The following is a transcript of Joe Sacco’s presentation at the 2002 Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels at the University of Florida. It is followed by a brief question and answer session. The images that accompany this transcript were scanned after the fact or in some cases reconstructed from a video recording of the presentation.
I usually start with talking about how I judge comics journalism to be in trying to sell it to an audience, but I really don’t feel like I need to do that here. So I’m going to dispense with the usual opening remarks about how comics journalism makes hard topics accessible, and I’ll just get straight to the slides just to illustrate some points and I can walk you through some of my experiences with comics and journalism and touch on a couple of things; basically how comics can tell other people’s narratives and how comics–especially as journalism–can drop a reader into another time and place. So let’s start with a couple of slides that show work before I was a cartoon journalist and I was just doing comics.
This [Figure 1] is a very early comic I did from a series called Yahoo, and like a lot of other people, a lot of other cartoonists in the ‘80s, I was doing autobiographical comics. And this comic is the story of a couple of years I spent in Berlin in the late ‘80s. Basically I was breaking up with my girlfriend in the United States. It was sort of a long distance relationship that wasn’t working, but at the same time, the Gulf War was about to break out. And what I did with the comic was try to combine these two things–try to mesh these two things. Sort of the world crisis and my own personal crisis. And this sort of thing maybe began to inform how I thought these issues could be told–big stories, little stories could be combined together. This is the cartoonist autobiographical self whining. When I say “Save us” I’m referring to save my girlfriend and my relationship, but also save us from this war that was about to break out. People ask me a lot about the origins of comics journalism and why I depict myself in my journalism, but you’ll have to understand that I started out doing autobiographical strips so it was pretty natural for me to draw myself in my journalistic work. I mean, I’m just an outgrowth of that autobiographical genre.
This [Figure 2] is from the same issue and it’s concerned about the war of course, and concerned about my chipped tooth. But also I was in a German class with some Palestinians, and I would discuss the upcoming war with my Palestinian friends in the class. You can see also that this is my pre-journalism stuff. But I was already starting to think a lot about the Middle East, but the truth was I had been thinking about the Middle East for years. And, eventually, I decided to go, of course.
The next slide [Figure 3] is from one comic before the last one I showed you where I begin to draw other people’s narratives also, not just my own. In this case, I took my mother’s experiences in World War II on the island of Malta, where my family is from, where I was born. In World War II, Malta was heavily bombed by the Germans and the Italians. And what I had my mother to do was to write letters outlining various aspects of life during the war. So, I was telling my mother’s story. So, you see, I’ve already got this autobiographical thing going and I’m also trying to tell other people’s stories so its not much of a hop, skip and a jump going someplace using autobiography and telling other people’s stories. Now, another thing I should point out is I learned to start asking visual questions. When you’re telling someone else’s stories, you’re not there. I’m not there. I was not there to witness what my mother went through, so I needed visual clues from her. So, I would ask her questions like, “You mentioned you were in a shelter. So what does the shelter look like?” “An air raid shelter.” So, my mother would sketch something out for me or describe it to me very explicitly and so, up in the first panel, you can see I’ve drawn a shelter, and that is based on her descriptions. And, later on, I also employed this technique when I was interviewing people. As John [Ronan] mentioned, I have a degree in journalism. I go out and I interview people about their stories, but I also have to ask questions most prose journalists don’t ask: visual questions. And, they’ll be examples of this sort of thing as we go along. So, let’s hit the next slide.
Ok, I’m skipping around with these slides just to try to keep things focused on and have a little flow. In this comic, it’s about a guy named Soba. It was a short comic I did of a character profile of this guy in Sarajevo who sort of was a rock-n-roller and mad about town. But, his army job was planting land mines, and so I had to depict a scene of him planting land mines. And I personally don’t know the first thing about actually finding land mines. I personally don’t know anything about it, but I want it to be true so I had to do a little research. He mentioned finding mines and putting a stick in the ground, but it was only later on, in doing some research on the internet that I found you put the stick in at a 45 degree angle [Figure 4]. That’s the way you do it, so these things are very important, I think, if you’re going to be as true as possible. And, I’m constantly wrestling with these sorts of visual questions that I’m going to have to answer at the drawing table. Next slide please.
