Hannah Berry is a newly published graphic novelist, with her first novel Britten & Brülightly, published by Jonathan Cape, attracting praise from many quarters. Located in Brighton, she's visiting us in more northern climes for the Manchester Literature Festival, taking part in Between the Panels on Sunday October 19th at the Whitworth Art Gallery Lecture Theatre. In preparation she's answered a few questions for Ella Wredenfors and the Manchester Literature Festival blog.
EW: Hi Hannah, could you introduce yourself and your novel?
HB: My novel is set in a non-specific 1940s British city, and follows private investigator Fernández Britten through a murky suicide-or-possibly-murder case, while dogged by his own, even murkier feelings of despair at his career-long perpetuation of human misery.
It's quite a dark story, but it has some occasional humorous moments. Britten's desolate musings are often counterbalanced by the optimism of his partner – Stewart Brülightly – who is, for reasons never explained, a talking teabag. For my part, there's not a lot to introduce as this is only my first book! (I'm still young. There's still time.) I wrote B&B in the dying weeks of university while studying illustration at Brighton in a moment of defiance - comics were never really looked upon kindly, even in art college - and I worked on it for a further three years before it was finished.
EW: It is clear your influences are not typical of British graphic novelists. There is a cinematographic feel to the work, and it is reminiscent of Guarnido & Canales' Blacksad, in its noir-ish painterly style. What would you say were your key influences with Britten & Brülightly?
HB: I'd say you're pretty close to the mark! A lot of the tone has come about though my love of films, particularly films with a more contemporary take on noir. There's something compelling in their oppressive, brooding atmosphere and very purposeful use of light. I think my artistic style has is definitely been inspired by European comics. Blacksad is a mighty fine example (though I still have a way to go before I reach that standard…). I don't know if its because comics are taken more seriously as an art form there, but a lot of comics that come from France and Belgium in particular have fabulously involved artwork; fully painted and with breathtaking depth. Even when the scenario is everyday they can still be incredibly evocative. From the start that was always the only route I wanted to take – to do a graphic novel where every panel was a painting in its own right.
EW: Unlike most graphic novels, Britten & Brülightly was not first published as a serial, do you think this influenced the novel?
HB: Definitely. It meant the book could have one long and winding dramatic arc throughout, whereas writing for a serial would necessitate continuous climaxes to keep people buying the next one. With a graphic novel you have the luxury of knowing that your audience have already bought the story in its entirety. As a result, the pacing is less staccato and the storyline can be more involved and convoluted, and any shocks or revelations are free to appear at any moment, giving them more of an element of surprise. Perfect for noir.
EW: This is your first published work, how are you coping with the aftermath of publication?
HB: It's a strange situation. I've enjoyed many years of being quiet - speaking softly, not making waves, not being noticed particularly; and now suddenly I find myself required to have an opinion! It feels like someone has moved the rock and now everyone can see me, staring back up at them. Don't get me wrong – it's fabulous to have been discovered, but it's all made me very, very self-conscious. I doubt I'll ever get used to the notion that strangers are reading my book…
EW: After taking part in Between the Panels, what other events will you be attending?
HB: I'll be on a panel at the Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds on 15th November (though I'm not sure who the final line up for the panel is yet), and then the next day I'll be part of another panel on writing graphic novels, along with Paul Duffield, Oliver East and Marcia Williams, as part of the ComICA festival. I'll also be coming along to the ComICA talk on the 19th November by French bandes dessinée celebrities Guibert and Benoit (but in the audience, obviously).
EW: Britten & Brülightly is a beautiful book, what can we expect from you in the future?
Thanks! It's still a bit in the air at the moment (as I write this I'm waiting to see if I have another publishing deal with Cape), but I have an idea for the next project, and the idea is for a ghost story. I love horror. I know it's a genre that's been used and abused a lot lately, but I think there's still uncharted waters, and I'm looking forward to getting stuck into another dark, brooding (fully painted) little number.