EXCLUSIVE: Lemire Returns to His Roots with Hockey-themed "Roughneck"

New York Times-bestselling author Jeff Lemire ("Essex County" and "The Underwater Welder") will publish his latest project, titled "Roughneck," with Simon & Schuster and Simon & Schuster Canada. Described as a literary graphic novel, the story, which Lemire will write, draw and paint, follows a former hockey player forced to face his demons and reconnect with his Cree heritage when his troubled sister returns home to the remote northern town where he lives.

Derek, the story's lead, is an ex-hockey tough guy whose quick rise to the NHL was cut short when a brutal on-ice incident left him banned from professional hockey for life. Four years later, Derek has returned to Black River, his hometown in northern Ontario, not far from the Moose Cree First Nation, where his mother grew up. Derek's slide into alcoholism and depression is interrupted when his long-lost sister, Annie, returns home trailing a violent ex-boyfriend. Together, the two escape to the woods, where they struggle to reconnect with the traditions of their Cree ancestors in order to escape their past and gain redemption.

Lemire, who has enjoyed success with "Sweet Tooth" and his current sci-fi love story "Trillium" for Vertigo Comics and "Green Arrow " and "Animal Man" for DC Comics, has won two Schuster Awards and has been nominated for seven Eisner Awards, seven Harvey Awards and eight other Shuster Awards. In 2010, "Essex County" was named as one of the five Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade by CBC.

CBR News connected with Lemire following the announcement, and the writer and artist spoke candidly about his decision to release this project through a traditional publishing house versus a comic book publisher and how the First Nations people of Canada have played (and will play) a crucial role in the origin and future of "Roughneck."

CBR News: Why set this project up at Simon & Schuster and not Vertigo or Top Shelf?

Image from Lemire's "Essex County"

Jeff Lemire: I have been doing so much work the last three or four years with DC Comics and Vertigo, and I love working with those guys, but I really wanted to get back to doing something close to what I was doing with "Essex County" -- something that seemed to break the barrier between comic books readers, and it kind of got out to the mainstream, literary world. I've really wanted to get back and do a project that broadens my readership in that way again and follows up on the momentum that I had from "Essex County." When I conceived "Roughneck," I knew it was the closest thing to a return to "Essex County" I've had since that book just in terms of theme and tone and everything. It could almost be set in the same world.

With all that said, I wanted to find a publisher, a book publisher, that would treat it as a novel and not just as a comic, someone who could get it outside of the direct market. As much as I love and rely on the direct market comic fans, I really wanted to try and do something that could break out beyond that.

You obviously enjoyed tremendous success with "Essex County," and your comic book output the past five or six years speaks for itself, but was it still intimidating going to book publishers and pitching "Roughneck?"

No, there was actually a bidding war between Simon & Schuster and a number of other publishers for the project, so it was actually the opposite. It felt like being the star center on NHL free agent day. [Laughs] They all pitched to me, and my agent and I talked through the possibilities and Simon & Schuster felt like a really strong choice for me. In addition to the New York division, which I'll be working with, they also have a Canadian division that is a really great team, and I knew that the book, having such strong ties to Canada, needed a strong team here to promote it. That combination really sold me.

Like "Essex County," an ex-hockey player is central to this story. Canadian stereotypes aside, what is it about hockey that makes it an arena worth exploring through comics?

I didn't think I would do another hockey book, but this is really a different hockey story. Two or three summers ago, I think three NHL enforcers died or committed suicide at the same time -- Derek Boogaard from the Rangers, Rick Rypien from the Canucks and Wade Belak from the Maple Leafs -- and that really struck me. These NHL enforcers, these tough guys whose job it is, every night, to go out there and fight in front of crowd. I just started thinking, what happens to these guys when they're done. When the game leaves them, what do they do with that violence? What do they do with that way of life? It's the only thing they've known. I wanted to tell a story about a guy like that, where the game has left him behind -- a guy who's left with that to cope with. That's really where this feeds from and where "Roughneck" started.

Here in Canada, hockey is a religion. For many families, it drives their Saturday nights and their weekends and the hours before and after school. Do you agree that hockey is something bigger than a game in Canada?

I think so. Spirituality is a big part of this book, and hockey as a religion is hard to deny in this country. I grew up in southwestern Ontario, as far away from Moosonee and Moose Factory, where the book is set, as possible, yet the one thing I have in common with everyone that I met up there is the shared experience of hockey. There is something there, as much as it is a cliche. It really does bind our country. That's one thing that I'm exploring, but it really is about life after hockey. Hockey doesn't play a huge part of the book other than as a backstory for this character. It really is more about Derek and discovering his Cree heritage because he was raised in a white town and he escaped into hockey when he was young and he really knew very little about that side of his life.

