Irish novelist James Joyce, author of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” “Ulysses,” and “Finnegans Wake” is often cited as one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers, and is certainly one of the most influential. Entire careers are devoted to the study of his work, and book-length notations of his novels are still revised and reworked to incorporate new glosses of his inventive language, seventy years or more after the books were first published. Despite his literary genius, Joyce’s family life strayed far from the ideal, especially as regards his daughter Lucia. In “Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes,” Mary M. Talbot, the daughter of Joycean scholar James Atherton, and Bryan Talbot, her husband and the creator of “Luther Arkwright,” “Grandville,” and “Alice and Sunderland,” intertwine Lucia Joyce’s tragic story with Mary’s own upbringing in the shadow of a brilliant but sometimes distant man.
Though Mary Talbot has published several scholarly books, this is her first graphic novel. Comic Book Resources caught up with the Talbots for a discussion about “Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes,” which is advance solicited in this month’s Previews for a February release from Dark Horse.
CBR News : First, what led you to undertake this project together?
Mary Talbot: I’d recently taken early retirement, giving me more time to write. Bryan suggested I have a go at producing an autobiographical graphic novel script that he would illustrate, something about growing up with a Joycean scholar. I recall he suggested ‘James Joyce and Me’ as a draft title.
Bryan Talbot: A couple of years ago I nearly worked on a collaboration with Australian narrative poet Dorothy Porter who, sadly, died. Dorothy hadn’t scripted anything but I’d been thinking of the style and format of the book. This is what I had in mind when I suggested that Mary write a GN.
There’s quite a lot going on in the book. How would you describe the story you’re telling?
Mary Talbot: It presents two intertwined coming-of-age stories, at different points in the twentieth century. These allowed me to explore aspects of social history — gender politics and social expectations, shifting attitudes about “proper” behaviour — in a very concrete way that hopefully makes these abstractions come alive.
There are three distinct threads in this book — Mary’s present, Mary’s past with her father, and the life of Lucia Joyce, with more attention given to the latter two. Mary, what made you start thinking about the similarities and parallels between your upbringing and Lucia’s? Why is it useful or interesting to compare your life with hers?
Mary Talbot: My initial response to the idea of writing an autobiography was “why on earth would anyone be interested?” But I started thinking about it anyway and, vaguely aware that James Joyce had a daughter, I began looking into her life as a possible angle. The tragedy of Lucia Joyce’s story blew me away — it rapidly became my main focus. For a long time I saw my own story solely as a means to explicate hers. In the finished book, I think that’s carried through most in the ballet class sequence, which I use to get across the difficulty of dance. It presents key notions like “turnout,” gets them out of the way, so that they don’t clutter up Lucia’s story later on.
Why is the comparison between your life and Lucia’s useful or interesting?
Mary Talbot: Well, it’s contrasting more than comparing, really. I was interested in the huge shifts in social expectations about women, middle-class women anyway, from her period to mine. It shocked me that Lucia seems to be a kind of casualty of modernism. Her father is this stellar modernist figure, with “advanced” views about marriage, etc., yet the Joyces’ bourgeois notions about women eventually crushed the life out of her. There’s also a third time period involved, of course; namely the present day. I’m hoping readers will make their own comparisons between their experiences, mine and Lucia’s.
A few odd coincidences suggested comparisons. She died on the date of my father’s birthday. Her parents were Nora and Jim — so were mine. She was a talented dancer — I wasn’t! What’s not to like?
As you’ve indicated, there’s also a thread of public vs. private lives. We see the difference between James Joyce’s personas fairly early, and your own father’s toward the end, but are the ways we view professional success in light of personal failings different when looking at a historical figure like Joyce as opposed to a prominent figure from our own personal lives?
Mary Talbot: It’s easier to judge people at a distance, I suppose.
Despite the conflicts seen in “Dotter,” you also went on to become an academic. Do you see this as owing to your bookish upbringing or in spite of it?
Mary Talbot: I’m sure my progression to an academic career would have been far more straightforward without the conflict.
On a lighter note, there are a few “footnotes” to Bryan’s art, based on Mary’s actual experiences of the events depicted. Why take this approach rather than “correcting” the illustrations?
Bryan Talbot: The collaboration was, as you can imagine, astonishingly close, almost on an hourly basis. Not only did Mary make suggestions on seeing what I was drawing but I was constantly making script and storytelling suggestions. However, it did occur just a couple of times that a page was done and dusted by the time Mary saw it. On those two instances, we let them stand and added the humorous footnotes with Mary complaining about the mistakes. We’ve actually added a couple more footnotes since the PDF we sent you was made, after finding that readers seem to really like them.
Bryan, another of your recent books was also a sort of unusual history, “Alice in Sunderland.” Did that book in any way prepare you for “Dotter?”
Bryan Talbot: Not really. Although it was also non-genre, it was a very different creature. I can see that there are some comparable themes — Lucia’s biographical sequences in “Dotter” and Lewis Carroll’s and a few autobiographical touches in “Alice,” but they are told very differently.
Is there an added pressure when telling your wife’s story, especially it being so personal?
Bryan Talbot: I can’t say that I was aware of any. I recently pencilled and inked a six page short for “The Unwritten,” set in medieval Europe, and felt a lot more pressure doing that!
“Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes” goes on sale February 8, 2012.