The Deepest Corners Of My Mind: An Interview With Frederik Peeters, Author of Aama
Frederik Peeters is better known in his native Switzerland than he is here in the U.S., but thanks to publishers like SelfMadeHero he is quickly finding an audience in the English-speaking world. His comic debut was the memoir Blue Pills: a Positive Love Story, about his relationship with a mother and son who are both HIV positive. Blue Pills was the first of Peeters’ books to be nominated at Angoulême, the Cannes Film Festival of comics, and he has since received four additional nominations in both the best book and best series categories. He often bounces back and forth between writing for himself and collaborating with others, and has worked with such talent as the French documentary filmmaker Pierre Oscar Lévy on their twilight zone inspired comic, Sandcastle.
His latest book, Aama, is about an amnesiac’s search for his past while on an expedition in a rapidly evolving alien world. The fourth and final volume, You Will Be Glorious, My Daughter (SelfMadeHero 2015), was released this past September, so I thought it a good time to ask a few questions of Peeters regarding sci-fi lit, technology’s impact on the future, and the differences between the American and European comic book audiences.
Matthew Laoisa: Dystopic regimes and post-apocalyptic wastelands are becoming a repetitive sub-genre within science fiction. Did you purposely avoid those tropes?
Frederik Peeters: Like you say, they’re sub-genres. I really wanted to do a pure SF story, in the classical sense of the term. And anyway, it’s ideas–visions–that drive the story. I always try to do things a bit differently, to really listen to my personal tastes, and for me it’s impossible to even contemplate the post-apocalyptic since The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
ML: What made you want to utilize the diary as a framing device? Did a specific author or book inspire the use of that technique?
FP: At first, I wanted to construct the story with an unseen narrator, with a system of flashbacks. Then I started to like the idea of a character who wakes up with amnesia and who rediscovers his memories by reading his own writing, so the very same view he had of himself at a given moment in time. But the principle of the diary-book is obviously an homage to the great travel writers of the 19th century, like Joseph Conrad, Henri de Monfreid (whom my grandfather adored), Stevenson, Stendhal, Jack London, etc. This is in keeping with Verloc who lives anachronistically within that mythology.
ML: Much like a protagonist from a Philip K. Dick novel, Verloc Nim suffers from a loss of memory. Why do you think memory and identity are common themes in sci-fi lit?
FP: Well, the answer is in the question there. You have to know your history to know who you are. That holds true for one person as it does for a whole people. Think of the film Memento, where the character tattoos his memories on his skin, turning his life into something concrete he can wear like a costume. But in the case of Aama, the memory loss is due to a kind of reboot of his character, the moment when his internal software is altered. But, I must admit, above all it’s an excellent way to get your hooks into the reader at the beginning of the story, too.
ML: Outside of Verloc Nim’s antique shop, books seem to be almost non-existent.
FP: Basically, objects made of printed paper have disappeared from his world.
ML: Where do you see the future of the printed book?
FP: It will probably be the same as it is for vinyl records. Only a few passionate collectors will bother. Maybe it will be the same for all the objects that encompass or express forms of artistic beauty. Ugliness, the absence of memory and vulgarity are winning the day. But we shouldn’t imagine either that once upon a time, everyone read beautiful books. Appreciating Beethoven requires an education the likes of which people don’t have time for anymore, and when Proust was published, he only sold a few thousand copies. So maybe vulgarity has always won. But if one thing is for certain, it’s that people’s concentration span is getting shorter every day. I’m sure that no one will read this interview all the way to the end.
ML: In volume one of Aama we learn that the government outlaws religion. What was the idea behind that, and what impact and/or relevance do you think religion will have on the future?
I’m very pessimistic, because the only thing that I have to propose is a life based on balance, doubt, philosophy, science, pleasure, art and love.
FP: Ach, I’m no guru. Religions and religious people scare me, always have done. I was raised in an atheist family and milieu. In Aama, I left that problem behind me. I imagined a scientific society, which had replaced wholesale the worship of intangible gods with the worship of technology, networks and communication; the worship of tradition with the worship of meaningless action. Obviously, that isn’t necessarily a better option. I won’t lay out here all the catastrophes brought about by fundamentalism, be it Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu or capitalist fundamentalism, which denies the ecological and population catastrophes that we’re living through, but I believe that all belief, whatever it may be, contains a form of violence, because it tends to exclude everyone else. I’m very pessimistic, because the only thing that I have to propose is a life based on balance, doubt, philosophy, science, pleasure, art and love. That looks a lot like the basic plan of the first communists, and we can see what happened next there. No, man is imperfect, and I doubt our situation will improve.
ML: Not having kids of my own, I can only imagine the fear that goes into having a child, especially when there are genetic traits within a family tree to worry about such as insanity or disease. Verloc and his partner Silika decide to have a baby naturally even though artificial insemination and genetic manipulation are the norm in this society. Was having a child a fear in your own relationship for one reason or another? Are there pros and cons to gene selection or is the only possible outcome for this technology a future like Gattaca or Brave New World?