Have you or will you visit northern Ontario, places like Moosonee and Moose Factory, to research "Rougneck?"

Yes, and I have a number of [future] trips to Moose Factory planned, too. I'm actually leaving in a week or two. I've been in contact with a number of prominent people in the Moose Cree First Nation that have been working almost like consultants on the book because I want to be very respective of their culture and get things right. They've been great in understanding what I'm trying to do.

I'm also trying to spend a lot of time in the schools, teaching kids about comics, so that's been really exciting. And that also ties into the "Justice League Canada" project because that's also set up there. We'll also be creating a new Cree superhero as part of the team, and the kids up there are very excited about that.

You've told stories with these broken men before, and you make them compelling, honest and real. How do you transform them into heroes -- and I don't mean a hero like a superhero, but a character that one can understand and cheer for.

I think this book will be a bit different. I'm totally trying to avoid any sort of genre tropes -- I really want to make something that reflects life a bit more. I don't want to follow the familiar trajectory that you see in films or comics. My stories often have these broken characters and they're tales of redemption, but I think this one is going to be a bit more layered than that.

It's early, but what can you share with us about Derek and his world?

I'm not supposed to talk too much about the story yet, other than what's in the press release. A big component of the book is obviously the fact that he is a First Nations man, and that's something that's become a real focus of mine over the last year, year-and-a-half. I've been learning more and more about Canada's First Nations people, and this character grew out of that. That's something I'm going to continue to explore with the book.

I want to touch on that state of Canada's First Nations, how overlooked they are and how these communities in northern Ontario survive is something that I'm really interested in exploring and want to shed a light on with the book. Hopefully, I will be bringing those issues to an audience that wouldn't normally be aware of them, in the States, as well as in Canada.

You've explored Aboriginal culture in "Sweet Tooth" and touched upon it in "Animal Man." You mentioned their current state is something you've been exploring for years, but what kindled that interest initially?

I grew up in southern Ontario in the most southern part of Canada, literally, down in Essex County, and there's not a large Aboriginal community in that part of Canada. Also, growing up, it wasn't anything that I was exposed to other than in history books and what you saw on TV.

As I started spending more and more time in northern Ontario as an adult, something struck me -- I'm not exactly sure what it is; I just felt, as a Canadian, telling Canadian stories, our First Nations are a huge part of our national identity and I didn't know a lot about them. I needed to know more about them, and the more exposure I got from being around them, the more I became fascinated with their culture and saw how beautiful it is but also the hardships that they're going though. Over the past few years, it's just been growing more and more as an interest of mine -- to learn more about them. In a way, this book will be about my journey of learning about them.

Your stories often have a fantasy or fantastic element to them. The media release for "Roughneck" doesn't tease that as a part of this story -- can you confirm if it is or isn't?

No, it's not at all. As much as I love "Sweet Tooth" and "Trillium" and all of the stuff that I've done the last couple of years, I really needed to get back and do something that wasn't a genre book and didn't have any fantastic or sci-fi elements. Again, it's very much my return to what I was doing with "Essex County" -- even that had more fantasy elements, I guess, than this will have. It's very much a grounded book. I have spent so much time working in the superhero genre the last few years, I really needed to get back to something like this.

Have you started writing and drawing it?

"Roughneck" was a project that I started working on, I guess, almost a year ago. I worked on it pretty intensely for a couple of months after "Sweet Tooth" was finished. It was the thing I used to escape from all of my DC work and Vertigo work. I just kind of got obsessed with it for a couple of months and did a lot of work on it but then I had to put it aside and work on "Trillium," so there is a draft of an outline sitting there and I've also spent the last year just doing research and reading and doing everything that I can to get ready for it.

I'll really start drawing it in the new year, once I've finished "Trillium." When the "Justice League Canada" project came up, I was already so invested in these ideas from "Roughneck," they were just mirrored into "Justice League."

I actually drew 30 or 40 pages of artwork last year before I put it aside. Whether those end up being a first draft or part of the final book, I'm not sure, but I have a pretty good idea about how "Roughneck" is going to look. This will also be a full-color book, so people that have been enjoying the painted pages of "Trillium" will hopefully enjoy it because I'm going to watercolor the whole thing.

Once I started doing that on "Triliium," I felt like there was no going back. As much as I love Jose Villarrubia as a colorist, there is just something about doing it all yourself.

"Roughneck" is expected to release in 2015.

Tags: jeff lemire, simon & schuster, roughneck

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