G. Willow Wilson Interview conducted by Ian Burns Part Three (of Three)

Posted by on June 25th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two.

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 people’s passports and asking them questions. Don’t 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: “So how long have you know your niece? “ And she just paused, like, is this a trick question? [Laughter.] So you’ve just gotta shake your head sometimes and be like “Oh, man…”

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 “Why are you traveling to the U.S.?” And I’m like, “Well, I’m from there…” [laughs]. “I’m going to see my family.” She says [Wilson adopts witchy voice], “What are you doing in the Middle East?” “I work as a journalist.” “Are you married?” “Yes.” “What’s your husband’s name?” And I told her my husband’s name. She said “If you’re married, how come you don’t have your husband’s last name?”  With this like aha! attitude.

BURNS: [Laughs.] I’ve got you!

WILSON: I’ve got you now! And I’m sitting there going: “Well, you’ve found me.” That’s the terrorist code: we don’t change our names—that’s how we identify each other. Come on! Number one, it’s the 21st century, you know, women don’t take their husband’s names anymore, maybe sometimes they do, but…In the Middle East, women never take their husband’s names because to them last name traces the lineage. So they think it’s really bizarre that women would take their husband’s 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 don’t do things that way then you’re 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, who’s 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 “You know, you could have just asked, ‘Do you know anyone in Hezbollah?’ I would have been forced to say yes.” [Laughter.] So that was the genesis of that.

BURNS: Like we said, Air deals with hyperpraxis in great detail, in there it’s both theme and plot. So how has it been to explore hyperpraxis in a fictional setting?

WILSON: Wow. Well, it opens up Pandora’s 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… “What have I done!” With Air, that’s 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 it’s worked great, I think sometimes it’s worked not so great. It’s been a learning experience all around. It’s 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 you’ve really got to grab whatever you want to make it work because…

WILSON: You’re making up the rules, yeah.

BURNS: Your idea is symbolism is the language that’s everywhere so everything could be potential material.

WILSON: Right.

BURNS: One thing I’ve noticed both in Cairo and in Air, is that you and M.K. like to experiment with space on the comics page a lot. I’m thinking more of Shaheed reaching for the Companion Sword in Cairo, and in Air, I mean every issue…

WILSON: [Laughs]: Every issue’s got something weird.

BURNS: Right: but it’s 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 I’ll 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. That’s taken forever. I can’t 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 I’m the writer and not the artist I had to communicate it with words and that was tough. It’s like: “He’s reaching from this panel into this panel. And this panel is kind of rolling back, so he can reach behind it. “ And M.K.’s like: “What the hell are you saying?” So it took a long time for us to figure that out and occasionally I’ll 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 that’s something I would like to see.

WILLOW: I think M.K.’s got one of them framed: he’s just like “This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!” Because I can’t draw, and I can draw even worse when it’s 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 they’re 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 I’m sure you would…

WILSON: People have said so: it’s a flattering comparison.

BURNS: Yeah, yeah. For me it’s 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 don’t know that they’re in a comic book, and I think of those instances where they are using the page to kind of talk to the future, you’ll have a character reaching from one panel, which is before, into another panel, which is after. That’s sort of symbolic to me, that’s more for the reader. So it’s 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 they’re characters are aware they’re characters in a book.

BURNS: Have you found any other ways to use the medium to communicate those type of things?

WLSON: Well that’s the most obvious one. Because in comics you can do what you can’t 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 reader’s 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 couldn’t get all the way through The Filth, my brain started to shut down.

BURNS: Really? That’s my favorite Morrison book.

WILSON: It was too much for me. I couldn’t handle it.

BURNS: Well I don’t blame you there [laughter].

WILSON: There’s 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 that’s 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. It’ll be kind of rapid [laughs]. Somebody asked me on Twitter the other day, “How will Air end?” And I said “Rapidly!” [laughter]. But it is the ending that I had in my head. I think, when you’re writing a monthly series it’s important to know how it’s going to end. I think you can kind of have a limitless number of stories between the beginning and the end, but if it doesn’t have definite things that need resolving you know that need to be resolved, then it’s tough to get a satisfying structure out of it.

BURNS: It could potentially go on forever if you don’t 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 isn’t meaningful in some way then it won’t have any emotional resonance with the people that are reading it. You should have things that the reader expects to happen: “I want to know what happens to so-and-so,” or “Are they ever gonna find this thing? Are they ever gonna make it to this place?”

