Olswanger, Anna. A Visit to Moscow. Illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg. Berkeley, CA: WestMargin Press, 2022, 72 pp.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted the form of a graphic novel for you?
Anna Olswanger (AO): As soon as I entered grade school, I became a comic book reader. Every week I was at our neighborhood pharmacy to see what that’s week’s delivery had brought. I bought every copy of Superman, Supergirl, Batman, Flash, Archie, Millie the Model, Little Lulu, Wonder Woman, any character. As I got older, I lost interest in comics because I began to see the art as flat, both literally and figuratively. There were no shadows, no depth, but I remained enamored of the combination of art and text and I think that’s why I fell in love with picture books as an adult. I always wanted to see fiction for adults published with illustrations, but years ago at a writers’ conference when I asked an editor if any publisher would consider illustrated short stories for adults, the editor curtly replied, “Adults don’t need illustrations.” I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I do.”
It’s been at least 30 years since I heard that editor speak, and the market has evolved. Graphic novels, both for young readers and for adults, contain art that has depth and shadows. Graphic novels are not only acceptable for adults, but are appreciated by reviewers and book buyers, especially librarians. I am glad that A Visit to Moscow could find a home in this format.
TWM: How did you decide on starting the story from Zev’s perspective? (And for point of clarification, which Zev is this? The boy or the brother who perished?)
AO: Zev at the opening is not the brother who died in a concentration camp, but Zev, now an adult, who was the boy in the main section of the book. The book opens just after the moment of the adult’s Zev’s death. He is looking down at the area in Lebanon where he stepped on a land mine and sees the lush landscape— scenes of a cliff, ruins on a rampart, a lake and valley. He thinks he’s looking down from heaven, and then everything starts to disappear. He can’t remember his name or who he was. He hears a voice and follows it. He sees a man (later we realize it is the fictional version of Rabbi Grossman, the rabbi who visited Zev and his family in the Soviet Union) at his Shabbat table with his family. The man is about to tell his family a story, and the story is his meeting Zev and his parents during a visit to Moscow.
It seemed natural to me to start the story from Zev’s perspective because I knew I wanted the ending to be from his perspective, and that the book would circle back.
TWM: Yevgenia, how did your own background affect your illustrations? How did you decide on textless panels?
Yevgenia Nayberg (YN): Many ideas are the result of a collaborative process, and after some time it’s hard to recall how things happened exactly! If I remember correctly, I originally painted one full-page image and the editor suggested including several textless panels throughout the book. I thought it was a great idea because having these panels alters the pace of the story. My favorite panel is the snowy Moscow. The main events of the novel happen in the summer, and the winter panel shows the passage of time without words.
TWM: Anna, what were the satisfactions in writing/illustrating this narrative?
AO: I felt a kind of closure at having written it because originally the story was part of a longer novel for adults that Rabbi Grossman and I began writing in the 1980s. We never finished it. The novel included the episode of Rabbi Grossman visiting the U.S.S.R. and meeting the real-life version of Zev and his family. I thought the episode was deeply meaningful, and because it was the one part of the novel that was based on fact, I was disappointed over the years that the story would never be publicly told. But as graphic novels became more popular, I began to think that the episode could be developed into book-length with added art. And when we—Yevgenia, the editor, and I—were able to accomplish that, I felt a sense of relief that I had done justice to the little boy and Rabbi Grossman.
TWM: The challenges?
AO: Rabbi Grossman died in 2018. All of the rabbis who went on the Rabbinical Council of America trip with him had also died, as had Mrs. Grossman, the rabbi’s wife. So, there was no one to answer the new questions I had about the narrative and setting. I was able to get some everyday details from Soviet Jews who had left the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and of course, Yevgenia brought her own experience to the book as the illustrator, but I had no definitive answers to my questions. I only had the notes I had taken when I interviewed Rabbi Grossman in the early 1980s, and that was already 15 years after his trip. That was why the graphic novel finally had to be called historical fiction, and not a graphic memoir.
TWM: Yevgenia, let’s turn back to you. What were the satisfactions in writing/illustrating this narrative? The challenges?
YN: Finding the right light was the most satisfying part of this project. It is the combination of luminosity and fog that set the visual mood for the story.
The main challenge was to keep the composition dynamic. There’s not much physicality in the story; No one is running. The scenes are usually limited to two to three people. However, there’s a lot of internal action. To be able to show that without resorting to grimaces was quite tricky.
TWM: What advice do you have for those aspiring to write and/or illustrate a graphic novel?
AO: The same advice for those aspiring to write in any format: read widely in the format and try to develop an intuitive feel for what it can encompass. Because graphic novels are so visual, I think authors also have to trust in the skills of the illustrator, the same way that a picture book author has to trust in the skills of the illustrator that an editor brings on board. I know that some authors of graphic novels map out every panel for the illustrator, but I think that is stifling to the illustrator’s creativity. Still, a graphic novel author has to think about the flow of panels, which includes the flow of text and page turns, the same, really, as what picture book authors have to think about. Most important, I think they have to love the format.
YN: I would say, have a clear vision of the atmosphere of the story. Know how to visually slow down and speed up the narrative.
For more about Anna Olswanger, visit her website.
For more about Yevgenia Nayberg, visit her website.