About The Author
Joe Decie has been detailing family life in comic-strip form for several years, through vignettes that capture beauty in the everyday and playfully mix autobiography with the absurd. His new book Collecting Sticks is a graphic novel about a family glamping trip. Loosely based on actual events, but sometimes veering unexpectedly into fantasy, the story plays with the challenges nature presents to city folk as they forage for berries, get stuck up a tree, make perilous encounters with stinging wildlife, compete to build the best fire and discover the importance of finding good sticks. Also, it rains. It's about the human desire to get back to nature. Or to return to childhood and hit things with sticks.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Joe about his childhood camping holidays, being a sucker for nostalgia and playing with notions of reality.
Questions & Answers
Your graphic novel is about a family camping holiday, did you enjoy/suffer many camping holidays growing up?
Yeah, I loved them, to be honest. The car journeys to Cornwall or South Wales seemed torturously long though. Even if it rained, it was still fun. I'm still up for it as a grown up. Light a fire, open some beers. Lovely. My back doesn't enjoy it quite so much though. And when all your clothes are wet and you can't find your toothbrush, and everything stinks of smoke and there's earwigs in your sleeping bag... still, good fun though. Character building? That's what they say. Trudging through the woods in damp clothes, barely slept a wink, character building!?
A lot of your work is fairly introspective, with yourself as the main character. I wondered how autobiographical this and your other work is?
All my stuff is autobiographical. My work is mostly true. Most of it is based on real events and things that me and my family have got up to. I'm quite interested in the current trend for fictionalised reality shows, they're strange eh? I guess I do a bit of that, embellish stories. Add scenarios that will improve the reading experience. Lull the reader into a false sense of security, then throw in some ridiculous flight of fancy.
What is it about camping or the outdoors that link us to childhood? Do you think it is linked to our memories and our hunger for nostalgia?
I'm a sucker for nostalgia. Also I'm in no hurry to grow up. Going on an adventure beats a trip to Ikea any day of the week. I suppose you could go on an adventure to Ikea.
Can you tell us a little about the writing and drawing process for Collecting Sticks?
I carry small notebooks everywhere. So during camping trips, or a walk in the woods I would make little notes, barely legible doodles. I tend to think in “beats”, the rhythm of comic panels. I suppose that shares a lot with poetry. So, when I had quite a collection of these notes I played around with building them into a story, working with these beats, generally one or two page rhythms. I would usually draw the comic very very roughly, just to check the flow of the story, flow of the viewer's eye. But for Collecting Sticks I was working with a peer mentor, my friend and amazing cartoonist John Martz. As I needed to show John the story, it was necessary for me to make my early drawing pretty readable. From then, I'd take some reference photos, pictures of the family, so I can get facial expressions right. Next I draw the pages proper, first with pencil then Indian ink and a Japanese dip pen. I add various layers of ink wash to build some tone, then finally I would scan it all and tidy it up a bit on computer. Probably took about a day to do a page.
Why do you think people almost force themselves and their family to go on holidays?
Do they? I suppose it can be difficult to break the routine of day to day life. And social media feeds us a constant stream of other people having a great time. So the pressure is on to get out there and enjoy yourself, and take good photos of you doing that enjoyment. I try not to be the grumpy dad, packing up the car, complaining about missing flights or the traffic on the M1 by Sheffield, but it's difficult! Also the financial investment and the investment of precious holiday hours really can take the fun out it for some people.
Do you think that graphic novels have gained more respect as a form of writing over the last few years, or is it still seen as a less serious and very separate part of publishing?
Well I imagine Chris Ware winning the Guardian First Book Award changed how a few people perceived comics, but that was sixteen years ago. In truth, I don't know how comics are seen by the literature buying public. I know that people are keen to call them Graphic Novels so there must still be some stigma or snobbery attached to the medium. And judging by the media every six months running a feature with a headline reading “Zap Bang Pow! Comics aren't just for kids any more”, editors don't yet think the public are aware of what we do. But I'd say there's a generational shift. Younger adults are more in key with the medium, more eager to engage, have grater awareness of the various genres. So there's hope for the future.
Do you feel that the increasing popularity of glamping has corrupted the whole notion of camping or is it great that it’s broadening the appeal of camping to people who might not otherwise have considered it?
If you want to shell out a small fortune for a yurt with a proper bed, hot running water and a toilet, I'm not going to sneer at you. And if it means farmers are managing to make a living out of putting us townies up in old woodsheds, good for them.
Can you say something about how fantasy and realism sit together in the book? Was it partly about trying to convey the magical transformation that can occur when people get off their phones and out into nature?
Na, I just like to tell lies! Little lies, big lies, hook the reader in. Just for fun. Even when I'm sticking firmly to the truth, it's aways removed from reality by the very nature of it being how I perceived the story and chose to relay it. I mean, if I and several others all recounted the same event, the stories would all be very different. I like that, it's fun to play with notions of reality. How stories evolve with every telling. That said, it is confusing for my son, he has to confirm with me if something actually happened or if it was just made up for “daddy's comics”