The recipe for Eternal Life: An interview with writer and editor, Karen Beilharz

July 5th, 2018

Karen Beilharz is one of the creators of Eternal Life, a science fiction graphic novel with Paul Wong-Pan. She’s also the editor and guiding force behind the anthologies Kinds of Blue and Monsters, and she’s a long-time friend. In her working life, Karen has worked as a professional editor. She knows words real good.

If we were sharing a pot of green tea, how would you describe Eternal Life?

Eternal Life is like Lost in Translation in space: It’s about strangers meeting and forming a connection. It’s also about the impact of time on relationships and the way that relationships affect and change us.

25-year-old Bri is running from her past, pausing for a stopover on a space station in the backwaters of nowhere. 23-year-old Dan lives on that space station with his missionary family, but he longs to leave and see the universe. The nature of space travel, however, makes that difficult as travellers in stasis do not age, while everyone else around them does. When Bri finds herself stranded due to a terrorist attack, Dan and his family end up taking her in, and Dan and Bri end up affecting each other’s lives in ways neither could have predicted.

When I first met you back in 2006, you were batting around ideas for Eternal Life. Can you share some ways your ideas for the story evolved over time?

I first had the idea for the story back in 2000: I had been reading a lot of science fiction and had been feeling somewhat exasperated by all these stories where there were no religious people whatsoever, or if there were, the religious people were clearly crazy. (The exception was Orson Scott Card’s The Folk of the Fringe in which only the Mormons survive.) I felt like it was a bit arrogant for all these writers to erase a significant portion of the population, or imply that everyone was now more “enlightened” and that belief in gods was clearly so foolish, only the crazy people would ever believe.

Being an Australian evangelical Christian (which is not quite the same as an American evangelical Christian, by the way), I figured that if Jesus doesn’t return in the next 1000 years, Christians will continue doing what they’ve been doing for the past 2000 years - that is, sharing the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection with others, planting churches, reading and studying the Bible, encouraging one another, sending out missionaries, and seeking to lives that glorify the God of the Bible where possible. But that, of course, would mean that they would be perpetually out of step with the rest of society around them, no matter how much society changed.

I felt like it was a bit arrogant for all these writers to erase a significant portion of the population.

Looking back over my notes for Eternal Life, I had the story structure really early on: it was all mapped out, plot-wise. 13 years later when I finally finished the first draft of the whole graphic novel, some of the details changed, but none of those big things did.

That said, I feel like it’s only been in recent months after we put Part 6 to bed that I’ve finally understood what the story is, if that makes sense: I’ve said it’s about relationships and the impact of time on relationships, but it’s also about relationships in the life-giving sense. The title comes from the Gospel of John chapter 17 verse 3, where Jesus is gathered with his disciples (minus Judas) in the upper room for the Last Supper. He’s praying for them, and he says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

What struck me about that verse is that “eternal life” is not so much about life going on and on and on forever, day by day, month by month, year by year (and indeed some writers view that sort of forever existence as hellish; Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles spring to mind), but rather that eternal life is about relationship - relationship with the triune God. Relationship with the divine is life. But also in a more diminutive sense, human relationships are also life: in secular terms, good relationships make us happier and healthier, and cause us to live longer (or so claims the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been running since the 1930s). The problem is, good relationships are often in short supply, because we do not invest in them.

Working with Paul is obviously a collaborative relationship. Do you have any tips or insights into how writers and artists can “relationship” better?

Tons of them. In fact, I run a whole workshop on this very topic! The key thing (as any relationship guru will tell you) is communication. But I don’t just mean letting your collaborator know where things are up to, when they can expect to see something or why you’ve missed your deadline; I also mean talking about the work and how you see it, making sure you’re on the same page about what you’re making together, and (most importantly) why you’ve done certain things this way.

For example, in Eternal Life, Bri had a very specific look: she has skin as white as snow and hair as red as blood. Partly that’s because I was trying to link the story to fairy tales (her name is also a clue), but it’s also because her parents genetically engineered her to look that way because they are the type of people who would do that (and were rich enough to do that).

If you can tell your collaborator the why behind it, it means that when things aren’t working and you disagree about what should be done about it, they can often come up with a creative solution that still preserves the why, but in a completely different and interesting way.

Compromise is not a bad thing; often it’s an opportunity to be more creative

Good communication is also about communicating well - being respectful, tactful and diplomatic when you don’t necessarily like something your collaborator has done; practising the rules of good banking when offering feedback (i.e. “deposit”/say something positive before you “withdraw”/say something critical, and make more deposits than withdrawals); not making personal attacks; and even offering up solutions when you feel like something isn’t working or could work better.

