Emily Haworth-Booth

London  |  November 2016
When do words and images become more than the sum of their parts? How does a love of Tin Tin lead to the creation of deep and meaningful stories about climate change and chronic illness?
Graphic novelist Emily Haworth-Booth tells me about the varied path she took to writing and illustrating her first book.  

emily-in-her-studioEmily in her studio at home in London, October 2016

When did you first become interested in graphic novels?
In university I started drawing little cartoons of my teachers in class, just to make my friends laugh. I enjoyed creating some illegal laughter in the quiet library.
Then I started making little books and short stories. As soon as I started putting pictures together with words it was like a chemical reaction for me that just made sense. Elements seemed to become a lot stronger. The drawings seemed to come alive when they had words with them and the words were much easier to write when they had drawings with them.
I discovered graphic novels a couple of years after that when a boyfriend gave me a copy of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware, which is still one of my favourite graphic novels ever. He’s a genius. He reinvented the form.
I didn’t even know that these things called graphic novels existed. I used to read TinTin when I was little which I loved but I didn’t realise that you could tell these kinds of stories – stories that are really poetic and have so much depth – in this way. Stories that are about the human condition and are as interesting as any piece of literature I had read at university. That’s when I realised that this is what I want to do.
How did you go about making this a reality?
I started to gather as many of the skills I thought were important as I could. I looked at going to art school but they didn’t seem to offer the kind of thing I wanted, so I built my own training. I took different kinds of drawing courses at the Prince’s Drawing School, which is now the Royal Drawing School where I teach. Then I started taking courses in design and typography and photoshop. I also managed to do a couple of internships in America, one in graphic design and one in printmaking. So I gradually built up these skills. I also started doing performance, and did stand up for a year on the amateur circuit of open mic nights. It all seemed a bit random at the time but in hindsight it all makes sense because it’s all about expression and the body and how words and images go together. When you’re doing stand up, especially as a woman, the words that you speak undercut or reinforce the image that you are presenting.
When you draw your characters, you’re kind of acting through them. It’s all about characterisation, and empathy and body language.
Where do your ideas come from?
The ideas are always there because I’m making autobiographical work most of the time. I don’t have a problem with ideas because they’re usually things that have happened in my life. When I first started I made work about small things that happened in my daily life, something I thought was funny, or something that annoyed. It was therapeutic in a way to to express those things through drawing and text.
I got really lucky early on – I made this story autobiographical about a little domestic quarrel and it was placed as runner up in the Jonathan Cape Observer competition. That really encouraged me to keep going in that vein. If I hadn’t had that external encouragement I might have started to think that the subject matter was a bit embarrassing.


Read the full version of ‘What Do Other Married People Talk About’ here
In 2013 Emily’s graphic short story ‘Colonic’ won first prize in the same competition, the Observer/Cape/Comica awards.


Read the full version of Colonic here
Do you have a particular process of working that you find helpful?
Yes. I work on A5 sheets of office paper and I tear them into either 6, 9 or 12 pieces and draw on the loose squares. Even though I am usually working in a sequence, and often I will keep that sequence, this method sort of tricks me into thinking that keeping the sequence doesn’t matter. I have been doing this for ten years or so and I still need to trick myself into thinking that it’s ok to make a mistake.
These drawings are always the best drawings that I do because they are so free, when I think that it doesn’t matter. As soon as I think, ‘this is the drawing’ I freeze up. It’s still a struggle for me to keep my finished drawings as loose and energetic as my rough drawings are. That’s one of my biggest challenges.
I draw my story on these rough bits of paper, then I order them into a sequence that works and stick them down with blue tack. That gives me the freedom to take one drawing out or come back to it months later and review the sequence.

Paper squares.jpgEmily’s desk with torn up squares of paper she uses to create her stories.

