The Interview: Kris Bertin
In a starred review of The Case of the Missing Men, Publisher’s Weekly called the graphic novel “An eerie blend of Scooby Doo and Twin Peaks.” I can’t do better than that in explaining the Hobtown Mystery series, written by Kris Bertin and drawn by Alexander Forbes. The second book in the series, The Cursed Hermit, follows two members of the Hobtown Junior Detective Club to a mysterious finishing school, where they confront ghosts, brainwashed townsfolk, and some fucked up things about the town’s colonial history.
From Halifax, Bertin is the author of two acclaimed story collections, Bad Things Happen and Use Your Imagination! and has film/tv projects in the works.
The artwork in The Cursed Hermit is astonishing. The panels are highly detailed, yet the overall style fits a “junior detective club” story perfectly. How much of the look of the series was planned out before?
The style of the series is pretty much purely Alex’s. From the start he talked about wanting to evoke the interior artwork of old Nancy Drew or Tom Swift books, but I think that’s only part of the story. We’re also fans of horror and weirdness, so it’s more like he’s taking that cutesy stuff and injecting it with some Francis Bacon or John Carpenter.
How much detail do you go into in the script for each panel?
Description is spare if it’s somewhere we’ve seen before, or if the focus is just on a character’s movement or gestures. Usually the details really accumulate if I’m describing a new setting, or dishing on some backstory that no one will know but Alex and I. I also do little sketches, take pictures, and add it all to a Google Doc story bible when there’s some hyper-specific thing I need him to draw.
The comic script format scares the shit out of me. Did it take a while to get comfortable with it?
Being able to draw a little (which I can) helps, but it’s not necessary. I think it’s a pretty easy form to learn, but there are practical considerations that are really important to keep in mind. As a writer, you’ve got to do take extra steps to ensure there isn’t too much dialogue or characters to fit in the panel, or too many panels to fit on the page.
You need to make sure that all the meticulous details that you mention can actually be rendered from the angle you want, and you’ve got to be flexible enough that if or when you make a mistake, you’re able to compromise, or find solutions. It’s a little different from writing prose because your storytelling muscles need to work in tandem with your visual/spatial ones, and you have to actually do stuff like draw diagrams and imagine where the camera is and things like that.
The pacing of the story is really strong. The jarring, weird horror elements often come in the middle of a page, rather than at the end. Is that something you and Alex work on?
Thanks for saying so. The Case of the Missing Men was a kind of free-wheeling psychotic punk-rock endeavour. We made it without any contract or plans to see it published, just doing it because we loved the idea. We both learned a lot and there’s nearly seven years of different styles, interests and subject matter in it (which is also why it’s 300 pages long).
The Cursed Hermit was written all at once, and a little more carefully. It’s also just a different story, which requires us to use different tools. It’s funny that you mention that specific page layout, that’s another little trick I ended up learning after some failure.
As a ghost story (and a batshit psychic phantasmagoria also), we found that a lot of our big moments and reveals in this book were actually apparitions, which work differently than suspense. When someone’s in mortal peril, making the reader turn the page to see if they die or not is really quite effective. When we see something frightening or unsettling, however, the character’s reaction is so crucial to it that including a page-turn almost undermines the emotional impact. You need to know if the witness of a ghoul is feeling frightened, overwhelmed, or crazy. It really colours the image in a way that’s hard to describe. When there’s no reaction, it feels off.
Cursed Hermit focuses on two members of the Detective Club, Pauline and Brennan, rather than the whole ensemble. The story feels smaller and more intimate because of that.
A big part of our casting choices in this book is that we just really love these two characters. A lot of people told us that they loved Pauline, and we do too, but Brennan has a special place in our hearts. We like that he can become this hardboiled kid-cop, but only when he’s pushed to it. Otherwise, he just wants to get through his day and be left alone. Putting a reluctant hero together with an earnest and bright-eyed clairvoyant and sending them both to this evil boarding school just felt perfect to us.
Also, like everyone writing a follow-up, we feared repeating ourselves, so I tried to create some constraints to keep that from happening: confine most of the story to a setting we haven’t seen before, shrink the cast, and focus on the stranger parts of the world we created. It was imperative that we showed the reader that the series is versatile, and can be a lot of different things, especially so that in the future we can do even crazier stuff with flying saucers, Gods and subterranean monsters.
The story delves into some fraught social issues--gendered education and colonialism, to name two.
We realized recently that Hobtown Mystery Stories—the ones we’ve published, the ones we’re working on, and the ones coming in the future—are all about hometowns. About the way you can become trapped in one, and the way a place can seemingly steal your life and your dreams if you don’t either find a way out or a way to live there. Finding out who you are and what you believe in, especially in the face of ignorance, superstition, and seemingly unchangeable pre-existing power structures is what the series is all about.
For The Cursed Hermit, we wanted to talk about the point of origin of these forces, which is why colonialism is front and center. The other thing Alex and I have been doing is building a kind of unified theory of east coast folklore, tall tales, and weirdness, and for that reason imperialism was impossible to exclude. We always had this idea that the enthusiasm, intelligence and joy of the townspeople was being siphoned off by an evil force, and an undead British Lord fit the bill better than anyone or anything. It’s kind of a silly metaphor, but at the same time there’s something true about it too. The past haunts us, and wants things from and of us, expects us to act in certain ways and to uphold certain power structures.
How much of Hobtown is based on actual small-town Nova Scotia?
