Miles Hyman: Getting Graphic with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

lotterygnModern horror wouldn’t be what it is today without the influence of Shirley Jackson’s writing. Her grandson, Miles Hyman, pursued a career in art and has worked on many books and graphic novels, including a recent graphic novel adaptation of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, published by Archaia. Now he’s releasing his graphic novel adaptation of “The Lottery,” out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 25, to scare new readers and show old ones a new way of looking at the iconic short story.

(Interview conducted by Danica Davidson)

CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: You say in your introduction to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery: A Graphic Adaption, that while you were doing a graphic novel adaptation of The Black Dahlia, you had a key insight in how you might adapt “The Lottery.” Can you tell us how this happened?

MILES HYMAN: On one level, the challenges in adapting a novel are similar from one project to another. Working with Matz and David Fincher (who created the script for The Black Dahlia together), I was able to observe firsthand how they took the novel apart and put it back together again. They made significant structural changes: sometimes sequences were edited out of order, minor characters were deleted, and yet what was there felt faithful to the original. “The Lottery” was a project for me that had taken shape over many years. I had come at it from different angles and had spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to best bring this story—which had such importance to me—to a successful adaptation as a graphic novel.

Like the Dahlia project, it occurred to me that the most effective method for a graphic adaptation would be to break down and then rebuild the original story into something new while remaining completely faithful to the message and spirit of Shirley Jackson’s classic text. The central challenge was simple: how to render that long scene in the village square, making it dynamic enough so that readers would have the visual material they needed to make it vivid and alive, giving them the freedom to move in and out of the crowd in a sense, to stray from the scene for added perspective and then return when key events unfold. This visual quality seemed essential if we are to avoid being limited to the somewhat repetitive back-and-forth of calling names and pulling pieces of paper out of a black box. As intense and effective as that is in purely written form, I felt that a rigidly faithful adaptation wouldn’t live up to the potential of the project I had undertaken as a graphic adaptor.

Beyond my approach to the lottery scene itself, it seemed important to “tease out” some new opening scenes, largely inspired from a handful of sentences in the original story. For instance, in the graphic novel I chose to create an original opening sequence where we see Summers and Graves meet the night before “Lottery Day” in Summers’ shop to prepare the ceremony. That quiet, solemn exchange between the two men is both quite visual and also very effective; we see these two unknown villagers meeting in a dimly-lit shop to perform a mysterious task that both creates an intense atmosphere while introducing us to important elements of the events to come. For the reader (who is now an observer as well as a reader), this largely silent scene introduces us to the infamous black box, but also shows us that the box contains several slips of folded paper, one of which hides a mysterious black dot.

This is key information the readers of the original story obtain from an omniscient narrator, and yet in a graphic novel an adaptor tries to relay information differently—as graphic content or dialogue whenever possible. In this opening sequence you have a visual introduction to what are to become the basic mechanics of the ceremony moving forward. This is in many ways what a succesful graphic adaptation strives to achieve: taking that essential narrative that is the real heart of the story and giving it visual form.

When did the idea for the graphic novel version of “The Lottery” first cross your mind?

For a long time, the temptation was to do an illustrated version. I would have loved to do that as well. However, as I’ve tended to concentrate increasingly on graphic novels recently, it seemed clear to me that the story would really blossom into something far more dynamic as a graphic novel. This format brings a whole new energy into play. Adapting “The Lottery” as a graphic novel provides a much bigger “toolbox” for an artist. You’re able to create such an intimate rapport between the story itself and what you’re drawing based on that story. We’re talking about a format that allows a graphic adaptor to explore an even wider palette of the qualities that make a story come alive, from the tension that builds throughout the enigmatic opening scenes to the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of the ending. A graphic novel approach just seemed to make sense, because it really allows us to “be there,” to be part of the crowd in a sense, to feel that closeness and that intensity that really makes the story tick.

What was the process for turning “The Lottery” into a graphic novel?

I reread it, obviously, many times. I had read it as a student, I had read it as an adult, and I came back to it as an adaptor. I just reread it and reread it until I almost knew it by heart. I started by a line-by-line breakdown of what was going on. I rewrote the story’s dialogue in script form, while creating new dialogue from parts of the omniscient narration. As I mentioned earlier, when creating a graphic novel, you want to communicate as much information as you can through dialogue or action. A lot of those omniscient narrative sequences where we learn about the ceremony and its history became dialogue spoken by Mr. Warner, our herald of the “old way.” The exception to this rule is a middle sequence of the graphic novel where an old photograph on the wall of the village diner opens up a sort of narrative “wormhole” that takes us into a series of double-page spreads with text captions; I chose this approach here because the words of the omniscient narrator are so powerful that they seemed more effective if they aren’t spoken by a character, almost as if time itself was speaking to us. So the book sort of plays with a more illustrative approach to the story for those six or eight pages, where there are short passages that discuss the origins and context of the Lottery tradition set against images that tie into that same message without seeming redundant. This short passage with its abrupt change of style and format felt like something that could also break up the rhythm of the novel and stimulate the reader.

