BURNS: Issue #22 of Air is getting released this month. Could you talk about what prompted you to create this story?
WILSON: Air came about when I was in Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam, on a layover, flying from Cairo to Denver to visit my parents. They were doing secondary security checks at the gate. So the airline employees were actually looking at peopleās passports and asking them questions. Donāt ask me why, because airplane employees clearly are not well trained to do this kind of thing. And I heard one woman, there was an aunt and a niece traveling together, and this woman was talking to them, and asked the aunt: āSo how long have you know your niece? ā And she just paused, like, is this a trick question? [Laughter.] So youāve just gotta shake your head sometimes and be like āOh, man…ā
So anyway, there I am with my passport that has visas from Egypt, visas from Iran, you know travel stamps from the U.A.E., and this little blonde stewardess fixes me with this icy stare, and is like āWhy are you traveling to the U.S.?ā And Iām like, āWell, Iām from thereā¦ā [laughs]. āIām going to see my family.ā She says [Wilson adopts witchy voice], āWhat are you doing in the Middle East?ā āI work as a journalist.ā āAre you married?ā āYes.ā āWhatās your husbandās name?ā And I told her my husbandās name. She said āIf youāre married, how come you donāt have your husbandās last name?āĀ With this like aha! attitude.
BURNS: [Laughs.] Iāve got you!
WILSON: Iāve got you now! And Iām sitting there going: āWell, youāve found me.ā Thatās the terrorist code: we donāt change our namesāthatās how we identify each other. Come on! Number one, itās the 21st century, you know, women donāt take their husbandās names anymore, maybe sometimes they do, but…In the Middle East, women never take their husbandās names because to them last name traces the lineage. So they think itās really bizarre that women would take their husbandās last names. So there was just no reason for me to do that. So I tried to explain that to her, but like a lot of Westerners she assumes that the way she does things is the way everyone must do things, and if you donāt do things that way then youāre automatically suspicious.
So, anyway, as this was going on, I was thinking to myself, what if I really was some dangerous international person? You know? And I was way, way cooler, and she was way, way cooler, and this was a comic book. And so that whole scene becomes that first scene in Air, in issue #1, when Blythe is interrogating Zayn, whoās traveling under an alias, and asks him just some of the most retarded questions you could possibly imagine [laughter]. And then when he gets on the plane, he says to her āYou know, you could have just asked, āDo you know anyone in Hezbollah?ā I would have been forced to say yes.ā [Laughter.] So that was the genesis of that.
BURNS: Like we said, Air deals with hyperpraxis in great detail, in there itās both theme and plot. So how has it been to explore hyperpraxis in a fictional setting?
WILSON: Wow. Well, it opens up Pandoraās Box in a lot of ways. In some ways I wish I would have left it closed…[laughter]: when you take on something that abstract and that philosophical, there are an almost limitless number of ways that you can run with it. And that is as much a curse as a blessing for a writer. Because you can take on quite a bit, and then end up having to resolve it all, and sitting there like… āWhat have I done!ā With Air, thatās been the challenge is to keep all of those balls up in the air.
BURNS: Balance the high concept with the story.
WILSON: Balance the high concept with the story, yeah. You know, I think sometimes itās worked great, I think sometimes itās worked not so great. Itās been a learning experience all around. Itās really amazing to have kind of limitless power as an author, to kind of externalize whatever you want and just play in this world of symbolism.
BURNS: One thing I would say it has allowed you to do is, like you just said, do whatever you want. I mean, you bring in Amelia Earhart: you bring in the forgotten book of Jules Verne. Which, those are a specific type of thing, but youāve really got to grab whatever you want to make it work because…
WILSON: Youāre making up the rules, yeah.
BURNS: Your idea is symbolism is the language thatās everywhere so everything could be potential material.
BURNS: One thing Iāve noticed both in Cairo and in Air, is that you and M.K. like to experiment with space on the comics page a lot. Iām thinking more of Shaheed reaching for the Companion Sword in Cairo, and in Air, I mean every issue…
WILSON: [Laughs]: Every issueās got something weird.
BURNS: Right: but itās space.
WILSON: Spatial relationships, yeah.
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BURNS: And that seems pretty close to the idea of hyperpraxis. Is there a discussion between the two of you about space and page layouts, or is that kind of all an M.K. thing, or are you involved?
