5. More than one good thing.

Tuesday 5th May 2020

31min 49sec

 

Whilst it's been a novelty to see famous names recording in their own home recently, it is often those who have been quietly creating and sharing in this way for years that are producing the most interesting and quality work. Rachael Smith is a comic creator who as well as contributing to existing titles such as Doctor Who, has built up an impressive catalogue of her own books like Wired Up Wrong, and The Rabbit. She has often confronted her depression and anxiety through her work and continues to build a loyal fan base. Over the last few weeks she has been sharing #QuarantineComix online – her daily observations of Lockdown life. This seemed like the perfect excuse to catch up and chat about her work and what gardening has got to do with comic creation. 

*PLEASE NOTE this is an uncensored recording that contains one moment of explicit language.

You can read the full transcript below.

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NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Eyup, I'm Nathan Human. This is Humanish. 

Today's episode, my conversation is with...

RACHAEL

Hello, I'm Rachael Smith, I'm a comic creator. I've worked on things like Doctor Who, and a lot of my own books like The Rabbit, and Artificial Flowers. I guess I became quite well know for my mental health work - my autobio work - which includes the books Wired Up Wrong, and Stand in Your Power. I'm currently doing daily comics about the lockdown situation under the hashtag Quarantine Comix. Yeah, that's me right now!

Rachael Smith Illustration

Rachael Smith Illustration

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

During this lockdown, many of you might have taken up a new hobby, or found you have more time to spend on creative pursuits. If you aren't overwhelmed with trying to work from home, protect your physical and mental well-being, and also homeschooling children. In some cases, there might be drive to turn this hobby or creative pursuit into a new career, or a way to generate income. Two quick points here. First, back in episode one, Tonia Daley-Campbell talked about her love of dancing and we discussed how you can love something and do it just for the love of doing – it doesn't have to go anyway. Secondly, it can take time to develop that passion or talent beyond being a hobby. Not just to develop your skills to a higher level; but also to know how to market your work, how to get it seen. My guest today has been down that path but she didn't skip down it overnight.

 

RACHAEL

I don't think there was a big breakthrough moment, it's been very, very gradual.

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Although the first step can be very simple - how did Rachael become a writer and illustrator?

RACHAEL

You just start calling yourself it!  (laughs) Just start introducing as that if that's what you want to be, and you're doing it as a hobby, but you want to make it something more then...just...start saying it and then you'll start believing it! (laughs) That's what I did anyway.

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Back in 2013 Rachael was sharing art from One Good Thing – an auto bio project drawing and writing about one good thing from each day. What started off as an exercise to help with depression and mental health resonated with people. It wasn't just the subject matter, it was Rachael's innate warmth as a writer and her eye for detail and humour that made it all relatable and reassuring. Hopeful.

This was the start of that gradual development – self publishing One Good Thing widened the audience for Rachael and she also found that taking this route helped her to learn skills and be prepared for the next stage.

 

RACHAEL

Self publishing is great because it teaches you all the different steps. Like, not just drawing and writing, there's also marketing, and design, you know and all these things you don't really think about - opening a website so that you can sell these things online. Talking to comic shops to see if they want to sell your work. There's a lot of steps there and if you still want to be picked up by a publisher, they will be impressed that you've done all that, that you've done it yourself, that you're aware of all the work that needs to go into it and that you've lovingly put it together with your own two hands.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

I remember with something approaching cold dread the early days of running a business and having to sell yourself at every opportunity and the fear of trying to do the balancing act of sounding confident and professional without sounding arrogant and deluded. I hated it. Still do. You almost have to separate yourself from the work – sell the product, not you, which is what Rachael did, and again, it helped develop skills that would be useful later.

