Danica Novgorodoff talks "Refresh, Refresh"

Danica Novgorodoff isn't the most well known name in comics, but over the past few years, the Yale-educated painter, photographer and artist has been making a name for herself. In 2006, her minicomic, "A Late Freeze," won the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. In 2007, she was an Eisner nominee for Best Single Issue Comic. 2008 saw the release of her debut graphic novel, "Slow Storm."

Her new book, just out from First Second, is "Refresh, Refresh." The book has an interesting pedigree, starting out as a short story by Benjamin Percy that was then adapted into a film script by James Ponsoldt, but it's a story that Novgorodoff made her own. The story of three young men in Central Oregon whose fathers are in Iraq, the original version was named one of the Best American Short Stories of 2006. Novgorodoff spoke with CBR News about the book and her work as a whole.

Coming off "Slow Storm," what was it appealed to you about adapting a short story/screenplay into a graphic novel? 

I wasn't looking to adapt anything or work with someone else's writing - but I read "Refresh, Refresh," and really loved it. I thought it would make a great graphic novel. I supposed it did appeal to me in that I didn't have to worry about the writing, about whether it was good or bad or unclear or unresolved or unconvincing (all the things I worried about in my own writing) - because it was already a good piece of writing, and that's why I chose it.  

That's interesting, because "Refresh, Refresh" isn't wholly foreign from your other work in thematically speaking, especially your first graphic novel "Slow Storm." Do you think that's what attracted you to it?

Yes, I definitely want to feel like I'm working on something that I can feel close to, that I can make my own. I certainly didn't feel like I was working on a project "for" someone else. The characters and their stories really got to me - that's why I wanted to make this book.

How much freedom were you given in terms of adapting James Ponsoldt's screenplay, and how much freedom did you take? 

James gave me a lot of freedom - he trusted me as an artist and as a storyteller, so I went ahead and cut some scenes out, combined others, rearranged their order, added dialogue where needed, and so forth. I tried to stay true to the original authors' intent and the characters' personalities and the general momentum of the story. Actually, I structured my version firmly around the idea of three seasons, three "acts," from summer to autumn to winter, as the three friends quickly grow up, as their games get more violent, and as their home situations become more intense. Whereas I believe the movie will have to be filmed in one season. Also, the screenplay was still a work in progress when I picked it up, so James even used some of my ideas for changes to the script in his subsequent drafts, and in the end I think the two versions are fairly different.  That's interesting, because in the short story, how much time passes is unknown, and in a film, especially an independent one, it would be filmed over just a few weeks.  What made you decide to break it down the way you did and depict that passage of time?

I wanted to show a clear progression, paralleling the increasing sense of violence with the passing of the seasons. In the summer, Josh, Cody and Gordon are kids having fun, playing pranks, going to parties, going hunting. By the winter, their games have turned brutal, their family lives have grown tense, and while they're still trying to hold onto their childhoods, they're being forced to grow up. I think the passage of time also emphasizes their increasing longing for their fathers to come home. Each change in seasons is marked with a fight scene - one in the summer where they're boxing in a ring with rules, with gloves, for fun; in the autumn it's becoming reckless; by the winter they use homemade weapons and there are no rules to the game.

Had you read Benjamin Percy's short story before this? 

I read the short story right after I read the screenplay. I drew from both to create the script for the graphic novel - while most of the dialogue was drawn from the screenplay, I used some text directly from the short story, narrated in the first person by the main character, Josh, in captions in the opening sequence and then once more later in the story. 

Was there any narration in James Ponsoldt's script and were you at all cautious about using it?

There was no narration in the script, and I didn't want to rely on narration much at all - I try to show what the characters are thinking and feeling through action and dialogue as much as possible. But some of the passages in the short story were so beautiful and simple and really got to the heart of the story, so I wanted to include them in the text of the graphic novel.

Were you at all familiar with Central Oregon prior to this? What kind of background research did you do to get a sense of the landscape? 

I'd been to Portland before, but never to central Oregon, to the small town setting where "Refresh, Refresh" takes place. So I made a trip to Bend and surrounding areas before beginning to draw the book, and spent a week photographing the area, hiking in the forest reserves, walking around small towns, exploring lava fields and caves (which are beautiful, you should go if you get a chance!). I love traveling to new places, so researching for a book is always a good excuse to travel. 

There's a dream sequence near the very end of the book which you portrayed in watercolors, and it looks and feels completely unlike the rest of the book. Why did you chose to depict it in that style?

