Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Opening Up About Suicide: Pop Sandbox launches The Next Day at the NFB Mediatheque

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The Next Day

By Stacey Madden

It was raining and my umbrella was broken. I’d had an argument with my partner the night before and I was feeling grey inside and very alone. I was trudging my way to the National Film Board of Canada Mediatheque, trying to avoid being splashed with gutter water by passing cars, to attend the launch of Pop Sandbox’s new graphic novella, The Next Day.

Headed by the entrepreneurial and multifariously creative Alex Jansen, Pop Sandbox is the creative team that gave us the 2010 hit Kenk: A Graphic Portrait, a journalistic account of notorious Toronto bike thief Igor Kenk. With The Next Day, Jansen and his collaborators — writers Jason Gilmore and Paul Peterson, and illustrator John Porcellino — have taken on a different kind of project. Something just as controversial but more emotionally intense, and perhaps in greater need of awareness: suicide.

In short, The Next Day is a graphic novella that documents the real-life stories of four suicide survivors. It uses the metaphor of a storm gathering over a lonely house to unite the four accounts, and it is written in spare, deceptively simple language through which the silences speak just as powerfully as the text. This technique is paired perfectly with the spare, black and white, almost stick-figure illustrative style that is John Porcellino’s trademark, resulting in a potent and extremely moving book.

But hang on — The Next Day is not just a book. It is also an interactive animated online documentary, co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada. This multimedia approach is appropriate in terms of spreading awareness, given the most at-risk demographic for suicide — 18 to 24 year-olds — has a massive online presence. The interactive experience will launch in late May.

I walked into the Mediatheque lobby just after 7:00 p.m., my clothes damp, my glasses speckled with raindrops and watched the video trailer for The Next Day.

The eerie silences in the trailer echoed the collective silence that enveloped the small gathering of early-arrivals in the lobby. A few minutes later we went upstairs to the theatre for a panel discussion on the project, its inception and hopes for what The Next Day is capable of achieving with readers.

Over ten years ago, co-writer Paul Peterson, a social worker, saw a truck stopped in the middle of a field. The driver was an intoxicated man with a wife dying of cancer and a young child at home. The man was arrested and quickly released, only to go home and ingest a fatal overdose of his wife’s medication, essentially orphaning his child, since his wife died shortly thereafter. The story haunted Peterson deeply, and he couldn’t help but think, “What if he’d waited until he sobered up? What if he’d waited just one more day?”

The Next Day is an exploration of that question based on interviews with people who have endured near-fatal suicide attempts themselves — people who lived to see the next day. Peterson addressed the tricky nature interviewing the survivors about such traumatic events.

One of the biggest concerns was, would talking about the near-suicides bring back any anxiety? The rule we came up with was that the participants had to be at least two years removed from their experience. We developed a list of 20 questions — the same 20 questions for each participant. As you might expect, each interview naturally took on a life of its own, developing into its own unique story. Afterwards we asked them if speaking candidly about their experiences created any dangerous anxiety, the response was a unanimous and resounding no.

Co-writer Jason Gilmore talked about the decision to produce both a graphic novella and an interactive web documentary and the differences between the two.

Essentially I regard them as two branches that grew from the same tree. They complement each other, and they both stand alone. As for why we decided to make an animated documentary with audio voice-over instead of just filming the interviews, we felt that the power of the stories lies in the conversation, not in the filming. When you do an audio recording with someone, the microphone is forgotten very quickly. With filming, the camera is never forgotten. The power of the stories comes from the projection of the reader or viewer as they react emotionally to what they’re reading and seeing.

As for illustrator John Porcellino, known for his King-Cat minicomics series, he said he felt drawn to working with the Pop Sandbox team on The Next Day because of the subject matter.

It was a project I thought I could bring something extra to, given my personal experiences with anxiety and depression. I’d also never been involved in a collaborative project like this before. I usually work alone, and like most artists I’m a bit of a control freak. I will admit that at the end of working on this book I got a little misty-eyed. I thought, look at these people and what they’ve been through....

At the end of the discussion, Alex Jansen introduced three of the four survivors who were present in the audience. Just seeing them there, alive, was a truly inspiring thing to witness.

As a rule, Open Book doesn’t post reviews or recommendations, but I am going to break that rule. If you are someone who is prone to moodiness, if you sometimes feel like life has kicked your ass so hard there’s no possible way you could ever recuperate, if you’ve ever felt so profoundly alone that, even for a moment, you questioned your own tangible existence — in other words, if you’re a human being — I urge you to buy a copy of The Next Day. It is a sublimely beautiful, haunting and viscerally moving book.

Each week in May, Open Book will post an interview with a member of the creative team behind The Next Day. Click here to read the interview with Pop Sandbox Producer and Publisher, Alex Jansen.

Stacey Madden lives and writes in Toronto. He works at Book City, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. His first novel, Poison Shy, will be published by ECW Press in Fall 2012.

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