There and back again—then onward ever onwarda chat with Dendo’s Brittany Long Olsen

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I try to keep up on the what’s-what in Mormon comics, but I didn’t even hear about Brittany Long Olsen until she was getting interviewed by Andrew Hall, followed by her book getting serious attention from the AML.

Which book, by the way, deserves that attention. Dendo is the erstwhile Sister Long’s day-by-day comics record of her mission in Japan. By its gradual accumulation of small moments, both highs and lows—by relentlessly capturing the mundanity of mission life, she accomplishes the truly epic event that is a proselyting mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m not a huge reader of the missionary-memoir genre, but for my money, Dendo is the best out there.

(And, I should note, for your money as well.)

This is an interview I conducted with Brittany on March 2, 2016 (with slight edits to make us both look better).

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Hello, this is Brittany.

Hey Brittany, this is Theric Jepson.

Hello.

How are you?

Good, I’m good. How are you?

I’m great. Shall we start?

Yeah.

Okay, so the first question I wanna ask you is: Dendo seems to capture missionary experience a lot more universally than you seemed to expect. Is that—

Oh yeah?

I remember reading you say that you thought it would only really appeal to people who had served missions in Japan, but there seems to be a lot more people who are interested in it. How surprised are you by that?

I don’t know. I definitely had experiences that I know are universal like, I don’t know, just the disappointment of teaching people who aren’t interested and things like that. And I guess what I thought would appeal more to returned missionaries from Japan is that I focused so much on the culture there. So much of it was really interesting and surprising to me to learn about and so I felt I really wanted to share that. I thought it wouldn’t be interesting to people who had served in other countries, but I’m glad it was.

Do you feel like your audience is mostly people who have served missions, then?

I think so, but mainly because of word-of-mouth. People who I served  with or people who see it and go, “Oh, I know so-and-so that served in Japan! They would love this!” But, a lot of people that I talk to, friends, who served in different countries, relate to it also for a lot of different reasons.

How many people have you heard from?

Personally or, like, reviews online?

Either way, just, sort of, how big of a sample size are we talking here, I guess?

I don’t know like based on, um, personal communication, like people who have talked to me, are usually, you know, people that I know personally and so their praise is only good. But I have kept an eye on things that people say on Amazon or on Goodreads. And I’ve had comments from people who aren’t LDS who comment on it, as well as people who say, “Oh yeah, I served in a mission in such-and-such place and I had a lot of the same things happen.” I’ve read a like a dozen reviews like that.

What are the people who aren’t LDS saying?

One person was like, “Yeah, this subject material is kind of boring if you’re not LDS, but the art is really good.” Someone said, you know, “I know about the church and I’m familiar with it, and it was a captivating story and it was enlightening whatever.” Oh, and they said that I explained things well enough that they could understand even though they aren’t familiar with everything I talked about—like the terms I guess—

Yeah.

I don’t know. The reception has been generally positive, which is nice.

I would imagine. It’s always nice to know people don’t hate you.

Definitely.

So It’s interesting that people would talk about the story because it’s hard to imagine that, when you started it, you were thinking it would have any kind of narrative arc.

Yeah, that didn’t really— I mean, as I was making it, it was just sort of a collection of things that I was doing every day. But since taking a step back from it, yeah, I can see that there are, you know, continuous threads of things going on, and the same characters pop up obviously, and there’s character development, with me, the main character, so it’s cool to see, now that it’s all done, that it came together like that.

When did you start thinking of it as a book?

You know, I don’t know. Someone’s asked me that before and I can’t really say. I went in with the intent of it being from start to finish my whole mission, and I think somewhere within the first few months of me making it I thought about publishing it because so many people saw me working on it and were like, “Oh wow, I want to see it when it’s done!” So I don’t know. Gradually, I guess, the idea formed that I should work on it and get it published as a whole book.

How did the publishing go? I know you tried to talk to a couple people. What were their reasons for “no”?

I went to LDS-specific publishers because I figured they would be the most interested, and they said, “Wow, your idea is really cool and it’s really unique but we’re worried that it’s too unique and—

Yeah. I hate that.

