One Week in the Library Scribe W. Maxwell Prince Talks Long Elevator Pitches, Infographics and BorgesMain Art by Frazer Irving Comics Features W. Maxwell Prince
W. Maxwell Prince and John Amor’s original graphic novel, One Week in the Library, is a wild and weird project to describe. Told throughout seven chapters, each named for a day in the week, One Week in the Library is like a cross between the 1994 animated footnote The Pagemaster and the works of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, with a heavy dose of medium-mashing à la Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Paste had the opportunity to talk with Prince over the phone recently about the origins behind the project, his motivations as a writer and the allure of transforming traditional fairytales through a contemporary post-modern lens.
One Week in the Library Cover Art by Frazer Irving
Paste: How would you describe One Week in the Library to someone who’s never heard of it? Give us your elevator pitch.
W. Maxwell Prince: I’ve definitely had some trouble distilling it down into what people call the “elevator pitch.” My best attempt at that is that it’s seven short stories, one for each day of the week. It’s about a librarian in a magical infinite library where every book ever written and ever not written and every variation of every book ever written and not written exists. And basically, each short story is an experiment in a specific type of storytelling, usually mixing comics with some other type of medium, or some other message to show the possibilities of comics and play with the written word in a way an actual library does. I realize that’s the longest elevator pitch that anyone’s ever given [Laughs].
Paste: Both of your releases this year, The Electric Sublime and One Week in the Library, offer two equally meta takes on how the creative act of art and storytelling shape and are shaped by the human experience. What inspired this recent stint of your work?
Prince: I’d say that, for me at least, the way that I construct meaning from experience is often through the filter of art. Some of my most intimate relationships are with art. I read non-stop, I try to read a book a week and I listen to music constantly. I’m using art to place myself in the world, and by “art” I mean in the broad sense of creative works in all these different media, but I definitely use these creations to start to clarify my relationship with the world and how I think and feel about it, especially [now]. The election didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, and I’ve definitely used art as a way to deal with that, whether it’s music or losing myself in a book for an hour or two. So I think a lot of that stems from my intimate relationship with these works and what I tap out of them, which is this great meaning and understanding about myself and about the world and how I want to shape it. It’s not a coincidence to me that the takeaway from those two books is that they center on what it means to make work, or consume work and how that helps you to construct some meaning and understanding about the world.
Paste: While talking with Forbidden Planet about your previous work, 2015’s Judas: The Last Days, you said that your goal was to, “…make something sad, something good and something ‘infinite and intimate.’” Do you believe that you were able to achieve that here with One Week in the Library? What was your goal when you set out to write this book?
Prince: I think maybe this book is more successful at that goal than Judas: The Last Days was. The first thing I wanted to do was make a comic that did not adhere to the conventions of modern comics, starting with something really simple, like page length, and then also the sort of tricks and tools—these great signifiers of comics that we’ve come to understand and subvert. Even if people don’t analyze comics in this way, I think comic writers know that you write for what’s called “the page turn,” meaning you should have some sort of forward momentum or surprise each time the reader turns the page. So in that way, you’re thinking very much about the physical product or the way that serial issues end with a big splash page, with a twist that propels the reader into the next issue and keeps them coming back for more.
I started wanting to see what it would be like to make something that didn’t worry too much about those conventions, and I think my desire to make something “infinite and intimate”—I think what I mean is that I want something to have grand implications with high stakes and a high scope, while also simultaneously being something small and approachable. A story that wiggles its way into you and comes across as both something loud and quiet. I set out basically to make One Week in the Library different, and then my usual motivations when it comes to art made their way into the project, and I think that it uses the idea of the “infinite library” in a way that suggests a ton of possibilities through the stories themselves.
One Week in the Library Interior Art by John Amor
Paste: Many of the stories told throughout the library, including that of One Week in the Library itself, lack what readers would typically describe as a definitive beginning or end. Was this a deliberate choice, or an unconscious result of the writing process?
Prince: It might just be because I’m not very good at writing endings [Laughs]. I’m not great at tidy wrap-ups so, knowing that limitation in myself, I just try to work around it and create something interesting that might not be tidy and definitive. I think that in the project itself, the lack of straightforward endings for each story is, to a certain extent, intentional because it prepares you for the ultimate story, which is supposed to end the book. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a drop off at the end of this one that opens up the possibility to something much larger than the work itself.
Paste: With each story being so amorphous and different than the last, do you have a particular favorite chapter in the book? If so, why?
Prince: I really love Sunday, which features infographics and charts. Those were created by me and a colleague of mine named Ashley Walker. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen such straightforward charts or taxonomies or infographics in a comic book, though it’s possible that there have been, and I just haven’t read them. I think Tuesday came out beautifully. That chapter plays with color and this idea of travelling to magical places via these pores in reality by way of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Alice in Wonderland and The Matrix, and so I think the way that shaped up is a strong statement about not only what the book is trying to put forward, but about fiction in general.
Paste: Tell me a little more about the Librarian. As the character describes himself, he was “conceived in the recklessness of two large thesauruses driven wild by the heat of winter,” before acknowledging that this is one of countless origins the library has produced. As the author, who is the Librarian to you? How would you introduce him to a friend?
