‘The Undertaking of Lily Chen’ weaves a tale of ghostly love

April 03, 2014 | 3:47 p.m.
lily 300rgb The Undertaking of Lily Chen weaves a tale of ghostly love

The cover for Danica Novgorodoff's graphic novel, "The Undertaking of Lily Chen." (First Second Books)

undertakinglilychen final 37 The Undertaking of Lily Chen weaves a tale of ghostly love

A page from Danica Novgorodoff's graphic novel, "The Undertaking of Lily Chen." (First Second Books)

undertakinglilychen final 170 The Undertaking of Lily Chen weaves a tale of ghostly love

A page from Danica Novgorodoff's graphic novel, "The Undertaking of Lily Chen." (First Second Books)

The Chinese tradition of ghost marriages — weddings performed for deceased bachelors — serves as the inspiration for “The Undertaking of Lily Chen,” the latest graphic novel from author Danica Novgorodoff.

The ancient practice sought to partner recently deceased singletons for their journeys into the afterlife, but a modern resurgence of the macabre tradition in contemporary China has led to grave-robbings and even killings — setting the stage for Novgorodoff’s tale.

Danica Novgorodoff, the author of "The Undertaking of Lily Chen." (First Second Books)

Danica Novgorodoff, author of “The Undertaking of Lily Chen.” (First Second Books)

Lily Chen,” from First Second Books, follows a young man named Deshi whose elder (and more favored) brother dies in an accident. Deshi’s parents hold him responsible and send him on a quest to find a corpse bride so his brother won’t have to enter the afterlife alone. When he meets the eponymous Lily Chen, a sharp-tongued and impulsive young woman trying to escape an arranged marriage, he sees a potential solution to his problems.

The 432-page volume features Novgorodoff’s moody watercolor landscapes and a wryly told tale of love and death. Novgorodoff’s previous books include “Refresh, Refresh,” about the sons of Marine Reservists fighting in the Iraq war, and “Slow Storm,” about a fleeting relationship between a Kentucky firefighter and a Mexican immigrant, among other works.

Hero Complex caught up with Novgorodoff to chat about ghost brides, magical realism and what’s next.

Hero Complex: How did you come across the idea of ghost brides? What inspired this tale?

Danica Novgorodoff: I first read about the tradition of ghost marriages in an article in the Economist magazine, which described a black market for female corpses that had sprung up to supply “brides” for postmortem wedding ceremonies. The interwoven story lines of love and death associated with this custom were so fascinating to me that I felt I had to write the story. I had also recently traveled to China for the first time before learning about the custom, and was interested in creating something that referenced the mountain landscapes and the Chinese brush painting that I had seen and loved.

HC: Why contemporary China?

DN: There’s such an interesting mix of ancient and modern influences in contemporary China — skyscraping cranes next to 1,500-year-old temples, massive industrial projects built into sacred mountains and ancient traditions being practiced in the present. Everything from the politics to the infrastructure to the economy is so rapidly changing that there’s a lot of tension between the old and the new, which is fertile ground for storytelling. The characters in “The Undertaking of Lily Chen” must make important choices — do they obey the old, traditional laws or do they risk everything for the new?

HC: What kind of research was involved in this project? What was the most helpful thing in preparing?

DN: I read a lot of stories and nonfiction and studied Chinese brush painting and landscape art and watched a lot of Chinese films. But the most helpful thing, of course, was going to northern China where my story is set. As a graphic novelist, I need to know the place that I’m going to draw, to walk the byways, watch the weather change, see the trees and the architecture through my own camera lens. I often work from photographs in my artwork, and I like to take my own pictures so that I know the context and can piece together what was outside the frame. I spent a month in China for research, traveling, trekking, meeting people, looking at art and taking photographs.

A page from Danica Novgorodoff's graphic novel, "The Undertaking of Lily Chen." (First Second Books)

A page from Danica Novgorodoff’s graphic novel, “The Undertaking of Lily Chen.” (First Second Books)

HC: How did you go about developing Deshi and Lily? Where did you draw inspiration for each of them? Lily especially feels extremely original.

