter : five cities, or six cities. Drawn & Quarterly generally have been good about making that possible. With this book, I just felt like, I spent twelve years on this thing, it’s probably the biggest thing I’ll ever do. At this point, to me it feels like — you know, my life’s work or something. So I feel I have to do my best to get it out there and let people know that it exists. And there is like, almost a celebratory aspect to it. I threw a huge party in Chicago, and asked a bunch of friends to come down and stuff. I really want to, you know… it feels like a major moment, I guess, in my life as an artist. So I want to market…
Xavier Guilbert : Also something like a weight off your chest ?
Anders Nilsen : Yeah. I mean, I’ve been looking forward to this moment for six years or something. (laugh) So…
Xavier Guilbert : And is it easy ? I mean, there’s this moment where you happy to see this thing done. And what about what happens next ? Is it easy to turn towards that ? or is there a disorientation ?
Anders Nilsen : No, I have a bunch of projects that are sort of ready to go. (pause) A book of sketchbook strips, you know — various things. Sort of ready to jump into the next thing. That’s something that’s been nice about this tour, is that — until coming here to Pierre Feuille Ciseaux, I haven’t really been doing much work. I finished editing the book in… April, and I haven’t done any real work on books, outside of my sketchbooks since then. So I am really ready to get back to work.
Xavier Guilbert : What do you think of this Pierre-Feuille-Ciseaux residency ?
Anders Nilsen : It’s been amazing. Both in terms of the artistic interaction with everybody, and then there’s the social interaction. And just having somebody feed you every day… (laugh) I think it’s totally amazing, and I know it’s an incredible amount of work for June, but I hope that it continues and he figures out a way to keep doing it, because it’s great and I think a lot of people would benefit from that. And it totally gets you outside of your normal way of working. It forces you to kind of play around and experiment, which is so valuable.
Xavier Guilbert : Like that first retreat you were talking about ?
Anders Nilsen : Yeah. And having to respond to other people’s ideas and interact. Something that cartoonists — I don’t know, in the States, cartoonists very much sit in their rooms and do their things.
Xavier Guilbert : Well, I think it’s pretty much the same thing in Europe. All participants have the same feedback — L.L. de Mars said that his world had become bigger, because he thought there were a lot of people he had nothing to say to, and he ended up discovery there were actually a lot of things they could share, learn and do together.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah. I’m really digging it.
Xavier Guilbert : Was it easy to do the editing of Big Questions ?
Anders Nilsen : Oh no, that was hard…
Xavier Guilbert : Was there the urge to redo stuff ? How much retouches did you do ?
Anders Nilsen : Probably 90 % of the pages had some change… mostly small things, you know, like adding a word of dialog, moving over a bird a quarter of an inch or something. But just little things like that. In some cases I added a panel, just to slow things down, or move things along, or whatever. There were a few — I really tried not to get into redrawing stuff, because… you know, it took me twelve years, and it was what I began comics with. So inevitably, there’s going to be a sense of that progression, and I wanted to preserve that. But there were a few places where… like a plot thread that, by the end, had become kind of important, I realized that half-way through, I hadn’t treated it with quite as much significance as it needed, and so I did redraw — I drew maybe two new scenes, mostly fairly small, but little things that needed to be emphasized in the middle and… I redrew a couple of pages and that was about it. But it just was, just the little things kind of add up, and it’s a 600-page book, so if you’re, you know, working on 90 % of those pages, in some way, it just becomes a lot of work. (laugh) It was the first time that I sort of hated comics. (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : Obviously, while editing the book you had to re-read it from the start. But prior to that, had you gone back to the first issues often ?
Anders Nilsen : No, never. I actually had never — I don’t think I’d ever gone back and re-read the whole thing until I finished it. And then, over the editing process I did that about three times, I guess. I read through it, cover to cover, three times, and also went through it visually a few times. It was a little bit of a revelation, actually. I really — I think, I was prepared to hate it more, and feel like « oh my God, this is a total disaster ». And for the most part, I think, my feeling was that the beginning was actually pretty good, and the end was actually pretty good, but the middle was kind of a mess. (pause) But to some extent I had to live with that. (laugh) I mean, I tried to clean it up and make it work the best I could, but it was, to a certain extent… the thought did occur to me that, maybe I shouldn’t put this book out. But, ultimately…
Xavier Guilbert : You mentioned the different projects you had been doing on the side during Big Questions. I’ve tried to think about those, and there are three different styles : the detailed style that appears in Big Questions, Dogs and Water and also to some extend in Don’t go where I can’t follow ; there’s the stick figures style that usually is done over photos or maps, and then there’s the scribble style (not in a derogatory way), that appears in the Monologues. Do they represent actually three different ways to explore ?
