Out today from First Second is the latest project from writer/artist Danica Novgorodoff, whose previous works included Slow Storm and Late Freeze. A slight departure from her prior stories, The Undertaking of Lily Chen follows two young characters, Deshi Li and Lily Chen, as they head away from their separate families and out into the World.
A sweeping story which retains a keen focus on the two central characters, this is a book filled with ideas of tradition and family, independence and romance. Set in China, the book begins with Deshi, who leaves home when his older brother dies, tasked by his family to find a ‘ghost bride’ for his departed brother to head into the afterlife with. This is based on a long-standing Chinese tradition called a “ghost marriage” – and to find out more, I spoke to Danica about the story, the research that went into it, and her creative process as writer/artist.
Steve: What actually is a ghost marriage? What’s the history behind the tradition, and what is the ceremony itself?
Danica: A ghost marriage is when two dead people are married and then buried together, as partners for the afterlife. The concern is that a lonely ghost might haunt its family. A ghost marriage might also be performed for the normal reasons that arranged marriages are performed—to create bonds between families, or for dowries.
I believe the earliest recorded instance of a ghost marriage is the wedding of Cao Chong, the young son of a powerful warlord in 208AD, whom I mention in my book. Apparently the boy was a prodigy and his father’s favorite son, and so his father arranged for a lavish wedding when the boy fell ill and died at the age of 13.
Steve: How did you first become aware of the custom, and what was it about the concept which inspired you to this story?
Danica: I first learned about ghost marriages when I read an article about the custom in The Economist magazine. The article described a recent resurgence of ghost marriages in rural northern areas of China, where young men often die in mining accidents before they reach a marriageable age. Apparently, a black market for female corpses has emerged in order to provide brides for the weddings.
Two things immediately drew me to the concept as material for a graphic novel—first, I was immediately struck by the imagery of a windswept gravesite in the mountains, where one freshly-dug grave is marked by graverobbers with a white ribbon. Secondly, a man by the name of Song Tiantang was described as having turned from graverobbing to murder in order to sell women’s bodies, and he was caught when he dropped his cell phone in a grave he had dug up. The name Song is a homonym for the phrase “to send someone to heaven,” which I found poetic and terribly disturbing. This man was inspiration for one of the major characters in my book.
Steve: Many of your other books have been set in the US, and this feels like a change of direction for you as well as a change of location. Were you looking to write a different kind of story when the idea of Lily Chen first came to you?
Danica: I’m always looking for a change of pace, a different kind of story. I don’t like to do the same thing over and over—I think the practice of making comics can, at times, become a labor-intensive and even tedious artform to produce, and I always want to keep things fresh and exciting for myself, because I think it comes through in the finished material.
I wasn’t specifically looking for a new setting for my story, but I have always been interested in Chinese brush painting and Chinese customs (my dad was originally from Shanghai), so this project seemed like a good fit for me. It’s really a mash-up of Eastern and Western influences and sensibilities.
Steve: When you start a project like this, where do you tend to start? Do you find characters to serve a narrative, or a narrative which requires characters?
Danica: In this case the narrative and the characters developed simultaneously. Mr. Song, the grave robber, was the first character to come to me, along with the idea of a dead boy who needs a bride. The dead boy’s brother came to me next—a younger sibling who is sent on a mission to find that bride. He became the main character, and Mr. Song his friend and antagonist. The other main character, Lily Chen, came to me more slowly. She and the plot had to work together, and there was a lot of back and forth to make them fit.
Steve: There are two main characters here – Deshi Li, and Lily Chen. Did you develop them in tandem with one another?
Danica: No, Deshi was the more constant of the two. I knew that he would be a shunned younger brother, less-loved by his parents and a bit of a mess. I knew that he would be looking for a corpse bride, but would find instead a beautiful, living girl. But who she was, and what their relationship would be, took a long time to work out. I guess I had to go on quite a journey to find her, just as he did.
Steve: What do you think motivates each as the story first starts? What links them as characters, and what marks them apart?
