“Why not just kindness?”: An Interview with Joey Comeau

by David Nilsen

David Nilsen is a writer living in western Ohio. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and his writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Millions, Rain Taxi, The Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, Bright Wall Dark Room, and numerous other publications. When he isn’t doing literary writing, he works as a beer and food journalist and educator, and is a Certified Cicerone.

Joey Comeau is the author of four novels and the web comic A Softer World. His work has been nominated for the ReLit and Shirley Jackson awards, has appeared in Best American Non-Required Reading and The Guardian, and he has been profiled in Rolling Stone. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I first became acquainted with Joey through the beloved A Softer World, which he created with photographer Emily Horne. The pair published the comic for 12 years, from 2003 to 2015. In those dozen years, their comics—constructions of simple photography and few words—played with themes of tragedy, transgression, mental health, friendship, vice, and impish humor, and made a lot of us feel less alone. When I read Joey’s fiction, including the horror novel The Summer Is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved and the short story collection It’s Too Late to Say I’m Sorry, I recognized a heart as woundable as mine, and a mind as curious. Comeau’s writing balances mischief with melancholy, and can often give the reader twinges of regret and sparks of joy on the same page.

Comeau’s newest novel—Malagash—is written from the perspective of a teen girl whose father is dying of cancer. She decides to write a computer virus filled with the words her father speaks in his final weeks, a virus that will do no harm, but merely keep him alive on the hard drives of millions of computers around the world, like a digital ghost. The novel is simultaneously hopeful and heartbreaking—as is all of Comeau’s work—though the very personal writing carries a greater gravity than his previous novels.

I recently conversed with Joey about Malagash, the evolution of his writing, and the importance of kindness. This written exchange was edited for clarity and flow.

David Nilsen: Where did the idea for Malagash originate? It feels like a very personal book.

Joey Comeau: I spent a lot of summers in the town of Malagash, Nova Scotia as a child, so it is always there in my head. The red roads, the warm shallow tides. I grew up reading hacking magazines, virus writer e-zines, idolizing those weird outsider figures. But if there was one idea behind Malagash, it was to write a book that wasn’t just cleverness and deflection surrounding and undercutting every moment that might be genuine. It was important to me that I make a change. I wanted to write something straightforward. Malagash came from two years of sitting alone in a room and thinking about nothing but these characters, specific words to use, and which details would have the best impact where.

DN: I’m glad you brought up the change in focus in this book. While Malagash still displays your recognizable style, there’s a definite tonal shift from your previous work. But while there’s certainly less mischief and hilarity—though there is still humor—I never felt like your previous books were insincere or “just cleverness and deflection surrounding and undercutting every moment that might be genuine.” The intimacy between Martin and his mother in The Summer Is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved is quite poignant, for example. Was that criticism a conscious impression you held of those earlier works?

JC: There are genuine moments in my earlier books, and I’m not saying that they were insincere. But they were more like grace notes inside a structure focused elsewhere. On plot or jokes or adventure. It is difficult, as a writer, to avoid constantly looking at your old work in search of ways you could have done something better. And it’s possible that Malagash doesn’t turn out to be a better way to express these moments at all, but I had to try. There are still jokes in Malagash, but they aren’t the point of it in the way that they’ve been in the past.

DN: Curiously, the book begins with the opposite impression. It appears to open with a nearly maudlin level of sincerity and gravity, and yet within a page or two that opening is revealed to be an inside comedic language between your main character, Sunday, and her dying father. Can you tell me a little about that scene, and the choice to use sardonic humor in this book, which aims for sincerity of feeling?

JC: Her father’s constant teasing is part of their relationship, part of what makes it real, and a big part of what Sunday will lose. I find it hard to talk about the choices in writing a book. I want the book itself to be the answer to those questions. Or the feeling you get when you finish reading the scene, and Sunday repeats her own father’s words, but in a slightly different way, “Fresh white snow will blanket this whole stupid town.” I want that feeling to be the answer to any questions about an author’s choices.

DN: Given what a personal place art and writing come from, what did it mean for you during the actual writing process to make that change of focus toward more direct sincerity?

JC: This will sound strange, but the construction of an effective horror scene or sad scene or funny scene all work on the same processes, in practical terms. With a joke, there is the setup and the unexpected. There’s the careful selection of what not to say.

