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Graphic novelist Sophie Goldstein's 'Embarrassment of Witches'

On the podcast: Sophie Goldstein talks about her latest graphic novel.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

Sophie Goldstein's newest graphic novel, An Embarrassment of Witches, is a story about friendship and figuring out life after college set in a magical world with familiars, talking owls, and annoying boyfriends. In this episode, Sophie talks about the process of co-authoring with long-time collaborator Jenn Jordan, Patreon, teaching, and more.

Embarrassment of Witches book cover

About the guest

Sophie Goldstein is an award-winning graphic novelist, illustrator and comics instructor living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is a former faculty member in our MFA in Creative Writing program's graphic novel and comic track. Her work combines the gut-punch of pulp science fiction and body horror with the seductive power of art nouveau and pristine design — exploring moral grey areas in black and white and challenging our cultural narrative of linear progression and techno-utopianism. Her books include House of Women and The Oven. Learn more about Sophie on her website, Red Ink Radio, Instagram, and Twitter.

 

Check out all of our episodes, show notes, and transcripts on our podcast page or just go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

  • Transcript

    [music]

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. I'm Georgia Sparling, and today I'm talking comics and graphic novels with Sophie Goldstein. Sophie's latest graphic novel is An Embarrassment of Witches, which she co-wrote with Jen Jordan. Sophie is also a member of our MFA in Creative Writing core faculty for our new Comics and Graphic Novel track. Sophie, welcome to Why We Write

    Sophie Goldstein

    Hey, thanks so much for having me.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. So first, tell me a little bit about how you got interested in comics and graphic novels.

    Sophie 

    I've been a comic reader for longer than I've been a comic creator. When I was a kid, I was really into Archie Comics. And my dad would buy me the digest size comics from the racks at the drugstore. And I was also really into Sonic comics, even though I wasn't allowed to have a video game system. [laughs] I just really liked the Sonic comics. So I read comics as a kid.

    And then when I got into high school, our high school library had Mouse and Alan Moore, and some other things like Persepolis, like some of the bigger name, indie graphic novel stuff. And that kind of clued me into indie comics. And I went to the comic bookstore in L.A, Hi De Ho Comics, which I think may still be there. I started reading, I was really into Daniel Clowes.

    When I went to college, I ended up making nerd friends [laughs]  who are also into comics. And I was introduced to Vertigo, mostly. Som kind of stuff that walks that indie comics, mainstream comics divide. I read Preacher, and Trans Metropolitan, and fables, and a lot of that kind of stuff. I wanted to be a prose writer, like a novelist, that was what I had wanted for a long time. I was an English major. But the grand result of that was just that I was like, completely immobilized when it came to writing. I just couldn't turn off my analytical brain.

    And so after college, I ended up taking a class at the School of Visual Arts, they had continuing education courses, and I was working as a secretary. I was so bored. So I just thought for work, I would take a class there. I wasn't as serious about, or I didn't take comics, as seriously as I took novels, for some reason, I was able to have fun with it. And it kind of opened me up, so I could do creative work again. And it just kept going from there. Like Jen and I did our first webcomic together, which is Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell. We started posting that in 2009. And then I went to grad school at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, in 2011, and I've been wedded to comics ever since.

    Georgia  

    That's great. So like you said, there's a whole nerd culture with comics. But I feel like the past few years, there's definitely been a shift where comics and graphic novels have become more mainstream. I know, a lot of people suggest that for kids who maybe have a hard time reading, and young adults, to give them a graphic novel, or give them some comic books and just get them reading. So why do you think that there's been a shift? Or what do you attribute that trend to?

    Sophie 

    There's no denying that the whole thing about superhero movies has been pretty big and just bringing superheroes as a genre to the floor. I really don't like to use superheroes as a stand-in for all of comics, which I think people who are not in the comics community tend to do. But it has popularized that specific weighing of comics. As for kids comics, I don't know, maybe it's just that there's more quality stuff that's being made. I mean, Raina Telgemeier's Smile Comics came out in the 90s or the early 2000s. And she's been such a phenomenon since then in making kids comics that are grounded in reality and there's so many more people who have come since. And then you have someone like Mariko Tamaki, I think her name is Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. They had a graphic novel, that I think won a Caldecott or something.

