Welcome to Danica Novgorodoff, the author and illustrator of The Undertaking of Lily Chen. Thanks to her for answering our questions
Welcome on Between Dreams and Reality, can you present yourself in a few words ?
I call myself a graphic novelist, but I create all kinds of work that combines text and images: comics, murals, children’s books, theatre and music posters, logos, paintings, and other more experimental, less classifiable art. I live in New York, but I try to travel as often as possible to places where I can climb mountains and ride horses.
Is it difficult to manage illustrations and story at the same time ? How is your process ?
Writing without illustrations or drawing without narrative feels to me like trying to play soccer with only one foot.
I tend to come up with the story first, and create the images afterwards. The story is like the skeleton and the images are like the muscles and skin of a creature, of a graphic novel. I need to know what the structure is before I add weight and aesthetics to it. Of course eventually it all gets intermingled, and often after creating images I have to go back and change the text if it’s not fitting together right.
You didn’t write a lot of dialogues, but your story doesn’t need them, the illustrations are perfect for that. Is it what you’re trying to share too ? That we don’t have to have words to understand everything ?
I try to tell as much of the story as possible visually, and to refrain from redundant text. Each element—the text and the images—tells a different aspect of the story. If you can tell that a character is sad in the image, she doesn’t need to explain that through dialogue. I hope to show rather than tell.
How long did it take to realize the whole book ?
It took me about five years to create The Undertaking of Lily Chen. The story went through about 15 revisions before I started drawing, and then at my most productive, I was only able to complete about a page of drawings per day.
How did you manage to find such a topic for The Undertaking of Lily Chen ? It was so interesting. Does it happen in real life too?
I read about the tradition of ghost marriages in an article in the Economist magazine. In it, a man named Song was described as having been arrested for grave robbing when police found his cell phone dropped in a plundered grave. That gave me the idea for a premise to the story, as well as for a grave-robbing villain. Ghost marriages—when two deceased people are married by their families and buried together—are still practiced in some parts of China currently. The Economist article explained that a black market for female corpses had sprung up as a result of the tradition. I found that startling and fascinating.
Are you influenced a lot by the asian culture ?
My grandmother was Chinese and my father was born in Shanghai, but until working on this book I would say I was not heavily influenced by Asian culture. It was after my first trip to China in 2007, when I went to visit a friend there (and climb some mountains!) that I began writing this book. I have always been interested in traditional Chinese art, especially landscape brush paintings, ink on rice paper. I wanted to create a comic in which the setting referenced that type of painting. I also really love ancient Chinese figure paintings and horse art. The horses always have a very distinctive style that I referenced in Mr. Song’s horse.
Do you have any future projects ?
I’m currently working on several projects—a collection of graphic essays about the environment and climate change; two picture books for children; a novel (with images) for kids; and a book of memoir/nonfiction/paintings/poetry about volcanoes. Hopefully I will have something finished before another five years elapses!
Synopsis: In the mountains of Northern China ancient custom demands that every man have a wife to keep him company in the afterlife.
Deshi Li’s brother is dead—and unmarried. Which means that Deshi must find him an eligible body before the week is up.
Lily Chen, sweet as a snakebite, needs money and a fast ride out of town.
Haunted by the gods of their ancestors and the expectations of the new world, Deshi and Lily embark on a journey with two very different destinations in mind.
They travel through a land where the ground is hard and the graves are shallow, where marriage can be murder and where Lily Chen is wanted—dead and alive.