“Interviews from the other side” is a series that highlights creative individuals who are actively making their way in the writing and independent publishing world.
Evan Dahm is an eight-year veteran of the self publishing and graphic novel world, having begun his journey with Rice Boy back in 2006. His current epic, Vattu, has won several awards, including the Ignatz Award for Best Online Comic at this year’s Small Press Expo.
Evan has created a rich, imaginative world with a strange and diverse assortment of characters that deal with everything from personal struggles to political ideals to philosophical dilemmas. I’ve been incredibly impressed with his work, so I was honored to chat with him recently.
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So I’m curious about where your ideas come from. Do you have these worlds in your head that you’ve been playing around with for a while and you finally just started putting them on paper?
I feel like a lot of artists have these sort of sacred personal ideas they’ve been keeping and developing, like you’re talking about, for their whole lives basically. I have never really done that. I have certain impulses towards escapism and presenting a sense of space and atmosphere — and that’s been persistent. But the way that I developed Overside is basically just to serve the needs of the story I’m writing at the time.
For me it doesn’t extend much beyond that, but still the goal is to make it internally seem consistent and seem to extend beyond the story even though it’s just there for the story. So I’m a little more pragmatic about it than I feel a lot of people who do that kind of work are. But the impulses that drive me to do it I’ve had forever.
So what came first, then? The characters, the world, the plot, the overarching idea? Where do you start, creatively? Do you even know? Because that’s something I’ve had to think about.
It varies and it’s tricky because I’ve done most of my work in the same setting. I started Rice Boy eight years ago with just sort of a vague idea of a tone for a setting more than any details and I sort of made it up as I went along. But now that is my starting place, that is what Overside is. But normally, for Vattu, my starting point was kind of a guiding idea of a particular kind of culture shock, and Overside just becomes a tool to work with that.
I can’t really imagine starting with only the setting because the setting, to me, is a tool but it’s not a central part of the story.
So it has to be there and it has to be well constructed, but the characters and the thematic stuff is actually what makes it stick, I feel.
Right, so it’s serving the story and the characters, not the other way around.
Yes. Or at least you want it to look that way.
I am curious how much the stories and characters you create infiltrate your daily life. When you’re not writing, when you’re not drawing, do you think about it constantly? Is it always just sort of there in your head, or can you break yourself away from your creative process at all?
I can. I mean, but if I’m in a zone — like, writing is this thing that varies the most in my involvement with it, where sometimes I’m just slogging through it and sometimes it’s all that I’m thinking about. But it’s not like the stuff is living in my head when I’m not actively trying to work with it. I don’t think of the characters as independent or divorced from the story in any way; they’re important to me as they fit into the story and what they’re doing.
What I’m going for is a consistent and self-contained way for the story to work.
It’s hard to say without sounding like I’m heartless and pragmatic. I mean, it’s a craft — I approach it like a craft where you make the story tight and accomplish what it accomplishes, and you want people to feel like they’re real characters that they can see outside of the setting. But it doesn’t work as tightly as a story for me if they’re actually thought of that way.
In other words, you wouldn’t be wandering around, say, Bethesda, Maryland thinking, “What would Vattu do?” or, “Wow, such-and-such a character would really love this thing.” You don’t think like that.
I don’t. But I will wander around and be pre-occupied by what a character is doing in the story and an actual thing that is happening that they have to work through.
So you could always be working, in the back of your mind, on things.
Yeah, because I do have them as characters that I believe in and understand what they would do in certain situations. So it’s like an exercise that I do, it’s just focused on what’s actually happening in the story.
Do you notice that things in your “real world” life influence what you write and how you write characters?
Yeah, I think so. Kind of obliquely because my stuff is sort of made up.
Well, right. But a lot of things sort of transcend.
Oh, totally. And there’s a political self-awareness that I’m trying to bring to Vattu in particular — not any particular things that are happening, but I want it to exist in a place that is socially critical in a way that I try to be. But I’m super inspired by history and current events and broader stuff than that.