—not something anyone will be interested in.” And so, I mean, it was all right. It was an interesting experience, but I did like publishing it myself because I had complete control over what the final thing would look like, and I felt like my options were a lot better, just personally, for me.

Yeah. I think— I think that’s true. It seems like, the people I know in comics—except for people who, all they really want in life is to draw Batman, or something along those lines—it seems like people who are doing personal work—I mean, you know, there are people who are having good experiences with Fantagraphics and so forth, I’m not knocking those companies—but a lot of people are just happy doing it on their own and having that complete control.

Yeah. It was nice. It was just like a side project that I worked on on my own time and I wasn’t on a deadline and I didn’t have to make, you know, any changes to conform to what an editor saw as being good, because it was autobiographical and I’d already completed everything, so pushing forward at my own speed was really nice.

Yeah. You mentioned—I don’t remember where I read this—but, um, that you did some cleanup and you added the grayscale and everything in the process of publishing it, um, but how—

Yeah.

—different is it, you know, did you carry a bunch of dots that you rubbed on? How much of what I’m seeing when I look at the book was what you drew when you were a missionary?

I did some posts on this Facebook group for the book, like, processed pieces of how it looked in the editing process—

Mmhmm.

On my mission, pretty much what the final result was on the sketchbook page was the black-and-white inking and then hand-lettering, and so when I scanned it in, I went through and I added all the dots and things in Photoshop—the shading as well—and then I re-lettered everything.

Ah.

So the original drawing is pretty much what was in my sketchbook. The lettering was different and there wasn’t any shading of any kind on the original.

Yeah. I liked imagining you having the rub-off dots, but I don’t even know if those are available to buy anymore. I’ve never seen them.

I swear I could’ve found them all over Japan.

Japan would be the place to look, yeah.

When I was making it and when I came home I went through quite a process of deciding, like, how do I actually want it to look after I’ve edited it?

Yeah.

It was still fun to kind of look for inspiration and figure out what it should be like.

It’s a particularly interesting question for your book just because it is—I mean it is a diary, right?

Mmhmm.

And so there’s this expectation that it’s exactly what you did as it happened, and it’s all there, but, you know, in order for it to be a book that’s not feasible. You have to clean it up, you know? I think making a font of your letters was smart. With whatever you cut, that seems that it was probably a good editorial decision. How much did you feel that you had to capture exactly what you did at the time to be honest about it being a diary? Versus how much control did you think you had to change things?

I didn’t change a whole lot. There were some words here and there that I changed to clarify the meaning, and there were some pages I cut out because they weren’t relevant or maybe they were a little too personal and would embarrass someone if they were published, but the pages that did make it to the final book I really didn’t change very much. Does that answer your question?

Yeah. Yeah it does. And you mentioned sometimes that on a P-day you would be catching up on the journal—

Uh-huh.

How did you do it? How did you— Did you find that— What am I trying to ask here, exactly? How free did you feel— Because this comes back to the its-a-diary question: If you say something is on a certain date, did you feel like you had to sketch it out on that date? Or could you capture a day after that day’s passed and still label it that day?

My original sketchbook was pretty much true to the date even if I didn’t have time to draw a whole page before going to bed I’d do, you know, that day’s page of lettering and maybe some thumbnails. But then, in the editing process, if there were pages that I needed to cut out because I wanted to make sure there was still some kind of page for every day, I might have fudged with the dates a little bit. But other than that it was pretty much what I wanted it to be. An account of what I actually did. Because long before I was thinking of turning it into a book it was my journal and I wanted it to be a record of, you know, my experiences there. So—

Right.

I tried to make it as true to my experiences as possible.

That’s an interesting question I wanted to get to. I wanted to ask you about the diary you’re keeping now. Who do you think of as your audience? Is it you today? You in the future? Is it, your grandchildren? Is it the people who go to your website? Who do you think of as your audience today, and has that changed over time?

