Graphic novelist Kate Brown’s new book Fish + Chocolate contains three short stories described as “uncanny domestic fables”. Each one looks at birth and motherhood in different (unsettling) ways, from the tale of neighbourhood parents perturbed by the mysterious “piper man”, to the uncomfortable relationship between creativity and motherhood explored in The Cherry Tree, to the devastating loss of a baby in Matryoshka. Kate had a chat with FQ:
FQ: I really loved the book, although it’s kind of disturbed me too—were you hoping for that kind of reaction?
Kate: I’m really happy you liked it! I think it was impossible for me to know how people were going to react to the book and the stories—I did not really plan for any specific reaction from the readers. I was mostly hoping that people weren’t going to hate it! I was aiming to create an uncomfortable mood within the book, though. So, if anything, I was curious as to what types of feelings people would come away with.
FQ: What first drew you to graphic novels? Are there any in particular you’re fans of?
Kate: I started out reading the comics my older brothers had, really. They had old Beano and Topper annuals from the 1970s, and I remember reading and reading and reading them. I did get some comics myself from supermarkets when I was super young, but so many of them were franchise comics—Disney comics and My Little Pony and so on, and I remember even at the time feeling like I was being somewhat fobbed off by the lack of original material.
I think mostly I watched children’s TV serials in place of comics back then. I loved stuff like “The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, “Around the World with Willy Fogg”, and [anime adaptation] “Belle & Sebastian” and so on. I did draw a lot, however. I made gag-strips when I was younger, which I think must have been influenced by the Beanos I’d been reading. I moved on to making up characters of my own to make short comics out of. I had this one dude called Fred who was a caveman, who had adventures with his sidekick Sid, who was a snake. I made a lot of comics with them. I wish I still had them! I also remember making a strip for our short-lived primary school newspaper . . . and I recall starting an epic version of Robin Hood with mice and rats as the characters, but didn’t get very far with that.
Basically, I drew and wrote ALL the time as a kid. Despite having brothers I actually grew up on my own, effectively as an only child, and we lived completely out in the sticks in a small village, so I really had to make my own entertainment. What I’ve loved about comics is that I can combine my love of writing and drawing in one amazing medium.
FQ: How about other artists you admire?
Kate: We had a few picture books in the house that I was crazy about in terms of artwork, I really think these had a big impact on me. I still have a version of Sleeping Beauty by Sheilah Beckett, and things like the Toby Twirl books illustrated by Edward Jeffrey. Rie Cramer was a big thing for me, too. My mum has this beautiful version of The Snow Queen that Cramer illustrated. So gorgeous!
I would say my favourite comics these days are by Erica Sakurazawa. I really think she nails it for me. I’m in love with Régis Loisel’s artwork, and Nicholas de Crecy’s work as well. I also totally adore Posy Simmonds. And Taiyo Matsumoto—Blue Spring is so ace, as is Black and White/Tekkonkinkreet. I would say I was massively influenced by Rumiko Takahashi, too. And I love Black Hole by Charles Burns! I love that soooo much. Really, I could go on and on . . .
FQ: How would you describe your drawing style?
Kate: Slow. Haha! Er, in terms of visuals . . . most people look at it and say it’s manga. I’m not really sure what that means because Japanese comics are just as varied as other countries’ comics, in my eye. I suppose my art is kinda on the cutesy side, as well.
FQ: What made you want to write about motherhood? Why do you think it has inspired so many horror stories (Carrie, Frankenstein, Psycho, even Cinderella!)?
Kate: Each of the stories for Fish + Chocolate were written at different times. I wrote The Cherry Tree in university, and The Piper Man a couple of years after. I’d intended to do them as separate shorts, but realised they had such similar content and wondered if I could do anything with that! Matryoshka was modified into existence out of some one-line ideas and pictures/scenes.
So . . . I think what I’m trying to say is I’d not meant to write a book about motherhood. It was more that it accidentally came together like that. I think the subject of horror and the domestic scene/family is an interesting one, however. Personally I am fascinated by the ideas of familial links and ties and how they affect people, and the idea of a mother or father or sister or son being more (or less) than simply another person because of these ties.
I think I’ve always been interested in the way people are shunted around into different statuses or choose to become different things as their lives progress. There are an awful lot of fairy tales that cover family interaction, as well. Fairy tales don’t usually pull their punches. I think the nature of family is very close to any human being—in a good or a bad way. Perhaps it’s just something we naturally turn to, so we can can write about it easily. (I think maybe this is a good place to bring up the fact that I’m not a mother and that really, none of Fish + Chocolate is directly autobiographical).
FQ: Fathers are pretty absent in the three stories, is there a reason for that?
Kate: They are, you’re right, looking at the stories together like that—it becomes so obvious. I think it’s something that floats over most of my work, actually. It’s never conscious, though.
FQ: You call your website Danse Macabre, and some of your drawings on there are pretty dark—would you say you had a ghoulish side?
Kate: Sure, I guess!
FQ: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Kate: I’ve been working on something since spring that I really hope to be able to talk about soon! Aside from that, I’m concentrating in my spare time on starting another book that’s looking like it’ll be around the same length as Fish + Chocolate, and one long story focussing around two characters, rather than multiple stories. It’s super early days for that yet . . . I’m not far enough into planning it to see if it’ll truly come together or not yet. Hopefully it will!
Fish + Chocolate is published by SelfMadeHero.