This is from the Palestine book and it’s a picture of a prison camp [Figure 5]. Most of the Palestine book is a series of vignettes, but in this particular case, I did a whole chapter on prisons because it is such a prevalent insidious practice in the occupation of the Middle East in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. It seemed every guy I was meeting who was over the age of sixteen has spent at least some months in an Israeli prison camp. So, I had to stop and talk about that. In this case, I am talking about one particular prison called Ansar, Ansar 3. And, I had never seen Ansar 3, and I mean, chances are the Israelis were not going to let me get near it or to let me take photographs or draw it so I had to come up with this compound from visual descriptions. So, I sat down with, say–I didn’t want it to be many people–with their experiences in prison. So, I sat down with three guys in particular, and said, “Ok, I want you to draw me a map of this prison. Show me what it looked like.” And, so they described it to me: “Two fences going around the compound; barbed wire on top.” They described how the tents were, how the cots were laid out and how the personal belongings would be tied up on the tents and things of this nature. And, also even the guard tower. They’d say, well, they are just like the guard towers you see down the street. So, as much as possible, I tried to recreate this. It might not be a perfect representation, but I tried to be as true as possible to the essential truth of the facts on the ground, as you will. Let’s go to the next slide.
Ok, now, in this particular case [Figure 6], I had met a guy who was telling me this story about how he was arrested by the Israeli security services and accused of belonging to a secret, or banned, organization, a banned political faction. All political factions in the PLO were banned at the time when I was there. And, he was arrested and he was taken to prison and so I . . . He had gotten out, he’d came out a couple of weeks before or something like this, so I went to his house and interviewed him and I got that all down. But then again, I’m asking him questions: “So, when they came were they all in uniform?” “Well, a couple were in plain clothes, a couple of police, there were a couple, you know, in this dress or that dress.” But, in this particular story, what I tried to do was use the medium of comics to somehow emphasize something essentially true about what I was finding out. In other words, to somehow enhance the journalism itself. I used artistic techniques too, which you’ll see if you advance the slides, to tell the story effectively of what was happening to him.
They basically would . . . they soaked a hood in urine and they put it over his head, and then they would tie him into very uncomfortable positions on a very uncomfortable chair [Figure 7]. They tied him to a pipe or something like this and kept him awake for four or five days at a time by loud music or by constantly shoving him every time it looked like he was dozing off. Then, after four days, they’d take him into the interrogation room and say, so are you willing to confess now that you belong to this illegal organization? And he never would. And at a certain time, he began to hallucinate and imagine things and he was almost beginning to lose his mind, you know, the way he described this to me. So, as I was drawing I was thinking how am I going to emphasize this to sort of add some impact. So, what I started doing was, as the story moves along, you can advance the frame, I started putting more panels on a page [Figure 8], basically to make his situation more claustrophobic, to sort of reduce him and reduce him and reduce the world he’s in, reduce the box.
So, this was one way that I just want to demonstrate that although I am showing something that is essentially journalistic, I’m telling someone’s story that is factual, that I got from an interview and also trying to add something to it, which is something you can do, I think, with the medium of comics. I’ll try to make a point that I feel this guy’s life is being contained and being depressed. I’m not an objective journalist, so I feel free to use the art form to do this. So, I think the next slide might be along the same lines. [Figure 9]
It keeps getting smaller and smaller, and then at a certain point, when they start to recognize after eighteen or nineteen days that they are not going to get a confession out of this fellow, the panels begin to open up. And, the very last panel is like half a page, when he is finally freed into the streets of Jerusalem, being lost in the crowd of people. So, let’s go to the next slide.
I mentioned time and place before, and I think it is one of the most effective things about comics as far as journalism goes, or anything. I mean, a cartoonist can take someone back in time, there’s no problem with that. They can also take someone to a different place all together. And, one of the effects of things about comics is you’re dropping a reader right into a situation, you know. Prose writers, of course, can be very evocative, and I appreciate what they do, but I find there is nothing like thrusting someone right there. And, that’s what I think a cartoonist can do.
