Houston In My Head: Thu Interviews Kate Gavino, Author of SANPAKU

Article by thudoan89

Kate Gavino is a writer and illustrator from Houston. She is the creator of the website, Last Night’s Reading, which was compiled into a published collection by Penguin Books in 2015. She was recently named one of Brooklyn Magazine’s 30 Under 30. Now, she is working in Paris. Kate and I got together to discuss her forthcoming graphic novel, SANPAKU, which comes out on August 21st.

Thu Doan: Do you mind telling us about SANPAKU?

Kate Gavino: Yeah! SANPAKU is a book I’ve been working on for about ten years. During that time, it has taken lots of forms. I began writing it in college as a novella, but it wasn’t until after I graduated that it became a graphic novel. It’s about a 12 y.o. girl growing up in Houston named Marcine. She discovers the Japanese concept of sanpaku, which is the belief that if you can see the whites underneath your eyes, then you’re doomed to a horrible life or an untimely death. Marcine discovers that sanpaku is all around her and tries to cure her own sanpaku while questioning all of her beliefs and learning about her grandmother’s life.

TD: Kate’s comics and illustrations have also been featured in BuzzFeed, Lenny Letter, Oprah, and more. I’ve noticed that that work is autobiographical and taken from your own experiences. How does SANPAKU compare? Also, what drives you to create stories from your own experiences?

KG: The biggest difference is that it’s completely fictional. I’ve never believed in sanpaku or tried out a macrobiotic diet, but many of the details and background are inspired by my own life. I tend to notice that in the best fiction, details and character traits tend to be real, but the actual story is completely made up, which is the case with SANPAKU.

Although I’ve done more illustrations that are inspired by or based on my own life, I knew that for a longer story, I couldn’t focus on my own life for that long. I needed a fictional element to it and SANPAKU has given me the freedom to do it.

TD: You went to school in New York and lived there for some time before moving to Paris.

When I prepared for this interview last night, I realized that Houston is loosely mentioned as the setting. For any Houstonian though, the landmarks and the attitude of the city, are clear. What made you decide to return to Houston for this book?

KG: I almost feel like it wasn’t my choice. In my head, the story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else, but I understand that if you’re not familiar with Houston and the landmarks, then you could place the story anywhere. Details and places like an H.E.B bag or Viet Hoa allude to Houston, but when I was writing the story, I definitely had Houston in my head. While I was was growing up in Houston, I wasn’t particularly proud about living in Houston or liked it, but the longer I’ve lived away from it, the more pride I have in its culture, vibrancy, and the food.

TD: Can you tell us about how you started drawing and writing?

KG: I’ve always drawn as a little kid. It used to be my dream to work as a Disney animator and I told everyone that I wanted to be an artist. As I got older and even through college, I would hear about how unfeasible an art life could be so I decided to become a writer instead. Haha, which is a lateral move, but I thought it was somewhat more responsible. In college, I studied fiction writing and I really enjoyed that. That’s where I learned how to craft a good narrative. After I graduated from college, I still found myself drawing whether it was at work or elsewhere. Eventually, I put combined the two worlds and that’s how I started drawing comics and graphic novels.

TD: Does creating comics or a graphic novel, compared to writing something entirely, feel liberating, limiting, or very challenging to you?

KG: Definitely challenging. I discovered how much physical labor goes into creating an entire graphic novel. It’s not necessarily demanding physical labor, but it’s just persistence and sitting there to draw out an entire background. That can take a couple of hours. Then multiply that times a couple hundred pages. Writing a story takes a long time, but for me, dedicating work to every single page has forced me to slow down and understand the story and details, which is incredibly valuable to me.

TD: What’s important to you when you’re trying to capture or convey a message in every image?

KG: In a graphic novel, the images need to be able to tell a story that is separate from the words. If you wanted to read just the words, then you should just read a novel. I think the images have to convey some things that words sometimes cannot. I want my images to do some leg work. Also, it’s better to include fun details you probably wouldn’t notice unless you’re reading it for the second time, and it’s better for me as an artist.

