Q&A: Julie Bertagna on writing the John Muir Graphic Novel

Julie Bertagna photo by Donald MacLeod
Category: Reading

John Muir, Earth - Planet, Universe tells the story of the Scotsman John Muir. Muir's vision of protecting of the natural world led to the creation of National Parks and cemented his legacy as "the patron saint of the American wilderness". We spoke to the book's author Julie Bertagna to discover how she faced the challenge of writing her first graphic novel and why Muir remains relevant today.

You’ve written lots of books but this is your first graphic novel. Was it a particularly different writing experience?

I saw it as a big challenge at the start, I thought it would be completely different, and in lots of ways it was. As a writer writing a novel, you imagine everything yourself and you sit down and work only with words, whereas this is working with another person to merge words and pictures very closely together. Bill [William Goldsmith, the illustrator] gave me some graphic novels to look at, and I love the Neil Gaiman Sandman series, so I knew the form, but not in depth.

The way I work is very visual; I imagine my books like films anyway, so what I had to do here was take a scene and cut it up into stills in my mind. And as soon as I got my head around that – that it was almost like writing a play – I got it. It breaks up into three parts, what I call “The 3 ‘S’s”:

  • Scene Setting, where you have to describe in detail to the illustrator what you see in your head, so that’s like the stage directions. And he can interpret that as he likes, but it’s my suggestion of what I see.
  • Story, which goes into the text boxes in the pictures - I decided to make that the voice of the older John Muir telling his life.
  • Speech bubbles, where you put what people are saying.

Once I’d structured it like that, like a play in my head, it worked and I really enjoyed it. It was a completely new way of writing for me – things like being able to put jokes into speech bubbles, little asides of animals speaking and so on.

It was a lot of fun. We had this big, environmental/global theme but we could still put in lots of liveliness that would appeal to a young readership.

That environmental theme has clear crossover with your Exodus trilogy. Did you think about that, and did that work influence your work on this project? 

My trilogy is about a world of the future, set in Scotland about 100 years from now when we’ve wrecked the earth. So it’s young survivors: how do you survive in a drowned earth? A big adventure story. When I came to John Muir it was just amazing, I kept finding so many similarities of thought.

He starts at the other end of things, where he is going into a wilderness in America and he wants to protect the earth before it’s spoiled. He lived before mass industrialisation and mass pollution and so on, and he was seeing the beginnings of that as loggers were felling forests to make cities. So he was looking at the beginning of this process and I had just written a trilogy about the end of this process!

Although John Muir lived quite a long time ago, the things that he said are so relevant today

But when I looked at his writings I had so many goosebump moments, recognising the similarities. The main one was in Exodus; in the prologue I have this image of tiny particles that form together to make the planets whirling through space, and then I found this quote from John Muir:

“We are flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty”

And that was so close to how I’d opened Exodus, it was just weird! And I kept finding things like that. I really felt I’d met a kindred spirit in words. And I guess that what you do with words, you pick up on what someone has written and you connect with it, and although John Muir lived quite a long time ago, the things that he said are so relevant today; it is very powerful.