The Popular Graphic Novelist Sees
His Most Personal Work Brought to Life
As a Five-Part Mini Series on CBC
Story by Matthew St. Amand
The American author Thomas Wolfe once wrote: “You can’t go home again.” He might have been right for most of us, but in March graphic novelist, Jeff Lemire, went home again—to Essex County. Most of Jeff’s work has been optioned by Hollywood, but he has held back a few personal favourites that are close to him. Chief among these is his break-out graphic novel trilogy Essex County, first published in 2006.
How does it feel seeing this very personal work finally make it to television?
“It’s very surreal—for a lot of reasons,” Jeff says. “It just took so long to make this show, first of all. We started working on it in 2016. It was a long development process, and there were a lot of times along that process where it didn’t seem like it would get made. So many things need to go right to get something over the ‘finish line.’ I’ve had other projects in development that didn’t get that far.”
He goes on: “And you know, the project being my first book that I did fifteen, well, twenty years ago, now… I didn’t even think I was going to get published. When I was originally drawing the book, I was just doing it for myself.”
As it turned out, Jeff not only got the books published, but they led to a whole career for him in comics. In 2008, he won the Joe Shuster Award for outstanding Canadian comic book cartoonist, as well as the Doug Wright Award for best emerging talent. In 2011, Essex County was a finalist for CBC’s Canada Reads competition. Along the way, Jeff gained legions of devoted fans.
For as inevitable as it seemed that Essex County would make it to film or TV, the process took seven years. It was a real hands-on experience for Jeff. Contrasted with his experience seeing his book Sweet Tooth brought to Netflix as a limited series—the second season set to begin at the end of April—Jeff was immersed in the creation of the screen version of Essex County.
“For me, it was a lot different with Sweet Tooth,” he says. “I wasn’t directly involved with the development. I visited the set. On [Essex County] I was involved in every part of production and postproduction, working with the director, the cinematographer, and working in the edit as well. Sweet Tooth I got to enjoy as a spectator. Ultimately, this one is extremely rewarding because I put so much into it.”
Part of the lengthy development process was mining a five-episode script from the spare, poetic Essex County trilogy. Anyone who has read Jeff’s books knows the depth of emotion he is capable of evoking with images, alone. Some pages have no words, but carry tremendous impact. Canadian producer, Christina Piovesan, saw the screen potential of the story and approached Jeff about developing it. She teamed Jeff with screenwriter Eilis Kirwan to expand the story so that it would span five episodes. Although Jeff was the original creator of Essex County, the process was not quite as easy as simply “writing more.”
What was it like collaborating with another writer on such personal material?
“The collaborative aspect was very different, very rewarding,” Jeff says, “especially working with screenwriter Eilis Kirwan. We clicked as a team. It was great to have another voice to bounce ideas off. I wrote the book exactly as I wanted it and translating it to a new medium—things that work in the comic may not work on the screen with actors—and having another voice there is helpful to pitch other ideas.”
Jeff continues: “The style of the book is so sparse, so visual, so much about the tone and the mood of it, and TV is a medium that eats up story fast. Time works so differently in comics as opposed to film. That was the hardest thing early on. We knew we had to add material to fill five hours of TV. We went through some wrong turns. Eventually we stopped working on plot and then just built on the characters.”
The result is a haunting, nostalgic vision of Essex County come to three-dimensional life. It is peopled with an excellent cast of actors: Molly Parker as Ann, Stephen McHattie as Lou, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong as Lester, and Brian J. Smith as Ken, just to name a few. North Bay stood in for the actual Essex County as much of the project’s funding came from northern sources.
“Ideally, I would have loved to film in the real Essex County,” Jeff explains, “but for logistical reasons and financing we had to shoot in northern Ontario. We spent a lot of time lo cation scouting to find areas in northern Ontario that could double for home.”
When asked what was the most important aspect of Essex County he sought to translate from the page to the screen, Jeff conceded that it was difficult to put it into words.
“Just that feeling when you read the books, not something you can literally say,” he says. “The four main characters, you want to be true to them. I think the stories of Lester, the young boy, and Lou, the old man, translated well to the screen. The other characters, Ann and Ken, were areas where we had to build those characters out.”
Satisfying as the end result is, the process could be grueling. Jeff had an active hand in the production working as the show runner, head writer, and one of the executive producers. He remembers fifteen- to twenty-hour days on set, away from his family at times. It also took him away from his usual work, which has been the pillar of his schedule for the past twenty years.
You can’t go home again. Jeff confirms that there won’t be any more Essex County books. He has told that story and is content to let it stand.
“But I think doing the show, in a weird way, was a chance to go back and revisit those characters and that world at a different point in my life,” he says.
Essex County can be viewed online on CBC Gem. The second season of Sweet Tooth will be on Netflix at the end of April. The books that inspired both series are highly recommended reading.