Alison Bechdel: The Balancing Act

Over three decades, Alison Bechdel’s comics have grown increasingly intimate. Her alt-weekly strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, was as emotionally true as it was funny and shrewd, but as with other great political cartoons of the era, like Bloom County and Doonesbury, the travails of its cast — a gay-community ensemble whose lives Bechdel chronicled from the Reagan era through the first anxious decade of a new century — only hinted at the life of the artist herself.

Her own personality burst out more explicitly in 2006 with the appearance of Fun Home, a masterful graphic memoir about her relationship with her clever, exacting, and very closeted father, who taught school and ran a funeral home simultaneously, and whose death under mysterious circumstances raised the possibility of suicide. Critics justly heaped acclaim on Fun Home, praising its intricate narrative architecture and honest, despairing voice. In reconstructing her path from girlhood to womanhood, from nervous young diarist to nervous young artist, Bechdel overturned many of her family’s myths, and a host of broader cultural ones. 


Are You My Mother?Her new book, Are You My Mother?, is even more personal, restless, and reflective, a wry, self-interrogating look at her relationship with her mother, and the ways that relationship has fed — and obstructed — Bechdel’s own work. Like Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, it’s a gorgeous meditation on the lack of a mother’s love, one that keeps shuddering over a catastrophe that has already occurred; but whereas Barthes’ notes came into being in the months following his mother’s funeral, Bechdel wrote and is publishing her book while her mother is still alive. “The secret subversive goal of my work,” she has said, “is to show that women, not just lesbians, are regular human beings.” I spoke with the author by phone earlier this month about that project, and about her book and the fraught relationship it documents. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Maud Newton


The Barnes & Noble Review: You wrote Fun Home looking back on your relationship with your dad, but you were constantly talking to your mom while you wrote this book. And she was a somewhat grudging subject. Was this one harder? 


Alison Bechdel: Yes, as I learned during the research for Are You My Mother?, and also instinctively from my experience being a human, mothers are just more difficult than fathers. It’s a much more fraught and complex relationship for everyone whether you’re male or female because this is someone who you’re physically a part of. And so it became very confounding for me, trying to sort that out. The psychoanalyst who I write a lot about in the book, Winnicott, wrote that the mother must be dismantled whereas the father can be murdered. And I feel like somehow I murdered my dad, and that was really a walk in the park. That was so much easier than dismantling my mother.


BNR: You were talking to her all the time, transcribing your conversations with her, and you had all these letters and diaries, and really precise memories, and then all of your reading, of Winnicott and Virginia Woolf and The Drama of The Gifted Child. It must have been a lot to wrangle.


AB: It was, especially the Winnicott stuff. I kind of had to give myself a tutorial on psychoanalysis, which really took me a couple of years — you know, learning that language and getting a handle on it, just a slim grasp of the body of Winnicott’s ideas. That was a big project, but a kind of enjoyable procrastination too, because I couldn’t quite face what I was going to have to do.


BNR: But Winnicott ends up being, in a way, a character in the book.


AB: That was a real breakthrough for me, the moment that happened. When I began, I guess I realized it could be possible to introduce Winnicott as a character but I felt very firmly that I wasn’t going to do that, that somehow it was not in the scope of what I was doing. But then he somehow sort of insisted. That was soon after I ruled out the first name of the book and started over. Virginia Woolf and Donald Winnicott appeared in my mind crossing paths one day in London and that started me out in a new direction.


BNR: I love the way their experiences live alongside and reflect yours — your relationship with your mom, your romantic relationships, your psychoanalysis.


AB: I don’t know how this book is going to go over. I don’t know how many people are interested in psychoanalysis. I feel like most people are impatient with it.


BNR: Did you happen to see Maria Bustillos’s piece for The Awl about going to David Foster Wallace’s archives at the Ransom Center and looking through his self-help books?


AB: Oh God, no. I’m looking it up now. The first page I Googled has an image of The Drama of the Gifted Child on it.


BNR: He wrote notes in it about his relationship with his mom, and that piece cycled around and around the Internet. The Drama of the Gifted Child has a huge readership among people who are interested in literature and ideas.


AB: The interesting thing about that book is it’s really intended for other analysts. It’s not meant for a lay audience, really. I mean it wasn’t directed toward that audience, though that’s the audience it found. But I just want to say, I’m relieved I didn’t see that. I feel like it would’ve distracted me from what I was doing. 


