Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris has always be fascinated by monsters. As a kid, she would watch werewolf movies and find herself sympathizing with the wolf. Now 55, she's recently published her first graphic novel, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.
"I always felt like [monsters] were kind of heroic because they were facing something," Ferris tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Becoming a monster sometimes isn't a choice that you have. We're all that; we're all 'the other' in one way or another."
Set in 1968, Ferris' novel is rendered as a sketchbook that belongs to a 10-year-old girl, Karen, who loves horror movies and who thinks of herself — and draws herself — as a werewolf. The novel deals with the figurative and literal horrors of Karen's life, including the murder of her elderly neighbor, Anka, who was a Holocaust survivor.
Ferris began writing and drawing My Favorite Thing Is Monsters after she was bitten by a mosquito that infected her with West Nile virus. The virus left her paralyzed, but eventually she regained some use of her right hand and learned to draw again by duct-taping a quill pen to her hand. Ferris now walks with the help of a cane.
Looking back, she says the book never would have been written had she not contracted West Nile. "The experience really coalesced my ferocity around regaining the ability to draw and walk and live and create," she says. "It became clear to me that it was much more important ... to do the best that I could and give something to the world."
On why she chose to draw and write about dark subjects
There's the way that light shows in darkness and it is extremely beautiful. And I think it essentializes the experience of being human, to see light in darkness. ...
For me, the moments of beauty [were] when I duct taped a quill pen to my hand and I'm shaking, knocking the bottles of ink, and my daughter steadies my hand and helps me put the quill down. ... Then she's with me. She's standing beside the drafting table and I'm drawing and I draw a wheelchair and I think she's going to draw me sitting in the wheelchair, but she draws me standing up out of it. And she says, "Mama, I know that they told you you're not going to walk again, but I really believe you will." It's in those moments when everything seems so dark that the most beautiful things happen.
On the hallucinations she had while she was in the hospital
One of the hallmarks of West Nile virus is that, because you get encephalitis and meningitis, there are so many delusions, illusions and hallucinations that are part of this fever and chills that build up to your final destination, which is ultimately, in the mind of the virus, death, but for me was paralysis — and, of course, a rich panoply of remembered delusions and hallucinations.
The angel of death came to visit and the angel of death as I saw it in my fever was a very big, 1940s kind of a gray/teal/blue filing cabinet, and it was sort of a bureaucrat and it just came into the room and spoke. One of the drawers slightly opened and there was this sort of glowing light inside of it and it said, "Are you in or are you out? We need to know for our records." And I thought of my daughter and I said, "Yeah, I'm in. I gotta stay. I got to finish this," because she was only 6 at the time.
Then I saw this enormous rock and ... there was something inside of the rock, and it was ... gold. And what was said to me is, "There's a very hard path for you, since you've decided to stay, but there's something beautiful inside of the difficulty and you're going to have to chip through this rock to get to it."
On her early exposure to the horror films produced in the 1950s and '60s by Hammer Film Productions
Death was really sexy in the Hammer films because you got to wear a really nice negligee, you got to sleep in these beautiful coffins, maybe it was very ornate. The mold in these places was obviously there and a problem, but since you were undead, it didn't bother you, which was always convenient. ... There's this unearthly glow to you. I think the Hammer films really made death quite sexy.
On growing up around sexual violence and abuse
Sexual violence was something that was very prevalent in the area that I grew up [in] and it was something that we [dealt with], especially as girls, but also boys who were exposed to it by virtue of being in organizations and institutions that allowed children to be abused. It was very much a part of our lives, and as children we would talk about "leave the room when this person asks you to sit on their lap." Those were the kinds of cues you'd give other children. And there was not really protection. ...
When you're a kid, you're trying to figure [out] what's really happening to you, and real violence happens on this tremendously deep level. ... It's so psychic in a way, it's so psychically damaging. And it's also a way of connecting with something that is true in the world, very primal and true. ... I experienced violence and knew that in those moments I was being opened up to a world that had all kinds of things in it.
On what frightens her now
I get afraid of the dark if I'm in a great deal of dark, and I have to move around inside of that fear. ... But there is a chance that something ... will talk to me from the dark, so I have ... to be prepared for that communication, which has happened. I've had things in the darkness speak to me, not audibly, but certainly in my soul, and they've enriched the book. ... I'm not sure if they're on my team or not, but they have helped.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I just read a great book. Saying I read it doesn't totally capture the experience because it's a graphic novel, and the artwork is remarkable. The book is called "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters," and it is written and drawn by my guest Emil Ferris set in 1968. It's rendered in the form of a diary sketchbook of a 10-year-old girl named Karen who lives in a gritty Chicago neighborhood. Karen loves horror movies and horror comics and thinks of herself and draws herself as a monster, the Wolfman.
