Current NER summer intern Simone Edgar Holmes ’20.5 talks to Josh Aichenbaum ’11, a former NER intern who recently founded his own graphic novel press, Oak Tree Comics. He reflects on his time at NER and the power of storytelling.
Josh Aichenbaum, pictured now (left) and during his time at Middlebury (right), as the snitch in a Quidditch match.
Simone Edgar Holmes: When were you an intern at NER and what do you remember from your experience?
Josh Aichenbaum: I began reading for the New England Review in fall 2010. I remember being late for my interview. I vastly underestimated the time it took to cross campus. My brisk pace became a full-on run, and the last leg was uphill. When I shook Carolyn’s hand, I was perspiring heavily. Mid-interview, Carolyn offered me a box of Kleenex to wipe my brow. I think it would have been more embarrassing if I didn’t get the internship!
Beyond that, I remember reading a lot. I read a couple hundred submissions in two years. I definitely learned to discern what writing I liked and didn’t from all of those stories.
SEH: Where are you now, geographically and professionally?
JA: I moved to Los Angeles a year after graduating to pursue a career in screenwriting. Just this summer, I started a business that I’ve dreamed about for years. I love graphic novels and children’s lit, and I’ve combined those interests in founding Oak Tree Comics. As an independent publisher, our focus is on telling imaginative stories with positive social and environmental messages for kids.
SEH: What were some of the steps you took between graduating from Middlebury and founding Oak Tree Comics?
JA: Going from Middlebury College to Oak Tree Comics feels like a culmination of an amazing, inevitable journey in search of my writing voice. For years, I balanced working in entertainment and education as I pursued screenwriting. For me the big distinction between prose and screenwriting is that film is a collaborative medium. Making a film is like a game of whisper down the lane, with higher stakes. As the writer, you whisper first. Then producers, a director, actors, editors, marketers, and more add to your story. In the best collaborations, the director encourages the writer to walk down the line and remind everyone, “This is the story. This is why we’re telling it.”
When the pandemic hit, with those projects on hold, I had time to reflect on my writing. Following my Masters at the American Film Institute, I had found a niche working on historical projects. For my graduate thesis, I had written two produced short films. One was a historical western and the other a family comedy. The family comedy aligned more with my voice and my love of children’s literature, but the western got me work developing projects for estates with historical legacies.
Another project I did after grad school was much more personal. In 2017, I edited an anthology of memories about my grandfather, which my cousins and I independently published. The book is titled Did You Boscov Today. The contrast between working on unproduced material versus independently publishing a book I cared so deeply about is partially what motivated me to create Oak Tree Comics. I realized that I’m happiest when telling stories that speak to who I am, my personality, and values, and when those stories find their way into the world to make their impact.
SEH: What was one skill you developed as an undergraduate that most benefits you today in your professional work and in making that impact you just described?
JA: This seems like the obvious answer, but it’s true. While at Middlebury, I learned to write (and to love writing).
I remember reading a ten-minute play line by line with Dana Yeaton, my teacher and thesis advisor. The exercise was a lesson on brevity. We went word by word through my play and excised any preposition or beat that felt extraneous. Don Mitchell’s screenwriting course taught me structure. A course on writing for children brought out my imagination. For my senior thesis, I drew a graphic novel adapting D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner.” I didn’t have any real drawing experience, but I was young, and what was fear anyway? I designed my college curriculum to allow myself four years of creative experimentation. Those years provided me with a foundational understanding of what it takes to write a story, and I’ve built on that foundation ever since.
SEH: I think I can guess, but what is your favorite genre to read for pleasure? Have you read anything good lately?
JA: I love visual storytelling. Maybe that’s obvious at this point. That love grew out of reading newspaper comics growing up. When I was a junior in high school, my uncle introduced me to graphic novels. At the time, I had read Maus; that was about it. Per his recommendations, I voraciously read every graphic novel I could find. My favorite was an imaginative book by Craig Thompson called Goodbye, Chunky Rice. The main characters are a turtle and a mouse; yet it is one of the most human, heartfelt, and beautiful books I’ve ever read—highly unsung. It’s all about friends parting ways.
The most recent book I’ve read is My Favorite Thing is Monsters. I have my family to thank for the terrific recommendations. My cousin brought this one to my attention. Its narrative reminds of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, but as a graphic novel . . . with monsters. But don’t expect Dracula to show up. It is a lovely, thought-provoking, and richly layered dissection of what it feels like to be othered in America.
SEH: Great suggestions—I’m a fan of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and love a good graphic novel on a summer afternoon. Any final words of advice, perhaps for people who’d like to be in your shoes someday?
JA: If anyone asked, when I was starting out, I always said I was “an aspiring writer.” If you want to write professionally, drop “aspiring” from your vocabulary. If you write every day, or practice your craft with any level of seriousness, accept it; you’re a writer. If you don’t believe it, why should anyone else?
SEH: Thank you so much for your time, Josh, and the best of luck with Oak Tree Comics. I’ll be sure to keep your advice in mind!