 

RACHAEL

It's useful to think like that when you're writing pitches as well for books if you want to pitch them to a publisher. You kind of have to write them as if you're not you, because you have to make them sound really amazing and that's difficult when you're saying "yep, I'm amazing and this is the most amazing story and you should publish it. So it is a useful way to think when you remove yourself a tiny bit from that.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

There are still a lot of different elements to selling your work. How did Rachael find dealing with the promotional and distribution aspect? It turns out some transferable skills and a certain personality trait are super useful.

 

RACHAEL

I think I had a little bit of a leg up because before I got into comics, I worked a little bit in PR, so I was very used to being on the phone and talking to people I didn't know and just asking them to do shit for me. So I'm quite - I wouldn't say confident - I'm just...no, I guess I am quite confident. I'm also quite cheeky so I wont think twice about just asking someone for something like "hey, can I send you some books and you can send me some money, is that cool? Ok, cool, let's do that."

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Every day I must see at least one “how to” guide for writing. I think these are so popular as anyone that struggles with a creative process has cause to imagine there is a secret. One little secret that will unlock it all. Just do “this” and creative problems will be over. Sometimes people extol the virtues of having a writing schedule, other times it's about how you map out the structure. And why we see more and more of these is that there is more than way to cook a potato. One of the more fascinating aspects for me is the difference in how do people start – which part of the alchemy do they begin with? A concept? An incident? With Rachael and her comics, I was especially interested in whether the visual side came first, or the written word.

 

RACHAEL

It's usually characters first. Like I'll draw a character and then I'll know that I've hit on something good when I want to know more about that character and I start asking myself questions about the character like who are they, what do they want, where do they live? Do they have friends, are they lonely, what do they need in their life. And then I tend to build things from there.

 

NATHAN

Is that almost like you're sitting and doodling and a character emerges? Is that what happens first - the visual of that character?

 

RACHAEL

I suppose doodling would be a good word for it. For me, it just feels like I'm having a conversation with this person - that sounds really silly. It kind of feels very organic, like I'm just sitting down with this character I've made up and I'm like, ok, so who are you? (laughs) And I'll just draw them doing their favourite things and stuff like that.

 

NATHAN

I can imagine it's something you've always done, and I've got this cliché of illustrators were always the kid in class who was always daydreaming and doodling and drawing. Is that kind of right with you?

 

RACHAEL

That is exactly right, yeah. I got in trouble at school all the time for drawing in my exercise books. I've just drawn ever since I could hold a pencil. Like on long haul flights,  my mum and dad just had to steal a ream of paper from their office, and a give me biro and that was me, I was good. (Laughs) I was a pretty easy child in some ways. I guess that's what I mean by organic, it feels very natural to work that way and to just keep drawing until something makes sense.

NATHAN

Have you had chance to go back to some of those teachers and say, you know you told me off for drawing? Well look at this.

 

RACHAEL

(Laughs) I mean, I could kind of understand their point of view. I guess it's good that nothing put me off from drawing.

MUSIC

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

One of the parts of stories I love the most is making connections and looking for clues. There's such a thrill when you feel like you solved something or understand something more because you were aware of a trail the writer left. Sometimes, when you've read multiple works by one writer you might see – or think you see – themes or ideas carried over. Before speaking to Rachael I read The Rabbit. 14 yr old Eleanor has left home with her younger sister Kathy and as they camp their way through the countryside they pick a companion. An injured rabbit. Shortly afterwards, Kathy is musing about how the world can seem too much. “Do you ever worry about how much stuff is going on right this second? Like, even though we're not at school anymore, things are still happening at school. But it's like that everywhere, it's like that with everywhere we've ever been, it's like that with everywhere we've not been. It just makes me feel small. Like I don't matter.”