WILSON: Usually, when I want to do something like that Iāll put specific notes in the script about, OK, this page is weird and it has to be laid out this particular way because this has to happen, so those instances are the only time when I do micromanage how the page is laid out. Thatās taken forever. I canāt tell you how long it took us to figure out that page in Cairo with Shaheed reaching for the sword. In my mind it made perfect sense, but because Iām the writer and not the artist I had to communicate it with words and that was tough. Itās like: āHeās reaching from this panel into this panel. And this panel is kind of rolling back, so he can reach behind it. ā And M.K.ās like: āWhat the hell are you saying?ā So it took a long time for us to figure that out and occasionally Iāll make these infamous little MS Paint diagrams of what I mean, which look like a 5-year-old drew them. And M.K. would just laugh forever.
BURNS: [Laughs.] Now thatās something I would like to see.
WILLOW: I think M.K.ās got one of them framed: heās just like āThis is the funniest thing Iāve ever seen in my life!ā Because I canāt draw, and I can draw even worse when itās on a mouse pad in Paint. Sometimes I have to do stuff like that.
BURNS: In your mind, are the characters in Air more aware that theyāre inside a comic, more like an Animal Man type story? And I ask this not because I want to make a direct Morrison comparison with you, which Iām sure you would…
WILSON: People have said so: itās a flattering comparison.
BURNS: Yeah, yeah. For me itās more…a panel-to-panel transition is more how a hyperpraxis journey would feel.
WILSON: I made the decision not to break down the fourth wall really. So they donāt know that theyāre in a comic book, and I think of those instances where they are using the page to kind of talk to the future, youāll have a character reaching from one panel, which is before, into another panel, which is after. Thatās sort of symbolic to me, thatās more for the reader. So itās making use of the comics medium to communicate a more complex relationship between the past and the future. But not to such a degree that theyāre characters are aware theyāre characters in a book.
BURNS: Have you found any other ways to use the medium to communicate those type of things?
WLSON: Well thatās the most obvious one. Because in comics you can do what you canāt do in prose or in film, because people are looking at panels in sequence, but they appear as one block on a page, so you can have the panels interact with each other. And the fact that this is the past and the future happens kind of in the readerās head. So I think chronology is the most obvious way to make that kind of use of the comics medium. Grant Morrison has sort of taken that into the third dimension in things like The Filth, where you see these little winged commando-type people actually flying up off the page, so spatially I guess you could mess with that too. Although I gotta say, I couldnāt get all the way through The Filth, my brain started to shut down.
BURNS: Really? Thatās my favorite Morrison book.
WILSON: It was too much for me. I couldnāt handle it.
BURNS: Well I donāt blame you there [laughter].
WILSON: Thereās a lot.
BURNS: A lot to take in, yeah.
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It was announced not too long ago that Air had been canceled. Obviously thatās disappointing, but will you get the ending you originally intended?
WILSON: Yeah, we got the ending we intended. We get it sooner than we hoped. Itāll be kind of rapid [laughs]. Somebody asked me on Twitter the other day, āHow will Air end?ā And I said āRapidly!ā [laughter]. But it is the ending that I had in my head. I think, when youāre writing a monthly series itās important to know how itās going to end. I think you can kind of have a limitless number of stories between the beginning and the end, but if it doesnāt have definite things that need resolving you know that need to be resolved, then itās tough to get a satisfying structure out of it.
BURNS: It could potentially go on forever if you donāt have an ending in mind?
WILSON: Well I think it could go on forever if you did have an ending in mind, but if the ending isnāt meaningful in some way then it wonāt have any emotional resonance with the people that are reading it. You should have things that the reader expects to happen: āI want to know what happens to so-and-so,ā or āAre they ever gonna find this thing? Are they ever gonna make it to this place?ā
With Air, weāre tying up all the loose ends. Weāre going to find out what happens to Lancaster, weāre going to find out whether or not Blythe actually becomes a pilot, weāre going to find out what happens to her and Zayn.
BURNS: What kind of audience have you had for Air? I know among fellow writers and artists it seems to be very popular.
BURNS: What about a broader fanbase, have you got a feel of it?
WILSON: Well Iām not certain. I donāt know if itās kind of in a niche book or what. I know that the fans that it does have are pretty devoted. I mean, on one forum a few days ago, or maybe it was a couple of weeks ago actually, a guy threatened to blow up the Vertigo offices for canceling Air [laughs]. I assume he was kidding.
BURNS: Yeah. Youād hope so.
WILSON: I was kind of touched, you know, all the things that people have threatened to blow up in my name [Burns laughs]. I find this the most touching [laughter]. Unfortunately, in my case it happens on a fairly regular basis.
BURNS: Was that on Standard Attrition?
