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Cartoonist Alison Bechdel, author of the legendary comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the bestselling graphic memoir Fun Home, has been traveling the country in support of her latest book, Are You My Mother? The new memoir, recently released in paperback, delves into Alison’s complex relationship with her mother, frequently invoking the writings of Virginia Woolf and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.
I spoke with Alison via Skype one afternoon in early April, catching her at home in Vermont during a brief lull between trips to San Francisco and Montreal. We’d exchanged e-mails in the past, but had never met or talked to one another. Despite her busy schedule, she chatted with me for upward of an hour, sounding more relaxed than the nerve-wracked portrayal of herself in her autobiographical comics.
Q: Your schedule sounds pretty hectic. Alison Bechdel: Yeah, it is! It’s crazy. I accept that this is what you have to do in this day and age to promote a book, and I’m lucky to get invited to do this stuff, but it’s still a huge drain.
Q: You drew Dykes to Watch Out For for twenty-five years, which is a good, long run for an alternative strip. Now that you’ve moved on to graphic novels, do you miss it? Is the lack of a regular deadline a blessing or a curse? Bechdel: It’s both. I wouldn’t go back to those deadlines; they were really starting to crush my soul. But I do miss the sense of achievement. Q: There is something nice about getting your work out there on a regular basis. At the same time, I’ve always thought it would be kind of a luxury to have all that time to make something perfect. Bechdel: When I was writing my first memoir, Fun Home, I was also doing the comic strip, and having that other, constant pull on me to do something else was very motivating. I was so eager to get the comic strip done so I could get back to the memoir, and then I could leave the memoir to go back to the comic strip. My second memoir, the book about my mother, I didn’t have that other thing, and I got kind of stuck. I think it helps to have at least two things going on. Q: That’s how my chores get done. Bechdel: Yeah, it’s like a kind of transitive procrastination. Q: Dykes to Watch Out For was often highly political. In addition to featuring a cast of lesbian characters (which was political in itself), those characters frequently discussed the issues of the day. I recall a good deal of criticism of the George W. Bush Administration. Since then, you’ve shifted toward intensely introspective work. Are you burned out on politics? Have you traded overt commentary for a more “personal is political” approach? Bechdel: Yes, I feel like I have. I also feel like something did get burnt out in me, something very deep during the Bush Administration. I stopped my comic strip in the spring of 2008, just before the election season, and I feel like George Bush killed Dykes to Watch Out For. Q: That’s sad! Bechdel: But I do feel that somehow these more personal works are also somehow more political. Yes, Dykes to Watch Out For was often about specific things happening in the news, specific current events, and the characters would have these ideological discussions all the time. But Fun Home is a book about my closeted gay dad who killed himself. It’s a book about homophobia. That’s a very political topic. I hope that it doesn’t come across in that kind of heavy-handed way. It’s implicit, it’s buried in there, but I still think it’s a pretty powerful political message. And likewise, this book about my mother that I just did is about misogyny. It’s about the different courses my mother’s life and my life have taken because of being on different sides of that watershed moment of the women’s liberation movement, and that’s a very political story. Q: Your latest book relies heavily on psychoanalytic theory. What makes the work of Donald Winnicott so important to you? Bechdel: I love Donald Winnicott. It’s hard to pick out a particular point, because there are so many weird ways that I connect with him, but maybe the main way is his kind of gender ambiguity. Before I knew anything about him, I thought he was a woman. I was reading a book about him that didn’t use a pronoun in reference to him. All these ideas sounded so deeply nurturing, I just assumed that this Winnicott person was female. But he was a man—I found out he was a small man, a man with a high-pitched voice, who suffered from impotence. And a man who was freakishly gifted with children. So he became this sort of androgynous mentor for me. This person who was a man, but who was a really good mother to me in a way, giving me some particular piece that I was missing in my actual relationship with my real mother. And I’ve just felt really connected to him. One of his more popular ideas is this notion of a “false self”—that some people learn to create to protect their true self, and that really resonated for me. I feel like all my life I’ve been trying to get down to this true self under these layers of false selves I’ve had to adopt for one purpose or another, and so there’s something very liberating about Winnicott’s work for me. Q: Your mother did not approve of your comic strip when you started it. Would you characterize cartooning as an act of rebellion, in a good way? Bechdel: It was not exactly that she didn’t approve of the comic strip, but of me attaching my actual name to the comic strip. Which I guess is basically the same thing. I didn’t think of it intentionally as a kind of rebellion at the time. I just felt like I was doing what I had to do. You know, I was coming out as a lesbian, seeing all of this unfairness and lack of representation, and I wanted to do something about it. That just seemed pretty straightforward and necessary to me as a young person. But yeah, looking back it was absolutely kind of a rebellion that really freed me from my mother in a way, or began to free me from my mother’s critical power over me.