BNR: One thing you highlight beautifully in Are You My Mother? is that writers have the same problem analysts do: They compulsively analyze people. Would you say that your mom shares that tendency?


AB: Yeah, I would say she has a really keen kind of psychological insight into other people and their motivations.


BNR: Is it hard to talk about this, knowing that she might read the interviews?


AB: You know, I can’t even think about that. Whenever I do interviews I just have to assume that she’s not going to see them. She really is not interested to that extent, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t seek stuff out online. So I think I’m just going to tell myself that she’s not going to see this interview.


BNR: Okay, then, gloves off! One thing that makes her such a fascinating character is that you can’t tell — I can’t tell — whether she’s being intentionally undermining or just applying the same critical lens to your work that she uses to judge the rest of the world.


AB: I think it’s the latter, but I always have to deal with the former. You know, when she makes these comments about other writers or other cartoonists and seems to be comparing me to them, my first feeling is always that I’m coming up short and she’s criticizing me, trying to humiliate me. But I don’t think she’s really trying to do that.


BNR: That tension absolutely comes across. You transmit it so well, I found myself squirming. But I came to like her more and more as the book went along. Especially when you ask her to tell you the first thing she can think of that she learned from her mother, and she says she learned that boys are more important than girls.


AB: That was a really pivotal moment. My first therapist told me to do that, thinking it would yield some useful information and it did. That was like the key to my childhood. I also want to say, I genuinely like my mother in a way that I don’t think a lot of my friends do. They love their mothers, they’re close to their mothers, but I don’t know if they genuinely enjoy their mothers’ company in the way that I do. Sometimes she drives me crazy but she can also seem completely delightful. I can have serious conversations about writing with my mother, which I think is kind of amazing. I’m also still scared of her, so that was the biggest thing I had to grapple with in the book and don’t know if I succeeded. I don’t know if I really took her on in a way that, if I were completely honest, I would have. Because I’m still afraid of her.


BNR: She is formidable. But then at times she would play with you, and make stories with you.


AB: One of my earliest, most powerful memories of my mother is playing this game where I would be a crippled child like the kids I would see at the orthopedic wing of the hospital when I would go to get my fallen arches checked up on. I was just fascinated with these children, with their external signs of disability, their crutches and braces and big shoes. There was something about that that I needed to reenact, and my mother entered into that imaginary space so willingly with me and in such an encouraging way. Even though I knew there was something weird about having this fantasy about disabled children, she didn’t censor it. She encouraged me to go with it, and I feel like she probably did that with me in lots of imaginary games as a kid but for some reason this is the one that I remember the most vividly. And I speculate in the book that it’s because it was a fantasy that she shared to a certain extent as well.

BNR: And when your OCD was making it really difficult to keep the diary, your mom would write down your entries. I remember that from Fun Home, too, and both times it gave me chills. The devotion implicit in it.


AB: Oh my God, that was another pivotal moment. She would sit there and write down everything I said. It was amazing. It also becomes weirdly this template for my relationship later with therapists, other women who would sit there and take down notes on what I was saying.


BNR: Yes! What’s it like to go back and look at those journals now? Those diaries where she wrote the entries for you?


AB: It’s really powerful. I’m at the University of Chicago right now, teaching a class. I moved out here for a couple months, and part of what I’m doing is putting up an exhibit of my work in a space on campus. One of the things that I wanted to show was the way I used all these different archival references in my work. 

And so I took a section from Fun Home, a section where my mother starts writing in my diary near the end of chapter five. There’s this accident and these people are killed, one of them’s a young boy, and they’re all at our family funeral home, all the bodies. On the wall, along with the printed pages from the book, I show the topographical map of my hometown, the big coloring book page from the Wind in the Willows coloring book when I was a kid. And also I scanned my childhood diary, first the spread of the week before this terrible accident when my OCD was reaching a crescendo and there’s just this childish handwriting with these big squiggles and blocks all over it, and the following week — the next thread — is my mother’s tidy handwriting. It’s still my language but her writing. I think it’s such a visual and striking image of this moment of transmission or connection with her. It’s still, you know, really arm’s length. It’s this intellectual exercise. That’s as much as I got, and that’s what I will take. 


BNR: She was giving the gift she knew how to give you. It’s a striking counterpoint to her early days as a mother when she’s trying to breastfeed you and can’t, and the doctor tells her she’s not a good cow, which is (laughing) just awful.


