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A Conversation with Gabrielle Bell

Gabrielle Bell’s book, The Voyeurs, was released this past August. The glossy color of its pages made Gabrielle’s work particularly inviting, even as the actual stories were among her thorniest. That surface/meaning dichotomy is some of what I wanted to talk about with Gabrielle, as well as some basic everyday human stuff. So we caught up at my kitchen table in Brooklyn this past December.

DAN NADEL: I wanted to start by asking you about the story you did for Kramers Ergot #8 – “Cody”

GABRIELLE BELL: It is not autobiographical.

NADEL: I know it’s not autobiographical. [Laughter.] But it does allude to your upbringing. So, I want to know one, if it’s part of a larger fiction project, and two, tell me a little bit about your upbringing.

BELL: Well that story is very different from my upbringing. And it’s not part of a bigger project. I did grow up in northern California, but my parents were kind of drug-dealer hippies, and in the story it’s kind of opposite, like my mother is incredibly, morbidly shy, and then the mother in the story is like this outgoing socialite from New York. It’s sort of the opposite of my life, and — I guess people wouldn’t really get this, but where I grew up in Northern California, was in Mendocino County, which is the heart of pot country, and it’s all about growing pot, and then the story — it’s set in Napa, which is all about growing wine, or grapes for wine. It’s very different.

NADEL: But familiar country.

BELL: Yeah, yeah. It’s familiar. I feel pretty good, because everybody is asking me, “What about that story is autobiographical?” [Laughs.] And it’s really just a place. I guess there is, I suppose the relationship between the father and the guy Cody — is, there’s some inklings of similarity between my step father and people in his life, but I mean — I’m really proud of that story because people think it’s autobiographical [Laughs.] and I really did make it all up. It was based on a dream I had, and I’m also proud that I turned a dream to a fiction.

NADEL: That’s rare. But does that point the way to other fiction? Because it’s not something that you do that often.

BELL: No, I want to do more of that.

NADEL: Yeah, it felt like the beginning of something.

BELL: Yeah. I really want to do more. I had an idea for this story, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to do it, because I didn’t know if I could pull off a murder story. So I had it on the shelf, as the story that I would maybe someday have the skill to do. I have a lot of those stories — that I don’t think I can do at that moment — but Sammy Harkham [editor of Kramers Ergot] pressured me into it for Kramers. I’m very grateful to Sammy — for pressuring me to do that. He also wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was like, “Maybe,” and he was like, “Great. OK, I want it on my desk next week.” It was the  same with the story that I did for him with the chair story. That story’s pretty similar, too. People think it’s autobiographical. And it’s very, very short, but there’s a lot going on in it. And also, the last line, of both stories. One of them is, “I never felt so useful.” And the other one is, “I’ve never felt so close to my father,” which is, basically, a woman being in a very bad situation, and taking something good out of it. Or turning around this whole bad situation. Anyway, that’s just what I was thinking the other day. I was thinking, these stories are similar that way.

NADEL: That’s funny. We’ll come back to that, but do you have a lot of stories that that are sort of on the shelf until you can —? What is it about them that makes you think you can’t do them? Because, that seems kind of unusual for a cartoonist to file away ideas like that, rather than, you know, fuck them up or something.

BELL: [Laughs.] Yeah, I just feel like my life is so chaotic, and I don’t have very much money, and so I’m always thinking about what I ought to do right now to pay my rent, and I’m always in a state of upheaval, and it seems like I really need to have time and money to sit down and focus and try to do something good. And so I do autobiographical pieces in the meantime because I don’t want to mess up the good ones.

NADEL: That’s funny though, because all along the way you’re doing these pretty rigorous strips. They don’t seem easy. [Laughs.]

BELL: Well straight autobiographical comics are pretty easy for me at this point.

NADEL: Right.

BELL: Like, if nothing weird happens. I really love to do them, but I like to challenge myself to do those other things too. It’s just, like I said, upheaval. Money. Problems.

