In 'Monsters,' Graphic Novelist Emil Ferris Embraces The Darkness Within
Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris has always be fascinated by monsters. As a kid, she would watch werewolf movies and find herself sympathizing with the wolf. Now 55, she's recently published her first graphic novel, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.
"I always felt like [monsters] were kind of heroic because they were facing something," Ferris tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Becoming a monster sometimes isn't a choice that you have. We're all that; we're all 'the other' in one way or another."
Set in 1968, Ferris' novel is rendered as a sketchbook that belongs to a 10-year-old girl, Karen, who loves horror movies and who thinks of herself — and draws herself — as a werewolf. The novel deals with the figurative and literal horrors of Karen's life, including the murder of her elderly neighbor, Anka, who was a Holocaust survivor.
Ferris began writing and drawing My Favorite Thing Is Monsters after she was bitten by a mosquito that infected her with West Nile virus. The virus left her paralyzed, but eventually she regained some use of her right hand and learned to draw again by duct-taping a quill pen to her hand. Ferris now walks with the help of a cane.
Looking back, she says the book never would have been written had she not contracted West Nile. "The experience really coalesced my ferocity around regaining the ability to draw and walk and live and create," she says. "It became clear to me that it was much more important ... to do the best that I could and give something to the world."
On why she chose to draw and write about dark subjects
There's the way that light shows in darkness and it is extremely beautiful. And I think it essentializes the experience of being human, to see light in darkness. ...
For me, the moments of beauty [were] when I duct taped a quill pen to my hand and I'm shaking, knocking the bottles of ink, and my daughter steadies my hand and helps me put the quill down. ... Then she's with me. She's standing beside the drafting table and I'm drawing and I draw a wheelchair and I think she's going to draw me sitting in the wheelchair, but she draws me standing up out of it. And she says, "Mama, I know that they told you you're not going to walk again, but I really believe you will." It's in those moments when everything seems so dark that the most beautiful things happen.
On the hallucinations she had while she was in the hospital
One of the hallmarks of West Nile virus is that, because you get encephalitis and meningitis, there are so many delusions, illusions and hallucinations that are part of this fever and chills that build up to your final destination, which is ultimately, in the mind of the virus, death, but for me was paralysis — and, of course, a rich panoply of remembered delusions and hallucinations.
The angel of death came to visit and the angel of death as I saw it in my fever was a very big, 1940s kind of a gray/teal/blue filing cabinet, and it was sort of a bureaucrat and it just came into the room and spoke. One of the drawers slightly opened and there was this sort of glowing light inside of it and it said, "Are you in or are you out? We need to know for our records." And I thought of my daughter and I said, "Yeah, I'm in. I gotta stay. I got to finish this," because she was only 6 at the time.
Then I saw this enormous rock and ... there was something inside of the rock, and it was ... gold. And what was said to me is, "There's a very hard path for you, since you've decided to stay, but there's something beautiful inside of the difficulty and you're going to have to chip through this rock to get to it."
On her early exposure to the horror films produced in the 1950s and '60s by Hammer Film Productions
Death was really sexy in the Hammer films because you got to wear a really nice negligee, you got to sleep in these beautiful coffins, maybe it was very ornate. The mold in these places was obviously there and a problem, but since you were undead, it didn't bother you, which was always convenient. ... There's this unearthly glow to you. I think the Hammer films really made death quite sexy.
On growing up around sexual violence and abuse
Sexual violence was something that was very prevalent in the area that I grew up [in] and it was something that we [dealt with], especially as girls, but also boys who were exposed to it by virtue of being in organizations and institutions that allowed children to be abused. It was very much a part of our lives, and as children we would talk about "leave the room when this person asks you to sit on their lap." Those were the kinds of cues you'd give other children. And there was not really protection. ...
When you're a kid, you're trying to figure [out] what's really happening to you, and real violence happens on this tremendously deep level. ... It's so psychic in a way, it's so psychically damaging. And it's also a way of connecting with something that is true in the world, very primal and true. ... I experienced violence and knew that in those moments I was being opened up to a world that had all kinds of things in it.
On what frightens her now
I get afraid of the dark if I'm in a great deal of dark, and I have to move around inside of that fear. ... But there is a chance that something ... will talk to me from the dark, so I have ... to be prepared for that communication, which has happened. I've had things in the darkness speak to me, not audibly, but certainly in my soul, and they've enriched the book. ... I'm not sure if they're on my team or not, but they have helped.