    And it's just the quality of the YA fiction that's being done in comics is so high. I think that there's just more, there's a whole shift in our culture towards people of all ages consuming stuff that's ostensibly for younger people like, Hunger Games and stuff. Which I feel like can sound like I'm being critical of that, but I don't think that's necessarily the case when you're talking about work that says of high quality is like what Raina Telgemeier does or what Jillian Tamaki does. They are making comics that have children in them are, the first aim is for child readers to enjoy them, but I think that they can be appreciated by the whole family. Once someone starts reading something like that, hopefully, they grow up into some sophisticated reader who's reading Persepolis, or Fun Home any of those big graphic novels that have become like, big sellers, not just to people who normally consume comics, but for a general readership.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, it's a great trend. And hopefully, some of the snobbiness in the literary world is starting to ebb away [laughs]

    Sophie 

    I don't know if I generally encounter that "comics are for kids" attitude. I feel like I get it more in the opposite is that people who are in comics kind of being preemptively touchy about it. When I was an undergrad and I did my undergraduate thesis, I was in an honors English Program. So I did an undergraduate thesis on comics, and there is virtually no secondary literature, like there was understanding Comics. And that was pretty much it. There is some stuff about how to make comics. There is the Will Eisner book on making comics and there's la Marvel book on making comics. But there are very little people analyzing comics and talking about the language of comics. And that sort of thing.

    Most of the people writing about comics in academia tended to be people talking about the characters, or the story, or just that sort of stuff, but not really like the form itself. But since then, I think there's been a real explosion in people in academia, talking about comics, and writing about comics. And that definitely, I mean, to a certain degree helps people take comics more seriously, when they see how complicated a form it actually is.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, and I was reading An Embarrassment of Witches, I was just trying to think like, "How would you? Or how would I, who can't draw, a map out a story like this?" It just it's a lot of elements, like, especially considering you're doing the illustration, and you and Jen are writing it, and just trying to figure out how it all goes together? That seems like quite the undertaking.,

    Sophie 

    Yeah, I think it's actually the idea that comics are for kids is kind of deceptive, because you know, the things that make comics easy to read, are the result of a great deal of craft, that a comic book writer-artist needs to learn. When you are writing, I feel like not any novelist is going to take a lot of exceptions to this. But when you're writing a novel, you're not having to take courses on how to use a word program in order to even get started. Whereas with comics, you not only are learning the mechanics of storytelling and dialogue, and all those things that you have in a book or a movie or something, but you're also learning about how to draw page layout, like hierarchy of information in terms of reading, guiding a reader's eye through the page.

    There's things about like the spread versus like the single page versus the panel. There are elements of like page turns and things that can play into the story, and pacing and a lot of stuff that like Scott McCloud does talk about in Understanding Comics, but is it's intuitive to read, but it is complex to do correctly. And I think that it's hard to appreciate that from the outside, because when it's done well, it's seamless.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. I mean, I would not have thought of all those things. And that's good that you're in our program and teaching. The fact that comics have become more of just central in our culture, that's obviously being reflected in the fact that Lesley now has that genre, is now teaching the genre, what's your philosophy when you're teaching students? What's something maybe that you always try to drive home to your students?

    Sophie 

    Everybody has their own style and their own way of storytelling. It's all about figuring that out, figuring out what their individual thumbprint is, rather than trying to fit into a certain style. I mean, just because of the prevalence of superhero comics. I think a lot of people, when you hear stories about comic artists, a lot of them are like, "Oh, yeah, I was like tracing X-Men comics, when I was a kid." There's just this idea like, "oh, if I want to be a cartoonist, I have to be able to draw, like, at the level, right anatomical accuracy, or artistic inaccuracy of Jack Kirby." And I think that's entirely misleading.

