INTERVIEW: It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be With Lizzy Stewart

A bulletin board with black and white illustrations of pictures of women

London-based illustrator Lizzy Stewart is best known for her children’s books, but with It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be, we see what coming of age means through the eyes of several young women. Exploring their winding paths to adulthood through previously self-published short stories, Stewart’s new graphic novel from Fantagraphics will be available this week.

A bulletin board with black and white illustrations of pictures of women. The cover of It's Not What You Thought It Would Be by Lizzy Stewart

A young girl imagines a grand future for herself, far from the drab British suburbs. Two friends, once inseparable, find their connection gradually slipping away. Three women discuss how life in the big city makes them feel seen — or invisible. In a series of interconnected vignettes, It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be explores the circuitous paths lives can take and the changes in perspective gained along the way.

In a series of interconnected vignettes, Stewart focuses on the ordinary, slice-of-life moments — teenagers climbing up and lounging on a rooftop, friends catching up over pints at the pub, a woman riding the night bus home — and charges these scenes with a quiet intensity. Through keen observation and an ear for naturalistic dialogue, she reveals the complex natures of her characters, from their confidence to their insecurities, as they experience the joys and pains of growing up. Drawn in a variety of different styles, from watercolor to colored pencil to pen and ink, the style of this book echoes the evolution of the characters within.

Stewart took a moment to answer a few questions about her first graphic novel project for WWAC. Be sure to check out the exclusive preview below!

What inspired you to tell the stories of these characters and why did you feel a graphic novel was the best way to do so?

Well, to be honest, I didn’t think that! The stories are a collection of comics that were all self-published over the course of about five or six years. So, at the time they were made, they weren’t really intended to be one single book, they weren’t really written to have more longevity than their short print run! So when Fantagraphics approached me to collect them I was kind of surprised and it took me a minute to try and see them as a book.

Luckily I’m relatively thematically consistent (or repetitive, perhaps) so the stories do actually sit together in relative harmony! Phew! Three of them (“Dog Walk,” “A Quick Catch-Up,” and “The Wedding Guests”) feature the same characters and the rest are more scattered but they all sort of follow the experience of being young to young-ish and trying to figure out where you fit or where you might fit. Also, neatly, the protagonist in each story gets older as you progress through the book, so the girl in “Heavy Air” is about twelve or thirteen and we run through to the characters in “The Wedding Guests” being about thirty-three ish.

Was creating this graphic novel… what you thought it would be? Do you have plans to explore more stories through sequential art like this?

Again, in this instance, I wasn’t really creating a book in one go. I was revisiting old things and tidying up. So quite a different thing than drawing a book from start to finish. As a result, it was probably a much less physically arduous experience than someone might have putting together a book of the same length in one go. Nevertheless, there are difficulties and barriers to revisiting old work. For starters, almost every story was created in a different size format (well done me!). So that was a bit of a nightmare!

Since I finished working on INWYTIWB, I’ve finished a graphic novel collaboration with a writer called Molly Naylor for Avery Hill here in the UK and a full-length graphic novel that I wrote that’s coming out in the UK next summer with (a non-comics publisher) Serpent’s Tail. So, for better or worse, I’ve sort of hitched my wagon to the graphic novel cart for the foreseeable future! Usually, I make children’s picture books so it’s been really interesting to make a different kind of illustrated book with a whole different audience.

Tell us a bit about these characters… who are they to you?

I don’t know really! They’re people I relate to, I think. They contain elements of people I know or have known and also of people I have, at one time or another, been myself. But they’re not me, nor are they really based on anyone specific. They’re very ordinary, I think that’s probably the key feature of almost everything I write.

For me, my teens and twenties weren’t angsty as much as they were just….muddled? There are tonnes of (great) books about angst, trauma, and extreme experiences and I just would have no place writing about that. But the feeling of not quite being able to say what you mean to someone you care about? Or trying to build your home in a strange city or try to carve out a corner of the world that you can be comfortable in? That’s my stuff. I wanted these characters to feel familiar-is and comforting even though they don’t really have any of the answers.

Oh no! I’ve just realised there is ONE fully true story in it. I completely forgot. So very early on there’s a short story called “Blush” about feeling embarrassment as a child. That’s all me. The incident in the story and the feelings described. I can’t believe I forgot that brief foray into non-fiction!

Your style and media shifts with each story. Why did you choose to illustrate the book in this way? How did you determine which style felt right for each story?

So the medium for each story sort of relates to the time in which I made the original comic. Usually, I’m working between commercial illustration jobs so when I write a comic it’s a little break from client stuff. Emphasis on ‘little’. Usually, I’m squeezing a story into a month to write and draw so I think I ended up working with whatever I might have been feeling into at that moment. So there’s an inky story, “Home Time,” which was made just after I worked on a project entirely with Quink Ink and was feeling confident with that material.

It works the other way too, though. I think I did “The Wedding Guests” after I’d finished a painted picture book. I needed a break from all that paint and scanning and so on. That one is all digital. Everything is a response to what came before I guess!

I’ve always jumped around, I like it. Perhaps it’s jarring for some people to have the visuals jump around a bit but, for me, I’m always interested to see what artists do with different media, how they adapt, and what they have to change. I don’t really feel like a comic-book artist so everything I do in that field is a bit of an experiment. It’s just turned out that these experiments have ended up collated in a rather fancy hardback book! Which is…unusual!

You can discover more of Stewart’s work on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.