She also loves detective comics and when her upstairs neighbor, Anka, is found shot to death, Karen takes on the role of detective. The police say it's a suicide. Karen thinks it's a murder. In her attempt to find out who did it, she learns the story of Anka's life and the monstrous way she was treated. Anka was born in 1920 in Berlin, lived with her mother in a brothel, was later sold into another brothel and then deported to a concentration camp. The review in The New Yorker said some of the images in "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters" could easily compete with pieces hanging in museums and galleries, and the book speaks to the current political climate in chilling ways.
There's a horror story behind the book. Ferris wrote and drew it after she was bitten by a mosquito that infected her with West Nile Virus leading to encephalitis and meningitis. That was about 15 years ago when she was 40. It left her paralyzed. Over time, she regained some use of her right hand enabling her to write and draw again. She's now able to walk with a cane - two canes if she's tired. It's back to the wheelchair when she's very tired.
Emil Ferris, welcome to FRESH AIR. I absolutely love this book. At the risk of stating the obvious, you got West Nile from a mosquito bite, and mosquitoes are like insect vampires. So when you got bit, did it seem like a horror story come true?
EMIL FERRIS: Absolutely. And one of the hallmarks of West Nile Virus is that because you get encephalitis and meningitis, there are so many delusions, illusions and hallucinations that are part of this fever and chills that builds up to your final destination which is ultimately in the mind of the virus death. But, for me, it was paralysis, and, of course, a rich panoply of remembered delusions and hallucinations.
GROSS: Can I ask you to describe some of them?
FERRIS: Well, there was a painting in the room that I was in when I was in the fever in the hospital, and I saw characters coming in and out of the painting which sort of led to a different - not this particular graphic novel, but informed something else I wrote. And, you know, I saw an enormous rock. I was shown that, but that was after the Angel of Death came to visit. And the Angel of Death, as I saw it, in my fever was a very big 1940s kind of a grade teal, blue filing cabinet, and it was sort of a bureaucrat. And it just came into the room and spoke.
One of the doors slightly opened, and there was this sort of glowing light inside of it, and it said are you in or are you out? We need to know for our records. And I said, oh, I thought of my daughter, and I thought, yeah, I'm in. I got to stay. I've got to finish because she was only 6 at the time. And then I saw this enormous rock, and the rock had - I was shown then that there was something inside of the rock, and it was this gold. And what was said to me is there's a very hard path for you if - since you've decided to stay. But there is something beautiful inside of the difficulty, and you're going to have to chip through this rock to get to it.
Within a little while - and since I don't really remember how long because I was in a intense fever - somebody came in. And he said to me the reason we've been coming in and doing things with your feet is that we've been pricking them with needles, and you haven't moved at all. And we've done all these tests, and we determined that from a very high vertebrae down, you're paralyzed. And so you're going to try to stand up, but you're not going to be able to walk. I - he told me all this, but I couldn't respond because I couldn't speak nor could I use my right hand because the right side was more paralyzed than the left.
GROSS: That sounds like the worst nightmare ever, and it was actually happening. I mean, to be locked in like that and kind of trapped with your hallucinations and then have reality tell you, and you'll never walk again, which turned out to not be true. But, still, that's what they told you. That's what the doctor told you in real life. I just can't imagine, you know, what could be more horrible. Yeah.
FERRIS: I was really fortunate. I was fortunate. I had this wonderful woman, Margaret Brabham (ph), who was a friend of mine, and she had helped me make the party at which I was bitten. And she stayed for seven days in the hospital sleeping on a cot.
GROSS: You were bitten at your own party?
FERRIS: I was bitten at my own birthday party.
GROSS: How old were you?
FERRIS: I was 40.
GROSS: And what were your first symptoms?
FERRIS: Well, they were fever - intense fever followed by chills, and then I slept for days and days. And I was completely unaware of anything during that time. My daughter had a terrible time because she was only 6 years old, and she kept coming into the room and saying, mom, I think you're dying. I really do. You've been asleep for days, and I'm just watching a lot of television.
And I said, well, are you eating? And she said, yes, we have carrots, you know, so it was pretty bad. It was really bad. I was completely unaware of anything. I was totally out of it.
GROSS: Who was she with?
FERRIS: She was with me. And finally then I...
GROSS: You mean you were at home during this?
FERRIS: I was at home, and I became completely delusional with the encephalitis and meningitis.
GROSS: Oh, I assumed you were in the hospital by this point.
FERRIS: No, I did not go into the hospital for some time. I kept kind of rallying and taking her to camp, and then going through a period of a few - a day or two days where I was sleeping. And she was watching an awful lot of, you know, television, and it was pretty bad.