Finally, and related to my above point about being on the same page when it comes to the work, you have to be prepared to compromise - particularly if your collaboration is more of an equal partnership, as opposed to one person being the director who has the final say. Contrary to popular opinion, compromise is not a bad thing; often it’s an opportunity to be more creative, or to see the work in a slightly different way.

Were you ever tempted to draw Eternal Life for yourself?

No way! My art skills are only at the level of stick figures. (If you want to see for yourself, check out “Hungry” in the Monsters anthology.) Eternal Life really needed someone of Paul’s abilities.

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Paul’s linework has a wonderful lyrical quality. Did his art help you clarify or change your thinking about your characters over time?

Paul is amazingly talented, and one of his strengths is the way he makes our characters act and move within the story. After seeing them on the page, I felt like I got more of a sense of what they’d be like if they were actually real people, existing in three-dimensional space. I also felt like I had a better sense of how our characters responded to each other in their facial expressions and body language.

The other thing that Paul’s art did is really set the tone and the mood for each scene - particularly with his colours. Eternal Life is science fiction, but it’s not science fiction action adventure or science fiction high concept; it’s more of a quiet indie drama about people who just happen to live hundreds of years in the future. Paul’s art really helped establish that, because he didn’t draw it like a mainstream “blockbuster” (for want of a better word). Instead, everything looks a bit grittier - a bit less polished and more realistic.

When you’re writing, how do you track structural concerns like pacing and conflicts, etc? Do you use tools like Story Grid or the Story Clock?

I’ve never heard of those, so no. I’m not very good at tracking stuff like that, though structure is very important to me and I tend to be more of a plotter than a pantser. (Are you familiar with those terms? Plotters plot out stories; pantsers fly by the seat of their pants and make it up as they go along.) I sort of feel for structure intuitively, if that makes sense. As I was writing Eternal Life, the story just seemed to break naturally into six chapters plus an epilogue, with each chapter beginning with a flashback.

Can you tell me more about “feeling for structure intuitively”?

So much of it is instinctive, gleaned from many years of reading and thinking about stories in books, films, fairy tales and so on. Usually when I come up with a story, I know the beginning, I know the end, and I know roughly how I’m going to get there and what needs to happen to reach that destination. More of the journey from A to B becomes clearer the longer I work on it, but some of the details change.

I think over time, I’ve become more aware of classical storytelling structures - three-act and five-act stories - as well as thinking about stuff like conflict, resolution, desire and character arcs. Thinking about character arcs in particular has been helpful in making sure I’ve dealt with all the plot threads.

But I still have trouble shoehorning things into those structures; to me, the story already has a particular shape and it wants to go the way it goes, whether I like it or not. It probably goes to show I have way more to learn about storytelling!

One thing that has been useful is a technique I borrowed from my friend and sometime collaborator Kathleen Jennings, which is to use the structure of an existing story to tell yours. Eternal Life does that, to a certain extent, with Sleeping Beauty, but I do admit the resemblance is faint.

Yeah, Kathleen shared that technique with me a couple of years back when I was wrapping my head around the idea of writing Kun-ghur. If you know your story’s archetype, then you know what elements you need to include to make a satisfying tale. It’s a bit like understanding that a recipe - let’s say a cake - isn’t just random ingredients; you need to know the recipe in order to make a satisfying cake. The next Kun-ghur story is one of the Brother Grimm tales, and the one after is basically Tarzan.

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As someone who has edited two anthologies of five-page comics, and with your eye as an editor, what are some things you tend to notice among writers and artists of indie comics?

With short comics, there’s a tendency to try to do too much and cram too much into not enough space. The result is often manufactured emotion: as a reader, I sense that I’m supposed to feel something, but that emotion hasn’t been earned, because I haven’t identified with the characters and their struggle. So the payoff doesn’t quite work.

Let’s tease this out a bit: how do you know when you’re doing this in your own work? What do you do to un-cram a story?

I know I’m doing it when I run out of panels and pages! Things feel more rushed - like the work doesn’t have space to breathe. For example, if I’m trying to write a five-page comic, I can tell pretty much immediately if it’s not going to fit into those five pages - if it wants to be more. That comes back to structure and how I think about each comic page, though: often a new page - particularly in short five-page comics - signifies some sort of change or movement in the story, and if there are more movements than pages, it’s not going to work.

Often a new page signifies some sort of change or movement in the story.

With longer comics, often I discover I’ve mucked things up after getting feedback from beta readers. Eternal Life was workshopped in its entirety with a writing group, who very bravely waded through my long-winded script, having never read a comic script before. I found their comments on the story and its characters hugely helpful, and as a result, I tweaked a few things to make it work better. The bones of the story stayed the same, but the details were finessed a bit more.

Another thing that really helped was collaborating with Paul: I wrote Eternal Life full script, but when he came to thumbnail various parts, he would sometime conflate panels or expand a scene by adding panels. With the epilogue, we added two more pages, and I think it really improved the work.

