Miriam Katin interviewed by Dig Boston

“EARTH PRIME TIME: MIRIAM KATIN ON ‘LETTING IT GO’ AT BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH 3.19.13” / Dig Boston / Clay Fernald / March 19, 2013

Born in Hungary during World War II, Miriam Katin is a child of the war. In 2006 Drawn and Quarterly published her first graphic novel at the age of 63, her story of surviving the Holocaust, We Are on Our Own. Miriam signs her new book about her relationship with her family and the country that caused so much pain at Brookline Booksmith on Tuesday, March 19 at 7 p.m. The followup to her first acclaimed graphic novel is called Letting It Go. We had the honor of asking Miriam some questions about her work and how she got in to the intimidating art of autobiographical graphic storytelling at an age when many others might consider retiring.

DIGBOSTON: How did you get started working on comics after your career as an animator?

MIRIAM KATIN: It was around 2000 and I was working in Disney’s New York studio. Some young animators who did comics decided to self publish their stories and they started a series of anthologies titled Monkeysuit.

They asked me if I had anything to contribute and in my desk, for ten years I had a rough for a short comic. I competed that story and they published it. It received very favorable reviews and this encouraged me to continue.

Were you been compelled to write and draw these stories of your life for historical, personal or artistic reasons? I will accept all of these as fine reasons!

The stories my mother told me about the war, about our family and our survival were like a daily running narrative in my mind through my life. An uninvited, unwanted presence. They begged to be told. But I am not a writer (as I don’t have one language good enough to write a book with) and also I thought, ”Who needs an other Holocaust novel”?

Your first book, We Are on Our Own tells of your family’s survival of World War II. Letting It Go deals with your pangs of motherhood, as your son reveals to you his desire to move to Berlin. You’ve illustrated your initial reaction and gradually a slow acceptance and a move toward being supportive of your son and his girlfriend. What helped you the most with the acceptance?

It took one whole year to come around to help him. During that year my cousins from Argentina told me (it is in the book) that they gave the right for German citizenship to their children. This shocked me but also made me think. Perhaps my denial will not help him but possibly endanger his existence in Europe. So it was a reluctant and painful decision.

Your son asking you to help get him EU citizenship seemed to have been the first major roadblock. Was it easier for you after helping him out with that?

No, it looks like it would be, it should be but it is not. However as I do accept that children will go far away from parents (I did that too) I have to live with it and make the most of it. That’s how I am anyhow. Survival instinct you know.

Eventually you and your husband find yourself in Berlin. Had you ever imagined such a visit? Does your son still live there and do you make an effort to visit?

I would hear very positive and interesting news but I would just react: “Yeah. Right. Ha ha. Just wait.” Well, as my husband does not have the problem with Berlin that I do we are planning to visit from time to time. My son still lives there and loves it.

The book is beautifully rendered in colored pencil. Are you a fan of comic art and storytelling?

I had nothing to do with comics until my boys, as I always say, raised me on Tin Tin. We lived in Israel at the time. In the US Tin Tin was not known and my kids were not into super heroes. Eventually Tin Tin became my Bible. In Israel I was asked to do a series of comics following an animated commercial I worked on for saving energy. So, I just did it and I was hooked. I loved it.

The scope and storytelling on your page is amazing. A strong-point in your art as well are how well you convey emotion with facial expression and color. My favorite pages are when you decide to spend some serious money on yourself and buy a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Ahh, a temporary shopping therapy session for someone with heavy news on your mind.

They say that animation and comics [are] actually acting. It is so true.

Do you process any of your work with the computer, or is everything, literally down to the letter produced in colored pencil?

The first short stories I drew on tracing paper and I loved the immediacy of the first pencil strokes. So I just scanned those into Photoshop where I cleaned them up. There is always something lost of the spontaneity and passion of the roughs.

The first ones only exist in Photoshop.

Have you considered drawing stories of a different nature, such as children’s books or fantasy? I love the personality you have given some of God’s creatures in your book.

I illustrated a number of children’s books and Ng Suat Tong, publisher of the Rosetta anthologies from Singapore, commissioned to do a comic story he wrote. I enjoyed working on it but Chris Oliveros (Drawn and Quarterly Publisher) told me that the strongest works are created where the writer is also the one who is drawing.

There are exceptions like the Aya series by Abouet & Oubrerie. As for when I will run out of the stories of my life (what some unkindly critics call “navel gazing”) ah … there will always be something.

Miriam, thanks so much for your time!

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