Anders Nilsen : I think the Monologues thing is something I came to once I got really serious about Big Questions and then I had taken a break to work on Dogs and Water. Working in that style and kind of learning how to do comics by doing that style, I had really stopped working on my sketchbooks, you know. It was pretty labor intensive, and took a lot of planning and stuff. And at a certain point I just felt like I needed something where I can work more freely and more improvisationally, and that’s when I started the Monologues books. So I do think of them as different, I feel that Monologues is actually taking the way that Big Questions started, with the little bird gags and stuff, and trying to maintain that level of quickness and improvisational nature.
Xavier Guilbert : Were those books done in little stints, or were they produced in entirety over a continuous period ?
Anders Nilsen : I mean, it kind of happened over a few weeks, and then I would go back and I would add scenes and stuff, but I would try to keep the momentum go, even when doing new scenes. The first Monologue book really just feels like improvisation and a little craziness, the second one, I feel like a plot begins to develop…
Xavier Guilbert : In both books, I think. There are layers and themes that add up…
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, in both, a little bit. So it did seem that it’s inevitable that that mode of working, I’m just kind of generating ideas, for me, always does sort of move towards developping characters and developping a grand plot. Which I totally enjoy, but I kind of like with that work, to be able also to be throwing crazy elements and then see what happens. So I think of them as different. And then, the stuff from like, The End and the sketchbook work, I feel that’s a little different, almost a little bit of both, together or something…
Xavier Guilbert : There’s more of a system in it. From a graphic point of view, you use patterns that are mandalas in some ways, or big sephiroths, I don’t know what kind of references you might have there, but there’s definitely this kind of a bigger plan, of a bigger structure. And I think that the more free-hand style that you use in the Monologues is in synch with the kind of rambling approach, with a lot of echoes in the nonsensical dialogs, picking up things that have appeared earlier. They are really different in terms of structure.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, I don’t know, I actually — so now, I am planning a third Monologues book, and I do actually wonder if I’m going to be able to get back to that mode of working, because I feel it has evolved into what I do in my sketchbooks now. So I don’t know, I guess I’ll find out. (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : You have a background in Arts, and it shows a lot in the pieces that were published in Mome. Some things that were — witty, and trying to be too clever for their own good. Like the piece about the power outlet, or the mini-comic explaining how to produce a mini-comic, which is basically self-referential. And that’s the stuff you can’t pull off a number of times..
Anders Nilsen : Well that is actually — that thing is… it is sort of a joky version, but it really is kind of I think of Monologues having come into being, and specifically how Big Questions sort of started. It was during this artist retreat that I was on my senior year in College, where we were up in the mountains for two weeks and we did a lot of exercices about generating imagery, generating ideas, and one of the exercices was to draw the same thing sixty times and you just had a minute to do each drawing. About half-way through this exercice, for me, it turned into a comic, and it involved a group of birds and a crashed airplane and the pilot of the airplane. So that little strip, talking about that process, references that. And it is kind of what I sort of try to do with Monologues, which is try to get stuff out before your brain can really tell you that it’s not — right, you know ?
Xavier Guilbert : Is that a creative strategy that you use a lot ?
Anders Nilsen : I don’t do it a lot, and I don’t do it in a super structured way — like, I don’t take out a stopwatch and time myself every drawing. (pause) Well, I do it very occasionnally. (laugh) I just did it about a month ago with my girlfriend, but it was the first time I had done it in about six years or something. But it’s more that spirit that I try to incorporate, especially with the Monologues. And in a slightly different way, maybe, in my sketchbook where it’s like I try to get my brain to generate something interesting and see where it goes, without planning too much beforehand.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s something I’ve noticed in the Monologues, but also in The Beast that was published in Mome, and maybe even the first issues of Big Questions — it feels like the characters are merely a pretext for the dialog, the dialog is the driving element behind the narrative, and the art is just supporting this. And then, as things evolve, sometimes the art takes over, as I was mentionning with Big Questions.