DN: Deshi was the center of the story from the beginning. I think he developed naturally based on the situation. I knew that he was the less-loved second son of parents who adored their first (and now dead) son. I knew he wanted their respect and love and would go to terrible lengths to obtain it, and his character grew out of that. But Lily was more difficult to develop. She was always feisty, but she grew from a clueless, sassy brat into a savvy, ambitious firecracker of a girl as I worked on the story over the course of several years. I had to bend the plot to her will. I wonder if the two characters are two opposing sides of myself, in extreme: the fearful and dutiful Deshi, and the sharp, indefatigable Lily.

HC: One of my favorite relationships in the book is between Lily and her father. Can you talk a little about what you wanted that relationship to be?

DN: Lily’s father is one of the sort-of-bad guys. He’s controlling and demanding and uncompromising and mean, but he is all of those things because he loves his daughter dearly. He wants to provide her with the best their limited circumstances can offer but has no idea how to parent a willful teenager. Lily wants his love but can’t flourish under his oppressive authority and wants more from life than what she can find in their dusty, remote village. A big part of the story is Lily’s escape from her father, and his letting go of her — though it may take her death or his to get there.

HC: There’s such a lovely blend of realism and magic. How did you balance that?

DN: I let the characters and the story lead me through those moments of the mundane and practical and into the mystical. A character can’t enter a transcendent moment without finding his or her way through a series of preceding tribulations. To allow the main character, Deshi, to interact with the ghost that’s haunting him in an abstract, more spiritual moment of the narrative, I had to first set up why he believes this ghost is haunting him and why he needs to deal with it, which required many more realistic moments in which he confronts the death of his brother and the grief of his parents. The dream in which Deshi realizes he’s falling in love had to be set up by the more practical progression of events in which he and Lily meet as strangers and have their first awkward conversation and then get to know each other as they travel together. Their relationship gradually transforms to the point where a wild emotional experience outside of the linear and literal story is possible. It sounds funny to say, but I wanted the magic to feel believable, meaningful, and purposeful.

A page from Danica Novgorodoff's graphic novel, "The Undertaking of Lily Chen." (First Second Books)

A page from Danica Novgorodoff’s graphic novel, “The Undertaking of Lily Chen.” (First Second Books)

HC: Can you tell us a little about your artistic process?

DN: I spent a long time working on the story before I began to draw the pages. The drawings take me so long (about a day to a day and a half for each page) that I prefer to change the script as little as possible once I’ve started drawing. For this book, I thumbnailed (storyboarded) each chapter before I drew it, rather than the whole book at once. Then I penciled each page, then inked it with India ink and a brush, and added watercolor. I lettered all the text by hand, and then scanned the page and added more layers of color— both watercolor washes and flat digital color — in Photoshop.

HC: Many authors draw from their own culture and heritage and experience, but it seems each of your books explores very different traditions. What’s the appeal of stepping outside of yourself, and what’s in your work that readers may not know is uniquely you?

DN: I’m less interested in writing about myself than about the so many more interesting characters and people in the world. That said, I’m sure that every character I create has some element of myself in him or her, and I feel a deep connection to every place I write about or draw. I’ve always been interested in Chinese art and folk tales and traditions, and while the culture is vastly different from that of my American upbringing and current life, my grandparents (on my father’s side) are from Shanghai, and my father was born there, so I think it must be in my blood by heritage if not by experience.

People say “write what you know,” but I think you can write what you’re passionate about and learn what you don’t know.

HC: What’s next for you?

DN: I’m not sure exactly. It’s been a long, long project and I’m ready to do something very different. I have some children’s book ideas I’m developing and a few ideas for nonfiction graphic novels. I’d like to travel some more, since I always get inspiration from being on the move and seeing new places. I’ll be teaching a graphic novel course at the Kentucky School of Art later this spring and having a gallery show of my art. Right now I’m working on a project about volcanoes and exploration and homesickness, but I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a book or a gallery exhibition or something else entirely. I’m always looking for new formats.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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