Prince: That’s a great question. He is, I’d say, a lonely man in a place that is much bigger than him. He’s supposed to be a little bit of a take on Burgess Meredith’s character Henry Bemis from The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last.” It’s this man who loves books, they’re his source of greatest joy and also frustration. He’s the steward of this place, which is a responsibility that he’s taken very seriously, and then also starts to realize is destroying and inhibiting him.
One Week in the Library Interior Art by John Amor
Paste: The third story, Saturday, is unique like all other chapters in the book, but particularly in this case for being the only one that experiments through the direct use of prose. What is it about Marigold’s story that inspired you to tell it in the format? Or was it a case of the embrace of the medium preceding the intent of the message?
Prince: Mostly, it was when I started to think of the beats of Marigold’s story, the way the story came to shape in my head was in full written sentences which, when you go about writing a comic, it’s different in that you don’t work them through on a full-sentence level. A lot of times you’re thinking about story beats, action and visual movement; the gamut of consideration is much different. My goal with that story was to write a take on the Goldilocks tale, but with antidepressants instead of soup and mattresses. The story itself came out slightly different than that because it ended up including her friend and a ghost and a suicide, but for the most part, I think I accomplished what I wanted to, but basically the story assembled itself in my conception at a sentence-by-sentence level.
Paste: Speaking of archetypal childhood fairytales, what inspired your take on the classic “Pinocchio” narrative with Freddy Flotsam in the second chapter? Was it at all inspired by the song Driftwood: A Fairy Tale by the band Cursive? Have you heard of them?
Prince: I have and I love that song! There’s definitely a bit of “Driftwood” from The Ugly Organ in there. When I think of that song, I feel as though there’s a great sadness to Pinocchio. So I liked the idea of a really bummed-out and uncertain Pinocchio-like character. The story also takes from this Campbellian hero’s mythology that we’re all steeped in, about the outsider character who comes in to save the day. So I wanted to do a story that looked at what happens when you’re not brave enough to save the day. I know that there are moments in my own life where I wanted to step up and do the right thing, and maybe I was a bit too craven or reserved or cowardly to do what I wanted to do. I think we all have those times where we realize we could have done something and we didn’t. So what I wanted to say through that story was, “What if you had the chance to save somebody and you just couldn’t?” And for some reason the sad Pinocchio character worked as a nice vessel for that exploration.
Paste: The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges appears to be a prolific influence across your body of work. You even go so far as to quote him through the Librarian’s dialogue in the fourth chapter. What is it about his work as a writer that you admire most? What are some of your favorite stories by him?
Prince: I think that his sense of vision and play and magic is unmatched by any modern writer, and probably any writer that came before. Borges is one of those writers where it’s completely fruitless and futile to try to imitate [his work] because you just can’t do it—he’s inimitable. Like most English majors, I read Borges first in college. I’m 31 now and I don’t think a year has gone by when I haven’t picked up either his full collection, his short story collection Labyrinths or his nonfiction and read through a couple stories. He’s probably been the one writer I’ve been most exposed to on my own volition over the last 12 years. I think he’s unmatched in the way that he’s able to play with both language and plot.
One Week in the Library Interior Art by John Amor
One Week in the Library definitely takes cues from “The Library of Babel,” as a starting point for how to tell a story in an infinite library. “Sunday,” the infographic chapter, takes its story about data points from that very story. He’s got another really beautiful one called “The Aleph” which deals with similar things but in a different way. He’s got this great story called “The Gospel of Mark” which is this weird proto-Stephen King horror story about the power of belief. It’s just this really creepy and amazing story. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is another one. I don’t need to sing his praises too much. His mark has been left on pretty much everybody.
Paste: Borges as a writer was known for the fastidious attention to detail found throughout his stories, and that quality certainly comes through in One Week in the Library. What is the significance, if any, behind each book of the library being exactly 320 pages, 21 lines per page, 23 words per line?
Prince: I wouldn’t say that there’s any sort of grander significance to it, but I like this idea that within what seems like a messy literary environment for this librarian, there’s also this overwhelming sense of order. He, of course, has stories floating around his head all the time, and he’s having dreams where the books are talking to him. Things are falling off the shelves, leaks are sprouting, and there’s this sense of chaos and crumbling. But at the same time, his stewardship is based around a greater order and control. In the Sunday chapter, there are these equations for the dimensions of each of the galleries in the library, and if you were to look at them they are all equal and they all come out to null, zero. So I think of it as this order inside of chaos, a control inside of something that is losing control bit by bit.
Paste: If the library is a space that contains every story that has ever been told or will ever be told, in every variation that has been or might ever be, what would your own life be called if it were contained in a book in the library?
Prince: Ooh, that’s tough. At this stage in my life, after a rough week politically and some fear about the rest of the world, uncertainties about my contributions to it, this is kind of cheesy I guess, but I think it would be A Man Who Tries. I try every day to be a good person, a good writer, an informed citizen, and I know that I don’t always succeed at that but I don’t think it can be said that I’m not attempting to do so. I know that’s sort of a gooey sentiment, but I’m trying.