Don’t call Ron Tanner’s new illustrated novel dystopian. It’s not. Though Kiss Me, Stranger centers on a nameless city run by a megalomaniacal president in the midst of a civil war, the enduring message is a rumination on hope and family. You’re not supposed to enjoy dystopia as much as Kiss Me, Stranger makes you.
Tanner, who serves as a professor of writing at Loyola University (note: This writer took a class he taught), builds to this point in the story’s short, 168-page run. (The book totals 184 pages, with extra illustrations and such.) Written during a troubling divorce, the book is an obvious metaphor but doesn’t descend into cliché, thanks to a great deal of brilliantly subtle humor. It’s evident in the opening sentence: “Unbeknownst to the children, I added wood shavings to their turnip stew last night: pine to be exact, which I grated meticulously as if it were hard cheese.” Tanner’s wit is also evident in a series of more than 50 illustrations, which he did himself.
Stranger’s pictures are no mere scribbling in the margins; it’s more apt to say that the book is animated rather than illustrated. Tanner’s drawings provide a unique insight into the way that the narrator, Penelope, and her 14 children see their warring world—which, in turn, helps you fully understand their development. The drawings also provide a humorous reprieve from the characters’ bleak circumstances, switching the atmosphere between despondently dark and playfully light.
This humor is very honest about the dynamic of a family with nothing but each other. Forced out of their run-down rowhouse by a vengeful metal collector, the family must bind together in the city’s landfill while they wait out the war’s end, often dining on paste and government-issued cheese simply to fill their stomachs. Without humor, they wouldn’t survive.
With Kiss Me, Stranger Tanner uses the writing and illustration to make his very real and palpable cast of characters come alive: You develop a genuine concern for their fates. Many dystopian novels fall apart by harping too hard on parables without allowing the humanity of the characters to surface. Despite the fact that Kiss Me, Stranger is, as Tanner admits, an anti-war novel, that agenda never obscures the plot. In fact, they work concurrently—two cogs in a perfect machine. How exactly was this machine built? City Paper sat down with Tanner to find out.
City Paper : So this is your first novel, correct?
Ron Tanner: Yes it is [laughing] my first published novel. I’ve got some other ones I’m sitting on but, yeah, this is my first published novel.
CP : Why did you decide to do Kiss Me, Stranger as an illustrated novel?
RT: When I wrote it I had no idea that it would have illustrations, but at that time also I had no idea that anyone would want the illustrations. So I put the book away for a long time, and I pulled stories from it, and I probably pulled stories from it in other places and some of the stories appear in my first collection. Since then, what I did was I went back to the book and said “Well, I really like this, let’s see if I can make it happen.” That was probably two years ago.
I had started making illustrations for another book I wrote—which is the next book that’s coming out—and I just started doing more artwork, and I thought This would be a really cool book to have illustrations in it, particularly because it’s about a mother of 14 children, and I figured I can give these illustrations to the kids. I think there’s still a pretty big prejudice against illustrating novels and memoirs and things because it smacks of dumbing down. It smacks of kiddy lit. . . . I thought [Kiss Me, Stranger] had to have illustrations, and the book just wouldn’t be what it is without illustrations, wouldn’t have the same impact, and so I was really happy to put ’em in there.
CP : So how did you actually do the illustrations? And did you do them all yourself?
RT: I did them all myself. I did them in [Adobe] Photoshop because it’s much faster because you get more tools. I’m way, way too slow by hand on paper. In Photoshop, if you make a mistake you can erase it right away and you don’t muck up the paper.
In fact, in Photoshop, you can do, like, five different layers of one image and you can alter each one just slightly and you can keep ’em all—you can’t do that with just pen and paper. So I did them all in Photoshop, and I did many more than I’m using. Some just didn’t work.
CP : You began writing this book 10 years ago. Can you tell me about the circumstances you were going through at the time that were the impetus for writing and the inspiration for the characters?
RT: Yeah, I was actually going through a divorce when I wrote the first draft of it, and I was living in a seedy sublet efficiency apartment one very hot summer, and my wife at the time decided she didn’t want to be married. My world seemed to be collapsing so this story—this other world that I [was] writing about—gave me a haven, someplace to hang out. At bottom, this story is about just trying to hold things together, and the story is also about how a family who is besieged by difficulty can prevail. So I had a lot of fun with that, which is to say, the book is openly hopeful, even though readers comment that it’s a “dystopic” [sic] view—there’s some “end of the world” feeling about the book. The book really is just about a civil war and surviving a civil war as I was trying to survive a divorce, so it was really important to me that the characters in the book—that is, the characters I cared about—act humanely, that they cared about doing the right thing. Maybe the rest of the world didn’t but [the family] did. . . . That’s the way I want to live my life, that’s the way I wanted my wife at the time to act—but she didn’t—and, so, in writing the story I tried to preserve something of how I think the world should be and how I think a family should act.
CP : In the narration you take the perspective of the female character, Penelope, and you turn your circumstance on its head and look at it from the other point of view with Penelope, who is alone with the children while her husband is out fighting in the revolution. Was that hard for you to take that narration up? Or was it a way for you to cope with it, to understand it, or were you just being playful?
RT: Well, it was really important taking on Penelope’s point of view, because the mother in this book is the most vulnerable—she’s got 14 kids she has to look after. She’s the one I care most about, she’s the one I want to follow, she’s the one dealing with all this, so I just related to her in a way and let her tell the story so that we could feel what it’s like to be that vulnerable, feel what it’s like to try and survive that kind of hardship. In some ways, I lent my hardship to her and tried to see what some of her hardship was like and play that out. I did have some fun with it. And there are some limits to what you can do if you’re trying to talk from another gender.
CP : I assume you don’t have 14 kids as well.
RT: I don’t. And I’m not a woman. So I had to be careful about what I presume to know, what I can speak of with authority. The main thing I speak of with authority when it comes to Penelope is what it is to be human and what it is to care about other people. I don’t get into the obviously complicated details of being a woman, and other respects.
CP : So, you say the novel isn’t dystopian, what would say about it that separates it from the classic dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World? And what is the ultimate, enduring message of Kiss Me, Stranger?
RT: Dystopian novels typically are bleak, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Typically what we’d expect of a dystopian novel is that this is the way the world will be and it’s not pretty and it’s gonna end badly. Kiss Me, Stranger is not exactly about the future—it could be—and it’s not about the whole world, just this little part of the world. And it’s about a civil war. Civil wars come and go—like bad weather. So, in this book, they’re living through the bad weather of this civil war and, eventually, it’s gonna die down and there’ll be some period of peace and they’ll make something of that and then there’ll probably be another civil war. This is the world we live in.
Divorce is a civil war. It absolutely is, because a civil war is often precipitated by sometimes absurd differences, sometimes things that don’t make any sense. It begs the question, “What are you thinking? Why would you do this?” In the end there is some hope there; [the family] is alive, they are surviving even though things are going to hell. People can be really bad. Let’s say that.