Rutu Modan discusses her book The Property with the National Post

A Q&A with Rutu Modan, author of The Property

National Post    |    Mark Medley    |    May 11, 2013

Rutu Modan’s 2007 graphic novel Exit Wounds, about a young Israeli man investigating the mysterious death of his estranged father, established her as a cartoonist to watch. She’s about to publish her second full-length book, The Property, which follows Regina, an elderly Polish Jew, as she returns to Warsaw with her granddaughter, Mica, ostensibly to reclaim an apartment abandoned during the Second World War. As they explore modern Warsaw, Mica realizes her grandmother might have ulterior motives for returning to the city of her birth.

Modan is in Toronto for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which takes place this weekend at the Toronto Reference Library. As well, the Tel-Aviv-born artist, who currently lives in England, will appear at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre on Sunday, May 12 at 5 p.m. for a special presentation of The Property.

She recently conducted an e-mail interview with National Post Books Editor Mark Medley.

Q: Tell me about the origins of The Property? What compelled you to tell this story?

A: The idea came to me after I have written a story about my grandmother for an illustrated blog [for] the New York Times web site (Mixed Emotions, 2008). I was never close to my grandmother, who wasn’t the most easy person in the world. But writing the story made me, maybe for the first time, think about her as a person and not only through her role in my life. So, you can say, the book is a kind of an imaginary trip I took with my grandmother to Poland. She died 15 years ago — it is too late for us. It is one of the best thing art can give us, to fill what we missed in real life.

Q: Your mother provides the book’s epigraph: “With family, you don’t have to tell the whole truth and it’s not considered lying.’ Do you believe this? Isn’t it worse to lie to one’s family?

A: My mother didn’t say it is good to lie to your family, just that you don’t have to tell the whole truth, always. There is a big difference. You can interpret it in few ways: that sometimes in order not to hurt other person feelings you don’t tell or do tell certain things, or maybe that in order to live together as a group we must respect each other — and our own — privacy and that family members are allowed to have secrets, we don’t have to share everything and so on. I like to leave it open for the reader to decide. Anyway, I didn’t use this sentence as a guideline for family life or as a personal belief, but more because I thought it represent well the relations of the family in the story.

And I also thought it is kind of a funny epigraph.

Q: What’s your relationship with Warsaw? What approach do you take in capturing a city you’re not as familiar with?

A: Even though my family is originally from Warsaw (from both sides) I never really felt any connection to this city. In my family nobody spoke about Poland as nothing but “the land of the dead people” which they meant their relatives and friends that died there. I remember my grandmother saying she was not interested even to go for a visit, since she heard the city has changed so much that you cannot recognize it. When I had this idea for the story, suddenly it occurred to me, how twisted it is — understandable, but still — that I think about Warsaw only as a city in the past and not as a real place. It was interesting, and a challenge, to write about a place that I know so little about. And from an illustrator point of view, it was fun to draw such a different view, architecture and atmosphere than my regular subjects.

Q: This is a graphic novel, but, since you’ve often written about your family, I wondered if there are any autobiographical elements in The Property?

Sure, there are a lot of autobiographical elements in the story, but since the story is so much about family secrets, you won’t expect me to reveal them. The great thing about writing fiction, is that it allows you to tell secrets but since they are disguised it’s okay.

Q: I recently read Letting It Go by Miriam Katin, which is also published by Drawn and Quarterly. Have you read it? I found a lot of similarities between the two books, especially this idea of an older person distrusting a place they left in their youth. Are older Jews still wary of Poland in the way Regina seems to be?

A: I still didn’t read Katin’s book, so I will answer only the last part of the question: older Jews, at least those I know, are still quite angry with Poland and the Poles. Many of them felt they were betrayed by their homeland. Maybe it’s also because it is still so painful for them to think about the past. The younger generations, though, become more and more interested in this country. Many people travel their, not necessarily to look for properties but maybe to understand their past and connect with their roots.

Q: The last page of The Property has a list of “actors.” Do you always model your characters on real people?

A: Not always. I used to ask friends to model for me for certain movements, but I liked the effect so much that this time I decided to make the book almost like a low-budget film. I hired professional actors and directed them according to a storyboard. I even used wardrobe and props. What I tried to achieve is that the characters will feel very much alive, like they were real people. Another benefit this method gave me is that the photos became my sketches, so my first drawing, which many times tends to be the most free and interesting, becomes the final drawing.

Q: At one point, Regina wonders how many times can you start life all over again? Do you have an answer?

A: It is suppose to be an open question. And the answer depends on personality, age and what are your possibilities. Actually, I stole this line from a woman I know. She is 75, was widowed twice, and she said this line when she told me about a marriage proposition she got from an Italian duke — it’s a true story — that asked her to move from Israel to Italy and live in his castle with him.

She refused, by the way.

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