    There's just such a wide range of people in comics who are doing different kinds of stories, different styles of drawing from ones that are very technically accomplished, like you might see in a superhero comic, to something that's more loose and sketchy, or, in some cases, even like kind of childish. But that doesn't make their art bad. That just means if the kind of story that they're telling is fitted to the style of art, it can actually be even better. If you imagine, an intimate story, an intimate coming of age story about a child who is dealing with some sort of mental health issue, having that rendered in Marvel style, it doesn't really doesn't necessarily fit the story. So I think that it's all about that inward process of discovery.

    And then once you figure out what kind of stories you want to tell, you're just bringing what you already do to the highest level possible. And so I really like, I know it's kind of maybe a cliche, the saying that anyone can be an artist. But I do genuinely believe that that's true. Anyone can draw. Anyone can be an artist. The main thing that I think being successful as an artist takes is the ability to sit down and do it, which I feel like many more people lack than the ability to draw, is the follow-through.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me. There's recent alums that we did that were on the podcast last season that say they have a newsletter that's called "Sit Down and Write" because that really is the hardest part: is to put yourself, you know, bet your butt in the seat and actually put something on paper.

    Sophie 

    I listen to the writing podcast Writing Excuses, which is also a podcast. It's also a name for that thing. Like, I think that so many times the biggest barrier is that people are just waiting for the perfect circumstances to arrive or for inspiration to suffuse them with its holy light. And that's not at all the reality. It's certainly not the reality of being a professional artist or a new or professional cartoonist. It's that you need to be able to sit down every day, even when you don't feel like it, and do the work. And through that process, through that discipline, I think that you do find like a continuous well of inspiration but it's not easy. It's not always fun. But, that's the thing that someone needs to bring, like the technical stuff, the professional stuff. I can teach someone that, but I can't teach them the drive that they will need to actually do the work.

    Georgia  

    That's a great name! So I'd love to pivot to talk about your most recent book, An Embarrassment of Witches. So you've gotten some great reviews, it was listed on WBUR's 10 books that will give you an excuse to stay home this winter, which was in February when we probably didn't realize how much time we were going to be spending at home. So, tell the audience, what is this book about?

    Sophie 

    So An Embarrassment of Witches is a story about two childhood best friends, Rory and Angela, who have just graduated college. Rory's plan is to follow her boyfriend to Australia where they are going to intern for an endangered dragon conservation society. But then he dumps her at the airport and scuttles all her plans or lack of plans. And then at the same time, Angela is starting an internship with a crypto biology research laboratory. So the study of magical plants for medicinal and practical purposes.

    And they're just kind of, it's about t e kind of period that Jen and I both experienced after college. I think there is a point where you've jumped through a lot of hoops and grabbed a lot of rings that people guide you to throughout your life, like pretty much all of high school or before is like pointing you towards college, and then you know, you're in college and you know, you're trying to get good grades and have fun and da da da. And then you graduate and, you know, there's the rest of your life. What do you do with that?

    Georgia  

    Uh oh.

    Sophie 

    Yeah, exactly. That was my experience. The book is about them trying to figure out that part of their life in addition to managing their friendship when they're both changing as people. And that all sounds kind of serious, but it takes place in a magical world, and they have like animal familiars they're kind of like a very critical Greek chorus. And Rory has a crush on a guy named Guy who's a grad student. Tere's just a lot of fun magical stuff that happens amidst this, I think, very relatable story of trying to grow up, and then also, there's a lot of Rory coming to terms with her parents as people, not just as parents, that I think, hopefully, other people can also relate to.

    Georgia  

    That was the note that I had. It feels like a very familiar story that just the whole growing up thing, but then you have the added fun of magic. I have to say that I really love puns and I really appreciated how when they were in the mall, that the stores all had really punny names like Taco Spell and Csers was spelled c-s-e-r-s so I really appreciate that.