 

That little bit of dialogue seemed to reflect so much of Rachael's characters – a battle of between this external world pushing in and the internal world fighting back. I wondered if this was something Rachael was conscious of, and whether you felt she was solving this problem for her characters:

 

RACHAEL

I mean I don't work like that intentionally, I don't sit down and think like that. If you see it as a through line in my work then it must be there. I guess my more auto-bio work work about mental health, I find that very cathartic when I'm working on that, maybe that is a little external internal. There is the age old story structure rule in that what a character wants and what a character needs are often not the same thing so that's usually a nice dynamic to play with when you're writing something. I don't really feel like a problem solver, more like a gardener. When I'm writing the stories I'm tending to things around them and making sure everything's ticking over. Or not, if it needs to go horribly wrong I'll make things go horribly wrong.

NATHAN

Be a destructive gardener - right, we're ripping that out.

RACHAEL

(Laughs) Yeah!

 

NATHAN

I just want to go back to what you said about the catharsis of writing - do you feel that as you're writing, of does that feeling only come when it's finished?

 

RACHAEL

I would say it's more of a relief when it's done and I've worked all the pieces out. This is fiction writing I'm talking about, it's a different process when I'm writing my auto-bio stuff. Obviously, I still have to put it in a narrative way, so it's more satisfying to read if I put it in a certain order and make it symmetrical and stuff, but when I'm writing fiction there's a lot of plates to keep spinning, there's a lot of pieces of jigsaws that won't fit together. There's usually a moment where everything just seems like a pile of rubbish and I'm thinking why did I start this? Everything's terrible and all my characters are two dimensional. And then it very slowly gets better, and then when I've finished the first draft it becomes a lot more fun.

NATHAN

When it feels like there's something actually real there?

RACHAEL

Yeah, definitely. I can't remember who said it but someone said that writing is like building a ship from the inside and you don't know what it looks like on the outside and that's when an editor comes in really handy because an editor is stood on the outside and can tell you that the mast is wonky, or you're spending way too long on the textures of the wood - you need to get everything in place first, you need to get the big stuff.

NATHAN

Make it sea worthy.

RACHAEL

Yes, yes, this definitely isn't going to float yet Rachael, do a re-write.

NATHAN

Do they feel different to work on - your fiction to your autobio ones, because often people talk about how vulnerable it makes them feel to work creatively about themselves and expose that. Do you feel that as you're working or is still just the same thing, you're just creating something and you want to communicate a story?

RACHAEL

When I'm working on anything I have to think like this but especially when I'm working on my autobio stuff, I literally have a post-it on my drawing table that says 'nobody is going to read this.' That males me really honest about it. Which I owe my readers anyway, to be honest about who I am, and my struggles, because that's the only way I can get people to relate if they're feeling the same. I have to pretend that I'm not doing this for any reason, when I'm in it, and writing it, and having to go into the well of my own neuroses and depression and coming up with hopefully relatable little nuggets.

NATHAN

I suppose that's a good way of doing it to start with, like you said, you're doing the first draft and it's not for anyone else, you just need to get it out, and then you can think about how you shape it for a reader. That makes sense.

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Maybe you've felt like there's so much pressure to do stuff right now, when all you seem to want to do - or are able to do - is sit on the sofa in your pants. You are not alone. Also, there is still a lot you can do whilst sitting on your sofa. Pants are optional I guess. Check out the latest blog on thehumanish.co.uk for some suggestions.

Over the last few weeks, comic creator Rachael Smith has been reflecting on moments from her lockdown experience and presenting them every day in comic form under the hashtag Quarantine Comix – comics with an x. Sometimes there is in one panel, other times in 4 or 5. Some days they make me laugh, sometimes, chuckle, on other days they can take me by surprise with the raw emotion. Just a few words and a couple of images can offer up more honest feelings than the longest blog post or article. You can find these by following Rachael social media – you can find the different links on her website rachaelsmith.org

They're brilliant. Which will come as no surprise to her fans...

NATHAN

As soon as you started this, it seems like such a natural project. If I had to pick someone, if someone had said during quarantine person you know is going to do something, you would have been right at the top of that list. You are really skilled at these diary type work, From One Good Thing, which I think was the first of your work I saw - along with drawings of Flimsy Kitten - and you have an eye for the smallest detail of the day that then expresses a bigger idea. I love it because it always feels like it's effortless and obvious and you see it and think "yeah, of course." Is it as effortless to produce?

