“When you see statistics about boats sinking it’s hard to remember that every one of those numbers is a human being” Andrew Donkin discusses the real world inspirations for his and Eoin Colfer’s graphic novel Illegal
After seeing news stories of fishing boats capsizing in the Mediterranean in 2014, writers Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin were inspired to turn this tragedy into a graphic novel in order to inform readers about the migrants’ plight. Teaming up with artist Giovanni Rigano (with whom they had adapted Eoin’s Artemis Fowl books) their graphic novel ILLEGAL would go on to win multiple awards and so we were keen to find out the story behind this powerful and poignant tale (read our full review here). We caught up with writer Andrew Donkin to learn more:
ILLEGAL follows the story of a pair of brothers who leave their village in Africa and try to make a new home for themselves sin Europe, can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for the story?
Andrew Donkin: The inspiration for the story of ILLEGAL came from Eoin and myself reading newspaper reports of boats sinking and lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea. This was back in 2014 when most of the reports were the size of a postage stamp on page 27 of the broadsheets. We were shocked that such things were happening on the doorstep of Europe.
Was it based on true events or were there any specific events that happened which you used as the framework for the story? (The screen with the fishing boat towards the end feels very much anchored in a real world event?)
AD: Every single element of the story of ILLEGAL is true and is taken directly from the real world. We spoke to people that had made that incredible journey and while our main character is fictional, every single thing that happens to Ebo is real. All those events, being abandoned in the Sahara Desert, to the boat crossing, to working to save the money to pay people traffickers, all those details are real and have happened to thousands of people.
Did you have to do much research into the mechanics of people trafficking and the journey which people go through in order to make it accurate and believable?
AD: Eoin, myself, and Gio did more research for this book than another we’ve ever written. It’s a very serious issue and we wanted to get every detail as accurate and true to life as we possibly could. We spoke to many people: refugees, migrants, aid workers. We also worked with and had guidance from two fantastic charities: Women for Refugee Women and Migrant Voice.
You’ve previously worked with Eoin on his Artemis Fowl adaptations, but was it different working on a completely new project together?
AD: It was very exciting working on a new original project. Myself, Eoin and Giovanni had already collaborated on hundreds and hundreds of pages of comics before even the first panel of Illegal was written.
How did you and Eoin work on the story? Was it a collaboration in the same room, or did you fire back different drafts of the story via email to each other and build it from there?
AD: When we’re starting a project we will get together in the same room in Dublin or London to work on it together. When we have the shape and feel of the story then once we start writing drafts of the script we’ll do those and fire them back and fourth over email. Always trying to improve the words.
Did you always have him in mind when you were developing Illegal? And was he involved in the creative process as much as you and Eoin?
AD: Yes, we knew ILLEGAL was always going to be a project for the three of us. We very much enjoy working together. Gio was involved from the earliest time on the project. I think we pitched him the first paragraph we had. Giovanni lives in Italy where the refugee / migrant issue is even further up the agenda than it is here if that’s possible.
What made you choose to tell the story in graphic novel format? What do you think that format allows you to do with the story that a prose novel or other format couldn’t?
AD: We always knew that it was going to be a graphic novel for three reasons:
Firstly we all love comics and telling stories in comics. All three of us grew up reading comics and we absolutely love making them.
Secondly, we knew that by telling the story of Ebo and his brother as a graphic novel it would reach a slightly different audience than if we had done it as a prose book. It was an audience we were keen to reach.
Thirdly, we didn’t want to TELL you what Ebo and his brother are feeling. We wanted to SHOW you what was happening to them and then invite the reader to decide what they might be feeling.
Although the story is very serious, it also feels like it has a lightness to it as well. Whether it’s the banter with the brothers or the style of the artwork. Was it important for you to bring a bit of levity to the story in order to prevent it from being too harrowing – and also to allow the more emotional moments a chance to really get some impact?
AD: Indeed. That perfectly sums up what we were attempting to do. The boys are brothers and even in the grimes of situations, close friends will find some humour, even if it’s fairly dark humour. The book is about a very serious issue, but we also wanted it to be an exciting read and to have moment of lightness.
Did it affect you writing such an emotional story? (It certainly affected me when reading it!).
AD: It certainly did. It’s impossible not to be really moved when you meet people that have completed the journey (usually over several years) that Ebo undertakes.
What would you like people to take away from reading Illegal, and how can people help this kind of story from happening again and again?
AD: One reason we wanted to write ILLEGAL was to remind our readers that when you see statistics about boat sinking and lives lost in the newspapers, it’s often hard to remember that every one of those numbers is a human being. We wanted to tell the story of one of those people in the hope of maybe giving more of a human face to all the people lost as just numbers.
How can people help this kind of story from happening again and again?
AD: It’s very tricky as to what any one person can do to stop this kind of story happening again. What people can do is get involved with their local charity that helps refugees in their local area. Mine for example is Greenwich Migrant Hub. Most areas have one if you look. That’s a way that people can make a real practical difference in their own area.