Are there other things that influence you as far as creativity? Do you have other artists, authors, movies, media, anything that sort of influences the way you write, the way you draw?
This is always a hard question because I just try to absorb a lot of things and I’m not specifically trying to accomplish something that another writer was trying to do. But lately… Ursula Le Guin, she’s one of my favorite writers and there are ways that she approaches invented settings that are so beautiful and perfect that I want to do that. But I probably do get the most out of novels, I don’t read a lot of comics. I just try to absorb a lot of stuff.
Is there a certain genre of media that you tend to gravitate toward?
Yeah, genre stuff like invented settings, definitely. But I love a super tightly written [story] — I like “True Detective” — and I like really over-long, neat space opera shit like “2001,” I like that a lot.
I always find it interesting to look at what I write and what I read and watch and sometimes I try to see what’s influencing me that way.
Yeah, and you look for the stuff that has the properties that are important to you, that you’re trying to make. It goes both ways.
Yes! I’ve been reading a lot lately by people who have created their own universe and world in their writing because I want to see how they’re doing it. I’m actually doing it purposefully instead of saying, “I just like this, I’m going to read it.”
I’ve been trying to do that, too. The reason I got back into Ursula Le Guin was because I was working on a pitch for something — that probably fell through — but I wanted it to feel like the Earthsea books kind of in terms of the setting and how it… she plays it super loose, right? Like, you know what it is and you know how it fits together but you don’t need all the details.
So what is your actual writing process like? Do you sort of flesh out a general story arc? Do you start at the beginning and write straight through? With Vattu, in particular, are you writing as you go along or do you have the whole story completed? At what point do you actually start putting things on paper and publishing it on the internet? Because once you start doing that you’re kind of committed, you’re stuck to whatever you’ve published.
Yeah, and comics are tricky because, especially publishing like this, it’s hard to edit. But I’ve approached it differently with all the different things I’ve done. Vattu is super complicated for me, plotwise, and I’m trying to make it so it doesn’t all unravel like the “Song of Ice and Fire” books are doing — or are going to. But for that one, I had a broad idea of the scope of the entire story, then by the time I had started actually drawing it I had down pretty clearly the things that would actually happen and the major subplots and how they kind of connected and related to each other. I just didn’t know the scale of it or how it would exactly work, and it’s just a continual process of tightening everything ahead of me as I approach it to draw it. And I’m confident enough in the structure of that that I can continue to do that, it’ll work.
Also, as I’ve gone through what I’ve already drawn and finished, things will present themselves at the last minute that will totally change it or make things fit together tighter than you would have guessed doing the planning.
Like, you can’t just plan it. I think everyone who writes says something like that. What’s the cliché, “The characters just do their own thing no matter what you tell them to do.”
And you find new connections and even new sub plots that are like, “Well I wasn’t even considering that before but this totally works.”
That’s exactly why I think it’s important to find a balance between planning and rolling with it.
You plan enough so that you have a structure to relate to, but then give yourself room because the spontaneous stuff is where the extra inspiration comes from.
You actually have to DO the work.
Yeah, do the work and be aware that you can’t totally control it.
Yes! Which is scary for a lot of people. Scary for me until I realized how cool it was.
It’s totally scary, but the process of having some weird revelation is what’s fun about writing for me.
Absolutely, it’s one of the things that has kept me writing. Stuff I’ve had in my head for years and years — it’s amazing when you start to write things down how intricate they become.
Yeah, because you can’t really hold the whole structure in your head. That’s why we invented writing.
How much time do you actually spend putting things to paper as opposed to the planning and thinking?
I don’t know, I guess I do most of my writing and thinking in notebooks. I’ve filled about a thousand pages of spiral-bound notebooks for Vattu. I don’t know that I see a divide there, it’s sort of a constant process of just doodling things and working out ideas and writing and rewriting plot maps and seeing how they work. And the writing of the final dialogue, several iterations of that is just part of the process.