FP: That’s a question that’s potentially too personal, one I’m going to avoid answering in too much detail. The question behind all that is: do we absolutely have to give people what they ask for? Do we have to make rotten films because that’s what people want to see? Do we have to remake Star Wars for 150 years? If I were offered technology capable of ensuring my child’s good health, would I only be able to resist the temptation because that’s not the kind of society in which I want to live? I believe in beauty and that life is naturally hard. I think that we have to hold on to some of the unexpected, something of tragedy in order to be able to live a full life. Our Western lives are already much less demanding and much more comfortable than those of our ancestors, who died young and lived intense lives. Unfortunately, we’re choosing the path of a kind of deathly dull immortality.
ML: In your future humans are wirelessly connected through implants. Verloc voluntarily lives without this connection and is therefore more adjusted to the solitude he finds on the uninhabited planet of Ona(ji). However, his brother Conrad has difficulty dealing with the technological and social isolation. The Internet has made an obvious impact on the way we are able to communicate with people from around the globe, but do you think the experiences gained from virtual communities in any way change the way we interact on a person-to-person level?
FP: To respond in a credible way, I should really be active in online communities and social networks myself. I don’t see big changes, but I’m badly placed to do so. I’m very solitary, I’ve been with the same woman for 15 years, I like to travel to see people in real life. I only use email, texts, I have a tumblr without any comments, and I only go on the internet once a day, in the evening at home, because my phone isn’t online and I don’t have internet at the studio, on purpose, so that I can concentrate better. But don’t get me wrong– it’s not that I hate the internet, it’s a fantastic tool that has turned most of our habits on their heads, but I try to see it just as a tool, as a vehicle. I consider how I use my car: I’m not going to spend all day long in it, that’d be horrible. I try to think about my relationship with all technologies like this, in the hope of maintaining an inner life and existential freedom.
ML: Throughout the series you incorporate dreams into the narrative, and that seems to be something you’ve been exploring your entire career. What is it about dreams that attract you, and is there something about the comic book medium that enables the depiction of dreams in a way that a novel or movie can’t accomplish?
It’s a way of diving in at the deep end of my inner landscapes, which are sometimes disturbing. And the stuff of dreams is also a way to bring out poetry.
FP: Yes, I like to push the boundaries of reality and dreams, I’ve always liked that, the idea that the way in which we see the world is perhaps not unique, that we can sidestep it and open other doors to new perceptions. It’s also why drugs have always had an appeal to me. I use my dreams, others’ dreams and visions that emerge when I’m half asleep that I can just about get a handle on. It’s a way of diving in at the deep end of my inner landscapes, which are sometimes disturbing. And the stuff of dreams is also a way to bring out poetry. Ultimately, it’s just that: drawing and literature, another outlook on the world, a poetic, off-beat, bird’s-eye view that is infinitely personal. That’s the big difference with cinema. Literature and drawing are by definition personal art forms. And comics are the meeting of the two. Cinema is an expensive collective artform, and that hinders poetry most of the time. You have to be a dictator or a genius–often both at the same time–to make poetry for the cinema.
ML: I read that in your comic Blue Pills you didn’t use any preliminary drawing, and inked everything in one attempt without correcting mistakes. Did you still thumbnail your page layouts? Did you use a similar process in Aama? It seems like that process would be a lot more challenging in a science fiction setting filled with futuristic and alien designs.
FP: There was no layout for Blue Pills, it was pure improvisation. It was for that reason that the book started with a series of abstract images– the time it took for my brain to warm up. But yes of course, such a process could only apply to a linear subject that required no research or preparation. With Aama, as with all my books, I kept one part improvised, but I also wrote out ahead of time all the lives of the main characters, and made a general plan so that I wouldn’t get lost in multiple flashbacks. Then I thought in advance about the society that would frame the story, a future that was at the same time possible and mythological, without forgetting a series of very strong mental pictures that came to me very early on in the work, and which stayed with me right through to the end: Churchill, the end with Verloc and his daughter, the robots skinning the humans, etc. The rest of the story came together with the decoupage and the drawing. But I never do the full layout of a story, I tend to leave room for real-life events to change the course of the narrative, which they did. I need to be able to adapt to stay sharp.
ML: In other interviews you mentioned that you write and draw at the same time. I was wondering if you could elaborate on your process because the first three books have a consistent page length and all have satisfying episodic conclusions. How are you able to pull that off?
You have to have confidence in your self and accept living with imperfection.