With a joke, there is the setup and the unexpected. There’s the careful selection of what not to say.

DN: Your work has always felt like it comes directly from the way your mind works in its natural state, from how you think and process and feel—whether that’s humor and mischief, or melancholy and loneliness, or adventure and friendship, or whatever. What did it mean for you to focus on a specific emotional theme throughout Malagash, rather than bouncing around to all these different personality touchstones, as in previous work?

JC: Did it bring me down, thinking all day every day about grief and how to process loss? I was already a bit down, to be honest. And when those moments come, where the characters break out into an unexpected joke, it helps me to judge whether that relief is actually needed there or if it is just undercutting the genuine expression of frustration or sadness. This book taught me it was okay to have a character just say, “I don’t want my father to die” and not need some sarcasm to lessen that hopelessness. Or, as the main character says at one point, “My father is sad about an old friend he just lost. That is something worth being sad about. So I’m quiet.”

DN: Let’s talk about the different creative mediums you’ve employed over the years. You’ve written stories ranging from flash fiction to novels, you’ve written graphic novels, and of course you wrote the web comic A Softer World for many years. How do these different mediums allow you to express yourself differently? Have you felt your creative impulses shift over the course of your career?

JC: I enjoy the practical constraints of short and limited forms. The few short words I had to work with in the comic were constrained further by Emily’s vision for what the visuals should be that week. The appeal was, probably, like that of writing haiku. Saying something important to you, but having to say it using fewer letters, or with a whole new alphabet that you only understand a bit of. I like learning new systems. Programming languages for computers. How to lay out electronic circuits. Learning those things for fun is not so different from learning the script format for a comic book. Or the writing process behind a TV episode, the production cost constraints, the new elements to be aware of, and the new tools to work with.

DN: Building on that, I’ve mentioned the balance in your work between mischief and melancholy. Do you find different mediums encourage a shift one way or the other in that balance?

JC: I think mischief and jokes are probably the easy choice in a very short format. They are the crowd pleasers. Their constructs are the most familiar and can be shorthanded. But I enjoy the subversion of those expectations too. I don’t know! To be honest, a lot of the work I’ve been doing lately has been with other people’s worlds, and it is their say. I just make it funny wherever they point. Writing a novel—if you’d even call what I write “novels,” and I assure you that word-counters do not—you have the space to fit in everything that you want to express. You can find a way for the mischief to be fun, but still ultimately understandable as a character acting out because they don’t understand how someone they love will soon just not exist.

DN: You mentioned that a lot of your recent work has been with the worlds that other people have created. Can you tell me about that work and what you’ve been up to?

JC: I wrote a one-off comic for kids, Ninja-rella. Then, I wrote the first 12 issues of the Bravest Warriors comic book, which was based on a YouTube series by Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time. Then, in the past year, the YouTube show got picked up to a full series, so I’ve been writing and co-writing a bunch of episodes.

I’ve never written for TV before. It’s been exciting. On a practical level, there are structural differences. When I was writing the comic, scenes were limited only by my imagination and the abilities of the very talented artist, Mike Holmes. But with TV, I’ll write a joke and they’ll point out that the joke would incur a whole bunch of production costs, such as hiring a new voice actor for that background character I thought would be funny. Or having to design a whole new backdrop. Often, the joke would work just as well with a bit of tweaking to minimize the number of new assets or production expenses.

DN: In Malagash, a girl records her dying father’s voice and programs it into a virus so her father can live on, digitally, on the world’s hard drives. While this story is straight-forward, there’s a possible reading that could see it as a rumination on our digital lives in general. We leave traces of ourselves all over the internet. Our digital selves are an extension of our personal selves. Was this theme a conscious exploration as you were writing?

JC: It was not. I think it just came about naturally, as a result of my own experience growing up online. When I first started using networks, we used GOPHER. I used to hack into BBSes. I become obsessed by things, sometimes without noticing. As a teen, it was phone hacking. I would wardial thousands of numbers by hand from a payphone, noting the businesses or systems that answered in notebooks, so I could call back with my modem, and that investment of time never seemed weird to me.

