Miriam Katin spent much of her life as graphic designer and working in animation, making the shift to become a cartoonist relatively late in life. Her first full length graphic novel was published in 2006, when she was in her sixties. “We Are On Our Own” told the story of Katin and her mother escaping Budapest before the Nazi arrival, hiding out in the countryside during World War II. It was a harrowing, powerful story told in beautiful and haunting black and white drawings.
Katin’s newest graphic novel, published by Drawn and Quarterly, is “Letting It Go.’ The book is a memoir, but one that recounts recent events perhaps best appreciated after having read her first book. In it, Katin’s adult son announces that he intends to move to Berlin, a decision to which she does not respond well. It is the story of her coming to terms with his choice and her own feelings about the city. It is also funny and light-hearted, as playful as her first book was stark. Katin spoke with CBR News about George Cruikshank, cockroaches, what happened after the events in the book and coming to love daily life in Berlin.
Katin will be in Canada this coming weekend, at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Friday, April 26 and at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal on Sunday, April 28.
CBR News: Like many people, I read and loved your first book, “We Are On Our Own.” Why did you decide to follow it up with “Letting It Go?”
Miriam Katin: Because of my background, I did many works about the European war and the time after the war, the Hungarian uprising. Pretty soon [after completing “We Are On Our Own”], I thought I was finished with that subject. Then, when my son announced to me, in 2007 I think, that he wanted to live and work in Berlin, it just completely shocked me to my very element. To my Holocaust-centered existence, it was such a shock and sorrow and fear. I didn’t know how to deal with it, honestly. He wanted to get Hungarian citizenship, and other work on my mind fell away fell by the wayside. I started to collect my thoughts, jotting down everything that came to my mind towards a work that I would do.
Unlike your first book which is about memory, this is a very immediate work you were drawing as it was happening or shortly thereafter as a way of working out your own feelings. How much did you rewrite and redraw, playing with the structure to get the feel of the book right?
When I was more or less ready to start and I had collected all these things I was going to use, I sat down and I completely lost patience with structuring the pages. I wanted to have a more direct, quicker way between my brain and hand, the pencil and the page. I just went right into the story without frames or structure. I have a number of pages I created to begin with where I used a frame and panels, and I thought, no, I can’t deal with that. You see the procrastination part in the beginning, which is a very important part in the starting of this book.
Once I decided to do it, there was not much restructuring. What was more important was that, in order to make a book, it wasn’t enough, to say, my son wants to live in Germany and I really hate it. That does not make a book. I needed a process where I work it out within myself. To observe it and to digest it and to put it on paper. I started by looking around, because I was totally dumbfounded and totally lost with the subject. I knew I needed to do it, but I didn’t know how and I sat at my desk. I live up here in Washington Heights, a block from the George Washington Bridge. This is the highest spot in Manhattan. We have a view, the river, that sunrise, and it’s very exciting, very intense. I always wanted to do something with it, but I’m not a painter, so this came in naturally, to divide parts of the book with my thoughts and my impressions of my environment.
At what point did you know that the book would be in color?
When I started to do work for Drawn and Quarterly, Chris Oliveros asked me, what about colors? I told him that the world of the past, even after the war, I could only think about it in black and white. Maybe because of the emotional darkness of it, the losses that we had. I’m not a depressed person; I’m a very happy person, going around the world singing and listening and eating and drinking and all that. I’m not a sad, depressed person. My world is so wonderful and colorful and happy that I decided, I’ll do it in color. They liked that. It was a question of, should I use watercolors? I use watercolor in my life a lot, but I lost patience in that. I have all these pages that I tried. I thought about crayon, [but] there would not be much detail and that was just not enough for me to work on. I thought, what is my most favorite work? I came up with a four-page work that I did about my army experience. In that few pages, I did colored pencil work. I said, this is what to do again. Work with strong and deep colors, and that is what I did. I decided to use what I enjoyed the most.
There’s a moment early on where your son spoke about wanting to obtain a Hungarian passport and get EU citizenship. Your response, which I don’t think is uncommon among people I’ve met and with whom I’ve spent time, is that they didn’t want us and you don’t want anything to do with them. Your son, however, sees this as something practical.
Truly. He was invited originally to work in Switzerland in Geneva for a software company. He was invited to work with them, and he stayed in Europe because they invited him to join the company. He can live anywhere he wants and he definitely doesn’t want to live in Switzerland. It’s boring and expensive. Berlin is the ideal of all young artists, right now. That’s how he decided on that.
There’s a key story about a lost ring which I won’t spoil, but you talk about wanting to change that story for the book so the ending will be nastier, which your son lectures you about. Were you really planning to do that?
Everything in the book that I wrote down or drew was one hundred percent true. I didn’t make up anything. Yes, I said to myself, darn, we found the ring. That’s so anti-climactic. No, I’m just going to go ahead with the ring being lost in Berlin. [Laughs] Someone took the gold ring from the Jews. And my son gave me that lecture.
By the way, I did want as much humor in it [as possible]. I always ask people, did you laugh? Somebody even called it hilarious, and to me, it’s the most pleasing thing. The greatest reviews and comments are, “I had such a good laugh.” I’m so happy about that because I wanted it to be funny. Everything strikes me as funny after a while.
Talk a little, if you would, about when you visited Berlin and trying to get a sense of the city and depict it.
