For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s interview with His Dream of the Skyland author Anne Opotowsky about the first entry of her Walled City Trilogy from Issue 34.
Anne Opotowsky was taken with the Walled City the second she heard about it. The longtime screenwriter was at dinner in Pasadena with her artist friend Aya Morton, who began describing a collection of photographs documenting an ungoverned, crowded settlement within Hong Kong’s Kowloon City. As she spoke, Opotowsky’s imagination soared. Once a Chinese military fort, the formation of the tiny outpost traced back to 1898, when it was left out of a treaty that gave Britain control of a large part of Hong Kong. This meant its ownership remained in dispute and no government actually had sovereignty over this small swath of the city. Over the decades, the number of residents grew exponentially and construction was ceaseless, and by 1990, some 50,000 people called this city within a city home. At roughly six acres, it was the most densely packed community in the world, a rabbit warren of interlinking high rises, caged balconies and winding alleyways smack in the midst of Hong Kong but a world apart—until it hit critical mass and was finally demolished in 1994.
Naturally the city was fertile territory for criminals, triads and gangsters, and yet there was an intrigue to it as well, and as Morton set the scene, Opotowsky began envisioning the stories that could be set there. “What I saw in the Walled City was all the things everyone else saw and thought was beautiful about it,” she says. “I didn’t see a terrible, ugly ghetto. I saw a world of people that had reinvented themselves, that had created their own independence, that had found in essence their own dignity by creating what was the longest human experiment in autonomy that we’ve ever known. They created their own symphonies, their own banking system, their own justice system. This was a place that could act as a creative focal point for a narrative that told so many stories about who we are as human beings and how walls seem to create divides that have very unfortunate outcomes.” As a Hollywood writer, Opotowsky has done much of her work on other people’s screenplays, as a script doctor hired by the likes of Disney and Fox, as well as served as a producer on news series and documentaries. Yet for some reason she immediately saw her Walled City story as a comic, a medium in which she had never worked. As the tale began to form, she thought an ongoing series might work, then had second thoughts. “The idea got too big, and I had to corral it.” Then she lit upon a trilogy of graphic novels that follows the same characters throughout multiple decades, and that idea sparked. “Once I knew I could do the story properly in three books, I wanted it to be very beautiful and have these rich storylines where the reader felt the same way I feel when I read a great novel: like I’ve gotten an incredible meal.”
Opotowsky pounded out the scripts and stories for all three volumes in 2010 and reached out to potential publishers. She eventually made a deal with Gestalt, a publishing house from Australia, to print the books and, fittingly, circled back to Morton to be the artist on the first book, His Dream of the Skyland. And Morton’s images are nothing short of stunning, worthy of a museum exhibit all on their own. Still, the remarkably intricate drawings proved so laborious that they decided together that Opotowsky would go another way for the other two installments. It turned out to be an inspired choice, as all three entries in the trilogy now have a different feel, style and tone, with Angie Hoffmeister drawing Nocturne and Amber Ma taking the final entry in the series Listening to the Hundred Fold Notes of the Avowed Nightingales. “The books are very ambitious and one person couldn’t have done it,” Opotowsky says. “They would have been years and years and years apart. I probably would have killed that illustrator as well.”
In the majority of author-artist collaborations, the writer submits a traditional script and waits for the artist to send back their pages for feedback. Some writers don’t even give notes, but Opotowsky is more hands on, aided by the fact that all three of the illustrators are close friends. The trilogy is a true collaboration born of friendship. As she explains, “When you’re trained as I am in visual thinking, you think about the elements of an image: what you see in the foreground, what’s happening two layers behind, what’s happening the deep ground, what the lighting is like, how the characters interact in terms of space. All of those things play important roles to how we all crafted the story together.”
The trilogy is centered on three childhood friends—Song, Xi and Yubo—and the differing paths their lives take. Book one, His Dream of the Skyland, is Song’s story, as the character represents the audience’s entry point to the Walled City and to many of the trilogy’s supporting characters. Opotowsky was inspired to create the character after seeing a photograph of the city that featured a collection of crammed-together mailboxes. “I thought, Who did that?” she remembers. “Who went there and found all those people and cared enough to make sure they got their mail? I love small unsung heroes in that way.” Thus, Song became a mailman with an outsize curiosity. He gets a job at the local post office and is assigned to the dead-letter office, where he notices many sent to various residents of the Walled City. Taking the time to search out the addressees, he immediately endears himself to the reader. “He really is like the Little Prince. He can travel. He’s curious. He’s a puzzler. There’s a Dickensian quality to all three characters that I’m attracted to, where they can navigate a city cleverly—they’re very resourceful. The characters need to have that kind of resilience to carry you into the first third of a very immersive trilogy. You needed a protagonist who could jump off the diving board for you, and that was a mailman who wants to know more.”
Opotowsky has a unique aspect to her writing process. When she was younger, she had a chance meeting with American novelist John Cheever when they shared a harrowing flight together. As they bonded, he agreed to mentor her since he was running the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the time. “One of the things he taught me, which I’ve honored all my writing life, is that the writing experience is successful only when you know your audience and know who exactly is reading your book,” she says. “He had a very elaborate process where he imagined the reader: who he was, how old he was, what he looked like. He had an entire backstory for his reader.” Now she does the same thing with her own writing, especially in Skyland. She allows herself to ask questions of the reader, and that in turn assists her with certain aspects of the storytelling. “There were times I wanted to be sure that I was honoring the reader: How would they see a certain part of the story? How would they understand part of the story? Would they pop out of the story at certain times? Those questions are always very prescient to me when I work as a writer. I think that’s what being a writer is—having a conversation with someone. I’m not interested in telling anyone anything. I’m interested in raising questions and starting a conversation.”
To read the complete article in Issue 34 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe or buy it as a single issue.
For more info about all the other articles in issue 34, view the Table of Contents.