We chatted with the incredibly cool Emily McGovern on the writing and research process behind her graphic novel, Twelve Percent Dread.
Katie and Nas are best friends and exes. They live a tiny room in a North London townhouse belonging to their landlord, Jeremy, former host of the hit 90s show Football Lads. While Katie bounces from job to job and obsesses about falling behind in life, Nas has bigger things in mind, such as waiting endlessly for their visa to come through. Their friend Emma, meanwhile, seems to have it all figured out – job, mortgage, engagement – yet the long hours working for tech giant and endless wedding admin have left her similarly anxious and unsatisfied.
The main message of Twelve Percent Dread is to put our phone away. Did you put your phone away when you were working on the graphic novel? Or did you use it more often to mimic the tense atmosphere?
I always put my phone out of sight when I’m working, if possible, and turn the WiFi off on my laptop. I even try to leave the house if I can, though during the pandemic that wasn’t possible. I feel like there’s a kind of “state change” that happens when my phone is in view – something my mind is snagged on. The same with an open laptop. It’s like a portal, as Patricia Lockwood says in No One Is Talking About This, that’s pulling my attention into it from the sides.
And have you always used mindfulness apps yourself? Do you think such apps help alleviate pressure or actually add to the pressure due to us obsessing over the numbers?
Only briefly, I had a meditation app. But I always felt like it was kind of defeating the ultimate purpose of the meditation – I was waiting from a signal from the app that meditation time was over, so part of my mind continued to be connected to the “portal”, and to the idea of a neatly productive allotment of time. I had more success in meditation when I just closed my eyes and slowly counted to 5 over and over again. But then thinking about “success” in meditation is also an interesting trap…
What’s the key to having characters in Twelve Percent Dread looking so simplistic yet so distinct?
It’s how I developed my work when I started making comics, after I left university. It’s partly inspired by my cat, who is just a black lump with massive staring eyes – myself and my mum project all kinds of emotions onto him just based on body language and context. So I realised I could probably do the same with the characters in my artwork. Their body language is very important, and something I put a lot of time into – everything from how they hold their arms to the angle of their head. And how the text appears in their speech bubbles is also very important in conveying emotion – if a sentence is said fast, all at once, in one bubble, or hesitantly, over the course of several bubbles.
Katie, Emma and Nas lead very different lives, yet their stories are woven together beautifully. What’s the planning process like?
Hellish! Picture that meme of Charlie Kelly and the cork board, but for 2 years straight. Luckily I had a wonderful editor, Paul, who pulled me out of spirals when needed.
And with them having such diverse lives, Twelve Percent Dread is relatable for many readers. What do you relate to for each of the 3 main characters?
Well, they are all me, in that I am the creator of all of them. I weirdly relate to Jeremy a lot – I can easily imagine myself being out of time, still living in the world of my youth and trying to make sense of the current one.
The focus on the visa struggle is done so well! It is pretty rare for a book to shed light on it. Why do you decide to focus on this?
Thank you for picking up on that! I did a lot of research into it – the work of British journalists Daniel Trilling and Maya Goodfellow was particularly helpful. I wanted to focus on it because the injustice and cruelty of the entire system is staggering, and I don’t think British people who have not experienced any immigration issues are at all aware of it. The way the media sells it to them is that you can just stroll into the country and live the life of Riley. I have friends who have been kicked out of the country when they wanted to stay, and also friends who have been through the harrowing and extortionate citizenship process. I really wanted to have that represented in its banality and maddening-ness.
Loving all the sheer ridiculousness of the tech / corporate world, e.g. “Orange juice without orange.” in Twelve Percent Dread. What’s the research process like? Or did you just imagine how ridiculous people can get?
I really enjoyed the research for this part, which I mostly did just by Googling and reading different articles – I’d often get to an internal state I’d describe as “scream-laughter”. My favourites were always about WeWork, which really was worrying in terms of exceeding my own satirical capabilities. Rebekah Neumann majored in “Buddhism and business”, for God’s sake.
While we mostly see Michelle in her tech boss capacity, we actually also see her being a mum, and putting on a “good mum” front. This makes her instantly a lot more human. Was it your intention to make readers more empathetic to this human representation of capitalism?
I wanted to show her trying to be a “good” mum, in the sense that she does love her daughter, but I also wanted to show a character who’s enormous narcissism and greed would also extend into how she treats her family and social circle. Someone that obsessed with gaining power is ultimately not going to flip into being a stable, well-adjusted person at home. This is of course my own little theory! But I don’t think the qualities required for becoming a billionaire are the same qualities that make for a good parent and friend.
Get your copy of Twelve Percent Dread here.