AB (laughing): I know, he really said that.


BNR: But then the journals, the storytelling, was just something she could so naturally share with you.


AB: But what she did is a double-edged sword. Yes, she was teaching me to write, but this cathexis, for lack of a better word, around the diary entries, I feel like that’s what made me want to write memoir. That’s what makes nonfiction so vital for me. That she taught me to write about my particular life but she doesn’t like that I do that. She really wishes that I were a fiction writer.


BNR: Right, which is…


AB: Like you.


BNR: Well, I’ve written plenty of nonfiction stuff about my mother. A lot of it seems, now that I’m older, not very generous. I was filled with rage toward her when I was younger and now I feel much more love and empathy. Your work is vastly more mature, and more nuanced.


AB: I wonder how much the empathy you’re feeling now is a result of the fact that you wrote about her, you know? Would you be able to feel that if you hadn’t done that writing?


BNR: That’s a good question. Do you think writing Fun Home and Are You My Mother? helped you move beyond and change some of your own feelings?


AB: I totally do. That’s why I do it, and it feels so fraught to talk about this because writing is not supposed to be therapeutic. A sort of analogy has occurred to me. People ask me, was writing Fun Home therapeutic? And I feel like, yes it was, but that’s kind of like asking somebody if swimming the English Channel was a good workout for them. That’s not why they did it — of course it was a good workout. Both of these books have entailed transformative processes. You can’t engineer or will yourself to undergo a transformation, but that’s what both of these books have involved. I kind of set out on a journey, and I know that that’s what I have to do, and it’s sort of a high wire act in that respect. Especially with this book about my mother, when I had a book deal for it, I couldn’t really promise that I was going to figure this out in three years or whatever my initial contract was for. And in fact I didn’t, it took me a lot longer.


BNR: How long did it take?


AB: Six years, almost as long as Fun Home. Fun Home was a seven-year project, but I was also writing my comic strip for that time and with Are You My Mother?, for two years of that I was writing the comic strip, and then for the next four years all I was doing was writing this book. It’s kind of crazy.


BNR: But the work shows. And your process is so painstaking. You’ll take photographs of yourself in various positions and then translate them into drawings.


AB: Yeah. That’s really crazy, I do that for every figure in the book.


BNR: One of your therapists advanced this theory, and it dovetails with some of Winnicott’s ideas and The Drama of the Gifted Child, that in encouraging your diary to the extent she did your mother was teaching you to be the repository of all of the emotions that your family couldn’t process. And so in addition to predisposing you to the memoir form by helping you write your diary, your mom was also — if that’s true — making it fraught for you.


AB: Yes. Very much. Interestingly, my father too, I feel, was complicit in the diary thing, because he’s the one who physically started me off writing in a diary. My very first entry, he wrote the first sentence or began the first sentence, “Dad is reading The Trumpet of the Swan.” Both of my parents sort of ceremonially made me the, I don’t know, repository for all of this emotional anguish.


BNR: They really liked the idea of their daughter taking on that role. I guess it’s typical to give a girl a diary — to hope that she’ll write secrets in it and use the little key that comes with it.


AB: You know, that’s so interesting. I didn’t address at all the archetypically feminine role that the diaries have, but that’s so much a part of the story too. Why is that? We don’t give boys diaries.


BNR: I laughed out loud when your mom says, after reading an early draft of the book, “You must have a pretty good memory.”


AB: Yeah, I don’t quite know how to take that.


BNR: But then she also seems pleased. She says that it coheres and there are clear themes, and it’s a meta book, which goes back to what you were saying about being able to talk with your mother about stories and about literature at a really high level.


AB: I feel like she’s at a higher level than I am. She thought of it as a meta book; I hadn’t even been thinking of it in that way. So you know, she’s actually much more well-read than I am, much more up on what’s happening in literature at this moment.


BNR: Well, as someone who spends a lot of time reading opinions about books online, I’m not really sure for a writer that that’s a good thing. 


AB: In my mother’s case I wonder too if she’s so — she’s following the state of criticism so closely that she can’t write because she feels so scrutinized.


BNR: To have the level of critical acumen that she has and to have the very precise ideas that she seems to have about what stories should be and the best way to tell them — for many people, that’s death to more creative kinds of writing. 


