Paring It Down And Finding An Ending
RC: What prompted the edits you made to some of your original strips for the book? For example, you excised what I thought was the punchline of one strip—when in second grade a boy declared you and a friend as his girlfriends, and in the narrative caption, you replied, “Where did he think we were … Utah?”
MN: I forgot about that original ending! I took that one out because it felt too corny. Like wah-wah corny. I wanted to avoid being too punchliney, since I felt like it took away from the actual punchline, which is that we ran away.
RC: What input has your editor had on the book? Did you decide on a framework for your anecdotes beforehand (the egg/pupa/adult butterfly metaphor) or was that suggested by an editor to tie them together?
MN: My editor changed very little about my book. In fact, there were only a few things here and there, for clarity, that she wanted changed, and only one one-page story that she felt was extraneous. What she did was ask for more. She wanted more stories about my friends, more stories that illustrated my relationship with my parents, that explained my non-romantic life. She really helped round out the book, and if it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have illustrated the blackout story. That was a really tough one to do, emotionally and illustratively, and I think it’s probably the strongest piece in the book.
As for the butterfly metaphor, that got stuck in my craw as soon as I envisioned the book as a finished piece.
RC: Why did you stop your anecdotes at age twenty-two? Was the break-up with your first long-term, live-in boyfriend the final stage of your development, so to speak?
MN: I ended it there because I had to end it somewhere. It’s so hard when you’re writing about real-life stuff to figure out where to begin, where to end, what you learned from it all, if you learned anything. There’s really no moral to the story, which might be frustrating to some people, but what can I do?
The breakup with “Francis” seemed like a good ending point, since it was such a major life event. I was still a kid in many ways at that point, however, so it’s kind of a disingenuous ending, timewise. When I was letting go of all those experiences at the end of the book, that was really happening now (by me writing the book), and not at the age of twenty-two.
RC: You note that you knew your own personality only as it was reflected back by others and that it took you time to figure yourself out—how did you manage to do this?
MN: By being alone! Years and years later, but it eventually happened. I was always a little scared that I wouldn’t like myself, if I took a good, long look at myself, but when I was forced to, the opposite happened. I loved being alone so much, in fact, that I stayed away from real intimacy in my relationships, for fear of sinking back into that losing-myself mindset. By the time I started dating my husband, I was determined to stay alone and independent. But then I fell in love and that all got shot to hell. In a good way.
But I don’t feel like I could have fallen as deeply in love with him, or created such a great, trusting relationship with him, had I not taken that time for myself and learned to love myself. I know it sounds trite, but there it is.
RC: You’ve talked about the when and the how, but is this feeling of modern-catharsis why you decided to do this specific book on this topic? As a way to let go of the past?
MN: That was definitely part of it. I came up with the idea shortly after a particularly humiliating breakup (see my story about the hippie). It was a great time to pick apart my romantic history and try to determine why my relationships never seemed to last.
Personal and Political Storytelling Choices
RC: Your paintings seem to offer a more direct political and cultural critique than your comics. (I’m thinking of the Cow Porn and Sumo Clown series.) Why have you mostly avoided political content in your comics? And even when you’re making a specific political point, do you always seek to inject humor into your work?
MN: I talked a little about politics in the hippie comic, but you’re right, I’m way more political with the paintings. I have some strong political views (my friend likes to tease me because I once criticized Gavin Newsom for being too right-wing), but I feel like politics are often too complicated for me to approach in a non-abstract, unemotional manner. My artwork (especially the painting-collages) are like pure emotion, but I only allow myself to write autobio comics if I’ve had enough distance from them to no longer feel emotionally tied to them. And yes, I always want to use humor, even if I’m talking about serious subjects. If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.
RC: There’s a certain matter-of-factness about your book. Was it important to you not to sensationalize elements like underage sex, extensive drug use, and non-traditional sexual relationships?
MN: I wrote it how it felt to me at the time, to the best of my recollection. It’s funny, I keep reading reviews talking about how “shocking” certain things are in my story, and I get puzzled every time I read that word. My adolescence doesn’t seem shocking to me at all, or even that unusual. It was a bit dramatic, but isn’t that what adolescence is all about?
