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  • Helen Lederer

‘If it's rude to stare, we must now be rude as we go graphically funny’

Helen here – groundbreaking! (For someone who used to hide their art homework and only managed a batik of a cyclamen for art ‘O’ level by cheating) I am in AWE of Vanessa’s talents.  Visual AND funny! WTF! Overly exciting to share Vanessa’s story, her secrets, and insights. In fact, putting my glasses on to read it all over again now…

Vanessa Lawrence, on the 2020 CWIP Graphic Novel Prize longlist with The C Word

Which comes first - the graphic image or the funny idea for a story?

I knew The C Word would take the form of a graphic novel,  and I wanted to tell my story about my experience of cancer, just after my son was born. The story only found its funny side when I felt brave enough to tell it honestly, as it happened, and how it felt.

What publications are your dream places for publishing your work?

I would love to have my work published... as much for the relationship with a publisher. I would appreciate the experience to learn and develop my awareness of  the publishing process.

Artwork © Vanessa Lawrence

How long does it take to draw one picture and how many do you need for a novel?

My first draft took months & months of lavish ink & pen work to produce the first 16 pages of my story. It was a labour of love, learning creative techniques and storytelling devices as I went. It’s not the work you see today.

I set it to one side, and with 2 weeks to CWIP2020 deadline I felt the burning desire to tell my story in one go; to get it out there. Using a technique of panels and text, driven by the need to share my cancer story, and simple prompts “I remember..” “I wondered...”, “I felt...”; I set to work.

The humour allowed an honesty to come through, it felt like a risk to be so honest, but the deadline helped me be brave with the task. Humour needs to be quick, and it either works of doesn’t, so it works like an editor’s red pen!

Favourite cartoonist please?

The Book Of Sarah by Dr Sarah Lightman is a very empowering read. Liana Finck, Passing For Human is wonderful, I read it on my course at The Royal Drawing School. I also love Brecht Evans for his beautiful gouache painted urban night scenes.

What’s the different between cartoons and a graphic novel?

I believe the graphic novel presents the idea of a long form personal story that can unfold in a more unconventional & experimental visual way. It is a great platform for memoir.

When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize and was your entry specifically written for it or were you working on it already?

The C Word © Vanessa Lawrence

I wrote The C Word, as you see it now, especially for CWIP, in the two weeks before your deadline.

I had began working on a graphic novel whilst on a course at the Royal Drawing School in 2018, with the amazing tutor Emily Haworth-Booth. It’s first draft was a labour of love that took months to generate the first 16 pages of a larger work.

I remember the day I saw the post about CWIP prize. That night I couldn’t sleep, I got up and started to work on it, sticking the panels and text on the wall as I went. The next morning my husband woke up and said, “It looks like you’ve reopened the cold case!” I had turned our bedroom into something out of a crime thriller with post it’s, panels and text all over the wall.

There are lots of elements of my original work in there, and lots of memories I brought to it. Within a few days I had hit 70 pages and had to edit it back.

What can I say CWIP, you inspired me!

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing graphic novels?

I have worked in the arts as an artist, photographer, & educator. I believe to be creative you need time to create and a playful spirit.

The reality of a crushing few years interrupted my life; it was through drawing that I got my life, as I wanted it, back on track.

Vanessa's workspace © Vanessa Lawrence

Can you describe what your graphic novel’s about in two sentences – or with two panels from it, if you’d prefer?

When my son was born 8 weeks early I thought life was tricky enough, A few weeks later I found out I had cancer. My story unfolds around a darkly humours heart, reaching out to anyone whose life has been touched by cancer.

What made you write your graphic novel? Where did the idea or impulse behind it come?

I felt I had this chapter in my life that I couldn’t talk about. I had a missing 5 years that I was lost for words to explain, a bit like a Bermuda Triangle of grief & pain.

My original attempt was poetic with ribbons of text weaving through. I look back and realise I was trying to protect the reader... but the web of writing was difficult to penetrate.

My eureka moment came when I cracked open a fortune cookie and saw the white ribbon of paper with red text: It was just the succinctness I needed.

Where do you start when writing a graphic novel? Is it with an outline, writing the story, or storyboarding that?

I worked with a pile of square panel sheets of paper for the images and rectangular slips for the text. The images and text grow together and encourage each other, find their place in chapters, front covers, and sometimes in the bin.

Do you enjoy the flexibility which using a combination of words and images gives you when writing a graphic novel?

I have always been interested in visual narrative, in paintings, photographs and film. When tackling a story that’s difficult to tell , I think it helps to have different ways to tell it. Sometimes you can be lost for words, sometimes they are the most immediate way to communicate an idea.

Did you set out to write a funny book? Where does the humour come from in your graphic novel?

When I thought back to how I talked to people about my cancer experience,  I remember that I often did so with humour. There was so much about it that was just jaw dropping; and that is where the humour comes in. Cancer can silence a room and push people away; but humour, even dark humour, pulls people towards each other.

All the humour in this book is as it truly was, and I found the more true & honest I was about it, the easier it was to make the humour work.

Can you tell us about your writing routine and where you write/draw?

I draw everyday. How long I get to draw depends on circumstances. There was a wonderful statement from David Lynch (artist & filmmaker) who said if you need one hour in the studio, take 4. Creativity takes time.

Looking out across to the Duke of York cinema

I currently work from home, which I share with my husband & 3 lively children. My studio is a desk and a wall in my loft bedroom But I love that it is where I live. I can work anytime I get the chance.

From my window I can see the Duke Of York Cinema in Brighton, with its cheeky can-can legs in its roof. I love life drawing and drawing in the cinema, ( yes, in the dark!). Seeing the legs always makes me smile.

Can you read (funny) graphic novels when you’re writing your own? Who do you enjoy reading?

I love reading great graphic novels, flawed graphic novels, and even ones that I really struggle to finish. There is something compelling about stepping into someone’s vision,  personal narrative,  and unique creative voice that once I pick up,  I just can’t put down. It would just feel rude!

You can’t find the right picture or words to make a sentence chime: do you (a) swear? (b) cry? or (c) eat? - if (c), what item of food?

Sometimes swear, never cry, always have a fortune cookie to hand!

What difference has being longlisted for the CWIP prize made to you? What would you say to anyone thinking of entering?

I’ll be honest with you...I wake up every morning and say “Longlisted!” It’s been incredible to push my work towards entering CWIP, and I felt it was the right creative community to present my work to.

Laydeez Do Comics festival, events & tutors have nurtured my creativity, and definitely shaped my work and confidence in it. It’s been incredible to share a platform with leading ladies in the graphic novel world, artists whose work inspired my own. For me, this has been the most exciting experience, to feel my creativity is valued, and that my story has been heard.

My advice would be to just go for it, with CWIP you’re in good company to take creative risks, share your story, and generate the book you feel is in you.

Helen Led again – we are inspired by you being inspired which inspires us…

Vanessa Lawrence is a Brighton based artist & educator. Having studied Fine Art Practice (MA) at Brighton University, she has worked in museums & galleries across the UK, including Tate Britain, National Gallery and the Barbican Centre. She caught the graphic novel bug after taking a course at the Royal Drawing School. 

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