FERRIS: Yeah. And I remember when it was...
GROSS: That doesn't seem fair at all.
FERRIS: Well, you know, it was the strangest thing because, Terry, I can honestly tell you this book wouldn't exist if I hadn't been bitten. The experience really coalesced my ferocity around regaining the ability to draw and walk and live and create. It became clear to me that it was much more important to be generous and to do the best that I could and give something to the world that it is possible to leave this place without getting anything. And I didn't want that to be my trajectory.
GROSS: OK so you get bitten. You have these horrible, like, hallucinations really frightening ones. The doctor tells you you're paralyzed. And then as you start to regain some movement in your hand and teach yourself to draw again, you start, you know - you eventually start drawing this book, "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters."
So I just keep thinking of all the places in your imagination that you could go to when you couldn't walk, and you were trapped all day in a chair that you decide to go to the world of horror, to the world of horror movies and horror comics and as we'll talk about a little later to the story of the Holocaust as told by a Holocaust survivor. I was like why would you want to go to such dark places in your imagination when that reality was so dark? Maybe that is why.
FERRIS: Well, you know, there's this thing in art. There's the chiaroscuro. There's the way that light shows in darkness, and it is extremely beautiful. And I think it is - it's sort of - I think it essentializes the experience of being human to see light in darkness. It is so much more beautiful in that place. And for me, the moments of beauty, you know, when I duct taped a quill pen to my hand, and, you know, I'm shaking knocking the bottles of ink. And my daughter steadies my hand and helps me put the quill down.
And then, you know, she's with me. She's standing beside the drafting table that I'm drawing. And then I draw the wheelchair. And I say could you draw me? I'm thinking she's going to draw me sitting in the wheelchair, but she draws me standing up out of it. And she says, mama, I know that they told you you were not going to walk again, but I really believe you will. And it's those moments when everything seems so dark that the most beautiful things happen, you know, and that was one of them. And I have that drawing as actually part of an article that I wrote about the experience. And it was in Chicago magazine, so people can see that drawing that we did together.
And there were all kinds of special things that she embedded in the drawing for me that I could look at. You know, there were golden boxes of love floating over my head and, you know, there was just all this beauty in it. And so yes, horror and the Holocaust, these are some of the darkest points in our existence as human beings, but there's still enormous courage and tremendous love that's possible to be seen in that great darkness. So...
GROSS: The book is great. I will add, your daughter sounds wonderful. So...
FERRIS: She is wonderful. Yeah, she really is.
GROSS: So in your book, the main character, the girl who is at the center of the story, she identifies as a Wolfman. She just sees herself as the Wolfman. And other times, she sees herself as a private - as a private eye and has, like, a trench coat and a hat like the classic private eyes. Is this you? Have you identified with the supernatural monsters more than with their victims?
FERRIS: Very definitely. I always did. I always loved them. I always had a tremendous amount of sympathy for them. I always felt like they were kind of heroic because they were facing something. You know, becoming a monster sometimes isn't a choice that you have, and everyone is somebody's monster. You know, we're all that, you know? We're all the other in one way or another. And I just - I felt like - especially the werewolf in the 1941 movie, he had enormous courage, in a way, because he faced what he was, and it was terrifying to him to realize that the tracks that came into his posh bedroom led to his own feet. And I think in our lives, we all have that moment - many of us do anyway - that we realize that those tracks come to our feet, that we are culpable, and we are not necessarily anything less than monstrous in the ways that we are.
GROSS: Well, with the Wolfman, it's not under his control.
FERRIS: Right. Yeah. It's not under his control, but - and I don't think it's really - I'm not sure that any monster chooses monsterhood (ph) but I would have if I was - when I was a kid. I was definitely looking for that bite, you know? I was just like - I'd go out in the alley. Oh, yeah, I'll take the garbage out, you know, hopeful, you know, really hopeful. I've got some bad scabs here, and I'm sure that this - any monster could smell this blood. So, you know, I was really hoping for that bite. And then of course I did ultimately get it, right, Terry?
GROSS: Yeah, you sure did. If you're just joining us, my guest is Emil Ferris, and her new graphic novel is called "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." Let's take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Emil Ferris. She has a new graphic novel called "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." It's set in 1968, and it's about a girl who's obsessed with monster movies, monster comics and detective stories, and she alternates between seeing herself as the Wolfman and as a private eye. And in her persona as a private eye, she tries to investigate the death of her beautiful upstairs neighbor who was a Holocaust survivor.
Ferris wrote and drew this beautiful and ambitious book after she was bitten by a mosquito that infected her with West Nile virus and led to meningitis and encephalitis. She was paralyzed from the waist down with only partial use of her hands. She had to teach herself to draw again. She can now walk with one cane, sometimes with two canes when she's tired. And we've been talking about her life and her book. Now, I know you had very severe scoliosis when you were younger, and you were in a body cast for a few years. Did you feel...