TD: How do you narrow the dialog?

KG: The book started off as a novella without images so that was definitely something I had to work on. Later on, I noticed that when I was turning it into a graphic novel, there was a lot less dialog. When you’re able to see the images and the characters, it speaks a whole lot more than actual dialog. In that case, it cuts away anything that’s unnecessary and you can focus on what the novel needs to be.

TD: In the book, Marcine is a pre-teen/teen trying to understand and figure out or make sense of religion and faith, being confident in her beliefs and herself, and sexuality. It’s very coming-of-age. Do you think your book straddles between being an adult graphic novel and YA?

KG: Having worked in book publishing, I think that calling something YA is just up to a publisher’s marketing department. I’ve noticed a lot of YA authors that I’ve read and from creating this book, that authors are just writing the story they want to write and if the main character is a teen or a tween, then it ends up being called YA, and I have no problem with my book being called YA. When I was writing the story, I wasn’t thinking about whether it was going to be a graphic novel for adults or YA, I just wanted to write about this specific 12 y.o.

Ultimately, if it gets placed in the YA section or the graphic novel section, I don’t really care as long as someone is reading it.

TD: What do you think an adult audience versus a young adult audience might take away from it?

KG: As an adult, I hope that it will bring them back to the same mindset that they were when they were that age, at a time when they were trying to figure out what they believed in and their identity, and I hope that will justify Marcine’s extreme actions and the confusion she feels, and to relate. I hope that a young person reading the book will see themselves in Marcine, and that the book speaks to someone that is going through the same thing.

TD: As far as I can tell, which is pretty limited anyways, there aren’t many Filipino stories that describe the nicknames. Can you tell us a little bit about the nicknames like Lola and Lolo?

KG: Those are Tagalog words. Lola is grandmother and Lolo is grandfather. Most of the Filipino people I know, that’s what they call their grandparents.

Sometimes when I’ve been in writing workshops, there’s some confusion and people will mistake Lola for being the actual name, but I guess I didn’t feel the need to clarify it that much. For instance, putting subtitles for some Tagalog phrases was done at the behest of my editor. But even if you do think her name is Lola, that won’t change anything, but if you’re Filipino or know what the word Lola means, then that will just add a special layer to the story.

TD: A big part of the story if about Marcine’s relationship to her grandmother, Lola, but for the most part, the story takes place after Lola passes, is there a reason you decided to incorporate so much of Lola into the story?

KG: Yeah, I wanted Marcine to learn about her Lola from other people. I noticed that in Filipino families and other immigrant families, there’s a tendency towards secrecy and you don’t find things out until much later. I wanted Marcine to discover more and more about her in pieces and through other people because I think that’s a shared experience among many families. I didn’t want her to find out everything at once, I wanted her to learn through gossip or from trustworthy sources so she could decide which part she wanted to believe in and what parts she didn’t, so that she could form her own story about her grandmother.

TD: I think it’s intriguing because we can all relate in the ways we communicate with our families. Sometimes it’s difficult to do because of a generational gap or even a language barrier.

KG: Yeah, when you’re young, you don’t always go up to your parents or grandparents and ask to hear their life story. It’s one of those things you regret doing until after they die. I knew about Marcine and her grandmother, and that just felt more natural to me.

TD: Well, it’s such a cheeky and heartwarming story and I think everyone will love it. Thank you! Is there anything else you would like to add before I ask my last question?

KG: Not really.

TD: Alright, where would I find crispy pata?

KG: Godo’s in the med center, TJ’s in Pearland, and Gerry’s Grill in Chinatown. For a fancy version: Aqui!

TD: Hahaha, thanks!

Just a reminder, Kate will be with us at Brazos Bookstore on August 25th at 7pm, and she will be in conversation with local author Bryan Washington.

Sanpaku Cover Image
$24.99
ISBN: 9781684152100
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Archaia - August 21st, 2018

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