“I always wanted it to be more than just documenting a trip.” Katriona Chapman on merging travelogues and personal stories for her debut graphic novel Follow Me In

For her full length graphic novel debut, Follow Me In, Katriona Chapman has expanded the small but poignant world of her Katzine travelogues and turned into something much more epic. Chronicling her travels in Mexico and the breakdown of a relationship along the way, it’s part travelogue, part therapy session and so we caught up with Kat to find out how she managed to balance these two disparate elements of her story so well. 

Follow Me In chronicles your travels in Mexico, what made you choose to produce this in a full graphic novel version rather than as part of your Katzine series?

Katriona Chapman: Follow Me In is the book I’d always wanted to make ever since going on this trip way back in 2003/2004. I always thought there was enough interesting stuff there to make a book… in fact a big part of writing it was trying to edit everything down so that the book remained at a vaguely manageable size. I treated my work on Katzine as practice for the big book… I didn’t have much experience at all making comics when I started to write Follow Me In. So I spent a year doing short stories in my zine series in an attempt to get better at writing, and so I could experiment with comics visually before I started working properly on the book.

It’s a beautiful mix of personal story telling and travelogue, was it important to include the personal element of your story in detail, and were you ever concerned you were sharing too much or perhaps not enough?

KC: Very early on I just wanted to do a straightforward travelogue, where the focus would just be on Mexico. But I also knew that travelogues can be difficult to do well, and I didn’t want it to be dry or like I was lecturing the reader. I realised that the personal aspect could add a lot to the story in terms of providing a human core to the travel stuff… I really wanted it to be a book that had a through line to make you want to keep reading. I had to overcome a little reluctance as the personal part of the story became more and more central, because it is uncomfortable revealing personal things. I was also really concerned with how the two aspects of the story would balance… so in that sense I wasn’t worried that I was sharing too much because I didn’t want the personal story to be like a few token bits thrown in, I wanted it to be just as important as the travel content. I think if I’d wanted the focus to be much more on the relationship story then I’d just have got rid of the travelogue part altogether!

The travelogue/map sections are incredible, did you have to do much research to get the details right and how did you choose what to include? Were these ever intended to be the priority rather than the personal elements?

KC: Thank you! I guess I already covered some of this in the answer to the last question. Yes I did do a lot of research, but I also had all my original notes and diary entries from when I was travelling so that helped me a lot. But I really enjoy research so it wasn’t a chore. Also my partner is from Mexico so he’s a huge help in fact-checking and trying to ensure that any Spanish language stuff was correct. As I said before, I had originally thought that’d I just make a book about Mexico… but I think that would’ve limited potential readers to people who were interested in travel or in Mexico specifically. I thought by making it a personal story it would also have enough in it to appeal to a reader who wasn’t into travel as such. There’s an exploration of what it’s like to live with a partner who has addiction issues… a depiction of a person in their early twenties trying to figure out their life… and an artist struggling with their creative side. I also wanted to address the act of travel itself, and explore the problems inherent in tourism and what it means to be a foreigner in a part of the world that’s not where you were born… specifically to travel in parts of the world that are impoverished when you’re from a wealthy country. I always wanted it to be more that just documenting a trip.

It’s full colour compared to the black and white of Katzine, did you have to change you art style to accommodate this? Was it more intensive producing it? And why did you choose to go full colour? (I love the mixed colour palettes you use for the Mexico scenes vs the uk scenes by the way)

KC: I’ve always done colour art as well as black and white, I absolutely love using colour! Producing Katzine in black and white is more a print cost issue than anything else. But yes it’s also much quicker working in black and white. I think the length of the book led me to have to work faster than I have in the past, but I’m not sure it affected my style very much. It was always going to have to be in full colour, because Mexico itself is full of colour. I was excited to try to use colour to capture the feel of different parts of the world and different parts of Mexico… different climates and different types of landscape.

You include some of your sketches from your travels, how much did you draw on your travels and has it shown how much your artwork has improved since you started this?

KC: I filled one sketchbook during my nine month trip… a lot of people would’ve filled several in that time period but I’ve never been the kind of person that draws every day. That’s something I touch on in the book – that for me drawing isn’t something I necessarily inherently love! When I left for Mexico in 2003 I’d had about five years off from drawing at all, and I think the sketchbook does show a lot of improvement as it progresses. Anyone interested in this aspect of the book can see a video I made of my Mexico sketchbook here.  The video is a ten-minute tour through the sketchbook, and I talk about it as I show the pages.

And for the scenes you didn’t document, how did you go about recreating the scenes for the story once you returned?

KC: This is something I touch on in the youtube video as well. A lot of places I was able to google image search for reference, but some were so specific (like the cabin in the woods) that I was very glad I had my sketchbook to refer back to. So most of it is memory mixed with searching for images on google… I had a massive reference folder on my computer when I started drawing, organised into a folder for every page with reference images of all the settings! I would open the images for each page up in Photoshop, arrange them in a grid so I could see them all at once, and then start drawing the page.

We’ve only seen this in digital, but can you tell us a bit about how the print book will be? Am I right in thinking it’s going to be a hardcover? Have Avery Hill pushed the boat on this one for you?

KC: Yes you’re right, I’m so excited that it’s hardcover because it’s a really beautiful object! Avery Hill have started doing a few hardback books now and I’m really chuffed to be one of them. I saw a printed copy for the first time just recently and they’ve really done a beautiful job.

And finally if you could give any readers any essential travel tips, then what would you recommend?

KC: That’s a tricky one! I think getting off the beaten track is probably number one, as long as you have time to do a bit of exploring and you’re not just in a place for a couple of days. The tourist hotspots anywhere are likely to be a bit hideous and not at all representative of what life is actually like in that place for people who live there. My best experiences were always when I got as far away from other travellers as possible. And the other really important one is to be respectful of people. Do your research before going somewhere so you have a basic understanding at least of what the culture is like… and learn at least a few phrases if another language is involved. Everyone has the ability to at least learn how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in another language!

You can find Katriona at Table 39 in Victoria Hall and Avery Hill Publishing at Table 66 in Victoria Hall at Thought Bubble 2018. You can pre-order Follow Me In from the Avery Hill webstore and purchase Kat’s other work via her Etsy Store.