Karen Beilharz is a talented writer whom you would no doubt have come across if you attended comic events around Sydney. She’s a professional who manages to create stories that captivate you and paint scenes that you can not only see through the pictures but feel through the words.
I was thrilled to interview her for Sydney Comics Guild about her new Pozible campaign for Monsters that you can check out and get behind right now!
1. First thing’s first. I like seeing people introduce themselves in a quirky way. In light of your comics being about monsters, what sort of ‘monster’ could you imagine yourself as?
I am a bit like the mummy monster in the final comic in the collection, which I did with René Pfitzner (it’s called “My mummy the monster” and it will go up in April). But if I had to choose a more well-known monster, I’d totally be a Totoro: gentle, sleepy (but powerful!), giant of the woods with a loud roar but a very cuddly exterior!
2. Your comic Monsters was inspired by your daughter. Could you tell me a little bit about how the idea came about?
When my eldest daughter was three, she said to me one day with utmost seriousness, “Mummy, I’m scared of monsters!” Her sincerity really struck me: she was genuinely scared of the creatures and saw them everywhere (especially at night!), even though objectively they couldn’t be seen or heard or felt.
Around the same time, I was keen to write stories for about her age group. We’d been reading a lot of picture books together (including some very good ones–like Where the Wild Things Are, The Lost Thing and Chu’s Day), and I felt like I was getting to know the rhythms and sparsity of the language, the way they tended to work and the level at which they were pitched.
Those two things–the concept of monsters representing fears and my desire to write for children–combined to produce the 11 comics that make up Monsters.
3. How do you think being a mother may have changed the way you write or see the world?
I don’t think I could have written for children without having some of my own–merely because, before children, I didn’t mix with children regularly, observe them and understand the way they think. Watching my daughters grow up through their early years has certainly helped that!
I also think that being a mother has opened me up to a somewhat “visibly invisible” section of society, if that makes sense: before children when I was working, I would mingle with workers like myself, who were all attuned to the rhythms of employment–the getting up early, commuting to work, doing eight (or more hours) and then commuting home again. After children, I often found myself in the company of other stay-at-home mothers and children, occupying spaces that previously were hidden in plain sight to me–going to the park to play, visiting cafés when it was quiet, wandering around crowd-free shopping malls, and so on. Now that my eldest has started school, we’re in the pattern of drop-offs and pick-ups, talking to other parents at the school gate, meeting families that we would otherwise have no connection with.
Being a mother has given me quite an insight into human life–family life, relationships, watching children grow and change, and the impact that all of this has on the relationships and working lives of mothers and fathers. I don’t think I really thought that much about that sort of stuff before, but parenthood has made me a lot more social aware and observant, and also a bit more of an activist when it comes to speaking out about things like good quality affordable childcare, flexible working arrangements for parents, the gender distribution of domestic labour, and so on. My worldview has definitely expanded!
4. What sort of routines and habits have you developed in your life to organise all the chaos and allow you to create your best work? Any tips?
There are some artistic practices that work well with the activity of looking after your kids, but unfortunately, writing is not one of them–at least not for me. (That said, I did once type out an entire idea for a children’s picture book while following my youngest around an IKEA showroom.) In order for me to write, I have to carve out the time from everything else and be organised enough so that other things (like housework, admin, emails and social media) don’t interfere. I am very lucky in that I have parents and in-laws I can rely on for help with the kids, as well as a good childcare centre nearby. Having alternate care options make it a bit easier to carve out that child-free time to write. That said, sometimes the writing doesn’t always get done and exhaustion takes over! But that’s okay, I think: you can only do what you can; being a parent makes you very much aware of your limitations, and you just have to make peace with them because the alternative is to work yourself into the ground, which isn’t good for you or your family.
The other thing that helps me stay on top of everything is being highly organised–which basically means lists, for me. (I’m very much a structured person.) At the beginning of each week, I’ll sit down and plan the week. I use a service called WorkFlowy, which syncs between iPhone app and the desktop browser, and I’ll list all the days of the week, then all the things that need to get done/need to happen on each day under each day. This includes everything: the school run, the day’s activities, housework, admin, reminders, writing/work time and so on. Each day, I’ll work through the list. Anything that isn’t completed gets moved to another day or somewhere else. (I do have tasks that have been pending for a very long time! But they’ve never become urgent enough.)
At the moment, the days are broken up into an orderly pattern: school run in the morning, various morning activities with my two-year-old three days of the week (she goes to childcare for the other two), lunch and nap time (during which sometimes I’ll tackle work or admin, or sometimes I’ll nap too), the school run in the afternoon, and then there’s usually time in the evening to get things done after the kids are in bed. Having kids makes you far more efficient with your time because much of that time already has some sort of claim on it, so you tend to make the most of the time you do get, simply because you have to!