With Air, we’re tying up all the loose ends. We’re going to find out what happens to Lancaster, we’re going to find out whether or not Blythe actually becomes a pilot, we’re 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 I’m not certain. I don’t know if it’s 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. You’d 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…I’ll have to look it up, I’m sure it’s still there. Maybe it was on Standard Attrition, I’ll 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 it’s really cool, it’s 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 doesn’t hang around all that much, being famous, reclusive and British. He’s got many more important things to do. He’s one of my great literary heroes, so that’s 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: That’s 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 don’t believe in this whole new trend in memoir-writing where you do a lot of fictionalizing. It’s common now to see “memoirs” 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 don’t do any of that in Butterfly Mosque. I do change people’s names in certain circumstances for privacy issues, but most of the major…they’re not characters, they’re 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, I’m sure there are things that I’m going to get wrong anyway, even though I was living there and deeply involved personally with the country. But I didn’t really have to do research ’cause it’s 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 I’d 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 don’t 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. It’s extremely stressful, it’s extremely emotionally intense, it’s very nerve-wracking, because you cannot write about yourself without writing about other people, and if you’re not doing that in a journalistic setting where everything is on record you’re essentially stealing. You’re taking stuff that’s off the record and you’re putting it on the record.

And well, you can show people drafts of the book, you can say: “Hey, this is what I’m doing, can you make sure that this is OK.” But no matter how much of that you do, it’s still your life, it’s still people that you know, and it’s still taking stuff that’s 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 it’s definitely been the most challenging thing I’ve 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 people’s 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: I’m sure you don’t want to call yourself a title or anything like that, but was it pretty natural to say: “This is what I think about this, and maybe there’s some deeper…”

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. They’re like “You don’t have to intellectualize everything!” So I’m 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. I’ve had a pretty easy time getting my comics reading audience to read other stuff that I write. I’ve 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. That’s tricky also because there’s 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 it’s kind of a balancing act. Ironically though, I’ve 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. It’s hard to get them to read comics. It’s hard to get them to empathize with people from the Muslim world. It’s hard to get them to empathize with religious ideas that I talk about.

So I’m hoping that maybe The Butterfly Mosque will bridge that gap, and that people from  the mainstream literary world, the people who tend to read only books without pictures in them, and probably don’t read a lot of stuff by religious authors, and also don’t 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 haven’t read before. I’m hoping. But I’ve been amazed by the amount of cross-pollination there’s been between my two niche audiences, Muslim readers and comic-book readers. And in fact, in July I’m going out to San Francisco, and Comic Relief, which is a big comic book store out there is co-sponsoring a talk I’m going to give at a local San Francisco Muslim association. And it’s, 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 I’ve 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 “Anyone who can answer ‘how do the meanings of symbols change?’ has access to not only the implications, but the very mechanics of information design and delivery.” 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, that’s an interesting question. There are some religious symbols that I’ve 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 don’t actually go off and fight in Pakistan, but they do play in shows and stuff. But I’m a comic-book writer who wears a headscarf, you know? That should be a contradiction, but I’m trying to erode that contradiction, so that’s two symbols that are sort of…historically seen as contradictory but I’m trying to reconcile.

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BURNS: So what’s next? Are you working on anything right now?

WILSON: Yeah, I’m working on a novel. I’ve got a couple of potential comics projects in the works: too early to talk about unfortunately. But yeah, we’ll see. I definitely want to keep writing comics. I know I’ve got a few more books in me. So we’ll 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 I’ll keep my fingers crossed. My big hope is to one day be able to write for one big conglomerate audience. To write and say, I’m not writing with just comics people in mind, I’m not writing with just Muslim readers in mind, I’m not writing with just secular mainstream readers in mind. That I’m writing for everybody at once, that’s my goal.

BURNS: Whoever wants to read a G. Willow Wilson story.

WILSON: Yeah, anybody. That’s really my hope for the future. The more I write the less I’m writing for specific audiences and the more I’m writing for whoever picks up the book.

all Air images ©2010 G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Perker; Cairo image ©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

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One Response to “G. Willow Wilson Interview conducted by Ian Burns Part Three (of Three)”

  1. […] Creators | Ian Burns wraps ups his three-part interview with Air writer G. Willow Wilson. [TCJ.com] […]