Well, the first trip, we decided to do a short one to sort of break the ice. We took a trip to the Baltic Countries, a group tour to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and at the end of that tour was three days in Berlin. When I arrived, I was so lucky to be able to photograph the landing gears because to me, touching ground in Germany, my feeling was opposite to touching the ground in Egypt. When I went [to Egypt], I was like, I’m a Jew and I’m coming into Egypt! I was excited and exhilarated, and here I was like, blech, I’m touching this bloody land.
I looked at things like the memorial from skewed eyes. I was willfully drawing a nasty picture of that. Later on, I got a bit humbled because we didn’t know about the other things, like the old Jewish section commemorating people on the cobblestones and the plaques on the buildings. I saw that they are rebuilding the synagogue. I started to soften a little bit because it is wonderful. When I left Berlin, the first visit, I was like, okay, it can be there. I hope it’s safe for my son, goodbye. Shortly after that, I got this invitation to the exhibit. It wasn’t even an invitation; it was an announcement of the exhibit, and suddenly it became so meaningful to me that my artwork, this artwork, was going to be in Berlin and I just had to go. I had to be there.
A lot of your reaction seemed that it wasn’t just about putting up a monument or building a museum, but that they had found a way to incorporate these memories into the city.
Yes, it was. They are incorporating into the city what was, what had been. They are incorporating everywhere the war in a number of ways. I just showed one thing that you see through the city, the tiles, but also there are many, many places in the city where you see the past. They are dealing with it.
You ultimately seemed to enjoy Berlin.
Well, after a while. I love to go to museums. My husband’s a musician, so no sooner than we arrived in the city than we go on evenings of the beautiful music you can hear. Barenboim lives there, and he’s an Israeli. I love to eat and drink, and this is one city where you can really do it well. The next thing that happened [after the events in the book] is that my husband decided that he wants to see our son more, so last June, we rented an apartment in Berlin for three weeks. Everyday life just reduces Berlin to, where is the best supermarket, where do we do the laundry? Coming and going and bringing it down form this height of total drama and memories to an everyday sort of life, which is probably pretty healthy.
You have some great moments in the book where you’re talking about how so many things are so beautifully designed and walking around muttering, those fucking Germans. Or the bears that are throughout the city. You found a lot to draw and admire.
[Laughs] The bears. How stupid. We had those stupid cows here in New York, Edinbugh had leopards or tigers, but nothing was as stupid as those bears. [Laughs] I just had to do it, because everywhere you went was those bears. Yeah, I had to say, the fucking Germans, because they do [design beautiful products]. Everyone has Krups coffeemakers and grinders and all these beautiful products. It’s funny because my husband, who really loves Berlin, and he was in Berlin with the Israeli orchestra before the wall came down, in 1987, maybe? He loves the culture and the music and everything, and he said, if we had to visit our son anywhere in the world, it might as well be Berlin. He loves Berlin because that’s where the cutting edge of culture and music is. I like it too, but I can hear Wagner at the Met — I don’t have to go there. But he loves it.
I loved the cockroaches.
We happen to live on the sixteenth floor here, and we have mice. We have mousetraps, but I’ll take the mice over the cockroaches any time. [Laughs] We had a very, very bad epidemic of cockroaches and it was terrible. I found they’re German cockroaches. Why are they German cockroaches? Hungarians call them German cockroaches. So I said this is puzzling, why German? But I found out there are plenty of other names for it.
I also loved the scene with your mother. It was nice to see that your mother is still around.
This ritual, that every week — and now sometimes more, because she’s 94 and she’s starting to weaken — is taking the subway to Forest Hills, which is really Jewish around there. The ritual is that I get out of the subway, buy flowers, turn the corner and she’s already in the window waving. At the end, when I finish the visit, it’s the same thing. I go down and turn around and wave back and turn the corner again.
I decided to show the very foreign-ness of us, to use the Hungarian language and how we speak to each other. I hate in movies where they dub [the language] in. I hate that. I decided to write it in this script. There was not much room, so how am I going to translate it this way? I remembered how much I love George Cruikshank, the comic artist. I always loved how he wrote the conversations, so I said, I’m going to use it and plagiarize his style. Anybody who knows George Cruikshank’s work knows that it’s from there. I loved it. It fit more into the page and the design than speech bubbles, so the whole confusion is that we are confused. [Laughs]
It was also interesting that her perspective is simply that he’s far away.
Yes. She doesn’t care where he is. It’s just far way.
I know that right now you’re doing some events, but have you started thinking about what’s next?
Wherever I go, whether it’s a convention or store or panel, I find them truly enjoyable. I’m very isolated and I enjoy meeting people. The truth is, right after I finish a book, there’s a feeling of, oh, my God I have to push on. I have to have this discipline and sit down every morning. I should start the next book right away. But you realize that you don’t want to sit there. You are exhausted from finishing. No, this is a time where I take care of life around me.
What is on my mind right now, actually, for a while, is smaller things. I’m piling up thoughts, collecting stuff that I want to put into the book. It might be a larger size. I’m trying to work larger, more like for an exhibit, if that’s possible. I don’t know if you have seen Chris Ware’s originals. He had some original drawings — just the inks before he scans it and does computer coloring — in a gallery when the box came out. I saw how wonderful and large they are and I’m envious. I am thinking of that as soon as traveling is over. I’m not committing myself to a deadline for a book, but I am working.