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Lizzy Stewart talks art, adolescence in 'It's Not What You Thought It Would Be'

Comic Books

Lizzy Stewart talks art, adolescence in ‘It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be’

This series of interwoven stories explores the many paths of teen girls.

If you’re a parent, or just a fan of great children’s books, you may recognize the name Lizzy Stewart. The English artist-writer has released a slew of entertaining and enchanting books in recent years, including 2018’s Juniper Jupiter and 2019’s The Way To Treasure Island.

Now, Stewart has joined forces with Fantagraphics to release her debut graphic novel, It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be. This “poignant coming-of-age story” collects several (previously released) stories of young girls on different “paths to adulthood.” Using a wide array of art styles, Stewart’s interwoven tales trace the “circuitous paths lives can take and the changes in perspective gained along the way.”

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Ahead of today’s release, we caught up with Stewart via email. We talked about the influences behind her work, truth in fiction, how this project came together, her thoughts on YA storytelling, and just how influential Clueless proved to be, among many other topics.

AIPT: What was the genesis of the project? Have you got a handy elevator pitch that you use?

Lizzy Stewart: Haha! I wish! I absolutely hate summarizing books, I’m useless at it! I tend to trail off after ‘Well, it’s about, uh, women?’. It’s not really the hard sell is it?

Lizzy Stewart talks art, adolescence in 'It's Not What You Thought It Would Be'I guess the book was actually pitched to me. I was approached by an editor at Fantagraphics (Hi Conrad!) about turning a selection of my self-published comics into a book. So it went from there, really. It’s a collection or an anthology or something featuring a number of short stories that I wrote and drew between 2014-2019, all of which are about young women growing up and trying to work out how to be.

AIPT: What was the transition like from doing illustrations and children’s books into graphic novels like this? Were there opportunities or obstacles you hadn’t expected?

LS: So I guess every single answer to these questions is going to involve some reference to the fact that this wasn’t really drawn in one go so doesn’t really feel like the normal process you’d go when putting together a graphic novel! So, in advance, I’m sorry if I get repetitive!

I don’t really think of picture books and graphic novels or any of the work that I do as being separate from each other. It’s all related. A picture book can take a really long time and sometimes I can make a full (short) comic in a week! So there aren’t really a set of standards that come with making different kinds of work. For me, at least. So I didn’t really feel like I was doing anything different than I usually do? It’s all storytelling and drawing!

AIPT: As a kind of follow-up, do you think there’s some quality of a children’s book in this project? There’s very much this sense of playfulness and whimsy throughout.

LS: I will take playfulness, there’s definitely a bit of that, but I will absolute reject whimsy! Mostly because I can’t stand the way the word sounds, so its largely an irrational response (sorry!)

I don’t really have an objective view of my own work. Does anyone? I guess… There’s a good chunk of swearing so I assume that sets it apart from children’s books? Beyond that I can’t really say to what extent it might be visually related to a picture book, you know? When I look at the work I just see things I did or didn’t do and I can’t really extricate myself from that to see the project it as an outsider might! I would say that there’s a lot less ‘plot structure’ than you need for a picture book. I think a child would find this book profoundly dull!

AIPT: There’s several different mediums used throughout, including pen and ink to gorgeous watercolors. Why opt for that multi-faceted approach, and does it speak to the story itself and the changes experienced by these young women being depicted?

LS: Back to the ol’ it’s a load of separate comics thing! Sorry! Each story was made separately at a different time over the course of five or six years. They were usually made quickly in between commercial jobs I was working on so the materials I used for each one were usually a response to what I was doing in my paid-work. If I was stuck into a very painterly kids book I might counter that with a digitally drawn comic (like Quiet) or if I was slogging through something flat and commercial I might feel more inclined towards ink and charcoal (as in Heavy Air).

It would be great to be able to claim ‘the transience of the visual style is intended to reflect the ebb and flow of young adulthood’. I wish that was the case and I’d done something smart and intentional! But the truth is that they were separate publications before they were a book and so they all look different because… they were never intended to be seen together!

