TCJ ARCHIVE

The Phoebe Gloeckner Interview

Hippies and Underground Comics

GROTH: Tell me a little about how you evolved. You did “Mary the Minor,” and then you did a comic strip called “Identity Crisis” in 1977. I think at some point you met Crumb and perhaps that inspired you to do more comics.

GLOECKNER: I met him actually before, when I was 15 or something. Do you know this story? Did I say it before?

GROTH: You did, but not in this interview, so you’re going to have to say it again. Your mother took you to a concert where his band, The Cheap Suit Serenaders, were playing. I guess you had written him a letter before that.

GLOECKNER: I had written Aline —

GROTH: That’s right. OK.

GLOECKNER: — and she remembered it. I used to see him a lot. I mean, it’s not like he was my friend, but he was at our house a lot because my mom was dating another cartoonist in the band.

GROTH: Bob Armstrong.

GLOECKNER: Right. And so …

GROTH: So, it was one big happy family.

GLOECKNER: Right, but I was scared of him, of Crumb, because I was so shy and I thought he was so great and I mean, he would sleep in my bed and I would go sleep in my sister’s room. Or a couple times I know he was sneaking looks at my sketchbook and stuff, and then he would draw something in there and I’d get really embarrassed. I’d get, you know, tongue-tied.

But I knew Terry probably better. Terry Zwigoff.

GROTH: Oh, really?

GLOECKNER: He was also in the Serenaders. He became a pretty good friend of my mother’s.

GROTH: So how did you get to know all these people. What was the trajectory?

GLOECKNER: Well they’re my mom’s generation, so she started dating Bob [Armstrong], they all lived near the city. They would all come to our house to practice before they did a gig or something. They were all in the band together — Bob Armstrong, Terry Zwigoff, Al Dodge, Crumb, and a few other guys that came and went. Terry lived in the city and used to work in the unemployment office and at one point …

GROTH: … which your mother visited?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. She was on unemployment at some point. She knew him before, but it was convenient to know someone down at the office. So, we knew him pretty well. Terry’s brother was a doctor. He lived in Philadelphia, and he was my grandparents’ doctor.

GROTH: Jesus. Small world.

GLOECKNER: Yeah. Crumb didn’t really have anything to do with me publishing any comics. I don’t think. I mean, he would say, “Why don’t you …” I didn’t want to talk to him about it.

GROTH: He published you in Weirdo in 1981, so he had something to do with it.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, later on, but by that time I was 21 and had been drawing comics for five years.

GROTH: I think the first comic I know that you published was in Young Lust, is that true?

GLOECKNER: Yes, but it wasn’t the first one I did. The story is, I was too shy to ask Crumb how to get a comic published, so I said, “OK, well, I’ll just go to Last Gasp.” I think I was 15, and I called up and I said, “I’m a cartoonist. Can I show you my work?” I met Ron Turner, who showed me the original pages from some comic book that was about to be printed. He was very nice to me, patronly, almost—he seemed really interested in what I was doing, but didn’t exactly tell me whether he liked it or not. He did say, however—and I think it was good advice—that I was going to have to learn how to draw fire hydrants and everything else under the sun. I think he was kind of shocked that a 15-year-old girl came all alone. I wasn’t very bold. I was shy, you know? Last Gasp is in a huge warehouse in San Francisco. You’ve been in it, haven’t you?

GROTH: Oh, yeah.

GLOECKNER: Well, at that time it looked different — not a lot, but there were all these open shelves just filled with comics and comics and comics and comics. He just let me take whatever I wanted, and it was fantastic. I remember I was really afraid to walk into a store and buy comics, because, like I said, I had this thing against hippies. I hated them.

GROTH: You’re talking about head shops, right?

GLOECKNER: I was embarrassed. I would have to work up the courage to go into a head shop, because I would think, “Oh they think that I want to buy a pot pipe,” or “They think I want to get a dirty comic,” or “They think …” you know. I would have to hold my breath in order to buy anything. If you’re a 15-year-old girl, you feel that people are staring at you, like “What are you doing?” I don’t know. It’s horrifying. So at Last Gasp, he just threw anything at me, gave me everything. It was great because I read things I’d never read before and probably couldn’t get in a head shop anyway.