As an adult now, I go through periods where I become obsessed with online privacy and the constant choices we’re making between privacy and convenience, privacy and getting laid, privacy and knowing where to park our car. I use a VPN and two-factor authorization on the accounts that support it. And it can be upsetting because there’s no winning. I’ve thought—and worried—about this issue a lot. The best you can do to feel safe is what’s called “threat modeling.” What are you genuinely concerned about? Your roommates snooping? You can improve your devices’ security, so that is not a problem. Are you worried about CSIS or other government agencies? There are far more paranoid steps you can take, but the truth is that a government agency will have unlimited funds, technology that isn’t even public yet, and physical access to your home if they want. You can drive yourself crazy and tear out all the drywall like at the end of The Conversation, or you can just accept that “do your best” is the only way to approach modern privacy. But sometimes, it’s a little bit reassuring. It feels like, if everything I do gets recorded somewhere, maybe I won’t be forgotten. The real me.

Sometimes it’s a little bit reassuring. It feels like, if everything I do gets recorded somewhere, maybe I won’t be forgotten. The real me.

DN: Even when tragic or even violent things are happening in your stories, there is an underlying tenderness, a gentleness toward the human spirit. Your characters are always granted humanity, and are often granted direct kindness, even when they don’t deserve it. Modern fiction places value on realness, and “real” is often a euphemism for “harsh.” In Malagash, I confess I was waiting for harshness or domestic fracturing that never came. When Sunday’s little brother Simon is being needy, she doesn’t snap on him; she chooses kindness. There is this surprising hope, like we forget that we can, in fact, choose to be kind rather than mean. This hopefulness feels like it comes from a very personal perspective for you. Can you talk about that a bit?

JC: It is something that I find myself moving more and more toward. Kindness, why not just kindness? Nothing matters at all. Why not be kind? Okay, maybe nothing matters. But you don’t have to be a grouch about it. You can just as easily be nice to everyone as your response. It’s kind of like saying, “This game has no score.” You can answer with, “Why bother playing?” or you can just enjoy the game. There’s no score. They are both valid ways to look at it, but one’s going to be a lot more fun than the other. Of course, like all philosophies that you can boil down to a sentence, it’s bullshit. Many people have no control over their feelings or inclination to believe. We aren’t robots. We’re at the mercy of brain chemicals. But it sounds nice. Maybe, once in a while, you can trick yourself into believing for a few minutes! A few minutes of optimism is its own reward.

DN: There’s a lot of honest tenderness between Sunday and Simon, even though irritation is an option for the characters, too. Their relationship made me think of my own sister, who is almost seven years older than I am. We had a strange childhood. She was my protector and role model for most of those years, and essentially raised me for a couple of them. I was particularly moved by the chapter in which Sunday patiently helps Simon remember some of the principles of coding. At the end, as they’re falling asleep, he says, “Thank you for talking to me.” How was the relationship between Sunday and Simon informed by your own experience growing up with a sibling?

JC: I have no idea the ways that growing up with a younger brother influenced the writing. Adrian is certainly not Simon, nor am I Sunday. But you use what is inside you when you write, of course. So, who knows? But I can tell you that “Thank you for talking to me” was almost certainly influenced by my love of the work of Canadian author Morley Callaghan, and how often he ignored the rule of “show don’t tell.” He could write a story and have a character plainly say what they were feeling, and have it be devastating. The Complete Stories of Morley Callaghan is one of my favourite books.

DN: You might be sick of talking about A Softer World at this point in your career, but it meant a lot to a lot of people. It helped me, personally, feel less alone. Can you briefly synopsize the comic and talk a little about the philosophy behind it?

JC: We are often asked this question in interviews, and it’s one that comes up in interviews about novels too sometimes. Honestly, the comic itself is the answer. We made more than 1,200 of those comics, and they were as varied as our moods and changing beliefs. Or just dumb plays on words. The comic is what it is, and we did our best with it. We tried to express ourselves sometimes, or just make ourselves laugh other times. Harsh satire one day and pure sincerity the next. It is 12 years of my life and Emily’s life. I’m glad it’s still out there for people to stumble across.

DN: Where do you go from here? Where do you see your writing heading now that you’ve completed Malagash, and what other formats might we see from you?

JC: I have no idea. Right now, every day I’m recording videos in which I play chess against strangers on the internet and talk about my thought process. It’s got nothing at all to do with writing.


David Nilsen is a writer living in western Ohio. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and his writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Millions, Rain Taxi, The Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, Bright Wall Dark Room, and numerous other publications. When he isn’t doing literary writing, he works as a beer and food journalist and educator, and is a Certified Cicerone.