Set against Toronto’s fledgling Queen St. West art scene in the 1970’s, Aurora Borealice follows Joan Thornborrow Steacy’s journey from shy self doubt to full engagement with a rapidly changing world. The autobio is told through the fictional character of Alice, who meets Ken Steacy (Joan’s real life future husband and Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Famer) and his comic-obsessed friends Paul Rivoche and Dean Motter.
Branded as stupid in grade school, Alice finally friends Eric McLuhan, a teacher who recognizes her talent. The CN Tower is being built, Marshall McLuhan is lecturing, and everything seems possible.
Dalton Sharp spoke with her by phone in Victoria.
To start off could you tell me a bit about how this project came about?
Umm.. oh boy…
Sorry to be so broad!
It’s been in my mind for quite a while, and when the graphic novel medium came on my radar I realized it was perfect to articulate this story. Then it was, “okay, can I do it?” That’s the question.
I did a book for my Dad’s 100th birthday in 2006, (The life of “Junky Jack” Thornborrow: a Century of Hardship, Laughter, and Recycling) so that gave me the confidence to do my own book as a graphic novel.
“I don’t know if you can imagine being in school and being bored out of your skull and not doing very well and failing and failing and failing because it just wasn’t interesting to you and then…”
Was it a true graphic novel or sorta an illustrated story?
It was an illustrated biography. I had to think about all the stories he told me when I was a young girl that stayed in my mind; I had this visual for them. Basically the book is each decade…his life coming over from England as a boy, and then emigrating to Hamilton, and all that… I made it into little slices of his life and then illustrated them, these stories.
And he lived to see it which was remarkable and…
…and I had an opening in Waterdown, the town I grew up in. Friends, family and people who were just curious about this book came, and it was just an amazing experience. I think that really solidified my confidence in myself to move on to the next level, which is what I’m doing now with Aurora Borealice, so yeah…
And I felt that both projects were exactly what I needed in this time of my life. Writing has always been difficult for me, but I think I was ready to do it. I had a lot of determination to pull it off.
Why’d you choose a graphic novel rather than a book or film or…
I’ve always drawn little drawings of different situations. Whenever I’d go on a trip I’d do some little drawings of that trip, little highlights and I just figured, “well, they’re just my little personal drawings.” I wouldn’t want to show them to anyone beyond my self and friends.
Then I realized well that’s my style and I should just go with it. When I started reading graphic novels like Paul Moves Out and Blankets, and Raymond Briggs is one of my big influences, I saw that he kind of drew similar to the way I would draw and I thought, “well okay, um, let’s try to make a story.” It was very challenging to put dialogue in, but seeing that I was married to Ken Steacy for 35 years, and I’ve been around comics for that long, that really provided some of the background that I needed to do this.
I’ve never been really a fan of mainstream comic books, but when graphic novels came into existence I said, “oh my God this is it! I love it. I love it. I loved the quirky little drawings that people drew, that were very sincere, that were just wonderful, not highly polished and rendered. Then I just started doing my own.
I thought it was funny in the book where Alice is annoyed by comics, meanwhile the story of her life is actually being told in graphic novel format!
It’s kinda ironic. Trying to communicate something in words and pictures – I did find it very fulfilling and I’m totally addicted now.
Yeah, too bad it took me this long, but anyways… I’ve had many careers along the way, but this I find the most interesting.
Ken is a very good sounding board. When I do find myself in a box and I can’t get out of it, and I’m not sure how to proceed I do ask him for help.
Sometimes if he tries to come in too soon, when I’m still kinda working it through that’s not good, but he is very helpful in many ways.
It’s really convenient to have a comics guy right there.
Yeah, my editor, and art director, and I get to sleep with him!
Ha ha! Editors with benefits! Ha ha.
It is good in a lot of ways, but I need to make sure he isn’t the dominant influence on me, because this is my work, y’know?
There’s a scene in this book where Ken is upset because his drawing partner (Paul Rivoche) has drawn him as a sort of Neanderthal and I thought it was an interesting scene, because it shows that depicting people can be a double edged sword…were you nervous drawing people that were real…wondering what the reaction would be?
Yeah I was very nervous. I presented Eric McLuhan with a copy of it last summer when I was in Toronto and I mean, it was like, “oh God you’re going to love it or hate it. I hope I didn’t make you look dorky!”
What was his verdict?
He went away, and I was holding my breath on this, and I got an email, and it was just amazing high praise! I was flabbergasted, and so pleased, and so relieved. You can imagine.
Paul Rivoche, some of the pages…he has not seen the whole and I don’t know what he’s going to think. I tried to get a hold of him last summer and it didn’t happen, so I’m just holding my breath on that one too.
Um, I’m curious about these…so over the years you were drawing wherever you happened to be in a sketch book?
Well, they were just watercolour paper or something small.
I did it a little comic strip back around 1980, I guess it would be before I had my son. There was a trip that we took to BC, we were living in Toronto at the time, but we went to visit Ken’s parents and Dean Motter and Cathy came on this trip down to California with us, right after Mount St. Helens blew up. In fact it blew up while we were there.
So I just recorded that trip in pictures, not a lot of words but…
What size were you doing them?
81/2X11 I guess.
And then there was a trip to New York that I did, not a lot of pictures that I did, but enough to capture…it’s better than photographs I found…
Just little details and stuff like that.
The reason I’m asking is that in the novel there’s so many little details about things, y’know, like just little…the way the streetcar looks, or a particular street in Toronto looks…I think that would probably feed in…looking at a series of drawings that you’ve done over the years would help that out.