    Sophie 

    That was a fun session that Jen and I had. I had originally, I was going to draw these huge pages of the whole spread of the mall, and then I didn't want to do that. So I came with the idea of that page, when the girls are walking in space and there's a bunch of logos of different stories floating around. And I texted Jen, I was like "We need to have an emergency writing session" and we spent two hours looking on, you know, the lists of stores and malls. And being like, "Okay, Claire's. Is there a pun on Claire's we can do?

    Georgia  

    I liked Fae Jewelers too, like F-A-E. I was like, "Oh, that's brilliant."

    Sophie 

    I think my favorite is Taco Spell.

    Georgia  

    That's great. Let's talk about that. The co-writing part, how do you plot out a book and write with somebody else? It seems like that would, to me, that seems like it might be one of the harder aspects of writing a book, especially a comic book or graphic novel.

    Sophie 

    Actually, for me, it's easier in many ways than writing alone. The hardest part is the scheduling. Jen currently lives on Long Island and I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so we tend to do most of our writing sessions over chat. And while we wouldn't have the initial meetings, where we'd hash out the story, and the plot and the characters and things like that, and those are much looser conversations. But then once we have the whole story structured and the scenes planned out, and we're getting down to brass tacks with the writing, what we'll do is we'll set up a writing session and we'll meet in G-chat usually. Then we'll figure out what part of the story we want to write today,  a couple of scenes or sections. We'll talk about what's going to happen in those. Usually, it'll be like, "okay, I feel like writing these pages. I have some ideas for these pages." Jen will be like, "Okay, well, I think I'll take on this section." And we'll go into our separate corners.

    We write in Google Docs, so we have shared Google Docs. So we'll go into our separate Google Docs, and we'll write for 10 or 15 minutes, and then either one of us will be done, or we'll get stuck. That does happen quite frequently. And we'll be like, "Okay, could you look at what I've written so far?" So we'll swap and we'll look it over. And then we'll have feedback or notes like, "Okay, I think maybe it should be worded this way," or "I don't know if this character would say that. Or, id one of us gets stuck, sometimes the other one will have an idea, like, "Okay, I know where to go, this scene should go from here." But, the ideas can reverberate off one another.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. Do you encourage your students to try collaborating with others?

    Sophie 

    I mean, it hasn't really come up, because most of the time, I think most MFA programs like Lesley, and then in terms of other programs where I've been a thesis advisor, people are working on their own, because that's the way that academia is structured. You know, I was talking before about having that drive and being able to finish things. Some people need other people to help them do that. I think comics are nice in that you can be a solo artist, you can be an entre. But there's a lot that you can get from working with other people and seeing how they approach things.

    Georgia  

    So I noticed that you have a Patreon account. And for people who may not be familiar with it, it's sort of an online platform where people can support artists, podcasters, mostly creatives, and sort of be a patron with a monthly gift in exchange for access to exclusive content, that kind of thing. I think you're the first person on the show who's had their own Patreon account. So I was wondering, like what prompted you to set up your account and how has it helped you as an artist?

    Sophie 

    I think Patreon is pretty uniquely suited to the kind of moment we're in for artists. I think you used to have an environment, maybe, where you had publishers or music companies or things that were like really supporting their artists, financially. And less and less I think that's actually the case for a whole variety of reasons. Also, with the internet and social media, you don't necessarily need that kind of middlemen. You don't need a publicist. You can make your entire career as an independent artist. But in order to do that, you have to monetize your art.

    My basic stream starts at $3 and then the highest level is $25, which there are only a few people who are donating that level. On different levels, they get different things. But I mean, what most everyone gets is just-- before Embarrassment of Witches came out, I was doing posts of the pages in progress where I would post not only the pages as they were done, but then I would have the script in the thumbnails and the pencils and the ink. So people could see the whole process, and I might write a little bit about, like some aspect of that particular page.

    You know, the audience is very small, in terms of like--you know, in order to support yourself, if you're working with a publisher, you'd have to spend, you'd have to sell thousands and thousands of books, right? And then the artists makes like, I don't know, 8% of each book sold. So it's a way of supporting yourself by connecting most directly with the fans who are the most enthusiastic about you.