When I first started it it was just, like, an art project that I did, and I didn’t publicize it or really tell anyone that I was working on it—it was just for me. And then, I don’t know, my family saw me carrying around sketchbooks, made them want to read it, and word got passed around that I had a blog and soon my grandma and my aunt and my cousins were reading it, and so, for a long time, it was just a way to say, “Hey, this is what I’m doing in my life. I don’t have a bunch of Facebook updates but here’s this blog of comics. And that’s pretty much still what it is today. I know a lot of people who I know personally who are family members or friends or whatever, they read it and they like to see what’s going on, and so I would say my main audience is just people I know, people I’m friends with. But it is in the back of my mind that like, yeah, this is a type of journal or record-keeping that I keep for the future, or my kids, or grandkids or whatever. They’ll be able to read it too.

Do you find as your audience grows that you worry about what you draw affecting actual relationships? In Dendo you showed some people who are trying to get into the comic—do people still do that, or do they try to stay out?

I wouldn’t say there were people who actively try to get in anymore. But there are definitely things that I don’t put in because I know that people wouldn’t like to read it. Like, I don’t know, specifically my husband’s parents weren’t really a fan. There were some things that I kind of censored, like, while me and my husband were still dating there were some things that I was like, You know what? I really don’t want to put this online because it might hurt someone’s feelings or put them in a negative light or whatever. So I’m definitely more careful about that now because I know for sure that more people are reading it.

Over the course of your mission in the book, it seems like you captured a really broad swath of what missionary work is and what it’s like to be in a foreign country and even though it’s really—it’s about you, and about your experiences—it seems really broad, and reading over your diary lately it seems a lot more focused on you and your husband and your relationship, um, do you, do you feel—I don’t—it’s impossible to know right? It’s not like you knew what you were doing when you did Dendo either—but do you feel like you’re more focused on a single relationship now and do you think that—that’s—are you still honeymooning, in other words, maybe is what I’m asking. I don’t know.

I think the scope of Dendo is so broad because the way I was living was so broad. I was out on the streets for so many hours a day, trying to meet so many people, that, I don’t know, I just—I had a much wider scope of people I ran into, people who affected my life. Whereas now I work from home and my husband’s the person I talk to the most every day, I don’t go out a whole lot; we hang out on the weekends with friends or whatever, but my life is more focused and so I think that comes across in my comics because my experiences have a much narrower field than they did when I was a missionary. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s just that it’s a very different lifestyle.

Right. I mean, well that’s the nature of life, right? It’s always going to be something different. Who knows where you’ll be in two years.

Yeah.

So, and then, this might be a personal question, I don’t know, um, I won’t know until you have to answer it, but, where is the line between “too personal” and “appropriate for the comic”? Is it clear to you?

Yeah, I definitely think about people that I know personally that are reading it when I think of comics to make. Like, for a really long time my grandma was my biggest fan and she read it two or three times a day, so I kept her in mind if I wanted to make something really personal or something that I thought might be a little offensive. I was like, “Oh no, I can’t put that up because Grandma will see it.” Even though she has passed away now I still have that mindset a little bit. I don’t wanna say something offensive In the case of my husband, I used to put up things like if we had a fight or something, and so that was my way to deal with it. He expressed to me, “I really don’t like when you do that,” or, “It hurts my feelings when you complain about me on the internet” or whatever.

Mmhmm.

It doesn’t happen as much anymore, but it affected what I choose to write about. I don’t think it’s bad at all, I mean, obviously I’ve found something every day to write about, so I don’t have a lack of material. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable with my comics now, but I don’t  think I had that mindset when I was working on Dendo. It was much more, um, I don’t know, open and straightforward and personal, I guess.

Yeah. Yeah, I mean that’s—because the art you’ve chosen is very personal. Not just for you but for anybody who knows you. That’s just something you gotta deal with, I guess.

Yeah.

In Dendo sometimes you would be—it seemed like intentionally experimental with content or with form. How important is that to you? To push yourself experimentally.