GROTH: What was your aversion to hippies?

GLOECKNER: I guess because my mom was kind of a hippie, and a lot of her friends certainly were. I hated the Beatles because my mom liked them. I thought the Monkees were better.

GROTH: So it was an aspect of rebellion …

GLOECKNER: I don’t know. I just …

GROTH: … which the hippies also were.

GLOECKNER: I thought they were slow and stupid. That really bothered me, that kind of stoned quality, and “everything was beautiful” and “love the one you’re with..,” and I just thought, “What a joke.” It is, you know?

GROTH: [Laughs.] You didn’t buy into any of that.

GLOECKNER: No.

GROTH: Can you tell me how you first appeared in Young Lust?

GLOECKNER: They said I could do something, but I had to either figure out how to make it the same proportion as that comic …

GROTH: You met Bill Griffith, right?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, I met Bill Griffith.

GROTH: Where did you meet him?

GLOECKNER: I think I met him at Jay Kinney’s house. Do you know Jay Kinney?

GROTH: Yeah.

GLOECKNER: That’s where I had to go. I don’t remember who directed me there, whether it was Ron Turner or Crumb. I went there, and then I went to Bill’s house and Diane was there. I was totally freaked out. I was so scared because Diane was my idol. It’s like meeting Jesus.

I guess the next time I was published was in Re/SEARCH magazine, one of the first issues, when it was a tabloid. It was a very “edgy” publication at that time. When I was about 17, punk rock hit San Francisco, and the Sex Pistols played their last concert at Winterland, and I was going to all the clubs every night. But I think that was the first and only time in my life I wanted to join a club. I wanted to be in the punk club. Re/SEARCH was a part of that. I wore a leather jacket. Cut my hair short and dyed it black and had safety pins hanging from me and got an exacto-knife tattoo. It was fun, but at the same time it’s somewhat embarrassing to me. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.

GROTH: Did you feel like you fit in there, or you wanted to?

GLOECKNER: What I loved was dancing all night. Slam dancing, because I’ve always had some sort of violence in me. I used to get into big fights in the parking lot, at like two or three in the morning with other girls …

GROTH: You did?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. I loved it! I relished it. I loved slam dancing and banging against other people and being down in North Beach and walking home all alone in the middle of the night after the Mabuhay Gardens closed. Five miles and walking, walking, walking as fast as I could. I just loved those feelings — using up all of my energy, screaming and yelling. That’s what I loved. It wasn’t so much the external, the look or anything else. It was just being allowed to …

GROTH: … to expend that energy?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, and get totally punchy and …

GROTH: Where do you think the violence came from? Why did you enjoy that?

GLOECKNER: I guess I have a lot of my dad in me. He was a wrestler. He was the same way.

GROTH: Did you get hurt?

GLOECKNER: No, I was really strong.

GROTH: [Snickers.]

GLOECKNER: I was!

GROTH: What do you mean, “was?”

GLOECKNER: I don’t know. I haven’t fought that way in a long time.

GROTH: I see.

GLOECKNER: I wish I could. You wanna come over?

GROTH: You and your husband have punch-outs once in a while, don’t you?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, we do, actually. Do you want me to get side-tracked and tell you about that?

GROTH: Hell, yes. And then we can go back.

GLOECKNER: OK, I’ll just tell you. We were at his parents’ house a couple years ago, and, you know, the typical scenario, it’s like I’m punching his arm, and he kept saying, “It doesn’t hurt. I don’t even feel it. It doesn’t hurt. I don’t even feel it.” So, I’m punching him harder and harder and harder, right? Playing around in the living room, and I’m punching him as hard as I can. “I don’t feel it. I don’t feel it.” He turned just a little slight bit and I clipped him on the scapula or something, but the impact, it was so strong, that I felt this crack in my hand, and I just said, “OK, my hand’s broken.” And he looked at me like, “You’re crazy. You’re crazy.” I said “No, it’s really broken.” I told his mother, and she said, “Let me see, I’m about to serve dinner. It’s fine. Just sit down. It’ll feel better in a minute once the aspirin hits.” I said, “It’s really, really broken.” Finally his father said, “Oh, Phoebe I believe you. Let’s go to the hospital.” They took an x-ray and it was one of the happiest moments in my life because it was a perfect, beautiful x-ray, showing the fifth metacarpal beneath the little finger snapped in two like a pencil. And the doctor said, [deep doctor voice] “Well, generally, this is an injury we commonly see in young men, it’s called a boxer’s fracture. But I’ve never seen it on a woman your age.” [Laughter.] I was so proud of my boxer’s fracture.

