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Interview with Nick Abadzis: “You never know when an idea will hit.”

Nick Abadzis has been creating books, magazines, comics and stories for both adults and children for more than thirty years. As both writer and artist, he’s been honored with various international storytelling awards including an Eisner in 2008 for his graphic novel Laika.

He also works as an editorial consultant for publishing and a corporate scribe AKA graphic recorder – he has collaborated with clients such as EY, KPMG, Accenture, The Federal Reserve Bank (and their partner NASA), ESPN, Google’s Agency Leadership Circle, The News Movement, Coca-Cola, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, General Electric, WOBI, Visa, TEDxTeen and many others.

He’s been published in the USA by Condé Nast, First Second, Marvel Comics, Titan Comics, DC Comics, in the UK by the BBC, various national newspapers including The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and many other periodicals too numerous to mention; elsewhere in Europe by the likes of Dargaud and Glénat, and in Japan by Kodansha. 

He is also known to Doctor Who fandom as the writer of a great many tenth Doctor adventures (David Tennant) on an acclaimed run of stories for Titan Comics, several collections of which are available. 

More recently, he teamed up with Oscar and BAFTA-winning film director Asif Kapadia and Passion Animation to co-write, art direct and perform in an animated VR experience based on his graphic novel Laika, which premiered at the 2021 London Film Festival.  He is British but based in and around New York City where he lives with his wife and daughter.

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Hi Nick! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself?

Hi, honoured to be asked! Thanks for having me.  

I’m a British writer and artist currently living in New York. “Writer and artist” covers a lot of ground, but it’s the simplest way of putting it. I’m what’s popularly known these days as a graphic novelist, but I also write prose short stories and various types of scripts, usually comics, for other artists to draw, but I’m also venturing now into writing scripts for VR and films. Additionally, I work as a corporate graphic recorder, which comprises another mode of storytelling again. 

You have a wide range of experience in different types of storytelling, from graphic novels to comics to corporate consulting. How do you approach each one differently, and what do you enjoy most about each?

Every project I ever undertake demands a slightly different approach but I think that’s me coping with a low boredom threshold and looking to refocus each time. I’m always looking for a new angle of approach. Novelty is important.

Playing, introducing and trying out new ideas through play, seeing what works and where that takes you, but also accommodating methods that I know work already. If there’s real emotion, joy, satisfaction and discovery in the process, readers pick up on that, but you also have to bring it all to bear via the eye of your experience. 

All that said, graphic novels are a lot of work, and require a lot of energy and a sustained, practical routine for long periods of time, so you really have to commit. You have to be methodical. The results can be incredibly rewarding though, and you’re largely in total control of the story, from script and dialogue to lighting, mood, set and costume design, pacing, everything.

Sequential storytelling – or comics, as us olde worlde cartoonists call it – is a very sophisticated language that has now colonised all areas of visual communication, from your phone to your desktop and most of the entertainment industries. From its humble origins in pulp media, it’s now everywhere. It’s a universal language. 

The visual facilitation and graphic recording does also use comics grammar, but often you’re inventing new visual iconography on the fly. People think the process of it is all drawing, but there’s actually more listening involved, and a very rapid internal editing process so that you can record the most salient and relevant points of a business conversation or presentation.

Figuring out what to put down and what to leave out and making it all look great within a very short space of time keeps you on your toes. You always have to meet the needs of your collaborators and those demands can differ wildly from client to client, so excellent listening and communications skills are essential. 

I really enjoy those kinds of challenges and, besides, in the end, everything is storytelling of one sort or another. It’s gratifying to be able to help clients understand and come at obstacles from a direction, a visual angle, that they may never have previously considered. It’s all about widening the field of potential answers to problems. I just help people see around corners and perceive a broader view. 

Your graphic novel Laika received an Eisner award in 2008, can you talk about the inspiration behind the story and the process of bringing it to life as a graphic novel?

I first read about Laika when I was a child and it really stuck with me. Back then, you couldn’t find out much about the Soviet space program, whereas information about the USA’s was widely available. They’d won the space race! I was fascinated by NASA as a child, the Apollo moon landings, the space shuttle and all that, but this also had the effect of making the Russians more mysterious and, to me, intriguing. 

When new information about Laika’s flight aboard Sputnik II came to light in 2002, I was working as a development editor for a magazine publisher in the UK and happened to be in the middle of creating a history periodical for kids. I was in exactly the right state of mind to create my own history-based graphic novel and now Laika the Russian cosmodog reentered my consciousness. 