Does your drawing lead your text, or the other way around?
When I first started making work they were completely interdependent, I’d draw and write at the same time and one would never come before the other. I’d draw a person and write a speech bubble.
Now I keep a box of long thin strips of paper on my desk and as I’m drawing I might suddenly think of some narration and start writing. I’m not sure if it connects to a particular drawing but I know that it’s going into the scene somewhere. Once I’ve got all the drawings and all the little strips of paper, I can cut them up and put text and picture together. What I don’t use, I keep in a box beside my desk, because somehow that helps me edit them out, the fact that they are still there.
Graphic novels are sequential art, and I don’t always get it right the first time so I like to have that freedom of change.
I always think about the content first, then the editing, then the design. After that I can think about colour and tone and what it might look like as a finished piece. As a teacher I have become really aware of certain things about the creative process that hold people back or help them, and breaking things down into small steps is always useful.
Has your style of drawing changed much during the time you’ve been doing this?
I think it’s become more relaxed and I’ve become more myself. It’s become a bit looser mostly from doing a lot of drawings from my imagination. To keep pace with ideas and memories as they come on to the page means I can’t really labour over the drawings.
It’s something I’m always telling students; to draw quickly, to get the idea down. Even though the book that I’m doing is all about slowness. I really believe in slowness, but I also think that drawing quickly can keep you in the moment a bit more. The quick drawings have a lot of energy in them, and for the editing process they are easier to throw away.
Doing a lot of observational drawing has fed into the way that I draw. Drawing people who are moving, or might move, in cafes, or trains or parks. That helps my imaginative drawing because I get a good sense of the way bodies move and then become more comfortable expressing a movement with just a few lines.

Sketchbook.jpgAn observational drawing from Emily’s sketchbook. Image courtesy of the artist

Is there any particular character or story that you’ve found hard to let go or found hard to finish?
Probably the book that I’m working on at the moment. I started the idea of this book a few years after I started making comics. I wanted to make work about something that was really on my mind a lot at the time, climate change, but it was so difficult to approach. The only way I was able to deal with such a big issue was through myself, and through my own emotional reaction towards it.
I wanted to make a book that was about climate change and environmental activism but I was finding it really difficult to make the story arc because it’s a story that we’re still in the middle of. I couldn’t create an arc that was truthful but not either, very depressing, or totally in denial.
At that time I became really ill with chronic fatigue syndrome and then I couldn’t make any work at all.
After some time, when I was able to work again, I started making a drawn diary, a record of things that were happening and it was really therapeutic. This gradually turned into a graphic novel about having chronic fatigue syndrome. I kept coming to a point where I wanted to bring the story to an end at times when I felt like I was getting better but then I would have a relapse and realise that I couldn’t end the story there. I gradually became more accepting of myself as a slow person. Somehow finding the balance of effort and surrender. It’s a paradigm shift. Being accepting but also still striving to be well, which is kind of what we need to do with the planet. After making this realisation I eventually managed to bring the initial ideas about climate change into the book about chronic fatigue syndrome, and the book now connects both of those phenomena.

graphic-novel-2Some pages from Emily’s upcoming book, October 2016. Images courtesy of the artist

You mentioned that you couldn’t bring your story to an end because of what was going on in your life. Do you think it would have been too forced to write an ending that was not happening in real life?
Yes I think so. Something that has happened though is that I have ended up fictionalising my story more than I thought I would. But at the same time, it feels more emotionally true. Some of the details or timelines have been changed to make it feel like a real story. It’s got magical realism in it, and is interspersed with things that didn’t really happen but it felt like they happened.
Will your book be more text or image?
It was quite text heavy at the beginning. Then it went through an incarnation with no narrative voice at all, so it was just ‘as seen’, like a silent film. But then I realised that wasn’t possible because I needed the objective voice of the narrator to explain that this wasn’t necessarily real, that this is just how I remember it. I needed that voice because without it I felt I that I was presenting it all as true. This voice allowed me to fictionalise, but not feel that I was lying to the reader.
I read a book called ‘The Art of Memoir’ by Mary Carr around the time I made this decision. It’s about literary memoir, and she speaks a lot about the importance of truthfulness in memoir. Something in that hit home and I wanted to make sure that, although I was fictionalising, I wasn’t presenting that as the truth.  
So it’s become a little more wordy, but I want to let the pictures have the louder voice.

emily-haworth-booth-graphic-novel-p1Another page from Emily’s upcoming book. Image courtesy of the artist

Which graphic novelists are you particularly influenced by, or is there a particular style that you like?
Obviously Chris Ware. I also love Marjane Satrapi who wrote ‘Persepolis’. I think she’s such a brilliant storyteller, and her work is autobiographical. She tells serious stories with such a light touch and she’s brilliant at characterisation. With just a few lines she can show a character’s difference from another one. The way she draws resonates with me.
I also love a lot of children’s books illustrators. Beatrice Alemagna who does this amazing work with collage and drawing. Her drawings are so free and expressive and they have this naivety to them that makes them feel like they have been done by a child, yet they are so sophisticated.
Another artist called Isabelle Arsenault, she works a lot with pencil, very tactile and soft and beautiful. There is a lot of cross pollination in the arts at the moment between illustrators, children’s book illustrators, graphic novelists and painters.
You can see more of Emily’s work on her website www.emilyhaworthbooth.com and her instagram @emilyhaworthbooth

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