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Sarah Airriess - Author of The Worst Journey in the World

Buy The Worst Journey in the World here

Buy The Worst Journey in the World here

Sarah, people have been talking by Worst Journey even before you announced your publishing deal. Can you tell us what it is about?

The Worst Journey in the World was written by one of the youngest members of Scott’s infamous expedition to the South Pole, and is a compelling personal account of a story that has entered the national mythology. Apsley Cherry-Garrard has all the idealism and excitement of a young man on the adventure of a lifetime, making friends and playing a minor role in a great enterprise. As things start to go wrong, he finds himself drawn to the centre of events, and burdened with responsibility far beyond his abilities. A painful loss of innocence is the axis on which the story turns, but it’s ultimately about the power of friendship, the value of curiosity, and the extremes to which people go for the sake of an idea. I am translating Cherry’s tome into cinematic visuals, keeping as true as possible to the facts while bringing out the emotional core of the story, in a way which I hope will open up a classic book to new audiences.

Where did the idea to create a graphic novel come from?

Like so many great things, BBC Radio 4. I would plug into R4 while working on my animation jobs, and when they broadcast a dramatisation of Worst Journey, it got its claws into me, and I listened over and over. I couldn’t believe the real story was as thrilling or the characters so wonderful, so I was reluctant to pick up the original book, but when I did, I discovered that not only was it all true, but the story was much bigger and the characters even better. I thought then that it ought to be a graphic novel, but it took a few years for me to accept that I was the one to do it – I had a good animation job, I didn’t know anything about graphic novels! But before long I had read more on the subject than most people, and with my artistic training I was probably the most qualified person to do it, so I accepted the calling and started orienting my life in that direction.

Can you tell us about your experience creating this book?

It’s been very long! I had a lot of research still to do, and moved to the UK to be closer to the archives where I could find the sort of details I needed. Before I could start drawing the book, I needed to design the characters, figure out the art style, and teach myself how to work with colour. The best part was the research trips – I travelled to New Zealand to see where the Expedition started from, spent a week on a tall ship so I could draw sailing life more truly, and best of all, got to visit Antarctica as a guest of the U.S. Antarctic Program, and visit the actual locations where the story played out. So it’s been very educational, in many ways! The two years spent sitting at a desk drawing pages were much more in my comfort zone, but they’re only a small portion of the time and effort that’s gone into the book.

What made you start writing or want to write a novel?

I wrote and illustrated a lot of stories when I was a child. As I got older, my interest shifted more to illustrations of the books I’d been reading, as I have a very strong visual imagination and the pictures were itching to get out. I went into animation because it was a job where I’d get to do that every day, and I hoped that someday I might get to make films of the books I loved. That’s not really how the industry works, though, and when the polar bug bit me, I knew that this story would never be made into an animated film, so switching to comics was the only option. Luckily it’s the perfect medium for Worst Journey, because I get to keep Cherry’s voice in the narration, which would be much harder to do gracefully in a film.

What is the biggest challenge you've faced as a writer?

Finding enough hours in the day! In animation, one is part of a big machine; one simply works through one’s inbox and hands off to the next department. Other people handle the admin and peripheral tasks, letting the artist focus on the work, and one can get a lot done in a 40-hour week. Living alone and working on my own project, not only am I every department, but I’m the cleaning and catering staff as well. I’ve developed a deep appreciation of the invisible support structure around any great work.

What do you think of the publishing industry and its processes?

Obviously there is a lot going wrong in the current model, and maybe I haven’t been involved enough to be cynical yet, but coming from the movie industry, publishing seems refreshingly innocent! I can see it’s changing to be more like entertainment, leaning more on big names and tentpole releases, and it will probably continue that way as long as they’re chasing profits – Hollywood has proven that’s the model that works – but there is still a streak of idealism. And I say this as someone whose pitch was repeatedly rejected on the grounds of unmarketablity! But I look at the wide range of print and graphic novels on offer, and I see a range of stories and styles that you just don’t get in film and TV. Because the production of a book is a much smaller investment than a film, authors have more creative freedom, and it’s still easier to get a small book onto shelves than a small film into cinemas. Twenty years from now, if mainstream publishing continues down the road they’re on, who knows! The industry would benefit from being less cloistered, but even now it’s not a lost cause.

Why have you chosen Indie Novella?

I see, in Indie Novella, what Netflix was to the entertainment establishment when it started producing its own content: an intentionally independent, clear-headed disruptor, who has looked at the market with fresh eyes and seen opportunities that are invisible to those whose heads are buried in the status quo. On top of that, Indie Novella has put its ethics at the heart of its business: keeping things local, working as a cooperative, and bypassing evil Amazon are all things I want to support!

What do you think of diversity and inclusion when it comes to novel writing and publishing? Is there more we can do to encourage new writers from different backgrounds?

Stories are how humans tell ourselves who we are, so the greater the range of stories and storytellers, the broader and deeper our understanding will be. In my working class American high school, all the books we read were by and about Victorians or East Coast elites. These worlds were more alien to us than Tatooine, and our teachers didn’t know enough about them to explain them to us. As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the insight into those worlds; it makes me wonder what difference it would have made to start with something we understood, and work up from there. Whatever background people come from, they need what screenwriters call “a way in”. The greater the diversity of perspectives, the more entry points there are to the world of literature. Once in, a reader can follow a trail of books to learn about so many other perspectives, and become a wiser and more well-rounded person. But they need a way in. One person’s relatable entry point is another’s mindblowing new perspective, so diversity makes everyone wiser and richer.

It helps, also, to see that people like oneself have become writers, and how they did it. I was neither a Victorian nor an Ivy League graduate; how was I supposed to become a writer? I enjoyed writing, but I could only ever imagine it as a hobby. I enjoyed drawing, too, but I knew people who worked in animation and the path into that career was very clear. It’s easy to look at names on shelves and think they were born with a publishing deal, but everyone comes from somewhere. Showing people how to get from where they are to a published book, especially if they’re not already on a well-trodden path, can make a world of difference.

What advice would you give new writers?

You hear this from everyone, but: READ A LOT. Just reading loads of books gives you a sense of how a good book feels to read, and if you spend enough time immersed in good writing, your instincts will improve. Reading a lot of different stuff also helps you figure out what you resonate with, be it a genre, a style, a theme, whatever. Now here’s some less common advice: When you find something that really sets you on fire, figure out what’s so great about it. Purely noticing and describing what’s done well in a book or film (or illustration, or animated scene), and why and how, has been some of my most potent education. Learn from the masters – you don’t have to reinvent the wheel! An artist is the sum of their influences, so fill up and get the most out of them.

And just write for the joy of writing! You get better at things you do a lot, and love is motivation to practice. It’ll nourish you just to do the thing for its own sake. Most of my advancements in drawing were made by pushing myself to get better at fan art – without drawing stuff purely for fun, I’d never have got into animation school, or made the jump from cheap TV to Disney features. Share your writing online. Get feedback on it. Do NaNoWriMo. Get the sort of day job that gives you room in your life to write. If writing is your passion, put it in the centre and structure everything else around it. Then when an opportunity comes along, you’ll be ready to show us all what you can do!

Way back in April we were extemely fortunate to host authors Abiola Bello, Rebecca Ley, Eithne Nightingale and John McMenemie and hear them speak about the importance of promoting writing at the grass

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