Marjane Satrapi | Life & Death

The famed author of the coming-of-age tale Persepolis is back with a new graphic novel, Chicken With Plums, and two appearances in St. Louis this October.



Marjane Satrapi | Life & Death


Writer/artist Marjane Satrapi used her experiences growing up in an increasingly fundamentalist Iran to craft Persepolis, a stunning example of the potential of the autobiographical graphic novel. Initially released in Satrapi's adoptive homeland of France by L'Association, the famed French publishing collective that features such luminaries as Epileptic author David B., Persepolis was an immediate critical smash hit, as was the later two-volume English edition published in the US by Pantheon. Satrapi's follow-up, Embroideries, took a more light-hearted turn by concentrating on the lives and loves of a group of Satrapi's gossipy friends and relatives. The book, though successful, was greeted with a decidedly more mixed reaction.


Happily, Satrapi is back in full force with Chicken With Plums, a new graphic novel whose English edition was released by Pantheon this month. The book again looks into Satrapi's past by telling the story of her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, a skilled musician who loses his favorite instrument and decides life is no longer worth living. Khan takes to his bed, intent on dying and eight days later, he does. Satrapi uses the story of his final days to tell a tale that is alternately heart-wrenching and hopeful, but always captivating.


We caught up with Satrapi in New York as she prepared to embark on a promotional tour of America that brings her to St. Louis this week, appearing at Left Bank Books at 399 N. Euclid at 7PM on October 24th, and the Mallinckrodt Center at Washington University for a special student luncheon at 11AM on October 25th. For more information, click here.


Interview conducted by Comics Editor Jason Green.


PLAYBACK:stl: The story of your great-uncle that you tell in your new book, Chicken With Plums, took place before you were born. Do you remember how old you were when you first heard the story, and how has your perception changed between when you first heard it and when you decided to make a comic out of it?


Marjane Satrapi: Well, I really didn't hear the story. The only thing that is true about the story is that I know that my great uncle was a musician, and I know he died for some strange reason that nobody knows about, but the rest of the story is made up by myself, actually. It's not a precise story of a precise person; all the names and all the faces and everything is changed, so all the story that you hear is a true story, but it doesn't correspond exactly to the people. Everything is changed, really, so you have to take it as a fiction book more than a real story.


Why did you decide to do a fiction story yet still use characters from your real life instead of entirely fictionalizing it?


First of all, I think, these stories exist in the family, they don't belong to one family and to one specific person, like for one character, you can have three different stories of three different people. I have another comic book that I will make after Chicken With Plums: Persepolis is really about between the 70s to the 90s, Chicken With Plums is the 50s up through the 70s, and I have another story that will be from 1910 until the 50s and 60s. It's going to be like a trilogy but backwards, and after you have all these books together, through a family saga you will have a little bit of feeling of the atmosphere and how things were in the specific place that is Iran.


You know, you always write about the things that you like the most, and my family is probably what I like the most.


One of the interesting artistic choices I noticed in the new book is your use of panel borders.


For me, the structure of the story was extremely important, and how to go backward and forward [in time] without saying, "And you remember 7 years ago…" and "In 20 years…" Whatever was concerned with [Nasser], there was no frame; whatever belongs to the past, it's in a frame and the background is black; and whenever we come in has a frame and the background is white. That's a graphic thing that let's you understand it so you can go back and forth without any problem.


The other thing I really wanted is this book to look like the story. The story is about 8 days of life, and 8 days of life is extremely short but is extremely dense at the same time, and that's why the book looks the way it looks. I have all these very small drawings, one after the other, one after the other, that it doesn't have any space. I did that on purpose. I could have made bigger drawings and make a much thicker book, but then it wouldn't look like 8 days of life. I wanted to have something that is extremely dense and extremely short at the same time.


How does that compare to your last book, Embroideries, where almost all of the illustrations were full page?


It's a very good thing you're pointing out. It's because Embroideries is a conversation. That's why the format is much smaller, with no frames. The graphic style is much more open like that, much more freestyle, because I wanted the book to look like a conversation. You go in whenever you want, you get out whenever you want, you can open to any page and read a couple of pages, so the book for me looks also like a conversation.


Persepolis, for example, is a book that is very much about how it was and explaining to people how things [happened], so you have the chapters, and it's extremely mathematical, and you have frames. I always try for each of my books for the layout of the book, the format of the book, the graphic treatment, will look like the story I'm talking about.


Writing this new book, was it difficult to adjust to writing from the perspective of your great-uncle as opposed to your previous books, which were from your own perspective?


I should tell you something, Jason: I never felt as free as when I made Chicken With Plums, because here my main character is a man. That is where I feel the most free to really express myself. In all my other books, actually [drawing myself or even another woman], I make a kind of self-censorship, in the way that I know that people will know it's me, so there's things that I wouldn't say. I think there is nobody closer to me because this guy, he's completely nasty, he's unbearable, he's an asshole, [laughs] but at the same time he's very charming, and that's the way I think I am. I think I am charming, but I am completely unbearable at the same time. I really felt extremely free, and that is why I can tell you, that this is my favorite book of my own.


As your books get more popular worldwide, do you find yourself taking a more global audience into account as you're creating them or do you keep going with your usual approach?


Listen, it would be a lie if I tell you that I don't care about people, because in the word ‘publishing' you have the word ‘public' so you are addressing yourself to a public, but I have the same relationship to the public as I had before. I always know that I'm telling the story to someone else, but when I am working, it's such a moment of grace for me. When I'm creating it, I'm really with myself, I'm in my studio, I can concentrate. At the moment I am creating, nothing else exists around me but the story and myself and my characters, and the rest of the thing comes afterwards.


So, no, it has not changed, you know, I'm the same person. I have even not changed my friends…I'm not a starfucker, you know. This whole idea of being a diva and a star and all of that, you know, the only thing that has changed is as I gain more money, if I want to buy myself pencils I don't have to wait until the beginning of the month to be able to do it. I can buy all the materials I want at once. [laughs]


One of the more unusual things in the new book is the appearance of the Angel of Death, Azrael, which is really the only fantastic element in what is otherwise a very true-to-life story.


Yes, the angel is a big part of my culture. Actually, my grandmother every single day pretended that she saw him, that the Angel of Death was coming. What I drew is very much what she described to me as the Angel of Death. She was, all the time, playing with me, like, ‘Oh, I am going to die!' so that I would love her more. It's really a part of my culture, and I love this person, because death is part of life also. I wanted to write the story not only about the love story, about who the artist was, but it's also a lot about death. It's something that we ignore and never want to talk about, and it's part of life. This angel really symbolized death for me.


It is also a comment that there really is a moment that you have to die, and you will die no matter what you do.


One last question for you: I understand Persepolis is being made into a movie. How did that come about, and what's the progress on it so far?


It really happened just two-and-a-half years ago. I discussed with a friend of mine who wanted to become a producer, and he said ‘Let's make it.' Then I said, ‘I want an animated movie, and I want it in black and white, and I want to work with my best friend.' So I'm working with my best friend, and together we have co-wrote and co-directed the movie, and it's almost, almost, on the last line. We are going to finish it in April to be able to release it-if it's possible, we hope so-at the Cannes Festival in 2007. For the American version, I will come to the United States in July or August 2007 to make the American voices.


To see images from the upcoming film version of Persepolis, click here.



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