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A Conversation About A Boy’s Own Story

Edmund White has a long list of novels and biographical / non fiction work to his credit. After facing numerous rejections early in his career White decided to write a novel he would want to read. The result was Forgetting Elena, described as a mystery, satire, and parable set in a Fire Island like community. Many men of a certain age may equate White most with the groundbreaking The Joy of Gay Sex which he collaborated on with Dr. Charles Silverstein in 1977. I was all of 18 when I discovered a copy at a bookstore mall having driven the thirty miles from my hometown of around 17,000 people. It was the first tangible proof I had of gay men as something other than as jesters or objects of scorn or ridicule and I didn’t dare to buy it and take it home out of fear.

A Boy’s Own Story, the first in a trilogy of an autobiographical novels, may be his most widely known work for others. Discovering a graphic novel adaptation of the novel while browsing the Diamond Preview catalog in October was a very wonderful surprise. Authors Michael Carroll and Brian Alessandro collaborated with illustrator/designer Igor Karash on the graphic novel adaptation of White’s story. They were incredibly kind and generous to participate in a creator Q & A which Gay League is incredibly proud to present to you, dear reader.

GAY LEAGUE: Hello, Brian, Michael, and Igor! How are the three of you today? Please extend a hello and well wishes to Mr. White for me.

MICHAEL CARROLL: Joe, Ed says hi. He’s in a good mood because a few minutes ago he got a starred review from Publishers Weekly for his upcoming novel, The Humble Lover.

BRIAN ALESSANDRO: Hello, Joe! I am doing very well and grateful for this interview opportunity. Thank you for speaking with us. 

IGOR KARASH: Thank you Joe! I’m doing great and I’m very excited that our project is hitting the shelves at bookstores this winter. Thank you for inviting us to Gay League.

GL: Thank you for speaking with me about your work on adapting Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. I have to say that I became really excited about this project when I first learned about it! It’s very rare for a work of gay literary fiction to be adapted into a graphic novel. The one that comes to mind at the moment is Teleny and Camille which is often attributed to Oscar Wilde. I’m very interested to know the genesis of the project and what your reactions were coming together as collaborators.

BRIAN ALESSANDRO: It started long before I came on board in April 2017. Michael Carroll and Ryan Runstadler, our producer and editor at Closure Creative, had been discussing it for a while and when I caught wind of the project I kind of lit a fire under everyone’s butts. The prospect clearly excited me. Michael and I are good friends and worked well together. He hewed closer to Ed’s novel, while I sought to experiment and integrate other elements from Ed’s life and memoirs, hence all the flashforwards in the graphic novel of Eddie in New York and Paris in his 20s, 30s, and 40s, through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

IGOR KARASH: I was brought on to the team much later–during the Summer of 2019 when client of mine, Luba Ostashevsky, suggested to Brian that I might be a good fit for this project. At that time the script was developed in terms of structure, flashbacks, as well as tone and cinematic feel. I remember our first phone conference when Ryan introduced the project and asked me if I didn’t mind working on material that has elements of sexually explicit scenery. My answer was simple: if this imagery supports the story, then sure, I’d love to make this happen. I began by developing sample pages to develop a general vision for the project. Since then, I don’t recall us having any major disagreements.

GL: White wrote in his preface to the book: “I took special care over every line. I remember telling myself, ‘Try today to write well.'” I can easily imagine feeling anxious about adapting this novel. Did you feel any pressure in going about the adaptation and what was your collaborative process?

MICHAEL CARROLL: I didn’t feel much pressure as long as we hewed to the original story faithfully. Brian and I worked to include a lot of the language from the original novel. And then Igor did the rest with his illustrations.

BRIAN ALESSANDRO: It was a tall order, certainly, but I always saw it as a tribute. That said, I also knew it had to be its own thing. For example, the best film adaptations of great books always re-interpret the text and are faithful only to a degree. Michael and Ryan supported most of my eccentric, risky ideas, like having Ed’s adult self looking back on his boyhood, inhabiting the same space as his younger self, which was inspired by Proust, whom Ed, of course, wrote a biography about.

GL: Unless I’m mistaken, and please correct me if I’m wrong, this is the first time each of you have worked in the graphic novel medium. I find that graphic novels and comics benefit from the influx of creative people working in other media. Did any of you find any challenges or rewards from the format?

MICHAEL CARROLL: Mainly the challenge was imagining how it would look and feel once it was illustrated and put together. With this project, we really had to be all in one another’s hair to get it right. Although we didn’t really add scenes in the original fifties narrative line, we had to create a lot of dialogue where scenes were merely mentioned without detail of dialogue or granular description. It made it easier but not simpler. Igor was very inspired and sometimes had to ask ourselves what language would or wouldn’t enhance each frame.

BRIAN ALESSANDRO: I am also a filmmaker and illustrator, so I imagined it as a sort of cinematic endeavor. Also, Igor is such a gifted artist, so he made it easy, even seamless. We would go back and forth quite a bit. Michael and I would write explicit descriptions of scenes and Igor would draw, often making necessary changes for the sake of clarity or flow, and then we would come to an agreement, a sort of hybrid of sensibilities. It’s a lot like making a movie. You write a script but then make last-minute changes when you’re on the set because what you’ve written does not work as well visually or dramatically as it did on the page.

