Sara Ryan is the author of the graphic novel Bad Houses with art by Carla Speed McNeil, young adult novels The Rules for Hearts and Empress of the World, and various comics and short stories on themes including, but not limited to, teen angst, Hellboy, joining the military, the 1962 escape from Alcatraz, and circuses (Sara Ryan online).
TCJWW: Each character in your book is struggling with something personal of their own. How did you arrive at developing each of their conflicts? Where did you look in order to draw upon their various pains?
Ryan: I’m interested in how and why people infuse objects with meaning. And of course there are multiple answers to those questions, so answering them for each character helped me define the characters’ struggles. Do you gather up objects and think of them as embodied memories? Do you push them away out of fear of being weighed down? Are you hyperaware of what someone might pay for them?
On a less philosophical, more practical level, I did a lot of eavesdropping at estate sales, and I kept in mind people I’ve known with tortured relationships to stuff. Also, the more I figured out how the characters connected not simply to objects but to each other, the easier it was to see where conflicts would arise.
And once Carla Speed McNeil came on as the artist, I knew I could rely on her ability to simply show how the characters struggle. There are any number of places in the story where the reader experiences a character’s pain not through dialogue or captions but solely through what Carla’s drawn.
TCJWW: You explore a few obsessions throughout the book: hoarding, love, control, regret. How did those fixations define their characters? What would the characters be without their compulsions?
Ryan: Good question. I’ll use a couple of characters as examples.
Anne Cole loves her mother Danica, but she’s terrified that she might share Danica’s hoarding tendencies, and so a lot of her actions are almost more reactions where she’s trying to do the opposite of what she thinks her mother would do. If she didn’t have that fear, she might not be so compelled to keep testing herself to make sure she doesn’t have an irrationally strong attachment to objects.
Fred Peck is driven by regret about how circumscribed and lonely his life is, and also by the desire to be an expert, to know what things are worth and profit from that knowledge. He’s spent decades showing off for someone who was probably never paying attention in the first place.
So the characters can’t really be separated from their compulsions; they wouldn’t be the same people.
TCJWW: The book takes place in a small town where it’s impossible to escape your past and your neighbors. What would change by placing the story in an urban environment or among characters whose lives don’t intersect as cyclically?
Ryan: Actually I think there are also a lot of urban environments in which you can’t escape your past & neighbors; especially, perhaps, in neighborhoods where it’s rare for anyone to move out due to generational poverty and systemic inequity. So I could see a version of the story playing out in an urban setting if the characters were similarly fixed or stuck in that setting. In an urban setting, though, there can be more possibilities for temporary escape by, for instance, simply taking the bus or subway past your stop to a place where you can be anonymous. Although it depends on who you are; your gender presentation, your skin color, etc., can make it more or less possible to go unnoticed.
I suppose in sum, in an urban environment the characters would intersect differently. Maybe instead of knowing each other from school they’d meet due to riding the same bus or patronizing the same corner store. It’s funny, the urban question — how characters connect or hold themselves apart from each other in a city — makes me think of Kio Stark’s excellent Follow Me Down. (I interviewed her about that book: http://sararyan.com/2012/09/interview-with-kio-stark-author-of-follow-me-down/)
TCJWW: I love the complexity and subsequent simplicity that is orchestrated when lives and stories converge. What was your thought process like when attempting to create a cyclical story? Did you have the connections already in place or did they come about during the process?
Ryan: Thank you!
I knew from the beginning that I wanted both generations’ stories to converge, but it took me a while to figure out exactly how. One important moment was when I realized that the abandoned Faithful Angus brewery would be a significant setting for both Lewis and Anne and for the older generation. From then on, it became a real pleasure to work out the connections; the graffiti is maybe my favorite detail.
Ryan: Entirely new! I have a couple projects in the works, a prose novel and some linked stories in comics format. But I have no idea how long they’ll take to see the light of day since I also still work full time as a librarian, writing at night and on weekends. In the meantime I’d love for folks who enjoy Bad Houses to check out my prose novels, Empress of the World and The Rules for Hearts.