Going to Print With Lynette Richards
A year and a half ago, we opened submissions for EMANATA, our new young adult imprint.
We received a pile of amazing submissions, but Lynette Richards’ gorgeously illustrated historical graphic novel, Call Me Bill, felt like the perfect fit. In her debut graphic novel, Richards shares the remarkable life story of a tenacious adventurer who took huge risks to live an authentic life that others would have had difficulty imagining. Set against the backdrop of the worst maritime disaster before the Titanic (the wreck of the SS Atlantic), this story is an exploration of identity and radical imagination that echoes across generations.
It’s a story that Emma Donoghue (author of Room and The Lotterys Plus One) has called “visually inventive and eloquently written” and “a dazzling story of a short life lived daringly.” And now, it’s off to the printer! To celebrate, we’re sharing this Q&A with illustrator and stained glass artist Lynette Richards.
5 Questions with Lynette Richards
1. You’ve mentioned that your research into this story began at the Nova Scotia Archives, when you read a single paragraph buried in the April 5, 1873 Halifax Chronicle about ‘The Female Sailor.’ Why did this story resonate with you?
All my life I was a misfit. I couldn’t pretend to be like other girls. I was a tomboy for sure, and proud of it, but not athletic. Neither did I want to be a boy or be like boys. I was awkward, possibly broken I thought, and my peers confirmed my fears. I had no way to understand my social dissonance, but I knew I didn’t fit, even when it seemed like I did. It hurt, as many readers will surely understand. I compensated, learned to be alone, pretended.
After art school, I fought my way into male-dominated trades, championed for social justice, carved a place for myself in an often hostile world. Eventually, and I mean many years later, I embraced who I am, and learned how to be kind to myself. A lot of the limitations imposed on me were because I was female. More came when I came out as a lesbian. When I became a mother I experienced rage that the world clips and prunes its children to fit the whims of patriarchy. I vowed to uphold and make art about women, and others in the margins.
When I read about ‘The Female Sailor” I recognized that trauma and spirit in their choices. They took huge risks to live authentically. I nearly cried when I realized they are buried, anonymous, in the mass grave at the end of my road. I recognized this story as a great opportunity to recover a lost history and simultaneously shout out to people who are scared! It’s ok. You’re ok. You’re not broken. There is courage inside you, and you will find it!
2. What were some of the biggest challenges involved in tracking down enough information to develop such a rich story? What was your most exciting discovery?
A local historian/diver named Bob Chaulk, serves on the Board of Directors of the SS Atlantic Heritage Park and Museum. He has dedicated his life to uncovering facts and details of the wreck and rescue – and is the author of books on the subject. Believe me, he is a wealth of information. But that one paragraph in the 1873 newspapers is all that exists about this sailor! I asked people who knew how to research for help. Nathaniel Smith, a genealogist from Prospect Village sent me the long article from The Wilmington Post that forms the basis of our sailor’s experience. That provided me with good info about their early life, and Bob provided good info about the SS Atlantic.
That left me with one serious gap to fill — what were their experiences after disembarking in New York and prior to their departure on the SS Atlantic. Those two weeks were critical to the character’s development and story. I was at a loss for a good long time, until one day, rereading original documents, I noticed the newspaper article named the journalist — Ralph Keeler. I had simply to Google him to discover that he was a contemporary of Mark Twain’s and wrote his own memoir called Vagabond Adventures. Ralph led a colourful life, and like our sailor, died soon after they met, and by tragic and mysterious circumstances! Discovering Ralph Keeler provided the direction I needed! From that point, the story flowed smoothly.
3. One of the things I really appreciate about this book is the nuanced way you handled the characters’ identities. Can you tell us a bit about how you approached Bill’s character and the gender questions that tend to pop up when we consider these historic lives?
We have a rapidly emerging understanding and language about gender and sexuality that did not exist in 1873. Historical documents are written in the language of the time they were written. I let the tension of this dilemma live inside me, percolating for years, while I wrote the story. Ultimately there are things we cannot know about our protagonist. They died when only 19 years old! Many among us know very little of ourselves by that age. This story is not dependent on declaring gender or sexual identity. It is about COURAGE and intended to inspire everyone to live authentically. I chose not to presume to know what they might have said of themselves. As an overt declaration of my respect for each person to be exactly who they are, I responded to this character as they presented themselves to me.
4. Although this is your first graphic novel, as a professional stained glass artist, you’re no stranger to sequential art! How did your work in stained glass inform your approach to creating Call Me Bill?
Thank you for asking me this question. Cartooning and stained glass are symbiotic. I have been cartooning my whole life. Years ago I considered becoming an editorial cartoonist but followed my nose into the printing industry after art school. The Printing Industry computerized and my trade became obsolete. I was suddenly unskilled labour. I wanted to use my hands, drawing skill, creativity. I was casting about for what to do next, when I had an experience of light falling through old windows, and I knew instantly that I wanted to work with stained glass. Not only does stained glass allow me to utilize my drawing, drafting, and painting skills, it links me directly back to my love of story telling through sequential narration!
The earliest stained glass windows are over 1000 years old and tell bible stories scene by scene — essentially early graphic novels! I wanted to tell new sacred stories in this ancient medium. Stained Glass windows are greyscale paintings on coloured glass. The illustrations in Call Me Bill are greyscale paintings too. I deliberately used black watercolour washes for this book to visually represent the range between the duality of black and white. I allowed the washes and lines to flow and blend.
5. We’re so thrilled that Call Me Bill will be EMANATA’s first title! What do you hope young adults will take away from this story? And what do you hope to see in future titles?
I hope young adults will respond to the timeless struggle, inward and outward, that we experience uniquely, while becoming the person we truly are. I hope they will be compassionate with themselves and each other. I hope some will develop a bond with history, and understand that even in linear time, it is never us and them. It is always we. The dead and the living through each other pass. All life is a continuum. We are all the same stuff. I have some more ideas for stories after Call Me Bill. I am flirting with another story based on the SS Atlantic, told from the perspective of the last woman alive. She died, tied to the rigging, but not before witnessing the whole tragic disaster unfold beneath her.