I began gathering information, loosely researching what I thought might turn into a novella or a short comic, maybe 25-30 pages long. As these things do, the project just grew the more of her story I pieced together, from various sources and archives all over the world.  

At one stage, I thought of doing a trilogy of GNs – the first of which would be about Laika, the second Yuri Gagarin and the third Korolev, the enigmatic Chief Designer behind the early successes of the Soviet space effort. In the end, it became about what might be feasible for me to do within two or three years rather than five or seven, so I pitched it to publishers as Laika only. 

Even so, by the time I had a publishing deal and I visited Moscow in 2005 it had grown to 150 pages or so and, in the end, came in at 200. It became about both brevity and finding the perfect structure; boiling the ideas for the trilogy all down to essentials, so the ideas I’d had for a separate book about Korolev found their way into Laika’s story and, I think, created a far stronger narrative for it. I had to lose Gagarin, but maybe I’ll get to him yet. 

Can you tell us about your experience co-writing, art directing, and performing in the animated VR experience based on Laika, and working with Oscar and BAFTA-winning director Asif Kapadia?

I first met Asif in – I want to say, 2012, or thereabouts – I was put in touch with him by a mutual friend, the translator of the Italian edition of Laika. He’d given a copy to Asif, who’d loved it, so we had a meeting. I think he bought an option but, for whatever reason, at that point, nothing happened because he became busy on other projects.

A few years later he got in touch again to tell me he’d been given some money by the BFI and the London Film School to work on an animated VR short, and he wanted to do a version of Laika with me. 

Originally it was supposed to be an all-new take on the story and was to be a pretty fast turnaround – we’d write the script together, involve an animation house via LFS and off we’d go. However, this all coincided with the beginning of the Covid pandemic, so our plans rapidly and necessarily mutated. 

We’d begun working with Passion Animation, who’d organised a big script meeting in London for which I was to fly over in April 2020, but that all got cancelled at the last minute as it became clear how expansive the pandemic was.

Instead, Asif and I would send versions of the script back and forth to each other and sometimes we’d do it in real time over the phone or Zoom. Often, we’d have a visual idea and I found myself roughing out those and creating pre production drawings that we’d give to Dave Walker, our VFX designer and his crew to translate into 3D.

It was a slightly ad-hoc approach because no-one had ever tried to produce a VR film when all its creators were in total isolation before, but somehow, with a lot of persistence, we managed to do it. Our producers, Katie Grayson, Becky Gregory-Clarke and Jack Arbuthnott worked miracles coordinating everything, and it all came together in 2021 when it premiered at the London Film Festival.

We worked really closely with Dave Walker, who performed miracles in bringing both Asif and my ideas to life. Possibly one of the weirdest and coolest experiences I’ve ever had as an author is walking around 3D sets based on designs from my own graphic novel. 

Contributing some of the voices came about by accident – we did a temporary version of the soundtrack and I did a Khruschev and some American voices and Asif liked ‘em enough to keep them in! 

Can you tell us about your writing routine? 

I start every working day with exercise. I find I’m just not in the right headspace if I don’t sit on my rowing machine or go for a bike ride or swim or do some yoga or whatever for about an hour. If that routine is interrupted, the day rarely goes as productively. I’m like anyone, I procrastinate if given half a chance, so getting that sense of clarity at the beginning of the day is important. 

When I get into my studio, I’ll probably put on some music. I can’t write with anything that features human voices – it distracts me, although, if I’m drawing, or doing something relatively “mechanical” like lettering speech balloons, inking or colouring, I can listen to anything, and often do, including talk radio, plays or talking books. At those parts of the process, I find I actually create better finished art if I’m slightly distracted. 

If I’m writing a script for another artist or a text piece, and I’ve already done my research, I often just get stuck in and begin typing, working to a visual outline – a little pagination diagram that shows how many pages I have available and a rough idea of how many panels (comic frames) will go on each page. I tend to do that more by instinct rather than design. It always seems to work out. 

If I’m writing something that I’m going to draw myself, my approach is often a lot looser. I don’t write out a proper, finished script, but I do work out character dialogue very carefully. I do think visually, but if that part of my brain is having trouble solving a storytelling problem, it’ll shunt it over to my literary brain which then grapples with it from a different angle. It goes back and forth, like a mental tennis match. 

