Exclusive: Graphic Novelist Hannah Berry on Mashing Up Genres, Mediums

Hannah Berry’s debut graphic novel, Britten and Brülightly, is a gorgeously rendered murder mystery that comes up somewhere between The Triplets of Belleville and The Big Sleep. A graduate of Brighton University’s illustration program, Berry is all too eager to fill the twin roles of author and artist, giving her satisfyingly complex story an enthusiastic momentum. Our sister publication Boldtype caught up with Berry to talk about artistic masochism, the balance between writing and visualizing, and her love of the Coen Brothers.

Boldtype: As a trained illustrator, did you ever consider having someone else write the text for Britten and Brülightly?

Hannah Berry: It’s quite an irrational hatred, but I’ve always harbored a suspicion of things written by committee. Obviously, if there’s more than one creator behind a project, then it’s understandable — and it’s a necessary concession in some areas, of course — but I don’t think comics and novels come into that. Too many cooks make a compromised, homogenized, insipid broth, to be eaten by people with no taste buds whatsoever. With a big plastic spoon. But anyway, all of that was irrelevant at the time: I wrote it myself because I enjoyed the writing too much to want to share it.

BT: Have you always had that writer’s impulse?

HB: As long as I can remember (and that’s pretty far, due to my being short on years and light on recreational drug use) I’ve enjoyed drawing and telling stories, and I used to do both at every opportunity. While studying illustration at university, I still crowbared narratives into every project I could — sometimes even managing to wrangle a comic out of the brief. By the time I came to the third and final year, though, I was bitter and frustrated by the whole thing. I suspect largely because I was a crap art student. When, one day, we were given an open brief to do whatever we needed to plug any artistic gaps in our portfolios, I seized the opportunity to write and illustrate a full-length comic, even though I knew I’d only really be marked on half of my work.

BT: With all that extra work, why the decision to hand paint, rather than draw, the panels in Britten and Brülightly?

HB: Masochism, most likely. It took so long to do, and I wondered every day if I’d made the right choice. But now that it’s finished, I’m glad I did it. The reason for even attempting it was, basically, that I wanted to copy the French. Their comics are often fully painted, and because of that, have an incredible visual depth. They look great, and are treated as a worthy art form. It was how I wanted my book to be. I hoped that the reader would see how much time I had invested in it, and maybe subconsciously lend it a level of respectability — something of the value automatically given to normal novels.

BT: Do you tend to think more visually or linguistically?

HB: I didn’t start drawing or painting the pages until everything was written. It turned out to be too complicated a plot to try and pin anything down before it was ready — a single alteration at one point in the narrative could have massive repercussions at a different point. It was like the different 1985s in Back to the Future Part II. The whole thing changed so often that there was no way I could even be happy with drawing the first page until the writing dust had settled.

Having said that, it’s much easier to write when you can see who exactly you are writing for, so the writing didn’t start in earnest until I’d designed the characters. Although I began the story proper with a written script, I found I was visualizing it as I was writing — sometimes the whole scene, other times just a detail or two. When I started drawing a page, I’d remember what I was imagining at the time of writing up to two years earlier and work from that.

BT: Did you have any help through the process?

HB: My university hired a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, Nigel Baldwin, who was tucked away in an office in case any of the art students started showing behavioral defects such as writing. He was brilliant. He was encouraging and enthusiastic, and, as a bonus, he used to be a writer on The Bill, and as such was adept at caulking crime stories. I couldn’t have brought my fledgling murder mystery to a better person.

BT: The story certainly has a lot of noir elements, but it still falls a little outside the genre.

HB: I do love noir, but I’m perhaps more of a fan of neo-noir — particularly films by Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and the like — and even more than that, of stories that have one foot in noir, and one foot elsewhere. The Coen Brothers, for instance, make films that have a lot of the tone of noir, and the furniture of noir, but are peopled by characters (fabulous, fabulous characters) that are largely rooted in the everyday, away from anything as melodramatic as noir. That’s ultimately what I was trying to achieve with mine — a story that sat in one camp but had its eyes on another. Cross-pollination is the best way forward.

BT: Was that why you made the story’s setting so ambiguous?

HB: I wanted the style and the atmosphere of the early ’40s, and the melancholy off-season tone and architectural tint of Brighton, where I live. The problem with the early ’40s is that the UK was far too busy with war to be worrying about anything else. War would have overshadowed the struggles of all the characters in the story and made them seem self-indulgent at best, comical at worst. I struggled for a while trying to choose between the weight of the story or the tone of the period, and eventually I gave up and went for both, selling my soul to a glaring historical omission.