FP: I don’t really know. I’ve always done that, ever since I was little. Writers of novels do that all the time. They write with each stroke of the pen, they build their story as they write it, they never write a trial run before the real thing. Except maybe in the case of screenwriters, who do construct plots that are neat and predictable to be adapted for film. That’s become my language, I feel it, I control it, I know how to play with it. When you see a pianist improvise and always land on his feet, you don’t ask how he does it, you know that it’s just how he works. It’s the same for me. That said, the fourth book is longer than the others– so I don’t always manage it, you see. And there are many more details that I wasn’t able to use for lack of space and time. You have to have confidence in your self and accept living with imperfection.
ML: The best comics are a marriage of good art and good story. Do you consider yourself a better artist or writer, or do you consider the two inseparable? Is there less pressure when you collaborate with another writer?
FP: I can’t separate the two. Not in my work, anyway. And yes, it’s easier for me to draw someone else’s script. It’s a more technical pleasure; I put all my energy into making the narrative clear, to the point, measuring out the emotions, etc…But that demands less in the way of personal investment. For Aama, I lived like a monk for four years, delving into the deepest corners of my mind, turning in on myself. I played with ghosts and fears, which was troubling at times, in order to bring my unconscious images and feelings up to the surface. It’s work that demands a great deal of energy, and cuts me off from the world a bit.
ML: Franco-Belgian comics are referred to as bandes dessinées, which literally means, ‘drawn strip.’ To my knowledge, this term does not classify books by page length or genre. In the U.S. we call our longer format comics graphic novels, but some creators consider this a false label since the word implies a certain amount of embarrassment. How are books like Watchmen labelled in Franco-Belgian comic book shops? Are they categorized with other bandes dessinées? Is there a term you prefer?
FP: Actually, we have the same problem. Bande dessinée refers traditionally to a hardback, full-colour comic book, like Tintin, The Smurfs, Spirou, etc. We would apply that to all genres bar manga, which is always just thought of as manga. But in reality, we’d talk about sub-genres: Franco-Belgian BDs, graphic novels, indie BDs, fanzines, manga, manwha, American comics, etc. For me, Watchmen is really a comic book, even if it’s an excellent comic book. I’m old enough to know that those books were original published in the US in comic book form, like Frank Miller’s Batman, Mazzuchelli, Sandman, etc.
ML: I work at a comic book shop in Atlanta, Georgia and I ran into a friend who had never read or had any interest in reading a comic. I handed him a copy of Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, and he was blown away. He said, he thought all comics were basically ‘BAM — ZOOM — POW’ stories, and he didn’t know that a comic could be such an incredible tool for storytelling. What do you think can be done to help broaden people’s preconceived notions of the comic book?
All that I can do from my end is make the most beautiful books I can–the most complex, the most thought-provoking, the most adult.
FP: All that I can do from my end is make the most beautiful books I can–the most complex, the most thought-provoking, the most adult. I have to make books that I would like to read myself, and put all of my energy into them, in order to construct a global oeuvre. It isn’t my job to know how to sell the result. The solution lies in other media, those that can send it on its way. And maybe that’s a good thing. I mean, leaving BD in a ghetto to one side has some advantages. We remain free and endlessly innovative. Too much noise and too much money rarely makes for interesting art. But nonetheless it seems to me that the ghetto walls are getting lower and lower. There are graphic novels which are real world-wide successes, and more and more countries are open to the medium, from Brazil to Eastern Europe…
ML: The European comic book market is also growing within the U.S. due to publishers like SelfMadeHero, Humanoids, and now Delcourt going digital, but I think it is still largely a niche market. What steps can be made to get more readers interested in English translations of bandes dessinées? Are there any bandes dessinées that you think deserve a wider exposure to American audiences?
FP: Of course, there are lots–new ones, classics–there are lots of beautiful images produced in Europe at the moment. Young artists are often connected to a great secular pictorial tradition, particularly in France and Italy. There are real authors’ works, things that are personal and pressing. The problem is that the whole world is used to receiving external cultural influences, which were once very often American, and to interpreting and mixing them together. American popular culture benefited from the hegemony of a country that won the second world war and then the cold war. Conversely, I often maintain that the American public is particularly impermeable to other cultures. Of course the country is made up of layers of immigrants from all over, but the dominant common culture is extremely uniform. For example, the film industry prefers to make remakes than to disseminate original works, because the audience doesn’t like to change its habits. The same goes for books. That said, manga has managed to break into the American market. So Europeans have to take some responsibility. Europeans have lost their taste for winning since the two world wars, and maybe it’s better that way. I don’t think we’re very good in business, either.
ML: Lastly, there are still a few of your books unavailable in English. Can we expect translations of Lupus, R.G., and/or Ruminations anytime soon?
FP: Ruminations is a collection of stories from my youth. It’s really for the fans, and I doubt there will be very many of them in the US. R.G. is a real French-style crime thriller, based on the recollections of a real special agent in the French police, with lots of cultural references. I’d love to see it translated, but I think it’s very specifically French. As for Lupus, it’s about to be translated and published by Top Shelf, to my total delight!
Translated by Nora Mahony