This is the only scene in which we get a glimpse of Iraq, and I wanted it to be haunting, strange - really, completely different than the world that Josh knows. He, like most civilians, has only the most vague idea of what war might be like - a collection of undefined, unnerving images. It's a vision of what's to come.  

It is so vague and unreal, but it's also a completely different texture than the rest of the book.  It felt as if you're also making the point that ,while Josh doesn't know what he's getting into, he knows that it's completely unlike the world he knows. I know the dream wasn't in the short story, but was it in the script and was your idea always to do it in a completely different style?

The dream sequence is not in the script or the short story. In adapting the script, I felt there needed to be some space in time and action between when the boys commit their crime and when they carry out their plan for how to atone for it. Josh spends the night, in a way, with his father, reflecting upon what he must do. I think I was reading Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke" when the idea came to me - the image of a pillar of smoke rising on the horizon is biblical and terrifying and mysterious. It's drawn in a completely different style because I wanted the landscape to be unrecognizable and abstract at first, and gradually form into this vision of the future for Josh, and that was much better expressed in watercolor than in the crisp definition of a black line drawing.

You didn't color the book yourself, opting instead to have a colorist handle that job. How much did you and the colorist, Hilary Sycamore, talk about the way it would look? 

We talked quite a bit - I did several sample pages for her to get an idea of how I wanted the color to look. I asked her to try a different color scheme for each season. Each of the boys has their own color scheme as well - both in their clothes and in their respective houses' decor. Halfway through the process I asked Hilary if we could add pencil color texture to give it a more hand-made feel - and I was glad she didn't freak out at the idea. She is great to work with.   You also have a solo exhibition "Polaris, Octantis," going on this month at the Charmingwall gallery. Could you talk about the show a little for those of us who can't get down to the West Village to see it this month? 

It's a show of small paintings that I made mostly inspired by travels to Argentina (in 2008) and to Iceland (this past spring). The paintings all have a sort of expedition theme - the title refers to the North Star and South Star. Some are paintings of horses swimming in the "horse latitudes;" horses thrown overboard ships stranded in windless expanses of ocean. Some of them are also about the opposite poles of Joy and Depression. You can see images of these paintings on my website.  

It's not strictly relevant to the conversation, but I know from reading your resume that you were Sally Mann's assistant. She's an amazing photographer, and I'm just curious about how that experience has influenced your aesthetic? 

That's a good question; I can point to so many ways that she's influenced me - the obsession with horses we share, the books I read, my photographs (though I haven't done much photography lately), the way I'd like to live one day (she has a 450 acre farm in Virginia with horses, a river, an organic garden...) - but I'm not sure I can pinpoint how my current work relates directly to what I learned from her. I think her influence on me is not simply visual, but a much deeper sense of what makes good art and good life - look for what's simple, true, painfully intimate, astonishingly beautiful.

I do remember painting like a crazy person the first summer I spent at her farm - I was going through a brief abstract period at the age of 19, and one night I made five or six paintings. Some of them were actually pretty good! I felt like I'd started to find a "voice" as an artist there. I must have been inspired by something.  

So tell us, what are you working on now? 

I've started working on a book called "The House of Discount Torture." Set in China, it's about a young man who is sent on a mission by his family to procure a dead bride for his brother, who has just been killed in an accident. It's based on a real tradition of ghost marriages that dates back to at least the 3rd century A.D. After botching a grave-robbing, the young man sets his sights on a live girl with the notion to kill her in order to complete his task. Instead, he ends up kidnapping her, and, against his own will, falling in love with her. The story follows the two travelers on a journey as he tries and fails to complete his mission, the girl tries and fails to escape from her captor, and they meet a host of strange characters along the way. It's sort of an eastern Western.

What did you learn from adapting and taking apart "Refresh Refresh" that influenced your own writing and how you approached "The House of Discount Torture?"

I really liked working in short scenes in "Refresh, Refresh," and I think I'll use that method of breaking up the story into small "chapters" in "The House of Discount Torture." I liked how the scenes allowed the reader to follow several storylines simultaneously. I've also picked up the idea of repetition - coming back to the same places, creating a cyclical structure. Repetition (as in the fight scenes in "Refresh, Refresh") shows a progression, a gradual change. Like in "Refresh, Refresh," the characters' situations and emotional lives in "The House of Discount Torture" change gradually but profoundly over the course of the story.

The official book release party for "Refresh, Refresh" will be held at Rocketship in Brooklyn, NY this Saturday, September 26. More information can be found at rocketshipstore.blogspot.com.

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