Gabrielle Bell is a British cartoonist with a melancholy sentiment and gorgeous drawing talent. Her new graphic memoir, Everything Is Flammable, is about dual fire-related tragedies: First her mother’s house burns down, then her own apartment.
The book, which released in June, is a stunning meditation on life, danger and family.
The Rumpus: For much of the book, city danger seemed to be differently characterized than rural danger—there seemed to be so much more death and violence in the rural spaces. But as soon as the same tragedy struck in Brooklyn as struck in California, I went back a second time and read more closely. While the specifics are different, there seems to be an undercurrent of danger regardless of where we are, whether it’s a cat being torn to pieces or a woman having a seizure on the street. I also noticed that family, too, was often characterized as dangerous, and spirituality will not save one, either. The only mitigating factors seemed to be community. How does a meditation on danger and community change when faces are drawn and violence is graphically depicted? What tactics did you use in your art to communicate these two ideas?
Gabrielle Bell: I wasn’t particularly trying to communicate these ideas; I was just trying to tell a story. Violence is part of life and we try to cope with it as best we can. People watch horror movies to try to get some kind of psychological hold over it. Possibly just as bad as violence is the constant fear of it. We create little rituals to give us some kind of illusion of safety, to keep ourselves sane. And/or we remain hyper vigilant and neurotic and can never relax and enjoy ourselves.
Rumpus: In trying to think critically about Everything Is Flammable, I kept coming back to “Merciless Nature.” I felt like it was a perfect microcosm for the rest of the story; it features growth, a sense of random peril and lack of control, the idea that other people seem safer, somehow, and the evolution of story as its told more and more. Are there any chapters that, to you, feel like the whole crux of the book hangs perfectly in their branches?
Bell: I liked the chapter with my mom and me buying the house together. We were both so intimidated but we helped each other out, and we accomplished a thing. There was a problem (house caught on fire), then we solved it (bought a new one, albeit much smaller). In a way, the rest of the book is just details. Waiting for the house to arrive, watching the house be set up, furnishing the house, and of course a lot of emotional fallout. It’s not that simple, of course, but that chapter was the answer to the question posed in the first chapter.
Rumpus: The structure of the book feels like each piece quietly adds up to this greater meditation on hazard, on mother-daughter relationships, and on caring for oneself and others, and the reader almost doesn’t even notice the whole until it’s been built before them. How do you approach constructing each piece as its own whole? How did you order them? Has your process been impacted by releasing serially? Did creating this memoir feel different, or similar?
Bell: I mostly kept a diary and turned particularly striking events into stories. I wasn’t trying to do some big sprawling novel, or a confessional memoir. I wanted to give just enough information as to what the situation was, so that the stories would have context and connection.
Rumpus: Mother-daughter relationships are so complicated, and so many stories (fiction and nonfiction) have been dedicated to exploring them. What else in the canon of mother-daughter literature would you put on a reading list with Everything Is Flammable, and why?
Bell: I didn’t really approach this as a mother-daughter themed book. I talked a bit in the book about how mothers are often depicted in stories—always in relation to their offspring, usually as a “good mother” or a bad one. The same is true with the daughter. One way to try to get around this dualism is not to approach it as ‘mother-daughter literature.’
Rumpus: You mention a few times in the book that you feel like you’re exploiting your mother for comics. Yet I see a loving portrayal of your life and your mother’s life, and how they intersect. As a writer, I also feel uncomfortable disclosing, sometimes, the things that happen to me because I don’t want to exploit, even unintentionally, others in my life. How do you draw the line between what is your story and what is theirs?
Bell: It’s exploitative because of the very nature of the medium, and I think it’s particularly true of autobiographical comics. No matter how lovingly I portray her, it’s still me pulling the strings for my own ends. Nobody wants to be spoken for, no matter how nicely. It’s like the “benevolent dictator.” My mom doesn’t draw comics and doesn’t have the influence I have, so she’s stuck with this image I’ve created of her, that can drown out whatever persona that she might want to present for herself. This is something she let me do because she cares for me, not some kind of honor or favor I’ve bestowed on her.
Rumpus: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? Do you follow it?
Bell: Advice never seems to work on me.