“I liked the challenge of the meticulous puzzle box style writing” John Harris Dunning on the inspirations for Tumult from SelfMadeHero
As we found out in our recent review, Tumult is a super stylish, tense and taught psychological thriller that poses more questions than it answers. So we contacted it’s writer, John Harris Dunning to find out more about the significance of video directors going through mid-life crises, femme fatales with multiple personalities and what is it with all those tarot cards and Russian dolls?!
Tumult begins with our hero Adam on a holiday which doesn’t go quite as he would hope, how important was it for you to break him down before he gets dragged into the world of Morgan/Leila? Does that make his interest in Morgan more believable than if he was more level headed?
John Harris Dunning: This book is all about the break down of the stereotypical macho hero – so it was key for Adam to be faced with his own vulnerabilities, both physical and psychological. This kind of anti hero is very much in the tradition of the great American pulp writers like Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. I guess you can trace it back even further to the Arthurian story cycle with knights like Parsifal (the ‘perfect fool’) and Gawain who were far from traditional heroes – they were losers destined to win.
The idea of a femme fatale with multiple personalities is a really strong one, how did you come up with the idea for this?
JHD: With Leila’s dissociative identity disorder (D.I.D.), I wanted to show that all of us compartmentalise our personas to some extent – hers is just an extreme reaction to extreme circumstances. The fact that Adam is in a state of emotional crisis and mental flux makes it easier for him to empathise with her, and for them to connect. I’ve been interested in D.I.D. since my teens from reading classics like Sybil and The Flock, and Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, to listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Christine.
A Russian Doll was more of a useful visual representation of the idea than an inspiration for it. Another inspiration was Cindy Sherman’s series of photographic portraits Untitled Film Stills (1977 – 1988) – these staged images imply narratives that pull you in, but offer no comprehensive explanations for the scenarios presented. In them she played a variety of Noir type female characters.
Let’s face it, most female Noir characters represent both angels and the devils – they’re vulnerable as well as potentially deadly – playing one or both roles to perfection. I really admire how David Lynch updated the Noir tradition with his succinctly plotted but poetic film Blue Velvet. His more recent INLAND EMPIRE was intentionally oblique, but he offered a simple explanation of the classic Noir story, namely. “A woman in trouble.” It sums up the genre perfectly, and I include Tumult here.
Were there any books or films which inspired you with Tumult – I can see a lot of Hitchcock in the way the story builds and twists and turns?
JHD: As I mentioned above, Lynch had a huge impact on this book. Hitchcock was another source of inspiration – particularly films like North by Northwest, Vertigo, The Birds and Rear Window. I liked the challenge of the meticulous puzzle box style writing, as well as dealing with characters’ subconscious motivations and desires. Patricia Highsmith was another part of the puzzle when conceiving of Tumult – I wanted to write a crime book, but didn’t want to do a procedural – many of Highsmith’s novels follow the path towards a crime, looking at motivations for it, rather than attempting to solve it. This was a revelation to me. This approach was also evident in one of my favourite crime novels, The Devil’s Disciple (1933) by gay novelist and pioneer of the genre in Japan, Shiro Hamau. It’s all about the crime and the psychological factors that contribute to it.
Did you make Adam deliberately very cool -(i.e. a video director) would it have worked if he was just an ordinary guy?
JHD: I wanted him to have a position that was supposedly cool and enviable to illustrate that these things are essentially hollow if you aren’t in a good headspace. He’s reached a creative and emotional dead end – and Leila is his way out. He needs to get out of himself and care about someone else.
How did you and artist Michael Kennedy team up? Have you worked together before for example?
JD: I was incredibly lucky. When it came down to finding an artist, my friend Christian Ward (Black Bolt, Thor, Invisible Kingdom) suggested Michael as a collaborator. It was a true marriage of minds, right from the get go. He has incredible knowledge of American as well as European comics, contemporary and vintage. He’s also really inspired by painting, photography and cinema, so we had a wealth of inspiration to share with each other. It really was a case of 1 + 1 = 3. What we created together was so much more than the sum of its parts. He was a dream collaborator. We had considered engaging a colourist on the book, but once he started it quickly became evident no one else could do it – he brought a whole new narrative strand into the story with his colouring.
Tumult has a very strong visual identity, did you and Michael develop this as you told the story, or did you have it all mapped out from the start?
JD: I had a really strong idea of how I wanted things to look – and Michael brought another eye to it and took it to a whole new level. I gave him hundreds of references and he responded with hundreds if his own. These complimented and riffed off each other. I trusted him one hundred percent right from the start, and it was exciting to see the direction he took the book in. The book is set in my neighbourhood, and it was important for me that he really got the atmosphere of the place. He came to stay and we spent hours wandering the leafy gothic lanes of Hampstead. He nailed the sense of place.
Were there any visual inspirations or touchstones that you used to get the look and style right for this book?
JD: We played with a few different styles throughout the book that displays our love of different eras and styles of comics. I think we both want to really stretch the form while still entertaining and engaging our readers. Our inspirations were as diverse as creators like Seth, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, as well as vintage comics like Archie and the work of Fletcher Hanks, as well as superhero titles like Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, and Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One, among many others. One of Michael’s masterstrokes was to meld all of this together to create a coherent whole.
It’s interesting the way Michael uses a mix of styles throughout, especially when he shifts over a newsprint comic strip style, could you tell us a bit about the significance of these scenes and how the idea for them came about?
JD: We’re both huge fans of a big range of comics, so I was keen for us to be able to play in these different spaces both as writer and artist. I had the idea of presenting Leila’s internal psychological world in the form of a classic American gag comic of the 1950s. We enjoyed flexing these different muscles in the creation of the book – and hopefully the choice also served to clarify the narrative and keep readers engaged over the course of the story. Comics are all about rhythms and variety, and this is especially true for long form comics.
The same with the tarot cards? Is there a deeper significance to the use of them, or is it just a useful way to break the story up into a three act structure with each card?
JHD: I’ve read tarot cards since my teens, and they’ve always been a guide to me, so they just slipped into the story naturally – but they definitely became an important structural element. Writing anything is an interesting process – you plan some things, but the best things often emerge intuitively from your subconscious – that’s when you know you’re really doing your job. When I wrote that first scene, I didn’t actually realise it was the basis for the whole book’s structure. But that’s the way it turned out. While Michael was drawing the story he was having insights about it I hadn’t realised yet.
And finally what can we look forward to from you next and any plans to work with Michael again on future projects?
JHD: Hell yeah. We are working on a science fiction project at the moment that we’re proposing as a monthly. Watch this space…