Alison Bechdel is a graphic novelist and author of the new book Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). She visited TPR for a conversation about the process behind her work. Joining her were TPR Founder Jess Van Nostrand, Off Paper Editor and Associate Provost of Cornish College of the Arts Jenifer Ward, TPR Volunteer and artist Tessa Hulls, artist Sarah Bergmann, and TPR volunteer Fritzie Reisner. This is an edited transcription of that conversation, which begins with Alison’s arrival from a delayed flight from LA in the midst of her national book tour.
ALISON: I feel like my molecules are disassembled. I’ve been in a different city since May 1st. So I’ll either be really lucid today or really incoherent.
JESS: We’ll take either version. That’s fine. Well, congratulations on the success of the book so far. It’s been fun to read different people’s takes on it. I was reading this morning the Seattle Times and the Stranger. Both published today, I think, about you being in town, and it was so noticeably different, the styles…,They were both very positive, but it seems that because your book touches on universal issues, for lack of a better word—this mother-daughter relationship which I imagine so many people can relate to—do you find that people are responding in vastly different ways?
ALISON: It’s all still really new, so I don’t have a broad sample of responses to gauge from. People seem—the people who tell me it touched them or moved them, it seems kind of similar, like, “Oh, this is my story.”
JESS: Do you have people close to you who read it during the editing process?
ALISON: Not really. My editor and my agent. A couple friends would read it at various points, but it was very hard for anyone to read it, because when I’m working on it, it’s very unfinished. There are no pictures. The way I work is without doing a lot of drawing. I can show you—
[Alison clicks through slides documenting her process on her computer.]
TESSA: Jess brought in the New Yorker profile on you and it was interesting reading about your process in there, where it seems like your work is almost more printmaking than illustration in terms of the number of layers you put into it, and having to be so methodical in thinking ahead.
ALISON: I never thought about it as printmaking. That’s interesting. People always ask which comes first, the pictures or the words, and I can’t answer that, because they’re simultaneous—even though they might not seem that way.
FRITZIE: Do you think in terms of the narrative and then go populate the details of the individual panes? Or—
ALISON: This is how I get the narrative, is by mucking along like this. I’ll stop and—well, actually I started with a really crazy outline, like a giant spreadsheet. I kind of keep referring to that. It’s like the columns were different chapters and the rows were just different ideas or quotations or episodes from my life that I felt might fit into that chapter, so it [the spreadsheet] was a way to keep track of that larger structure. But that would change, too, depending on what happened here [points at screen] and in the writing… but I took pictures of everything. I took about 4,000 pictures for this book.
SARAH: But the drawings get progressively more defined…
ALISON: All that production stuff happens at the end of the process.
JESS: Does the color have significance? Because Tessa and I were noticing that Fun Home [your previous book] has a bluish color and Are You My Mother? is reddish.
ALISON: Well I just wanted them to be different, mainly, and there aren’t a whole lot of options when it comes to two-color printing in a way that’s naturalistic. Purple wouldn’t really work. Yellow wouldn’t work. Something greenish and something reddish were kind of my only options.
FRITZIE: I’ve only read the books and I haven’t read any of the reviews about you, just the two books…
ALISON: You’re our control.
FRITZIE: Did you, when you were writing the book about your father—was it sometime while you were doing that that you decided that next you’d be writing about your mother?
ALISON: No. I had no intention or idea that I’d be following that with a book about my mother. And in fact, my work on this book that turned out to be about my mother was at first going to be something very different. It was going to be a book about relationships, sort of Relationship. But over the years I realized it just wasn’t making sense. It was just vey abstract and turgid and personal. I realized I was writing and kind of avoiding the subject of my mother. My mother was a part of that relationship book, but I realized she was more of the main story.
JENIFER: How long until you realized that?
ALISON: Four years in, when my agent read a draft and said, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
JESS: And that’s in here, that’s in the book, which is really great. And the book is so much about process—and you reference Virginia Woolf a lot—and I was wondering if, from the artwork side, there is a strong influence in your work as well. You talk so much about the literary side and writers who you study…
ALISON: Well yeah, I’ve always read comics. Mad Magazine was a big influence, Edward Gorey’s work. R. Crumb,, Harvey Pekar, Norman Rockwell.