Do you remember when you first read “The Lottery” and what your initial reaction was?

My grandmother died when I was just short of three years old, so I didn’t really know her. However, the tremendous importance she had for my father, other family members and friends meant she was always sort of “there” in the family context. One important way she was present for us was through her books. I started out reading the more pleasant, family-related stories. There’s a great story about my father called “Charles,” which is in the same short story collection as “The Lottery.” Charles is a wonderful example of how one’s perspective on a story changes through the years: as a younger person I delighted in this playful anecdote about how my father tricks his parents with mischievous stories about his schoolyard experiences, always one step ahead of the adults; as an adult (and parent myself) I am much more intrigued by the darker side to the story, the undercurrents that speak volumes about human nature and our ability to believe what we want to believe despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Part of Jackson’s magic is her ability to write fiction that functions on many levels and always ends up surprising her readers.

I went to visit high schools when I was thirteen. At one point I was visiting one school and I was in an English class and the teacher introduced me to everyone and said, “This is Miles. You’ll be interested to know that his grandmother wrote the story we read last week, ‘The Lottery.’” And everyone turned around to look at me with horror in their eyes to see who I was [laughing]. Perhaps that was the point where I became more intrigued by the gothic horror side of her work.

I didn’t know “Charles” was based on your father. Do you know any anecdotes for “The Lottery” and how it came about?

You know, I don’t. It was never clear whether or not the events in “Charles” ever took place, and on one level it’s a much better story if that question is left unresolved. It’s funny, she was always very careful to avoid giving too many clues about how her stories came to be created, and what real-life experiences might have influenced or inspired them. “The Lottery” is a perfect example of how she went to great pains to make sure people understood that her personal experiences, while providing important material for her fiction, was not the explicit basis for that fiction. The publication of “The Lottery” brought incredible scrutiny to her otherwise very private life. She wrote a story about the effect “The Lottery” had on her as a writer and as a person. It’s called “Biography of a Story.” I had heard the story had come out to great uproar and created a tremendous scandal among readers of The New Yorker in 1948, and “Biography of a Story” gives a much clearer picture of what that experience must have been like for her. I think the story’s publication marked a real turning point for her personally and professionally. She was still a fairly young writer at the time; I think this was the same year her first novel came out. So I can understand why it would have been so important for her to clarify how “The Lottery” was not necessarily based on the small New England village where she lived when she wrote it. Some people felt so shocked by the short story that she felt it was important to go to great lengths to say it was not based on her personal surroundings or her neighbors, that it was purely fiction.

She also refrained from discussing the story’s meaning and sort of abdicated that job her readers (as I think many writers prefer to do); those interpretation have been numerous over the years and have enhanced the story’s importance. The fact that my grandmother’s short story is still one of the most read and debated pieces of short fiction is a big part of what’s made the story the enduring part of our American literary heritage it is today.

Whether it be in my role of grandson or graphic adapter, I wouldn’t want to try and explain the story in her place, and that is certainly not the job my graphic novel sets out to do. Quite on the contrary, in fact. As a simple reader I would say that “The Lottery” is based more broadly on human experience and obviously not reflective of specific events in the author’s life. I think that “The Lottery”‘s universal quality is a large part of its power: the story is a broad allegory about social conformity and fear, things we can all relate to on some level.

It’s surprising how many readers of The New Yorker in 1948 were convinced Jackson was describing a real event. A good part of the letters were requests for information from people hoping to be able to come and watch the next lottery. That people thought they were reading journalism and not fiction seems nothing short of amazing to us in retrospect. And yet to a mid-century audience this reaction was perhaps understandable: there’s something direct, almost documentary-like in her style that made people think she was describing an event she had witnessed a few days earlier.

Has your family seen the graphic novel?

They have! In fact, my father was very helpful in helping me fine-tune the script. Every step of the way, I’ve been sending them bits and pieces of my work as it progresses. They were the first to see the whole sketched version of the story and they’ve been very supportive of this project. This year marks the centennial of her birth and everyone—friends, family, publishers alike—is working hard to make sure her legacy as a great American writer is embellished, upheld and enriched.

