Welcome to the first in a series of interviews with authors. Sophie and Scarlett Rickard produced two graphic novels that I have greatly admired and enjoyed reading. These books impressed me so much that I want to learn more about the authors and their work as well as recommend them to you. Please visit their website to learn more about Sophie and Scarlett and buy their amazing books.
1. What prompted you to produce a graphic novel of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell? Why this book? Why a graphic novel?
The answer to “why graphic novels” is that Sophie loves to write stories and Scarlett loves to draw. From our earliest childhood, Sophie’s role has been to “tell Scarlett what to draw”. After our first collaboration, Mann’s Best Friend (a dramatic tale of love and friendship, undermined by an unsuitable dog) we got a taste for making long-form stories expressed in narrative art. Or, comics, as it’s more commonly known.
It was Scarlett’s idea to adapt The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. She recognised it as a difficult, long-winded, and depressing read for a modern audience, yet it contains important ideas with so much modern relevance. They say a picture tells a thousand words, and in our case, we squeezed 255,000 of Tressell’s words into 350 pages of pictures. We did have to abridge the work, leave out some subplots, some of the repetition, and gloss over some of the ‘comedy’. We worked hard to express the original sentiments in accessible ways.
The graphic novel format means that people who may never have attempted the prose novel can enjoy the story and ideas that Tressell was so driven to promulgate. The story is told entirely in pictures, with the only text being the dialogue in speech balloons. It’s quite like watching a film of the book, and we have had enthusiastic feedback from readers with dyslexia and concentration challenges.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has only become more relevant since we first put pen to paper, which is a great shame. However, there is a groundswell of left-leaning young people in the UK who are actively seeking political texts and are increasingly unwilling to put up with the economic circumstances they inherit. There is a better way, and there’s always hope it can be brought about.
2. Your second book, No Surrender, is also an adaptation of a novel. It was written by Constance Maud and is about the campaign for women’s right to vote. How and why is it important to you that your graphic novels are about social justice?
Our criterion for adapting a book seems to be political fiction, written with authenticity by an undervalued person from the group whose oppression is described in the story. In other words, we like to raise an authentic voice rather than speak for or about a marginalised group. So, with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it was the working class, and with No Surrender it was women. Constance Maud was a middle-class woman who worked alongside working women and aristocrats to change the law. No Surrender is fictional, designed at least in part as a recruiting tool for the movement, but it is littered with real people and real events. Maud was never arrested for her part in the Women’s Freedom League shenanigans, but not for want of trying!
We both feel very strongly about politics, civil rights, justice, and equality, so it’s natural that they feature in our creative work. Any work of fiction that attempts to ignore or skirt around the power structures of class, race, gender, and disability is simply describing the world from the point of view of the powerful. In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Tressell describes how power systems can feel so ‘normal’ and unquestionable. Whatever we were working on, we’d like to think we’ve learned enough from him to point out structural unfairness wherever we see it. Having said all that, our books aren’t all serious. However dark and brooding Sophie writes the plot, Scarlett always manages to find humour in the art. One of the joys of collaboration is trying to make one another laugh, so there are all kinds of things to giggle at in the details.
3. Do you plan to address in future books other social justice issues?
We are currently working on a graphic adaptation of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s This Slavery. Also set in the 1910s, This Slavery depicts the unique challenges of a woman’s place in industrial capitalism. Holdsworth worked in the mills from the age of eleven and her portrayal of the narrow survival options available to women of her background is unflinching and affecting. The story follows two sisters who take very different paths through an era of rapid industrialisation and industrial strife in the cotton booms of East Lancashire. The book will be published in autumn 2025 by SelfMadeHero. It will sit very comfortably on your shelf alongside the other two.
4. Have you thought of producing a novel where the protagonist is an animal and explores their plight? This could be, for example, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell published in 1877.
This is an interesting question. A major difference between graphic novels and prose novels is that in comics we don’t get to see people’s private thoughts and feelings, only the outer expression of them. So, to make a graphic novel from the point of view of animals you might need to ‘put words in their mouths’, so to speak. Penguin has recently published a graphic adaptation of Watership Down, but we haven’t had a chance to see it yet.
One of the challenges of adapting graphic novels is to manufacture scenes in which characters can express the inner thoughts that can be so readily laid out in prose. Animals can be very useful for this, for example in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists we have Owen telling his cat all his troubles. In This Slavery there is a dog who has become a prominent character during development, not only to listen to people’s woes but to give trustworthy emotional responses to different characters and even for practicalities such as visibly reacting to a sudden knock at the door.
In a way, we have made an animal protagonist before (in Mann’s Best Friend) and although welfare considerations drove the plot, it couldn’t really be described as an ‘animal rights’ book. No Surrender (the graphic novel and the original) is dedicated to Charlotte Despard, an infamous suffrage fighter and prominent anti-vivisectionist. We are both vegetarians and have a great deal of respect for the dignity of all living beings, but overall, our focus has been on human rights in the first instance. Although Scarlett really does love drawing horses, so you never know!
5. I was astonished and impressed to learn you work together even though you are far apart working on iPads and computers. Please summarise the creative process you follow to produce your books.
We were working ‘remotely’ long before everyone else joined in! We live around 200 miles apart, but we speak most days on video calls. Our creative process looks something like this. One of us (usually Scarlett) finds a book that would be good to adapt and recommends it to the other. After a thorough read and some research, we discussed the project and pitched it to the publisher SelfMadeHero. Sophie adapts the text of the novel into a kind of screenplay, in which the story is transformed into dialogue and something akin to stage directions. At this juncture, we tend to make some major changes to adapt to the medium, including making scenes more visual and perhaps reducing the number of characters. The script then goes to our editor, David Hine, for notes.
Scarlett and Sophie then sit together (either in person or online) and use the script to develop our storyboard. This is a lever-arch file of very quick sketches made in pencil on ordinary copy paper. Here we work out what each page will look like and how each chapter will fit into the page count. Here we consider things like the maximum number of words per page and whether action goes across a double-page spread or if the reader must turn the page to follow what’s happening. When we are happy with the ‘shape’ of our book, Scarlett transforms the script and the storyboard into the finished artwork using Adobe InDesign (for layouts) and Fresco (for drawing). She sketches, inks, colours, and letters on each page herself. In regular comics, these tasks would be done by four different specialists. She starts at the beginning and works to get to the end by the deadline, usually with a target of completing a page a day, seven days a week. As each page is completed Scarlett sends it to Sophie (electronically) for comments and notes, and at the end of each chapter, the art is sent to our editor David Hine for comments and notes. He is extremely generous and has taught us a great deal about the craft and magic of comic art. At the very end, the publisher sends us ‘line edits’ which are usually detailed notes on things like punctuation or syntax but can include things about the readability of the text. This is a vital part of making the book the best it can be. When all that is agreed, the book can be printed.
It’s an incredibly collaborative process from start to finish and although we each have distinct roles in the production, it would be very difficult to distinguish ‘who made what’ as we work so closely at every stage.