What is food, exactly? Nourishment and fuel, to be certain--but as a human race, our relationship with it goes so, so much deeper than that. Sugar in particular can elicit the strangest conflict within us, alternately a BFF, coloring our world in curlicues, hearts and rainbows--or an enemy, eager to pummel us into submission with its intense temptation ("I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"). It can be a strange relationship indeed, and recently we've been impressed by two books in particular which touch on this subject.
The first, which we received as an advance review copy from Crown Press, is The Taste of Sweet: Our Complicated Love Affair with our Favorite Treats by Joanne Chen. While we have received advance copies of books in the past which have left us unimpressed, this one caught our attention from the get-go. In the book, Chen goes on the ultimate sweet quest, doing her homework by examining the science of sweet in food labs across the nation--melding this information beautifully with commentary on our more intuitive emotional and cultural reactions to dessert. She also examines dessert trends and what shapes them (um, Oprah?). It's a fascinating read, and is available in all those major book stores now!
Cakespy: First off--we're curious. What did you have for breakfast today?
Jesse Breytenbach: Coffee! I tend to skip breakfast and have something at tea-time, around 10:30, instead, because there’s nothing to eat in the house until I’ve gone to the shops.
CS: You recently released a book entitled I Don't Like Chocolate. Can you tell us a little bit about the book's concept and how it came about?
JB: Michelle Matthews, who was the publishing manager at Oshun Books contacted me out of the blue to ask whether I wanted to do a graphic novel. We knew from the start how long the book would be, so I had to come up with content to fill it. I thought it would be fun to try to do ‘chick-lit’ in comic form, and to produce a book to interest people who don’t normally read comics, particularly as Oshun isn’t a comics publisher. I picked a topic that could provide me with enough material to fill 90+ pages: food. I’ve always been fascinated and amused by people’s strong and emotional reactions to food – I’ve lived in plenty of communes, so I’ve seen a lot….
It’s a book of short stories, based around a central character, and all on the topic of food – her experiences, thoughts and feelings about food. I found eventually that I was writing a book about a person, this central character, finding out more and more about her as I put her in different situations. Sometimes her personality suggested stories as well.
The title came to me quite early on, and I never thought of changing it, because it seemed too good. People react to it with surprise and sometimes horror. It’s quite interesting how anti-social something as trivial as personal taste can be perceived to be. But even with her ‘different’ stance, most readers seem to find some common ground with her.
The training came from actually printing the comics, and thus being able to see them at a remove, and immediately seeing all the ways I could improve.
CS: How does it feel to see your own book in bookstore shelves and for sale online?
JB: Very strange. It doesn’t feel like mine, but I do feel proud and excited. It’s like seeing a friend’s book for sale.
CS: What food stories within the book were the most intriguing to work on?
JB: I liked doing the three “I Don’t Like Chocolate” stories in the book, as they’re among the longest. (A lot of the stories are one or two pages long, really just jokes with a punchline.) It was a challenge, but fun as well, to work out the timing of dialogue and have a lot of characters interacting with each other.
CS: Are there any artists or writers in particular who inspire you?
JB: Dan Clowes, the Hernandez Brothers, Marjane Satrapi in comics. I’m more often inspired by music…. I’ll hear a song and know that I want to draw a comic that does what the song does…. it’s very direct and indirect inspiration at the same time. And it’s not something I’ve ever managed to do, but it’s a starting point.
CS: Are you a full-time writer / illustrator, or do you work a 'day job'?
JB: I’m pretty much a full-time illustrator.
CS: Do you like chocolate?
JB: Ummm…. yes, sort of. I don’t dislike it, but I can leave a slab half-eaten for weeks. There’s some chocolate in my kitchen cupboard that’s probably too old to eat by now.
CS: What is your favorite dessert to eat?
JB: Fruit! Watermelon, peaches, berries… sorbet is good too. And Crème Brulee. And anything with honey. Ok, fruit sorbet with honey.
CS: What is your favorite dessert to draw?
JB: The frillier and fussier, the better. Almost completely the opposite of the kind I like to eat.
CS: How would you describe your personal relationship with dessert?
JB: I like small portions, just a taste, really. Most servings in restaurants are too much for me. But I do like leftover dessert for breakfast. Particularly trifle.
CS: How would you describe your heroine's relationship with dessert?
JB: Embarrassingly similar to mine.
CS: How was the experience of releasing a book different than you might have expected?
JB: It took a lot longer than I thought it would to get the book done, and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be! I didn’t expect to be able to look back and see how much I’d learnt, which is a very pleasant surprise. I got a lot more out of the whole experience than just a book.
CS: Any advice for artists / illustrators who are interested in breaking into the publishing world?
JB: Hard to say, because South Africa doesn’t have a comics publishing industry, so my advice wouldn’t necessarily apply to countries that do. But I think what does work is to do a lot of work, particularly your own work, and contribute to any anthologies, websites etc that you can find. Print your own and give them away if you have to, just to get your work out. The more you do the better you’ll get, and you’ll improve even more if you know that other people are going to see your comics. Just keeping them in a folder under your bed isn’t going to get you work.
CS: What is your next project (or goal, if more applicable)?
JB: Although I said ‘Never Again!’ when I finished the book, I do have some new ideas that might not stop bothering me. But right now I want to spend a bit of time making “I Don’t Like Chocolate” merchandise, using some of the images from the book that were incidental to the stories but could be fun to explore a bit further. I really just want to make some tangible objects for a change. And I realized the limitations of my drawing skills, doing this comic, so I want to spend some time just practicing drawing.
Want to learn more? Check out Jesse's blog at jezzeblog.blogspot.com. Ready to buy? Smart decision.