5. Being a writer is a very specific skill that takes a lifetime to learn and refine. For those of us who are primarily artists or writers wanting to improve our writing skills, what would you recommend we do?
It’s old advice, but consume other people’s work in a variety of mediums–novels, comics, TV shows, movies, and so on. Read widely and watch things. Think about the stories and characters and the decisions the writers have made to do certain things. Think about why certain scenes or plot points are there and what they add to your overall understanding of a character or the story. Think about why certain things grab you and why they don’t. (For example, I watched Pacific Rim recently, and while I loved the interactions between the characters and thought the whole pilots-connected-neutrally-so-that-they’re-in-each-other’s-heads thing was really interesting, the monster vs giant robot fights bored me to tears because I was more interested in the human drama.) Think about why works don’t quite succeed. (That’s why it’s important to read not just the good stuff, but the not-as-good stuff as well.) Think about why they do. Then apply all that to your own work.
6. You’re currently running a crowdfunding campaign for the comic. Can you tell me a little about why you chose this route and perhaps things from the process that have inspired ideas for future comics or stories?
I like that crowdfunding allows you to test the market and realise projects that other publishers wouldn’t normally touch. Back in 2011 when I was working on Kinds of Blue, an anthology of short comics about various aspects of depression, crowdfunding was in its infancy. I did send Kinds of Blue around to some comics publishers and received some really lovely feedback, but I understood why they all rejected it: we were unknowns, most of us had never created comics before, and anthologies don’t tend to sell well. One member of my team suggested we try crowdfunding, so we put it up on Pozible and it became the fastest-funded campaign in their operating history, hitting its funding goal in less than three days and going on to raise 142 per cent of the goal by the end of the campaign. It really made us think, “Wow, there are people out there who really want this book!” Monsters is obviously a very different book to Kinds of Blue, but my aims in starting a crowdfunding campaign for it were the same: I wanted to test the market and see if people actually wanted it, and if they did, I wanted to bring it to them. Plus this time, we have some really fun rewards for backers!
As I’ve only ever run crowdfunding campaigns for comics, it would be really interesting to see what it’s like doing it for other mediums–for example, children’s picture books, or short story collections.
7. You worked with a large number of wonderful artists on Monsters and from the pages you’ve already revealed, you can see that it worked out incredibly well! How did you manage so many artists and find a connection with them to create such coherent, high quality art?
I’ve been very fortunate to have such talented artists to work with. I cannot sing their praises enough!
Some of my collaborators on Monsters were artists I’d worked with before on Kinds of Blue or on other projects. It was lovely to work with them again as we’d had a such a good working relationship the first time around. Other collaborators were new–people who’d said to me, “Hey, we should do something together sometime!” or people I knew from the Australian comics community whom I approached. There was one artist I hadn’t ever worked with before and, in fact, have never met: he answered my call out for an artist on Facebook, and I checked out his work and thought he’d be perfect for this one particular comic.
Each collaboration is different, of course, because the people involved are different. Sometimes issues arose that stemmed from us not understanding one another very well, or not understanding the way the other person works. But these things are normal, and you just have to adjust and be flexible. I learn something from every collaboration I’ve worked on, and I’m grateful for those lessons because they help me grow as both a writer and a collaborator.
8. You mention in your campaign for Monsters that you want your comic to help open up a conversation between parents and their children about fear. Why do you think this is such an important conversation to have?
I think that parents can often get stuck in the way they see the world because they’re the ones who are usually in authority and most of the world sees things their way. Children are a disruption to that though: they aren’t necessarily rational or logical or reasonable, and their viewpoints are often highly idiosyncratic. So parents and children often clash and misunderstand one another.
I think it’s important for parents to be able to grasp and see things from a child’s point of view, even if they don’t agree with it. I am not always good at doing this myself–particularly when under pressure! But it is important to try because it helps your child deal with their fear and it strengthens the relationship between you. I could not see the monsters my daughter saw, but I had no doubt that she saw them and that they meant something to her, so I tried to engage with her at that level. I think now that she’s five, she’s still scared of monsters. But she knows that she can talk to me about them, and that’s the important thing.
9. Where can we find out more about what you do, follow your work and continue to be inspired by what you create?
I have a website that lists my comic projects with various collaborators (including Eternal Life, the ongoing science fiction graphic novel that I’m creating with Paul Wong-Pan).
I also have a mailing list that you can join on that website. (I send out a newsletter roughly every couple of months, though at the moment while the Monsters campaign is happening, it’s weekly.)
You can also follow me Twitter at @kbeilz, on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/hivemindedness and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kbeilz (where you can choose to follow my public feed; sorry, I only add people I know as Facebook friends).
It’s definitely worth looking at and getting behind!
– Written by Meri Amber