September 2011

Zach Pontz


An Interview with Deborah Vankin

Fiction writers often regard journalists with something like contempt. Hacks or hired pens. Sometimes this is the case, and sometimes it is not. The same could be said for the fiction writers, really. And then there are those who confuse the matter by dipping their hands into both vocations, blurring the line between the two. Deborah Vankin is one of these people.

Vankin received her MA in Writing and Publishing from Emerson College and then spent seven years at the alternative publication L.A. Weekly on the Arts desk. During that time she served as both Books Editor and Food Editor and wrote feature stories. She has also worked for Variety and for the Los Angeles Times, where she works now as a culture reporter, and has freelanced for numerous other publications including The New York Times. She has had her short fiction, interviews and non-fiction essays published in literary journals and anthologies such as Swink, The Cocaine Chronicles, and Based on a True Story: Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies. Poseurs, a graphic novel written with Rick Mays, is her first full length work of fiction, as well as her first foray into comics. It follows the exploits of three teenagers: Jenna, Pouri, and Mac, as they traverse the nightscape of L.A. uncovering its unpleasant realities and discovering themselves.


Jenna's the narrator, so, in theory, it's her story. Why'd you choose Jenna and do you think you could have written the same story if Pouri or Mac had narrated?

In a way, they all narrate. That's why I started the book with three character introductions in which they each speak directly to the reader. But then Jenna busts in, breaking "the fourth wall," as she does a lot in the book, and she addresses the reader saying it's her story and she's going to take it from there.  

Ultimately, I chose Jenna as the primary narrator because the story itself came out of her -- before there was a plot, there was Jenna, this arty if precocious, loner-like teen living alone with her mom in Echo Park. They're poor and she's obsessed with photography and wants an expensive digital camera. And her mom is nuts -- a sort of eternal teen herself who's also a serial online dater -- and so there's a fun mother-daughter story in the book as well. It's written in the first person, in Jenna's voice, and it's very much her story. If I'd centered it around Mac or Pouri, it would have needed a totally different plot. Jenna's the one who sparks the action by joining We The Party People, the agency who rents out fake party guests -- that makes sense for that character. And she's the one at the start of the story who isn't looking to find herself, but to lose herself. That's what propels the story forward.

Los Angeles, in many respects, is one of the major characters in your book. Was that a conscious decision?

I wrote what I knew best. I've been covering Los Angeles arts, culture, and nightlife as a journalist for about ten years, and so, as they say, the city is my muse. I chose to set my story against the tapestry of L.A. nightlife.

So is this your ode to L.A, with all the good and bad that entails?

I wouldn't say that. I have about a hundred stories in my back pocket. There's a novel to be had. This is sort of a one-off story. But yes, it's not all good. There's definitely a lot of satire -- playful satire -- but I think if people flat out say they love L.A. one dimensionally, they don't really understand it, because it's a complicated city.

Any truly great city is equal parts enthralling and infuriating.

Definitely. There're lots of good things about L.A. nightlife, for example. It's very cutting edge in terms of fashion and entertainment. It's very forward thinking. But it's also full of ridiculousness. You have to have a sense of humor and be able to poke fun at that ridiculousness. In the book, there's an agency that casts parties with real people, instead of casting films.

I feel like those would exist in L.A. I totally didn't give it any thought that this might not be the case.

No, no I made it up. I thought it would be hilarious if there were this fake agency that casts parties. I got the idea a few years ago when I was looking through a newspaper and there was an article about celebrities getting paid large amounts of money to show up at parties. It was a job for them. And it was so people could say, "So-and-so was at this party." Parties are big business and big-name guests are the currency.

Do you think this is a universal story or something that's very particular to LA?

The geographical references are definitely particular to L.A. -- Silver Lake, Downtown L.A., Echo Park -- as are some of the local cultural references I riff on from the nightlife scene, like DJ Dipaolo or Wolfson Pitt. And the street slang the kids use. The sensibility in the book is very 2009 L.A., which is when I finished writing it. It'd be a lot different if I wrote it today; there was no Twitter then, for instance! 

But I absolutely intended the story to be universal, and I feel like it really is. The idea of wanting or needing to lose yourself and shed where you come from in order to fully appreciate it -- and then return to it -- is timeless and universal to all kids, I think. I've been getting emails from all over the world -- Athens, Greece; the Midwest; East Coast; from kids who've read and related to it.

You've published short stories, and you work in print journalism. So what drew you to graphic novels?

I'm a big fan of graphic novels -- the ones that are real literature -- stuff like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home or Phoebe Gloeckner or even the graphic novel Persepolis. These books are literature. But also the opportunity presented itself. I had a contact at DC Comics, where they were doing a series called Minx that was directed at teenage girls, and I submitted a proposal that resonated with them. So the opportunity came first and then I developed the story. It's not like I had this story that I wanted to tell in comic book form. 