NADEL: But along the way, you’re making all this other work. I mean, you did do “Cody” and then Voyeurs [Uncivilized Books, 2012]

BELL: It’s very slow.

NADEL: Voyeurs was a few years of work? 

BELL: Yeah.

NADEL: But, you were doing other things along the way.

BELL: Yeah. Kinda.

NADEL: [Laughs.]

BELL: I suppose I’m steady. I can do a page a week, maybe, which is pretty slow. But then again, I haven’t worked on comics for the past couple of months.

NADEL: What have you been doing?

BELL: I don’t even know. [Laughter.] I’ve been doing portraits on the Internet.

NADEL: Right, the Skype portraits.

BELL: And that takes a lot of time. And that’s pretty much it.

NADEL: And that was just straight up, you needed rent?

BELL: Yeah. Also, I just wanted to try it. Seemed like I was broke, and I had this idea, and I saw that nobody else was doing this on the Internet, and I was like, “Maybe I can corner this market.”

NADEL: Why Skype?

BELL: Last year I did it from photographs. That just didn’t work for me. It was just — I worked too hard on each one, and they always came out feeling stiff and awkward. Maybe because I’m not formally trained as an artist. I just don’t know what I’m doing. And then it took so long, and then the same thing is happening with the Skype project, but I like them a little better.

NADEL: But what’s the difference between a Skype image and a photograph?

BELL: Well I guess, for one thing, everybody is in the same position. I like drawing people’s portraits. So I guess the idea is that I’m sitting on a street corner doing portraits, only it’s on the Internet, in the comfort of my own home. That was the idea.

NADEL: And it’s like 40 bucks a shot?

BELL: 35, but —

NADEL: That’s cheap!

BELL: I know.

NADEL: You’re not charging enough!

BELL: That’s what people say, but —

NADEL: You need a business manager.

BELL: [Laughs.] I need a lot of things. And a lot of people.

NADEL: 35. And how long does it take you — each one? 

BELL: Well, the idea is that it would take me like an hour — 25 minutes to draw the person, and then another half an hour to fix it up and color it. But I don’t know — it takes hours.

NADEL: Shit. Hundred bucks would still be a bargain!

BELL: I’m going to try to do it for a hundred dollars after Christmas. But I also thought that if I charged a hundred, I wouldn’t get very many orders.

 

NADEL: So how many did you get?

BELL: Maybe like, 20? Or something? 20 to 30.

NADEL: That’s good.

BELL: It’s really fun. I love it very much.

NADEL: Why?

BELL: It’s just, I like to draw. I love to draw. So it’s like — getting paid to do this? But it’s also so hard.

NADEL: What do you mean when you say your life is in upheaval? Because the image I get from the comics is that you’re pretty much sedentary and drawing.

BELL: I guess I am, but — I don’t have a skill to fall back on. Like, I don’t have —

NADEL: Well a lot of people — most artists don’t have a skill to fall back on.

BELL: Most artists have illustration. Or something that they do, other than what — especially in comics. Everybody, most wise people have something that they do —

NADEL: Except for everybody that I work with. [Laughs.] But yeah, I agree. They are excluded from being wise, though. [Laughter.]

BELL: Especially with comics, because there are so many skills involved with comics. Graphic design, or illustration, or — that’s it, I guess. Writing. [Laughter.]

NADEL: You never tried illustration?

BELL: I did try it, but it just never worked out. It’s such a competitive field in itself, and I’m not a very competitive person, and I don’t really want to devote my life to illustration as a side job. I’d really have to push it, and I just don’t have that drive. I did some illustration for Jane magazine. It was such a hard job. So I didn’t pursue that.

NADEL: Right. So the money’s a struggle. Constantly?

BELL: For the past year, it’s been rough.

NADEL: Even with all the conventions? That doesn’t help? I’m curious about that.

BELL: Yeah — maybe I’m just not very good at budgeting myself. But this is living in New York. It’s expensive. And I don’t think I’m very good at making money or budgeting it once I got it. But, you know, I’m always trying to change that. I’m always like, OK, this thing will be the thing.

