Alison Bechdel is a living legend (and I say this from the point of view of a queerish autobio cartoonist). Not only did she create the long-running Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic strip that followed the hijinks of a group of friends (and also where the “Bechdel test” originated—look it up!), she also penned Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a graphic memoir about her relationship with her father that won lots of awards and hit the New York Times bestseller list—and stayed there for two long weeks. That’s a huge feat for any writer, but a cartoonist who also happens to be a queer woman? Forget about it!
Alison’s new book, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, is hot off the presses with a May 1 release date, and she was kind enough to chat with me at a café in San Francisco’s Union Square in the midst of her book tour.
I. It’s Not About You, It’s About Me
II. Dykes to Watch Out For
Alison Bechdel: I started some little furtive forays into autobiography in Dykes to Watch Out For. It felt like it was wrong at the time. I knew it was sort of inappropriate. For the most part it was not an autobiographical strip, but there were definitely some episodes that my life did work into it and that was kind of a breakthrough for me when I started doing that, because I felt like the tone of the strip changed and became much more—I want to say “intimate” but I’m not really sure what the right word is. The writing got more complex. The relationship between the characters got more complex because I realized that I could write more like what my real life was like. Before that, it had been pretty much a sitcom kind of deal. So yeah, there were these little forays into autobiography…
The Rumpus: Did you ever get in trouble for it?
Bechdel: My girlfriend at the time did not like that I had drawn this character that kind of looked like her, but it was really just her appearance that I copied. I didn’t use much else about her but I did work some of the circumstances of a bad breakup that I was going through into the comic strip and <laughter> I don’t know, it helped my writing. It made my writing more complex and it planted the seed that ultimately I would like to really just write about my life straight up, without the fictional veil.
Rumpus: Do you miss the strip at all?
Bechdel: Honestly, I don’t. I feel like I’m really proud of it, I loved doing it, I had a great passion for it for many years but I just lost the impulse I had to do it. I feel like there was not the same need for it that there had been originally. I feel much more passionate now about memoir; I feel like I need to pay attention to that, do what I feel like doing.
Rumpus: You were doing that for a long time, weren’t you?
Bechdel: Yeah, I was doing the strip for twenty-five years!
Bechdel: I know, it’s crazy!
Rumpus: You’d have a pension plan by now if that were a government job.
Bechdel: That’d be a good government job.
Rumpus: Or a watch.
Bechdel: Yeah, unfortunately, no pension plan.
III. Fun Home
Rumpus: When you sat down to conceptualize Fun Home, what were your intentions and how did they change as you wrote it—is the book what you visualized when you went into it?
Bechdel: No, when I went into it, I had no idea what I was doing. From day-to-day, I had no idea—it’s like I was inventing as I went along, I was inventing my method. I had no idea what it was gonna look like, how I was gonna do it. I knew the story of course, I knew this basic story about my dad, but it was a total process of discovery of how to tell it. And it took years.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write?
Bechdel: The whole thing took about seven years. And this latest one took about six years.
Bechdel: I just saw Chris Ware, and he has a book that he’s working on that took him ten years, and he has this ratio. He’d figured out that the time it takes to create a comic—have you heard this?
Bechdel: —to the time it takes to read a comic is four thousand to one.
Rumpus: That sounds about right.
Rumpus: It took me eight years to write my book and it takes three hours to read it. I timed it.
Bechdel: There you go!
That sounds probably higher than four thousand to one.
Rumpus: People don’t realize, IT TAKES SO LONG!
Bechdel: It’s a really crazy thing to do.
IV. Are You My Mother?
Rumpus: So when you sat down to write Are you My Mother?, same question: how much did you visualize and—this is about to sound so pretentious—as a MEMOIRIST, I really appreciated reading Are You My Mother? , especially since I just wrote this book and it’s actually about my sex life, but it’s kind of about my dad, and the next book I’m working on is kind of about my mom, and it’s like HOLY SHIT, ALISON BECHDEL! <laughter>
Bechdel: Really, those are the basic things everyone writes their memoirs about. How could you write about anything else? Uh… What was the question?
Rumpus: I didn’t get to it yet! There’s so much that’s different between the two books, did you feel like the process of creating the book was different—did you go in with a different idea of what it was gonna be…
Bechdel: I thought I had mastered my technique in Fun Home. I’d learned this visual language, I’d learned my personal kind of way of combining stories and pictures, and now I can keep doing it and it would go a lot quicker but it was totally not the case. I feel like I had to relearn it all. And there was a certain amount of technical stuff I had to relearn because all the Adobe software is always changing… It’s good to get pushed like that. I feel like I’ve gotten too reliant on other images and photographs, like I do this really extensive posing thing where I pose as all the characters from my book and then I draw… I would like to just use the drawing that comes directly out of my head, which is very different from the drawing that comes from looking at something then drawing it.
<Note: Alison took approximately 4,000 reference photographs for Are You My Mother?>
V. Post-Fun Home
Rumpus: For me, [writing about my life is] a catharsis, I’m getting things out in order to examine them. Did you find that you had a different perspective after you wrote [Fun Home], or did you solidify what you already thought of the events?