Hobtown is a composite of a lot of different places. Sometimes scenes are lifted wholesale from beautiful little seaside places on the south-shore places like Lunenburg or Chester. Alex tends to do that when we’re showing off the tourist-friendly veneer of the town. For the gritty, dirty, forgotten places, we tend to use places in Cape Breton, or funny enough, our hometown in Lincoln, New Brunswick. Hobtown is a bit like Springfield—if the story needs a gorge, Hobtown will suddenly have one. The difference, I think, is that we’ll do our best to do our research, go and find a real example and use that.
The Maritimes has a strong history of working class writers. Do you think of it as distinct from mainstream literary circles? Any specific influences or peers?
My influences from Atlantic Canada include David Adam Richards, Alistair and Alexander MacLeod, Amy Jones, Lynn Coady, Wayne Johnson and plenty more. I think, however, if we’re talking distinctions, class itself is more powerful than region. I’m one of those writers who didn’t do an MFA, who doesn’t have a degree, received no help from parents or anyone, who worked through undergrad, and still works a job.
Writing is about half my income, and some years it’s been more, sometimes less, but I’m still a bartender at a shitty little dive. That informs my practice more than anything, if only because creating fiction is a break from work, and a chance to use my brain and to really have fun. I think that’s not usually the case for a lot of upper and middle-class writers. Right now it’s almost in vogue for those sorts of young writers to complain about writing, as if it’s a chore to imagine and tell a story, and as if participating in artmaking is a weird duty instead of a voluntary, joyful act of creation. I really despise that.
You’ve written two collections of short stories, and worked in film/tv. Do you approach these differently?
I drew a little graph once that my wife found in my jeans. It had ‘artistic merit’ on one side, and ‘financial rewards’ on the other, with comics, short fiction, film and other stuff graphed on there. When she asked about it, I said it was a little tragedy I was working on. I’m sure you know where film/TV was placed relative to short fiction.
I love movies, but you’re collaborating with a machine. You're writing it with a producer and director and there are forces bearing down on you that you don’t even understand and are hardly able to anticipate. A short story, however, is written by you, for you, and precisely no one has asked for it. You won’t get more than a few hundred bucks for one, so there’s that too, but in my mind, there’s nothing better. If I were stinking rich and didn’t have to do a damned thing, I’d still write short stories.
What are you reading now?
Other than magazines from the 60s and weird hand-bound folklore books, I’m reading Wicked Tongue, an excellent short fiction collection by Elise Levine from Baltimore. I also just picked up the graphic novel ZEGAS, which is a graphic novel by Cuban artist Michel Fiffe, whose self-published comics shot him into mainstream juggernaut properties (though this is a smaller, weirder, more surreal story than those).
Lastly, when I’m up late with my newborn baby, and I’m not rocking, feeding or consoling him, I’ve made it my business to read all the things I was supposed to by now but never did. I know I'm late to the party but I'm halfway through Beloved by Toni Morrison and it rules.
Pick up The Cursed Hermit through Indiebound, Amazon, or your local bookstore. krisbertin.com
|The Writing Life: Failure and Adversity: Holiday Edition!
The two default modes for artists (and real people) relating bad luck and trouble are:
- “Woe is me”
- “It’s all the fault of those no-good sonsofbitches who did this to me.”
I’m trying to avoid both the King Lear and Livia Soprano approaches, because I’ve had a very good 2019, and because the people involved did the very best they could.
On to the bad news.
Random House Canada and I and a third party couldn’t come to an agreement on Wakeland 3, Hell & Gone
. There was a deal…and then there wasn’t. It’s messy and complex, and took a lot longer than I wished, but there it is.
RHC had the Canadian rights, and with Quercus USA restructuring, it leaves the series in an awkward place.
I won’t undersell that this is a gut punch. The books didn’t shift Robert Ludlum numbers, but Invisible Dead
and Cut You Down
built an engaged readership, received starred reviews, were nominated for major crime fiction awards. They mean something to some people.
They mean something to me. That series is a way to work through the complex, contradictory, fraught, and occasionally destructive feelings I have for Vancouver and the crime fiction genre, both of which I love, in some cases despite my best interests.
Cut You Down
came out the month my father died. I have an ARC which he read and annotated with comments and questions, catching mistakes on Vancouver history and geography. He was at the book launch, which is one of my last great memories of him.
In the wake of dealing with his death, and the attendant financial/bureaucratic mess, there were issues with the book’s promotion that I simply couldn’t follow up on, things I didn’t fight for as well as I could. To this day, Indigo shelves CYD
in different sections.
From 2018 on my priorities have been very different. In order to make sure my mom could requalify for her mortgage, I took on more teaching work, because “college instructor” is a much more bankable title when co-signing a mortgage application than “writer.”
Personal adversity renders professional setbacks inane and insignificant. Except that it’s also art, which is sometimes a way of responding to and dealing with personal tumult.
On to 2020.
I’m going to find a publisher for Hell & Gone
The Wakeland series will continue.
I’m going to write other things, too. A standalone set along the border. Film and TV projects.
Every good thing that has happened to me in publishing has come from writing something I believe in, rather than studying the market and figuring out what’s selling. In our interview Kris said he’d keep writing stories even if he were rich; that’s exactly how I feel about these novels.
I believe, despite large amounts of evidence to the contrary, that in the end, quality wins out. And I believe in the quality of these stories.
So it will take some time, but I’m clear where I’m heading.
On a happy, more Christmassy note: a couple weeks ago my mom did qualify for her mortgage.
And next to my name on the co-signing slot, I had the notary put “writer.”
Publishing news on a new Wakeland story!
More film/TV news!
More, better, cheerier writing advice!
A brand new interview!