I really enjoy it. I mean, I consider myself a frequent reader of comics, and so I’ll read something and be like, “Oh, wow, that’s really cool how they did that, that’s so awesome. I want to try that.” Especially when I was working on Dendo, I’d just come off of reading a lot of comics. And more than that I wanted to keep things fresh, I guess? Since I was making a page every single day I didn’t want to just do four panels and “This happened and this happened.”  I wanted it to be visually interesting and I don’t do that as much with my comic diaries because the the website that I post on is a little more restrictive as far as the format and how big the image can be and everything like that. But it was really fun to try different things when I was working on Dendo. Like you said, experimenting with how few words I could get away with or what shape of images I thought was most interesting, or things like that.

For your interview with Andrew you mentioned some of the artists you like, like you mentioned Anya’s Ghost which is a beautiful book and you talked about Bryan Lee O’Malley and it’s funny that you mentioned him—well, it’s not funny, but it’s difficult—er, expected, I guess, because I had felt like I could see a bit of an influence, especially in the way—there’s something about the way you draw eyes—

Yeah, I’ve heard that.

—and sometimes you would do things a little bit out of manga, like you—you know how in manga a character’s form is very flexible depending on the needed function of the story? you know, if it’s the turning characters into little heads with just laughing eyes?—there’s a lot of flexibility. You do a little bit of that. It’s interesting. It will be interesting to see what you do next. Are you mostly just interested in sticking with this kind of nonfiction work?

That’s what I’m most familiar with, just because— I feel like it’s important to keep a journal and I might as well do it in comics because that’s something I enjoy. And I’d like to carve out more time to work on other projects but we’ll see what happens. It’s easy to make time to make one comic a day but as far as, you know, stitching out a longer graphic novel and getting that through is definitely is a bigger time investment.

Yeah, do you—

But I’d like to.

—do you worry that they’re self-exclusionary, like, you can’t do something larger as long as you’re doing the diary?

No. Like I said, it just takes time and so it’s definitely a plan in my future, to make more time for that. I’m not super in a position right now just because I have a bunch of different things going on, but that is a goal that I have some time in the future.

What have people not asked you about that they should?

Um, like, just in general, or about Dendo, or—

Either/or.

Um, can I give you a bunch of money for no reason?

That would be nice.

I don’t know. When people who have read Dendo or are reading it ask me about it, they always say, “How’s your book doing? “ Because, I don’t know— I guess because I served in a mission and it’s ended, they don’t expect anything more, and so I’m always like, “Yeah, it’s good, and I’m also working on, you know, this thing, and I’d like to do this.” So I guess I wish more people would ask me about other work that I’m doing or planning to do. Does that make sense?

No, it does, and I feel like it gives me permission to ask a more specific question that I wasn’t going to. But because you said there were these other things that you’d like to work on, more graphic-novel sort of things— Do you have more specific plans? Don’t jinx yourself, of course. Don’t feel like you have to say too much but I’m curious.

When I was doing my undergraduate degree, my emphasis was creative writing, and so for assignments, and just on my own, it was really fun to generate short stories, and I wrote a novella for a class, so I have a lot of, I don’t know, just fiction ideas that I think would be cool. Since I’m growing more comfortable in the comics medium, I thought well, why not try and translate this into that and do a short comic or even a short graphic novel. I don’t have immediate plans plan. It’s not like I have a script or something else already. But it’s definitely something that is on my mind and that I’d like to do once I dedicate more time to it. And like, I know that that’s a horrible thing to say, like, “Oh, well someday I’ll publish a novel” but it really is a goal that I have, that I’d like to do, and I think it’s just a matter of, like I said, making time for it. The stories that I have in mind, I know will have some specific challenges. Like, um, backgrounds, which I never do, and so, it’s just—I’ll have to practice and do some studies and challenge myself art-wise. Which I look forward to and I know will be hard but I think will be really rewarding, too. once it comes together.

Do you think you can make the diary be that for you also? You know, use the diary to force yourself to learn?

I could, definitely. There are some things that I do every now and then like, “Oh man, I’ve never really drawn my kitchen, I should do that,” and put it in the background of a panel or whatever. It’s definitely something I should do more, but I think I’m more motivated by the fact, like, “Okay, I need to get one done, and then put it online, and I can do another one tomorrow.” And so, I don’t know, I guess my focus is on keeping them simple and regular—

Yeah.