What else is going on to commemorate her this year?

There’s a wonderful biography coming out of her. It’s Ruth Franklin’s book called A Rather Haunted Life. I would say it’s the first real, full-fledged biography of Shirley Jackson. I think Ruth’s book will give a lot more information on what she was living, what her life was like, what her influences were, what the circumstances around her creation was.

How has your grandmother’s writing influenced other works of yours?

If you had asked me that question ten or fifteen years ago I would have said, “Not at all.” As a young artist, you want to make sure you’re speaking with your own voice, following your own path. So I probably would have rejected any direct association with her work. But then there is that expression: ‘What’s bred in the bone will out….!’ With time I have found there are basic structural similarities between aspects of my work and hers. She delights in exploring that fascinating balancing point between horror and humor. And whether or not I’ve done it consciously, many of my own drawings (and particularly those of my own books, published here in Europe through Futuropolis and Casterman) explore some of that same terrain. I like images that are a little unsettling and yet not without a sort of dark humor. My favorite drawings remain enigmatic, open to all sorts of interpretations. I love to imagine scenes that are charged with detail and yet rife with missing information—scenes where something has just taken place, or is about to occur, but we’re not quite sure what that event is. All of that makes me think of my grandmother’s work on some level, as if without making a conscious attempt on my part to follow in her footsteps there is something of her work that has left its mark on me.

“The Lottery” is famous. What lesser known stories by Shirley do you think more people should read?

Yes, I think there are real gems that are lesser known. One of my favorites is “The Summer People.” It’s always been my number two favorite short story of hers. In a similar way, it has that sotto voce approach to describing something that is never quite clear. There’s a menace throughout. You can see how she influenced people like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman; such mastery over the readers’ emotional reactions to the events in the story are controlled and spun out. Everything seems a little unexpected.

Last year there was a publication called Let Me Tell You that came out from Random House, and it was unpublished or un-anthologized stories of hers. Maybe they had been published once in a magazine somewhere and forgotten. They really deserved publication in book form. There was one that The New Yorker picked up and published called “Paranoia.” It’s a Charles Adamsian little tale. If you go down the road and ask what other stories would be tempting to adapt as graphic novels, those would both be great candidates. Now I’m rereading The Haunting of Hill House and it’s a pleasure to go back to these stories because there’s always something you didn’t see or didn’t notice. They always give up new details with each reading.

How did you get involved in graphic novels as a medium?

I live and work in France, even though my work is published in both the United States and throughout Europe. In France, “bande dessinée” and graphic novels represent a major publishing market, and a very creative one at that. I came here originally to study drawing at the School of Fine Arts in Paris. Between classes I would go to bookstores, curious to see what was going on in illustration and graphic novels. Little did I know I had arrived at the tail-end of what is now considered one of the “Golden Ages” of Franco-Belgian comics, one that had seen authors like Tardi, Schuiten, Hugo Pratt become household names here. I had grown up, like so many, reading Mad Magazine, Little Nemo, Tintin…but what was coming out then was a second or third generation of literary, personal, innovative and experimental forms of graphic novels and comics. I went about getting my first projects in an almost naively straightforward way: I just started making phone calls in my (still rusty) French, stopping around at publishing houses and showing my work. Even if that work wasn’t really in a comic tradition, I started getting offers for projects and receiving orders for drawings, book covers and magazine illustrations. Things sort of evolved from there. The first real lead I had was with a publisher here in Paris called Futuropolis who had just entered into a partnership with the literary publisher Gallimard, and who had started adapting novels by Céline, Proust, Faulkner etc. My first projects were Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, earning my place in what has come to be considered an historic collection of literary/graphic adaptations. In many ways that collection and others like it produced a whole new generation of artists dedicated to an art form that has moved progressively in a very interesting direction, responding to an audience that is enthusiastically receptive in original books that bring together words and pictures in sophisticated, innovative ways. In fact many would argue (and I don’t disagree) that today we are experiencing another, even more dynamic Golden Age in graphic novels than we were when I first arrived in France. And I’m thrilled to be part of this generation of artists who have such a wide berth in choosing styles and subject matter.

Danica Davidson is the author of how-to-draw book Manga Art for Beginners and the Overworld Adventure series for kids, consisting of Escape from the Overworld, Attack on the Overworld, The Rise of Herobrine, Down into the Nether,The Armies of Herobrine and Battle with the Wither.

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