As the second book by Nick Drnaso sabrina Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018 was cause for celebration. It was the first graphic novel ever to be recognized in this way, elevating an art form that many still considered niche – and perhaps ultimately a little bit easy for such an important award. sabrinaan intensely brooding and existential work about a man whose missing girlfriend is driving him into suicidal despair was anything but easy.
However, Drnaso himself was conflicted. The then 28-year-old from Chicago was still working part-time in a button factory; Writing – and drawing – was more of a sideline. “It was actually great,” he says of the job. “I would be standing at a converting machine making about 2,500 buttons per shift. I loved it. You could listen to the music you wanted and just switch off.”
As the fanfare gathered momentum around him, he squirmed on. Even today, four years later, he doubts it. As we chat over Zoom on a July afternoon, the frown never quite leaves his face.
“I suppose the only reason I was able to move into the life I have now – I work exclusively on comics, I mean – was to get nominated, yeah,” he admits almost reluctantly, scratching his cap that firmly sits his head. “I mean, I can appreciate praise and awards from afar, but I can’t internalize them. They don’t do anything for me in terms of validation.”
There were deeper feelings too. Drnaso was convinced that what he did for a living was ultimately frivolous. “It was embarrassing. It felt like a shameful process, doing work that goes out into the world.” Why shameful? He shrugs. “Well, I feel like that kind of privilege isn’t granted to me should be, that I shouldn’t be able to work on these things and be as forgiving as I am and unchecked…” He falls silent.
sabrinafinished as it was (Zadie Smith called it a masterpiece), it didn’t make the shortlist, and Anna Burns would win it for her novel, milkman. Despite this, Drnaso stopped making buttons and devoted himself entirely to writing. Otherwise, he emphasizes, nothing has changed. “My daily routine is exactly the same. I’m still at the same desk, I still have the same tools. Yes, maybe I can afford a nicer scanner, a nicer computer, but that’s about it.”
Nick Drnaso is clearly a tortured soul, someone whose general sense of dread and alienation spreads like spilled milk throughout his work. his new book Acting Lessons, is a completely unsettling master class in unrest. As in sabrina, he uses a minimalist style in which women and men are depicted flat and nearly featureless, with dashes for eyes and commas for mouths, only occasionally morphing into something resembling a smile. The story revolves around a group of disenchanted Americans trying to make sense of the world around them and their place in it. Everyone is lonely and separated, and some harbor unsavory inclinations, but they get together in an acting class in hopes the process could help them blossom. Their enigmatic tutor holds each weekly class in increasingly remote locations — a school at night, someone’s house deep in the woods — and while the roleplay exercises he gives them are meant to challenge them, they also confuse them and blur the lines between what’s real is and what is not.
It is a confusion that affects the reader as well. what is Acting Lessons actually about? What is the author trying to say? Drnaso admits he has a hard time talking about it. “As soon as a book comes back from the printer, I put it on the shelf and it’s dead to me. I stop thinking about it because there’s nothing left to think about.”
Of course, that’s not entirely true, because he has to advertise it. “It’s just, I can’t help what the book actually is is‘ he says, frowning. A friend of his recently read it and thought it was “that kind of rambling conspiracy theory. I had to tell him it’s not, it’s not at all.”
Yes and is it asked his friend? “It’s something else,” he replied.
Drnaso, now 33, lives in Chicago with his wife, Sarah Leitten, a cartoonist and florist, and their two cats. They don’t let the cats outside, he explains, because of the myriad of dangers there and also because city cats disrupt local biodiversity. “So they stay home with us.” Shame on the cats, perhaps, but the solemnity with which he says this perfectly illustrates how far he will go to protect his kin.
He grew up a quiet kid, unspeakably drawn to the dark side. He had read about murders and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and searched the Internet for disturbing videos. These would shock and anger him, thus confirming that the world was something to be kept at a distance. “I’ve always lived with … with feelings of insecurity,” he says.
At the age of 10 he was sexually abused by a teenage neighbor. He didn’t talk to anyone about it until he was 27, just as he was preparing for it sabrinaPublication. Since the abuse, he has been plagued by anxiety and depression.
“I think it simplifies things a bit to build a narrative around it to find cause and effect,” he says, now resting his bearded chin in the palm of his hand. “I’m not sure how you could ever do that [confirm] what it is that influences your worldview, but I suspect so [the abuse] created a certain hypervigilance in me, yes, some fear and paranoia. They recognize that humans have the potential for abuse and violence.”
He published his first book – Beverly, a series of linked short stories – in 2016 and began work on the sequel within months of meeting his now-wife. Whenever they weren’t together, he worried about where she was, whether she was safe. In this state he wrote sabrina In the book, the internet and television news begin to engage in conspiracy theories about what may have happened to Sabrina. Did she just leave her boyfriend or was she killed? Is she being held hostage? And will she ever see her family again? Your friend becomes increasingly groggy to the point where he can barely function.
Everything is reproduced extremely sparingly, the drawings without frills, the text concise. “I have to go home,” says one character. “I…um…” says another. In between, real emotions are expressed. “I’m so angry with everyone,” admits Sabrina’s friend. To placate him, a friend replies, “A lot of people are able to turn their grief into something positive.” He suggests that maybe he could seek “a job in law enforcement.”
Shortly before the book’s release, Drnaso panicked and insisted that he wanted to stamp it. He didn’t like it anymore and didn’t want to show it to the world anymore because he was convinced that the narrative was too dark for the public. He had a breakdown that both his publisher and Leiten carefully navigated him through. Months passed before he finally returned to the book to rewrite parts of it. It was eventually released to wild critical acclaim.
“I’m still ambivalent about that today,” he says, “and I regret it a bit. But I can’t do anything about it now.”
Acting Lessons may be a little lighter in tone, but it’s still pitch black and seems to further confirm Drnaso’s worldview that there really is little good out there – and if so, it’s hard to find.
He tries again to summarize his intentions with the book. “I think when I wrote it I had a…” But now he falls into another prolonged silence, as if it hurts him physically or at least takes a toll to have to talk about it. He doesn’t make eye contact on screen and it’s difficult to watch him without feeling guilty because he expects him to talk. “No sorry. I had a thought, but I lost it. It’s gone.”
Recently, Drnaso sought a brief escape, a relaxing break. He and his wife went to the beach with friends. They sunbathed for five hours. But Drnaso says, “I just couldn’t understand how they could sit there for so long. I couldn’t do anything with it. I felt scared and kind of useless.”
Perhaps he lacked his desk and the structure that mental activity creates?
He nods slowly. “I think so. Or at least we could have gone into town and visited a museum, a bookstore, anything that had a purpose, you know?”
Nick Drnaso’s Acting Class is published by Granta
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/nick-drnaso-book-interview-b2145169.html Interview with Nick Drnaso: The Booker Prize-nominated novelist who disowns his own books