So for, say, one page of Vattu — how much time would you say you spend playing around with the dialogue and planning the structure of that page as opposed to actually putting it in the final version? Because I imagine you do a lot more planning and diddling around with it, changing things.
Yeah, I don’t know how they line up, but most of my writing and preliminary planning is about broader issues than individual page and dialogue moments. So I’ll spend a long time figuring out how to get a scene from point A to point B or how to connect it to another thing. But writing the dialogue I’ll do a couple iterations depending on what I want to say with it all, and actually getting it planned out and drawn is a craft issue to me and it’s not the same sort of thing. It’s hard, but it just takes working on, it doesn’t take inspiration or thinking really hard.
So do you find dialogue actually pretty easy to write? Because you already have your plan of where you want it to go.
I don’t know that it’s easy to write. It’s really fun, and it’s the thing that gets me into working on the story, just picking some scene and deciding to mess around with the dialogue. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, I don’t really know how to do it.
It’s one of the things I go back and forth on. Sometimes it seems really easy, and sometimes it’s like, “Uh, I don’t think this person would actually say that.”
But it feels right, it feels like — it’s a very important part of narrative.
One of the things I was curious about is how you keep everything straight. You said you have notebooks, but is there some particular method you use to keep characters and plot lines straight? Because I know I can’t remember all my facts.
No, and it’s useless to try. I do writing for different projects in a bunch of different things, but Vattu is all red notebooks so I know which it is. Most of them I’ve numbered and indexed and done contents for, and I have shorthand stuff for things that are in book 2 — I have a big “2” with a box around it so I can find it easy.
But when it gets to a certain point of being finished I use Scrivener. It’s pretty simple, I guess it’s for screen writing, but it’s good at dealing with a whole bunch of stacks of different text files that need to be stitched together and moved around, and that’s kind of where I put things when they’re finished enough to work with. Because I can’t really write very well on the computer, it’s more productive for me to write by hand. But the computer is the thing that helps it stay organized.
Is there something that you particularly like the most about writing and the whole of your process? Is it the writing part, is it the drawing part, is it the creative part? What really speaks to you about what you are doing?
The drawing part I’m invested in about 20-30 percent of the time. It’s mostly getting the job done for me and it’s the grunt work of making the story happen — and I love it, but the writing is the thing that I’m invested in most of the time because it’s there, it’s not just the craft part.
I guess I love comics and I love the narrative tricks that working in a visual medium like that allows you to do, and that’s the exciting part to me.
The drawing is mostly a thing that I do because I have to do it, but being able to tell a story that way is very, very important to me.
I often wonder, why choose comics or the graphic style when you could just write it out?
I want to do prose someday, but this is the skill that I’ve developed and the audience I’ve developed and I can’t invest a huge amount of time in something that I don’t know if it will take off because it’s my job and I have to make it work for myself to be creative within it being my job — that’s the bargain I’ve made.
It is interesting to me to note the different ways you can convey nuance in prose as opposed to a graphic novel or comic because when you’re writing prose, you’re writing out exactly what the characters are doing, but when you’re working more in a graphic medium, you’re showing. You’re literally showing instead of telling.
And it works for me very well with invented settings and stuff because you can do a lot of the grunt work of world building without telling a person anything, which I think makes it easier to get involved in as a reader. But people who can do it very well in prose, drop in ideas in the background without really explicitly pointing them out and explaining them — because prose is just linear by definition so it’s like a trick to be able to do that. But it can be done, obviously, and super well. I think it can be done in prose better than it can be done in comics, it’s just that comics lends itself in a more straightforward way to that sort of background story telling, and I love that about it.
Do you have a character that you just really love to write? And why?
I really like writing Junti, the Sirin. From the start, I really wanted her to be — I don’t think it’s explicitly clear at all — but I wanted her to be a little Asperger’s spectrum, like not totally self aware, which is something I strongly identify with, and she’s very important to me. And there’s a character that’s coming up who is kind of a pirate type character in a way, but I like writing him a lot, I’ve written like every scene he’s in already because he’s fun. It’s very fun to write “cool” characters, I guess, but I’m trying to do it in a way that’s self-aware and kind of funny. Like, he thinks a lot more highly of himself than the narrative thinks of him, which is fun to work with. And I like writing Vattu, but she’s kind of the core of it, so it’s hard for me to say that.