RACHAEL

Sometimes it feels like that, like it's just flowing out of me. I write a lot of these comics. I write A LOT. Probably about a third of them get through and a lot of them are just quite boring. But about a third of them, I'm like, yeah, there's something there. There's something quite funny, or there's something quite bittersweet, or something quite heartfelt. It's those special ones that I'm looking for.  The hardest thing is finding different things to talk about really because my days are all the same these days - but that's a joke in itself.

NATHAN

Does that help at all, knowing you could do with doing something different because it will give you something to write about? Does it help? If you weren't doing these Quarantine Comix would you just be sitting the going urrghh, what can I watch and eat?

RACHAEL

Yeah, maybe it keeps me active. I'm not sure. I don't think my friends would let me just sit and rot in my own filth, I think they'd make sure that I go for walks and stuff. I think I've said "yes" to more things recently.

NATHAN

Do you have a sense that this is documenting something to look back on as you're making them? Like, this is really odd and what will look like in a few years?

RACHAEL

I think it's certainly the most historically significant thing that's going to happen in our lifetimes.

NATHAN

We hope!

RACHAEL

We hope, yeah, so any kind of documentation is going to be valuable, even if it's one as personal and small as mine. I am going to put them all in a book when this is over. Touch wood that it's over one day.

(Both laugh nervously)

RACHAEL

It ends up as this thousand page book.

NATHAN

In 5 years we have this conversation and you're still going - right, onto volume 6 now.

(more nervous laughing.)

NATHAN

Another element I'm really intrigued about in your work - it's especially in your autobio work - is the almost angel and devil like qualities you have with Barky - the black dog - and now Friendly dog. Bur also the role that Rufus plays? Again this might be totally wrong but I've now started seeing Rufus as your hero sidekick. Do you work on Rufus - I know this going to be really silly, do you work on your talking cat? - but is there an element of you scripting Rufus, or, is this cat actually like that, is he your sidekick in real life?

RACHAEL

Erm...I mean, I hate to break it to you Nathan, but he doesn't actually talk.

NATHAN

Oh.

RACHAEL

I don't own a talking cat. As much as I badly want that to be true.

NATHAN

That's that dream ruined.

RACHAEL

Yeah. I think a lot of people feel this way in this whole situation, I think having a pet is just really valuable. It gives me a reason to get up, because I have to feed my cat - Rufus is my cat - sorry to any listeners that aren't familiar. He has been a real comfort to me. He comes and sits on me if I'm in bed and I'm crying, he'll come and check on me and that's really sweet. And he is my best friend - as sad as that sounds - he's been with me for 8 years now. I'm very lucky to have Rufus. He comes across as a real source of comfort in my comics as well, I hope.

To talk about Barky and Friendly - so Barky is this black dog who represents my bad thoughts and my depressions and anxiety and all the bad ideas I get and represents this voice in my head that tells me I'm not good enough and that I should do silly things. More recently, I came up with Friendly, who made her debut in my book Stand in Your Power, and she represents the opposite of that, so my common sense and the fact that I do want to stay here and keep on living, and that I have amazing friends and she reminds me of that stuff. I think the angel and devil are more Barky and Friendly, and Rufus is more of a side kick like you say, he is definitely on the side of the good.

NATHAN

If we were to make the movie version of this - he clearly is the snarky best friend that sometimes says things that laugh at you, but then offers advice and comfort...who would you cast as Rufus? Have you ever seen an actor and thought "that's who would play Rufus?"

RACHAEL

See I'm not very good with pop culture stuff. Who is the guy that plays Wallace Wells in Scott Pilgrim vs the World? I think he'd be a good Rufus.