NADEL: What was the last thing?

BELL: Well, before the portraits?

NADEL: Yeah.

BELL: This [The Voyeurs]. This has been good. I’ve been making money at conventions, but then I end up — because I went on tour, and then it costs so much to go on tour right now.

NADEL: It really does.

BELL: But it’s good. I think it’s already paid for itself.

NADEL: The book? Good.

BELL: As far as the print run goes, I’m still waiting for the first royalty check. But it’s good. I’m really happy with what Tom’s [Tom Kaczynski, Uncivilized Books publisher] done.  I really didn’t know what I was getting into with it. I thought I did, but —

NADEL: As a book, or as a —

BELL: As a book. I didn’t really realize what a can of worms I was opening.

NADEL: Why — what do you mean? Because it was — a lot of the work was there, right?

BELL: Yeah, we had been doing those mini comics, and I was like, yeah it’s just like a big mini comic, but then Tom got a distributor, and became a real publisher.

NADEL: Oh, OK.

BELL: He really rose to the occasion. The occasion being, I didn’t even realize what I was asking him to do.

NADEL: Yeah, the way he tells it, he basically became a book publisher to accommodate the book.

BELL: Yeah for me, I just figured he would, we would do it the same as the minis, which is we would sell them on the Internet, and at conventions, and at the same time, I was like, “It’s going to be a runaway hit!” Somehow it’s just going to sell so many copies — we’re going to sell out the print run, and then we’ll do another one, all without a distributor. Like, I didn’t even think about a distributor.

NADEL: But you had a — you gave him the book.

BELL: Yeah. Yeah, I was trying to figure something out, and nothing was working out.

NADEL: Why didn’t it work out?

BELL: Why didn’t it work out? I don’t know.

NADEL: I’m curious because I feel like a lot of cartoonists our age are having similar problems— There’s a reason why Tom’s been so welcomed. Because, people are kind of looking for ways —

BELL: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of cartoonists. I mean — crazy competition right now, because of all the schools that teach it, and — there’s way more cartoonists than can — than, maybe than the market can bear.

NADEL: But you had a home.

BELL: With Drawn & Quarterly.

NADEL: Yeah.

BELL: Yeah, but I wasn’t really doing so well there. I was kind of languishing, I think. I wasn’t selling a lot of books. I think it was paying for itself, but not making a lot of money, although I’m not exactly sure what the numbers were, but I don’t think I was doing so well. And Drawn & Quarterly would’ve published The Voyeurs, but I don’t think that they were very — enthusiastic, or something? It’s just that, I think that they were like, “Oh God, not another one of Gabrielle’s books.” [Laughs.] No, they weren’t like that. Or maybe they were. But I think they probably wanted me to do a graphic novel, and they were going to publish this in the meantime, even though they probably wouldn’t sell a lot. And they would’ve done it, but — I felt like I had a better direct communication with Tom. And I don’t think that they would’ve done a good book like this. Just because of communication and time; they just wouldn’t have given it the devotion and time that Tom would. And I think that I probably sell about the same, or maybe less, but —

NADEL: Tom put together a really handsome package. And I thought that the coated paper was a really good idea.

BELL: Yeah, I would’ve had to fight with them every step of the way [Laughs.] and they would’ve been like, “Oh God, not another email from Gabrielle! She’s still not happy with this!” [Laughter.] Yeah, so the production — I mean, not that Drawn & Quarterly doesn’t do incredibly beautiful books.

NADEL: Yeah of course. Relationships are tricky.

BELL: Yeah, it’s really about the relationship.

NADEL: When did you move to New York?

BELL: Why or when?

NADEL: When.

BELL: 2001. End of 2001. Like, 2002. Almost exactly twelve years ago, yeah.

NADEL: Why did you move?

BELL: I moved here to be with Tony. But also, I always wanted to move to New York. I was done with San Francisco. Not that I was using Tony as a vehicle, by any means. But I was really excited to move to New York.