And in this case, this is Jabalia refugee camp [Figure 10] in the Gaza strip, one of the most crowded places on earth. Incidentally, a place where Sharon was in charge of pacifying in the 1970s. And what pacifying meant then was basically bulldozing houses to make large open areas so that Israeli vehicles could maneuver, so army vehicles could maneuver easily. So, even though it was very crowded, there are these large open areas. Now, this is a case where no words were really necessary to sum up the situation. That I could just depict it visually, even in the next slide. [Figure 11]
This is a two-page spread, by the way, so each half of a double page spread. And what I was trying to do with these two pictures and in the next one, which you won’t go to right now, was just show some of the things that will be repeated images throughout this long scene in the Gaza strip. And, things that really stood out in my mind were the mud; it was winter and raining a lot; the graffiti on the walls; this was a way Palestinians used the walls to tell political slogans. If you go to the Gaza strip now, the wall now, you’ll find paintings of buses blowing up and attacks on soldiers. I mean, it’s the way they communicate with each other. In those days, they would paint slogans or they would write messages saying a demonstration on this date, and the Israeli soldiers would be coming by all the time and forcing people out of their homes and giving them a bucket of paint and saying, “Ok, go paint that over.” On the walls, you’ll see it and even in the previous slide, you saw it. So, these were things I’d bring up all the time. A prose journalist is probably going to mention these things, but he or she is not going to mention them at every paragraph whereas with a cartoon, just by the fact that I have background I can play with, I can have these things, the mud, the graffiti. All of these things just follow the reader around wherever he or she goes in each panel so that it just creates an atmosphere. The reader is always there; there’s always that graffiti, always that mud. It’s not something you mention once and then you go on to the next subject because I can always play with the backgrounds. I can always make it a presence, and that was important to me because when I as there, there was always a presence and obviously the Palestinians have to live through it. There’s always a presence.
This is from the same sequence where I was actually in a van there being taken on a UN tour of the camp, which was very strange [Figure 12]. I felt very uncomfortable. I felt like I was on some sort of safari, you know, because I was in a van looking out at these people, looking out at these kids who were obviously from a very poor background, looking down at these sorts of resentful young men, who probably had no work. And then, Israeli soldiers showing up on patrol often eighteen or nineteen years old and quite nervous about where they were going. I mean, Gaza is not an easy place to go on patrol. So I felt like I was viewing things from a distance in a way. And I ended up at a place they wanted to show me. The UN wanted to show me some kind of model institution for deaf kids. And there was a guy there who said, “Listen you are not going to see the camp this way, why don’t you–if you really want to see the camp–why don’t you stay with me?” and I said, “Sure.” And, like a couple of days later, I showed up and I found him, and I stayed with him for four days and he showed me around the camp. That was a great thing, which you know . . . Maybe it doesn’t have much to do with comics journalism per se, but it was a great advantage to being independent, to not having to file a daily story. To not being, you know . . . I’ve had accreditation before from major magazines, like I mean recently, and there’s this tendency to sort of put you in a hotel, and they book it for you, you know, from New York. They’ll book your hotel in Gaza from New York. And what I was doing was sort of independently on my own money. It was just easier to accept invitations, and those invitations just came up because people saw what I was trying to do. I didn’t represent a big magazine that would have money. Anyways, so here again you’ll see that certain things are following the reader around, graffiti, the mud and also the barrels. I don’t know if you can see those barrels in the second panel that the Israeli soldiers put up between, or to block streets off so if there was a confrontation or clash with the youth, the kids couldn’t run down certain streets. They’d always be forced into certain avenues the Israelis could control and capture them. So, you’ll see barrels everywhere in a car.
This is just the same sort of thing [Figure 13]. You know, you don’t have to say “mud,” you just keep drawing it over and over again. You don’t have to talk about the weather; you just sort of draw the weather. And, I think that’s a very evocative thing that is one of the attributes of comics that I appreciate.
Again, here I am, I am talking to my friend [Figure 14]. We’re going from one place to another and I use it as an opportunity to show what the weather is like.