JESS: Well I think it’s so amazing how, with the facial expressions, you convey so much in an expression. If you look at it, it almost doesn’t look like that complex of a face, but then you realize how much you’re getting out of it…
FRITZIE: I wondered how whatever kind of journaling you do now compares in the sorts of things you capture and what you put down to what you wrote as a child.
ALISON: Well my journaling has kind of faded away. I remember once reading Keith Haring’s journal, and it was so interesting. Just really rich, amazing, dense stuff, and then it stops—because his life got so busy and crazy and he couldn’t keep a journal. And I feel like to some extent that’s happening to me, but I do keep a daily work log. It started out with where I am with my work, what I am going to do today, what will I start tomorrow. But that has sort of turned into my journal. Which makes it dysfunctional as a work log and a journal. It’s like I’m having a fight with my girlfriend but it’s in the middle of my notes from work.
JESS: One of the things that came up during our series [in The Project Room] on Beginnings was the idea of struggle, the struggle that you undergo while you’re making something, and you have this new idea but you’re really just at the beginning. In other words, you have to go through this struggle. And there are some really interesting, neat moments about this here [Jess holds a copy of Are You My Mother?], and I was wondering if you agree that struggle is inherent to the creative process, if you think you have to go through it to get to the other end.
ALISON: That is a big question. I remember reading that book, The Artist’s Way, in the 90’s and thinking, “Oh wow, maybe it doesn’t have to be painful.” And I started doing the exercises in that book, the daily writing exercises, and part of me scoffs at that “Paint by Numbers” approach to creativity. But I have to say that really was the beginning of doing Fun Home. It was from doing those morning pages that I really built up enough steam to start writing this memoir about my dad that had loomed over me for many, many years.
JESS: Do you think it freed you up?
ALISON: It freed me up, but it didn’t make the creativity painless like she suggested it might be.
JESS: That’s a little misleading right there.
ALISON: Creativity for my mother was painful. I remember when she would be in plays. She did summer stock acting and it would always be this completely all-consuming project for her. And as it got closer and closer to the opening, she would get more and more anxious and more and more upset, and it was like, “Why are you doing this?” but clearly she really loved it. And I feel like somehow I’ve osmosed that same pattern of… I don’t know if it’s necessary to suffer. So far for me it has been necessary to suffer, and I wish that it weren’t.
JESS: Well, I remember that moment in the book, and you ask her in the book why she does this and she says, “Because I have to.” It seems like that was a memorable moment—do you feel that same way? That you just have to do it?
ALISON: Yeah, I do. She told me an interesting story recently. Actually, she’s sort of cut me off from any more family stories because she knows I’ll put them in a book. But for that New Yorker interview, the Judith Thurman one, she talked to my mother, emailed my mother. And just incidentally, my mother told me something that she’d told Judith Thurman, which was that her father, my grandfather, would often—he worked on the railroad—but he was also an opera singer. He sang opera in the local opera house. And he was apparently really encouraging to people who he could hear had a good voice, and he would say, “God gave you this voice, you should do something with it.” Like it was their duty to use their creative talents. And I never heard that in my life, but I think my mother transmitted that to me somehow.
JESS: Your books touch on the idea of telling the truth. Is that a motivator for you, or is there a challenge or something that’s blocking your way that makes you start to work on a book? Does it come from a question or issue or problem?
ALISON: Well, the book about my father did. I felt like no one really knew the truth about my father. And I did feel a necessity of telling it. But I didn’t have that same compulsion with this book about my mother. And I really thought I was telling the truth in the book about my dad, I thought there was such a thing as truth, and I was very earnestly going to relate it. But since finishing it, since it’s been out in the world, I’ve realized that was naïve. There are lots of different truths, and this was just my version.
JESS: And you have a brother, correct?
ALISON: I have two brothers.
JESS: That’s really interesting, too, because there’s an artist—a musician—here named David Nixon who we’ve been featuring, and he’s working on a film that’s about his dad, who rose to the highest levels of leadership in a local Buddhist sect which was very cultish, even according to its members who are still alive. So he’s making a piece about what it as like to have this famous guy as a dad.
