The Rumpus Book Club chats with Gabrielle Bell about her forthcoming graphic memoir, Everything Is Flammable (out on June 6 from Uncivilized Books), what it was like to mine her own life for subject matter, and how anxiety affects her work.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Samantha Irby, Achy Obejas, Danzy Senna, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to our chat with Gabrielle Bell, author of Everything Is Flammable!
Gabrielle Bell: Hello, this is me.
Marisa: You’re in! We’ll start in five minutes.
Gabrielle Bell: But how do you know this is me and not a bot?
Marisa: I highly doubt a bot is trolling our Book Club chats. But that would be fun. 🙂
Gabrielle Bell: I may be a very sentient AI who has read all my books and reviewed all my social media.
Marisa: Well, if you’re very sentient than we’re good.
Gabrielle Bell: What if YOU are a bot?
Marisa: I only WISH I were a bot. That would be lovely.
Marisa: So Gabrielle (or the bot pretending to be Gabrielle), let’s get this party started and hopefully we’ll be joined by others soon. How and when did this book came to life, in your head and on the page? Did you really know when you went to visit your mom following the news of the fire that you’d be writing a book about the experience?
Gabrielle Bell: It was very organic. I knew I wanted to draw comics about it, of course, because I’m always on the lookout for material, but when it began to be evident that it was a whole book is hard to say.
Marisa: How long did you work on the book for?
Gabrielle Bell: About three years, including the editing, coloring, production, that sort of thing. It seemed like it took forever, but in retrospect, it was pretty quick.
Marisa: Wow, that does seem quick, because I know writers who take a decade to write a novel, and that’s without the coloring, production, etc.
Gabrielle Bell: If I hadn’t made so many mistakes and overworked so many parts and been lazy or discouraged it might have taken two years.
Gabrielle Bell: If I hadn’t slept it may have taken one year.
Marisa: Well, if you were a bot you wouldn’t need sleep so I guess you’re probably human after all!
Gabrielle Bell: If I was a bot it would have taken a half an hour.
Marisa: What comes first for you when you’re writing—images or text? And do you prioritize one over the other?
Gabrielle Bell: It’s very integral; they work together.
Marisa: Did you always work that way? Were you always a writer and an artist, from childhood? I’m not very well-read in the graphic novel/graphic memoir genre, but this is a beautiful book and both the writing and the images are just stunning.
Gabrielle Bell: I work in storyboards or thumb nails—I’ll draw a quick figure, then have them saying something, so technically the pictures take precedent. Because you see before you read.
Gabrielle Bell: It’s not like I did extensive research and footnotes. I wrote and drew things as they happened. It isn’t a long book. But I am surprised how quickly it went, because I am slow and plodding.
Marisa: You’ve noted that your mom gave her “begrudged blessing” for you to write this book. How does she feel about the finished product? Did she read it?
Gabrielle Bell: The book makes my mother very uncomfortable because she’s always been a very private person. She isn’t used to the public scrutiny of being a comic book character. But at the same time, she wants to support my work and see me do my best. So, I think she feels conflicted.
Marisa: I think conflicted but supportive is probably a fair way to feel. I hope she’s proud of the book, too; it’s wonderful.
Gabrielle Bell: She is glad, I think. But she is not effusive.
Marisa: It seems like a lot of the “characters” (in quotes because they are real people) are private people. Did you ask each for permission before including them? Did you change names or identifying features?
Gabrielle Bell: I did talk to them about it. People who aren’t seeking the limelight are very compelling. They’ve got all this original stuff going on—and in a way, it’s easy to exploit, because they aren’t going to exploit it!
Marisa: That’s a great way of putting it. And they are super compelling in their originality—a bunch of offbeat, somewhat off-the-grid people who are just living lives.
Marisa: Your mom’s feelings aside, what was the memoir experience like for you? How was it different than work you’ve done in the past, emotionally and/or from a craft perspective?
Gabrielle Bell: It was the first full-length book I was able to finish. I started a couple others, but ran out of steam. This one had momentum, I never got bored or discouraged. It is made up of short pieces, which is where my comfort zone is. I’m more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner. When you do a short piece, you get in and get out; you don’t linger.
Gabrielle Bell: It is an odd format though, not quite a diary and not quite a memoir. I was working on it as it was happening. This was gratifying to me.
Marisa: I was going to ask about the section breaks. It almost felt like you were taking a breath before continuing.
Gabrielle Bell: Yeah, it started as a series of vignettes. And at some point, I realized it was enough vignettes to lead up to a book.
Marisa: I don’t want to “spoil” the book for readers, but there is a symmetry to the beginning and ending of the book hinted at in the book’s title. What was that like to live? Or, maybe an easier question to answer without giving the ending away: has what happens in the book changed your ideas around “home”?
Gabrielle Bell: I’m not sure how to answer that without spoiling it!
Marisa: Fair enough.
Gabrielle Bell: But I do have this feeling that one’s home can be taken from them at any moment.
Marisa: That definitely makes sense.
Marisa: Was it cathartic to delve into your past while also living through these extreme situations in the present? Or was it difficult? It sounds like you found it helpful to some extent…
Gabrielle Bell: Yes, it was cathartic. It was not exactly difficult—except when I tried to interview my mother. It did feel like I was just scratching the surface though. It didn’t feel like I was getting to the heart of the matter.
Marisa: Do you think it’s something you’d try to do again?
Gabrielle Bell: Yes, I’ll probably be digging at it for the rest of my life.
Marisa: The way you share memories from your childhood also interested me. It was like you were giving us these very intimate glimpses but also holding those memories at arm’s length from yourself.
