A discussion with the authors of White Faced Lies.
White Faced Lies centers on a very unique and questionable profession called "face jobbing," with which many people aren't familiar. Can you tell us what these gigs — which are also called “white monkey jobs” — consist of?
Flanagan: Face jobs are situations in which a local entity in Mainland China hires a white person — ideally a white American — regardless of their skill or education level to stand in and pose as a professional in a particular field of work, such as a high-level representative of a company. Hiring this person is intended to lend a local company more credibility or prestige in the eyes of the Chinese market. It’s a form of fakery that exploits an until recently widely held racist belief in China that white people from developed Western countries are of higher social or professional value.
At what point did you realize this would be a great topic for a story?
Voutas: I was living in Beijing and encountered many Americans based in China who did this type of work regularly. These guys would be called up by a sort of actors' manager and be told to travel to another Chinese city the very next day. So the white twenty-three-year-old American English teacher, let's say, would put in a business suit, and, when he landed in the next city in China, he’d have to pretend to be a VIP executive who'd just landed from New York or Chicago or wherever. Eric and I felt this was a really rich backdrop for a story. So, it started with me researching that world. I bought an MP3 recorder and acted as a fake businessman for a few trips around China. I’m not American, but Australian was close enough. I did a handful of gigs and recorded each one — just long enough to understand how that industry operated. And then, with that real-life material as a base, Eric and I started to collaborate on the fictional side of the story, which we at first wrote as a movie script.
Why did you choose to make this a graphic novel after developing it as a script?
Flanagan: By the time we finished the story as a film script, China had become inhospitable to foreign film productions, particularly indie films, which hadn't been the case just a few years earlier. So, rather than shelve the story, we decided to look at other ways to put it out into the world, and a graphic novel made a lot of sense. A major character in the story is the very visual and textured environments inside Mainland China, so we knew that whatever medium we used would need to be a visual medium. Once we found our illustrator, who had also lived in China for a long time and knew that world well, everything clicked into place.
Did you have any background in graphic novels before writing this?
Voutas: None at all, which was daunting, to say the least! Eric and I always loved reading comics growing up, but that's not the same as writing one. So, we began reading graphic novels that we admired. My brother-in-law had worked in a Vancouver comic store for years, so we reached out to him regularly with a lot of technical questions, too. But I think having a filmmaking background really helped us with the book. As we were writing, we were always referring to movies we liked and scenes from those movies. We'd discuss how the shots and stories were composed in those films. Then we applied those conversations to the graphic novel. So the process was almost like making a movie storyboard.
Eric, you're from Texas. How did you end up in Asia writing graphic novels?
Flanagan: Texas is a huge place psychologically as much as physically, and anyone who has lived there may know the feeling of promise and possibility that it can foster. That feeling was definitely guiding me when I discovered Asia to be where the biggest, fastest and most significant changes and cultural collisions were happening, and arguably still are. I knew this was the frontier where I wanted to place myself creatively, and White Faced Lies very much reflects the idea of Asia being a “Wild West” of sorts.
I understand most of this was written remotely. What was the writing process for you both over the years?
Voutas: The book took us ten years, and we lived in separate countries for the entire time, which was a major challenge. For the first pass of the story Eric crashed on my couch in Beijing for a week, and we hammered the rough structure by sticking palm cards to my windows. But then when Eric left, we had to move our work to Skype calls. Over the years we tried to meet up once a year in person for an intense writing session, and then do the rest via calls. A big part of the creative process was also just via voice messages. While Eric was asleep on one side of the world, I'd be brainstorming and sending him ideas, and then when I went to sleep and Eric was in the middle of his workday, he'd do the same. So in that regard having completely different time zones was actually a benefit, as there was always someone awake working on a story solution.
How did you end up collaborating with Canadian illustrator Timothy McEvenue?
Voutas: We knew that finding an illustrator with firsthand experience in China was imperative, because there's just so many subtle things that an outsider could easily get wrong. At that time Tim was living in Beijing drawing illustrations for newspapers like the Herald Tribune and various magazines. But the great thing for us was that Tim had also done a fair few gigs as a male model in China. He'd traveled around the country for fashion shoots and the like. And while fashion and modeling is a very separate field from what our book's about, we felt he had a very unique understanding of what it was like to be hired simply for one's face in China. So I pitched the idea of illustrating the book to Tim over coffee in Beijing, and Eric and I are just so grateful that he agreed to go on this journey with us. His artwork is filled with so many specific details of life in China, things you'd only know to put in there if you'd actually lived there.
What was the greatest challenge moving from films to graphic novels? Were there some parts of the process that were easier?
Flanagan: As Sam mentioned, perhaps without intending to, our approach to White Faced Lies was almost as if it were a film, yet one caught on paper in illustrated form. In making the book we would also discuss character performances and editing like we were making a movie. In this regard, we definitely didn't utilize the full spectrum of freedoms afforded when telling a story in book form. Maybe next time we will embrace those tools more.
The book takes place in 2010, how much has China changed since then? Do these jobs still exist?
Voutas: Well, I feel the concept of good face and bad face is not going to go away in China any time soon. What I think has changed is what now constitutes good face in China. In 2010, the time our book is set, having an American, any American, at your table was about as good face as you could get. There was a general positive energy towards Americans in general over there. But as nationalism has risen in China, year upon year, you're seeing a lot more mistrust of Westerners in general, regardless of what race they may be. Now having an American show up at your local business meeting could actually jeopardize your business deal. So I think in the future we'll see face jobs in China evolve. They will, I think, likely be face jobs with socialist characteristics. The Americans will get these jobs less and less, and I think you'll see some Russians getting more of that type of work, and more people from Mainland China will start playing those roles too. So face jobs will continue, it's just the people wearing those suits and doing the pretending will be different. Fakery and deceit have always existed worldwide and always will. But the specific methods of fakery are constantly changing and shifting, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.
Get a copy of White Faced Lies from an independent bookseller.