This is the second profile in a series in which Sarah Hampson interviews prominent British authors at home.
It would be nice to tell you that the inspiration for Isabel Greenberg’s first graphic novel, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, a stunning display of charming imagination, came from Canada, a land that understands more than its fair share about Snowy White Stuff. But, sadly, no. Not really.
Greenberg thinks of snowflakes as kisses, falling from the sky and landing gently on the skin of unsuspecting people, but she had never been to Canada until last month. A rising, award-winning star in publishing circles, she participated in Toronto’s International Festival of Authors. What the British author knows of the North comes from books and a map of the Arctic from National Geographic, which she has taped (a little askew, if you must know) to the back of her bedroom door in her parents’ home in North London.
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is not an encyclopedia at all, but a gorgeous epic filled with Nord Man’s stories, his odyssey in the Archipelago of No No No, being swallowed by a whale, a poison-sausage-making old lady who slays a giant with her little knife, and gods like Birdman, Kid and Kiddo who toy with humans from above. Her imagination is bigger than she is, a slight young woman of long, pale hair, big greenish eyes, stripy socks and 25 years, who appeared at the window of her bedroom in anticipation of my arrival, waving.
“Would you like some tea?” she asks in a ladylike way, after opening the door. The eldest of two daughters, whose parents are designers of historical museum exhibitions, she is living at home again after graduating three years ago from Brighton University where she completed a degree in illustration. She had been living on her own, but moved home again after winning The Observer newspaper’s prize for a short illustrated story two years ago. She wanted to give up her part-time work as a nanny so she could concentrate on turning her story into a full-length novel.
“The idea of the book is I wanted it to be a celebration of storytelling,” she says after settling at a table in the kitchen. “Wait!” she giggles. “That sounds cheesy. I wonder if I can say that better.” She ponders a moment, laying the tip of one finger on her chin and rolling her eyes skyward in a classic thinking pose. “I wanted to use stories that people know so they could go, oh, I know that one!” she says of her deliberate subversion of archetypal parables, biblical stories and Greek myths.
If someone were to draw Greenberg in illustrated form, as a character in a comic book, say, she would look like an innocent girl but her speech and thought bubbles would contain acerbic asides and quirky little blurts, like her admission that the best thing about travelling to indie comic fairs is the perfection of the tiny soaps in the hotels. And at one point in the illustrated strip, you could have her character go off on an unexpected rant with lots of exclamation marks, and big bubbles of commentary on how irritating it is when people focus on her gender and the colour of her hair. And while she goes on about how there are plenty of women creating illustrated novels, you could draw her sitting at a kitchen table with her stripy feet tucked under her as she sips her tea, sometimes pressing a finger to her lips as if trying (apologetically) to stop herself from saying too much.
She slips into and out of confidence and shyness, switching between both effortlessly, clearly comfortable in either mode.
But when asked about the trajectory to her publishing success, she explains her determination like a business plan. While she was in her final year of university, she strategized on how to get a comic published. So, she methodically studied what won The Observer’s graphic short story prize and submitted every year. Once, she was a joint runner-up with a funny take about the debt crisis.
Next, she decided that she wanted to tell a love story, just not the usual kind. So she invented the Nord Man who meets a South Pole gal and immediately loves her. (Well, first he liked her mittens and then her perfect ears, but quickly, they realize they’re soulmates.) Still, they have a problem. Some peculiar magnetic repulsion prevents them from coming closer than a two-foot radius of one another – despite their major attraction. Wise men are stumped. So Nord Man and South Pole gal just carry on their relationship the best they can. Each kisses scraps of paper and blows them to the other. (An aside in her tale suggests that some believe this is the origin of snowflakes.) And each morning they get up and swap sides in the bed so they can feel each other’s warmth.
“People do keep asking me if the story is autobiographical, and one woman asked me: ‘Have you been in a long-distance relationship?’” she says, laughing. “I quite like love stories. I just didn’t want it to be cheesy. When I was writing it, I just intended it to be funny. But I get e-mails from people who read it and cried.”
She takes me upstairs to her studio bedroom. The room is so small, I have to perch on her bed of rumpled sheets to talk to her at her desk. On her bookshelves are books of myths, and those of comic genius, Seth, and on her walls are things she has collected, like a drawn Map of The Wild West, postcards from indie comic fairs, and a huge list of things to do, one of which is “Epic Novel #2.”
“I just don’t want to overwhelm myself so I put it on the list,” she says, with a wry smile and shrug of her shoulders.
“This has always been my bedroom since I was a little girl,” she continues. “The only thing that’s changed is there are no more posters of Orlando Bloom.” And if that is the content of the speech bubble that appears beside the female character in the comic book, the drawing would show her face with a bemused expression for the whims of an adolescent imagination.
Follow me on Twitter: