The cartoonist of seven books, including “Mid-Life,” “Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People,” and “This Will All End in Tears,” Joe Ollmann has not only received a Doug Wright Award, CBC Radio called him “a master of the short story” and compared him to Alice Munro. His new book, “The Abominable Mr. Seabrook,” looks to continue the accolades for the accomplished creator.
The book details the life of William Seabrook, a writer best remembered for introducing the term “zombie” into the English language, though as Ollmann makes clear, Seabrook wrote about and did far, far more than most might think. Seabrook wrote about Haiti, Arabia and Africa, early plane travel, alcoholism and bondage; he was friends with Gertrude Stein, Aleister Crowley, Sinclair Lewis and Man Ray. He was the forerunner of the model of adventurer and writer that has been carried on by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson.
CBR: William Seabrook was a real character -- I don’t know how else to describe him! How did you first encounter him?
Joe Ollmann: I discovered him in a zombie anthology called “Zombie.” There was a short piece by Seabrook in there, which was very good. It’s a true story of zombies in Haiti from his book “The Magic Island.” It was a good story, and I really liked his writing, but what interested me more was the short biographical blurb before the story. The people that he’d known, the places that he traveled, and other salacious facts, like his bondage fetish, and cannibalism, and alcoholism. I’d never heard of the guy, and I felt like I should have because he had a pretty interesting, storied life. That sent me searching for more info. I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more info on him. None of his eleven books were in print at the time; Dover has started to bring some of them back into print, but he was a bestselling author in his day. It seemed like people should have known about him because he had a pretty interesting life.
One person you quote in the book makes the observation that what Seabrook would have liked was to be misunderstood. He wasn’t, however, and instead was a huge success.
That was Alexander King, the illustrator, who was an editor at "Life Magazine." He said that Seabrook wanted to be a misunderstood author who was deep and artistic and inscrutable, but he was this populist writer who wrote about lurid subjects, mostly. But he wrote about them very intelligently and very well. Seabrook was always torn; he wanted to be a Gertrude Stein or a James Joyce or someone like that, but he came from a trashy Randolph Hearst newspaper background, writing stories like 'Caught in the Death Grip of a Giant Clam.' He wanted to do art, and he did very good populist stuff.
At the same time -- and I couldn’t help but think of this in terms of his alcoholism and self-loathing -- he sought out the company of people like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, people who were in that Left Bank or Greenwich Village crowds.
He was very well connected. They sought him out, too, it seems, because they remembered him well enough to write about him in their autobiographies. Gertrude Stein, Sinclair Lewis, Man Ray, Aleister Crowley wrote about him. He obviously made an impression on these people. I would imagine he was quite a character, a guy who was fun to go to parties with, but not so fun to live with.
So when did you go from being curious about this writer to making a book about him?
At the beginning, I was just interested and I started to read. There was a little bit on the Internet. There were Seabrook fans on LiveJournal that had a lot of information, and that steered me towards certain books, which was quite helpful. I started buying his books and reading them. As I was reading them, I started keeping notes. I first started taking notes around 2006, so it’s been more than ten years now that I’ve been unofficially researching. I traveled to North Carolina with my wife -- she was at an academic conference and I went with her because a collector there had a trunk of Seabrook stuff. I went to the University of Oregon for almost a week, and went through the archives of Marjorie Worthington, who was Seabrook’s second wife. She was an author, and her archives were there. I was going through boxes of her stuff -- journals, letters, photos.
At that point, I’m wearing white gloves at a university archive and taking notes and I was like, "I guess you’re making a book of this guy, because what else are you going do?" [Laughs] I had already invested a lot of time and travel and money, so it became apparent that I had to do something with it. It was more than just a hobby. I talked about it a lot for years with people and everybody was very intrigued by the elevator pitch of this guy’s life and they never heard of him so they said, you should make a book about him. I could have just written a proper biography – a “book book” as we call real books in the comics world – but I’m a cartoonist, so I did it as a comic book biography.
I can imagine you spent part of that decade digging up visual reference and focusing on depicting those details.
I don’t usually use a lot of visual reference, but I really tried to get the details as correct as possible with this book. I felt it deserved the extra time. It’s set in many different time periods on different continents with many different cultures and with historical characters. I did a lot of research -- I have folders of reference material for each section. I’ve never really done that much research visually before, so hopefully it improved the book.
I’ve read other books of yours, and it’s clearly your style, but it also felt very different than anything you’ve done before.
I think so. In a way, it’s not proper nonfiction. I see any biography with dialogue in it is out of the realm of nonfiction and into “speculative nonfiction,” where it’s well researched but I extrapolated and made up dialogue to fill in the story. It is different, but I feel like readers of my normal depressing comics that I do which are slice of life kitchen sink dramas of normal people who are troubled and they’re sad but they have humor in them, I think the Seabrook book probably has a similar feel because you know we put our stamp on everything as an artist or a writer so even though it’s his story it definitely has my fingerprints all over it I would think.
Drawing things like bondage -- I’ve never done anything like that. I talked to cartoonist Pascal Girard years ago when I was living in Montreal, and his advice was draw the bondage stuff really frankly. Don’t not show it, but don’t make it sexy. I drew it very openly, not trying to make it salacious or sexed up. Hopefully that worked.
What made Seabrook fascinating wasn’t that he practiced bondage, but he wrote about it and he collaborated with Man Ray on series of photographs depicting bondage.
He and Man Ray were friends for a long time. Man Ray took a lot of photos of Seabrook, like when he was arriving back from Africa on a plane. Then he did the photos of Seabrook and Lee Miller where she’s wearing a collar and he’s holding the collar. There’s a whole other series of photos that they did, The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook, which are pretty hardcore bondage. I think that was Seabrook trying to legitimize his kinky side by turning it into art. It could be perceived as legitimate because Man Ray was this established, respected artist at the time and collaborating with him would bring a legitimacy to it.
Seabrook is also fascinating because for his time, he was very progressive when writing about Haiti and Arabia and the people he meets.
For his time he was very progressive in writing about race and his interaction with other cultures. That what I find fascinating. He is very respectful of the cultures. He’s not a detached observer like an anthropologist would be. He’s living as equals with them and I think he’s accepted by the Bedouins when he’s living in the Middle East and again in Haiti by the Haitian people there. In Africa as well, although in Africa he’s acting more like a “great white hunter” in that book. I think he was more famous, and his alcoholism had progressed to the point where he wasn’t making good decisions about anything. But I agree, for his time, he was very progressive on matters of race, and very respectful of the Arab and Muslim culture.
One reason I don’t think that Seabrook isn’t one of the great travel writers like Thesiger or Stark is because, as you point out, Seabrook had a tendency to embellish and make things up.
He did a bit of that. Maybe I make too much of a deal about it. The famous thing he lied about -- that in Africa he ate human flesh -- which he doesn’t but he does eat human flesh when he returns to Paris to make it “true.” There was also people that criticized his details of the facts of the voodoo religion in “The Magic Island.” Seabrook cited Zora Neale Hurston, who in her book “Tell My Horse” writes about very similar things. Hurston is a respected anthropologist and she’s a black woman who has less to gain from maligning the people of Haiti, and she supported his facts, basically, in her book. As a guy that was a reporter, I think he took the facts seriously. I think he exaggerated. I think he’s a typical raconteur who will exaggerate and be hyperbolic to make a better story. I hesitate to say that he was constantly lying about things in his books, although he may have -- it’s hard to know.
You make an interesting observation at the end, which is that it might be best to think of him as a precursor to gonzo journalism.
I think so. The act of throwing yourself into the middle of the story and making the story about you. I couldn’t find out in Hunter S. Thompson or any of that school read Seabrook, but I suspect that Thompson probably would have. They shared a lot -- the wild man, hard-drinking lifestyle, but also being a very serious writer. For all of his drinking, Seabrook was a real work horse. Even at the height of his alcoholism, he would get up in the morning at five, make coffee, work 'til noon and waste the rest of the day. I think he was a hard working reporter at heart.
Having spent all these years working on this book, what do you hope people take away from it?
My intent, really, was to serve as an introduction to the guy’s life. I don’t mean it to be a cautionary tale at all. If people read it, they’ll come away and say, obviously, it’s not a good thing to drink excessively your whole life because it will catch up with you. I just think it’s an interesting story. I wanted to introduce people to his work and maybe they’ll seek it out and read it. I think a lot of his stuff is still worth reading.
You mentioned that when you started, all of his books were out of print but now “Asylum” and “The Magic Island” are back in print.
Dover did those two, and I did the covers and introductions in comic form for them. “The Magic Island” is great, because they have an intro by George Romero. Seabrook is credited with bringing the word "zombie" into the English language, and “Magic Island” was the basis for the Bela Lugosi film “White Zombie,” so Romero writes about how he owes a debt of gratitude to Seabrook for starting the whole genre of the zombie. Then there’s an afterword by the ethnobotanist Wade Davis who wrote “The Serprent and The Rainbow.” Davis confirmed a lot of the aspects of the zombie being a genuinely chemical phenomenon instead of supernatural that Seabrook posited. It’s a travelogue, and it’s very detailed. He’s writing about the cultural history and the geopolitical history of the island and about the situation at the time in the 1920s where they were under occupation by the US. It’s just good, meandering travel writing. Those first three books of Seabrook’s are excellent.
Having spent a decade on this book, does it make you want to make another book along similar lines, or go back to making a slice of life story like you’ve done in the past?
I’m of two minds. I have a bunch of longish short story pieces that I’m ready to start on. I also have a nonfiction project about Canadian history that I’m working on. That would take a little more time. When I finished this, I was like, I don’t want to do nonfiction anymore. The research is too hard. I just want to do fiction, where you can make your characters do what you want and you’re not limited by what actually happened. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. Hopefully I’ll live long enough to do both of them. As you get older, you start to think, how many books do I have left? Comics take so long that you want to be sure what you’re doing before you commit two or three -- or five or ten -- years to a book.