NATHAN

I don't know, but I'm going to have to get a sound clip now to remind myself.

SOUND CLIP OF WALLACE WELLS SCENE IN SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD.

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Obviously, I had to look this up – Kieran Culkin plays Wallace Wells in the move Scott Pilgrim vs World, and who I am to argue with Rachael about who her cat would sound like.

This did lead me to wonder if Rachael had considered her comics as animations.

RACHAEL

I mean I would love to write for animation. If I was asked to pitch for animation I think I would come up with something new, I don't think I'd pitch a cartoon about me - I think that might be a bit much, a bit too much Rachael there. But I'd love to come up with a kid's TV show or something, that would be cool.

NATHAN

I don't know, I think some of you autobio feels very Netflix...there going to need more content, people are going to be spending more time at home, this is your chance. So we'll get Netflix on the phone -

RACHAEL

Hello? Netlix?

NATHAN

I think you can just at them on twitter now, they're that needy for content I think you can just send them a tweet saying here's my comic, can I have a deal please.

I know you said you can't talk about what you're working on next, the ones you're doing for other people. But you mentioned your character Siobahn - would that be your next personal project or are there any other creative ideas bubbling?

RACHAEL

I'm working on Isabella and Blodwen, which is my book that is funding on Unbound.com at the moment. That's about a young girl and a malevolent witch and their kind of strange relationship -

NATHAN

Now that's Netflix! They've got all this stuff on there! Locke and Key, The October Faction, they've had Sabrina...this...right, we need to sort this out Rachael. I'm telling ya.

RACHAEL

Well, ok, I should probably finish the book first.

NATHAN

Well, yeah, get on the phone to your agent, and go look, get me a deal with Netflix - let's get this sorted. In the next three years, its going to be on. I'm telling you. There's my prediction.

RACHAEL

(Sound very doubtful.)

Ok. Brilliant. That's great.

NATHAN

I know this is a tricky one because if you say you dream or do have aspirations, people sometimes think who do you think you are? But do you have any ambitions for your work? Or is it that you think, I really love what I'm doing and I'm just content.

RACHAEL

I mean, like I said, I would love to write for animation if that was an opportunity that came up. But my heart is with comics, I think, unfortunately, because they don't pay as well but that's where I want to be. Because I love writing and I love drawing and and comics is just a perfect marriage of those two things. I love working with other people in t his industry. I love going to conventions and meeting my readers. There's not many aspects of my job right now that I don't like.

NATHAN

I know we get this in other genres, but comic fans do seem really loyal. I've seen people that have talked about your comics a few years ago and they're still there now whenever you put something new up. That must be really satisfying that they've not just read one thing, these people have stayed reading your work for years now.

RACHAEL

Yeah, my fans and readers are the best people in the world. I love them so much. I wouldn't be where I am today without people reading my stuff, and liking it and telling other people about it. It's really humbling that so many people have been with my career since the beginning so yeah, my fans are the best. They're very attractive as well!

 

NATHAN

That's the perfect spot t end that section. Right. Are you up for ten really sill questions? Did you ever see a progarmme called Inside the Actors Studio? Or heard of it?

RACHAEL

I've heard of it.

NATHAN

So the host James Lipton, he used to do these ten quick fire questions at the end based on ones by a French journalist, so I've stolen that idea and just come up with even sillier questions.

RACHAEL

You've stolen the stolen thing?

NATHAN

Yeah. Shamelessly. I'm quite open to admitting it.

RACHAEL

Well I hope they're not too silly Nathan because I don't know if you've read any of my work but I'm a very serious person...certainly not fanciful at all...(laughs).

NATHAN

Yes, as a serious artiste you might find this quite belittling so I apologise...

RACHAEL

I mean, I've got my beret on...

NATHAN

Ok, these questions were made last summer when they made a bit more sense. First one, what was the last live event or exhibition that you went to?

RACHAEL

Woah. You're making me think about the before times?