NADEL: What were you doing — how old were you when you moved?

BELL: I think I was 25 or 26? 26.

NADEL: What were you doing in San Francisco until then? 

BELL: I was doing comics there, and working at a bookstore, and working at a yoga studio.

NADEL: Got it. So you moved here. I guess yeah, I started seeing you around in 2003 or so. But then, I’ve always been surprised, because you do seem very involved with New York, other cartoonists in New York, and the Artists with Problems drawing thing, and events and things. But for somebody who’s so — on paper – so introverted, you’re out an awful lot. [Laughs.] I mean, do you like the community?

BELL: Well, I like people.

NADEL: You do?

BELL: Yeah.

NADEL: Generally?

BELL: When I moved to New York, I was pretty excited to hang out with other cartoonists. And especially really serious cartoonists. Just hanging out with people and drawing comics was pretty great. I can’t really work that way anymore, but just because, cartoonists work alone. And I haven’t had a day-job job in a long time, so, it’s good to go out and see people at the end of the day. I feel like it’s practice, and I do need material for comics. [NADEL Laughs.] It is true that if I just stay home all the time, I just start writing the same shit over and over again. Sometimes I write, draw in my diary, and it’s just me at the desk.

NADEL: I didn’t think of you needing material, but of course you do.

BELL: Well, I don’t know. Maybe a writer doesn’t need material.

NADEL: I don’t know. I would imagine writers need material.

BELL: There’s that quote from Flannery O’Connor that says, “Anybody who’s had a childhood has enough material.”

NADEL: [Laughs.] Right.

BELL: But maybe it’s not so much material as stimulation. Just like, seeing things from different perspectives.

NADEL: And why have you stuck with autobiography for so long? It’s been quite a while.

BELL: Yeah, no, I think that that’s kind of immature of me.

NADEL: Really?

BELL: Yeah, it seems like autobiographical stuff is something that one does until they move on to fiction.

NADEL: Some people make their whole careers out of it.

BELL: Yeah, but maybe those people are just very immature.

NADEL: [Laughter.] I’m not just talking about cartoonists, I’m talking about writers. There are plenty of writers that are just essentially memoirists.

BELL: Yes, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’ve noticed that there’s a sort of disdain for autobiographical work, especially with fiction writers. Fiction artists, cartoonists. If somebody asks them if something is autobiographical, they’re like, “I do fiction!” It’s very defensive and, possibly, rightfully so, because fiction is harder, and more important, in a way.

NADEL: I don’t think it’s a question of importance at all.

BELL: I’m really trying to think about this a lot, because, for me, it is like fiction seems like the most important thing. Like, reading it, and doing it, it seems like the most beautiful thing. Because you’re tapping into something bigger, whereas autobiographical you’re tapping into just your own life.

NADEL: Well, I think that you can pick up The Voyeurs and read it as fiction. I mean you structured things. I always figured you were consciously paying very close attention to structure and staging.

BELL: I do think about that. I try to plant things at the beginning that will work out in the end. I do think there’s a lot of good autobiographic cartoonists though. I feel like the medium lends itself to it.

NADEL: Yeah, it does.

BELL: I think that with both autobiographical comics and fiction, people are reading it to read about themselves, and that’s the similarity. I mean, that’s the same thing. Like fiction and autobiographical actually is getting at the same thing. But I’d feel like a bit of a failure if I only did autobiographical stuff. Even though I love doing it and never want to stop.

NADEL: Have you learned more about it as a genre over time? Has it changed for you? In terms of your process?

BELL: Yeah, I think about it maybe more as like, personal essay rather than something I do for myself. But ultimately, it is something I do for myself.

NADEL: Well who do you talk about these sort of things with?

BELL: OK so this is what I was thinking about with autobiographical. There is a kind of disdain for it. People look down on it, sort of. They enjoy it, but they look down on it. They don’t love it — they don’t hold it in as high regard — they don’t think of it as a real art form. Same way with comics. Sort of second class citizen form. And I think I’ve been trying to get over that in my own mind. I think in things that people do look down on, there’s a lot of potential growth, for that very reason.

