Epilogue: What drew you to this project? What about the three-line novels intrigued you as an illustrator and an artist?
Joanna: In late 2008 I had a choice: I could illustrate a guide to 1960s girl groups, or a book of odd, slight, disastrous tales from 1906 France. I can’t remember why The Marvelettes lost and the French won. Maybe because I really like drawing bicycles. Or maybe because Félix Fénéon had 1,220 arguments in his favor. That’s how many of his stories are collected in Novels in Three Lines, which the New York Review Books Classics published in 2007, and which I greedily read and re-read after finding them in the True Crime section of Barnes & Noble that year. The haiku-like “novels” read like captions for unmade pictures—especially the sort of pictures I like to make (absurd, deadly, historically costumed).
The turn of the last century was also ripe for collage, which is what I do. Early French photography—all the Parisian street scenes with their carriages and kiosks and barbershops, the portraits of farmers threshing and women laundering—pure Xerox heaven!
For each illustration, were you using a similar process, or was it a little more free than that? How much did the text influence your ideas? Were there any notable illustrations that gave you a particularly tough time, or an illustration that you weren't happy with and had to change?
Quaintly, my process starts in the library. I need to figure out what in the world is a “waltz marathon,” what the French sardine industry looked like in 1906. You gather the old photographs of town parades in Amiens and rural weddings in Le Havre and early aeronautics, the absinthe posters, the arabesque typography, the portraits of Gide and Colette and friends, and you start cutting out.
When I make illustrations, I’m like Cathy trying on a pair of jeans; all sweat, panic, longing, regret. Plenty of the stories put me through the ringer; see A Journey Round My Skull for all the illustrations that got tossed. I tried so hard to beautifully drown Émilienne Moreau in the drink, but she wouldn’t take.
Do you see the three lines of text to be freeing or constraining? Why? Is it case-dependent?
Fénéon is a minimalist; so am I. That’s maybe why I could illustrate him, but it’s also why I worried, at times, that illustrations spread over several pages were hurting the one-two-punches of his reports. They have a callous swiftness, his stories. Fénéon made them airy, and I was adding weight and time. But an editor recently (and kindly) suggested that I helped the reader of Fénéon by slowing the tales down. Reading the 1,220 in sequence, out of sequence—it doesn’t matter—can be depressing. The panorama of human life Fénéon presents is too much of it: the suffering, the weirdness, the mistakes made with farm equipment—it does not relent. Neither, I guess, does life. But I guess that’s why we need funny pictures in the first place.
The illustrations in the book are rather beautiful—sharp in their color, and sort of open to interpretation just as much as the text is. What influenced you to do it the way you did? Any particular people, illustrators, or artists?
Oy, there are too many. Edward Gorey is my pope of black humor and delicate drawing. Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg, William Steig. Terry Gilliam (the collages), Shel Silverstein, Jim Dine, Massin, the classic Penguin covers. Donald Barthelme’s The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine. I’m a child of children of the sixties and seventies, and the ephemera in our house that I grew up with dates mostly to that time; my dad had these books of literary criticism with two-color, woodblock covers that I spent many afternoons comparing and contrasting (certainly not reading). It was interesting to dive into all the Art Nouveau posters from Fénéon’s day, and recognize in them so much of the psychedelic graphics that bloomed sixty years later in New York and San Francisco and our living room.
We did a few features based on image-text interplay (here and here), do you think this is a natural interest of yours or an interesting motif in art, in general? Why?
For better or worse, my natural interest is books, and books alone. I shrink from newer, funkier formats. I’m not proud of my conservatism—I’m quite sure it’s rooted in ignorance. But when I’m in the presence of video art, say, I start to slowly back away toward the exit. Of course, I don’t oppose artistic and literary experimentation. There’s a short ligne from Fénéon to Georges Perec. I am looking forward to reading a book of puzzles called Tlooth. I’m friends with the editors of Triple Canopy. But I’m personally bad at new forms and modes. Which is why I will lose to the future.
Can you tell me a little bit more about how the process worked Illustrated Three Line Novels? When you got stuck, what did you do to inspire yourself?
I discovered many techniques for relaxing in Brooklyn. The movie theater near my studio shows films for $6 on Tuesdays on Thursdays. I went to yoga and tried to forget about unlucky harlots and horticulturists for an hour and forty-five minutes. When I could not find an un-pixelated early-twentieth-century ox, I turned to foodstuffs or Fleetwood Mac. Nothing too arty.
—Joanna Neborsky Interview