Danica: They’re very different characters. Deshi is motivated by fear, and guilt, an overwhelming sense of duty to his family, and a longing for their respect and love. Lily is motivated by ambition, frustration at society’s limitations, and the desire to live a fuller life than the one she’s been offered in her backwater village. I think they’re both lonely—that’s a bit of a theme in my books. They both need a friend or ally. They’re both stuck with unreasonable expectations from family and society.
Steve: How do they bounce off one another? As they first meet, what is their relationship like?
Danica: Deshi is under a great burden, struggling to fulfil his promise to his parents. When they first meet, Lily asks—no, insists—that he take her with him on his journey, without understanding what his journey is. She just needs a ride out of town and he’s the only thing to pass through.
Neither understands the other’s quest, but after travelling together for a while, they get to know and like each other. Lily is outgoing and optimistic, whereas Deshi is taciturn and despairing. She helps open him up and come to terms with his suffering.
Steve: As writer/artist, how do you research a story like this? Do you take reference photos, read up on contemporary and traditional Chinese culture, that sort of thing?
Danica: Yes, all of those. I went to China for a month to do visual research for the project. I needed to find the right place to set the story. I watched a lot of films, and read folk tales and articles and academic papers related to my topic. I looked at a lot of ancient Chinese scroll paintings as well as contemporary comics.
Steve: Did you look to change your artistic style to reflect the Chinese setting? I know in prior interviews you’ve said that you explored the idea of using Chinese brush painting for the art?
Danica: Yes, I briefly studied Chinese brush painting. I wanted the backgrounds to recall that style of brush and ink. But I quickly learned that brush painting is incredibly difficult and takes decades to master. I settled for a style that “evokes” the Chinese landscape art, but is done on watercolor paper such that I could also do my own, more graphic style of figure drawing for the characters within each scene. It took a long time just to decide what materials to use to create the artwork—pen or brush, rice paper or watercolor paper, paint or ink.
Steve: This is one of the longest and most ambitious projects you’ve worked on to date. How did you plan out the narrative – do you tend to leave space to allow you to go on artistic tangents, or do you script a story tightly?
Danica: I tried to script the story tightly but it still changed a great deal as I worked on it over the course of several years. It takes so much time to draw a page that I hate to make major changes in the script once I’ve started drawing—it can be a big waste of time to end up throwing away pages of artwork because of a script change.
But I still had to look for ways to keep the process fresh for myself, so I ended up storyboarding (thumbnailing) each chapter right before I created the final art for that chapter, rather than storyboarding the entire book in advance. That’s why I had no idea that my 40-page script would turn into a 430-page book, until I got to the end and counted the pages.
Steve: Were you ever surprised at any point in the creative process by the directions the story went in?
Danica: I was surprised by the ending, because it changed many times, and was the last thing about the script to be finalized. It took me a long time to find the right ending. As I was writing, too, I was sometimes surprised by the people the main characters met along the way—different people would show up on their path and give Deshi and Lily the run-around. It was fun.
Steve: Ultimately, what do you feel is the core of the story? What would you like for people to take from it?
Danica: I think it’s a love story, at its core. Deshi and Lily find each other under strange circumstances and help each other escape from the impossible constraints that tradition and society have placed on them. Also, despite the macabre premise of the story and the dark mission that Deshi embarks upon, I hope people will enjoy and remember the humor in this book.
Steve: What else are you working on currently? Where can people find you online?
Danica: I’m working on many things—children’s books, a poetic-biographical-historical-illustrated book about volcanoes, an installation piece for a park in Brooklyn, and some ideas for a non-fiction graphic novel. My website is www.danicanovgorodoff.com. I’ve recently published my first illustrated poem in Orion Magazine and I did illustrations for this month’s book reviews for Slate Magazine. I’m a contributing editor on Killing the Buddha and I’m on twitter here, though I’m a little better at sending postcards.
The Undertaking of Lily Chen is out as of today from First Second. Many thanks to Danica for her time – and also to Gina Gagliano, for arranging the interview for us!