Ok, now I am taking you to another time and place [Figure 15]. I’m taking the reader to 1995 and the UN convoy going into a town called Gorazde, which is in Eastern Bosnia, on of the so-called safe areas that, fortunately, didn’t fall to the Bosnian Serbs. And I had the opportunity, because I had a press pass, to get onto a convoy and go to this town and see how the people lived and, you know, in the first few pages of the comic, I try to sort of set the scene. I felt in a way, we were on this convoy delivering food and there hadn’t been regular convoys for 3 ½ years. The town had been surrounded for 3 ½ years and shelled and there was a lot of deprivation, near starvation conditions, and it was just, basically, hell on earth. And I was coming in one of these convoys about two weeks after the siege had not quite been lifted, but UN convoys were allowed to get through. And that’s what I try to evoke in these next few slides. I mean, this is no man’s land between Serb lines and between Bosnian government lines heading into Gorazde. You know, I make efforts at landscape too. I really appreciate landscape painters a lot because I find that’s an important role. I think hard part for someone in my position is to show just the landscape, the foliage, all that sort of thing. You really have to think about these things. It’s so much easier, in a way, to write about them.
You’ll see we’re heading into Gorazde [Figure 16]. We’re coming to the first checkpoint and you see the kids are starting to gather around the convoy as it’s coming in. And just one thing that might be of interest for example–we were escorted by the French peacekeepers, and that’s a French armored car up there. And, you know, a prose journalist just has to write, “Escorted by the French peacekeepers.” But, to a cartoonist, especially if you are trying to add some realism to a situation, you have to actually recreate those vehicles and you have to be somewhat . . . you have to be true to it alright. I think you do, I mean, you can work with the distractions if you want, but I tend not to. So, I had to take pictures of these things. I would think as I was there, “Well, I’m probably going to have to draw this APC [armored personnel carrier]. I’d better take a picture of it or else.” I’d have to research it on the web when I got back or in some “Jane’s old-world fighting armored vehicle” or something like this. So, there’s a lot of this sort of research that goes on that maybe passes you by, but it is definitely there.
I took pictures from hilltops above the towns to get these sorts of views [Figure 17] and it was very important to me to show Gorazde, the town–not “town X” in Bosnia–but a very particular place, basically so that someone from the town would recognize it as his or her town. That’s important to me, to show a very specific place. Now that is the bridge. It is from photo reference, but I’m not drawing it exactly, I’m not tracing over a photograph or anything like that. I mean, probably, I’ve switched the angle and certainly, you know, I brought, I don’t know . . . I hate to use the word “camera,” but I brought the reader in the air. In the first panel, there was no such position I could do that from in the air, but the good thing about being a cartoonist is that you can extrapolate a lot. You can be in your own mental crane, your own mental helicopter, and take yourself above a situation. I defy a photographer to do that. You know, not to disparage photographers, but I should say the power of a photographer is that they’re telling a whole story with one picture and that’s what gives it its impact. But, with good comics journalism, I think an atmosphere is created with multiple images.
Here we sort of begin to pull into a hole where people are gathered [Figure 18]. And, I don’t know if you can tell, but each face is individualized and that was important to me. I didn’t want to show a mass of people in the sense that they all look like a bunch of ants or something. To me, they’re all individuals who have suffered enormously, and even though none of those faces might be true to any particular individual, the point, I think, is coming across. The essential truth, as I said, comes across. There are individuals who have suffered this.
I was fascinated when I was in the town with the fact that it had no running water, no electricity. You know, people didn’t have any heat except for wood, so there was always this constant chopping of wood going on [Figure 19]. And I recognize this isn’t the type of thing that’s going to make it in the newspaper really, but I decided I would really like to depict this a lot and depict how people cut the wood–something quite simple really–and how they stacked the wood. So I figure this stuff is going to be lost to history if no one documents it. And, why shouldn’t I do it? So even in the next slide [Figure 20], you’ll see that this is a really typical scene. I’m not really exaggerating anything. But in the courtyards of the apartment buildings, you’ll see it’s basically a square. It’s like a typically central European apartment complex where there’s the Hof, as they say in German–you know, the square in the middle of the apartment residences. And that’s where all the wood would be stored so people could get it. And they stored it in a lot of different ways, circular ways, things like this. And I got to be fascinated by these saws–what are these? horses?–whatever you call them that people put the wood on to be sawed. So I take pictures of those things and try to document as much of this stuff as possible.
