For most writers, the hardest part of putting out a book is not just writing the manuscript, but also getting it published. In the case of author and illustrator Emil Ferris, her greatest challenge was having the physical copies of her book actually arrive from the printer.
The entire first run of Ferris’ debut graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters — which follows the story of 10-year-old girl as she begins to investigate the life of her murdered neighbor, a holocaust survivor — was aboard a shipping freighter owned by Hanjin, the sixth largest shipping company in the world, which went bankrupt earlier this year. As a result, several shipments of cargo were stranded across the ocean and seized at certain ports.
Copies of Ferris’ book, which were originally supposed to be available for purchase in October, were essentially “arrested” by the Panamanian government, and for almost a month and a half, she and her publisher Fantagraphics were left in the dark about what to do. Would they have to reprint copies? What would happen to the cargo? Circumstances out of Ferris’ control delivered yet another roadblock to the book’s release, which was preceded by Ferris’ 15-year creative process, a publishing house switch, a bout with West Nile Virus, and, as a result, her journey toward overcoming paralysis.
“This book has been this massive process tied to my recovery,” says Ferris of her experience working on the graphic novel. “When I say ‘art healed me,’ it really healed me!”
The ship has since been released by the Panamanian government and is now on its way to New York—though Ferris and her publishers won’t be able to rest easy until they get the books off the ship and into a warehouse. A new on-sale date has been set for February 2017. Below, Ferris talks to EW about the uncertainties she and her book have faced while dealing with a bankrupt shipping company and confusing maritime law, and why she’s already at work on the sequel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you been working on My Favorite Thing is Monsters?
EMIL FERRIS: The original story was written about 15 years ago. It’s been around a very long time and a lot of things happened since this story was first written. I began working on it as a screenplay [but] I’ve been working on it, about 16 hours a day, as a graphic novel for the last six years. During that time that this has been going on, I was paralyzed from the waist down because I got West Nile Virus and I lost the use of my right hand so I couldn’t draw.
How did this affect your process? I can’t imagine it got any easier.
When I came out of the fever and realized I had lost all this, I decided to go to school. If I couldn’t draw any more I’d really like to make films. So I was really fortunate [because] an amazing thing happened. I wheeled my wheelchair downtown [to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago] and I got a full scholarship. They really said, “Let’s just do it.” So I got all this support from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to start my life over again because I wasn’t young at the time. I was 40 years old and I was in a wheelchair with a six-year-old child. I don’t know how I’m going to support her. I was illustrating and I was cleaning people’s houses, I was doing whatever I could to take care of my kid as a single parent. And then I got this, so it changed my life for the better. I think that mosquito bite [that led to the West Nile Virus] saved my life because I never would have explored my art again. So that’s why when they told me that the book was lost I went, “Well, okay.” These short-term bad things in my life always end up being good things. So I just accept them.
So what exactly happened to the book?
[When] I spoke to [Fantagraphics Founder] Gary Groth, he said, “You know, essentially what happened is the Panamanian Government has arrested your book.” That’s what it’s called, “being arrested.” Here’s my book about a woman arrested by the Nazis, sent to a concentration camp, and now, the book has been arrested. It’s a strange experience altogether.
When did Fantagraphics agree to publish the book? Were they there at the beginning when you realized this could work as a graphic novel?
No. I actually had another publisher that stepped forward and wanted to publish it early on and they were wonderful. But I think when I turned in my final manuscript, they looked at it and it was 600 pages long, and they said, “We don’t really do this. We thought we would publish some small thing. This is really big. This is two books. We don’t know what to do with this.” I’m really lucky I ended up with Fantagraphics because they know what they’re doing. They made a beautiful book. [And] they really invested in it. They put it on the cover of the catalogue. I had schedules for a book signing at the Museum of Contemporary Art. There were so many scheduled [promotional events], which have now all be cancelled.
When did you first find out this happened?
About [two] weeks ago. I was wondering why Amazon had postponed its delivery date. And then I called them and they said, “Well, this is what happened.” I’ve been staring at a lot of walls going, “Okay, how does this work exactly? Why did this happen?” All the way through, bad things happened to me in the process of making this book. And you know what? They always ended up being better for the book in the end. So I’m just trusting.
That’s such a wonderful outlook on this.
Well, I had to go through some dark days where I was grumpy to get there. [Laughs] But I just realized, this is what happens to us in life but we have to figure out how the dark thing is going to make the light brighter.
Was there any discussion about releasing the graphic novel digitally if the physical copies were still arrested?
They want it to come out first in a hard copy because they feel that the book just reads better because it is made like a notebook, so that when you get it you open it and all the pages are notebook pages. It’s almost like you’re decoding something you found on the bus. And that’s kind of the feeling we want it to have. I think it’s a little more difficult to have that experience when you’re on a computer.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on the second book [of My Favorite Thing is Monsters] because there are two books in this series at present.