FERRIS: Oh, for nine months actually.
GROSS: For nine months. OK.
GROSS: Did you feel disfigured and monstrous as a result of that?
FERRIS: Well, I was. I was born with pretty severe scoliosis, did not walk until I was two and a half, almost three years old. So I - you know, I had severe spinal curvature, which made me look different, which made me walk different. I was treated very well, though. I will say that I had amazing care given to me. I lived in urban areas where people were all different, and I was protected and I was loved very much the way Karen is by Franklin. And, you know, I learned how to tell stories because of it.
GROSS: So did you especially feel like the Wolfman when you were going through puberty and literally growing new hair? Do you know what I mean?
FERRIS: Oh, my gosh, yeah.
GROSS: And having your body change.
FERRIS: Well, you know, I'm part a lot of different ethnicities that produce hair, so hair was always, you know, definitely a part of my life. And, you know, I mean, I remember when my brother was born and we sort of just, like, parted the hair to see what he looked like, you know? And so we're kind of like that, and yeah.
GROSS: So your character says that she'll be one of the undead when she grows up, which means she won't have to fear death.
GROSS: Did you have thoughts like that.
FERRIS: Well, yes, actually and this is - maybe it's part of the book and I never considered it, but when I was about 8 years old, they didn't have a surgery for what I had. And...
GROSS: For the scoliosis.
FERRIS: Exactly. And I was told that I would not live past 30, that my spine was running into my heart and that it would eventually do that and that I would not survive. So although that seems like a fairly long life, my mother was 30 or around there at the time. So I thought, well, I will only live as long as my very young, beautiful mother, and so I'm going to die. And, you know, it was clear to me that that was a possibility, so I think the idea of escaping into the undead was much more appealing to me at that point - yeah.
GROSS: You must have had a lot of fear as a child but somehow managed to cope with it.
FERRIS: You know, I don't remember really being afraid. I remember sort of identifying the beauty of horror as a way to negotiate the fear I think. And I think that must have been what it was. I don't - I'm trying to think about our lives. And you probably experienced this, too. You know, we grew up in the nuclear age. And we grew up aware of the fact that at any time, you know, world events could conspire to take our lives from us in sort of a flash.
You know, Hiroshima was something that we understood. And all the other methods of destruction were so clearly part of our knowledge as children. You know, we did duck and cover, but what did that really mean, right? So, you know, I think fear is something that we're always sort of dealing with. And then, of course, the book deals with the assassination as well. And that was part of it, too.
GROSS: Yeah, 'cause Martin Luther King and JFK are assassinated during the course of the story.
GROSS: So what are some of the paintings or movies that shaped your idea of what death meant?
FERRIS: What a good question. Now, I have to think, Terry. I - of what death meant. Well, you know, death was really sexy in the Hammer films because you got to wear a really nice negligee. You got to sort of sleep in these beautiful coffins. Maybe it was very ornate. The mold in these places was obviously there and a problem, but since you were undead it didn't bother you, which was always convenient.
You're kind of raising. And, you know, there's this unearthly glow to you. I think the Hammer films really made death quite sexy. But later on I saw other films. And I had very liberal parents. So one of the films I was allowed to see - I think I was about 6 - was "Virgin Spring." And...
GROSS: That's an Ingmar Bergman film.
FERRIS: Right. And it was - it had an enormous impact on me. It was - I think I was profoundly moved by that. I was a little kid and I realized what such things as rape and murder were. And, you know, that was - that's the real monstrousness, isn't it?
GROSS: Well, you deal with both monstrousnesses (ph), the sexy part and the real sexual violence part in your book. And so let's start with, like, the eroticism that horror stories often draw on. So, like, a lot of covers of, like, horror comics - and you draw your own fake horror comics. And it's like you make up horror comics.
GROSS: And so, you know, in a lot of the comics and in the pulp detective novels with, like, the paperback covers which I'm more familiar with than I am with, like, detective comic books, there's usually like a beautiful woman who is often, like, very, you know, very buxom and, you know, she's kind of falling out of her blouse or her undergarment. And then there's like somebody, like, threatening her, either a man or a monster (laughter).
GROSS: And that's supposed to have a real erotic charge. Like, one of your imaginary covers for "Horrific." - It's called like "Horrific: Hell Wenches Of The Inferno" (ph). (Laughter) There's a devil with a long tongue and horns. And he's threatening a woman who's wearing like fishnet stockings and a bustier. And she's kind of, of course, falling out of it 'cause she's so buxom. So...
FERRIS: And in that one she seems to really be into it, doesn't she? I mean...