NADEL: Because it’s not being looked at closely, or because?

BELL: Because it’s not being explored as much. It has been explored, but it hasn’t been celebrated in the way that it could be. So there’s a lot of room for growth and exploration, but it’s just getting over that. I mean, looking at that, that prejudice that I have, and I think that most people have. There’s also the split between graphic novels, novels, and short fiction. The general mindset is that the full-length graphic novel is the thing, which leaves out a lot of potential. Like for me, I think that I’m a really good short story teller. And the point is not to become a great graphic novelist unless, you know, it’s right.

NADEL: So then what’s the process in assembling something like Voyeurs? Because it has a definite structure, and it covers a bunch of years. It doesn’t feel like a book of incidental pieces: it actually kind of felt like an arc. I mean, not only because relationships happen, come to an end —

BELL: I think it’s actually — maybe the reader imposes that arc.

NADEL: Really? That wasn’t intentional?

BELL: It was intentional, but I was only working with this big pile of stories.

NADEL: Right. But you must’ve left some out, and —

BELL: Yeah, but — also, there were stories that I left out that were relevant to the “so-called” arc that I left out because they weren’t that good … But I did, I definitely was trying to streamline it. I added a few pages in here and there. Like to begin and end Ron and my relationship, for example, so we didn’t just jump into it. And then also Michel [Gondry] and me. It’s kind of weird to have these two relationships in there, and they’re not really much to do with each other in the story. But mostly, I was just choosing the stories that were the best, or perhaps were reaching for something bigger, so in a way it was more like the natural — I mean, every story that we write, that one individual writes, is kind of the same story — they’re trying to get at the same thing, in a way. So, I think there are natural themes that come about, and that’s, in a way, the arc. As I was doing all the stories, I wasn’t thinking about it in the bigger sense — it was just each story I would try to do the thing as an independent unit. I wish I were more calculating though — if I could somehow make my life into a story.

NADEL: [Laughs.] But you do — I mean, the stuff with Michel in France is very story-ish. You know, you have set-ups, and comic beats, and there are gags in there, and there’s a story. You get there, and you leave, but in between there are these episodes.

BELL: I wish I could tell more of it. I wish I could — when I was working on the movie [Interior Design – a segment within Tokyo! (2008)] with him in Japan, I wish I could have told the story then. I wish I had kept the comics journals then, but we were working so much. We’d get up at 5, 6 in the morning, and then work until 2 in the morning, and there was no time to even jot anything down. But it was so much more interesting than — I feel like, in a way, I’m doing all the comics about the boring parts, because there’s nothing happening, so there’s time to do it.

NADEL: But do you have to do the comics immediately after or during the event, in order for it to work for you?

BELL: For me, yes. I seem to lose my interest after a few weeks.

NADEL: Really? It recedes that fast?

BELL: It really is kind of this weird thing that I developed. Like, if I have the time to do a comic about it right then, it’ll be pretty powerful, and I write everything — not everything, but I try to write — keep a journal all the time. But after a while I lose interest, and the interest in itself is what is going to make it interesting.

NADEL: Why do you think you lose interest?

BELL: It’s just — in the moment, it feels like a really interesting story, and then a few days later I’m just like, “Why did I care so much? It’s just some stupid incident in my life.” But I want to go back and try to recreate, or work on it again.

NADEL: That particular period?

BELL: No, not that particular period. Just, my whole life. I want to go back – I want to do an autobiographical comic from my entire life. [Laughter.]

NADEL: A memoir. After years of autobiography, she decided to do a memoir. [Laughter.] Thank God! We were all waiting. [Laughter.] No, that’s really interesting though, that there’s an expiration time for your memories.

BELL: I’ve been at this for so long, and I really have been doing it for such a long time.

NADEL: What is it, fifteen, sixteen years now? 

BELL: More than that.

NADEL: Jeez.