It just seems like really thorny territory to try to figure out what the truth might be, but you might find something much more interesting, if you set that aside and focus on other parts of it. That’s been his story.
ALISON: I kind of like that my mother has cut me off from more factual information because it lets me get to imagine things. It frees me up a lot creatively.
JESS: Does it sometimes feel like a burden? That you need to be factually accurate?
ALISON: I feel like I’m excited about facts and trying to make the random facts that I know, or the experiences I’ve had, into a story. And I’m kind of obsessed with keeping track of things. I feel so distressed that over these last ten days I’ve been so busy that I honestly haven’t been able to write down where I am. I just read an interview with Jeanette Winterson in which she says that if she can’t read everyday, she starts to feel ill. I feel like, for me, it’s if I can’t write even some basic, diaristic information every day, I start to feel ill or not right. But I am kind of obsessive about keeping track of stuff. I’m so glad you’re writing everything down [gestures to Fritzie]. It’s very reassuring.
TESSA: Kind of working off that idea of whether or not there’s the objective truth of one narrative, I was curious about how the experience of writing Are You My Mother? changed the way you look at the narrative you made for Fun Home. Do you feel like you came to a different understanding of the story of your father through the process of exploring your mother?
ALISON: I did. I feel like I know a lot less about my father than I thought I did. I feel like I don’t really understand my parent’s relationship. And I stayed away from some big, obvious, obligatory questions that I didn’t even go near in my book. Like what was it like for my mother to have asked someone for a divorce and then have him commit suicide? I can’t possibly ask her that, or certainly talk about it in public. And I feel like that’s a huge part of her story, and I don’t go anywhere near it in real life or in my book. So it was kind of like writing the book around an empty core, which was an interesting formal exercise to do.
JESS: What was the empty core?
ALISON: Just that thing I couldn’t say. Several things I couldn’t say. Things that I knew would be distressing for her. But to come up with a story nonetheless was a good challenge.
JESS: Were there things you made significant changes to along the way? Just getting back to the idea of process, I mean, I know you really changed what the whole book was about at one point. Are there other aspects that got removed or vice versa?
ALISON: There is so much that got removed… I want to show you my crazy chart that I started with….
[Alison shows the chart she uses to construct narrative.]
My initial idea for the endpapers of this book was to have two concurrent timelines, one of my mother’s life and one of mine. But it just got too complicated.
FRITZIE: When you first thought you were going to write this book about relationships, what made you want to do that?
ALISON: Well, I knew that I’d shot my wad with this one great story about my dad, and I knew I didn’t have any other stories like that. I had lots of small stories, so I thought… There’s a lot of pressure to write another book because Fun Home did really well. So pressure from my publisher and agent, but also I had to make money to sell another book. So I rushed into a proposal for something, and I thought I’d write about relationships. I was interested in the problem of the Self in relation to the Other in a kind of philosophical sense.
So I wrote a proposal saying I was going to write this book and it would be called Love Life and would have chapters that progressed along the arc of a traditional love story—you meet someone, you touch someone for the first time, you go through these progressively more intimate stages until you’re divorcing them. And that would be my story, but it would be made up with lots of other little stories from my relationships and stuff by other writers that interested me and fit into these categories. And then I realized it was just this Procrustean bed that I was trying to fit something else into and it wasn’t working.
JENIFER: So as you’re accumulating so many storylets under these themes, at what point do you go from “I’m accumulating” to “now I’m going to craft.” Is there a trigger? Is it different for every project?
ALISON: I don’t remember how I actually got started. Or even how the original version began. I don’t know, it was so long ago. It wasn’t so much a trigger or a bolt of insight as much as just being, “Ok, now it’s time to sit down and write and just do that.”
JENIFER: My first teaching job was at a college where there was an independent study thesis for every student. And I remember this one student who would come in every week with a stack of books and the stack just got bigger and bigger. And I would say, “When are you going to start writing?” And he would say, “Oh but I found this great book, it’s got great stuff in it.” And the next week he’d come back and the stack would be bigger… And finally I just said, “Dude, at some point you have to quit taking in and you’re going to have to start putting out.” [laughter] Not in that way. That would be inappropriate. Those would be some boundary issues. But to move from the place of taking in to putting it back out was excruciating for him.