WILSON: No, it was somewhere else. Where was it…was it on comicbookresources[.com] or…Iāll have to look it up, Iām sure itās still there. Maybe it was on Standard Attrition, Iāll have to go look for it.
BURNS: That was what I was going to talk about next was Standard Attrition. What it is and how you got involved in it.
WILSON: Standard Attrition is the brainchild of Brian Wood and Jason Aaron. They thought that it would be nice if Vertigo creators could kind of pool their collective resources and bring their fans to the same place online so that there could be some cross-pollination between books and maybe people could get new readers. So they very nicely asked me to come on board when Air was starting up. And itās really cool, itās a very diverse group of people, what I write is so, so different from the stuff that Brian and Jason write or David Lapham. One of my proudest moments of my life [laughs] was convincing Peter Milligan to come on board. He doesnāt hang around all that much, being famous, reclusive and British. Heās got many more important things to do. Heās one of my great literary heroes, so thatās pretty cool, to be in the same talking shop as he is. But yeah, that was sort of the idea was to put all of the Vertigo creators in one place so that there could be more dialogue and the readers could access everybody at once.
BURNS: Has the cross-pollination worked?
WILSON: Thatās a good question: I mean, Air did keep going for two years. Maybe without Standard Attrition it would have tanked after 12 issues, who knows.
BURNS: So, the memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, was released a little over a week ago. You chronicle your first years in Egypt, your conversion to Islam, and difficulties you had with Western perceptions of the Muslim world and vice versa. What kind of research did you have to do to prepare for The Butterfly Mosque? I know that in memoir that creative license is welcomed, but your descriptions are still very exact.
WILSON: Well I treated it as I would have treated an article as a journalist. I donāt believe in this whole new trend in memoir-writing where you do a lot of fictionalizing. Itās common now to see āmemoirsā where a lot of instances are conglomerate mushings together of several different incidents and characters or several different people mushed together. To me if you want to write fiction, write fiction; if you want to write about real life, write about real life. I donāt do any of that in Butterfly Mosque. I do change peopleās names in certain circumstances for privacy issues, but most of the major…theyāre not characters, theyāre real people, but most of the people in the book I do use their real first names. I tried to be as accurate as possible. Obviously as an outsider in Egypt, Iām sure there are things that Iām going to get wrong anyway, even though I was living there and deeply involved personally with the country. But I didnāt really have to do research ācause itās my own life, and like a lot of writers I write things down kind of automatically. And so I had a huge backlog of letters and essays and notes that Iād taken and things like that. A lot of it was just kind of putting all that stuff together and streamlining it and cleaning it up and deciding what to put in, what to leave out.
BURNS: You said you approached it like an essay, but was the experience writing it any different?
WILSON: Yes. It was. I will never ever do autobiography again. I donāt care if somebody wants to pay me a million dollars, I would rather be a barista at this very Starbucks for the rest of my life. I will never write autobiography ever again. Itās extremely stressful, itās extremely emotionally intense, itās very nerve-wracking, because you cannot write about yourself without writing about other people, and if youāre not doing that in a journalistic setting where everything is on record youāre essentially stealing. Youāre taking stuff thatās off the record and youāre putting it on the record.
And well, you can show people drafts of the book, you can say: āHey, this is what Iām doing, can you make sure that this is OK.ā But no matter how much of that you do, itās still your life, itās still people that you know, and itās still taking stuff thatās personal and making it public. So there really is no totally honest, clean-cut, absolutely-you-can-put-it-in-a-compartment-and-forget-about-it-and-walk-away-from-it-and-never-have-to-do-it-again way to do a memoir. And so itās definitely been the most challenging thing Iāve ever written: and very, very tiring. And I will never do it again [laughs]. So I can only hope this book does well and does some good and changes some peopleās minds about some things.
BURNS: Well, you have a lot of philosophy in there as well: I mean that was one of the interesting parts. Did that kind of come naturally from talking about your own life? You obviously are somewhat of a philosopher.
WILSON: [Warily]: Yeah…I guess [laughs].
BURNS: Iām sure you donāt want to call yourself a title or anything like that, but was it pretty natural to say: āThis is what I think about this, and maybe thereās some deeper…ā
WILSON: Yeah, I mean, I kind of notoriously go off on tangents, and I think it starts to annoy people who interact with me on a regular basis. Theyāre like āYou donāt have to intellectualize everything!ā So Iām actually working on toning it down [laughs]. But yeah, it is something that comes kind of naturally. Why under-think something when you can over-think and make your life needlessly complicated? [Burns laughs].