GROTH: And that was fairly recently, like within the last couple of years?

GLOECKNER: Yes. It’s the only broken bone I’ve ever had, and so, I’m glad I had it.

GROTH: You should be rightly proud of that.

GLOECKNER: Anyway, the point is, I’ve always had that in me, and I guess people do, it’s lucky I wasn’t a boy, because I probably would be in jail. I often feel that because it’s that kind of a hair trigger. You know, I feel it. I can control myself, but I like confrontation, for the most part. Unless there’s no point to it.

GROTH: You can usually make a point to any confrontation, though.

GLOECKNER: Sure, and who can’t? That’s the thing about lawyers, right?

GROTH: So, OK, you sort of became a punk, and it was during this period when you also started appearing in comics with Young Lust in 1980, and Robert published you in Weirdo. The next thing I know you did is a cover for Wimmen’s Comix in 1989.

GLOECKNER: I did lots of Wimmen’s Comix in between.

GROTH: Is that where most of the material from A Child’s Life appeared?

GLOECKNER: Maybe. I don’t know. Another thing … I didn’t do a lot of comics. I never considered myself a cartoonist. That’s really true. I think if I had, I would have just done comics, but …

GROTH: Why have you not considered yourself a cartoonist — when you clearly are a cartoonist?

GLOECKNER: Well, why do you think I’m a cartoonist? Because I’ve done cartoons?

GROTH: Because you’ve done comics that involve cartooning. I mean, you have a whole book of comics published.

GLOECKNER: What do you mean, “comics that involve cartooning?” I’ve done comics, but I think of myself as an artist. I’ve done paintings, but I don’t call myself a painter. I think my last book [Diary of a Teen-Age Girl] is probably more what I was headed for. And now I feel like I’m headed for something else. But it just … I mean, what is a cartoonist? No, I feel like the medium or the kind of genre is totally unimportant to me in a sense. I mean, I think comics for a long time worked for me.

GROTH: I was just going to say, comics require a certain set of conventions and involve a certain grammar, all of which you’ve more or less mastered. To go back to why you are a cartoonist — which is not to say you’re not a prose writer as well, obviously — but it looks like for at least 20 some odd years, much of your artistic expression has been cartooning.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, are you going to say something else?

GROTH: No. I’m just making my case that you’re a cartoonist.

GLOECKNER: I guess, but I guess it’s just … It doesn’t … I don’t know why, Gary. I think there are other people who perhaps really are what I would consider a cartoonist.

GROTH: Is it because you feel like an outsider in the cartooning world?

GLOECKNER: Perhaps that’s some of it. But I just … I don’t feel that … Well, I don’t even know how to say it. I use that medium and … I don’t know, I guess I resist it because when I think of cartooning … OK, now I’m losing my words. I don’t love comics, any comics, as much as I think I should if I was to call myself a cartoonist. It’s not like I’m in love with that medium over all others. I feel actually constrained by it, and calling myself a cartoonist feels like more constraint. I’m hesitant to accept that, I guess — and no, I’ve never really felt accepted by the world of comics. I mean, you probably know that …

GROTH: Which could be a good thing.

GLOECKNER: I guess. Maybe. But if I felt like I could honestly call myself a cartoonist, I would, whether I felt like an outsider or not.

GROTH: I don’t know when we first met, or got into contact, but you never quite traveled in those circles. You know what I mean? So, yeah, you always seemed like a bit of an outsider. And you weren’t as prolific as a lot of cartoonists.