ALISON: That sounds very familiar. My creative process is very accretive to the point that it’s so dense that I can’t even have another thought, and that’s the point at which I know I have to get rid of something. But that doesn’t happen until kind of late.
TESSA: And that comes up in your work. One of the things I was the most struck by in Are You My Mother? was how, with your own journals, you got yourself to a point of paralysis where you couldn’t write because you were trying so hard to be objectively true. And so your mom actually came in and helped you write, and that’s just such an interesting layer, and then at the end of the book you talk about how she showed you the way out and in so many ways gave you your creative process. And that was just really touching, that she was able to help you out of the paralysis of gathering—
ALISON: Yeah, that’s very analogous. My creative process has not changed since I was a kid.
JESS: That makes me want to ask you more about when you were young. Did you have a clear experience in which you thought that this might be the kind of work for you? Were you always a big reader? Was there a moment at which you thought you found your—well maybe calling is too strong of a word, I don’t know how you see it…
ALISON: I feel like I always knew I wanted to draw. At some point I learned that there was such a thing as a cartoonist, and then I wanted to be a cartoonist.
JESS: How did you learn that?
ALISON: Probably from reading the New Yorker, which we always had lying around.
JESS: That’s impressive childhood reading.
ALISON: Well, I would just read the cartoons, I wasn’t reading the articles. Even today I just skip to Talk of the Town where the cartoons start.
SARAH: I’m curious why you do the washes in watercolor and not Photoshop.
ALISON: I tried that. I was initially going to do them in Photoshop, but I didn’t like the way it looked, and I didn’t want to spend that much time on the computer. I’d much rather use a real brush and paper and have that organic experience than be hunched over and looking at the screen.
SARAH: And how do you do that? Do you use a light box?
JESS: And is there a part of that process you enjoy more than other parts? Do you look forward to a certain part?
ALISON: I look forward to the inking, when I’ve got all the hard parts—sketching and research—done and I just have my nice clean pencil that I get to ink. It’s just… pleasant. And I don’t have to use my brain, really. I can listen to TV or a book or something.
TESSA: With two parents who were both such advocates and practitioners of close reading, how do you feel knowing that there are people doing that with your books now? I mean, even us having your two books here, and clearly we’ve gone through and poked and compared… What’s your comfort level with that?
ALISON: I feel like in this sad, pathetic way, I invite it—like I want people’s attention, and I’m somehow desperate for people to see me. I don’t always read all the academic papers that are written about my work, but I like that people are doing that. It makes me feel sort of held, in a way, to have people analyzing me. Like in an analytic sense, a holding experience.
JESS: I was talking yesterday to some women who part of an oral history project [These Streets] about women who were very active in the Seattle music scene in the 90’s, which is known as the grunge era. And a big part of the way in which it is remembered is as a male dominated scene, but in fact there were a lot of really active women musicians who just haven’t been included in the books that are now coming out as this 20th anniversary thing. And one of them said that she actually got a little depressed when she found out that there wasn’t a Wikipedia page for her. Is there a legitimacy that you feel when you have a Wikipedia page? Or is it just knowing that people know you’re there? Does the work exist in the same way whether or not you’re written about in history?
ALISON: Maybe those people put up their own Wikipedia pages.
JESS: Wikipedia is probably not a good example.
ALISON: But that is a good example, because you do have to metaphorically put up your own Wikipedia page. You can’t count on other people doing that for you.
JESS: And there is an audience whether you want there to be or not. There is the greater world out there that could or could not respond to what you do. So how much does that matter?