    Georgia  

    It gives the opportunity for people to support their favorite artists when they may not be able to buy a big painting or an original print, but you can support in that way, and still have that access, which is really cool.

    Sophie 

    Yeah, there's a number of people I support on Patreon. And for number them, I'm just really big fans of their work. And I already own all of their books. So I want to give them a little bit something extra, and I enjoy, you know, the posts that they put up. But it's not always essential to my supporting them that I get content from them. It's just a way of kind of, like, you know, yeah, supporting them, essentially. So you get a sense of really getting to know them as a person, which is great. That's what every fan wants, right?

    Georgia  

    Totally. Yeah. So what are you working now? You said, you don't have a graphic novel in the works just yet. But

    Sophie 

    Well, so it's funny because this year has been a weird one, for any number of reasons. But one of them is that, my book came out in March. And I thought that my whole year would be traveling to conventions and bookstores, and promoting this book that I had spent five years on. But none of that happened. And, so it was kind of like, "Okay, well, nobody cares." Again, it came out in March. So everything was just starting. And like, nobody cared. And not only that, like I completely understood. I couldn't even be bad about it. Yeah, it was nobody's priority. And it totally made sense.

    So I guess, I don't know if you remember all those tweets that were like, oh, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the black plague. So there is definitely this thing where I was like, "okay, so everybody should take this opportunity of being shut inside and like really do something, you know, really get down your creative juices". I was like, I have been stewing in my creative juices for five years. I just wanted a break. I wanted to see people. So it just threw me for a loop for a while. So that was a couple months.

    And then I started writing prose, a bit. Just kind of as an experiment. I'd posted some short stories on my Patreon that are also science.  An Embarrassment of Witches is fantasy, but most of my solo work is science fiction. So I've written some science fiction short stories that I've posted on there. And I'm working on a longer thing right now that I don't really want to talk about it, just as I'm in the middle of writing it. I don't want to lose that kind of energy. This is the stuff that I'm also posting a bit, starting to post a bit more of as I got an iPad, and I'm trying to teach myself Procreate. Hopefully, with the idea that, I would like to keep making comics, I would just like them to not take five years. So I'm trying to figure out a way to be faster and more immediate with my comics. I'm sharing some of that, my own learning process with people.

    I also started doing more volunteer work in the past year and other human-type activities that are not really into art, because I think we're in a particular cultural moment where I feel being a participant in a world, it's become more evident to me in my position of privilege. Like how important it is for me to be contributing, not just in terms of like, giving people fun books to read, but something a little bit more on the ground, like helping people in need. So that's part of something I'm giving time to in my private life as well. That's become important to me.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, that's awesome. That's really great. Yeah, well, thank you so much for talking with me today. It's been great to hear about your work, your process, and also An Embarrassment of Witches, which I really enjoyed and hope people will pick up. So if people want to follow you, what's the best way that they can see what you're doing on the interwebs?

    Sophie 

    Well, if you like to hear about political ranting, follow me on Twitter at RedInkRadio. I mostly do a lot of retweeting. And then occasionally I talk about my cats. It's not very artistically enriching, I have to say. So if you want to actually hear about my art, I would recommend my Patreon, which is, if you go on the Patreon website, and you type in Sophie Goldstein, you'll find me quickly. And then I have a website redinkradio.com, which is a great place to get an idea of what I do. And I have a comics tab on my website where I have, I don't know, like 10 shorter comics that you can read for free. So there's a lot of content on there if you kind of want to get an idea of what I do. But a number of my books like including Embarrassment of Witches, but also House of Women that came out from Fantagraphics. And The Oven which came out from AdHouse. Most of my books are available in most public libraries. So you know, I also encourage you to patronize your local public library and check out my work there. Because libraries are awesome.

    Georgia  

    The library was how I read An Embarrassment of Witches, I borrowed it from Hoopla from the Cambridge Public Library system. So well, thank you so much for joining me today. To learn more about Sophie and her work. I'll have all the websites and information that we talked about in this episode in the show notes and also a link to our episode page, where you can find a full transcript of today's episode and all of our other episodes.

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