GLOECKNER: Because I wasn’t a cartoonist. I wasn’t prolific in the same way. If you consider all the things I’ve done that aren’t comics, you’d probably see me as more productive than you do. And you’re saying I didn’t travel in your circle, I think. I’ve always known cartoonists. In San Francisco, all the Wimmen’s Comix people, and Paul Mavrides and Hal Robins are good friends of mine …

GROTH: Right, but you don’t feel any more passionately about cartooning than you do about any number of other art forms. That seems to be what you’re saying.

GLOECKNER: No, not about that medium in particular. I’m passionate about art.

GROTH: Right, and cartooning is just one aspect of that passion.

GLOECKNER: Right…

GROTH: Let me ask you this: How did you figure out how to do comics? Was it by studying Aline and Noomin and Crumb and working it out by trial and error?

GLOECKNER: What’s to “figure out?” Reading comics teaches one how they are structured. Because I started doing comics when I was so young, I was learning to draw, to write, to read … to do comics … concurrently. It was a natural development of these skills …

GROTH: Was it instinctual, or did you actually sit down and study it and try to figure out how to create the rhythm of a story visually, and what to put in each panel?

GLOECKNER: Oh, no, I didn’t. I wasn’t thinking about structure. I just knew, or thought I knew it at some point, whether what I was doing was right or wrong, or working or not. I don’t work in a very organized way — I never know what the end of the story’s going to be when I start out. I never sketch out the whole story. I work toward the end, but I never know what that’s going to be.

GROTH: Do you write the story out before you draw it? Or do you have an outline for it, or do you …

GLOECKNER: No, no, no, no. Even when I did that novel [Diary of a Teen-Age Girl], I had all this stuff I wanted to put in it, but I never did make an outline. I ended up having to actually design it and send it to the printer myself because no designer could stand working with me. I was moving things around and adding more pictures and then it would force the text to re-flow and it’s three hundred and something pages, and the only way it was cost effective to the publisher was for me to do it. Lucky for me, my sister-in-law, Elizabeth Robichaud, flew out from Seattle and taught me how to use QuarkXpress.

GROTH: It looked like it would be an art director’s nightmare.

GLOECKNER: Right, so I did it myself and because I could take it and work in this manner, writing the whole thing and changing the whole thing four times. You know.

GROTH: Well, now when you’re doing a comic, “Minnie’s Third Love,” for example, how much of the story do you know before you put pencil to paper? Does it vary from story to story, or do you have a set method?

GLOECKNER: No, I have no set method. If I did, perhaps I’d be more prolific. All I remember of that story is, I was in some play that I was wearing this wig … Is it even that story? I guess it is …

GROTH: Yeah, it’s the first panel of the story where you’re wearing that wig.

GLOECKNER: I was just trying to do this stupid story and it had to be so long, and I just started drawing myself with that wig. After I’d done that, I had to figure out a way to work it in. You know what I mean?

GROTH: Yes.

GLOECKNER: But, if it hadn’t worked at all in any way, I wouldn’t have kept it. It seemed to work, so I just continued. I don’t want to hire myself to be an illustrator for my own ideas. I get really bored.

GROTH: But you’ve done that a lot.

GLOECKNER: Hired myself?

GROTH: Well, no, I’m sorry, not hired yourself, but you’ve hired yourself out to be an illustrator.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, but that’s different. That’s making a living. I generally do not enjoy being a hired hand. The few things that I’ve liked of the illustrations I’ve done, are the illustrations where they told me I could do whatever I want. That hardly ever happens.

GROTH: I was going to say, that probably almost never happens.

GLOECKNER: Well, it happened, I did a J.G. Ballard book and they paid me essentially nothing, but said I could do absolutely anything I want. They just gave me the book and said, “Do it. Just do anything.”

GROTH: The Atrocity Exhibition.

GLOECKNER: Yes, and there wasn’t any editing on the art. Nothing. Except for the front cover, where I think one of the editors wanted it to look more like her, so she made me make the nose different.

GROTH: You’re kidding.