BURNS: I asked you about your audience in Air, but what about a broader audience? In your entire career so far have you made any broader observations about who reads your work?
WILSON: I think the audience is pretty split. I think the comics-reading audience is by far the most open-minded, the most adventurous when it comes to reading stuff that is outside that medium, the most intelligent about discussing stuff from other medium. Iāve had a pretty easy time getting my comics reading audience to read other stuff that I write. Iāve had a very difficult time getting the audience that reads the other stuff to read the comics. And I also have an English-speaking Muslim audience. Thatās tricky also because thereās a debate within the Muslim community about whether comics are even appropriate from a religious perspective. And if they are what is appropriate to write about?
BURNS: You said an English-speaking Muslim audience, so would that be in the U.S.?
WILSON: Also abroad. I mean the English-speaking Muslim audience abroad is a lot smaller. My Arabic is not good enough to write anything in Arabic above what a second grader can write so…maybe some day. I would like eventually to write well enough to be able to write in Arabic. That day is probably far away. So itās kind of a balancing act. Ironically though, Iāve gotten a lot more acceptance from my Muslim audience about comics and about some of the weirder stuff that I write, and a lot more acceptance from the comics-reading audience about some of the more political, socially conservative, religious stuff that I write then I have gotten from the mainstream theoretically liberal educated people who read my essays and mainstream stuff. The audience that I find the most challenging is ironically the most mainstream. Itās hard to get them to read comics. Itās hard to get them to empathize with people from the Muslim world. Itās hard to get them to empathize with religious ideas that I talk about.
So Iām hoping that maybe The Butterfly Mosque will bridge that gap, and that people from Ā the mainstream literary world, the people who tend to read only books without pictures in them, and probably donāt read a lot of stuff by religious authors, and also donāt read a lot of stuff from comics, or any kind of comics at all. Maybe it will get them to pick up some stuff that they havenāt read before. Iām hoping. But Iāve been amazed by the amount of cross-pollination thereās been between my two niche audiences, Muslim readers and comic-book readers. And in fact, in July Iām going out to San Francisco, and Comic Relief, which is a big comic book store out there is co-sponsoring a talk Iām going to give at a local San Francisco Muslim association. And itās, as far as we know, the first time that a comic store and a Muslim association have sponsored the same author to talk about comics and religion. So Iāve been really, really impressed. The two audiences that should hate each other are the ones that get along the best [laughter]. Which is cool, I mean that makes me optimistic.
BURNS: You end your hyperpraxis essay by saying āAnyone who can answer ‘how do the meanings of symbols change?ā has access to not only the implications, but the very mechanics of information design and delivery.ā How have you tried, outside of how you use it thematically in Air, to change the meanings of symbols and be a hyperpract in your work.
WILSON: In real life [laughs]. Gosh, thatās an interesting question. There are some religious symbols that Iāve tried to put a more positive spin on for secular audiences.
BURNS: Heavy Metal Jihad.
WILSON: Yeah. That is inspired though, ironically, by an actual musical movement within a very fringy part of Islam: so there are actual punk Muslims running around right now as we speak. So those are based on real people. They donāt actually go off and fight in Pakistan, but they do play in shows and stuff. But Iām a comic-book writer who wears a headscarf, you know? That should be a contradiction, but Iām trying to erode that contradiction, so thatās two symbols that are sort of…historically seen as contradictory but Iām trying to reconcile.
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BURNS: So whatās next? Are you working on anything right now?
WILSON: Yeah, Iām working on a novel. Iāve got a couple of potential comics projects in the works: too early to talk about unfortunately. But yeah, weāll see. I definitely want to keep writing comics. I know Iāve got a few more books in me. So weāll see how it goes. A lot will depend on how Butterfly Mosque goes and whether people like it and how they respond to it, so Iāll keep my fingers crossed. My big hope is to one day be able to write for one big conglomerate audience. To write and say, Iām not writing with just comics people in mind, Iām not writing with just Muslim readers in mind, Iām not writing with just secular mainstream readers in mind. That Iām writing for everybody at once, thatās my goal.
BURNS: Whoever wants to read a G. Willow Wilson story.
WILSON: Yeah, anybody. Thatās really my hope for the future. The more I write the less Iām writing for specific audiences and the more Iām writing for whoever picks up the book.
all Air images Ā©2010 G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Perker; Cairo image Ā©2007 G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Perker; The Butterfly Mosque jacket designed by Gabriele Wilson, with art by Jane Yeomans and author photograph by Amber French