I had a chat with Rodge Glass, author of Dougie’s War, a graphic novel exploring the catastrophic effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on an ex-soldier.
It’s been just over a year since Dougie’s war was first published. How’s it getting on with gathering a following?
We didn’t imagine Dougie’s War would be that popular because it’s such a weird hybrid thing, and none of us had a direct record in graphic novels. Adrian, the publisher, said to me “I imagine this is something that will grow steadily over time,” which I thought was a polite way of saying “Nobody’s going to buy it” - I thought he was being gentle with me.
But at the beginning there were lots and lots of nice reviews - I think it was more widely reviewed because I had a bit of a literary profile already - but we didn’t have any take-off in sales. It was a tiny, weird thing and I loved it for that reason.
Only it seems over the summer to have gathered apace. It was selected to be on a library summer reading list, which meant that a lot of the copies were distributed around libraries in Scotland. Then I started getting asked to schools and youth programmes, and they were people we were originally trying to get to: people who hadn’t done too much reading before, but who were interested in this topic, and who were thinking about going into the army.
You took it to teenagers in Dunfermline. How did that go down?
In some ways it was the most difficult thing that I’ve done, but it was really, really gratifying and really worth doing.
The research that was done for Dougie’s War was done with the Fife Veterans Association. Fife has an unusually high number of young people who go into the services, because there’s a high amount of poverty. What I didn’t realise was that most of those people [in Dunfermline] had family members who were currently serving.
Although it was a lot more rowdy than your average Edinburgh book festival crowd - a little bit more challenging, some of the questions were a little bit ruder - it felt like a success. There were lots of people coming across to ask questions at the end and wanting things signed, kids who’d never been to a book event of any kind before, never mind had a chance to sit and discuss these issues. Army attitudes are that if you’re going through something difficult, you don’t talk about it, and that’s what this story is about. People were putting up their hands and saying, “Yeah, well, my dad served and came back and drank himself daft and we never thought about it.” The people that work with them every day came up to me afterwards and said it was astonishing, that they’d never seen them sit still for that long a period of time before, or seen them that directly engaged.
What’s warming about it is that I can do that, and then I’m going to Toronto in a few days and that will be a very, very literary crowd. People will have paid to get in. We’ll all be in a posh room and it couldn’t be any more different from Dunfermline.
So what would you prefer at the end of the day – a book festival crowd or a group of Dunfermline kids?
Any author with any self-respect will say they want both. Anyone that wants to keep going wants both. With a more knowledgeable or a more experienced crowd, you get the chance to explore PTSD and how it’s been dealt with historically, and how Charlie’s War relates to Dougie’s War, and all that stuff that we got to do at the Glasgow and Edinburgh book festivals.
But you can kind of leave that behind if you want to. It’s a relatively short story and you can just read the comic if you want. Which is why I think it should work for both audiences - or at least I hope so.
You did a ton of research with service folk to write Dougie’s War – have you had any feedback or niggles from that group? Is there anything you got wrong?
Nick Collins, who did the photos for us for Afghanistan, had a couple of things. We’d got the underside of a jeep wrong!
I can honestly say nobody has written to me and abused me and said “How dare you!” which has been a huge relief. The two main guys that influenced Dougie’s character I’m still a bit worried about, because if you do something that’s partly based on reality, you don’t want to offend the people you’re doing it about.
If you go in and say “Oh yes, I can completely feel your pain,” then you’ll get eaten alive. But if you can say honestly “What would you like said?”, then people can tell you. I wasn’t pretending anything. But I was afraid when we got in contact with them and sent [the final book] to them. And then they both turned out with a six foot, giant cardboard cut-out of Dougie for the photographs with the press. They thought that was fun and came to Edinburgh with it – I thought they’d get bored with it but they were carrying Dougie everywhere and having a great time.
So what’s next for Dougie?
We’re going to Toronto. I’ll be doing an adaptation of the presentation I did here, but we’ve also got some of these really weird books from World War I about mental health that Adrian managed to find. The taglines won’t say ‘Here is a person suffering’, it would be ‘Mad Person Drooling’ or something like that. It’s terribly unsympathetic, as if the people are rats, and there are all these photographs of how they walk and what they look like. It’s very disturbing.
Do you want to write more graphic novels?
This was supposed to be a one off, and I didn’t have any experience writing graphic novels, so I didn’t know if I could do it. But having done it, I really enjoyed it, and I would like the opportunity to do something full-length next time. There wasn’t enough money to do a more detailed or subtle story. I don’t really know how I’d go about that but I’d definitely like to do more in the future.
It’s taught me a lot, writing a graphic novel. I had to learn about splash and half-splash and making something happen every two pages and stripping the dialogue right down, and all those things that really are different across the forms. And so that’s been a proper education, in a very selfish way. Even if I didn’t care about graphic novels, or the subject, or anything, it still would have been a really good thing for me to do because it taught me a hell of a lot. It’s a beautiful thing.
Rodge Glass’s next book is a prose novel, Bring Me The Head Of Ryan Giggs, released in April 2012. Keep an eye out for its launch in Glasgow.
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