As Sr. Helen Prejean and I immersed ourselves in the world of graphic books, we were not only learning, we were also searching. Searching for an illustrator for Graphic Dead Man Walking (GDMW).

We contemplated approaching Nate Powell, who had illustrated Congressman John Lewis’s March trilogy, and we discussed the work of many other artists. We chatted about GDMW with people in bookstores and in supermarkets, in cafes and exercise classes. I discovered that one fellow behind the cheese counter at the local Whole Foods was also a comics artist, as was a woman at my gym.

(Have you noticed how once you discover something new in your life, you uncover a whole world of people already engaged in that scene?)

Then I came across a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, illustrated by Catherine Anyango Grünewald. I was swept away by her images, with their extraordinary combination of realism and surrealism.

Catherine's cover for Heart of Darkness

Although Sister Helen and I thought her style might be a little too surrealistic for Dead Man Walking, I wanted to explore more of her work. I took a look at her website and discovered that the site was down, so I messaged her on Twitter to let her know. I also told her about our plans for GDMW and the following conversation ensued…

Twitter messages about graphic styles and justice

In the week following this conversation, Helen and I had a chat with our agent, Julia Masnik, about which graphic books were performing well, particularly with our key target market of young adults and college students. The top performers, it turns out, were books that were more fantastical than real, sci fi and fantasy in particular.

Dead Man Walking certainly didn’t fit the sci-fi and fantasy market, but we wondered if perhaps Catherine’s style might be the perfect fit to bridge that gap between the gritty, awful reality of the death penalty and the surrealistic worlds inhabited by popular graphic books.

In truth, anyone who has ever spent time visiting Angola prison, especially death row with its immaculate, inmate-manicured grounds and tubs of bright red geraniums outside the death house, knows that “surrealistic” is a word that frequently springs to mind.

So 10 days after my first exchange with Catherine, Sister Helen and I got on the phone with her to discuss a possible collaboration. Sister Helen, in her usual manner, simply assumed that – of course! – Catherine was going to be our illustrator. And Catherine, thank goodness, jumped at the opportunity.

Little did she know what lay ahead. Her one-year-old daughter would turn five before our complete, revised manuscript, all 300 pages of it, would land in the hands of our editor.