GROSS: She does (laughter). Yeah.
FERRIS: ...Yeah. She's like, oh, he's - yeah.
GROSS: So you're playing there with the whole, like, erotic charge that you're supposed to get from this combination of, like, danger and sex.
FERRIS: Yeah. That was very much the time though, you know, that was....
GROSS: Yeah, it really was. I heard one theory that it was very much of the time because you couldn't show anything that was just actually sexual, (laughter) so you had to do it, you know...
FERRIS: Oh, that's interesting.
GROSS: ...Yeah, through this kind of more, like, subtextual kind of way.
FERRIS: You know, that's really interesting to think that, to think that it was a subverted thing. You know, I always sort of - as I was doing this book - I thought about "The Little Death" and how, you know, sex and death are already very intertwined. I think you're right. I think there is something that the puritan prurience of our society was sort of satisfied with this being horror and not sex. Yeah, that's interesting.
GROSS: But did you pick up as a kid that this was supposed to be erotic?
FERRIS: I think I really got it when I saw the Hammer films because they were so erotic.
GROSS: Right. And those are from - what? - the '60s and early '70s maybe, the Hammer vampire movies...
FERRIS: Exactly. Right.
GROSS: ...With all the women with really big hair (laughter).
FERRIS: Yeah. I know. I know. I was so in love with some of that. And now I look back and I can't believe how - what I saw there. Yeah.
GROSS: My guest is Emil Ferris, author of the new graphic novel "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Emil Ferris, author of the new graphic novel "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." The book takes the form of a 10-year-old girl's sketchbook and journal. The girl, Karen, loves classic monster movies and monster comics and sees herself as a werewolf. She also encounters monstrous things in her own life, including the story of how her upstairs neighbor survived the Holocaust.
Karen and her creator, Emil Ferris, have a lot in common, including a love of monsters and of art. Ferris depicts Karen going to museums, captivated by the paintings, classic paintings which Ferris draws versions of in the book. Before we get back to the interview, I want to let parents know that we'll soon be getting into some disturbing subjects that might not be appropriate for young children.
You reproduce some famous paintings in your book. So you do like your sketches of the paintings. One of the paintings you do is a very famous one called "The Nightmare" from 1781 by Henry Fuseli. And this has got kind of like classic depiction of a nightmare. A woman is lying on a bed wearing a very kind of like flimsy draped nightgown. And a demon is sitting on her chest.
And the demon represents the nightmare that's basically paralyzing her. And her head is kind of falling off the bed. And the arms are kind of thrown back. And so in your book, the girl's brother says that that painting is very sexy. And she says, considering the whole arithmetic of boobs and monsters equal horror, I guess he's probably right (laughter). She doesn't really yet understand why necessarily.
FERRIS: Well, yeah. And her mother is - got breast cancer. So there is that element of it as well. And, you know, she's playing with the idea of becoming a woman, and what a fearful thing in the world.
GROSS: And I want to read part of her notebook that she keeps. She says (reading) dear notebook, I'll tell you straight. In my opinion, the best horror magazine covers are the ones where the lady's boobs aren't spilling out as she's getting attacked by a monster. Those covers give me something worse than the creeps. I think the boob covers send a secret message that it's very dangerous to have breasts. And considering what mom is going through, maybe the magazines know stuff that we don't know.
FERRIS: Yeah. You know, I think it's a strange confluence of things that breasts are such a central focus in our culture, and they're so under attack in terms of disease. So, you know, that would be something - that was something I always wondered about and something I think she does, too.
GROSS: The character in your book is attracted to girls. And she's becoming aware of that. And I know that you've identified either as bisexual or lesbian. So when you were growing up with all this horror stuff and understanding on some level that there was a sexual subtext to the monsters attacking beautiful women and everything, did you find that combination of sex and danger erotic?
FERRIS: You know, I don't think I would have said that to myself consciously, but I think looking back, yeah. And I definitely was very attracted to women and I still am. I think women are amazing. And I spent many years believing that I personally was lesbian. And I think I am. But I also, well, I realized I was bisexual, that I don't really see an awful lot of difference between - I don't understand differentiating or making a decision about who you love based on their sex.
GROSS: Was it hard for you to just accept that realization?
FERRIS: Yeah. There was no - I mean, you know, I knew I was very attracted to women. And I wanted to have a girlfriend. And I was a strange, you know, weird kid. And I could not find any representation for what I wanted in the world. I found it in a horror movies, strangely enough. It was in "Daughter Of Dracula" (ph).
There was this moment where Dracula's daughter, she abducts this woman named Janet. And she almost kisses her. And I remember thinking, OK, it's real. There are people who do this, and that is proof. And I was very excited. And if I could have, you know, it was the time when you couldn't replay things. If I could have done it, I probably would have replayed that moment a thousand times.