GLOECKNER: I remember she was looking at the sketch and, “Make her hair more like this. Make her nose more like …” I realized at the end, it kind of looks like her. [Laughter.] Other than that, it was, “Do whatever you want.” What more can you ask for? Do whatever you want and we’ll pay you very little, but … you know, it’ll be in print.

Facades

GROTH: I wanted to ask you about one story that I thought … I agreed with Crumb that “Minnie’s Third Love” is a real masterpiece of comics, but another story that I liked almost as much is “The Girl from a Different World.” It’s one of the few stories — I’m tempted to say the only story, but I’m not entirely sure — where the entire story is told from someone else’s point of view …

GLOECKNER: Right.

GROTH: … and you get underneath someone else’s skin. Were you aware of what a departure that was for you?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. Yeah, I was.

GROTH: Was that more difficult than writing and drawing a story from our — or Minnie’s — point of view? Was that a challenge for you?

GLOECKNER: It’s a good question, I’m trying to think. I remember thinking it was a departure … [Long pause.]

GROTH: The other interesting thing is that you’re in this story, but you’re writing it from the other point of view.

GLOECKNER: It’s not really … Well, anyway, I don’t think that … [Long pause.]

GROTH: [Laughs.]

GLOECKNER: No, I’m trying to think. You know, I wanted to do it. When you’re doing any character, this is true, and it was kind of a revelation for me, it’s like, if you’re trying to create a character, then you feel like that character. That’s why I make that argument that … I can get into myself as a character, but …

GROTH: I don’t think you’ve done another character as empathetically, though, as you did him. — Walter was his name.

GLOECKNER: Yes.

GROTH: I think that this is an instance where you truly empathized with another character, and in a lot of your stories, the characters other than yourself are somewhat remote …

GLOECKNER: But Gary, Minnie is a character as well, she is not me. In this story, Walter is the main character … I’d hope that you’d empathize with the central character anyway. Do you mean the audience or me?

GROTH: Well, I was talking about you.

GLOECKNER: Me as the author? I personally empathize with that character the most?

GROTH: That’s how I interpret it because the character was so fully fleshed out, and there was an interiority to the character that a lot of your other characters don’t have. If you go back to the story “An Object Lesson in Bitter Fruit,” Pascal comes across as a real boorish lout. And your mother’s drawn so that she looks not much older than you. I mean, she looks like a teenager and she’s very passive and remote, which is very much different from how you depict Walter in “The Girl from a Different World.” You obviously don’t empathize with these characters very much.

GLOECKNER: I guess my stories generally have a strong central point of view, they are kind of first-person. In this story the central character was a boy, not a girl.

GROTH: But this did seem like a real departure for you.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, I guess it is in a way. It’s a boy, but I felt like I had the same experience doing it, just kind of living inside that character, which is what I do with that character that seems more like me as a child.

GROTH: Did it require a greater imaginative thrust than going into yourself?

GLOECKNER: No, because Minnie is not me. I mean, you don’t know me, so maybe you wouldn’t exactly understand that. I guess it causes a lot of people to project a lot on me because they don’t know me, and so then they confound me and that character. I see that character as speaking for a lot of people or a lot of character types, and … To me it’s in a sense a neutral character. I mean, it’s not …

GROTH: It gets muddled, though; it’s based on your experiences, so you have to dig into those experiences and scrutinize them.

GLOECKNER: Any artist draws on their personal experiences to create their characters. If we are successful, the characters are vivid and compelling. It just doesn’t seem that important to me that some particular “fictional” event parallels something in my own childhood and another one does not.

GROTH: How do you separate what you’re inventing on the page from what you’re getting from your own experiences?

GLOECKNER: It’s all invented, though it draws upon my own life, of course. I am not doing documentary work… Did you see that Comics Journal thing I did for you that has photographs?

GROTH: Of course.