Anders Nilsen : I think it’s — it’s something sort of growing up that I became aware of at a certain point. As a teenager, or as a student, it’s kind of your job — as an art student — to be constantly thinking of « why am I doing things a certain way ? » « what should I be making as an artist ? » What makes sense ? What is necessary ? What is ridiculous ? And maybe it’s part of my personality to think a lot about what I’m doing and why. But there’s like a second voice behind that first voice that’s saying « you don’t have any idea of what the hell you’re doing. » (laugh) And that’s the most basic beginning of Big Questions, it’s Lewis and Morris, the two birds sitting in a tree, having this very detached kind of conversation about what they’ve just read and it’s detached philosophical questions that they are kind of interested in but they don’t really understand and they’re really just kind of hungry or whatever. But they happen to frame it in a certain way, and then Algernon comes and this actually just happened to him in his life, for real. And that is something I’m really interested in, the way we think about how the world is, versus how the world is really. And the fact that you really can’t actually wrap your mind around — you know, how the world really is. But you can’t stop thinking about it, and you can’t stop trying to understand.
Xavier Guilbert : So are you trying to get at the cognitive process ? Using the automatic writing, for instance.
Anders Nilsen : Right. But I think the constrast — I’m really interested in that contrast between thinking in terms of language about the world, and then the fact that the world just kind of shows you that you don’t even know, that you can’t even comprehend. I don’t know. And so, having a lot of the silent passages is a way of saying « there is no way — you can watch these things happen, but what does it mean ? » There’s not really any way — it’s important to me to really tell a lot of the story in pictures, because comics is a visual medium, but I want to be showing stuff that I couldn’t write down what it means. It really can only exist visually. Maybe if I was a poet, I could, but — I don’t know. (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : There are two books that are a little different from what we’ve discussed : Don’t go where I can’t follow and The End, which are autobiographical. They have a special place in your bibliography.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah.
Xavier Guilbert : Would you consider doing autobiography again — well, obviously not in the same circumstances…
Anders Nilsen : (pause) Yeah, it’s hard to say. I feel like — I mean, I’ve done a couple of vaguely autobiographical things in my sketchbooks recently, and I’ve kind of enjoyed that. I don’t think I’ll — I don’t have any plans to do a book that’s autobiographical. I feel that with those two books, there were very specific reasons why they exist. Because of the experiences they came out of. So I can imagine, at some point in my life, being driven in a similar way because of some event or some experience, to want to make a work about it. But, you know, in general as an artist, that’s not interesting to me to try and recapitulate my experience in comics. Unless something interesting happens that I can try and do in my sketchbook, but I don’t expect to do it in a more formal way.
Xavier Guilbert : You mentioned that Chester Brown was one of your major influences, and his work has been mainly autobiographical.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, he’s — I feel like he… I never liked you is, I think, the best example of autobiographical comics. Because it’s a little mysterious and it’s not — it doesn’t feel super self-conscious. I think The Playboy also is actually really great in a different way, because it’s pretty self-conscious. I mean, he’s got a narrator who’s basically him reinterpreting his own childhood.
Xavier Guilbert : There is more self-criticism in The Playboy. I never liked you is told in a rather subjective way, while The Playboy is much more judgmental. But what is interesting is that they both happen at the same time — they deal with the same period, only with different themes and angles. One is about the difficulty to express affection, especially through physical contact, while the other is about the discovery of pornography. Which makes for an interesting divide between the two.
Anders Nilsen : Totally.
Xavier Guilbert : Which is in a way what, I feel, you did with Don’t go where I can’t follow and The End. One is about rememberance — I found it very respectful, there’s a distance, it never feels voyeuristic. While The End was more of an outpouring of yourself in grief.
Anders Nilsen : Right. Yeah, I think of them as very, very different. I think of Don’t go where I can’t follow as Cheryl’s memorial, and I really did it specifically for the people that we knew. And really not actually for the public, but I made it public because that was the only way to get it made. So I actually don’t think of that book as being an art work — it’s more a document, almost. Whereas I feel that The End really isn’t actually about Cheryl in any way, it’s really about me and my experience after her death, and I think that very much is art work, that’s me trying to just figure just the hell I’m going through. Trying to make sense of things.
Xavier Guilbert : About that memorial — you mentioned making it a book, because there were a lot of people you needed to give the book to, and it wasn’t possible from a practical point of view to self-publish. But what about The End ? What urged you to put it out there ?