Q: You illustrate that one moment in the book, where you realize you’re just not going to get her approval.
Bechdel: It certainly was an important moment for me, that realization that I was not going to get what I wanted. It was very freeing. I keep using that word “freeing” or “liberating.” I feel like Houdini sometimes, like I’m just getting out of one set of shackles after another, hanging upside down inside a burlap bag with handcuffs on. Hopefully one day, I’m going to get out of this tank of water.
Q: In Are You My Mother? you write about professional envy and career anxiety. Has some of that abated with your more recent success?
Bechdel: Well, you would think that it would have because things have been going really well for me. It was a huge break that Fun Home succeeded the way it did. But I would say that my professional envy has just kind of ratcheted up another notch [laughs]. Now I’m just envious of different people. I have some more insight into it, and a little bit more freedom from it, but it’s still there. It’s still something I have to grapple with. It’s something that we don’t really seem to talk about much in polite society, though, so a lot of people are telling me they liked hearing about that in the book. That’s kind of cool.
Q: When you make the leap to literature, you enter a whole new world of accolades and people who pay attention to you. Do you feel that going from doing a comic strip to doing serious graphic memoir has gained you a certain amount of respectability?
Bechdel: I never thought about it in exactly those terms, because there were so many other factors at work for me. I was not doing just a comic strip, but this very marginal queer comic strip. I do sometimes miss doing that lighter, more humorous work, and I find there’s a heavier responsibility that goes along with a literary reputation. You have to start knowing what you’re talking about and you have to go have public conversations with writers. That’s been pretty intense; I have to really stay on top of things in a way I didn’t before.
But it’s a great challenge, and it pushes me to take a bigger view of things, though, sometimes I wish I could just do my silly comic strip.
Q: What’s a typical workday like for you?
Bechdel: I wish I had a typical workday. I struggle to get up at seven and almost always fail. I just try to get to my office as soon as I can, but it’s always later than I would like. I try not to have anything too much going on between waking up and getting to work. I like to just be really fresh when I sit down. I always have my best ideas, like, within five minutes of starting. And then the rest of the day is just kind of putting in time [laughs].
So I tend to write first thing, and then do my drawing later. I like to draw at night. But often I go for long stretches without drawing, because I’m trying to figure out what I’m writing. I haven’t been drawing lately, and I just hate that. It’s a terrible feeling.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you were miserable writing this latest book, but that you enjoyed some of the drawing process.
Bechdel: Drawing is more fun to me than writing. I think it’s interesting to talk to different cartoonists about how those activities work for them. I’m a very writerly cartoonist. I certainly spend more time on the writing than I do on the drawing, even though the drawing, of course, is very time-consuming. But the writing is hard, and the drawing is fun. It’s very satisfying to see a drawing start to come together. I love having something concrete or tangible, since I work for long stretches without any sign of that. It’s so different from when I had a comic strip. Every two weeks, I’d have this achievement. And now that I’m not doing my comic strip but I’m working on these longer book projects, years go by.
Q: You currently live in a rustic setting in Vermont. Earlier in your career, you lived in New York City. Which environment do you think is better for doing creative work?
Bechdel: Oh, I don’t know how anyone gets anything done in New York City. I vastly prefer living in the country. I just need a lot of quiet and solitude, and I’m so easily distracted. I mean, the Internet is enough to deal with.
Q: Do you ever find yourself wishing you had a simple life as a mushroom farmer or something?
Bechdel: I have that wish frequently. I would even settle for being an accountant. But it’s amazing to get to do what we do. It’s incredible. Basically, my work is play. It never actually feels that way—I’m always aiming to attain that state. But I get to do for a living what I did as a child for fun, and that’s pretty cool.
In addition to appearing in The Progressive, Jen Sorensen’s comics have been featured in a variety of publications, including NPR.org, Ms. Magazine, The Austin Chronicle, Daily Kos, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and many other alternative newspapers. She has won several awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, including First Place in 2012. She has also won the Grambs Aronson “Cartoonist with a Conscience” Award, and was named a 2012 Herblock Prize Finalist. A graduate of the University of Virginia, she lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and cairn terrier.