Zadie Smith loves Joff Winterhart’s new graphic novel Driving Short Distances and so do we. Joff Winterhart’s follow-up to his sweet, loving, Costa Award-nominated debut Days Of The Bagnold Summer is another slice of pitch-perfect comic social realism. Imagine if Alan Bennett was a cartoonist and you’re halfway there.

Driving … tells the story of Sam, a withdrawn, anxious twentysomething and Keith, an ageing “salesman” who offers Sam a job. Keith, all hairy earlobes, wild eyebrows and set-in-stone opinions, deserves, according to the aforementioned Ms Smith, “to join Keith Talent in the short but potent list of great British literary Keiths.”

The whole thing is a lovely example of the Odd Couple format that slowly, carefully reveals its secrets. In short, it’s a Play for Today drama told in comic book form.

Loading article content

For Graphic Content, creator Joff Winterhart talks about the book’s origins, Fred Dibnah and who would play Sam and Keith in the film someone should even now be trying to make.

I have to ask. Joff?

My Mum and Dad couldn't agree on a name for me, so they chose “Jonathan” which they were both pretty indifferent about. So when my older brother (three at the time) started mispronouncing the name as Joffanon, then just as Joff, they joined in. The only person to call me by my full name is my genius 96-year-old Aunt Cis. (Also; various dinner ladies over the years.)

Can you tell us the origins of Driving Short Distances? Do you have personal experiences of "sales"? Are you Sam?

I have no real experience of “sales”. That is partly why the true nature of Sam's “job” in my book is kept actually quite vague! But the idea first came from the character of “Keith” who was very initially based on a man who taught me to drive, in rural Somerset in the early 1990s. He eventually evolved in to someone quite different from that first inspiration, but Keith's unchanging uniform (navy blue trousers, white short sleeved shirt with epaulettes, and tie) still remain from this man.

I am not Sam, Sam is not me, but ... I suppose we have quite a few things in common. Some social awkwardness, a liking for old signs, somewhat ill at ease in exclusive worlds of men, over-apologising, self-loathing - all that good stuff! Maybe he is like a more introverted version of me or something?

At a few stages when I was making this thing, I would think: “This is getting a bit too autobiographical...”

I didn't want Sam to be some kind of “avatar” for me (even if everyone in the book is quite blue) So I would have Sam like cats (I'm a real dog person) or Radiohead or whatever ... To make a distinction in my mind.

"Of course, we all know Keith is really Fred Dibnah, Joff?" Discuss.

That's funny ... Well, Fred Dibnah, and that world of Fred Dibnah, definitely helped inform the world of Keith and his friends that I wanted to show. A very male domain; sheds and machinery and talking mainly about technical information and things like that.

And they share a similar build and physical presence. But I think Fred had a far more well-developed sense of humour, is far more self-deprecating and wry, than Keith. And he definitely had a really sincere, infectious passion for all his enthusiasms – it’s what people liked about him.

Keith doesn't really have that same, passionate relationship to any of his interests. He’s always been much more of a dabbler, a browser - only mildly interested/knowledgeable in a few things.

Like many of us, maybe he never really found his “thing” (to which Sam can relate), as opposed to some of his more committed friends, for instance.

And, maybe, that has helped lead him to some state of sort of ... Rigid stagnation?

HeraldScotland:

Apart from Aunt May in Spider-Man, comics don't really cover the senior experience. Why not?

I can actually think of a few! Notably Paco Roca's Wrinkles and, of course, Raymond Briggs' classic Ethel & Ernest - both of which have been made into animated films, if you don't want to read a comic-strip. But I say, go with the comic-books! 

But indeed, why not? I guess many people are universally freaked out by the reality of old age, and so many people in so-called "conventional" comic stories are at least young and virile, and often miraculously super-powered. Interestingly, they did make the aforementioned Aunt May much younger and dreamier in that new Spider Man film.

Who is your mentor?