IGOR KARASH: Great question! ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ I have and continue to illustrate some self-initiated graphic narratives. However, none of these projects were at the scale of an entire graphic novel. The major challenges for me were in creating an interesting rhythm for the visual narrative and to guide the viewer’s attention within scenes. Another challenge was to maintain consistency with all the characters as they change throughout different periods of their life.

GL: A Boy’s Own Story is the first in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels. Have there been discussions about following up with The Beautiful Room Is Empty?

BRIAN ALESSANDRO: I would be open to that. We have discussed it, but since Ed’s novels are very autobiographical to begin with, and he has often written or spoken about the events in his life, I feel like there is already a fair amount of those moments from his life and those other books in there. New York and Stonewall in the 1960s. Paris and AIDS in the 1980s.

MICHAEL CARROLL: Only in passing. Let’s see what happens with this one!

IGOR KARASH: I am all for taking on anything that is related to Edmund White’s prose, and I think that making a series of graphic novels is an interesting idea to consider.

GL: To say that White’s story is a coming-of-age tale is quite obvious but in its way, it functions as a historical piece giving readers a peek into society at a time when the narrative of being a morally and religiously upright, heterosexual American dominated culture while it was simultaneously also a facade for some people. Is there a message here for younger LGBTQA people who’ve experienced, generally speaking, relatively fewer obstacles to living their lives at this point in time when we’re encountering increasing levels of anti queer rhetoric and legislation, violence, and book bans by Christian nationalistics who want to drag everyone back to some mythologized, halcyoniac golden age.

BRIAN ALESSANDRO: Though in some circles (maybe progressive cities like New York or LA) it is easier than ever to come out, or at least that’s what the media leads us to believe, in many other parts of the world, and even in some parts of New York and LA, the prospect is still scary and even dangerous. I hope this book provides some solace and support to closeted folks, while also enlightening some of the bigots. Maybe I am being too idealistic, though.

IGOR KARASH: I feel that many taboos and misconceptions about sexual orientation and gender identity come from uneducated judgment enabled by divisions in our society. Small towns versus large metropolises, one religion versus other belief systems, etc. When people have an opportunity to interact with other groups and have civil conversations, oftentimes, there are positive results. I think this book is important in this sense and I hope it will capture the attention of people who are less familiar with LGBTQA issues.

MICHAEL CARROLL: I don’t, maybe the New Agey saw applies: “The only way through is forward.”

GL: Igor, this is my introduction to your work which I find has a very dreamlike, poetic quality to the imagery and tonally is rather different from other work featured on your site. Would you please talk about any considerations you made in creating your visual language?

IGOR KARASH: With my illustration practice I tend to work towards creating one visual language per project. When I work on timeless classics like War and Peace, my mind dives into neo-classicism. When I work on a book about WWII, the source of visual inspiration could be grainy newsreels. With A Boy’s Own Story, I developed a visual language by carefully balancing influences from American advertising of the 1950s, Edward Hopper’s lonely cityscapes, and art/literature that deals with taboos: Balthus’ paintings, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and films by Lars Von Trier.

Much of my inspiration came directly from White’s writing, with stylistic elements hidden throughout the novel.

GL: The majority of graphic novels have a vertical orientation which dictates the flow of the art and storytelling. From an artistic point of view a change in the picture plane presents new opportunities and challenges. Was this a choice on your part or a joint decision? The horizontal format is reminiscent to me of old photo albums or more abstractly a treasure box because of its dimensions. Is that an accurate assessment or were there other factors in making the choice?

IGOR KARASH: I will admit it was my idea, and I’m glad that our team agreed to it. There are some graphic novels that break with the standard vertical format that inspired me: Love in Vain by J.M. Dupont, which is laid out horizontally like a sophisticated art album. Also, the cinematic quality of the script influenced me to try working in a ‘wide-screen’ format. Looking at the completed book, I feel that the format is effective to create a sense of movement through space and time.

GL: Do you have any plans for your next projects?

BRIAN ALESSANDRO: My second novel, Performer Non Grata, will be released in April by Rebel Satori Press. It has been very graciously blurbed by Edmund White, as well as Junot Diaz, Diane Seuss, who just won the Pulitzer for poetry, and many others, and Igor painted the cover! It takes place in New York and Madrid and is about how destructive insecurities can be.

IGOR KARASH: I am currently illustrating another graphic novel, this one is about the siege of Leningrad during WWII. At the same time, I am illustrating a new issue of Kurt Vonnegut’s timeless satire Slaughterhouse-Five. Both projects are likely to appear in early 2024. Also, I just completed an editorial illustration for a preview of the story Valya, written by Yelena Akhtiorskaya.

MICHAEL CARROLL: For me, a flatter stomach. Not working on anything at present.

GL: Please feel free to mention any social media or professional sites you’d like included at the end of the interview for interested readers to find you and learn more about your works.

BRIAN ALESSANDRO: You can check out my literary journal, The New Engagement or my social media. I’m on Instagram and Facebook.

MICHAEL CARROLL: I like Instagram for pleasurable business. It helped sell my second book.

IGOR KARASH: I just completed a totally new website that was due for many years. Please go to www.igorkarash.com and explore few recent projects, different ways I do things. My Instagram account is @igorkarash: please follow me if interested to see latest updates and latest work.

GL: Gentlemen, thank you all very much! Happy New Year to you and to Mr White!

A Boy’s Own Story arrives in comic shops and bookstores on January 3rd, 2023. You may order a copy from Bookshop or Indiebound or, if all else fails, Amazon.

January 2, 2023
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