Do you love comics? So do we! We admire seeing the fantastic projects illustrators create. Many can start as personal self-published pieces, before they get noticed and become something even bigger.
AOI Member Mollie Ray is currently in the process of creating her first long-form graphic novel, a deeply emotive and delicate tale based on her own family experience (due to be published by Faber and Faber in 2024). Continue reading as we chat about her background, the story, the process of getting it published and the behind the scenes so far.
Tell us a bit about yourself, who is Mollie Ray?
I am an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Lancaster. I was originally raised in Cumbria, which played a big part in my visual influences (often with whimsy, rolling hills and little white houses!).
So far my main focus has been telling my own stories through comics and graphic novels, including self-published comics and my focal project now Giant, which is to be published by Faber and Faber in 2024. However, I have a passion for storytelling broadly and I would really like to branch into picture books and children’s fiction in the future, as well as animation.
Amazing, and big congratulations on your graphic novel! Can you give us an overview of the story and how it got picked for publication?
Firstly, thank you! I still can’t believe it!!
Giant is a silent graphic novel about my families experience when my brother was diagnosed with cancer. The main character wakes up one day to find they’ve physically grown to the size of a giant, which acts as three metaphors: the physical mutation of cancer, the feeling of being the ‘elephant in the room’ and the ‘giant’ strength he takes away with him following his recovery.
I recently spoke to Ian and Nikki over at the LICAF podcast, in which I gave a very candid breakdown of how the book got picked up for publication. Essentially, I stayed up until three in the morning one night following, literally, hundreds of literary agents on Twitter. My now agent, James Spackman of The BKS Agency was the first to follow me back. This happened around the same time Broken Frontier named me as one of their ‘6 To Watch in 2021’, which combined with meeting James gave me a real confidence boost to get the book in front of publishers.
James and I then sent across the first chapter and a synopsis of the book to a load of publishers, and I received an offer from Faber! (I was actually, rather unglamorously, taking the bins out at my old job when I received a text with the news – I was completely gobsmacked!)
I’ve read how you’re very inspired by Magical Realism, poetry and words. Giant is a silent narrative itself – how’s writing informing the visuals?
I really love Magical Realism as a genre in fiction – the idea that simple, everyday things can be celebrated as if they are magic. Magical Realism often uses metaphor and poetic visual language to define a feeling, and this approach is very similar to my own story development.
With Giant, the influence of visual metaphor in writing translated very literally. The image of the main character being ‘giant’ amongst ordinary sized characters really captured for me, first and foremost, the feeling my brother expressed of being ‘the elephant in the room’. When someone you love has cancer, it feels like a constant that you have to accept whilst still trying to carry out your normal day to day life. The standing image for this book so far, depicting a family sat around the dinner table with the second eldest son the size of a giant, was inspired by the very first sketch I made for this story.
With my other comics that include words, for example Two Stones (which can be found in full on my website) I start by writing a poem based on a strong visual metaphor I have in mind for capturing whatever it is I’m trying to express. I then will pair this metaphor with complimentary imagery in comic form, using the poem as a guide. This is one way that I develop a story; sometimes like with Giant, the image comes first, but either way the very first thing that comes to mind is a feeling translated into a metaphor.
It’s no secret that creating a graphic novel takes time and energy. How are you keeping organised, energised and supported in the process?
As it stands I am now half way through creating the drawings for Giant, and only recently feel I have got into a sustainable rhythm. I draw the line work for ten pages at a time, and then shade and edit those ten pages. As long as I shade a minimum of two pages a week, I am on track for my final manuscript deadline in June 2023.
I am very lucky to have a number of people supporting my process. My partner for one is a real rock for me, and a very honest critic. I also have feedback from my editor, creative director at Faber, Angus Cargill; and my agent James Spackman is also really supportive and keen to see its development as I progress with it. James has been a real godsend in this process, and I feel very grateful for the passion and enthusiasm he has had from the start. He continues to help me develop my career and is playing a bit part in helping me network, and find roots into other areas of illustration.
My good friend Gemma Sosnowsky, the librarian from my secondary school and whose name I will shout from the rooftops at all possible times, has been a constant in supporting my comics related endeavours since I was 15. I have also had the support of graphic novelists Nicola Streeten (who helped me in receiving funding from Arts Council England) and Katie Green, who is kindly mentoring me at stages throughout the creation of the book. As well as receiving the Arts Council England National Lottery Grant, I was awarded a second grant by the Society of Authors. Cancer Care are also very kindly facilitating workshops with me throughout the development of the book, with people directly affected by cancer, to ensure that the book emphasises the most important and relatable stages in my family’s journey, so that it can be as helpful, informative and comforting as possible to its audience.
In terms of the story itself, as Katie Green pointed out to me recently, the book isn’t just fiction; it’s dealing with real events and feelings. My brother Louie, who was diagnosed with cancer the year leading up to COVID-19, has been incredibly supportive, as well as the rest of my family. They have expressed that this project feels like, quite literally, a book end to this traumatic life event that we all experienced in different ways, and something positive out of a difficult period in our lives. I am extremely grateful to them all for that.
What piece of advice would you give to aspiring comic creators looking to publish their works?
My main piece of advice would be to push creating the work that means something to you, that you have real passion for, as this will always translate into your strongest and proudest work. Don’t be afraid to expose things that are deeply personal in your work, as this will have the most profound and positive effect on your readers. Honest, raw art always speaks to me more than anything else. This is just my personal experience, but this is sort of my mantra when creating.
I would also say, find the confidence to drive your work in front of the eyes of as many people as possible. You never know what opportunities can arise from even the smallest interactions. I was selected as Broken Frontier’s ‘6 To Watch in 2021’ all because I tweeted my work to them on Small Press Day.
However, don’t let confidence become arrogance; always seek advice from other artists, develop your skills, try new techniques and don’t assume you have nothing else to learn. I hope that my work doesn’t reach its peak for at least another twenty years!
We really want to thank Mollie Ray for taking the time to do this interview!
Learn more about Mollie and continue following her process on her website and Instagram.