Laughing at Us and With Us: Graphic novel gently spoofs the liberal elite, by Elaine Durbach
Chatting with Elly Lonon over coffee and fresh-baked scones - if you didn’t know any better - you might expect her new book to be something sweet and romantic, or perhaps about marriage and motherhood.
After all, the scones were baked by her husband Rocco (from a store-bought mix, he hastened to say), eagerly assisted by 6-year-old Paul and 4-year-old Sam. With Rocco proudly pointing out his wife’s art works on the wall, and the kids, bright-eyed and charming, showing off their egg-carton craft project, the scene in their South Orange home could not be more cozily domestic.
The book, however, is not that cozy. Amongst the Liberal Elite: Road Trip Exploring the Societal Inequities Solidified by Trump (RESIST) is a bitingly satirical graphic novel about a childless couple, Alexandra and Michael, who embark on a cross-country expedition. The couple have their hearts in the right place. They are idealistic and supremely well-meaning – like all of us? – but are frequently stymied by…well, by lower urges. They want to forego unrecyclable materials and exploitative products, but they also like quality and convenience. It’s the slightly squirmy familiarity that makes it very funny.
With an alacrity other first-time-in-print novelists can only dream about, seven agents responded immediately to Elly’s initial book proposal. She persisted till she reached and won over Meg Thompson and Cindy Uh at Thompson Literary Agency. They sold it with ease to powerHouse Books, which undertook to deliver it to the world in mid-October. (One of Elly’s first promotional events will be in Maplewood, at Words Bookstore, on October 30.)
The months ahead promise to be a whirlwind, juggling home life with the eager demands of a national audience. But high pressure isn’t new to Elly. Trained as an accountant, the 42-year-old from North Carolina came to New York City for graduate school, worked for a few very hectic years in the music business, handling marketing and promotion – and got cancer in 2008, an experience Elly says gave her “chemo brain” and a raw empathy for the suffering of others. (It also inspired her first book, as yet unpublished: Lymphomania, a humorous take on dealing with her symptoms, treatment, and daily life.)
In January 2017 she took another leap, persuading McSweeney’s, the California-based humor website, to carry her column about the noble aspirations and daily tribulations of Alex and Michael. Its premise: “Getting woke is hard. It takes more than listening to NPR on our daily commutes and reading Jon Stewart’s Twitter feed in bed while we sip craft beer from artisanal glassware made by at-risk women on another continent to make us global citizens.”
Meanwhile, she says on her website, she abandoned her previous career “to write and procreate.” Thanks to the former, she has since published articles in the New York Times, Scary Mommy, O Magazine, and various parenting anthologies, not to mention “a disappointing number of now defunct sites.”
Along with procreation and writing, she also plays the ukulele, and composes songs – with ample help from Rocco, who is backstage theater technician, and from Paul and Sam. The family’s latest Annual Summertime Song posted just before school started, is a charming ditty called “Tick Tock, Penguin Walk,” a title provided by Paul. (You can hear it on her website, ellylonon.com.)
Prompted by the success of the column, she began looking around for an artist to work with her on turning it into a book. Joan Reilly, a nationally published illustrator who lives in Kutztown, PA, had just the quirky, socially aware eye Elly wanted. It was Joan’s drawings and the first chapter and rough story outline that won them a publishing contract.
They meshed remarkably well, both recognizing themselves in the characters and exaggerating the result for comic effect. Joan explains that “[Elly] wrote it out in the same format as the McSweeney’s column, then I went in and edited it all into a comics script, deciding what text would go where and how to visually convey it all. We were working in a shared Google document, and would virtually ‘hang out’ all day chatting with each other.”
One thing the two have in common is that Joan too has been dealing with cancer. (She has already undergone surgery and radiation, and is starting chemo this fall.) Elly, acutely aware of the challenges the artist would be facing, sought a way to continue their partnership.
Providentially two young artists have entered the mix – Miguel Yurrita and Theresa Chiechi – who have proved themselves capable of following Joan’s guidance, and drawing in her style. Elly herself learned to do the lettering, via computer, for the text and dialog.
Meanwhile, her book is now being distributed by Penguin Random House. According to the blurb, it “follows Alex and Michael on a cross-country road trip as they try to reconnect with their fellow Americans, understand how Trump got elected, and strive to learn what it really means to resist and get ‘woke.’”
And Elly’s real-life sources of inspiration? She confesses that “my neighbors and friends well know I always have a notebook and pen in my pocket. And I have on more than one occasion sent out a group text that said, ‘Come over and have a glass of wine so I can observe you talking to one another. I need another column.’” However, she adds, “I always ask permission if there’s something specific I want to leverage.”
Advance reviews of the book have been laudatory. As Shawn Williams writes, “It is very humorous, relatable, and still addresses so many of the underlying fears so many of us feel. [Reading it] makes my heart stop and my tears fall because…it’s speaking to a truth we all feel.”
Elly says she was particularly moved when another person stopped in the middle of reading one passage to write and tell her how true it rang and how touching it was. On her Facebook page she comments that “That’s one of my top 10 moments, Universe. And I thank you. You have impeccable timing. Love, me.”