Gabrielle Bell: I’ve taken that arms-length approach in my work—I don’t want to overwhelm the reader with my problems—I want to seem cool. But I want to give something; I don’t want to be stingy.
Gabrielle Bell: It was cathartic to write about the part where the dogs kill the cat—it was a profoundly traumatic experience, so shocking. And I’d never told anyone about it—it was just another thing that happened in my life… and when I drew a comic about it, it became real.
Marisa: That’s one of the memories I was thinking of. It was so visceral I almost had to look away from the page (I love cats tremendously). But the scene of you hugging the dog—Freya, if I’m recalling correctly?—was also so visceral. And the feeling of needing to learn to perform grief. Maybe it’s coincidence that I share that memory/feeling intensely, or maybe it’s more commonplace than I thought.
Marisa: If this is too personal, please say so, but you mention having anxiety and coming from a line of anxious women a few times in the book. I have significant anxiety myself, and I’m wondering how or if you think anxiety has effected your work? Does it hinder you, or push you forward? Or both, maybe?
Gabrielle Bell: Both, I’d say. Anxiety is so pervasive in my work, it’s like it’s not even a thing because it’s always there. Like air. I have to work through a layer of anxiety to get to anything else. It’s embarrassing to me when people point out to me all the anxiety I portray in my work. I don’t ever want to write about anxiety again but it’d be like leaving a huge gap in the picture.
Gabrielle Bell: But I think I’m making some headway. I sometimes spend whole minutes not being anxious!
Marisa: Yes! That’s so accurate-feeling to me. I think I’m often stymied with my writing because of my anxiety and wanting not to include it.
Gabrielle Bell: I recommend drugs.
Marisa: Xanax is this girl’s best friend. But I have a toddler perpetually trying to ram his head into sharp objects, so anxiety has become a whole new ballgame these days.
Gabrielle Bell: I started taking Zoloft right after I got word about the fire—I don’t think I could have gone and helped my mom and done a book about it if it weren’t for the help of medications—then the meds stopped working-but it was a huge advance just to know what it felt like not to be anxious.
Marisa: Yes, I remember that scene in the psychiatrist’s office now. I haven’t had much luck with SSRIs, but I’m glad it was useful for you, at least for long enough to get through all this.
Marisa: Who are your influences? Literary influences, artistic influences, music, etc. And what were you reading/listening to while you went through these experiences that make up the book?
Gabrielle Bell: I love fiction. My favorite writer is Alice Munro. I listen to books by writers like Haruki Murakami and Paul Auster when I work—long books whose sentences aren’t too challenging. I only listen to music when I have to write, but the drawing takes 95% of the time.
Marisa: Does that mean you “think” in pictures first? Do you see the story in images? I’m somewhat fascinated by having a mastery of both art and language. I can’t draw beyond stick figures and flowers.
Gabrielle Bell: I’m not entirely sure… there is an element that seems to come from somewhere else—that comes together in the mind in spite of oneself—I see it in other artists… it seems like magic. There are a zillion possibilities that you can do on a piece of paper; there is no rational way to choose. So you have let something else speak… so I can’t really remember which comes first, the dialogue or the pictures. It comes from that place where it sort of all comes together on its own.
Marisa: Who is your favorite artist?
Gabrielle Bell: I don’t think I have a favorite artist… I know that Alice Munro is my favorite writer; that’s very clear. But there are millions of great artists and none seems to stand out in any serious way.
Marisa: That’s interesting. Do you read other graphic novels, comic books, etc.?
Gabrielle Bell: Yes—not a lot, but I make an effort now and then. Sometimes comics are very boring to me. They don’t seem to have the seamless richness that literature does, or the verisimilitude that films do. But lately I’ve been reading some comics and being really moved.
Marisa: I often have trouble getting “into” comics and graphic novels the way I fall into a traditional novel’s world. But Everything Is Flammable was an easy read, if not necessarily always a “happy” one. I mean easy in the sense of falling into a rhythm with my reading and really getting into the story.
Marisa: We’re almost out of time, but just two more questions for you: first, I wanted to ask about humor in your writing. You do it so well, and that’s something many writers struggle with. Do you struggle with it, or is that just your voice coming through? (I’m thinking perhaps the latter given our bot exchange at the start of this chat.)
Gabrielle Bell: It doesn’t come naturally… I’ve had to develop it in my work… I started out a very earnest storyteller, but life has forced me to be more playful.
Marisa: Life is “funny” that way, I suppose.
Gabrielle Bell: I wanted to be a “serious artist.” Serious artists didn’t tend to be funny. But that didn’t get me a lot of attention. And just growing older, you can’t help it, you take things less seriously.
Marisa: For what it’s worth, I think this is a very “serious” book, even though there is definitely levity throughout.
Gabrielle Bell: Thanks. I used to love Kurt Vonnegut as a teenager; I liked his quiet, incidental humor. Breakfast of Champions, with its show-and-tell pictures and words, really influenced me.
Marisa: Okay, last question: what are you working on now?
Gabrielle Bell: I’m not really working on much now, just some freelance work, and some diary comics for my Patreon page. It was so natural and fun to make Everything Is Flammable, I don’t want to force anything anymore.
Marisa: That makes sense. I guess we’ll have to wait to see what life has in store before the next book! Thank you so much for your time and candor this evening, Gabrielle, and for putting such a beautiful book out into the world.
Gabrielle Bell: Thanks so much!
Marisa: And if you are a bot, kudos to your maker because you were totally convincing!
Author photograph © Jordan Guile.