GLOECKNER: In a sense, we could say that’s me, obviously because it’s a photograph [of me]. However, I started doing that almost as a kind of experiment with myself. OK, this is less separated from physical reality obviously than drawing. But then I was aware — OK, I’m doing this: I am posing, and I am choosing all these angles and I am totally manipulating and controlling the situation. It is artifice. I want to express a particular series of thoughts and feelings, and to do this, I must manipulate the raw material. I have to bend things to suit my purpose … I’m using myself as a character in my art, but I do not see this character as me. I distance myself from the character, I feel no embarrassment as if I’m exposing myself — the character is not me. I’m trying to say things that might not be heard, and I’m just using myself — this kind of character of myself — as a vehicle, because you need that to make it human. I could just write things down and say, “I think this and that and that,” but people don’t relate to that. People relate to something in human form. Do you understand what I’m saying?

GROTH: I do. I do. I think. You’re using yourself as a stand-in.

GLOECKNER: For myself.

GROTH: Yeah. [Laughter.]

GLOECKNER: I mean, you know, I’m creating something that …

GROTH: You’re inventing a character out of yourself?

GLOECKNER: Right. The things I do are a product of my life, of me having existed, but they are not me. If my work was just speaking to me, and it’s so limited in its vision that no one else is going to care or understand, then I probably wouldn’t do it. I’m not trying to give a history of Phoebe Gloeckner. I don’t give a shit about Phoebe Gloeckner artistically. That’s not my point.

GROTH: You’re trying to find some common humanity. One of the things you’ve said was that your idea of art or one of the goals of art was searching to become one’s self.

GLOECKNER: I did?

GROTH: Yeah.

GLOECKNER: To become one’s self?

GROTH: Yeah, let me quote what you said: “Underlying the whole story is searching to become one’s self.”

GLOECKNER: Well, I probably meant to say, to realize one’s self, to understand one’s self, and thereby grasping a certain understanding of humanity. Inasmuch as that is possible.

GROTH: Defining who you are, what you are. And what you’re trying to do, I think, what you’re saying is you’re trying to universalize that proposition so it’s not about you specifically so much as about anyone trying to find himself or define himself.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, and I think … I don’t know why I have this resistance in general to categorizing things. One of the things that I’ve suffered from in comics is this tendency of the comics world to segregate women, and it’s still very much … I mean there are a lot more cartoonists that are women now, but the basic flavor is male, and anything else has another adjective attached to it. You don’t say “He’s a male cartoonist,” but you do say, “She’s a female cartoonist.” And I’m not interested in being a female cartoonist. I’m not interested in being a female anything. I think the state of any consciousness is consciousness. Then you start adding adjectives to it, and I resent that because my primary identification is with my own humanity and that of others, and not with my sex. But female cartoonists have always been looked at as that, female cartoonists.

GROTH: No, I can understand your resistance to that.

GLOECKNER: I have no interest in that, and I think it’s a sad thing.

GROTH: I agree entirely. I think it’s lamentable, this whole Balkanization of the arts, where you have female artists and Muslim artists and African-American artists, which implicitly repudiates the idea of universality.

GLOECKNER: Right. Like Keith Knight: Oh, he’s a black cartoonist. But Dan Clowes is a cartoonist. You know? I tell my husband all the time, you gotta realize, being a white male, you have to appreciate what you are and what it is.

GROTH: Like I do.

GLOECKNER: You should appreciate it and not take it for granted. If you did then, things might be different. I don’t know. Do you think about that sometimes? Do you think, “Gee, I’m a white male? I am the essence of what it is to be. Everyone else is just some variation on that.”

GROTH: I think I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel trapped in my own consciousness, and one of the reasons I look to art is for the kind of pluralistic point of view I can’t find looking inwardly, so that I’m not trapped in my own consciousness, so that I can see other perspectives. But I don’t really dwell on my being a white male, if that’s what you were asking. I take it for granted. I only really think about it when it’s in contrast to something that’s more foreign to me, and then I see the categorization and limitations and so on …

GLOECKNER: The problem with being anything else is that you are reminded of what you are, often. I think of the shows I’ve been invited to be in, that involve comics, it’s always women-this women- that. I was asked to judge the Society of Illustrators show in the sequential art category, which was a joke anyway, because it was a totally undefined category, really unfair. I looked at the panel of other judges when I got there, and I was clearly chosen because I was female. I’d like to think that that wasn’t so, but the fact that there were ten guys and me, I mean … It was almost like a joke.