ALISON: Well, for many, many years I had a very small audience. I had this very subcultural gay and lesbian following who read my work, and that was great. But when I started getting more recognition with Fun Home, when that came out, I feel like it… I haven’t really talked about this, so I can’t express it as clearly as I would like, but when you get support from the outside world, it’s a challenge. It pushes you to do more, it pushes you to go further. It’s like a chemical reaction or something. You’re given more opportunities that you can take advantage of. And if you can make the most of those, then you get more opportunities. So it’s like this continually escalating challenge. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it would be nice to think that it doesn’t matter what the outside world thinks of your work, but it does, and it’s an interaction. You get fed from other people’s responses and reactions, and the more of those reactions, the more you are fed and guided.
TESSA: Do you find it difficult to be as honest and critical as you might want to be, knowing that there’s a built in audience for anything you might write?
ALISON: Yeah, it was excruciating trying to write this book. When I wrote that book [Fun Home], no one had any idea I was even doing it. I was totally in this blissful solitude, this bubble of doing exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t even sell it for a long time; I was just working on it in this pure way. And this book [Are You My Mother?] I had to sell right away—I got a big advance, I signed a contract. People were expecting it, readers were expecting it, and that was really… Well, in some ways really awful, but also really wonderful because I had to do it.
JENIFER: Do you sort out in your own head those two kinds of feeding? So one kind of being fed is the response from your readers and the scholarly academic papers and those kinds of things, and the other is the literal feeding that comes from an advance or money from your publisher. Do those align in your head, or do you compartmentalize them?
ALISON: Well, for me they have been pretty much aligned. But I have so many friends who work really hard at their writing and don’t get published by a big press, don’t get a decent advance. So I know it’s just a fluke in my case.
JESS: We’ve talked about motivation a little bit, but I always like to throw out the big question that is the theme at The Project Room, which is why do we make things? Could you respond to that?
ALISON: I’ve been thinking about this. I think we make things because we’re trying to make up for something. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that my creative drive is compensatory on some level. I’m trying to get back to some pristine state, trying to get other people’s attention. Something I missed. I know I’m really pathologizing creativity, but I do think that creativity is pathological to a certain extent. Why else would you do something so painful?
TESSA: But that’s also the example you were given in both your parents.
ALISON: Yeah, so what do I know?
TESSA: It’s just curious, thinking, if you had been born into a different family, A: would you ever have become a cartoonist; and B: would you have a different understanding of what creative process has to be?
ALISON: I can’t even entertain hypotheticals like that. If I were born into an entirely different family, I would probably be a very happy CPA somewhere. But maybe that’s a cynical view of creativity. Maybe it can be fun; maybe everyone can do it.
I’ll be whining at home stuck with something feeling completely overwhelmed with self loathing and completely hopeless that I’ll ever finish anything, and my girlfriend will say, “you’ll finish it, you always do.” And I want to say, “What do you think—how do you think—this happens? I don’t just do it!” But that’s what it looks like from the outside. And I DO do it.
FRITZIE: So she was right.
ALISON: I know that I will do it, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
FRITZIE: In the book about your mom, there’s a lot of reference to the psychological literature. I wondered whether you, like now, when you’re not writing these books and other things are on your mind, do you read psychology stuff for pleasure? Or do you have questions that you’re pondering and then you look for references in psychology to inform your thoughts?
ALISON: I think it’s more that I’m looking for specific answers—I’m not just ranging around for pleasure. I’m just starting to read the work of this guy Murray Bowen who did something called Family Systems Therapy. I want to write yet another family memoir, but about the whole family and about how families work. I would not pick up—it’s this huge textbook—his book for pleasure, but I am very interested to find out what he says. And he did his early research with parents with a schizophrenic child, and from what I can tell so far, that is his general model of the family—there’s a schizophrenic center to every family. Don’t quote me, I don’t know enough yet, but I find that very compelling.
JENIFER: I actually read some of his stuff when trying to figure out how academic institutions work, administratively. Because people always referred to him, as in, “Oh, well, if you had studied family systems theory, you’d know why we’re so dysfunctional.”
ALISON: Yeah, what makes a family dysfunctional, and what makes a family functional? I’ve been so cynical about family. As a young feminist it was always “Yeah, fuck the family, fuck the state.” But now I see that families can be a really, good thing, and I want to find out what makes them work when they do.
JESS: Is that something you’re thinking about now as a future project?
ALISON: Yeah. I have to talk to my family about it, though.