Danica Novgorodoff’s new graphic novel, “The Undertaking of Lily Chen,” is set in the mountains of northern China, where the ancient custom of ghost brides — the practice of burying a female corpse with an unmarried deceased man so they can be mates in the afterlife — is still practiced by some.
This is Novgorodoff’s fourth book. Her previous work includes “Slow Storm,” set in Oldham County, and “Refresh, Refresh,” which is based on Benjamin Percy’s short story about the Iraq War’s affect on two American boys in a Marine Reserves town, included in Best American Comics 2011.
The Louisville native lives in Brooklyn now, but she’s teaching at the Kentucky School of Art this spring. On Thursday, she’ll give a lecture on her new book, along with a gallery exhibit of artwork from the novel and a book signing. During her lecture, she’ll discuss her influences and research, including two trips to China, and show slides that document the necessary steps to go from initial idea to completed graphic novel.
WFPL caught up with Novgorodoff to talk ghost brides and strong female characters.
What was it about this particular tradition, which creates a post-mortem market for female bodies, that captured your imagination?
Novgorodoff: I first read about the custom of ghost marriages in an Economist article, which described a desolate rural cemetery in which one gravesite was marked out by grave robbers by a ribbon tied to a wheat stalk. That image was very compelling to me—it’s both frightening and beautiful—and the first piece of artwork I made for “The Undertaking of Lily Chen” was a full-page painting of a field of graves at night, with one grave marked by a ribbon the color of a wedding dress (red, according to Chinese tradition).
The article also mentioned a man named Song who had been a grave robber-turned-murderer in order to supply female corpses for postmortem weddings, and had been caught when he dropped his cell phone in a grave he was plundering—Song became the inspiration for one of the characters in my book.
What drew me to the story was the entanglement of love and death in the ghost marriage tradition, and the overlap of contemporary and ancient cultures, and the imagery of those stunning Chinese mountain landscapes that I had admired for years through Chinese brush paintings.
“The Undertaking of Lily Chen” is a fantastic double entendre title. Lily is supposed to become the ghost bride for Deshi’s brother, but she’s really the one driving the story forward. And that came as a surprise to me, because I expected the book to be much more invested in the relationship between the brothers.
Did you set out to write a strong female character in Lily, or did she surprise you, too?
Novgorodoff: Lily did surprise me. I had originally conceived of this as a kidnapping story in which Deshi forces her to come on the journey with him, but in that scenario neither character was very interesting to me. Deshi was pure bitterness and malice, and Lily was helpless. I had no interest in writing a subservient female character, and as soon as I gave Lily her own reasons for wanting to join Deshi on the journey, she turned into quite a compelling and rich character. While the premise of the story is the death of a young man (Deshi’s brother) and a macabre funeral tradition, I think the core of it is the love story between Deshi and Lily.
What is your process for getting the first draft out? Do you write first, draw first, or some combination of the two?
Novgorodoff: Before I came up with a plot or characters, I had images in my head (of the landscape, the gravesite, the temple, and so forth), but I spent over a year working and reworking drafts of the script before I started to draw character sketches or pages of the book. Each page takes me so long to draft—a day to a day and a half—that I like to have the script fairly polished before I start to draw; otherwise making edits can be very time-consuming.
But, of course, the story did evolve as I drew it over the course of four years, as I discovered what worked best when translated into images, and what parts of the narrative didn’t sit well with me.
And Deshi and Lily kept meeting new characters along the way—it felt like a true journey, both for me and for them, as they continued to have unexpected encounters along the trail. It turned into a bit of an epic.
Do you say graphic novel or do you say comic? Is there a difference for you?
Novgorodoff: I think of the graphic novel as one form of comics. Comics is the medium of narrative, sequential art, and graphic novels are the long (novel-length) form of that. I do sometimes use the terms interchangeably, but I think that in general the term “graphic novel” connotes a longer, perhaps more literary book, whereas “comics” also include shorter, serialized pieces, such as superhero comic books and newspaper comic strips.
Novgorodoff’s talk is Thursday, April 3, 5 p.m. at the Kentucky School of Art’s 849 Gallery (849 S. 3rd St.).