When common humanity takes a back seat to greed
By Beth Osborne
Scott MacGregor’s graphic novel Tunnel to Hell is the story of the Waterworks Tunnel Disaster of 1916, as seen through the eyes of those who suffered as they attempted to work on and survive past the tunnels they dug 200 feet below Lake Erie. Tunnel to Hell is a story of desperation, greed, and industrial conquest. Illustrated by Gary Dumm, it follows characters who attempt to navigate a perilous race and class system rigged dangerously against them.
MacGregor has been writing and publishing graphic stories for over thirty years in collaboration with Dumm and other artists. He is the principal writer and publisher of the comic book Dip Stories. His photographic portfolio study of Ireland has been widely published and can be found in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 2012, MacGregor was awarded the prestigious Creative Workforce Fellowship Grant by Northeastern Ohio’s Cuyahoga Arts and Culture as the result of his presentation of Tunnel to Hell, which is his first graphic novel. Read more about the book on Facebook and find it on Amazon.
In this interview, Beth Osborne, book reviewer for the SFWP Quarterly, asks MacGregor more about his work. Her review of Tunnel to Hell can be read here.
Beth Osborne: What made your decision to use the graphic novel format for this story?
Scott MacGregor: I honestly felt that it was the only way to tell this particular story, short of making a movie on the subject. Truth be told, it’s a format that I’m very comfortable with – not dissimilar to writing a screenplay. I faced the same challenge of any writer to create dialogue of genuine quality so that the characters endear themselves or are antagonistic (or both) to the reader.
In my view, you have less time to develop characters in a graphic novel than in a prose effort because your eyes don’t lie. What you see is what you get and when they are as well drawn as they are in Tunnel To Hell, the characters hit the panels as large as life and it was a daunting task to make the words and the visuals work together. Otherwise, you end up with a bad, very long “comic book.”
Osborne: For a story so steeped in gritty reality, the dream sequences were a beautiful choice. Could you talk more about these sequences and the bond between the characters Ben Beltran and Rodger Clarke?
MacGregor: Well, unintended predictability is venial sin for any storyteller. There comes a time in every tale when the writer has an opportunity to deviate into the unexpected to keep the reader off balance. I’m always looking for opportunities to take things sideways when the timing is right. The dream sequences were also strategic to the plot. Beltran and Clarke are drawn together by cause and effect but the challenge was to make it work in ways both intriguing and realistic.
In the early twentieth century when this story takes place, an era before our senses were dulled down by the proliferation of electronic noise, a tormented, God-fearing mind was wide open to mental suggestion from human telepathy, déjà vu, or “God’s will,” if you believe in such things. My characters certainly did. The insertion of the prophetic dream sequences created the opportunity to link those two disparate and sympathetic characters together, so that when Ben enters the tunnel for the last time, specifically in search of Clarke, the reader can keep hope alive that they’ll find each other somehow.
Osborne: With our current social climate, do you see parallels between the people in your story and people of today?
MacGregor: Great question and the answer is an emphatic yes. My goal was to tell a 100-year-old story based on real events that is comprised of societal base elements that have not yet decayed from our present world and, sadly, are still flourishing.
Tunnel To Hell is about government corruption for profit, the exploitation of immigrants and the working class for profit, pollution of the environment for profit, and I hope it will inspire thought and discussion on the absolute futility of racial hate and intolerance. At the end of the day, Tunnel To Hell is a cautionary tale about what happens when our common humanity takes a back seat to unconstrained greed. I find it disgraceful that movements have to continually be built just so that people of good will can shout truth to power. When Ben says, “History lives at the pleasure of a forgetful human race,” he speaks the truth. The world needs to listen to such truth tellers.
Osborne: What are you working on now?
MacGregor: Oddly enough, the story of “Tunnel To Hell” began its life as a single chapter in another graphic novel I was writing. The source material was so rich, however, that the chapter became its own book. I even had to condense and cut forty fully-illustrated pages from Tunnel To Hell because early feedback deemed it too long. Talk about pain. I guess we’ll save those lost pages for the “Director’s Cut” (ha-ha). I still have to finish that original story I was writing, which is another Cleveland tale.
Sometimes stories just fall into your lap and I have a whopper that I’m currently outlining derived from my own family history. It’s a story that will work either as a prose novel or another graphic exercise. It’s based on the life of my late uncle, a writer and poet himself, who suffered terribly while an American prisoner of war in Europe during the waning days of the Third Reich. After he recovered from his physical wounds, he self-treated his PTSD in 1946 by traveling to California where he became a charter member of the Anderson Creek Gang. The ACG was a group of Bohemians living in shacks right off the Big Sur highway. Their gang leader was none other than author Henry Miller and the story will include the comings and goings of other tag-along notables like painter Emil White, writer William Saroyan, and photographer Man Ray, among others. Their lifestyles and mores presaged the Beats by several years. I do believe there is a story in there somewhere!
But, as Henry Miller advised all writers, “one book at a time,” Tunnel To Hell was just released. It’s an earnest effort that I’m currently trying hard to promote.
Beth Osborne is a chocolate enthusiast living in Ithaca, New York. When she isn’t reading books, Beth can be found wandering in the mountains, baking bread, and training for triathlons. Before she was reading, Beth was a paleobotanist. However, a harrowing experience at a Costa Rican theme park convinced her to pursue a quieter life.