GROSS: So we've been talking about this kind of connection in horror stories and in detective stories between sex and violence, the erotic charge that is often embedded in that - in those stories. In your book, "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters," you kind of have that back to back with real sexual violence and how awful and brutal and dehumanizing that is. You know, the second story in this - the second main story is a flashback story. And it's the story of the upstairs neighbor who's a Holocaust survivor and who one day is found dead in her bed shot to death. And this happens right upstairs from where the little girl lives. And she wants to find out, like, was this a murder? And if so, who killed her?
She uses all of her, like, detective skills to try to understand that. And so, you know, this beautiful woman who was the neighbor upstairs, like, she grew up in Nazi Germany. Her mother was broke and basically lived in a brothel with the girl. And the mother was mean. She put out cigarettes on the girl's hand. And then the girl was sold to a brothel. And she was forced into basically sexual slavery and then sent to a concentration camp. And it's just like a horrible set of circumstances.
But, you know, you describe some of the sexual enslavement that she's subjected to and how, like, soul-deadening it is. And I just think it's interesting that you've juxtaposed these two things, like, the erotic charge of sexual fantasies that have the violence of, like, monsters or detectives attached to them and the reality of real sexual violence.
FERRIS: You know, there are these metaphors in horror that are not metaphors at all. They're the truth. They're the truth that we choose to look at through horror. And I think that Karen is seeing that. You know, she's seeing that her neighbor's story dovetails in this interesting way with the horror magazines and that everything that's happening in her life is dovetailing in an interesting way.
The ways that we deal with fear, the ways that we deal with our own challenges, you know, we externalize them through this - through the device of horror. And I'm thinking about a movie that I saw recently, "Get Out," which externalizes those very real issues of racism in this country in such a way that you can see it differently through horror.
GROSS: Were you exposed to sexual violence in your life, or were you close to somebody who was that brought the reality of that home to you?
FERRIS: Yes, I - yes, there was - sexual violence was something that was very prevalent in the area that I grew up. And it was something that we as - especially as girls, but there were also boys who were exposed to it as by virtue of, you know, being in organizations and institutions that allowed children to be abused. And so it was very much a part of our lives. And as children we would talk about, well, you know, leave the room when this person asks you to sit on their lap. That was the kind of - those were the kind of cues that you'd give other children. And there was not really protection.
You know, there wasn't protection for you as a kid. So you had to negotiate that. And, you know, it was just - it was part and parcel. It really didn't feel that extraordinary, unfortunately. And I hope it is more extraordinary now, but I don't think it is really.
GROSS: So when you were young, were you thinking in terms of that contrast between real violence and fantasy story violence?
FERRIS: Well, yeah because you're really trying to figure it out, right? You know, as - when you're a kid, you're trying to figure what's really happening to you. And real violence, it happens on this tremendously deep level, and it's so psychic in a way, you know? It's so psychically damaging, and it's so - it's also a way of connecting with something that is true in the world, you know, very primal and true, so it's important. And I experienced violence and knew that in those moments I was being opened up to a world that had all kinds of things in it. So, yeah, I saw it and lived it. And I think that Karen - this book is part of my reflection on that as well.
GROSS: Were you attacked?
FERRIS: Well, you know, I would say there were - yeah, there were multiple attacks in my childhood. And I also was supportive to other children who were attacked. And so that was a part of, I would say, most of our lives - yeah, yeah.
GROSS: When you say that the experience of violence opens you to a new world, I think I know what you mean, but do you want to expand on that?
FERRIS: Gosh, that's a great question, Terry. Well, the thing is in the moment when you are experiencing violence of whatever nature it is, they say that time slows down, so you're entering a phase of trauma. And this is a moment when all of your sensory perception, I understand, is much more heightened. And as I remember my sensory perception in the moments of violence that I've experienced, it was heightened. But I also felt an enormous connection to the person who was perpetrating the violence towards me. I felt I understood them.
I felt - now this is going to sound strange - I felt an enormous grief for them and sympathy for them and a deep sense of sorrow because it seemed like the human condition - right in that moment, I understood the human condition. I understood how this person was very, very conflicted and was hobbled by this desire to perpetrate violence. And - yeah. So I think those were things that - I think that Karen understands some of that too in the book.
GROSS: My guest is Emil Ferris, author of the new graphic novel "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Emil Ferris. Her new graphic novel is called "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." Set in 1968, it's about a girl who's obsessed with monster movies, monster comics and detective comics. She alternates between seeing herself as a Wolfman and a private eye. And when her upstairs neighbor Anka is found dead, Karen takes on her detective persona and tries to investigate what happened and in the process learns that Anka grew up in a brothel in Germany, was sent to a concentration camp and somehow survived the Holocaust.
