April 2, 2020
Rebecca Roher ’15 won the Doug Wright Award in Canada for her CCS thesis project comic Bird in a Cage, the touching tale of her grandmother after she had an accident that left her with a brain injury, leading to early-onset dementia. Rebecca’s most recent project is 100 Year–Old Wisdom, for which she is interviewing senior citizens aged 90 and up. She gave the following interview with Angela Boyle ’16.
How did you come up with the idea for this project, 100 Year–Old Wisdom?
I started watching videos of reporters interviewing people on their 100+ birthdays, asking for their secrets to long life. I loved the centenarian’s answers, like eating oatmeal every day and staying away from men. I thought how neat it would be to do these kinds of interviews myself and make comics of the stories I collected. Centenarians experienced life before the digital age, lived through wartime, and grew up in the time just after women got the vote. I wanted to see how, through their eyes, society has changed over the past 100 years and it felt important to document these stories before it was too late. Aging is also very interesting to me: I wanted to look at it right in the face to better understand it, to be prepared for it and to find out how to do it well.
What drew you to Angoulême, France, to continue the project?
France has a huge comics industry, and Angoulême is its centre, so it’s a goldmine of inspiration for comics creators. The Maison des Auteurs (MdA), where I have a residency to complete this project, is dedicated to cartoonists and animators. For my particular project, the city’s central European location made travel for interviews easy; I could take short trips and return to my studio to make the comics. I really enjoy the pace of life in Angoulême. It’s a quiet and beautiful medieval city, and there are always new friends to meet at the residency, so it’s easy to enjoy life and be focused on my work.
How has the work differed in France, working in a second language?
For the interviews, I will hire interpreters if my subjects don’t speak English, unless a family member or caregiver can translate. Meeting translators has been an unexpected perk to the project, as I am given access to a lot of local knowledge. I can get by with my French, but seeing all these comics I want to read is definitely motivation to improve my language skills. It’s wonderful to be immersed in such a multi-lingual environment at the MdA. Most people can speak at least some English, making it easy (for me!) to socialize in the residency bubble.
How many people have you interviewed? Who was the oldest and who gave the best advice?
I’ve interviewed around 30 people from ages 87 to 107. The eldest, a 107 year-old, is an allergist who worked with Alexander Fleming and experimented on himself, even to the point of anaphylaxis! He advised staying away from mould. He felt his key to long life was having a guardian angel. Many people I interviewed had no idea about their secret to longevity and didn’t feel they could give advice, but many of them said things like “be true to yourself”, or essentially “you do you”, which I love. However, I saw a theme running through all my interviews and have developed my own theory on the secret to long life, which you can discover when you read the book!
What is the most important thing you have learned about interviewing?
I learned to record interviews in as many ways as possible in case technology fails: audio, video, note-taking. It was difficult to be recording and do the interview at the same time, so having a helper was useful. I found it was important to get as much background information on the person beforehand so I knew what questions to ask. Also, be respectful and ask permission before taking photos and recording.