Anders Nilsen : That’s a good question. I mean, it was stuff I was doing in my sketchbook. You know, I would have a hard day, and I would draw something about it. And really, the fact was, that I had a contract to produce a book. (laugh) And I had actually chosen the title of The End before I had any idea what I was going to make a book about, before Cheryl even got sick or anything. And you know, at a certain point, I kinda felt that this stuff in my sketchbook is actually kind of interesting, it might be relevant to other people’s lives, and I kinda like it. You know, at a distance from my own life, as art, I like these things that I’ve done. And that’s still something that I’m dealing with, is that with both of those books, Don’t go where I can’t follow has been out of print for several years, The End is still, I think, maybe in print ? But there’s a second half of it that’s never been printed and…
Xavier Guilbert : I’ve read you saying that there was no point in printing it.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, I probably said that at some point.
Xavier Guilbert : You seem to have doubts about it.
Anders Nilsen : Well, I’ve made plans with Drawn and Quarterly to re-issue Don’t go where I can’t follow… for several reasons, but I — I feel that for me, there’s enough distance. But I guess, what I was going to say, for both works, it’s like, as an artist, to know that there’s something I did that I actually am proud of as art, that nobody can have, there’s this weird psychological — like it doesn’t work, I want that work to be available, I just need to figure out a way to frame it where people understand that it’s something that happened a long time ago, it’s not me now or whatever. So we’ll see, I’m still a little on the fence with the second part of The End, because there are parts of the story that I’m just not… things I am not going to make public. I have sort of a weird thing with that material, in that — there is actually no end, that process of grief just slowly peters out. Eventually, you just move on and so it’s not — it feels like it’s half of a story, but the other half, I don’t know where it stops exactly, or how the book would end. So I haven’t figured that out.
Xavier Guilbert : What you said with the titles is interesting. It seems you choose the titles, and then the work you put being it ends up being influenced by the title. Even with the two Monologues books, reading the content, there are very vague connections… you come from an art background, and the big thing in the XXth century was Duchamp establishing that one of the major things in being an artist was the decision that something was a work of art, and deciding on how it should be named. Which brings us also to Genesis and the power of names — the kabbalistic power of naming things. And the fact that you decide on a title, and then you create the work, and then in a way the work somewhat becomes at the same time prisonner and very much influenced by that title…
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, it’s a strange thing. I mean, there are instances — around the same circumstances with Big Questions, where… It’s like with The End, where I had the title and then I ended up living through a story that fit the title. With Big Questions, it’s like you mentioned Algernon going underground — I sort of think of that as a recapitulation of the Orpheus myth.
Xavier Guilbert : Very much so. He’s trying to bring back his lover and when he turns back she’s not there. She’s not turned in a pillar of salt or anything, but that’s very close.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah. You know, that story is very much a grief narrative. But I wrote it before Cheryl ever got sick. That story was part of the book, and then she died, and then it was the very first thing I worked on — you know, six months or a year after she died. And it was like — I wrote this thing, that I then went through, and now I’m literally going through it and describing it for this book. It’s kind of odd.
Xavier Guilbert : Those elements were already present. Before Algernon goes to Hades, you’ve got Betty trying to gather the bones of the dead birds, and little by little you see their consciousness fading away, they repeat things, they forget things… this is already present. And I don’t think there’s a much bigger question than the afterlife, this is very much present. So do you have already chosen the title for your next project ? Do you have a list of titles that might eventually become the overwhelming and overaching directions ?
Anders Nilsen : No, no titles yet. (laugh) I actually need to come up with a title for this book of my sketchbook scripts, because Drawn and Quarterly has agreed to do it and it’s probably going to get sollicitated soon. So I’m going to have to come up with something.
Xavier Guilbert : Getting back to what you said about the difference between how we think the world is and how it really is, that’s interesting to look at what the title means and what the work is, and the way those two things end up interacting, and having a big influence on each other.
Anders Nilsen : Yeah, I mean, I really think of titles as just another little piece of the work. Because they are — you know, the Monologues titles don’t really directly relate in any way to the content. But it is the title of the work, so it sort of forces the reader to try and reconcile these things that don’t go together, which I think is always an interesting thing.
Xavier Guilbert : Even Big Questions, again — it starts off as a story with birds, but the fact that it’s called « Big Questions » makes you question the fact that — where are the big questions ? And once they appear in the narrative, it comes back full circle. There’s no such thing as an innocuous title.
Anders Nilsen : Right.
[Interview conducted at Pierre Feuille Ciseaux #3, on October 7, 2011.]