Interview With Neil Kleid, Graphic Novel Writer

Neil Kleid, writer of Brownsville and The Big Kahn and cartoonist of Ninety Candles and various minicomics, has just self-published his first prose novel.

Coffin is currently no longer available from Lulu.com. It’s a 392-page paperback for $22 (plus shipping). There’s a preview at that link, and Neil describes it as follows:

Coffin follows Jeffrey Dean and Annie Wylen, commuters on the PATH line, leading individual lives filled with individual fears. When their train is derailed, they find themselves trapped with eight passengers they do not know and in order to survive, are forced to depend on the kindness of strangers in an increasingly isolated society. This is what happens when humanity comes together when the lights go out and the steps they take when the love of two individuals threatens to kill them all. Questioning the vulnerability of a post-9/11 New York and inspired by the experiences of friends and family who face the fear of suicide bombers in present day Israel, Coffin is the tale of a group of passengers, waiting for someone to rescue them from Hell beneath the Earth, banding together with complete strangers to face claustrophobia, self-esteem, rat stampedes, emotional infatuation, and the ever-present, crushing darkness as they cling to one another in hopes of reaching light at the end of the tunnel.

Neil was kind enough to answer my emailed questions about his project, its place in history, and the print-on-demand format.

Q: You mention “post-9/11 New York” in your book description — how were you affected by 9/11 and how did that influence this work?

Like most New Yorkers, 9/11 pretty much redefined a lot about my place in the world, place in the city… you have to understand that I’d JUST moved to New York and was still a Midwestern suburban kid acclimating himself to the Big City, and to MY eyes at the time, everybody in New York looked out for number one. I mean, you got on the subway and though packed in with commuters, many of whom you’re a tongue’s length away from, you avoid eye contact as much as possible. A subway of One, like elevator mentality. To me — a dude who comes from an insular religious community, a “brotherhood” that looks out for each other, I really questioned whether or not my fellow New Yorker would be there if the chips were down.

And then, on September 11th, I pretty much got my answer. The events of 9/11 and the outpouring of support for and in New York made me realize that humans are humans, and New York looks out for its own. The city can be the loneliest place in the world, and often times you think that nobody gives a shit, no one cares about your troubles when they’ve got their own, but despite the viewpoints of several of my characters, human kindness is never a last resort, nor is it a myth. And 9/11 really opened our eyes to what our fellow man needs and to what he’s willing to give.

The only problem is, 9/11 also made us all incredibly paranoid, safety and security conscious… and it put me in the mind of friends and family that live in Israel, people I know who were caught in explosions inside Jerusalem, affected by suicide bombers on buses. I mean… I take the train every day. I know how easy it is to get in and out of the transit system. What’s stopping some dude from carrying a bomb in his carrier bag, or a shotgun in a guitar case? Makes us nervous, puts us on edge, and though we’ve proved we’ll be there for our fellow man we’re also not willing to trust him one hundred percent. We’re New Yorkers, and we still look out for number one, avoiding eye contact now more than ever.

Q: What do you say to someone who’s tired of hearing about 9/11? Does this make the novel a bit of a period piece from a previous era?

I suppose it does, though I think we’re still living in a post-9/11 world and the after-effects of that tragedy continue to this day. Sure, there’s been a glut of 9/11 films and novels, and it can get a bit much, but for those of us that lived through it there’s an immediacy to it — it’s still so close, and I know that for New Yorkers that were here, it comes up in conversation: “Where were you?” and then the stories come out. People still have something to say about that day, and though it’s been nearly a decade the emotional power behind the tragedy and its aftermath… the wounds are fresh. I still haven’t seen Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center because I’m not sure I can take it. I work blocks from Ground Zero and it’s always tense to walk by the site.

What do I say to those that are sick of it? I’m not sure I have the words to make them “untired”… it can get heavy, it does feel like every day since then has sort of weighed us down with this crushing guilt, this “terrorists can’t win” credo that just seems a bit too much after the eightieth time you’ve heard it. But… we lived through it, dude. We’re part of that history, you know? Six degrees of separation from what happened, and though I hesitate using the oppressed mantra of many in my faith, often using it to describe the Shoah, we really should never forget. I wonder if my children will get tired of me telling them where I was that day, like some kids get sick of their father’s war stories. I don’t know — I just know that the events of that day inspired questions in my head, and this book was a way to get some answers down on paper while also telling a good, thrilling, character-driven story.

Q: In what ways does this book transcend the plot of “train crash, gotta get to the surface”? Is is just a thriller, or something more?

