“People are less elitist – reading the entire world around us, both the visual and the textual” – An interview with George A. Walker

If you’ve read my previous post about George and Michelle Walker, you probably know a little bit about how wonderful and insightful they are. I regretted not being able to share my conversations with you all, and jumped at the chance to speak more with George about his upcoming wordless novel The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, which is mesmerizing, mind-boggling, gorgeous … well, you get the idea. People at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition certainly got fired up about it!

Read on for more from my interview with George and Michelle!

PQ: What does the book, as a medium, mean to you?

GW: The hardest part is determining what you mean by “the book” – the text within it; the printed paper, between covers, or the content in some other form, say, an ebook. They all have different functions. The book is a very efficient technology. It stands the test of time.

PQ: Graphic narratives are sometimes given the short shrift and often touted as a method of capturing low-literacy readers, implying that they are somehow simpler narratives. What do you want readers to know about wordless novels?

GW: This goes back to the highbrow nature of reading and what literature really is, or even what reading really is. Our concept of what reading is has changed quite a bit, even in the last 20 or 30 years. What we have now is a glut of text – it’s easier now than ever to be overwhelmed and the value of information has been diminished, in a way, People are less elitist – reading the entire world around us, both the visual and the textual. If everything can be read, what is literature? It reminds me of what happened with photography, which people often considered to be too accessible, lacking the ‘critical eye’ to be art – anyone can take a picture, but only some people can take one that is considered “art”. What makes one photograph art, and others not? What makes one narrative a comic book and another a graphic novel? The story drives the meaning. Artists like Art Spiegelman and Will Eisner brought more serious issues into graphic narratives. Eisner’s work asks important questions about the human condition and experience, which has become a hallmark of many graphic novels. Comics, on the other hand, are more frivolous – think about Archie comics, or even editorial cartoons, which poke fun at serious issues. My work is influenced by older traditions, like those of Frans Masereel, who was inspired by silent films and whose works also dealt with the nature of man and humanity. To me, graphic narratives explore social issues that go beyond the limitations of words.

PQ: How has the rise of e-reading and digital books affected your process (if at all)? How will ebooks affect the future of the book?

GW: I wrote on this in an article in Amphora. Digital books and print books are completely separate. The confusion is that we think simulated print is a replacement for a print book. But if this is the case, why didn’t television replace the radio, or home movies replace the movie theater? One technology doesn’t have to replace another, it also doesn’t have to last forever. eBooks are about accessibility, and the reading experience is different – Landau’s theory of hypertext is that it extends eBooks beyond the text, linking outside and giving the reader a role in controlling the narrative. Harold Innes talks about space-based mediums, which are temporary, like eBooks, and time-based mediums, which stand the test of time – they’re different methods for different things. Print is valuable, it makes for a better archive. Print is trustworthy, and constant. If I put a book on my shelf, 5 years later I can come back and easily re-access that content by taking the book off my shelf. A digital file, on a website, for example, might disappear. If someone doesn’t pay their bill, their website, all of their content, could vanish. It’s a different thing.  There’s been a lot of hype which is obscuring questions of content – eBooks aren’t a fad, but print isn’t disappearing, either.

PQ: Let’s talk about your new book The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson. Why Tom Thomson?

GW: Well, he’s a Canadian icon – he represents Canadians’ subconscious relationship with both the wilderness and the great cities. Thomson was a man of the city who was proficient in the technologies of the day, and worked for the Grip design firm here in Toronto. He would have spent time downtown in the city and been surrounded by cars and industrialism – the industrial revolution was happening around him, but he never captured this modernism in his painting. Why not? What drew him to the wilderness and landscape, which is now a real basis of Canadiana and Canada’s cultural image. At the time, European art, of windmills, was popular – Canadian collectors and art buyers were mimicking the art of European estates in Canada. Artists around the world were using art to create unique voices for their own countries – Thomson created this for Canada. So Canada was just coming up, culturally, and then one of our rising painters is lost – possibly murdered – and this murder and intrigue becomes a part of the culture. What’s interesting is that this has still never been properly resolved. There’s so much we still don’t know. Did Winnie Trainor have a baby? Are there Thomson descendents out there? Where is Tom Thomson’s body? If it’s not in Algonquin Park, and it’s not in Leith, where is it? How can one of our iconic artists be dead and we don’t know where his body is? With today’s technology, we could solve this, but we haven’t – which is interesting.

MW: What about that you’re a lot like Tom Thomson?

GW: I certainly don’t drink as much as he did.

MW: I think that they have similar loves of both the technologies of the city and the wilderness.

GW: A bit City Tom, Country Tom.

MW: We’re comfortable in both worlds, like he was. George makes a beautiful campsite.

PQ: Thomson’s story is really fascinating – what was the most difficult aspect of working on Tom Thomson?

GW: Trying to resolve whether he was murdered or it was an accident – there are so many different theories and interpretations of his death. Some say he was peeing over the edge of the canoe and fell in, others claim a meteorite struck his canoe, and those are just some theories. The challenge was choosing one interpretation but also leaving it open to the readers. I chose that he was murdered. In his book [Northern Light], Roy MacGregor claims that Shannon Fraser killed him. This was difficult – deciding which story to tell – as it is with any myth.

If you want to learn more about George A. Walker, any of his books, his lovely letterpress editions, or the many events he appears at, be sure to visit his Website or Facebook page! You can catch George in Waterloo on Friday, September 23rd for a talk on printmaking and visual narrative , or in Kentville, Nova Scotia for Gaspereau’s Wayzgoose, or finally in Toronto, on November 27th at the Gladstone hotel for the New York, New York event!

The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson is forthcoming from the Porcupine’s Quill in Spring 2012 – don’t miss it! (It really is stunning.)

Thanks again to George and Michelle for speaking slowly while I scribbled everything down, all of their fascinating insights on topics both bookish and non (I’ve only scratched the surface here!) and for taking breaks to let me sip my tea between questions. Much appreciated!


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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.