In Anka's story, why did you choose to use the Holocaust to get at the kind of, like, violence and sexual brutality?
FERRIS: I live not very far away from where a woman who happened to be wearing a hijab was murdered under the L tracks. And, you know, it became clear to me - this was years before I wrote the book. It became clear to me that we're looking at a change in our society where we're allowing ourselves to vilify a group of people and to decide that violence towards them is acceptable. And, you know, most people I think - unfortunately, I really felt this was much more true before now - most people would not feel that way. They would be protective around the Holocaust as an event that, you know, innocent people - a whole world of innocent, decent human beings were wiped away from the Earth, and we lost them all. And they were, you know, scarred, and those that survived survived at tremendous cost.
So, you know, I think when I reflect on that kind of cruelty being done from human to human, I'm hoping that people begin to see that this is where that, if we are not careful about how we think and what we allow ourselves to do, we will be back in a situation where we're perpetrating more horror. And I don't think that - I don't think people are reasoning that out as fully as I wish they were.
So I grew up in an area of Chicago, Rogers Park, where there were a lot of Holocaust survivors. Some of them were the mothers of my friends. And, you know, I saw those numbers, their...
GROSS: The tattooed numbers from the camps.
FERRIS: Yeah. Their sleeves would come up a little bit, and I would see the numbers tattooed there. And I understood then immediately the profound sorrow, this reservoir of deep sorrow that I felt, that I intuited, in them. And so it was not a stretch. I had people telling me their stories at bus stops. I guess I'm the kind of person that people do that with, or maybe they just were so rife with stories. And I visited old folks homes, and I collected these stories. And that's what Anka's story is based on.
GROSS: As a child, you collected those stories?
FERRIS: I did. I visited old folks' homes, and I collected these stories. And that's what Anka's story is based on.
GROSS: As a child you collected those stories?
FERRIS: I did. I - people opened up to me, and they told me about what they had experienced. And as a child, I thought it was almost impossible that it was true. And then I began researching as I got older, and I found out that everything they told me had a basis and was true. And it was astounding now that people had survived. In recent memory, really, things that are so terrible we can barely believe them.
GROSS: I wonder if they told you stories that they would never tell their own children.
FERRIS: I think that's true. I think that I was this person that seemed sympathetic, and they could just let things go. And they let things go between us. Yeah. I think you're probably right about that.
GROSS: What did you do as a child trying to, like, process all this ugliness?
FERRIS: I think I knew that it was part and parcel of the world. I think I felt every year that I approached 30 believing that I wasn't going to survive. I think I felt like I would understand these things, and I was here to do that. I mean, I think that being told that you have a limited amount of time - and the truth is we all have a limited amount of time but we don't allow ourselves to know that, right? But I think that being very aware of death allows you to be extremely intentional about being alive and knowing that you might have a purpose here.
And I allowed that purpose to be the knowledge, the knowing, understanding, the looking into somebody's eyes as they told me things that - I think you're right - they probably would not have told their children. And for a while I thought maybe being a repository of these truths, these stories was the only intention I had. But this book sort of reflects those back out into the world.
GROSS: So when you went to the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and you were there after the West Nile and encephalitis and meningitis and you were still partially paralyzed, the students there would have been, like, younger and healthier and, like, looking forward to a bright future and everything.
GROSS: Did you have to deal with, like, envy and resentment?
FERRIS: Well, the first thing that I enjoyed dealing with because I'm kind of perverse is that moment - and it was like a monster moment. It was as though, you know, the werewolf was really literally in the classroom because that first day when everybody files into the classroom, and they do the scan, you know - they're 20-something. And they do the scan, and usually it's to determine, well, who's sexually viable here? Who would I be attracted to?
And, you know, they do a oh, oh, oh, what? What? What are you - ah. I mean, it was so obvious. It was so frequently like there was a double take, you know, their eyes would go real wide. They would step back, you know, and they would see this like kind of older woman in a wheelchair. And I loved that moment. It was so funny to me.
I used to just smile, and sometimes I'd just be, like, hey, yeah, you know, I know. I get it. It's a surprise. And, yeah, you know, and then later they would become friends. And that was really pretty rich for me.
GROSS: What? Did you find it affirming, like, yes, I'm the monster?
FERRIS: Yes, exactly. I felt very, very attended to in the otherness of myself, and I liked it. And I also kind of looked forward to the trajectory that we would face when they would say to me, yeah, you know, would you look at something I did or, you know - where we would be together, and they would cross that bridge of my otherness. And, you know, I made some friends, people who are still friends, and that was pretty wonderful.