It’s what I call psychological thriller, kind of an emotional exploration inside the minds of the protagonists struggling to survive. Think “Daylight” as seen through the amateur psychologist’s eye. It’s got a bit of everything — horror, pop culture, romance, rat stampedes. You know, a fun book for the family.

The novel really focuses on character development, letting you swim around inside the protagonists’ minds, and I think that along with some (in my humble opinion) killer dialogue and a creepy situation create a wonderfully suspenseful book.

Q: You’ve written several well-reviewed comics — why prose for this story?

Frustrated novelist? I don’t ever think there’s an either/or as a writer. I want to stretch my legs in all mediums, but prose has always been a precious dream for me, and I plan on working more in this space in the future. Some stories are comics, some stories are films, some are novels. Depends on which world my mind and hands want to play in that year.

Q: This begin as a serialization on LiveJournal. Why that location? And how was the structure affected by that outlet?

I’d been working on the novel for a good year and a half before I started serializing it online and to be honest… I’d stalled. I’d pick it up, put it down, get stuck, get moving — I had no DEADLINES and therefore, it gathered dust for months at a time. What really got me moving was the introduction of the serialized webcomic and, in particular, ACT-I-VATE. When Dean, Dan, and the boys got together and started serializing their comics online, I was enthralled with the steady, deadlined pace they were keeping up, and it inspired me — at the time, focusing on my writing — to use the system they’d constructed to set my deadline and actually FINISH the freaking thing. It also set me up for the internet drug of instant reader gratification. I had folks commenting on chapters and I knew whether or not I was onto something. Every Monday, another chapter went live, and it helped me really breakthrough the stalling and excuses. A chapter HAD to be up on Monday, so I HAD to write it and would edit once the first draft was done. Worked surprisingly well.

Did it have to be LiveJournal? Probably not… but what LJ had going for it (at the time) was the post-WEF pre-Engine Delphi-like internet community that made it feel like I was working on the book within a virtual studio, like an online writer’s workshop. The format of the novel didn’t alter much because of the tool I used, and I think the overall piece stands up fairly well for having been written week-to-week for a virtual space.

Q: Why print-on-demand? What options did you have, and why did you choose this one?

Coffin has been shopped around and done its time in the agencies and publishing houses, but it wasn’t until Warren Ellis recently released his Shivering Sands essay collection via Lulu that I sat down, had a look at print-on-demand, and thought about what I might be able to do with it.

What I dig about the POD system is that it feels like I’m making a DIY novel, a 392-page minicomic xeroxed by the handful for an appreciative base of fans, friends, colleagues, and community. There’s something empowering about writing, designing, and distributing a prose novel by yourself, and though having the book in at a publishing house would obviously bring me more cash, wider distribution, and better marketing… I look at this experiment wiht the same eye I looked at creating Ninety Candles, the book I published and distributed with the help of a Xeric Grant. I’m now learning about book retailers, Amazon Kindles and e-readers, nuances and details I never thought about with comics and graphic novels. It’s different, and with the glut of e-readers coming to market, probably the future. Like webcomics, it’s the next bold step in bookselling, and I’d like some time to fiddle with the dials to see what i can do.

Q: Given your POD experience, would you consider it for future comics/graphic novels?

Definitely. I mean, Coffin just hit the net, so I don’t know if it’s going to be a success or just another 10PM Jay Leno show… the next two months will tell. But I like the model, and I already know what my first sequential offering would be… a trade collection of the Late Night Block short horror stories I wrote for opi8.com back in the Ellis/Chad Ward days. I released those as 3-4 22-page minicomics, but it’d be nice to have them all in one shiny, black, Ben Templesmith-covered package, no? YES.

Q: Prose, comics, graphic design — what field will you be tackling next? What’s your next project?

Old Tyme Radio, naturally! I’ll probably always be writing and designing — I’m an art director by day, my roots borne in the typographic process, and if I don’t write I’ll probably die — but now I’m thrilled to be picking up my Microns again to do a metric ton of cartooning. I’m drawing a 4-page anthology story this year, possibly doing the same for another well-known licensed book, and working on my next big cartoon book already attached to a Big-Time Publisher Type. I like to keep busy, you know? Of course, I’ve been hankering to craft some episodic television these days. I might just do a webcomic instead, though.

2010 finally sees the release of Pop: The Darlings of America, a mini-series about celebutante culture I co-created with Dan Taylor and Chris Moreno for IDW Publishing, and its distribution method should raise some eyelids, too. I’m writing American Caesar, my next graphic novel for NBM Publishing, and there’s a bit of work for hire in the ether, as well. Busy busy busy.

Glad to hear it, Neil! Thanks for talking with me.

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