“Writing,” for me, is definitely both a literary and a visual process. Sometimes, when inspiration fails, the action of simply writing physically, on a piece of paper or just typing unlocks something, and words begin to flow, and then inevitably images and other sensory data come too. The literary process unlocks the visual, and vice versa. They are two sides of the same mechanism. 

There’s also always a simultaneous process of judicious self-editing. Sometimes I’ll let the dialogue dictate the design and direction of a page. I think a lot about “flow” – how the visuals affect pacing, exactly how a reader is being led through a page; how immersive the overall effect is. 

I believe that a lot of writing is being a good self-editor, being courageous enough to rewrite and throw stuff out, even if they’re scenes you love, if it’s dialogue or even characters you love. If it’s serving no true purpose, it goes out. Boil it down to the bones and embellish only if it heightens a sense of believability, of truth.  

I like to play with sequencing for optimal effect; to leave a lot of space in my storytelling, room that the reader can fill in with their own impressions, whether consciously or subconsciously. I think it’s very important to hook a reader’s emotions and intellectual sensibilities that way.

You don’t have to put everything on the page, or signpost to them how they should be feeling. You have to allow them room to make up their own hearts and minds, and you do that by all the textual and visual tools at your disposal. The idea is that you are engaging their imaginative sympathy and empathy, and then they’re immersed in the story. You’ve created that writer-reader, storyteller-audience connection.  

These days, I also do a lot of structural stuff digitally, on an iPad. I use the program Procreate, which is incredibly versatile. 

How do you approach starting a new project and getting into the creative flow?

Like I say, it changes according to the project, but there are certain constants. Warm up routines of some kind are useful. 

Sometimes I’ll begin with basic writing exercises. Messing about, play is extremely important. Visually, I call it “taking a line for a walk,” which I nicked off Ralph Steadman. You can doodle with words the same way you can with pen lines.

Letters are descended from hieroglyphics; it’s all drawing of a sort, manipulating symbols to create meaning. Written words are symbolic of spoken language, and spoken language and storytelling is the oldest technology human beings have. Sometimes I’ll need something tactile – some nice paper, a fat pen, some colour pencils. 

Remaining playful and comprehending how fluid one’s own creativity is, how responsive it can be to the world around you, is probably the most essential component of being a working writer or visual storyteller. I take a sketchbook with me everywhere I go. You never know when an idea will hit. 

You have been in the industry for over 30 years and have a wide range of experience in comics, graphic novels, corporate scribing and more. How has your creative process evolved over the years?

I’ve become a lot more efficient as I’ve become more confident. When I was starting out, I used to be a lot more exacting in terms of planning, writing outlines and suchlike, but these days I’m much more likely to just wade in and trust that my subconscious will direct the shape of a story, the crucial emotional turning points and logical segues. I’m not saying I no longer plan – of course I do – but I do write from a deep, instinctive place and I’ve found it’s best to go with that. My subconscious is much smarter than I am. I’ve learned to trust it over the years. 

You are based in New York City but you are originally from the UK, how does living in different cultures affect your work and perspective as a storyteller?

That’s a great question. It picks up on something I’m always considering, in a day-to-day sort of way. This is just just the tip of the cultural iceberg, but besides always switching gears grammatically between British English and American English – there are far more differences than people think – you develop a chameleonic quality that allows you to see things as both local and outsider. It’s that desire for wide-field vision again, a wide-angle lens.

I am British, yes, but if you want to get into the details of it, I was born in Sweden and grew up in both London and Zürich. My mother was a Brit, a real Celt, but my dad was originally an Alexandrian Greek, so my perspective on living in the USA is grounded in a very wide European experience overall. That said, I tend to think of myself as a Londoner – truly the most cosmopolitan of cities!

I love New York, but, as they say, you can take the boy out of London but you can’t take London out of the boy. My mindset and attitude remains very “London.” That’s helpful here. The cities are extremely similar in some ways, very different in others, but you can definitely adapt big city survival skills evolved in a megalopolis on one side of the Atlantic to the other side. 

What does your writing workspace look like?

The floor is frequently strewn with notes, both written and visual. There is also a cat frequently present, who likes to sit on the CD player looking out at the squirrels who live in the trees. Manhattan can be seen in the distance. 

Photo courtesy of the author

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