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Billions Of Years Go By, All In The Same 'Room'


Our next story is about the experience of remembering. Now, I'm not going to lie, what we're about to do is going to be tough because we're going to talk about something that is purely a visual experience. But it's radio land, so shut your eyes, fill your coffee cup and come with me. I'm looking at a book. It's a graphic novel called "Here" by Richard McGuire. Back in 1989, McGuire drew a comic called "Here," which revolutionized the medium. Now he's turned it into a full-color 300-page book. Each page depicts the life of a single room. It's actually the living room from McGuire's suburban family home in New Jersey. The book is comprised of panels within panels of varying size, showing that same space over a span of millions of years. Did I lose you? OK, McGuire got the concept from what was a brand-new software program at the time - Microsoft Windows. So now imagine you're looking at your computer, and within that screen are multiple windows opened, each one a pop-up of exactly that spot at various moments from the past, to present, all the way to the future. Still lost? Here's McGuire explaining one page for us.

RICHARD MCGUIRE: We are in the room of 1938. But then there are smaller windows of 1995, 1997, 1990, 1969, 1402 and 1777 in the lower corner.

MARTIN: There's a lot going on in this moment.

MCGUIRE: Yeah, there is a lot going on.

MARTIN: I asked him to keep going and to tell us what each window showed. He described a collection of moments over time.

MCGUIRE: A lot of the times I would just find moments where I thought were small, genuine moments - just I loved the fact of these intimate little things. You see a woman helping a child tie her shoe. And the way she's pulling on the laces, I thought that's where I would group things thematically, like, there was - on the other side of the room, you see someone with a cat's cradle. And they're pulling the string in their hands. And then in the lower right-hand corner, there's these two guys dragging away this mysterious bundle that seems to be this bloody bundle. And there is a story behind that. But it's kind of...

MARTIN: This is 1777, by the way.

MCGUIRE: 1777, yeah. When I was doing research for the book, I found out that there was - in my particular town there was no fighting during the revolution, but there was this one incident with a boat that came into the harbor and blew a cannonball and it ripped the head off of a horse that was just, like, a block away from my house. And I was going to incorporate it in the book and I couldn't find a comfortable place to put it because it just seemed so dramatic. It needed a lot of back story to have that.


MCGUIRE: So that's actually what these guys are carrying in this bag. But there's a lot of things like that where you do a lot of research and it's like an iceberg of what's below the surface.

MARTIN: The room changes, obviously, according to the time period. There are people that inhabit the room. Those characters change, their dress changes, the decor changes. But can you give us the universal properties of this space that are constant over time?

MCGUIRE: It does center around my family in a way, even though it's not a memoir by any means. But I did want to talk to touch on all the universal things that we go through - love and death and the major themes. I was looking at a lot of family photos for reference, but I also looked at the archive of a collector that - he collects vernacular photography. And, you know, all family photos look similar in a way, you know, all the holidays look exactly alike. And my main thing was trying to make this book accessible and universal.

MARTIN: Does sequence matter in how someone absorbs this book?

MCGUIRE: It is nonlinear. You can read it out of order. The fact that it is a book, it does have a beginning and an end, and I was very conscience of that arc. And I worried a lot about the construction of the book. And I put all the pages up on my wall. And I kind of felt that I had to treat it musically in that - so it has moments where there are crescendos and then moments with there's quiet. I did toy with the idea of having each book - have the pages of each book shuffled so that each book was a unique experience, but I couldn't work it out. And then when I was working on the e-book version, I thought to myself that that's what the e-book is for, to let the e-book be what it does best and let the book be what it does best.

MARTIN: How did you decide when and where to put dialogue? There are random little word bubbles throughout the book and...

MCGUIRE: Well, the dialogue is very much a collage as well. And there are certain moments where there are themes - like there's a part about loss and everybody's losing everything, you know, losing their wallets and losing their minds and losing, you know, you just...

MARTIN: Loved ones.

MCGUIRE: Loved ones.


MCGUIRE: So I was grouping things that way. Sometimes I was grouping things just purely by sound, or somebody saying where did I put my to-do-list? And the other person's going you did what you had to do. And then there's a radio going dooby, dooby doo. (Laughter) So it's like, you know, there are just things like that kind of, you know, just sound - pure sound - because the entire book really felt musical to me. I mean, I'm a musician as well. Without having a protagonist, I was worried about how the flow of the book - someone was asking me in an interview that I did earlier, like, is the room the protagonist? And I think, you know, the room isn't there all the time. I think it's time itself is the protagonist, if there has to be - if there is such a thing.

MARTIN: Doing this project now in several different iterations, right? Like, this started as a comic strip. You've now built it out into a book. You have an e-book experience that mimics this. Has it changed how you remember things? I mean, do you drive yourself crazy when you're sitting with your mind and you see yourself start to wander and creating all these textures and layers of memory?

MCGUIRE: Bringing in different mediums, it does the old differently. The original strip you would have nine panels on a page. So you're seeing the room nine times per page. And your eye can move around that - in a way that it can't in the book. But the book has other strengths to it. And then the e-book has further strengths. And, you know, I can see maybe in another 20 years doing it the virtual reality version of the room where you walk into the room and you're experiencing it. I mean, that's a possibility.

MARTIN: Richard McGuire, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. The book, the experience, the collection is called "Here." Richard McGuire joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much.

MCGUIRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.