Jeff Lemire, the fellow behind the Essex County Trilogy (of graphics novels) about a fictionalized version of his native Ontario, Canada, is the latest in a long list of Top Shelf-published creators that I admire immensely. While I started this blog partially out of a desire to do more pop culture interviews and to step away from sequential art/comix/graphic novel interviews, I also promised myself that whatever this blog did, I had to maintain coverage on Top Shelf books. The Top Shelf bevy of books has always entertained me, and I’m not saying that because Top Shelf’s Chris Staros resides in my hometown (Atlanta, Georgia). Two-thirds of Lemire’s Essex County trilogy was released in 2007, Essex County (Volume 1): Tales from the Farm (released January 2007) and Essex County (Volume 2): Ghost Stories (released July 2007). Both books were great reads that made me hungry for the October 2008 release of the trilogy’s conclusion, The Country Nurse. I was reminded that I should interview Lemire when Tales from the Farm recently received the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) [of the American Library Association] 2008 Alex Award (why I did not discuss that win with Lemire is an oversight on my part, sorry…). But to find out we both shared an appreciation of director Wim Wenders was just one of the interesting details he and I uncovered during this email interview. Be sure to visit Top Shelf’s site for a preview of Volume 3, which can be found here.
Tim O’Shea: When you first started Volume 1 of the Essex County Trilogy–was it in fact intended to be a trilogy?
Jeff Lemire: I had originally wrote the story as a standalone comic, but as I drew it a larger story began to quickly unfold and I decided then I would expand it into three connecting volumes.
O’Shea: How did the project land at Top Shelf?
Lemire: I submitted a copy via mail to Chris Staros and Brett Warnock, the publishers of Top Shelf, and after a few editorial suggestions, I redrafted the book and they agreed to publish it. Shortly thereafter they decided they would publish all three books.
O’Shea: When you were finishing up the final part of the trilogy, was there any part of you that was saddened that you would not be doing any more stories with the Essex County universe (or is it feasible you might revisit Essex County some point down the road)?
Lemire: After three years and three full-sized graphic novels, I was glad to be done, and be able to move onto new stories and new ideas. And, I wouldn’t rule out going back to Essex County at a different point in my life to see what stories might still be there for me to tell.
O’Shea: Given the importance of hockey in the trilogy, I’m curious, are you a fan of hockey? I’m guessing so, given that in your Myspace profile you list Guy Lafleur as one of your heroes (along with the likes of musician John Cale and author John Steinbeck).
Lemire: I am indeed a huge hockey fan. In fact, I still play hockey competitively every week, and follow the Toronto Maple Leafs religiously.
O’Shea: One more Myspace discovery–when I see you mention Affliction as one of your favorite films I’m not surprised. Many of the characters in your work have a James Coburn vibe to them. How much does film inform/influence your visual approach to storytelling?
Lemire: I, like anyone of my generation, am probably more influenced by film than I realize. I actually studied film in University, before turning to comics full time. There is a sense of timing in my storytelling that I think is influenced by filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick and David Lynch.
Lemire: I loved Wings of Desire , and didn’t really care for Faraway, So Close. But the Wenders film I really like, and one whose influence on Tales from The Farm is clear, is Paris, Texas.
O’Shea: This may be a strange question, but I have to ask: Do you really enjoy drawing noses? I have never seen an artist render characters with such spectacular noses.
Lemire: I actually get that a lot. Put it this way, every single panel that I ever have drawn that has a face in it, the first thing I draw is the nose and go from there. I think a lot of people see the eyes as the center of the face, or the most characteristic feature, but I see the nose as giving the whole face its personality.
O’Shea: How much of a boost was it when you received a Xeric 2005 grant for Lost Dogs?
Lemire: It was a huge break. I would never have gotten a book distributed by Diamond without a publisher if it wasn’t for the Xeric Grant, and that helped put me on the map with publishers like Top Shelf. I also learned a huge amount about the business side of the comics industry, which, even though I am not self-publishing any more, still helps me a lot.
O’Shea: Your work seems to flourish in the black and white format–could you ever envision trying to tell the story in full color–or does it need to be in black and white?
Lemire: The Essex County books definitely fit the stark black and white world, and in general, I am a fan of seeing comic art in its original black and white form (except Kirby, Kirby has to be in color). But if the story suited a color representation I would be all for it.
O’Shea: Will a bird appear in the third book? Do you care to speak about the symbolism of birds (which appear in volumes one and two)?
Lemire: I am surprised I’m not asked this more often. The bird is a vital part of the trilogy, and yes its story will be revealed in Volume 3.