In need of a book suggestion?
Of course you are.
And everyone loves to read something that reassures them their own ‘crazy’ family is actually pretty normal.
The Mousehouse Years is a graphic novel-meets-memoir written and drawn by Toronto native (and social scene staple) Velvet Haney, who went from living a dysfunctional life of poverty in our city’s slums in the 1960s to gallivanting around the world as a high fashion model, before returning to Toronto 14 years later.
And for over 50 years, she kept the truth about her sensational upbringing a secret.
After ten years in the making (not to mention teaching herself to draw at the age of 52), Hanley finally exposes the dirty details with The Mousehouse Years, her debut graphic memoir.
So we sat down with her to find out everything you need to know…
Why was it important to you to tell your story and to hold nothing back?
In part the memoir is a eulogy to my mother. When she was alive our relationship was problematic but by telling my parents’ history chronologically I was able to piece together their flawed relationship and understand why they made the choices they did. My memory of my childhood is a happy one but I would be dishonest if I didn’t include the dark episodes.
Can you describe the decision to make light of heavy situations with humour in the form of the drawings and captions? Was it easier to tell that way?
Drawing can be incredibly time consuming and frustrating but you also have the satisfaction and fun of being the stylist, cinematographer, and sole director of your own story. And by drawing my memoir I discovered a medium where I could explore dark subject matter lightly.
Where did you get the idea to tell the story in such a unique, untraditional way?
I first wrote 100 pages of the memoir in prose. But it seemed flat and one-dimensional – it didn’t match the voice singing in my head. I had just read the graphic memoir ‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel and thought if I could only draw, that’s the way I’d tell the story. I had an epiphany – why not try?
How did you teach yourself to draw?
I hired a computer programmer to teach me to use the Photo Elements program and draw directly on a Wacom console. It was an intense period of trial and error but eventually I was able to portray the images in my head. When ‘Best Health’ magazine published my two page graphic piece about my experience with breast cancer (‘Breasts’) it gave me confidence that my drawing style had validity.
Did you get any backlash from your siblings for telling the story and, if so, how did you handle it?
My siblings have all been very supportive of the memoir. They’ve helped recall stories – uncover old photos and dusty documents – and correct me on factual details.
Why do you think it will appeal to young professionals?
I was talking to a fan of the book – who called herself “a child of the eighties” – and she was fascinated by Toronto in the sixties. She was surprised the city had slums.
What moment in your life, looking back, did you feel you were really on top of the world?
When I received the hard cover version of The Mousehouse Years I felt ebullient. This book is a creation of love; something that I had worked on for 10 years when many people told me it wasn’t possible. It’s very satisfying that I was able to be intimately involved in every aspect of the final product. I did the best job I could possibly do and I’m proud of that.
In what ways has Toronto changed for the better since the 1960s? The worse?
Being raised in an era when our city was called ‘Toronto the Good’ (you couldn’t drink on Sundays) I’ve seen our city go from provincial to cosmopolitan. I feel lucky that we’ve been able to raise our children in one of the best cities in the world. But I also feel sorry that now we can’t give our children the sense of community and freedom that we had in the past. I don’t know whether it was the neighbourhood (Alexandra Park) or the era, but the whole city was our backyard and we had many adventures with our friends – without grownups breathing down our necks.
What is the biggest takeaway you’d like readers to get from the book?
My greatest satisfaction is when people tell me they couldn’t put it down. I think it appeals to readers on many levels – whether it’s the dysfunctional romance, the humour, the historical angle, the ‘Spanky and Our Gang’ escapades growing up in the slums in the early ‘60s – or the cathartic factor for readers who have experienced similar sexual abuse in their families. One reader of the book wrote regarding my parents’ broken relationship: “We all embark on our adult years hoping and dreaming for the best outcome – and have to live with the consequences of our choices. It’s a universal theme that will resonate with anyone who reads it.”
The Mousehouse Years is set for national release October 6, 2014. And is published in hardcover by Civil Sector Press, a division of The Hilborn Group Ltd.
Images: velvethaney.com, theselby.com