I like how in Vattu, your main characters are pretty much all female.
Yeah, it kind of wasn’t intentional at first.
It’s actually fairly rare.
Yeah, it’s super rare. My wife suggested two years before I started the thing that the main character be a girl. That wasn’t even something I was going to do, but it makes sense to me that if you’re going to have a story about several cultures that are extremely patriarchal and oppressive that if there are women in it to make it in large part about the place of women in it.
Yeah, that whole subplot with the Sisterhood, and how they’re a part of the political environment there but they’re… not.
They will be more.
Is there a reason that you’ve pulled more of the feminine perspective into this tory?
I’m a lot more consciously feminist the last several years than when I was doing the other [stories]. I’ve been thinking more hard about that and the story is about how culture informs identity and that’s a good way to talk about that. So I guess it’s an important thing but it’s not the central thing. But I kind of just fell into it.
It’s stuff that I believe in, principles that I believe in, and I can’t really help but say if I’m given the context to deal with it.
It wasn’t this conscious, political decision, though.
It’s conscious now, but when I was first percolating it, seeing how it fit together, it just was fitting together.
Do you find that happens a lot, where your core values really come out in what you’re writing?
Yeah. If it’s honest — I feel like “The Order of Tales,” the last thing I did, is very derivative of the standard high fantasy story, so there are a lot of tropes that I borrowed that aren’t “me,” and they have all this political baggage associated with them that isn’t “me.” So, something is always shining through. No art is apolitical, right? That is always a context that it exists in, and it’s always a question of if it’s reflecting what the creator believes or what the creators of the culture that the tropes come from believe.
How do you come up with names for things? Because that is one of the hardest things, when I started to write my stuff down, I was like, “Shit, I didn’t actually name most of this stuff.” It’s not Earth at all, so I’m coming up with my own political systems for the different races and religions and… names for the races. I had not named them.
I haven’t named some of mine, even. That might not even be an important thing.
Ok, mistakes that people make, I think, are: Too much fealty to the idea of an invented language. Like, that’s important and that can add to it, but it’s so much more memorable to call something — so, in China Miéville, he did a couple books in this early industrial, grimy fantasy setting that’s the weirdest thing, and he had a lot of invented names for things, like creatures that are named after real-world obscure mythology things. But then there’s one species called the Bone Meddlers — actual English words that are memorable and say something.
Storytelling is always about communicating something, so be aware if you’re inventing a word for something you are basically communicating a vague sort of aesthetic, you are communicating how the sound of it relates to a language that the reader is familiar with, and you’re communicating that it’s not real.
Which are all important things to communicate, but if you can name something with words that give a vibe and tell you something that is in English, that is often more… Like, I called the Fluters the “Fluters” because it shows what the Empire thinks of them and it tells you something.
Right. It’s not necessarily what they call themselves.
Yeah. And I guess it’s just important to be aware of how all of your names for things will be interpreted. Names of characters, I try to keep them short so they’re memorable because they’re all made-up words and stick to certain phonetic principles that suggest different languages.
Like, the Roman dog people, they’re all supposed to sound like Roman names, basically. So, I picked certain terminals, I picked very small numbers of vowels and consonants that are available so that they fit, so they all feel like they’re of a piece but are simple and memorable. And I think that’s what communicates something to the reader even if they’re made up.
You’re never going to make a setting that doesn’t relate to reality, and even if you do the reader is going to interpret it in terms of what they know.
But that’s kind of emblematic of my approach to the whole thing is that, you want to invent something that’s strange and unusual and I really want to make a world that feels fully formed and separate from reality, but you have to be aware that everything you’re doing is in relation to what people know and what you know, and you have to work with that.
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