Have you ever been in a situation where you had a friend tell you a secret? A secret that they’ve been carrying all this while; one that has deeply affected them – but you had no idea before?
Lighter Than My Shadow (Amazon UK) is Katie Green’s first graphic novel – a tale of struggle and recovery; of abuse, betrayal and awakening. I’ve known Katie online for several years now and while I knew she was working on her first graphic novel about her eating disorder – I didn’t anticipate the range of emotions that bore into me as I turned each page. All 500 of it. I was curious, confused, shocked, angry – some of them all coming together in a flurry of emotions that caught me off guard as I devoured it in one sitting. It was beautiful, uplifting, and most importantly – incredibly brave of her to put her story out into the world.
I sat down with her over virtual tea for a bit of a chat about her book, and about her progress so far:
Image by Chris Bertram
Hello Katie! Can you tell us about the book, and why and how it came to be?
When I was first diagnosed with anorexia I went searching for a book that would tell me how to get better. I wanted all the answers and I wanted to do it right. I wanted a step-by-step guide, and I was disappointed not to find it anywhere. Every book I picked up seemed to tell me that I’d be fighting this illness at the back of my mind for the rest of my life, or that recovery was simple: all I needed to do was think positive and snap out of it. I wanted to write a book that was different. Honest about how hard it is, but still hopeful and encouraging that it can and does get better. It was always going to be a prose book until I discovered graphic novels in my early twenties – where had they been all my life?! I fell in love immediately with the language of words and pictures, and knew it was the ideal medium to express the story I wanted to tell.
What emotions did you go through as the book progressed?
There were so many! It dragged up a lot of stuff that I thought I’d left firmly behind me in the past, so it was very emotional to be reminded of some of the most difficult times in my life. I had to really go back there, feel all those emotions again in order to tell the story well. Some days it was hard just to keep myself sitting at the desk – it was as though my brain was trying to protect me by avoiding confronting those things.
Also, interestingly, my understanding of recovery changed throughout the course of working on the book. The result was that I didn’t produce the step-by-step guide I’d always wanted. I came to understand why no such thing existed, and it drastically changed the story I was telling. It made me question everything about my recovery, my artwork, my life. It got a bit rough at times, but I think it made the book better, more honest, more real.
It was hard, but it was also immensely satisfying. Making comics is a lot about problem solving, and being something of a workaholic I kind of loved knuckling down day after day, month after month towards finishing this tome I’d been imagining for so long.
And how did you feel when you saw it on the bookshelves for the very first time?
I still don’t feel as though it’s real! It’s very strange. Even though I’ve had book launches and given talks, been on the radio and in the national newspaper, I still can’t really believe I’ve actually finished it.
How long in total did you work on the book?
Formally, after signing the contract with Jonathan Cape a little over 3 years, but I had worked on it as a degree project before that and as a personal side project before that. From idea to publication was about 12 years, but in terms of full-time work probably about 5.
How has the response been so far?
I’m finding it all quite hard to take in actually. The reviews have been extremely complimentary, but more importantly than that I’ve been quite overwhelmed by responses from people who’ve been through similar experiences, or have friends or family who have, and have found the book insightful or encouraging, or just resonant with their own stories. To know that through sharing my story I’m reaching out to other people, well, that’s incredible.
Has the book affected your recovery in any way? While I understand that it’s an ongoing process, how are you doing these days?
I worried during the writing process that reliving the past to that extent would set me back in my recovery. My therapist has confessed she worried at one point that my unhealthy patterns around food might be returning, but thankfully they didn’t. The thoughts cropped up occasionally, but I was always able to choose not to act on them. If anything, revisiting it all in the book reminded me – or perhaps taught me – how close it all still is. While my daily life is no longer affected by my illness, and I don’t have to keep constant vigilance over my own mind, I am aware that those obsessive thought patterns are still there and always will be: they are part of who I am. Likewise though I no longer suffer so intensely with flashbacks and the after-effects of the abuse, it is still part of my story: writing it down did not make it go away.
I’m learning that when I remain aware I can direct my obsessive tendencies towards less destructive things. They can become an asset as well as a weakness. They were certainly helpful in disciplining myself to draw a 500 page book! You’re right when you say it’s an ongoing process, but it is thankfully no longer a fight, more of a curious enquiry. I’m always striving for balance, and never quite getting it right. But then seen as my struggle was a lot about striving for perfection, perhaps not getting it right is in fact as right as it gets.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m actually enjoying a well-earned rest, although it’s been a few weeks and I can feel an itch in my drawing hand for sure. I’m looking forward to returning to my regular project, the Green Bean zine, which I’ve been self-publishing every few months for almost four years now. Aside from that, I don’t really know, but I’m quite excited to see what might evolve in the giant book-shaped space in the middle of my life.
For readers who are interested to tell their own story through a graphic novel, what advice would you give them?
Don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Don’t tell yourself “I’ll start when I’m a good enough illustrator, a good enough writer…”. Start! Make a rubbish first draft, get angry with yourself and throw it away, but learn from what you hated about it and draft again. And again. And again.
Then stop about three versions before you’re completely happy (a deadline helps with this bit).
Thanks so much Katie!
To read more about Katie’s book and to get a 24-page preview of the book, head on to her website – http://lighterthanmyshadow.com; and if you’d like more information about Katie’s work, here’s the link to her personal website: http://www.katiegreen.co.uk/.