Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is a major accomplishment on a number of fronts. Prior to its creation, Glidden had created a series of minicomics, but nothing of the scope and narrative focus required for a 200+ page graphic novel. Similarly, few creators have tackled such thorny political and challenging personal issues as found in her book.
Birthright Israel is a program organized to introduce world citizens of Jewish descent to the promise of the Jewish homeland, Israel. Glidden, a left-leaning humanist by her own admission, qualified for the program and decided to take on its challenge. The result of her experience is revealed in How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less.
Enduring a politically complex, personally challenging journey, Glidden translated her discoveries and many encounters with Israeli citizens into one of the most engaging and worthwhile comics of the year. We spoke with her about the book and its genesis.
Newsarama: Sarah, when did you take your Birthright trip?
Sarah Glidden: The Birthright trip I went on was in March of 2007.
Nrama: In addition to exploring your heritage and a part of the world that we often read about but don’t truly experience, did you consider the tour fodder for a comic book when you started the trip?
Glidden: I would say that at the outset, my main reason for going on the Birthright tour was as comics fodder. I had always been wary of the Birthright program and had thought that it would be pretty heavy on the pro-Israel propaganda, so this seemed like a great opportunity to do a sort of exposé: how, exactly, would this tour try to sell me on Israel? And in what ways would they avoid talking about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians? I ended up being surprised by how off-base my predictions had been, however. Our guide was a left-wing Israeli who had studied the region’s history at University, so not only did he give us the historical background of the conflict, he also encouraged us to ask difficult questions and discuss the “situation” with a lot of nuance and sensitivity. I don’t think all Birthright tours are as balanced as this one was, but I felt really lucky to be able to explore the difficult issues in context like that (although we were of course limited to the Israeli side of things so the picture is still incomplete).
If I had gone on a different Birthright tour, it could have had a very different book.
Nrama: How soon did you realize you had enough material for a 200-page graphic novel?
Glidden: When I was there, every single thing that happened seemed like it could be included in the book, so when I got back home and started working on it I was envisioning a book that would be 300 pages or more! I don’t think I understood yet the importance of being selective about what you should include in a memoir. Just because something that happened means something to you doesn’t necessarily mean it work well in your narrative. After I signed on with Vertigo for the complete book, my editor helped me learn how to “kill my darlings” and streamline the story.
Nrama: I’m sure that, to some degree, you expected to have certain preconceptions broken down, but how deeply did the experience change your view on Israel?
Glidden: More than actually changing my view on Israel, the trip kind of expanded it. You could say I went from having a two dimensional view on the conflict to having a three dimensional view of it. If you’re looking at the Israeli-Palestinian situation from the United States, its really easy to just choose a side and stick to it because that’s how the media and public figures tend to portray it. But we’re talking about a complicated region full of human beings with a long history, not a football game. You can’t just pick a team and root for them unconditionally. My views on the situation are constantly changing form the more I learn about it and the more I talk to people, but I’m OK with not having an opinion set in stone whereas before I thought I had to have some sort of personal View that never changed.
Nrama: You went through some very challenging emotional experiences in Israel. Was it difficult for you to relive them while creating the book?Glidden: It was difficult at times. I have a friend who is a writer and at one point early on I went to him for advice because I was having trouble figuring out how to write a scene in which my character was going through some difficult emotions. I had a few different ways I was thinking of portraying the experience but none of them seemed to be working right. He told me “Well, try to put yourself back in the experience. Try to remember how it felt in that moment. Then just write that.” That may sound obvious but it made a huge difference and from then on I used that method whenever a scene like that arose. The result of that, however, is that mentally putting yourself back into an emotionally trying experience can bring back all those feelings in a really strong way. After you write it, you feel utterly exhausted.
Nrama: Can you tell us about something that occurred that wound up on the cutting room floor for one reason or other?
Glidden: There were a ton of things I would have liked to include, ranging from little moments to whole days worth of experience, but like I said before, not everything “works” with a story. There was a bus ride I took across the desert in which a young female Israeli soldier was asleep across the aisle from me and her gun was pointed directly at me for three hours. At the time, I thought “this is so intense and nerve-wracking! It’ll be great for the book!” but then when it came down to it I realized that it actually didn’t fit in. Another moment that I thought would be great for the story was when we were at the Western Wall, the holiest spot in Jerusalem for Jews. You’re supposed to write a prayer on a little piece of paper and stick it into a crack in the wall. I saw my friend Melissa—who was on the trip as well—put her prayer in and then put her hand on the top of her head and gaze up at the top of the wall. I thought she was having some sort of spiritual moment.
It turned out that she was looking up because at the instant she put her prayer in the wall, a pigeon pooped on her head. I thought that was hilarious but in the end the rest of the scene was so serious that it would have completely ruined the tone.
Nrama: How long did you work on How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, and how did you come to Vertigo as your publisher?
Glidden: When I started working on the book I had only been making comics for about a year. I had a few minicomics under my belt, mostly journal comics and an awkward stab at metafiction, so I was excited to start a longer project. I decided to serialize the book as minicomics and spent about a year making the first two chapters. I was selling those two chapters at the MoCCA fest in New York at a table I was sharing with other Brooklyn cartoonists when a guy with a DC Comics badge picked up the minis and asked what they were about. I told him and he bought them and walked away. I didn’t think DC would have any interest in a creator like me so I didn’t think anything of it, but then a few days later I got an email from that same guy saying that he was an editor at Vertigo, had liked the minicomics, and was interested in publishing the complete graphic novel. I was floored! I spent the next two years making the finished book, which included redrawing those first two chapters and hand coloring the whole thing.
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Glidden: I’m about to follow some journalist friends of mine on a reporting trip to Syria and Northern Iraq…I can’t really go into much detail about the project but I’m excited about it.
How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less arrives in comic shops and bookstores in early November.Could you ever tell such a personal story this way?