Nick Hayes is the author and artist of The Rime of the Modern Mariner and the forthcoming graphic novel Woody Guthrie. His story “The Possession of Lachlan Lubanach,” the tale of a Scottish laird who chases a white hart across the moor and into the wild, appears in the September/October 2013 issue of Orion. Here, he talks about sleeping in Epping Forest, David Abram, and the impact of folk music on his work.
“The Possession of Lachlan Lubanach” is steeped in the landscape of the Isle of Mull and the real Duart Castle in Scotland. How did that place and its history inspire the piece?
I love to root my stories in real places and real time—in all cultures, stories are told about places or features of the terrain, turning mountains into sleeping giants, or hares into witches. To me, this impulse is a wonderful example of how the human mind works with nature to conjure magic—these stories allow us to raise the spirits from our more primal mind, and help us express the reactions and sensations we feel in certain landscapes.
Having said that, I have never once been to the Isle of Mull—I have walked several routes through Scotland, and have come across places with a similar topography, but never that island specifically. I knew I wanted to write a tale about possession and ownership, and these tiny islands off the west coast of Scotland provided a great microcosm of a world where man is only a small part of the overall network of life.
Is the story you are telling based on a myth or folktale, or did you invent it? How do mythology and reality intersect in your work?
The idea of the white stag does crop up in various folk stories of the British isles, but its structure or ethic appears across the world, with different totems in its place—it is essentially the story of the unicorn, or the eleven dollar bill, or the four leaf clover; the miracle that exists firmly in hearsay and folklore, but is rarely, if ever, glimpsed. White stags do appear on Scottish moors, and are the result of pigmentation anomalies as opposed to wizards and magic (which in no way detracts from the miracle of seeing one), but in this story the stag simply represents “the one that got away,” the one creature that eludes Lachlan’s total dominion over his island.
I listen to a lot of English, Irish, Scottish, and American folk music, and I’m hooked on the style of the stories they tell. Each song, as we have it, is a mutant hybrid of hundreds of authors and singers, evolution by word of mouth, and as a result, they often have a certain lack of narrative logic, a maddening lack of a sequential conclusion, which steers the story away from dogma and into something much deeper. Its this kind of story that I really admire and wish to emulate in my graphic novels.
There’s a definite rhythm that runs through “The Possession of Lachlan Lubanach,” as if it’s written as a sort of epic poem. Can you talk about how you evoke sound through visual narrative?
In my first book, a retelling of an old Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem (in his meter and rhyme scheme), I found that pairing words with images allows me to direct the rhythm of how the words are received. The images can act as punctuation to the words, causing large gaps, pauses between sentences, for example, or allowing certain words to be emphasized. The closest analogy for graphic novels, I think, is a folk song, where the words work with the music to create an overall effect. In this analogy, the melody is the images of the comic, which can provide tone and mood, either emphatic or incongruous to the words, depending on the desired effect.
The natural world plays a strong role in all of your work—your depictions of the land and its animals and plants are so lush. How does your experience with the natural world drive your storytelling, in particular, creating graphic work?
I think the natural world, and man’s interaction with it, is my chief interest in storytelling, mainly, no doubt, because it is the current that runs most strongly through my life. I was brought up in the country, I came to live in the city, and I constantly feel that push and pull between the two worlds, most specifically how each can exist within the other, how successfully a sense of symbiosis can be achieved. I’m writing this having just come back from sleeping out in Epping Forest, a large area of woodland “owned” by the City of London Corporation, which is essentially a select group of bank shareholders that run (and police) the central square mile of London Town. This area of woodland used to be commons grazing ground until it was enclosed, and now it is only on the bankers’ permission that we walk its pathways. I was woken this morning in a bedroom of autumn beeches by one of their employees, telling me that I was not supposed to be there.
The farcical nature of these laws of ownership is something I take a closer look at in an American context in my next book, which is a biography of Woody Guthrie and the ten years of experience that led him to write “This Land is Your Land.” He had a magical experience in the Chisos mountains, a moment in his life where he was exposed to the vast freedoms of the open trail, and my book takes a look at how this might have influenced the lyrics of his most famous song, a reaction to the privatization of land in the twenties and thirties. My small English incident is a long, long way from the Dust Bowl, but both hinge upon a fundamental injustice of fencing off land. Similarly, the interplay between possession as in ownership and possession as in being possessed is the crux of this story about the white stag. Lachlan wants to own the land outside his castle, he wants dominion over it, but it is this very desire that separates him from it. It is only by giving up his possession of the land that he can become one with it, or possessed by it.
What other “nature writing” (prose or graphic) has had a strong influence on you?
Well, this piece was more or less directly influenced by the writing of David Abram, who crystallized so many of my barely perceptible reactions to the natural world into word and theory. The concept of the ground reciprocating Lachlan’s tread is a direct shout to Abram. But the gateway drug to this whole genre was The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. He taught me at university while he was finishing that book, but only after a couple of years did I actually read what he’d written—and his words truly opened my eyes. It’s the John Muir quote that begins his book that really gets at how I feel—that going outside is really an act of going in, getting closer. From there, Richard Mabey, Barry Lopez, Jay Griffiths, Roger Deakin, Kathleen Jamie, J. A. Baker, Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas, John Clare… These are the patron saints of my bookshelves.
Nick Hayes is a political cartoonist for The Guardian and was a founding editor of Meat Magazine, which showcased new writing, comics, and illustrations. The winner of two Guardian Media awards, he is at work on a book about Woody Guthrie and the Dustbowl. He lives in London.