The Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF) was this past weekend and I got the chance to talk to featured guest, Pénélope Bagieu, about her graphic novel Exquisite Corpse from First Second.

Penelope Bagieu. Exquisite Corpse. First Second.

Exquisite Corpse was actually published in 2010 as Cadavre Exquis in France, which makes this year the first time it gets published in North America and in English. What was the translation experience like? Did what you want to convey in the story make the leap into this version?

Well, it’s the first time I actually understand a translated version (a lot better than in German, for instance), so I really got to have a close look, for once, and it was perfectly done by Alexis Siegel. Not that a not-so-good translation would have changed the story, but I’m glad the humor of Zoe and the cynicism of Thomas is kept intact. I’m very careful with the tone I use to make the characters speak.

This is my first time reading your work and I found the artwork so lively and fun. What’s influenced your style?

(Thank you !) I grew up reading no comics at all, but watching tons of cartoons on TV and reading my mother’s English and American children’s books. I studied animation in college, which was what I really thought I wanted to do (until I realized that there was a much simpler way to achieve what I wanted to do, that is drawing and telling stories). But studying animation and the very dynamic and synthetic representation of a movement or an expression is, to me, the best way to learn how to draw exactly what you mean to say in a comic.

One of the themes that I got from the book is the idea of self-worth, whether it’s through Thomas measuring himself through criticism or Zoe figuring out what she deserves out of life. Was it always your intent for the book to explore that?

Of course! The idea came to me after I’d been surrounded with so many incredibly successful authors, that I admired a lot, and that I had always thought had no interest anymore in reading their press reviews. But I found out that most of them still read them anxiously, that it meant everything to them. A lot more than the satisfaction of creating, or the kind regard of people who truly know them. Some of them may be depressed for weeks after a bad review, some of them have wives who forbid them to read the critics. It kind of comforted be and terrified me at the same time, to know that, well, you’re never through with that. The opinion of a few people who don’t know them, still means a lot more than anyone who truly love them. That’s fascinating.

Thomas is a pretty selfish character in this book in his pursuit of his art which had me wondering: Do you think a level of selfishness is required in creating art?

That’s a question that should be asked to boyfriends and children! Apart from the time and energy it takes to achieve such a long task (years for a comic book), I tend to be totally emotionally monopolized during the writing process. I want to speak about nothing else, I think about it all the time and can’t find sleep because I just want to write. Actually, because I just want to be with my book. My friends always make fun of me because I talk about what I’m writing as if I was in love. But it’s pretty much that. I’m so happy in the moments when I have something being written in my life, and feel so empty when I don’t. And yet I know it’s not particularly easy to live with someone like that. It’s like there is a third person living with us. But after a while, I’m done, it’s over, and the invisible person goes away. (And then I’m depressed, in a strange postpartum way.)

I really liked the idea of women and space that is discussed and depicted in the book in relation to men. There’s multiple examples of this like at Zoe’s job when customers get grabby, at her home with her boyfriend and even in the literary world when Thomas laughs at Zoe’s choice of book, which happens to be romance. Is it something that you thought needed to be addressed?

I’ve been criticized that men have the very bad part in this story: some of them are cowards, others are brutes, none of them really make amends for the rest. I’m not saying that it’s the only kind of men you meet, as a woman. But when you’re very young, with no self-confidence, no plans and a very low self-esteem, it’s so easy to be taken advantage of by people (and among them, men) who give you the false impression that they’re better than you, or that they have a plan, or that you need them, and something great will happen if you keep them in your life. Zoe believes she’s a muse to Thomas, when he’s only using her.

You’re a popular blogger in France and I wanted to know in what way your blog, Ma Vie Est Tout a Fait Fascinante (My Life Is Completely Fascinating), has helped you as the creator you are today?

It’s a great draft, for all these things that don’t really need to be turned into a book. That helps me being really really really sure I truly want to tell a story before throwing myself into months of hard work for nothing. Sometimes it’s not book-material, and that’s okay. And when I believe it is, then let’s get to work and make it worth the waste of paper.

This is a book that covers criticism that we get from our works. What’s your relationship with criticism like?

My publisher once told me to only take credit (and perhaps get hurt as well) from things that were told to my face. And never over forums, or reviews, or comments. It works very well for me. I would go crazy if I started googling my name and things like that. It’s already so hard to stick to that long and lonely road, when you’re writing a book. And also, I think my great luck is that most of (all of ?) my friends and close family members work in “real jobs”. They show polite interest in my books, read them once in a while when I really insist, but all of them live on a planet where book reviews and prizes don’t exist. If I were to take it too seriously, or was brought down by reading some bad critics, I don’t think they would even understand. They would be like “So what? Do you even know these guys? Who cares?” And they’re totally right, of course.

Penelope Bagieu. Exquisite Corpse. May 2015. First Second. Comics.Like I said, I REALLY enjoyed this book. Are there any plans to get your other books translated as well like your Joséphine series?

(Thank you again !) I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the graphic novel I just finished (and that will be published in France next September) will also find its way to America. . . . Besides, it’s the story of another young woman with a big twist in her destiny, but this time it happens in New York!

I’d like to end this interview with asking you: what’s the last comic/graphic novel or book you’ve read recently?

El Deafo, by Cece Bell, that I got at last month MoCCA festival in New York. The amazing autobiography of a little girl (and then young teenager) who’s deaf. It’s witty, and moving, and so funny ! I can’t wait until it’s translated to French so I can give it to all my friends in Paris.

Exquisite Corpse will make it’s English translation debut at the 2015 Toronto Comics Arts Festival. I highly recommend picking it up. It’s a fantastic read.