So explain how the process of writing a graphic novel or comic book is different for you than, say, when you sit down to write prose. How different is your approach?

It's so different, it's amazing. I'm a writer of prose by nature. I love describing things, and so when you're writing a comic, it's like writing in script form. It's almost like writing a screenplay. You're describing what's happening on the page, but instead of the actors then translating that, the illustrator does. So you have to think very visually and describe what you want very visually. It's basically like storyboarding for a film: action, description, dialogue, shot by shot by shot. But because I'm a prose writer, my action and description was so long. (For a book that was 150 pages, my first draft was probably 300 pages.) Another difference is that creating the characters is a much leaner process. What I love about prose writing is that you have the ability to go inside a character's head and describe internal dialogue, and internal monologue, and a lot of subtleties of characters. But in a graphic novel it has to be very lean and specific. You have to be very specific with what you want to show because you only have so many balloons -- so much space for dialogue -- per panel. So you have to be very careful and specific about what you put in.

Rick Mays is pretty popular in the industry. How did you become involved with him?

DC Comics paired me up with Rick Mays. He's pretty high profile, having done a lot of work for Marvel and DC. They actually gave me several portfolios of artists they thought would be good with my story and I chose him. I liked his style. It's very clean, modern, black-and-white lines. He conveys a lot of emotion with very few lines.

One of your more nefarious characters' names is Omar. Was that inspired by Omar from The Wire?

No! I've never actually watched The Wire, although a lot of people tell me I need to. I just love the name Omar. He's one of my favorite characters, actually, because he embodies what I was aiming for in the book. He starts out as one thing, and then turns out to be something else, which is sort of the theme of the book, this sense of duality. Things aren't always what they seem. For example what the reader thinks is an eagle at the beginning of the book actually turns out to be a kite.

I found the duality of the characters interesting too. Jenna is Jewish and Native American. You don't find that mix too often!

Sure, I wanted teenage girls to be able to relate to it so I added the theme of identity and coming of age and finding yourself and your tribe. So instead of her being of one tribe I wanted her to be of two. I really wanted my characters to look for their place or their tribe.

Our society is particularly alienating, and the desire to "fit in" and not be the outsider sort of pervades our culture. Do you think this is a good or bad characteristic of our society?

Yeah, our society is becoming increasingly alienating in so many ways. Especially, and ironically, with all this new technology that's meant to help us "connect," it's having the reverse effect in some ways. We're more isolated and interact less with real people, socially, at least. I don't think that's a good thing, no. But I also don't think it's what makes people want to "fit in" and not be an outsider. (And by fitting in, I don't mean the mainstream necessarily; it could be with any pocket of people.) I think feeling accepted and a part of something -- even if with a group of outsiders -- is central to being human. It's human connection that we're essentially all looking for.

There's some friction between Jenna and Pouri and their parents. Going back to what you said about finding your own tribe, do you see this as a necessary part of growing up? Do you also see it as something that resolves itself as children grow into adults?

Yes, I think striking out in the world, exploring people, places, ideas, and finding your tribe, whether it's a literal group of people, a belief system, a cultural trend or a way of life, is an integral part of growing up. You need to break free in order to return to your roots, corny as that sounds. Trying on different hats (in Jenna's case, quite literally; wigs, too!) is how you find what resonates and what you're drawn to.

But you can belong to many different kinds of tribes. Jenna is of two tribes; she's Jewish and Cherokee. But she's also an artist, a photographer. Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White are her heroes. Pouri, who's from Taiwan, feels like an outsider among outsiders. She finds her tribe in the nightlife world. And for Mac, who's obsessed with youth slang -- literally defining his world by creating definitions for online urban dictionaries -- his tribe is slanguage.  

I think that while most people solidify their identity as they get older, finding a particular tribe, per se, doesn't or shouldn't ever get "resolved." You can belong to a lot of different tribes, and your interests and sense of self and place in the world is ever evolving.

Mac's parents are noticeably absent. Why?

They don't really factor into the story. He's a nerdy kid from the Valley who I imagine as a sort of modern day latchkey kid. He hangs out after school in cafes that have free Wi-Fi and lives in a virtual world of user-generated slanguage websites.

Pouri very nearly crosses the line of no return in that the storyline couldn't have been believable without her returning to Taiwan.

I can see that. But basically, Pouri's story arc is that she essentially longs for family and rootedness -- the opposite of being out every night surrounded by a hundred acquaintances in the club scene -- and she finds that in L.A. with Jenna's family. But there's so much more "at sea" with that character and, in part because she doesn't return to Taiwan, there's a lot more to explore in an upcoming story. She's pretty unglued.

The ending is left open. Do you have plans for another book?

I started Poseurs as a one-off, but people seem to love the characters so I am working on a follow up.