AB: As I worked on this project about her, my image of who she could have been or what she could have been kept morphing. At first I thought, oh, my mother was a frustrated poet. Then I saw more of her frustrated actress part, and in the end I feel like it’s really her frustrated critic part that is maybe the most…maybe that’s who she really would have been. Like when she says she wishes she could’ve been Helen Vendler.


BNR: And how your dad had her read books for him and help him write his papers.


AB: She should’ve been an academic, I think. She did teach high school English, but I think she could’ve gotten a PhD and been a really kick-ass poetry professor.


BNR: You write early in Are You My Mother?: “My foremost difficulty is the extent to which I have internalized my mother’s critical faculties.” Apart from all your second-guessing of your writing itself, I’ve noticed that you’re really hard on yourself for using a font based on your handwriting to letter your frames. 


AB: I do feel guilty about it, like it’s somehow cheating to use a digital font, and to not actually hand-letter my work. But at the same time, I have these lengthy passages of quotations from Winnicott or from Virginia Woolf that I have obsessively hand-lettered.


BNR: So interesting: the parts that aren’t your language.


AB: Yeah. In fact those things are treated as drawings in the book, even though they’re text. I frame them as a drawing and often overlay them with my digital narration. It’s almost like I’m giving those words more attention than my own words, but not really.


BNR: I’m so interested in — and ignorant of — the mechanics of putting together graphic novels. Were all of the quotes from other writers treated as drawings, or the longer ones? 


AB: Pretty much all of them. I mean, there are very short things that are just half a sentence that I might have quoted in my own narration, but most of them are actually copied from the original text where I read them. Part of it was trying to replicate my own experience as a reader. Well, not replicate but transmit. To get people to read kind of through my eyes. In my early drafts the quotations went on a lot longer. My editor really pushed me to cut them down. 


BNR: How was that, working with an editor and showing her the book in stages?


AB: I had an amazing connection with my editor about this book. She’s the same editor I had for Fun Home, which seems like a great gift in this era, to have that kind of continuity with a publisher. Let’s go back to the question of how I actually do the book. I do write first, but my writing is very drawing-based. I actually write in a drawing application, in Adobe Illustrator. So I’m not just writing in a word processing program, I’m creating these panels on the page and I create little text boxes for the narration or dialogue and I’m able to move that stuff all around. I’m thinking about the page as a two-dimensional field as I write, which feels to me like a kind of drawing even though I’m not drawing with a pencil or not drawing much. I will do occasional sketches. So that takes a really, really long time and that’s how I get the whole story mapped out. If you saw the pages at that point, it would be just blank boxes with the text and the dialogue, with the narration and the dialogue and maybe a few images dragged in here and there. 


BNR: Is that what your mom had seen when she said that she couldn’t imagine how you were going to draw it all?


AB: Yeah. It was hard for her to read that, and it’s hard for anyone to. It doesn’t make sense unless you’re really comics-literate, and my editor is somehow able to see how that stuff is working without the pictures, and then proceed to edit me the way she would edit any book. I’ve never really talked with other cartoonists about how they work with their editors. It’s hard for me to imagine Chris Ware or Joe Sacco being edited at all. I feel like drawing is more primary in their work somehow. Maybe not. I don’t know if they work with editors, but I just somehow imagine that they don’t, but who knows.


BNR: Your work feels more literary to me than a lot of graphic novelists’. 


AB: Well, you know…I’m sorry to use this word in this way, but I think I probably do privilege the writing more than the drawing. I mean the drawing I do work very hard at, but it’s a little more in service of the writing than vice-versa, and I think that mix varies a lot for different cartoonists. 


BNR: Your visuals are wonderful, but I always feel very connected to the internality of your characters.


AB: You know what, Maud? I feel like cartooning for me has been like a way to be a crypto-writer. I couldn’t ever say I wanted to be a writer because my mother was a writer, and even now I’ve had to find this alternative way of expressing myself as a writer. I don’t want to diminish the drawing. I think it’s integral to what I do. But I’m kind of a secret writer.


BNR: Not so secret really, I hate to tell you. I was reading another interview in which you said that each of your parents had carved out and claimed huge portions of the artistic sphere. Your dad was so visual-arts-driven and your mom was a writer and an actor, so you felt like cartooning was this little sliver of creative self-expression that neither of them had claimed.


AB: Yeah.


BNR: When I read about your font, I had the image of you sitting there trying to decide which — 

AB: Actually, I basically did that. This guy had me write five or six versions of each letter, and then he kind of averaged them out.