BELL: Maybe that. Yeah, but, sixteen, seventeen years? But you know, you develop certain habits and techniques, that nobody else can do it that way. I’ve just done it all myself. It’s so complicated. It works, but it’s very particular.

NADEL: Do you get nervous — this is probably a question that’s been asked before, but I’m curious. Like this book, all your books — it’s a very public — there’s a certain kind of autobiography, right, of a sort of Harvey Pekar-ish model, or Crumb, where they’re kind of, like — their sort of wacky narrative voice foregrounded, and it’s just, “Hey! Here I am! Blaaaah!”

BELL: “Look how crazy I am!”

NADEL: But yours isn’t that. You’re telling these stories, and there’re these scenes and multiple characters, and, I guess I wonder, and what point you forget that it’s public. Or do you forget that it’s public immediately and just —

BELL: No, I think of the public — I’m pretty aware of the public.

NADEL: Right, but there’s two ways to be aware of the public. One is aware of them reading your work, and another is aware of them thinking about you.

BELL: Yeah…

NADEL: When I write, I never actually think about the public thinking about me, ever.

BELL: Because — yeah, no it’s true.

NADEL: Because why would they.

BELL: Yeah it surprised me when I read all the reviews. The reviews often talked about me. And there were some crazy reviews on Goodreads, like, “She should get her meds checked.” And there was hints at me being mentally ill, and —just you know, it was that sort of sideline kind of thing, along with the discussion of the work, and I accept it. I’m OK with that. [Laughter.] I guess that’s the difference between being a writer and being some kind of public personality, or something like that.

NADEL: Do you think that you’re a public personality? 

BELL: Not exactly. I’m not like some celebrity — I’m not John Hodgeman or something. I think there really is a detachment that I have, a tone that I have. Because I always try to keep my comics diary, and it gets confusing, because then I’m like, am I writing in my diary, or am I writing for the public? And those do take different tones.

NADEL: They do. You’re conscious of it?

BELL: Yeah. And I think the tone has changed a bit. I’ve become a little more world-weary, or something. Cynical. [Laughs.] But I think I do need to take on that tone in order to make it public. It’s sort of some sort of attitude.

NADEL: Do the people around you get nervous?

BELL: They don’t say so. I think the people close to me are sort of used to it. Like Tony is pretty used to it. My mom there, she gets a little nervous.

NADEL: Right, because she’s morbidly shy.

BELL: Yeah. And also, I tend to take her to task. I think people, when they first start to know me, when they first meet me, they’re a little bit nervous about it, but they don’t talk about it. It’s interesting. I wonder if people are trying to be more interesting, or witty, or funny, or something.

NADEL: That’s like the classic thing. People performing for you.

BELL: I’m not aware of it. But maybe they are. I’m going to start trying to pay attention — see if people are performing. You’re not performing. [Laughter.] But, I mean, I’m cool with performing — that makes my work easier.

NADEL: Right. Because the funny thing about your work is that there’s no kind of hint of like, “this is authentic.” [Bell laughs.] You don’t really play that game, which I think is good. You’re just sort of presenting things, but with not claim about it. That’s what makes passages like “Inventory” so disconcerting, in a way, like when you go there.

BELL: Disconcerting?

NADEL: Yeah, like that, or the piece about your mom in SCUM [The SCUM Manifesto], that these things take on an obviously unreal —

BELL: Oh you mean, like when it gets kind of magic or obviously not true.

NADEL: Well, yeah, whatever you want to call it.

BELL: That’s the tone I carry, isn’t it?

NADEL: Yeah. You think? Because it’s also the actual things you’re describing.

BELL: Yeah, but I’m describing them with the same tone in which I would do with my regular stuff. That’s what, I guess, connects it. They should all teach tone in school.

NADEL: How do you teach tone? [Laughs.] The tone’s been hard won, though. It took you a while to settle into it. I mean, the tone that marks the work now. Do you feel in control of it?