NATHAN

Yeah, BC.

RACHAEL

It would have been London Comic-Con, in early February I think.

NATHAN

That seems like such a long time ago.

RACHAEL

I know. A convention, full of people. Full of people touching, and coughing, it was great.

NATHAN

That would defintely be in the scene of the coronavirus movie, people in costumes spreading their germs.

RACHAEL

Conventions are like, you know, you should already have hand sanitiser.

NATHAN

What was the last book that you recommended to someone?

RACHAEL

Oh, I leant my friend Circe.

NATHAN

I loved that book!

RACHAEL

Oh cool, it's so good.   I devoured that book in a couple of sittings.

NATHAN

It's a good one to devour because it's such a different world you can say ok, I'm invested in this world let me finish it all.

RACHAEL

Also, kind of topical because it's this woman stuck on an island for a long time by herself.

NATHAN

And getting magic powers, sort of.

RACHAEL

I've not got to that bit with my quarantine yet.

NATHAN

I've been told we get that in another two weeks - that's when we get the magic powers.

RACHAEL

In another two weeks we get the magic powers? Well that's something to look forward to.

NATHAN

Yep, when we run out of toilet roll we've got the magic powers. This should be a simpler one, you're DJ-ing a party, what's the track you play to kick the night off?

RACHAEL

Err...Common People.

NATHAN

Solid choice. Now this one is also silly in this current context. If you're at home and feeling a bit poorly, what TV show or film do you turn to most often?

RACHAEL

Parks and Recreation. It's like going home watching that series, I love it so much.

NATHAN

You win a holiday to go anyway for a weekend, where would be your choice?

RACHAEL

I'd love to visit Japan, specifially Tokyo. I was learning a little bit of Japanese. It looks so different from my life that it would be nice to have a bit of a culture shock and open my mind a little bit.

NATHAN

Ok, these next ones are a bit different. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being not happy or confident, and 10 being totally happy and
confident, how do you feel about these situations: putting together flat pack furniture.

 

RACHAEL

Ten! I'm brilliant at that. Especially from IKEA, the instructions are in comic form!

 

NATHAN

It's like they're made for you!

 

RACHAEL

Yeah, with me in mind.

 

NATHAN

Next one. Admitting you are wrong.

 

RACHAEL

Oooh. Probaly a six?

NATHAN

The next one is very relevant: spending a few days alone.

RACHAEL

Oh ten, yeah.

NATHAN

Next one, cooking something new from a recipe.

RACHAEL

Ten. As long as I have a recipe. I am very very good at following a recipe, I am very very bad at making stuff up. I have no imagination when it comes to cooking. I have to have instructions and preferably supervision.

NATHAN

And pictures?

RACHAEL

Oh yeah, pictures are great.

 

NATHAN

Ok, last one. Confronting a friend when you think they’ve done something disagreeable.

RACHAEL

Eww. Eurgh. Five.

NATHAN

You didn't like that question did you?!

RACHAEL

Nooo, I didn't like that question!

NATHAN

That's it, you are all done. Thank you so much for answering those, you've been a star.

RACHAEL

Thanks for having me!

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

A huge thank you to Rachael for joining and a reminder you can find all of Rachael's books and comic at Rachaelsmith.org where you can also find links to her instagram and twitter and facebook where you will be able to follow along with Quarantine Comix – which you can search for by using the hashtag quarantine comix.

 

Talking of social media, you can follow this podcast on all of those platforms as Humanishy, just Humanish, with a y on the end. You can also find more info, the blog, and past episodes at thehumanish.co.uk. Thank you to those spectacular people who have been sharing the podcast and who have left a review at iTunes – that is super lovely and much appreciated.

 

Coming up on the next episode is...well, it's a special one off. All I'm going to say is it includes looking into the past and the possible end of the universe.

 

That's next time on Humanish. I've been Nathan Human, thanks for listening, catch you next time.

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