What else do you tend to notice in indie comics?

There’s also a tendency to neglect the reader and not take the reader with them through the story, which also contributes to this problem. Sometimes that’s because of simple things - like not having an establishing shot to help the reader place where we are, or things in a panel not quite looking the way the artist intended.

Sometimes it’s just poor craft that can throw a reader out of a story - for example, bad lettering (which is a major distraction for me) or things being framed in such a way so that it’s not quite clear who’s speaking or who’s doing something.

Do you think it would make sense for comics collaborations to involve an editor more often to pick up on stuff like “not having an establishing shot”?

As an editor, of course I have to say “yes”! Any work can always be improved by having another set of eyes on it - though, of course, it helps if it’s the right set of eyes.

The great benefit of comic editors is that they see comics as a whole - words and pictures working together to tell stories. I found that when I showed my comics to writers, they would only critique the words, the story and the characters. When I showed my comics to artists, they would only critique the art and the visuals. But when I showed my work to Wolfgang Bylsma, editor-in-chief at Gestalt Comics, he critiqued the lot and gave me the most helpful feedback of anyone.

The great benefit of comic editors is that they see comics as a whole - words and pictures working together to tell stories.

I aspire to be a comics editor: that would seriously be one of my dream jobs! I’ve done a little bit for people - even professionally - but I’m also still learning and I’m painfully aware of how much there is to know.

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In most indie comics collaborations, it seems very common for writers to take the lead on producing a story. Why is that, do you think? What would it take for you to feel comfortable writing from an artist’s ideas?

I’m not sure why that’s often the case. It could be because the writers are the ones who have come up with the project idea initially, and then they naturally become the primary driving force behind it. It’s also easier for writers to do more of the publishing/marketing/crowdfunding/sales side of things because they don’t do as much work as artists do on the comics.

I think if I were to write from an artist’s ideas, there would have to be something in particular that grabbed me. If an idea - or something in particular about an idea - doesn’t grab me off the bat, it can be hard for me to run with it all the way without losing enthusiasm. The artist and I would also have to be on the same page in terms of what the artist views as non-negotiable and what the artist would be happy to have me play around with. I mean more in terms of story and characters rather than visuals; I think artists bring way more to the table than I do when it comes to visual ideas, layouts, framing and so on.

Have you read anything interesting lately?

The Grot - Pat Grant and Fionn McCabe
Pat Grant is best known for Blue, a partly autobiographical/partly sci-fi tale of immigration, racism and misplaced nationalism, told through the eyes of a couple of kids who decide to ditch school to go look at a dead body. The Grot is his latest comic about an enterprising family heading to the frontier of a dystopian/post-apocalyptic landscape to make their fortunes in a place where no one can be trusted - least of all themselves. It’s filled with black humour and slippery characters. You can read the first 120 pages online.

It’s All for the Breast - Alexis Sugden
This is an autobiographical comic by Lex about when she had a breast reduction at the age of 18 and all the issues she had with her body around that time. It’s hilarious, poignant, and made me think a lot about the relationship between a person and their body. You can read the whole thing online or the more compact version for The Nib.

Mighty Jack and Mighty Jack and the Goblin King - Ben Hatke
This pair of all-ages comics (that I wish were a trilogy, but I’m not sure that Ben plans to write more) are a tremendously fun riff on the “Jack and the Beanstalk” fairy tale. It’s about a boy named Jack who ends up having to spend the summer looking after his special needs sister who becomes fixated on these special beans they end up purchasing at a local flea market from some shifty dude. The characters are really well rounded and interesting, and the sense of danger is very real; you’re never sure if they’re going to come out of it okay.

Nightlights - Lorena Alvarez
A young girl named Sandy loves to draw and daydream, but her work soon draws the attention of something not-so-nice. The artwork in this is absolutely stunning, and being a Nobrow book (they are one of my favourite publishers), the production is gorgeous. The story is also super creepy too - about Coraline-level creepiness, so I’d exercise caution before you read it with kids.

Grab your preferred music device and set it on random. What are the first five songs it plays? No cheating!

  • Pack Animal - Jesca Hoop
  • Welcome Stranger - Washington
  • Crazy (live cover) - The Twilight Singers
  • Victim Lover - Broken Social Scene
  • We Got This Together - My Little Pony Movie OST <-- Umm, this is because of my daughters!

That looks pretty representative: female singer songwriters, indie bands and a bit of pop!

[laughing] Well, I knew there’d have to be either The Twilight Singers or Chvrches…

Karen, thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights into the comic-making process. I’m so very keen to see what your next project will be!

Karen Beilharz and her work can be found at Hivemindedness Media and on Twitter at @kbeilz.

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