Q&A with Alison Bechdel, author of CofC’s the College Reads! selection 

Cartoonist talks storytelling, memoir, and Palmetto Family

Allison Bechdel is an award-winning cartoonist and author of the graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006). Bechdel came onto the cartooning scene in the late 1980s with Dykes to Watch Out For, a politically- and socially-charged comic strip about a community of friends in an unspecified city.

In Fun Home, the author dives deep into the story of her father’s suicide, her own sexuality (Bechdel is a lesbian), and her discovery that her father, too, was gay. She is also the author of a graphic memoir about her relationship with her mother, Are You My Mother?, which was published in 2012. Bechdel speaks at the TD Arena on Oct. 24 at part of the College Reads! progam.

City Paper: Have you heard much about the Christian organization Palmetto Family’s objections to your book being chosen for the College of Charleston’s college-wide reading program? Have you come across this kind of reaction to your work before?

Bechdel: You know, not until quite recently because it hasn’t been presented in this way — as a freshman read option, something for incoming students to all do together. That doesn’t happen very often. In  another school, a dean found out that the college wanted to teach Fun Home and he felt skittish about it, and they took it off the list. So I’m pleased that the College of Charleston stood up to that, because you know it’s not a pornographic book. It’s a great book for freshmen to read.

CP: It must be strange to put your work out there and have people react to it so strongly.

AB: I try not to get too reactive about it. I don’t want to have a fight about it.

CP: How has going from writing a comic strip to a full-length memoir — especially such a personal one —  changed the way you see your art? Storytelling in general?

AB: Over the many years that I wrote this comic strip, which was about a fictional community of friends, I wasn’t writing autobiographically. I was writing about people who had lives like mine, but it wasn’t specifically mine. More and more, I felt like what really interested me is specificity — my own experience of reality and living. So I also had this very important personal story I felt that I needed to tell, the story of my father’s suicide. For a long time I worked on both the comic strip and the memoir, but when Fun Home came out it was so successful that I gradually weaned off of the comic strip. It wasn’t as interesting as real life was. I don’t know, I just sort of plunged down into the abyss of memoir.

CP: Were you conflicted about writing these memoirs?

AB: Oh, I’ve been conflicted throughout the whole process. Fun Home was a story I’d wanted to tell ever since I was quite young — since I was 20. But I didn’t tell it until —  I didn’t even start telling it until I was 40, because it was too — it was revealing these family secrets. People didn’t know that my dad was gay, or bisexual, or that he killed himself. It was a big step to write a book about those things. And negotiating that with my family, my mother in particular, was a big kind of psychic breakthrough for me, and my next book, which is a memoir about my mother, is kind of about the writing of Fun Home and what it was like to go through that process with her.

CP: That must have taken a lot of courage.

AB: I don’t know, maybe. I feel like I grew up in an odd family, a family that loved books and literature and the theater, and sort of prized those things above normal everyday emotional interaction. So, not surprisingly, i grew up to be someone who also does that. It might seem callous, in a way, that I’m writing about these intimate family losses in a public way, but that’s just how I was raised. I feel like I connect more with my family through the medium of writing, writing and drawing. It feels like my way of making an emotional connection. Even though it’s at a kind of distance.

CP: What’s on the horizon for you? Are you going to work on another full-length book?

AB: Yes, I’ve been so busy lately, but I’m trying to get started on another book that won’t be about my family. It will be lighter and more fun. But something really interesting is happening right now, which is that Fun Home has been turned into an Off-Broadway musical. It just opened on Tuesday night.  It’s like this very exciting success, so it’s really weird to be experiencing that too — you know, to see the whole book turned into a musical, to see my family turned into people singing and dancing on stage. It’s crazy.

CP: It’s an interesting jump to go from graphic narrative to musical — but I can see how it sort of makes sense.

AB: Well, at first I didn’t see how it was possibly going to work, back when the process all began several years ago. But I’ve been thinking about it too, and you know it does make sense. They’re both very popular forms, comics and the musical, but both my comics and this musical are kind of like weird, alternative, kind of dark aspects of those genres. So it does make a kind of sense, I see now.

CP: What do you think comics can offer that regular writing doesn’t?

AB: For me, it gives me a way to say two or three things at the same time. I’m a little ADHD or something — i always want to be talking about three things at once, and having those two tracks of text and image enable me to do, I think, a complex kind of storytelling. I’m sure a good writer could also convey those things, but I’m not that good of a writer so I need that extra register of images. I feel like it helps me to tell more complicated stories than I could with just words.

CP: Is that something you look for in other comic artists?

AB: Traditionally comics are pretty straightforward and simple affairs — you know, superhero comics and stuff like that. But increasingly people are doing amazing experimental work, very literary work. It’s interesting to see the form exploding and evolving very rapidly.

CP: Many times when people write about you, they say you’re a “lesbian cartoonist.” I wonder if that ever gets annoying — do you think that’s still a relevant label for you?

AB: That’s a thing I’ve been grappling with for my whole career. When I came out in the early ’80s and started working, it was a matter of course that I identify myself as a lesbian cartoonist. I was part of a community, part of a movement. To me, being a lesbian cartoonist created bigger possibilities than just being a cartoonist. But over the years yeah, I feel like, ‘Why can’t I just be an American cartoonist?' I feel like that actually has started happening, especially when Fun Home got as much attention as it did. It really kind of crossed over in a way, and brought me with it.

CP: That’s nice to hear. I always wonder if those labels become boxes.

AB: It’s interesting, because “comics” is another box. I feel like I want — I’ve liked being a cartoonist, being part of a comics world, but why can’t comics be literature? Why can’t they just be shelved with the literature? Why do they have to be in their own little ghetto like the gay and lesbian books? So busting out of categories is something I’m very interested in doing.

CP: What will you be discussing tonight?

AB: I’m going to be talking about sort of the arc of my career, from writing a subcultural comic strip to writing these very intimate memoirs about my family ... so writing in the format of comics, memoir, what it’s like to tell stories individually. Those are the topics I’m going to hit.
 


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