February 11, 2011
The award-winning writer, Ron Tanner, has a new graphic novel out called KISS ME, STRANGER. If my life were one long vacation and I didn’t have anything else to do, I would have read this book twice in a row. It’s that great.
Your new graphic novel, KISS ME, STRANGER, is so wonderful, strange and original, that more than any other book it reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. Did you intend to write something so magical, in a sense?
I greatly appreciate that you see my book that way. Yes, I wanted to create something otherworldly – mostly because that’s how children see the world. I guess you could call this is a children’s book for adults.
There are so many horrors in the book (deaths, starvations, eating pets, burying people in tin cars, sucking on kerosene-soaked socks, hangings!) and yet, there is this lovely whimsicalness to the story. I think that’s because of the wonderful narrator, Penelope, mother of fourteen starving, flea-bitten children.
I’m fond of strong female characters, kind of the way I’m fond of strong women in life. Jill, my wife, came home from work late one night, her hands blackened, her hair fly-away. When she wasn’t home on time, I figured she’d been caught in rush hour traffic. But now I saw that something else had happened. She’d had a flat tire on the interstate. Instead of calling Triple-A and waiting hours for rescue, she had just gotten out the jack and changed the tire herself. I love that about her.
I seek that kind of tenacity in my heroines. Penelope is the kind of woman I’d fall in love with because she can take care of business but also because she has a sense of humor (again like my wife). You’ve got to tuck and roll when the bombs fall – and she’s good at that. No matter how bad it gets, Penelope is going to make it work.
Hermes, the Metal Man, is one of my favorite characters and I love that he’s sort of lobotomized in the end, rather than killed. Did you keep him around because you loved him?
Yes, I do love the man because, ultimately, he’s a petty, feckless fuck. And, in the end, he gets his just desserts. I try never to kill a character if I can help it. Keeping characters around makes life messier and more interesting.
And, of course, there are so many delightful details, like the fact that when the baby, Miramar, starts speaking, his first word is FUCK. And when Oyster, the guy who’s named after his murky eye that resembles an oyster says of Santa Claus, “He was an asshole.” It is all so tragic, and yet really funny.
In a book like this, I get to make life the way I’d like life to be, which is to say that, no matter how bad things get, I’d like us to keep our sense of humor and irreverence and tease each other and celebrate our little joys with bursts of profanity.
This is clearly an adult novel, one all grown people will thoroughly enjoy. But I can also see reading it aloud to an eight-year-old (if you don’t mind your eight-year-old hearing an infant say fuck). Did you have any particular audience in mind when you were writing this?
Let me confess that I wrote the first draft of this book when I was getting a divorce (now over ten years ago). At bottom, Kiss Me, Stranger is about holding things together when the world is falling apart. Although I have no children, I love children and believe that they are a significant center of gravity when things fall apart – because children are always looking for magic and finding it. Even when bombs are falling, you can induce them to sing a silly song and they’re willing to listen to the most outlandish stories, no matter what’s happening. So, when I wrote the book and especially when I revised it, I wanted to capture something of that childishness that would buoy me in very bad times. That’s a long way of saying, yes, I think children could hear this story and it wouldn’t frighten them too much because, in the end, Penelope’s children triumph, don’t they?
What was more difficult, the writing or the illustrations?
I love doing both, but I’m not an accomplished illustrator, so serious drawings – like the two-page town-square drawing of Marcel looking up at the cathedral — those take me a long time to do.
When I was in grade school, I was delighted that teachers let me accompany my compositions with drawings. I remember spending much more time on the drawings than the writing. As a child, I never spent much time agonizing over my writing. In fifth grade, we were no longer allowed to put drawings in our compositions. I thought this wholly unfair. Ever since then, I’ve been longing to put drawings back into my writing. I absolutely love doing this, so I was amazed and delighted when the publishers at IG said they liked it as much as I.
One last question: The writer, James Magruder, heard I was interviewing you and wanted me to ask you something about your hands. Or point out the fact that when you spread your fingers, it looks like you’re holding out an array of cigars. Big cigars. Do you have anything to say about this?
I never paid much attention to my hands – that is I never made comparisons between mine and others, not until people like Jim Magruder made comments and, then, well, I must admit that my hands are fairly broad and I don’t know that this is something to be proud of, though Jim insists the my hands – because they are broad – are sexy. If they are sexy, then we can thank the genetic pool from which they, and I, sprang. I do work a lot with my hands – carpentry, drumming, writing, painting – and my fingers, as a result, have gotten broader. Eventually, I suppose, my hands will be as big as dinner plates, then I can join a geek show and tour the old south, or South America, and maybe make enough money to write another book.