AIPT: I think any artist/creator pumps some of their own life into their projects. How much of these events/revelations are from your own past, and does their inclusion foster a kind of intimacy with the reader?

LS: I would say that my work is personal but it’s not auto-biographical. You can only write what you, yourself, can imagine. And, I think it’s established nowadays, that within the world you can imagine you should select, from that, what you can write with empathy and understanding and, potentially, a degree of first-hand knowledge. So I lean towards stories about young women navigating their independent lives rather than life in a war-zone or experiences of cultural oppression. Because I don’t know those things and I absolutely couldn’t get to the nuanced detail of it!

So the stories in this book feel like things from my life in some way, even though they aren’t (with the exception of “Blush” which is a very true short, short story). I think the stories feel “true” because they’re very ordinary, low-key even. It’s easy to drop yourself (as the reader) into those situations because you’ve probably been in a version of them before.

Lizzy Stewart talks art, adolescence in 'It's Not What You Thought It Would Be'

Courtesy of Fantagraphics.

AIPT: I really love the dialogue throughout; it flows beautifully and feels really earnest. Is it hard to write good dialogue, and did you have any secrets you employed?

LS: I love dialogue. I love it. When you get into the flow of writing out a script and you’ve figured out the tone of the characters you can really get lost in the back and forth.

I don’t know if I have “a good ear for dialogue”; that’s a thing people say, right? Maybe I do but I would also say that I go to a lot of theatre (or I did, pre-2020) which is useful for tuning your ear and also for learning how to tell story with conversation. I also really like films with very little plot, people talking in rooms. I love that.

The best thing to do is to read it aloud over and over. If it’s clunky or some bits you sort of stumble through when you read them then you’ll hear it and you can fix it. This applies to all writing I think. If you read it out loud and it sounds rubbish, it’s probably a bit rubbish!

AIPT: I think a problem I sometimes have with any coming-of-age story is that it feels overly exaggerated. Yet this book keeps things grounded. Was that a purposeful choice, and did you want this to be as genuine and maybe even as universal as possible?

LS: I absolutely think there’s a place for dramatic storytelling and plots that twist and turn. That can be good stuff. But it’s not what I like to read, usually, so it doesn’t tend to be what I write. I don’t think it’s a fully conscious choice but I definitely veer towards what feels authentic and plausible. I think that’s something I value in my work. I want it to feel honest.

AIPT: While reading, I couldn’t help but feel I was watching something from an animated film, or even storyboards from a movie. Do you think there’s a cinematic quality, and do you think that you’re inspired by films to some degree?

LS: I think there’s probably definitely some kind of film influence there. In the final story the two characters reference it, in fact, by saying that everyone they grew up seemed to be living in a different movie genre. (They see themselves as an awkward indie movie.) I don’t know if you can avoid some cinematic influence when making comics these days.

I’m struggling to think of which films were an influence. Maybe it’s a life of film watching rather than specifics. Actually…I’m going to say Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You. What those two films are about has almost nothing to do with my book (which is a romance free-zone). But they both showed me (early on, Clueless came out when I was eight) that you could write about young people and give them good dialogue, you could be smart and specific and the audience would get it, and enjoy it. You don’t need to sand the edges off of characters to make them
perfect, make them a bit wobbly. So there are other films that are much closer tonally (Ladybird, Frances Ha, entire Greta Gerwig cinematic universe I guess) but the incentive to try and write well comes from those two early film experiences. (god, I love Clueless).

It's Not What You Thought It Would Be

Courtesy of Fantagraphics.

AIPT: As someone who grew up in the ’90s, there was a plethora of great YA-centric books/series. But certainly with Gen Z, there’s been a big-time “resurgence” of sorts. Do you see this book as that same kind of offering? And are you speaking to young women specifically or is this really for a much larger audience? If it matters, I felt a huge connection just based on the earnestness and vulnerability of the characters.

