Danica Novgorodoff on Slow Storm at First Second

Danica Novgorodoff on Slow Storm

According to her bio on the flap of her debut graphic novel, Danica Novgorodoff was raised in Kentucky, herded cows in the Andes and taught English in Ecuador. Working on her debut graphic novel, Slow Storm, out now from First Second, her multicultural background is obvious.

Kentucky-born firefighter Ursa Crain doesn’t live the life expected of a Southern lady. She’s tall and broad, strong and stubborn, and she’s a dedicated member of the North Oldham Fire Department. Rafael José Herrera Sifuentes, called Rafi, is an illegal laborer living in a barn loft, sleeping just above the horses he tends to while earning money for his family in Mexico.

The unlikely duo is drawn together by a sudden fire, engulfed in their own complicated cultural mores and personal expectations. A moving study of two people who don’t seem to fit in the place they find themselves, Slow Storm is an ambitious opening gambit by anybody’s standard.

We talked to Danica about her book.

Newsarama: Danica, Slow Storm is a very ambitious book. How did this story evolve?

Danica Novgorodoff: I began thinking about the story while I was living in Kentucky – I wasn’t sure what form it would take, but I wanted to write about and draw the landscape, storm chasers, Mexicans working on horse farms, Mexican saints and iconography as imported to America, the Kentucky Derby, and firefighters in contest with the disasters of nature. And, of course, a love story (albeit a largely unfulfilled one). I was working on a horse farm at the time and spent some time hanging out at the North Oldham County Fire Station with a friend who is a volunteer firefighter there.

NRAMA: I was extremely impressed by your dialogue, both in the way you capture Southern dialect and your ear for Rafi’s broken English. Was it difficult to capture the language without making the characters sound like clichés?

DN: It wasn’t easy! I’d thought about dropping the “g”s from the ends of “–ing”s to try to replicate the Kentucky accent – like, “He’s expectin you.” But it looked too forced, so instead I tried to get the sound of it across through diction alone.

And I didn’t want Rafi to sound stupid; rather, he struggles with the English language. In his mind, of course, he’s got very complex thoughts and emotions – then again, his internal dialogue can’t be too florid and verbose, because he’s probably only graduated high school, at most.

NRAMA: You’re from Kentucky, correct? How important was it for you to capture the quality of life there without descending to Southern stereotypes?

DN: I hope that my main characters transcend stereotypes – while Ursa’s brother and other co-workers are uncomfortable with her defiance of what they think a girl should look like and how she should behave, Ursa neither submits to pressure, nor is she unbreakable – it takes a stranger to crack her tough shell.

While I didn’t want this to be a political or didactic story, I wanted to present Rafi’s character – a Mexican immigrant trying to work hard and stay out of trouble in order to support his family back home – in a personal way that looks beyond the distrust of and rage against “illegals” that so many Americans feel.

NRAMA: When did you get the idea to put together and contrast Ursa, a confused Southern firefighter, and Rafi, an illegal Mexican laborer?

DN: I wanted to write a story in which two very unlikely characters are thrown together by forces beyond their control, and form a brief but meaningful relationship – one that works outside of the constraints of their expected roles, their duties, cultural differences, language barriers – everything practical.

NRAMA: Why did you decide to keep most of Rafi's dialogue in Spanish, while his narration is in English?

DN: There’s a big gap between what Rafi thinks and feels and what he is able to communicate. The feeling of isolation is quite deep when you can’t speak to the people around you – I remember when I was in Mexico and just beginning to learn Spanish, feeling like I wasn’t sure what was going on around me most of the time, having to go along with things without knowing exactly why they were happening, and being hungry all the time for a complete thought, a meaningful connection with another person. Through his narration, I wanted to show the reader, who might or might not speak Spanish, what is going on inside his head.

NRAMA: Contrasting that, we rarely go directly into Ursa's head for her thoughts. Why not?

DN: Occasionally we do, as she’s trying to figure out her own life philosophy, and how it fits with her passion for firefighting and contrasts with her traditional Christian upbringing: “You can gimme a long sleep, satin shoes, and religion when I’m six foot deep.” And then again, when she’s inside the fire, she realizes in a very visceral way how slighted she feels by her brother and co-workers: “I feel that I am disappearing.” This part was inspired by my firefighter friend’s incredible description of being inside a burning building – the smoke blocks all light, such that you are completely blind while trying to locate the fire, and then get out alive. You can’t even see your own hands in front of you. I wanted this oppressive physical state to relate also to her emotional state. Ursa is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster – her internal thoughts range from the exuberantly passionate to the heartbreakingly lonesome. Rafi’s a bit more poetic, determined, and staid.

NRAMA: Certain sequences, particularly those seen through Rafi's eyes, but also Ursa when she's in the barn fire, have an unreal impressionism. What did you base this view of the world on?

DN: On a basic level, the dream-like sequences are borne of the characters’ entry into a state of physical or emotional distress. Rafi’s entire memory of his journey from Mexico to the United States is quite hallucinatory, and occurs after he’s realized his barn is burning, tried to save all the horses from dying in the fire, probably inhaled a lot of smoke, and knocked his head while being trampled by a spooked horse.

Similarly, Ursa has some terrifying visions after entering the burning barn with three minutes to locate any possible victims, and instead of saving lives as is her duty, she puts her brother’s life in danger in a fit of untimely rage.

These visions also explore this sense of the power of the unseen that Rafi and Ursa share, even though their respective cultures’ ideas of the mystical, spiritual, or religious are very different. It’s the inscrutable force of nature, of religion, of language, and of fear that each of them is trying to understand. Often they doubt the unseen, but sometimes – as when Ursa comes face to face with Rafi’s patron saint, Saint Christopher, and mistakes him for a vision of death – you have to think there’s something true and universal to the inexplicable, the unnamable.

NRAMA: You've spent time in Kentucky, Virginia, the Andes and Ecuador. How did those experiences help you shape the characters' lives and outlooks?

DN: I feel like I've had a very intimate relationship with the places I've lived (especially the ones you mention here). I wanted Kentucky and Mexico to be characters in the story – places that Rafi and Ursa love, miss, resent, struggle against, talk to, respond to – places that are not passive but influence their lives dramatically. And of course the things I did in Kentucky, Virginia and South America – ride horses, photograph the landscape, learn Spanish, and write – were the seeds of this story. Also, the simple fact of Rafi's displacement and Ursa's entrapment by her hometown very much shape who they are and how they think.

NRAMA: How long did it take you to complete Slow Storm?

DN: I thought about it for about a year, then worked on the story for another year, and spent a third year drawing it.

NRAMA: What's next for you?

DN: I’m working on two new graphic novel projects right now!

One is called Refresh, Refresh, and it’s based on a short story by Benjamin Percy and screenplay by James Ponsoldt, both by the same name. Set in a small town in Oregon, it’s about three teenage boys whose fathers are all Marines fighting in the Iraq war. The boys are doing typical teenage things – trying to graduate from high school and decide what to do afterward, meeting girls, sneaking into bars, getting into all kinds of trouble – while also dealing with becoming the men of their households before they’ve truly grown up, missing their fathers but also resenting their absence.

I’m also working on a new story set in China, about the macabre tradition of ghost marriages, and a boy who embarks on a wild adventure to find a bride for his dead brother.

I’m super excited about both of these projects.

Slow Storm is currently available from First Second.

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