Interview: Natalie Nourigat
Natalie Nourigat, author & illustrator of Between Gears, talks about putting her life on display in the autobiography turned graphic novel that navigates through her senior year of college.
Bradley Elenbaas: Between Gears is both created during and created concerning the narrow time at the end of an undergraduate program when structure and skill are a product of everyday work, and many artists seem to find themselves left being a scholar with no story to tell.
It’s such a myopic time, but it is a building block to many artists education. How do you remember this time with some years now to disconnect from it?
Natalie Nourigat: I remember it much better than any other year of my life, thanks to the comic. One of the reasons I made Between Gears was because I have a poor memory. I wanted to be able to remember the year well, and what I have recorded in the comic is far more than I could have remembered without it. I still see a lot of people from college (I live with Hannah, for example), and there are reminders of that year everywhere.
“I do take criticism on Between Gears more personally than on other projects. It feels like a criticism of my life and my choices. I try to remind myself that in making the book I turned my life into fiction for people to read and react to.”
BE: Do you feel a clear force of inertia and direction in your life now?
NN: I am happy to be a working cartoonist, and extremely fortunate to make that my full-time job and still be able to work on projects I am passionate about. But at the same time, I am looking at options outside of comics (for example, I am applying for a teaching program in France next year). I try to keep one eye open to other opportunities so I can have a lot of rich experiences in my life. I do not want to stagnate; I hope to always be on my toes and learning new things. I think that balance between work and play will be very healthy for me and for my comics.
BE: How is it to answer questions about a story that you both created and participated in? Do you find yourself able to take in criticism of it in the same way you would a piece of fiction?
NN: I do take criticism on Between Gears more personally than on other projects. It feels like a criticism of my life and my choices. I try to remind myself that in making the book I turned my life into fiction for people to read and react to. A lot of the comments are more about my storytelling skills or the experience of reading the book than about who I am as a person.
BE: Even as the formalized structure of school falls away at the end of an undergraduate program the structure of a scholar’s life imposes itself greatly on the life of a student. It’s an atmospheric anchor in a story, and it creates real difficulties for a protagonist to remain an active force. Ender’s Game uses this structure to succeed in, Harry Potter uses it to caulk time between story beats, Buffy the Vampire Slayer uses it to centralize a set of characters on a weekly basis, Catcher and the Rye & This Boys Life & Dead Poets Society all use it to rebel directly against. What do you think about the relationship between yourself and the structure of a scholar’s life?
NN: I chose the scope of my project in direct relation to my senior year because I guessed that it would allow for some semblance of a story arc in the rambling chaos of stream-of-consciousness autobiography. I drew one comic page for every day of my senior year, which means that we begin in September with me reuniting with friends–a natural way to introduce characters I am already very familiar with. Because it is my senior year, I face the big questions of career choices and adult decisions, especially during the second and third terms. We end with graduation, the thesis presentation, and goodbyes, which are extremely helpful for creating closure in a story that doesn’t truly end where I stop writing it.
BE: Would you place a fictional piece in the same atmosphere as Between Gears?
NN: I am working on a project now that should combine the storytelling style of Between Gears with another genre in a fun way. I think there is a lot of ground to explore in autobiographical comics, and a lot of stories they can be used to tell that have not been attempted yet.
BE: How has completing this extended piece changed your beginning-to-end process in further work?
NN: I am still in a place where my process changes between every project; I have no interest in doing things the same way every time and by no means feel that I have discovered the best way of doing things. Between Gears was the first project where I hand-lettered my pages and used non-photo blue pencil lead, and those are both techniques I learned to love and plan to utilize again. It was the first project where I used a brush pen, and that gave me the practice and control I needed to start inking with a real brush in later projects. The format of Between Gears was an experiment, and I will probably not do extended autobiography again, although I am glad that I undertook and finished this project.
BE: Do you think that there are universal themes buried deep in the core of the human condition, or are stories inclusive only to a uniquely layered Venn diagram of subjective experiences?”
I thought the audience for this book would be much more limited than it has turned out to be. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by all of the people who do not seemingly share my experiences who have nonetheless been able to enjoy the book. Many readers have given me feedback expressing their surprised at being able to enjoy an account of my young, female, sorority member, whatever-else life, and their surprise at how much of it they related to. I believe in the universality of the basics of the human condition, and it’s wonderful to feel a connection to someone you don’t necessarily expect to.
BE: I want to thank you again for agreeing to answer a few questions.
NN: Thanks, Brad. Take care.