BELL: No, I never feel in control, but a little bit more. I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but I remember taking a dance class, like twenty years ago, and I was terrible at that kind of stuff, and I was the worst dancer in the class, but the teacher said something about, it’s all about, not so much getting the moves right, you have to get the moves right, but none of that is going to work unless you carry it in a certain way. It was like attitude or something. That’s totally pretentious, but it’s true. It’s all got to do with the attitude, the approach. Or the, holding it. Which has to do with practice. And then, fiction is also about tone. I guess, it’s like a costume.

NADEL: I wanted to ask you — one of the very first things you said — the way two stories ended. One was the chair feeling useful, the other one with the line about father. Is that, that feeling, and you just said, like you never feel in control. Is that feeling of use, or — there’s this thread that connects those things. Use, control, that kind of directedness in your life, or purpose, or ties? Is that what that is?

BELL: Yeah. Well, I think, just like anyone, I want to be a useful and productive member of society.

NADEL: Really? Yeah, I guess so. Ok. Never thought of it that way. 

BELL: I don’t know if I really am.

NADEL: [Laughs.] You’re something. You’re employing printers, at the very least. [Laughter.] Not to worry.

BELL: Yeah, I’m just trying feel more complete, but I don’t feel like I have a lot of control. Do you feel like you have a lot of control? There’s life and art. I feel like you don’t have a lot of control on either. I feel that I have just enough control to manage it.

NADEL: But that’s always a little tenuous?

BELL: It feels pretty tenuous, yeah. I don’t feel like I’m riding out the waves. Just struggling. I don’t feel like — well, every artist must feel this way though. I don’t feel like I could sit down at my desk and write a good story. I could sit down at my desk and write a story, and maybe it’ll be good, and maybe it won’t. It seems like that feeling is necessary.

NADEL: But do you want — I mean, is part of the comics thing — How much do your parents see of it?

BELL: I’m not really in touch with my step-father, who is kind of like my father. My real father, biological father, I don’t send it to him, but he may read my blog. My mother, I send her everything once it’s published. And then she deals with it. [Laughs.] She doesn’t have Internet. She doesn’t know how to use the Internet. I don’t know if she even knows what the Internet is.

NADEL: Where is she? She still out west?

BELL: Oh, in the mountains. Like in The SCUM Manifesto story, most of that is fiction, but at the time I was writing this, she didn’t have a car, and she didn’t have a phone, and she did hitchhike to town to use the payphone.

NADEL: So she’s still sort of a hippy?

BELL: Yeah. For sure. And while I was writing the story, she got herself a cell phone, which was a major step up, and now she’s doing better. And she has a car, or a truck. And it’s been really hard for her through the years. Sometimes she’s got a running truck, and sometimes not. Last time I talked to her, she was doing pretty well, considering.

NADEL: And you have brothers and sisters, right?

BELL: I have three brothers.

NADEL: Are they there? Do they look after her?

BELL: None of us look after her as much as we should. But my youngest brother is nearby. My oldest brother, he’s nearby too now, and the other brother is in Korea, teaching English.

NADEL: Your brothers don’t show up in your stories much. 

BELL: Little bit.

NADEL: Little bit?

BELL: But not so much, yeah. We’re not totally close. I’m not a very good family person. I’m pretty neglectful. The only time I see my family is when I go on tour in California.

NADEL: But you’re a very good friend person.

BELL: I try to be.

NADEL: It seems like it, at least. 

BELL: I mean, I try, but it’s hard, because there’re so many people in the world to be friends with! [Laughter.]

NADEL: Especially if you’re so popular. It’s very difficult, I know.

BELL: But friends are important.

NADEL: You should try my technique and not make any. [Laughter.]

BELL: You’ve got your friends. But yeah, it’s organic. Yeah, my mom’s getting old, and I’ve got to do something, because she can’t live up there forever. I worry about that. She’s also very healthy.

NADEL: That’s good. 

BELL: I mean, that’s one thing. We really have nothing — I inherited nothing — I had no help whatsoever, but I got really good genes — good health. My mom has really good health too, and that seems to be enough. Well, so far.