GROSS: You know, that's great. Let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Emil Ferris. Her new graphic novel is called "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Emil Ferris her new graphic novel is called "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." It's set in 1968, and it's about a girl who's obsessed with monster movies, monster comics and detective stories. And she alternates between seeing herself as the Wolfman and as a private eye.
And Ferris wrote and drew this book after she was bitten by a mosquito that infected her with West Nile virus and that led to meningitis and encephalitis. She was paralyzed from the waist down with only partial use of her hands. She had to teach yourself to draw again. She can now walk with a cane and with two canes if she's really tired. And sometimes a wheelchair is necessary.
So I want to ask you about something else in your book and that is mothers. There's two different mothers that have big roles in the book. One of them is the young girl's mother who's dying of breast cancer, and, you know, has been, I think, it's fair to say a loving mother. The other mother who is the mother of the woman who becomes the holocaust survivor - she's a really terrible mother. I mean, she puts out cigarettes on her daughter's hand. She has, like, no regard for the daughter's, like, mental or physical health.
And I'm thinking that when you were making this, I mean, your daughter was probably somewhere between the ages of, like, 7 and 13 and that you were - you had lost physical control of your life because you were in a wheelchair for much of that and paralyzed. And so you were trying to, like, be a good mother and be there for your daughter while at the same time there were things that you could have done before that you couldn't do now. So I'm thinking that - your depiction of mothers must come very much, not from the - not just from the perspective as the daughter, but also from the perspective of your life then as a mother.
FERRIS: Yeah. I think that, you know, as a woman in this culture, we have some benefits, you know, certainly. We're not living in another place where it's absolutely prohibited for us to enter the work world or to become artists or do - you know, follow our our giftedness. But to be a mother in this culture and to want to do something as absorbing as this project was - or, you know, I'm thinking of other people who do other amazing things that they love, whether it's charitable work or whatever - to have a child at the same time is difficult.
And, you know, I had to make a decision, Terry. And this is what I decided, right or wrong. I decided at some point in my daughter's life to continue to do this even though we were very not well-off financially. We were in jeopardy financially. And also our relationship was strained because I was working so much, although I was always available to be talked to because I was always home. Right? But, you know, maybe I was preoccupied with the work for a percentage of the day.
And what I decided was that for my child to see me do something, complete it and put it into the world was also important, you know, not just to maybe be able to take her shopping, you know, which I wouldn't have been as able-bodied to do anyway. But, you know, I felt that was important, especially because she's a girl. And to see your mother actualize in the world, it creates a precedent. And I hope that's what's happened for her. She is a very brilliant child, and she's studying writing. And I think maybe - maybe it helped her. I hope so.
GROSS: What are the things that scare you now? Like, you've been through so much. You've survived so much. You love horror movies and horror comics. So what frightens you?
FERRIS: Well, I had an experience last night. I guess I can talk about it. I was lying in bed, and I felt somebody put their hand on my arm. And I didn't know if I was almost asleep. I didn't know if I - there wasn't anyone there putting their hand on my arm. And I kind of said to myself - well, maybe it was a ancestor. Maybe it was somebody giving me courage because I knew I was coming here to talk to you.
That kind of thing - you know, I get afraid of the dark if I am in a great deal of dark. And I have to go - I have to move around inside of that fear and say, but there is a chance that something I need to talk to me will talk to me from the dark. So I have to stay at least gripping myself enough to be prepared for that communication, which has happened. You know, I've had things in the darkness speak to me - not audibly but certainly in my soul. And they've enriched the book. So I'm not sure if they're on my team or not, but they have helped.
I'm not a big fan of heights. And I'm not really super excited about water, like, being over big bodies of water. I have a feeling I've drowned, like, 14 times...
FERRIS: ...In past lives. (Laughter) I mean it. I really - I know that it sounds crazy, but I think I've really just, like - it might - like, if I have a past life regression, I think it's just going to be, like, scenes of me going under and under. I'm a cat. I'm a woman. You know, I'm a Roman soldier. I just keep drowning. Yeah.
GROSS: So I think it's interesting that you're afraid of the dark because you identify with monsters. But you're afraid of the dark.
FERRIS: Oh, sure. I do not try to watch horror movies and then be alone, you know. I mean, I'm not - I'm not above fear.
GROSS: Emil Ferris, thank you so much for talking with us. I so totally enjoyed it. And congratulations on the book.
FERRIS: Terry, thank you.
GROSS: Emil Ferris is the author of the new graphic novel "My Favorite Thing Is Monsters." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview about the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and the Trump administration's response, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording by the alto saxophonist and composer Arthur Blythe. He died Monday at the age of 76. He had Parkinson's disease. This is from his 1979 album "Lenox Avenue Breakdown." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.