As time goes on we as a society tend to stop mentioning the large historical events of our generation unless we're doing some sort of retrospective or marking a big anniversary. But that doesn't mean we forget. In fact, for some, there will be images and keywords that stay with us forever from the good moments, and the bad. September 11th 2001 was, of course, one such event. And now author Craig Staufenberg has released a new graphic novel that explores our memories of that day and begs the question if time really does allow us to move on, or maybe even romanticize.
On your website you mention you were in high school on 9/11, and you're from New York. Readers of my site know I was in high school on 9/11 in New York as well. So were you there that day? Is that how this all started?
Craig Staufenberg: Actually, I was born and raised up in Albany, New York, so I wasn't in New York then. Obviously there's a lot of traffic in between Albany and New York so it's always been a part of my life. And my sister was down there at the time; she's been living there for the last thirteen years or so. So I have some ties down there, but I wasn't in the city; I was in high school up in Albany.
So then how did you start thinking about this project? What inspired you to start working on it?
C.S.: I started the project pretty randomly. It wasn't going to be a big thing when I first thought of it; I was just thinking of my own memories of 9/11 as a stray thought one day, and I started thinking of maybe making a video project because I thought it might be interesting to some people. The more I sat down to search for memories, the more I started to wonder what other people were remembering about September 11th and what their thoughts or memories or reactions or feelings about it were. From there I just started talking to people about it, still no real idea yet if I was going to make anything big out of it or not [but] after a couple of months...it just started to build and feel like a bigger project than I originally imagined. So from there I kind of got the idea to narrow in on people around my age, and I started to do official interviews and approached it from more disciplined and dedicated than just a stray thing that I was doing.
To tell all of the stories you have within the pages, your website says you put an ad on CraigsList to get interviews. That to me is fascinating because you just never know what you're going to get with that site! So can you talk a little bit about that experience: for example, did you come up against any criticism regarding the subject matter?
C.H.: Well, it was very interesting. I got some great responses and ended up interviewing some people who were very helpful for the project. And I also got some very strange responses because it's CraigsList, and sometimes that seems to be half the population on there. And I got some people who had some great stories to tell but just weren't in the age group that I was talking to, and that was really hard for me because you hear these great stories and you want to share them and you think they have value, but you also have to focus...And then, you know, I got people on all sorts of the political spectrum who thought it was a terrible idea.
But I almost feel like with any true piece of art or creative work, you will hit critics who are just anti the subject matter for whatever reason. September 11th just may be a bit of an extreme version because it is still so sensitive to a lot of people for a variety of reasons.
C.H.: You know, I just believe in the book, and I believed in it from the beginning. And I knew that any subject matter is going to get people on one side or another but especially something that's as sacred, in a way, as 9/11. It hit some nerves. But I tried to handle it as responsibly and honestly as possible.
Getting back to the format, though, what made you decide to turn the story into a graphic novel, as opposed to that original idea of a video or even a different medium of writing?
C.H.: It took awhile for me to realize that this was a graphic novel...There were times I thought it might be an audio project; there were times I thought it might be a full documentary; it took me some time to zero in on it, but the thing that really ended up appealing to me about the graphic novel medium-- one was that I could just do it. I could sit down and work on it and wouldn't have to worry that much about collaboration, which can be hard if you're trying to make something of quality and no one knows who you are. So that was a big appeal. And I liked the fact that you have so many tools to work with within the graphic novel: you have the pictures, you have the words themselves; you have panels, the white space, the way you're presenting...you have a lot of things to work with. I think the biggest thing that I like about graphic novels is that they're very accessible, and you can talk about a lot of things, and people will pick it up and read it and get out of it a lot of different things. I feel like "9/11 Heartbreaker" talks about issues but is still a very accessible work.
And once you made that decision, that you were going to tell this story as a graphic novel, did you look at any of the others that have been released in the past few years for comparison? Or were you more focused on just doing it the way you wanted to do it?
C.H.: Actually, I didn't look at any of them...I even don't read a lot of graphic novels. I do read them, but it's not something that I'm always on or always experiencing, and I thought about it at first, and I thought about watching the movies and documentaries about September 11th to try to get their feel for it, but I realized in the end that I just wanted to tell the story that I knew I had to tell. I wanted to do it without being particularly influenced by the way other people were making media about it were doing or what they were saying. I wanted to talk about September 11th in a different way, and I felt the best way to do that was almost quarantine myself from what everyone else was saying.
This book has been self-published, which I am a big fan of, but can you walk me through how you approached it? Did you know going in that once it was a graphic novel, you were going to do everything yourself and publish it yourself? Or did you try shopping it around first?
C.H.: I pretty much knew from the beginning that I wanted to self-publish it...There's a few reasons why, and one was that I didn't think anyone would publish it. Not because I have any insecurities about the book, but from a marketing or a financial part of view, it's not necessarily a super viable book. It's a one-off, twenty-eight page by an unknown author about a tricky subject, and while I might have been able to sell that to someone, it would have been months and months of work to try...when instead I could just release it and put all that time and effort into directly trying to get people to read it and give it a shot. Kind of skipping the middle man. That's really the main reason why I did it: it was always most important to me that I get the book out there to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, and self-publishing worked for that. I wouldn't have to sit on it too long or wait for approval.
And it is kind of time-sensitive subject matter since we're coming up on the tenth anniversary next year. Was that something that also played into your decision to release this book now?
C.H.: [Laughs] I'm publishing it now because I finished it a few months ago. I obviously understand that we're coming up on the tenth anniversary, and I understand that obviously that can have some impact on the book, but it wasn't a marketing decision so much as it was just this is when the book wrapped up. And I'm a very impatient person, and as soon as it was done, I just wanted to share it with the world.
And that's something I definitely understand and agree with, as well. So now that book is out there-- it was released in September 2010-- and you have the website where you track reviews and write blogs about the progress, what is your overall hope for, and what would you love to see happen with, this book?
C.H.: Well, I'm approaching it from two different minds because I have the writer/artist side, and on the other hand I have to think about the business side of it. From the writer and artist stand-point, I just want as many people as possible to read the book because I feel it is very valuable, and I feel like it does talk about September 11th in a different way. I think it provides a lot for its readers to think about and evaluate-- not just about September 11th but all sorts of historical events...From kind of the business and marketing standpoint, it's just the first book I'm going to make. I have plenty more in the pipes, so if this gets it out there and starts to help build a name for myself and my work, then great. But I understand it's going to be a little harder as an unknown.
And with the others you have coming down the line, would you self-publish again? Or do you hope that the success of "9/11 Heartbreaker" helps people know your name and your work so you can get representation and then a more traditional publishing deal for the next one?
C.H.: If there's anybody who likes this book and wants to work with me or wants to talk about working with me in terms of a publisher, I'd be open to that. I don't have a big chip on my shoulder about the publishing world; it's not like I have to go this route. But in the end the artist side of me tends to win out and whatever route is going to help me to create the stories I want to create and get them to as many people as possible without making them something they're not is great and is the option I'll choose.
Intrigued by what Staufenberg had to say or simply looking for another creative expression of a heartbreaking, and at times heart-warming, story? You can buy your hard or digital copy of "9/11 Heartbreaker" here.