Bechdel: I feel like I got a lot more empathy for my father. I researched the circumstances of his life, I understood him better. I wanted to write an honest book about both my negative feelings about my father and my positive feelings. In the end, my feelings were more positive. I had a friend who thought it was too sentimental, that I kind of copped out at the end. [But] I felt like it was pretty genuine. I do feel like I learned from my father something about being an artist, and I’m very grateful for that.
VI. Sex and Family
Rumpus: Has your mom read the new book yet?
Bechdel: Yeah, she’s read it. I mean, I showed it to her as I was working on it. I felt like I had to do that so she wouldn’t totally freak out, you know? I didn’t feel like I could write about her without her seeing it. You can’t just show someone a finished published book about them, it’s really not fair.
Rumpus: Well, you cannnn. I mean, I did.
Bechdel: Did you do that?! <laughter> What did your family say?
Rumpus: My mom read six pages of the book and then put it down and said “I don’t want to read this,” which was perfect, and my dad, it took him about a year to get through it. I mean, he was disappointed I hadn’t told him these things before, but I couldn’t have, because our relationship was different…and now we’re friends…
Bechdel: That’s very… brave of you.
Rumpus: “Horrifying” is the word I think you’re looking for.
Bechdel: Yeah, yeah…
Rumpus: And I can’t believe that you just said that to me.
Bechdel: Well, I know I’ve written some sexual stuff in my books, and that’s really excruciating to show my mother… but it’s not like you. <laughter>
Rumpus: Yours are a little more detailed! I’m thinking of one panel in particular where I was like, WOO! <Mari makes a fanning motion, looks around, embarrassed.> <laughter>
Rumpus: You look a lot more friendly in person than you do in your comic.
Bechdel: Really? My friends always say, “You never draw yourself smiling.”
Rumpus: You look really intense and serious, brooding…in the comic.
Bechdel: I’ll try to lighten up.
Bechdel: Because I want to be honest.
Rumpus: But you’re being honest about how you perceive yourself!
Bechdel: …That’s true.
Rumpus: So after you wrote Fun Home, after it got put out there, how did your views of these events change?
Bechdel: It was weird. The public perception of the book was a whole different phase. I thought I had finished the book and knew what I felt about it, but then it got a lot of attention, which was surprising. It was very successful. My family was not prepared for that. My family was suddenly much more exposed than they thought they would have been by the book, and that was difficult, and that was a part of the book somehow. That post-book material is something I felt like I had to write about in this other memoir. I didn’t really do that so explicitly, but I mean, my life really changed when Fun Home came out. I was doubtful whether I was gonna be able to keep cartooning. It was just getting really hard to make a living and Fun Home totally bailed me out and enabled me to keep doing this.
Rumpus: That’s pretty awesome.
Bechdel: It was totally awesome! I feel like I’ve had really good timing, that I started doing this autobiographical work at a point where not just comics, but also memoir was becoming a publishing trend.
Rumpus: Do you read your reviews?
Bechdel: I read all my reviews with Fun Home. And I’ve read some of the reviews for [Are You My Mother?], but not all of them. I just haven’t had time. I’ve also felt very vulnerable and exposed about this book in a way I didn’t with Fun Home.
Rumpus: Really, why?
Bechdel: It just feels more intimate somehow. I’m also worried about my mother’s reaction to reviews, especially if she gets named personally in a review—sometimes these people do that, they use her name and that freaks her out, which I totally understand, so I’ve been kind of nervous on her behalf as well as my own. But I feel really proud of myself because I got a bad review and I was really okay with it. I feel like part of why this book about my mother took me so long was that I was kind of toughening myself up. I knew it was very intimate, personal material, I knew it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I had to be able to take that kind of criticism. I feel really pleased that I’m okay, it did not destroy me. I feel like, “No problem.”
Rumpus: I had that same experience!
Rumpus: Oh my god! I was doing this for so long, and I actually never thought I’d ever get any level of success…I was just copying ten zines at a time and I never thought anyone would ever see it. It’s kind of like being afraid of success in that I don’t want to ever read a bad review, so you’re kind of afraid of success and being unsuccessful. That was my biggest fear, like when I had an art show I’d have panic attacks worrying I’d overhear someone saying something mean about my art. But when it finally happened I was like “Oh screw you, whatever!”
Bechdel: It’s incredibly liberating!
<Alison high fives Mari.>
X. What’s Next
Rumpus: Future goals—in cartooning and life, what do you wanna do?
Bechdel: I just wanna keep drawing comics. Right now I still feel very passionate about memoir, I have more stuff I’d like to do about my family, although I’d have to talk about that with them first. <laughter> I’m starting to think about the possibility of even some kind of fiction eventually. I always thought I wouldn’t do that. I mean, Dykes to Watch Out For was—
Rumpus: It was fiction!
Bechdel: —but it somehow didn’t feel that way, it felt more like a newspaper column or something, like I was reporting. But I want to focus more on my drawing. I want to build up my drawing skills, I wanna do more life drawing. I want to trust my inside drawing as opposed to looking-at-references drawing. I think I need to spend more time drawing and less time fretting about my writing. That’s one of my goals.