How to Write a Graphic Memoir: An Interview with Cartoonist Colleen Frakes

McNeil Island in Washington state was once the home of the last prison island in the US (accessible only by air or sea). Nearly everyone who lived there worked in the prison.Frakes_What

In Prison Island, a graphic memoir hot off the press this month, Colleen Frakes tells her story of growing up on McNeil. It’s a story simultaneously familiar and foreign (Colleen’s birthday party gets crashed by an escaped convict), but readers will be surprised to see parts of themselves in Colleen’s unique experience. It’s a perfectly ordinary childhood set in a perfectly extraordinary place.

Zest recently sat down with Colleen to discuss her inspiration and creation of Prison Island.

Zest Books: What led you to draw Prison Island?

pi2Colleen: I’ve joked for a while that the most interesting thing about me is where I grew up: once people find out that I grew up on a prison island, they have a lot of questions. And the stories I find myself repeating most often are the ones about the island. A good rule for autobio comics (which I first heard from Alec Longstreth) is that if you’ve told a story at least three times, it will probably make a good comic.

I started drawing mini comics (small, handmade books in limited print runs) about McNeil Island in 2011, right after the island closed. The experience of my hometown being “closed” was just so weird that I felt I had to get it down on paper. The more stories I drew about the island, the more details I remembered and the more stories I wanted to tell. Eventually it just made sense to collect all of these stories into a book.

Zest Books: What is your writing process like?

Colleen: While most of the cartoonists I know start with scripts, I tend to skip that step and go straight to drawing:


Zest Books: What was the most fun part of the process of writing and drawing Prison Island?

Colleen: For this project, it was the research! My day job is in a library, so research is probably my second favorite hobby (after comics). The phrase “I’m working on a book” opens a lot of doors, and I got the opportunity to return to McNeil Island with an environmental planner who’d gotten permission to be Prison Islandout there and take reference photographs of the remaining buildings. Former residents of the island were also eager to share their stories and photos of the island once they learned I was working on the project.

For more about Prison Island, including a peek into sample pages and where to order, check out the homepage here. Called, at turns, a “fascinating portrait of a very different way to grow up” and an “interesting look into a pretty unique childhood,” Prison Island will entertain adults and youngins alike.


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