I grew up reading a lot of newspaper comics and they’re super simple, and the format is predictable. And so that’s kind of the pattern that I’ve fallen into. But I am working on a mini-comic about yoga that I got to do more experimental things with. And it’s just gonna be short, like probably ten pages. But since I don’t have a deadline for it, I’m giving myself time to do more complicated drawings and things like that. Which is fun.

One of the great things about a diary comic is that it does keep you on a schedule, right? It keeps you honest and you have to—you have to be really disciplined. But I would imagine that the dark side of that is that, having accomplished something each day, it gives you that constant feeling of accomplishment, which could suck you away from trying something else. So—

Yeah, I definitely felt like I was a lot more creative and productive during my undergraduate when I was in art classes all the time and constantly having to produce work and learn new skills and I saw a lot of improvement in my art style all over those years while I was in college, and now it’s kind of stagnated.

“Stagnate” is an interesting word. I was thinking about making a comment earlier about how, speaking of newspaper comics, if you look at, the beginning of any major strip—it doesn’t matter what it is. If you look at Charlie Brown in 1950, he looks different five years later as Charles Schulz sort of figures out how to do it, right?

Mmhmm.

But Dendo’s interesting because you’ve already— I mean, it’s obvious you’ve been doing comics already because you’ve figured out what the character of, you know, Brittany looks like and— Well, Sister Long, I guess.

Right.

You’ve figured out a lot of this stuff so it feels very accomplished and um, mature, and confident, I guess, is the word I’m looking for? But I mean, on the other hand, you’re right: How do you keep it fresh and interesting? Bill Watterson would be a good example. In the first couple years of Calvin and Hobbes he really figured out how to draw the characters, but then he managed to— Of course he was very popular, he was able to have some power within the newspaper world, but he was very creative. It’s an interesting challenge. Like, being successful versus continuing to take risks.

Well, I don’t know, I guess I appreciate your comment because working on it I always felt like, “Well, my art looks good, but it’s the same at the end and the beginning I haven’t improved at all!” But, you’re saying, “No, that’s mature!” and “That’s the mark of a skilled artist!” So I appreciate that.

Well, but it’s both those things, right? I absolutely agree. Especially in something like Dendo, where it is about one character and it is a cohesive text, that shows that you are good at that. But on the other hand, you know, probably in ten years you don’t want to still—you want to see growth in yourself, right? So what does that look like?

Yeah, it—it’s definitely a challenge. But, I don’t know. When I first started doing comics I was completely different. And so I’m hoping that I’ll still be able to experience some growth and challenge myself in doing new things.

Well, good luck. I hope it works out.

Thanks.

So, in ten years what do you want to have finished?

In ten years….ummm, ten years. That’s a—that’s a good deadline for I think one graphic novel I guess? I don’t know. My plans for the future are my husband and I want to live overseas again. I think that it could be really interesting subject matter for maybe a more unified text. Like in, um, the interview with Andrew I talked about reading the Burma Chronicles and it was—it was a span of a year or two I think that the author was living in this other country and his experiences were sometimes mundane, like he would just take his kid to the park or whatever. But because it was in such a unique environment he found a lot of interesting things to say. Having this goal in the future of living overseas again, I can envision myself doing something similar.

Well, I’m excited to see what you have to say in the future because I’ve read enough of the daily strips from the last few months and I’ve read Dendo so I feel like I have a good sense of who you are as a diarist and as a nonfiction writer and as a real-life-capturer, I’m curious, what, you know, what it looks like when you do something else. Especially since, obviously, that’s part of who you are.

Yeah, definitely.

Well, thank you.

Thank you!

I’ll probably see you online or something.

Special thanks to George Elsbury for transcribing this interview.

Dendo image sources: before, after.

One thought on “There and back again—then onward ever onwarda chat with Dendo’s Brittany Long Olsen”

  1. Thanks, Brittany and Theric. I like that you talk so much about process and slow-growth ambitions and making art within a community. It’s all very relevant to Mormon artists, I think.

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