RC: Certainly, but you perhaps had a wilder adolescence than most. Many teens are sexually active and do drugs and alcohol, but fewer run away from home. What I like about your story is the matter-of-factness of it all: here’s what I did and I mostly had a good time, while dealing with the sort of overblown emotional drama that all teens face. There’s no sense of this being a confession, of regretting what you did, or (worse) of being a Lesson to younger people. From what you’re saying, it appears that this was more of an intuitive than a conscious strategy.
MN: Well, I did keep an eye on my storytelling, to avoid those pitfalls and others. I don’t enjoy reading about bitter people and how wronged they feel, for example, so I avoid writing about sore subjects until I’m over them.
In the wake of an emotionally brutal experience, I often want to seek out meanings or lessons to make the hard times feel justified in some way. That cliché—”What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”—is devastating when you realize it’s not always true. You want it to be true, you want your life to have meaning and to always come out ahead, and so sometimes you rationalize things, add a post-mortem moral to the story, and move on. But when you’re trying to share a slice of your life with a neutral party, those conclusions are beside the point, are often made long after the fact, and aren’t necessarily accurate. I wanted to tell my stories honestly and realistically, with no pretense or judgments. And that meant avoiding the trite life lessons I struggle with internally. So what I’m trying to say is, those things were there in my head, but I didn’t want to share a glamorized version of my adolescence. I wanted it to be real.
RC: One interesting aspect of your story with regard to underage sex is the way you portrayed it, as if it was entirely non-coercive and in fact very empowering. Is that an accurate description, and was this done as a kind of feminist statement?
MN: I tried to be as honest with my portrayal of the past as possible. The first story, with the babysitter, was the only one I had to really think about and weigh how I was going to portray it. At the time, the experience felt completely consensual, despite our huge age gap. It wasn’t until I was eighteen that it even occurred to me how disgusting it was, and I spent a period of time feeling retroactively violated by it. By the time I sat down to write the story, I was over the bitterness, but left with conflicting feelings. Do I write it how it was, or through older eyes? The answer seemed obvious.
The Details Of Publishing
RC: Can you take me through the process of how you got this book published? You went from making minicomics to a big publisher. Did you hire an agent?
MN: When I started drawing comics, it was just for fun. A kind of exhibitionist release. Sure, there was a part of me that wondered if I could make it go further, but I also worried that if it did, it would become a job like any other. So I just did exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, and reveled in the fact that I had so much artistic freedom.
By the time it dawned on me that Kiss & Tell was going to be a novel-sized book, I was tired of dealing with the printing process, self-promoting, etc. Not tired for good, but I didn’t want to do it wrong for this book, nor did I want to go it alone. And even though I’d been getting feedback from my friends, I really wanted the help of a professional editor to make the book better. I knew it needed help, but I didn’t know how to fix it. So I ended up contacting an agent who works with several cartoonists I know, and I was frankly surprised when he agreed to take my book on. And it all developed from there, slowly, but with eventual rewards.
So let’s see—I started working on the book in ’03, got my agent in winter of ’08, got signed on with HarperCollins in winter ’09, and the book is finally coming out now, in spring ’11!
RC: Will you be touring with the book?
Yes! I’ll be touring with Sister Spit, which is a group that promotes queer and queer-ish writers and has been around since 1997 (when I started drawing comics!). I’ll be the only comics person in the group, except on April 13, when Phoebe Gloeckner will be our special guest (!!) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We’ll be touring across the country and into Canada, starting March 16 and getting home April 19. After that, I’ll be doing some solo readings (with visuals) in the San Francisco bay area. There’s a tour schedule for Sister Spit here and my Bay Area readings on my website.
RC: Could you go into a little more detail about your next project? Have you drawn any of it yet?
MN: I’ve finished inking more than fifty pages at this point, and I think it’ll end up being over two hundred.
The story starts where Kiss & Tell left off, but it’s not the same kind of book, and its focus is not my love life. In short, it’s about when I decided that I wanted to learn Japanese so I could speak to my mother’s side of the family without her there as a translator. In order to practice, I took jobs in Japanese hostess bars in San Jose and in Tokyo, and hijinks ensued. It was an interesting time of my life, another period where I thought, “I’m going to be a writer someday, so I’d better live it up!” Things didn’t go how I thought they would, but they never do, do they? It would be a boring story if they did.