The graphic novelist explains how a bunny rabbit, a neglected boy and a group of Mormons led her back to the Catholic Church
If you walked through Leicester Square in central London tomorrow and saw a lone woman dancing on the pavement to a 1980s hit booming out of a nearby bar, what would you think? Perhaps “She’s drunk and it’s not even lunchtime” or “I must remember the mentally ill in my prayers more often.”
It was June 2007 and Simone Lia was on her way to home to pray. She was mulling over a recent romance which had abruptly ended via email. “So I was thinking: ‘I’m really going to go home and pray about this,‘and have this out with God’,” she recalls, “But then I thought: ‘No, I can’t even wait until I get home.’ So I kind of did it there and then in Leicester Square. I was fed up and I was doing that thing when you blame God.”
Eventually, it dawned on Lia, as she “ranted and raved” at God, that the music pulsating through the bar walls was familiar. “It was an INXS song, ‘Need You Tonight’. I used to like them when I was younger and I was listening to the lyrics. I felt that God was speaking to me through the lyrics, which is a bit ridiculous.
“I was really lost in the moment and I was having a little dance in Leicester Square. I felt like I was dancing with God and he was there.
“Anyway, after that happened the song finished and I felt in my self a sense that I needed to have this adventure with God. I had a sort of vision in my mind of the pages of a book flicking, and it was the book that I ended up writing. I saw it in my mind’s eye and I felt so inspired to try and have this adventure with God, and to record it all as a graphic novel.”
Four years later her graphic novel, Please God, Find Me a Husband!, was published. Unsurprisingly, words alone cannot do justice to this autobiographical piece which charts Lia’s “adventure with God”, beginning with their first dance in Leicester Square. It takes in Lia’s visit to a Welsh convent, a trip to Australia and dinner with a mysterious stranger. “The book was about showing a visual relationship with God without alienating people,” she says. “I wanted to draw people in to my inner little world. That was the artistic challenge. I also wanted to be really true to my faith as well, without having to explain or justify it.
“Even though it’s a personal subject, I hope it’s something that people can relate to: that relationship between yourself and God. Even the people that don’t believe in God, hopefully they might be able to relate to it anyway.”
At one point, an Australian admirer of Lia’s suddenly loses interest when he discovers that she’s Catholic. I ask her if she often finds that non-Catholics are put off by her faith. “You don’t really know what’s going on in someone’s head,” she says.
“I didn’t put this in the book, but it turned out the Australian man was a Catholic – a lapsed one, but he did have a faith.
“I don’t think they are necessarily put off by it,” she adds thoughtfully. “One guy did once tell me that he couldn’t go out with me because of my beliefs. But he was so respectful and kind. He was just challenged by what I believe in. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
Lia has not always believed in God. Although she was raised a Catholic she lost her faith on the day she was confirmed, aged 13. “I don’t think I was very well catechised. I remember when I was preparing for my Confirmation someone told me that a bird was going to land on my head and I actually believed it. So when it didn’t happen I just thought: ‘Oh no!’ and kind of lost my faith. I think what they really meant was the Holy Spirit.”
It was around this point in her teens that Lia discovered that she “absolutely loved” drawing and painting. She used her parents’ shed as a studio. “I’d be absolutely lost for hours, the smell of the paint, this thing flowing out of me. I just wanted to do that with my time.” Following encouragement from a school teacher who told Lia that she would end up at the Royal College of Art in 10 years, she studied illustration at Brighton University and then, just as her teacher predicted, was accepted for a Masters at the RCA when she was 26. “I came back to the Church when I was 30,” she recalls. “I spent my 20s looking for something. Then I realised that the thing that I was looking for was what I had when I was younger, and it wasn’t a childish thing –that relationship with Jesus – that was actually real.”
What prompted that realisation? Hearing Lia’s account the answer is a combination of St Agatha, some Mormons, a rabbit called Fluffy and a little boy on a bus. Lia tells me that her artwork is inspired by relationships and overheard conversations, and that she was particularly moved watching a garrulous little boy desperately trying to engage his absent-minded father in conversation as they travelled together. “What really broke my heart was when the boy eventually turned to his dad and said: “Daddy, you never listen to me!”
That incident inspired Lia’s first graphic novel Fluffy, the story of a rabbit’s relationship with his human father. Part of Fluffy’s story includes a journey to Sicily and so Lia decided to visit the Italian island as part of her research. She arrived at her destination, hot, sweaty and exhausted. “I asked some Mormons to convert me,” she says. “They’d been very helpful in trying to help me find a hotel and as a sort of thanks I said: ‘Why don’t you try and convert me?’ They started preaching at me and I said: ‘You won’t convert anyone like that: it’s just a memorised script. You’ve got to ask them questions.’ Then they asked me a question and they said: ‘Do you pray?’ And with that, they got me.
“I didn’t become a Mormon, but my heart sank and I thought: ‘I haven’t prayed since I was a little girl.’ Then I suddenly really missed Jesus. So the next day I went to a church and I prayed. I was just filled up with the love of God. I just believed, from not really believing to believing in the Catholic Church.”
Lia, whose parents are Maltese, suspects St Agatha who is patron saint of Malta and Sicily was also praying hard for her.
I ask Lia if she prays every time she starts a drawing. “I pray in the mornings but it’s not as if I do an entire litany to the saints or anything before
I draw,” she laughs. “I really like the idea of making your work a gift for God – it’s just pure gift. I do like to think that what I am doing is the gift to the recipients. I try to put my love into it and my heart into it. And I hope that’s what people receive, that it might brighten a person’s day or
make them laugh.”
Lia is currently working on a children’s book, which will be more text-based than her previous books. She says her favourite cartoon of all time is Snoopy. “He’s sweet and innocent but with massive amounts of depth,” she explains. “He teaches us about life and death and why we’re here.”
Lia tells me that had it not been for the success of Fluffy it would have been almost impossible to persuade publishers to release Please God, Find Me a Husband!, given its strong Catholic flavour.
Has her latest book affected her romantic life? “I did get asked out quite a lot when it first came out and I did go out with someone for quite a while,” she says. One of Lia’s admirers slipped her his phone number at a book signing and said smoothly: “In case you’re still looking for someone, this is my number.” (He admitted later he had necked a pint first to pluck up courage.)
“Now I’m a bit paranoid,” Lia says, “because if anyone Googles my name, that book title comes up and it sounds like I’m desperate.
“The reality is is that I was desperate. I wanted to be loved and to be happy. What I was doing was idolising this idea of marriage whilst putting my life and happiness on hold, blocking God out of the picture.
“I see things in a wildly different way now. I trust in God and His timing with its unexpected twists and turns. Before I was writing a graphic novel story of a part of my life. Now I feel like I’m living in God’s multi-sensory and awesome graphic novel. It has a beautiful narrative that runs deep and will only fully make sense when the story has ended.”
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (1/8/14)
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