And the same is true for the water wheels the people were using to generate some electricity [Figure 21] because that’s what they’d do. There’s the river Drina that was flowing through the town, and people would put their paddle wheel generators that were sort of jerry-rigged from refrigerators and cars and things like this. And they made these little turn-wheels that would generate just a little electricity. You know, enough to run a TV, or a radio, or a VCR or something like that, or to have a little light. And that’s also something that’s going to be lost unless someone records it. So I felt that was part of my function while I was there.
And here’s another scene [Figure 22- unavailable]. This is actually the Hague, the war crimes tribunal of the Hague. I was fortunate enough to be sent by Details magazine to the Hague to cover some of the war crimes trials a couple of years ago, three years ago. And actually what I tried to show was how sterile the courtroom is. It’s such a sterile environment to hear about such squalid, dirty crimes, and that’s a part of the reason. People would ask me how are you going to draw this? This isn’t going to really lend itself to comics. But I think it lends itself quite well because you can actually make a statement about sterility–and I don’t have any other pictures in this slideshow–but I would often juxtapose these sort of cold courtroom pictures with sort of the brutality of the war in Bosnia.
Ok, now I am dropping someone into another time and place [Figure 23- unavailable]. This is a rock club in Sarajevo, called Ogala. And this is another thing I like about doing journalism in comics because I felt completely free to get cartoony when it’s necessary to evoke an atmosphere. You know, it is very hard to evoke movement with comics, unless you are going to be sort of cartoony. So I had no problem using these little lines and, you know, showing people playing air guitar with sort of exaggerated features. Because, again, to me, this gets the essential truth. It is a noisy place, people like you probably go to rock clubs. You recognize this stuff right away, you know? And, again, this is sort of cartoony–it’s a journalistic book–but why not bring the cartoony element into it to add emphasis and, like I said, to get to that essential truth? The next slide is part of a double page spread.
I wanted this drawing to feel loud [Figure 24- unavailable]. There’s some paintings I see and I think, “This is a very loud painting.” Like Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death. I see that painting–and maybe it’s because I was smoking pot one day when I was looking at it–but it was just so loud. I mean, it’s skeletons drumming, you know, herding people, herding people into these huge coffins, and I look at that and it’s making my . . . it’s shattering my ears almost. And that’s part of what I wanted somehow to get in my own way. And, the best way to do that was to let myself slip into being cartoony.
Here’s another example of that [Figure 25]. You know, I guess I mock myself a fair amount, in the Palestine book in particular. In this case, I was asking a guy . . . he was saying, “Well they tortured me.” And, I was saying, “Well how did they torture you?” You know, I didn’t know anything about this stuff. And he said, “You know, they tortured me.” And, so I said, “Well, can you show me?” And so, it became clear to me how ridiculous I must have seemed. So what he did was he put me in a chair and laid me back to give me a feeling that I was in a very vulnerable position. Then he brought his hand almost to my groin. And I wanted to somehow mock myself with this and so again, I just let things get cartoony, just to sort of poke fun at myself, to release some of the tension even for the reader because what are talking about is very serious and disgusting stuff.
This is from the Soba comic and again I am dropping someone into a little party [Figure 26 – unavailable]. And, you know, this is a realistic depiction. I move towards realism a lot in my work, but in a case like this, I just want to show movement. I just want to show the mayhem of a dance, people who are just happy to have a party during a wartime situation. They are just happy to be there enjoying themselves, and they enjoy themselves like you wouldn’t believe. And that’s what I am trying to get at–to just get some of that energy, and that’s what this slide is about.
I think this is the last of the slides [Figure 27]. This is a demonstration in East Jerusalem of women whose husbands had been expelled from Israel or Jerusalem, basically taken to the Lebanese border because they were accused of belonging to illegal groups and just shoved across the border and told, “You can’t come back in.” And they were separated from their families and these women had a demonstration and it was broken up by the Israeli police. And afterwards, I thought, well, “how am I going to depict this?” You know, a “real journalist,” if you can forgive the expression, might have taken notes to get the order of things right, but I realized, really, what it is was a swirl of events, and I just wanted to draw a page where it wasn’t clear what’s going on first, what’s going on second . . . with how consecutive it was. It is just confusion, but you don’t know. You’re looking there and something’s going on, looking there and something’s going on, and I think you can do that with comics. Again, this is no realism. This is playing with composition to make a point and to show something. And that’s the end of my slidea. So I’d rather use the rest of the time for taking questions, to see what you want to talk about. So, why don’t we do that?
