“I bought a book. Actually, I think I’m in this one. It’s always a bit weird when that happens.”
The last few weeks have seen a very exciting step forward in getting Holly Trinity and the Ghosts of York into print, as discussions of cover art have begun. I’ve been looking at concept designs, and for the first time, someone else’s image of Holly has been looking back at me. Which, weirdly, got me thinking about Mel Brooks.
One of Brooks’ anecdotes revolves around the time he was writing a comic novel about a crooked Broadway producer. Everyone who read his dialogue-heavy prose told him the same thing – “It’s a great idea, but it’s not a novel.” So he turned it into a stage play. Theatre directors looked at the practicalities of putting on his script and had a similar response – “It’s a great idea, but it’s not a play.”
Finally, a frustrated Brooks asked what his story was exactly, since it didn’t seem to belong anywhere, and got a simple answer – “It’s a movie.” Delighted to have found the perfect medium for his ideas, Brooks made The Producers and the rest is history.
Which is kind of where I was the last time someone depicted Holly in artwork – the someone in question being me.
Back then, I had written several chapters from the first half of the book, and there was now enough of it that I knew I had to either commit to writing the whole damn thing or walk away. And like Brooks’ literary friends, I found myself questioning “Is this actually a novel? Or is it something else?”
The reason I was thinking this is because I didn’t know if I could write a novel. Because the only way to find out if you can write a novel is to actually write one. Be warned – if you give it a try, you may succeed. And then you’re in trouble.
At the time, I was working on a webcomic, which was probably the most technically primitive webcomic in the history of the internet. And I started to wonder whether a visual medium might be a better fit for the story’s supernatural weirdness.
To test this idea out, I drew Holly. I drew some of the strange creatures she might face. I drew Mira, who took the opportunity to point out that she was not, in fact, white. It worked and it didn’t. I realised that, yes, Holly Trinity would absolutely work as a webcomic. Specifically, a webcomic drawn by a better artist than me.
My comic strips were very minimalist – often just two characters talking in front of a blank background, because that was all that series needed. Holly and Mira needed more. They needed action and emotion. Recurring locations, a lot of which actually existed. Tiny intimate moments and honking great monster fights. Characters with secrets and mistakes and desires, and an inner life beyond the next punchline. Things that required a more skilful hand at the pencil than I could provide. (That’s not a metaphorical pencil, by the way.)
And yet, looking at those far from publishable pictures, I felt like this was a story I wanted to tell more than ever. These characters looked like they should exist, in whatever form. One sketch of Holly strolling through a crowd of cowed skeletons like a gunslinger became my personal proof of concept for the whole idea.
So if I couldn’t draw them as well as I would like, who cares? I could damn well try and write a novel, and get into these characters’ heads to a degree I may not have done in another medium. The right home was the one I had chosen in the first place.
So I wrote a novel. And soon you can read it.
Holly Trinity and the Ghosts of York will be published later this year. The first Holly Trinity short story, The Carol of the Bells, is included in Harvey Duckman Presents: Christmas Special, available in paperback and ebook from Sixth Element Publishing.