NADEL: Why have you stayed in New York all this time? It’s a tough city to do what you do.

BELL: I know. I like it.

NADEL: What do you like about it?

BELL: People are smart here. People are very hard working, ambitious, serious.

NADEL: Right.

BELL: When I leave New York I feel so impatient. I feel like New York challenges me. Also, I grew up in the country and in the woods, and I think my sensibility was always, even from a very small child, like I rarely even saw the city, but I always wanted to live in the city. It was just like — my mom was the opposite; she grew up in the suburbs and always wanted to live in the country. But there’s something about the urban feeling that I just never get tired of, even though I am kind of like a fish out of water. And I do miss the country. But California. Seems like there’s a West Coast sensibility and an East Coast sensibility. Grew up on the West Coast, but I think that I have a bit more of an East Coast sensibility. I don’t know. Nature. Nurture.

NADEL: Who were your — who are your work buddies these days?

BELL: I don’t know; I’ve been a bit more isolated lately. I go out sometimes with Richard McGuire and Leanne Shapton, and that’s pretty fun. I think those two are really fun.

NADEL: Yeah, Leanne’s a really interesting person. We should’ve interviewed her a long time ago. 

BELL: You should. Yeah she’s smart.

NADEL: Yeah, a very interesting storyteller.

BELL: Yeah. A great artist. I loved her book.

NADEL: Which one?

BELL: Swimming Studies.

NADEL: Yeah I haven’t read that yet. Is it really good? 

BELL: She’s very careful with her work. She’s so disciplined. I think I like these Canadian writers. [Laughs.]

NADEL: Alice Munro.

BELL: Well I’m Canadian, too. My grandmother is Canadian, and there’s a certain kind of Canadian sensibility I really like. It’s not too self — not too advertising of one’s self, I guess. And there’s something careful or something about it.

NADEL: Right.

BELL: Not to just generalize about a whole country. [Laughter.] But yeah, I’ve been kind of isolated lately. I met Geneviève Castrée recently on my tour. She’s cool. We have a similar sensibility. Another Canadian artist.

NADEL: Yeah. A really good artist.

BELL: Yeah.

NADEL: Do you feel competitive with other cartoonists? You mentioned competition before.

BELL: Yeah. Is that wrong?

NADEL: Uh-uh. Not at all. But in what sense? For readers? For?

BELL: It’s just an irrational — Well, no, it’s probably rational. I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it. [Laughter.] I don’t want the other cartoonists to know I’m competitive with them. [Laughter.]

NADEL: The other cartoonists. [Laughs.] Yeah.

BELL: No, I tend to get more envious.

NADEL: Oh really?

BELL: Yeah, I get envious of, well I guess, anybody I guess. If read something that somebody did that’s really amazing, I’m like, “Oh, I wish I did that!”

NADEL: Right.

BELL: I mean, I get envious of other people’s accolades, even though I’ve got my own. And I get smug sometimes, even though I don’t really have much to be smug about. [Laughter.]

NADEL: Yeah, I mean, it’s a weird career thing. Take it where you can get it, I guess. 

BELL: Yeah. Even though I’m really distanced from comics — like I don’t read a lot of comics — and I really feel like I should. But I don’t buy them that much, because I can’t really afford them [Laughs.] and they’re expensive. Even when I do buy them, I’d so much rather read a fictional prose book. It takes me a lot of – I have to force myself to read comics. But I’m still in love with comics. I feel like so much can be done with them, I want to spend my whole life trying to figure out what can be done with them.

NADEL: And that’s sort of, that’s an internal process. In other words, some cartoonists turn themselves into historians and pure-iticians and God knows what else, but for you it’s the loving it and figuring it out —

BELL: But I should really read more comics, because maybe everybody’s already done the stuff that I’m thinking of. But yeah, it just seems like, even though it’s becoming more public and becoming more recognized, there’s so much that can be done with it, and we’re just kind of scratching the surface.

 


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3 Responses to A Conversation with Gabrielle Bell

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