Question [Q]: Earlier, you were talking about stereotypes and I was wondering how do you deal with that in going from character, cartoony to realism?
Sacco [JS]: Well, that is a fair question. If you look at the early pages of my Palestine work, I was very cartoony because that’s how I drew. And so when I was drawing Arabs, when I was drawing Jews, I mean, they came out pretty cartoony and some people were pretty offended. And I thought about this and I realized, you know, “I have to step back from this.” I have to start drawing a little more realistically because I don’t want this discourse I am trying to create to be drowned in that, drowned in “oh, it’s just stereotype.” “This guy has a big nose” kind of thing. So I began to draw more realistically. That’s basically part of the reason. Also, I felt like the topic itself deserved a more realistic treatment. I used cartooniness as a technique to emphasize certain things, but I don’t use it throughout. I mean, I’ll always be cartoony because I can’t really draw realistically. It just doesn’t come out of my hand. Yes?
Q: A question about editing yourself. How long after you actually experience events do you take notes then draft them, you write and draw? And then, in addition, do you get feedback from the subjects? Do you actually contact them afterwards?
JS: Well, I’m not sure I understand your second question, but when I’m there, there’s a number of ways of doing things. If I’m looking for something specific I’ll interview someone. I’ll take notes, or record the conversation and then transcribe the conversation. Otherwise, if something happens that I’m not always sitting there with my notebook. A lot of times, some of the best things are happening when you don’t have your notebook, or where it would be highly inappropriate to take your notebook out. So, I keep a very . . . I keep a journal when I’m in the field, so to speak. And religiously, I would write. I would get home at the end of the night wherever I’m staying and just write. And sometimes, two pages, sometimes eight. I really wouldn’t need hours as far as that goes. Basically, I’d be reconstructing certain things that had happened during the days; things like that. As far as feedback goes, I guess it depends on who you talk to. I can tell you especially about the last book on Gorazde. Fortunately, the feedback was good from the people who were depicted in the book. I mean, they were flattered. They recognized themselves; they recognized their town. And, that meant a lot to me. Truth was, that meant more to me than the New York Times review meant to me. I was actually worried about what they would think. Anyone else?
Q: You mentioned that you like to ask people not just questions that they can respond to in a prose fashion, but to respond visually so that you know what the towns look like and that sort of thing. Have you ever just handed over paper, pencil, ink, crayons and said, “draw it for me”?
JS: Well, with my mother and the air raid sheltern, for example. Also with the guards, I mean–sorry–the guys who were in that prison. They drew a schematic of that prison for me. And then they would describe something and I would say, oh like this? And I would sketch something in front of them. But there were a lot of questions that must definitely seem strange to people I’m interviewing. It’s not your typical New York Times types of questions to be asking, “So, what were you wearing as you crossed the road?” It seems really odd when the actual thing you are talking about is getting shot at as you cross the road.
Q: I was wondering if the drawing frees up the verbal in some ways?
JS: Well, often people are describing something very thoroughly and as I am listening, I write the entire script. For example, in the Gorazde book, I wrote the entire script before I started drawing. I made many changes as I went along, but as I transfer what I am writing onto paper, actually through the drawing, I say, “well I can draw that; I don’t have to write that.” There’s that sort of editing that starts to knock things out so there’s no redundancy between the writing and the drawing, unless it’s intentional, unless it’s for emphasis, something like that. Or unless I want to make it clear that this actually happened in this way, that this is not some representation that I made up.
Q: How do you settle on your subjects? And, what are you working on now?