Don't get me started - many mentors, heroes. I've got loads! They might not thank me for mentioning them, but Lisa Marr and Paolo Davanzo at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles - two ultra-inspiring and creative film-makers/musicians/teachers/activists who run an amazing co-op community film Center, which I have been lucky enough to work at a few times. They have inspired and activated me, and so many countless (young, old and in-between) others over the years! 

Then there are mentors from beyond the grave - whose work and life continues to inform so much of what I try and make in art, music, projects etc. People like Sister Corita Kent, the radical screen-printing nun from the 1960s, and Charles and Ray Eames, Gerald Hoffnung, the Maysles brothers ... All people whose attitudes to art and life seemed somehow inextricably linked.

And in this same spirit, there are the mentors of today who I’ve never met, great humanist geniuses such as Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman and of course, the great Jonathan Richman.

What do comics let you do that no other medium does?

Really clever comics people like Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti and the aforementioned Ms Barry can (and do) answer such a question brilliantly.

They understand about subtle things like timing, and the wonderful, delicate, balanced play between text and picture, etc. 

It’s all stuff that I feel I don't fully understand at all; I just sort of blunder through in a naive fashion, squeezing things in where they probably shouldn’t fit, and just really hoping my instincts are okay enough to tell a story ... I mean, I work hard, but have no real confidence in my comics-storytelling chops. I’m just not very analytical or clever in that way, I'm afraid.  

So I will answer your question by saying it can allow you to work at a table for months and even years on your own (with gradually devolving posture) for those who like that sort of thing! 

Days Of The Bagnold Summer the movie is coming. How does that feel?

Weird! I can't really imagine it, or imagine it being longer than about three-quarters of an hour long, so I hope they’ve made up some extra stuff to happen in it ... Car chases, drug use, mild peril, etc.

But I’ve met some of the people making it and they seem very nice, very clever and sincere and enthusiastic about the whole thing. I'm grateful!

HeraldScotland: And who would your dream casting be for Sam and Keith for the movie version of Driving Short Distances?

I can actually imagine a film of this book much more easily (even though, again, I think it would be hard to get it past the one-hour mark, plotwise!) Mainly because it was much more informed by films, or specifically film actors/characters.

For instance, for the character of Keith, I was thinking a lot about numerous classic American character actors such as Ernest Borgnine, Lee J Cobb, Rod Steiger, Jack Warden, and most directly Eddie Albert, particularly in this one old war film called 'Attack!' He was a real influence in that one, especially in terms of his nostril acting!!

But generally that sort of ultra-masculine, bullish, coiled-up, smallish physical type of man.

I’ve just always loved those films of the 1950s, where men get cross with each other in sweaty shirt sleeves, and vividly clutch at themselves in an angry, self-dramatising fashion. As in 12 Angry Men, A Face in the Crowd or many of Elia Kazan's films, these sorts of things ...

So I was just imagining these sorts of characters/physical types, but within an incredibly mild English trading estate-style setting.

It would have to be this type of American character actor (mostly all dead by now), but with an English accent. So, maybe then, Warren Clarke, though, he, too, is sadly no longer with us.

Likewise, when I was first trying to visualise Sam, I had actors (in their youthful roles) in mind like David Thewlis, Tom Courtney and Jean Pierre Leaud, also mixed in with kids I remember from school (with the legs of Joey Ramone.) 

Or maybe ... Just get Cate Blanchett to play everyone's parts? Think she could do it.

Another reason I'd be quite into them making a film of this book, is that I would often imagine myself (during the many hours of drawing) allowed to be the music supervisor for said film, and I would get to choose songs for the soundtrack by the numerous gruff / tender male US country-folk singer-songwriters I would almost exclusively listen to whilst doing the pictures - John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen, Guy Clark, and Tom House.

(I'm really sorry if I have just basically answered many of these questions by just listing things – it’s a tendency I have - I love a list!)

Driving Short Distances by Joff Winterhart, is published  by Jonathan Cape, priced £14.99. You should go and buy it because it is very, very good.