BNR: Does it help with the niggly copyediting problems — its/it’s and whatnot — that pedants like me notice in a lot of graphic novels?


AB: Yeah, it enables me to make corrections of typos or to make last-minute editing changes in a way that would be just way too onerous to do by hand. You’d have to go in and manually erase and re-draw the “it’s” and take the apostrophe out and move the space. It would take you forever; it’s insane. So I feel like I’m able to write more carefully because I’m using a digital font. A lot of cartoonists, their stuff is filled with typos. It’s part of the charm, but I feel like my kind of writing I can’t do that. I can’t live with that.


BNR: Your work is so precise and well-considered that I would imagine you’re constantly revising. Do you ever find yourself having to choose a word that will fit in the spot?


AB: Oh yeah, very much. I’m very wordy for a cartoonist. I’m always struggling against that, because the more space your words take up the less room you have for pictures. So it’s always this precarious balancing act. I will often use a word that’s shorter than the word I really want just so I can fit it into three lines instead of going to four. I can’t give you an example right now, but I do that constantly. Editing decisions based on that really minute kind of space.


BNR: So as you’re creating the panels, as you’re drawing, do you ever find yourself shortening things so that you’ll have more room to include some other object in the panel?


AB: Well, just as a general principle, I try to keep the words at an absolute minimum. What’s interesting, as I continue with the drawing process, is that I often find spots where the words become kind of vestigial because I’m conveying something in the picture that makes them redundant. I can delete the words and get these powerful moments in the story that way. There was that one section, when I’m talking about my parents and their courtship and how my mother would like go to my father’s grad school classes with him occasionally. I had a line there saying explicitly “I think my mother should have gone to grad school” or something like that. And it became very clear as I was illustrating this that that my opinion was much more powerful as an implied thing, and so I took that line out and then it came to life. Sometimes the words overdetermine it and kill the energy of the writing. I guess that’s true of any type of writing, you hope to get to the phase when you can just delete stuff and get rid of all that baggage. But in my case, a lot of the time, it’s things I’ve already done in the drawing that enable me to get rid of words.


BNR: Your mom wished you’d written Fun Home as fiction, but in the end she capitulated. She read the draft and said some perceptive things about it —


AB: I feel like she hasn’t really capitulated. She has this really amazingly schizoid response to what I’m doing. On the one hand, she’s very excited about the book actually coming out. She’s sort of anxious that it do well as a book, but just like with Fun Home she doesn’t want to talk about the content of the book. And she’s really — beyond those few things that you just said, like that she observed that it coheres and it’s a meta book, she really hasn’t said much to me about the substance of the book. Has said nothing to me.


BNR: Were you conscious when writing of trying to communicate something to her about your relationship, or did you try to put her reaction out of your mind?


AB: I feel like this book is at its core just a simple and quite pathetic effort to get my mother to hear me tell her that I love her. I could not possibly do that in person, I mean I’ve tried that. I’ve done that. It goes okay, but it’s never what I want. And even having done this, I don’t…you know, I’m still waiting for some kind of response from her that I’m sure I will never get. She really feels like the book is — she sees the hostility, she doesn’t see the love. And that is distressing to me. 


BNR: It’s so clearly drenched in love and in longing for that kind of response from her. But part of the tragedy of the book is that she doesn’t feel like — well, like the kind of character who’s going to be able to give that sort of response. 


AB: Something that really captures her sort of split response to the book is that I got a pre-pub review that talked about my “substantive yet essentially distant” relationship with my mother, and I showed her that review and she was really psyched about it. She thought it was good. It was a starred review, and she was happy about that. She did not seem the least bit fazed to hear our relationship described as “substantive yet essentially distant.” I think she would agree that’s accurate.


BNR: Have you ever heard your mother describe your relationship?


AB: No. No, I haven’t. I have no idea what she would say. I know that she talks about me to other people, like in this kind of bragging way. I know that she’s proud of me and takes some vicarious pleasure in my successes, but she doesn’t say that to me. I only gather that she says that to other people.


BNR: So other people will tell you, “Your mom is so proud of you. She told me that your new book got a starred review in Kirkus“? 


AB: No, actually, I feel like I overhear her at her house, if I’m visiting, I can hear her saying to her best friend on the phone or to someone else on the phone. That’s how I know she does that. It’s like she doesn’t care if I’m overhearing her or not, I’m not really part of the – she’s not factoring me in, I don’t think.

April 8, 2012