JS: Ok, the question was, “how do I settle on these subjects and what am I working on now?” These two subjects, out of sheer compulsion because I was pretty disgusted by what was going on in the occupied territories–pretty upset. And, you know, one day I just woke up and said, “I should try to go and see for myself.” And the same is true for Bosnia. It’s just something that gnawed at me, and I knew I had to go. In that case, it took me about a year to go because I was still working on the Palestine books. I knew I had to finish–obviously I couldn’t drop the Palestine work, so I finished. I basically moved to Europe so I could be closer to Bosnia, finished the Palestine book, sent the last page off and then, two weeks later, headed down. So the second part of the question, “what am I working on now?” Well, I’m working on a comic that’s about eighty to ninety pages about paramilitary groups in Sarajevo at the beginning of the war in Bosnia. There were these groups that were running to the defense of Sarajevo because there was no standing army to defend the town and a warlord situation developed. I mean, on the one hand, they were defending the city, on the other hand, they were beginning to behave in strange ways. You know, very Heart of Darkness, some of these characters approach Kurtz in a way–very strange characters. So the government needed them, and then at a certain point, the government had to crush them, and violently. So there was an internal struggle in the city of Sarajevo, and very little to be written about it in English. And so I met a guy in 1995 and I’m basically going to trace his story because he, his story parallels their story in a way, and it’s partly a psychological profile of him, and partly a way of using him to tell some history. Yes?
Q: I assume you see or experience much more than you can include in your books and I was wondering if you could give a reason why you document certain things such as the woodcutting. I was wondering if there were other criteria for what you include or exclude from narrative.
JS: Well, almost anything that’s . . . The question was what I include or what do I choose to include or not include. He cites the example of that I chose the woodcutters for example and well, how do I decide that? And basically it’s what interests me and perhaps more important what’s going on. You know, woodcutting impressed me because it was going on all the time, and you could just hear that sound of wood being chopped all the time. So I felt I had to include it because that was part of how the place was all the time. I try to include all those sorts of details. I probably missed some but not out of intention, just out of negligence perhaps, you know, not “negligence” that’s not the word, just missing it. It just went over my head and I didn’t notice. Yes?
Q: You’re obviously going into these places that are so politically charged and so controversial where people on the other side . . . You’re talking to people in getting these stories, but people on the other side might be saying that’s just lies. How do you try to sort out the presentation of this kind of journalism?
S: Well, I’m actually going to do a comic about the Serb side of the lines at some point because I spent a fair amount of time in Sarajevo. The front lines ran down, right in the south of Sarajevo in the city, and it was an urban front line. And at a certain point, with a press pass, the Serb principality allowed journalists to pass over a bridge that was being kept by French peacekeepers. So I was stuck in Sarajevo for about a month. I couldn’t get to Gorazde for about a month because the Serbs were basically beginning to cut the road making it very difficult to get back to Gorazde. So I thought, “well, I’m here for a couple of weeks, I’d better go see what the Serbs are saying.” It was very strange because–and I will tell this story in a future comic so I don’t want to ruin it now in a way–but it was a very strange experience in half an hour of being with Serb friends sitting in a coffee bar and then being on the other side and sitting with, say, Muslims or other loyal Serbs, I mean loyal to the Bosnian government, sitting in a coffee bar on the other side. It was a very strange feeling and you wouldn’t, I mean, especially on the Serb side I would say . . . I would hear utter rubbish coming out of the mouths that should have otherwise been well informed because these were university graduates. And, you know, what I began to realize was how effective propaganda is or how people lie to themselves and grasp at anything that justifies their position. You know, they use their intelligence basically to justify what their side is doing, or in so far, to just be able to live with themselves. So it’s a pretty interesting question. Yes?
Q: Do you get your material back into the hands of the people you lived with and interviewed? And how do you get that back into their hands? Or do you distribute it to them yourself? I guess the reason I ask is because I’m curious to know how, if you do do this, like I have a feeling you do, what role does this play in the way you understand the work?
JS: The way I understand my work?
Q [cont.]: The way in which what you’re doing in getting this material back into the hands of those people you’re portraying–what role does that play?