LS: Some of the stories definitely take place in the ’90s (Dog Walk, Blush, and Catch-up is 2003 I think) but the rest are now-is I think. I think the biggest reason for me to set those stories then is that I don’t know what it feels like to be a teenager with constant internet and mobile phones (we had the early version and, guys, it was a very different thing). The internet changed growing up and I don’t know what looks like. So that’s the main reason for the 90s inflection.

The ’90s resurgence makes sense though, the people writing pop culture now, writing for TV and film etc., were kinds in the 90s and early 2000s. We’re getting to the stage where our work is being commissioned and published so there feels like there’s a lot of it about. Plus, fashion works in 20-year cycles so, cringe-y as it is to this 34-year-old, late ’90s/2000s fashion is absolutely on target with it’s current popularity.

As for the audience…. I write about women almost exclusively (oops) but I don’t really mind who reads it. I think people are getting beyond- I don’t read books about women because I’m not a woman. I hope they’re beyond it anyway! I definitely don’t read books or watch films and relate to characters along gender lines. The people you relate to in art are people who behave as you might behave in that situation or who reflect your sense of humor, or whatever. You don’t have to be strict about it! Relating to people is nice and the more we broaden who we read/watch beyond people who look like us, the better… so… I guess it’s a book about people who, in this instance, happen to be women but that doesn’t dictate who should read it.

AIPT: These are all kind of individual, slightly fragmented stories. But do you see them connecting somehow, or as part of a real person’s larger life “journey?”

LS: There are three connected stories, “Dog Walk,” “A Quick Catch-Up,” and “The Wedding Guests.” Those three feature the same two characters at three stages in their life and friendship. Beyond that, it’s kind of up to you? You could definitely read it as being about one or two people or you can read each story as a different set of people. I used to be pretty wedded to the idea that the other stories were all different people but increasingly I don’t mind how you read it. It’s your call!

AIPT: Are there any books/stories or even creators that inspired the scope or the look of the book or any of the specific parts/“chapters”?

LS: That’s quite a hard question! I don’t know? Now that I’ve mentioned Greta Gerwig I should probably extrapolate on that. I think in her work, Ladybird especially, she allows her characters to be aware and completely unaware at the same time. Smart and stupid! Which is what we all are! I think I definitely wanted to bring that to my characters.

I love the writer Lorrie Moore, I think she is incredible at writing the inner lives of women and capturing the absurdity of life in general in a really concise way. I don’t think I get close to her at all but she’s definitely a presence in my brain. She really knows how funny women are and how often the specific way that women can be funny gets over-looked or misunderstood by men.

Lizzy Stewart talks art, adolescence in 'It's Not What You Thought It Would Be'

Courtesy of Fantagraphics.

Visually I love the British illustrator Raymond Briggs, he’s a big influence. I adore the work of Jillian Tamaki and also Lee Lai (who I was delighted to learn was being published by Fantagraphics just before me). I don’t draw like either of them but, Christ, they’re great. Jon McNaught, a British writer and illustrator, writes about a similar world to me (I think) and his book Kingdom really sits in a similarly boring, very-British landscape.

AIPT: Fantagraphics has a great history with publishing highly personal graphic novels/books. Do you think working with them made a big difference in the final product at all?

LS: Again because the work was pre-existing our job was to wrangle them into one book. Make it all work together. The biggest difference they made to the project was to see it as a coherent whole in the first place, perhaps. I needed someone outside myself to see that it could be a book, because I had not ever imagined that.

AIPT: Why should anyone pick up this book? What’s the one thing you hope people might get out of it after they’ve finished?

LS: I hope they like it? I think that’s the most I could aspire to. A book that people like?

I don’t know. I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about the power of relating to art. What it brings you. It’s definitely a valuable experience; to read something and recognize something you know from your own life in it. Some people find it comforting, some find it validating. I think I find, in novels especially, that when I relate to something someone else has written it helps me formalize my own understanding of my experiences. If someone else has put it in to words you can use those words, adapt them, to get to grips with it better? Does that makes sense? WHO KNOWS!

So, if people relate to it, that’d be nice. If they relate to it and enjoy it, that’d be even better!

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