Bringing Keshni Kashyap’s debut graphic novel, “Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary,” to life was nearly an existential crisis in and of itself. Neither Kashyap or illustrator Mari Araki had worked in comics before. Kashyap is a filmmaker and Araki a surrealist painter. The two worked, blindly, on their debut for hours at a time over four years – the book features nearly 1,000 drawings – even holing up in a Las Vegas resort for several days to mesh ideas.
The result, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is a smart, funny and refreshingly unique story of adolescent angst featuring the spirited 15-year-old, Tina Malhotra — a Southern Californian of Indian descent who has a penchant for the Sex Pistols and French philosophers. In witty and observant, if neurotic, letters to Jean-Paul Sartre, Tina chronicles the emotional minefield that is her life – and her one goal above all else: a first kiss.
“It really was a trial-and-error process,” Kashyap told Hero Complex’s Deborah Vankin. “Figuring out the [storytelling] rhythm was part of what made the book take so long.”
Kashyap will be in conversation with Vankin Thursday at 7 p.m. at Book Soup in West Hollywood, where she will sign copies of “Tina’s Mouth.” Following is an interview with the author.
DV: You came to comics via filmmaking. Did you find your film background helped with the transition into graphic novel writing? Are the crafts similar at all?
KK: Yes and no. It is visual storytelling, so in that way it is similar. I have always loved movies with voice-overs, but words and images are not easy to put together. My way of thinking was to use Mari’s beautiful drawings and illustrative storytelling to make certain ideas in the book larger.
DV: Why Jean-Paul Sartre – is he someone who influenced you as a kid? Were you into existentialism then?
KK: I took a class in existentialism when I was a sophomore in high school. I don’t so much remember Sartre’s ideas as much as his strange face and storied personal life. I loved the questions that were being asked in that class — they were so different from anything else in my life.
DV: Aren’t all teenagers, to some extent, immersed in an existential experience?
KK: Yes, in that finding out your authentic self seems a more dire mandate at that age. There are some misconceptions, though, as I see it, about existentialism and the way it’s seen in popular culture. Sartre was an optimist about life’s potential. He wasn’t all “life has no meaning so smoke pot all day.” He believed you had to create meaning in your life.
DV: The book, design-wise, is unique in that it’s pretty varied — some pages are heavy with panels and dialogue, other pages are very sparse. How does the style of the book affect the storytelling rhythm?
KK: There were emotional moments that required more space, visually speaking, to add weight or call attention. And others — maybe those that were more dialogue-heavy or plot-driven — that were better suited to panels.
DV: How did you collaborate with your artist, Mari Araki, especially seeing as this is also her publishing debut?
KK: We had a long, drawn out collaboration that involved me writing the script, breaking it down, Mari drawing thumbnails, then going back and forth on tightening, editing, inking, laying out.
DV: Is your book autobiographical at all? Are any of the characters similar to your family members?
KK: Totes! My parents are totally the parents in the book. The similarities kind of stop there, though.
DV: This is your first graphic novel – how did you find the experience of writing comics? What did you read that was similar to educate and inspire?
KK: I found it a lot of fun, but also incredibly difficult and challenging on many levels. I read a lot of books but because Mari or I aren’t comic-book writers per se, we also had to invent our own language.
DV: What are you working on now?
KK: Two scripts, a YA novel and Mari and I are batting about another comic-book idea.
— Deborah Vankin
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