JS: Well, I mean, the truth of the matter is that I am writing for an American audience–that’s how I look at myself–or a Western European, or whatever you call it. But basically, especially as far as the Middle East stuff, an American audience because I feel people here are always clueless about that issue. So that’s the most important thing to me. It matters to me a great deal what people over there think when they see it because I know they can tell if it is bullshit or not. They live it. They can look at me and say, “you know you don’t know the tip of this. You’ve got such a shallow version of what’s going here.” And, I worry about that. Now, as far as sending copies back, I sent copies back to some of the main people I talked to in the Palestine books, and I never heard back from them. And I was even worried about sending books there because, you know, the post goes through Israeli post and you just never know what’s going to happen. I mean, I changed the names of people, but then when you send books to a specific address, you know, you could get that person in trouble. Anyway, that’s how I look at it. One guy once told me, “I’m not going to talk to you. The last time I talked to a journalist, I spent two years in an Israeli jail. I said something, it got reported. I got quoted. They picked me up.” So I was worried about that. So I didn’t get any specific feedback from those specific individuals, unfortunately. As far as the Bosnia goes, yeah, I sent a box of books to Gorazde. They gave them out. Some were given to the cultural center. All the main people in the books got a copy. I had a book signing in Sarajevo. So the feedback was good and it meant a lot to me. But you know, I’m writing for you. I am writing for the people out here in America because I want Americans to appreciate some of the things going on in the world.
Q: Do you speak Serbian or German?
JS: No, no I don’t.
Q [cont.]: How do you deal with that as a journalist?
JS: I think it impedes what I do to some extent. I think there’s no substitute for knowing the language because some journalists I know who know those languages–they have access in ways or things happen that they pick up on that I could never pick up on. No doubt about it. But I do have translators I work with where I’ll either–especially lately when I work with magazines–I’ll use a fixer, someone who’s with me eight hours a day. He drives me here. He drives me there, knows who to speak to and he’ll translate. For example, often I use people who volunteer to translate especially in those two books, because I really didn’t have the money to pay people. And so I had to rely on friends who were willing to do it. John [Ronan]?
Q: In your novels, there seems to be literary devices – chapter divisions, Greek choruses, alternating repetitions. The formula of the plot seems the most powerful in the middle of the novel. Is it the story the story that determines that kind of structure, or is it a structure that you then modify for that incident?
JS: Ok, that’s a good question. Basically, it’s funny. Basically I went to one publisher, who won’t be mentioned, and they looked at the first thirty pages of my book. This was before I had a publisher for the Gorazde book, and the person said, “you need to start with more of a bang to this.” And that was exactly the approach I didn’t want to take. The approach I wanted to take was to let the reader get to know these people in the town as I got to know them–sort of slowly but surely. Let them grow on the reader as they grew on me. And then, show the crimes that began, that happened to them so that the crimes seem even more egregious in a certain sense because now you as the reader know these people. It’s not like I am just starting in the middle of it because that’s the most powerful explosion. You know what I mean? But there’s also a chronology that made this a natural way to do it. I figured I could tell the experiences of my being there as one track and then the other track be the history of the town and the war and let the two build up together. There’s sort of a natural climax in both, you know. There’s uh, I shouldn’t actually go into the ending of these books, but I think about these things. I don’t think in terms of Greek choruses, things like that. Maybe I studied that back in high school. But, yeah, repetition and things like that are important to me. And, I try to use images and bring them up again. Yeah, so I do think about those things.
Q: How long did it, from the initial scripting, to actually do the Gorazde book?
JS: It took 3 ½ years.
Q [cont.]: And how much total time were you able to spend in Gorazde?
JS: About a month, total.
Q [cont.]: Was that ever frustrating, looking over a small time of experience at any . . . I mean, working three years on a month or two’s worth of experience and first hand interviewing? Do you ever wish you can get back to the thick of it?
JS: Yeah, as much as other journalists because now . . . I’ve met a lot of war correspondents, foreign correspondents, and now they often say how they envy me because I have so much time to hang out with people. And I can get to know a situation pretty well. And it’s a fair amount of time. I use my time well. I think it’s a fair amount of time. It’s not much time when you compare how much time it took to put that on paper. Yeah, it’s certainly not, I mean, the proportion is a bit difficult. But, I think I lost my train of thought now, actually.
Q [cont.]: Well, I was wondering as you’re sitting working from script to page?
JS: Yeah, it’s frustrating. It is frustrating, you know, as much as my friends who are journalists envy my ability to, or the way I work, I can just spend my time in a place, not have to file everyday. I envy them because they are always where the action is, in a way. They’re always doing that sort of thing. But, the truth is, if you want to be effective, you have to chain yourself to a desk.
John Ronan: We’re going to have to stop the questions because we’re out of time here. Let’s thank Joe. [applause]
JS: Thank you very much.