Yeah, I had to do an enormous amount of research and one thing that really helped with this is I have 1976 Eaton’s Catalogue that had everything imaginable! It was the best reference that I ever had and…
That’s a great idea actually for reference!
It’s funny. I hate to name drop, but Douglas Coupland gave this to me, and he didn’t know I was working on this graphic novel at all, but I had it for a while, and I thought it was really cool and everything, and then I finally realized, “oh my God I’ve got this book! I’ve got the perfect reference – I’m going to use it.” It’s better than the internet.
Yeah it’s almost impossible to remember those fashions.
Yes and the furniture, and the stereos, and the rugs, and the tacky things on the walls. The 70’s was unbelievable, bell bottoms, the cars and everything…
You don’t remember it until you actually see it, and then you’re like, “oh yeah, I remember.”
Totally. Yes, it was a great resource. The ugly hair too…
But yeah, there’s an awful lot of work getting all the details. There’s a scene walking down Queen St. and I don’t know if you caught this…Laurie Anderson is a street musician, there’s Glenn Gould in there…
Oh I didn’t…I caught…uh, the one’s I recognize is Nash the Slash…was that that panel?
I didn’t catch everybody! I had no idea.
There’s a cameo of Ken and I in present day.
I just thought, “Alfred Hitchcock, he does it all the time!”
Yeah, ha ha.
Puts himself in his work, so I thought, “okay so there we are, and then there we are young in the background.
I noticed some things in that panel, but not everything by a long shot. It’s really packed!
You can get away with that. You can put in all sorts of details that you may not catch on the first reading, and the same with my Dad’s book, I’ve put all sorts of stuff that I intentionally embedded into the works.
It’s a lot of fun. Ha ha.
Even the little details like the Kraft Caramel commercials that I had forgot about.
They’re permanently etched into your brain, and you can’t get them out. Bonanza! Everybody watched Bonanza. Everybody watched the same shows. You’d get on the school bus and discuss what everybody watch the other night.
It’s a very different world from what it was then.
They stick with you. And they’re our background, the stuff we don’t pay attention too much, but it certainly has an effect on us. That’s what intrigued me about the McLuhan thing.
I don’t know if you can imagine being in school and being bored out of your skull and not doing very well and failing and failing and failing because it just wasn’t interesting to you and then…going to art college and I had Eric’s class… It was just mind expanding, so fascinating.
It stayed with me and I still read his books. So Eric was like a mentor to me all along, he still is, a very good friend, I mean it’s just remarkable to have a colleague, friend, like that. Somebody to have to talk to about all these interesting things that are out there in our world today, technology and the changes that effect our behavior.
In the book someone is saying eventually TV isn’t going to be the dominant…at the time it was the dominant medium…but it wasn’t always going to be, at that time it was sort of a revolutionary thing to say…
Yeah, I mean it was so much a part of our…
You couldn’t imagine anything else.
But now with so many technologies coming so fast, I think its an amazing time for people to…I mean in a sense the whole literacy thing, there’s a new kind of literacy we need for lack of a better word. There’s a quote by Marshall McLuhan I was going to put it in the book, but I lost it for a while. Then I found it. He says,
“when the globe becomes a single electronic web with all its languages and culture recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant, however precious.”
Hmm, it’s true. It’s kind of scary at the same time. It’s really powerful too.
More than we realize our brains are being changed because of [technology], and in some ways good and some bad. It’s always been that way. It’s still fascinating for me and I think if anybody wants to tackle McLuhan you just stay with it, work hard at it, and you’ll get a lot from it.
Yeah. Some of the ideas of his, where he’s talking or being quoted in the book, I had to sorta pause and absorb it. Ha ha.
Exactly. That’s what it was like having Eric as a teacher and listening to McLuhan talk. You’re just, “wow that was sorta interesting, I have to sit down for a minute and think about that one!” He always made you think.
Eric’s class finally tapped into my thinking abilities, which were always there, but never igniting. It was just what I needed at that time.
Am I right in saying that self doubt is the enemy in this story. You’re sorta doubting yourself…a lot of that is coming from teachers, but the cure is kinda this one teacher too…Eric…it sort shows a way out of that..
Finally somebody with some credentials believed in me right? They talked to me like a peer. That was really kind of uplifting for me.
Looking back, writing this graphic novel, looking at the challenges you had…was it painful to write it, or was it satisfying?
It was painful, satisfying… I guess like anything, the harder you work at it the greater the pleasure of finishing it. There were times when you just want to jump off a cliff, “is it working? I don’t know!”
Did you have to take breaks from it or…?
You have to wrestle with it at times, and if it’s not working you just have to take a walk and let it filter through and be patient with it. But I did finish it!
I’ll just ask a final cheese…like it’s the cheesiest question…do you believe in fate..and the reason I ask is there are things that come together in the story that seem so perfect…your relationship with the McLuhans, the CN tower, which is a communications beacon that’s being built, how things come together…it’s like it was kinda written to be a story, if you know what I mean.
The story of me meeting McLuhan, and my whole thing with literacy and the tie-in with the whole literary ground being overturned by the technology… When I think about it more I think, “Holy! There’s really something here, and that’s gotta be explored,” and I think, “yeah, fate, somehow…”
I don’t know if you ever read the Goethe quote…
How does it go?
Goethe is a German philosopher, and it’s a quote on commitment I have here if you’d like me to read it to you?
Okay, it’s one of my favourites because I have it on my drawing table here,
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
That quote really stuck with me, and it’s so true.
Yeah, the struggle is just to commit.
It’s hard but it’s…follow through with it and keep with it even though you may have times when you fall. If it’s strong enough and has integrity…you believe in it yourself – then you will finish it.
This interview has been edited and shortened.