GROTH: I agree with you, but on the other hand, your point of view is partly defined by your being female. So there is some truth to the proposition that your own unique perspective is based on your own experiences as a woman. I’m not saying that justifies invidious categorization …

GLOECKNER: You could say that of anyone, you know? Same with you or anybody else. I mean, you know, name a male cartoonist. Joe Sacco, whose experiences are based on his own unique experiences as a man. But, yet, that’s not important, but it does become important if you’re a female. You become segregated. It’s a reason to group you with the other females in the herd. But as a matter of fact, I don’t feel any more kinship with those particular artists who are female than those who are male. The people whose work I like, it’s because I like their work. I resent being grouped with people randomly. I feel like no one is looking at my stuff …

Diary of a Teenage Girl

GROTH: Robert Crumb said he was happy that you didn’t put, in Diary of a Teenage Girl, the time or times when he tried to nail you. He said he was really happy about that.

GLOECKNER: Good.

GROTH: Which of course will lead me into questioning you about the parts of it you censored.

GLOECKNER: Of the Diary? Well, to tell you the truth, he wrote me a letter many years later, saying that he had essentially thought some inappropriate thoughts about me. But I had no idea. So in that sense, I censored nothing.

GROTH: He said it went beyond inappropriate thoughts to inappropriate action.

GLOECKNER: Oh, did he tell you what it was?

GROTH: No, he didn’t go into detail.

GLOECKNER: Oh, because he told me what it was in this letter. I guess I shouldn’t tell you. But there’s no way I would have known about it.

GROTH: [Laughs.] He did something that you were unaware of?

GLOECKNER: Yes.

GROTH: How odd. Well, I guess if you’re engaging in inappropriate behavior, it’s best for the victim not to know about it.

GLOECKNER: I guess so.

GROTH: It’s the best kind of inappropriate behavior to engage in.

GLOECKNER: So, I was completely protected from anything inappropriate he may have done or thought.
You promised not to ask me the same questions everyone else asked me, and I think we’ve spent the whole time talking about whether my work is “autobiographical” or not.

GROTH: Well, you, you know… One of the problems is that if you deny autobiographical stories have anything to do with you, that creates yet more questions …

GLOECKNER: I never deny …

GROTH: You kind-of do. You kind-of do.

GLOECKNER: Look, every artist, I don’t care who it is, all they have is themselves, all they have is their wonderment about the world and what it is to be alive. And that’s all they have to work with.

GROTH: There are degrees of extrapolation from your life, though.

GLOECKNER: There are, but what does it matter? In the long run, 99 percent of the people who read anything that I do will never meet me. It probably couldn’t matter less to them whether it’s true or not. All that matters is their impression of the work, or how it affects them. I stop mattering when the work is printed.

GROTH: I hate to say it, but that brings up a whole slew of interesting questions about the whole purpose of art, and how much of art is invention vs. artifice, transcription vs. imagination.

Let me ask you some questions about Diary of a Teenage Girl. I understand that you kept a diary when you were a teenager and that you took your diary and used that as the basis for the book. Is that correct so far?

GLOECKNER: That is correct.

GROTH: One thing I’m curious about is to what extent you embellished it, changed it, altered it, reshaped it.

GLOECKNER: Whenever it seemed appropriate or it required it. There’s a big difference between trying to create documentary and trying to make a piece of fiction. You work with the raw materials of life, but there’s a certain … I didn’t feel like it was so precious that I had to preserve any part of it the way it was. Actually in the beginning I did. I felt that I was afraid to touch it. I felt like, well, this is then. But it doesn’t make a story. So then I just took a deep breath and said, “I’m making a fucking story, so I just have to do with it what I’m going to do.” I wanted to make a slightly heroic character of a teenage girl, and in order to get there, I certainly had to distance myself and look at the character as fictional. I don’t know if you’re going to ask me how much is the real diary and how much is not —

GROTH: Well, I want to try to get a little bit specific in terms of two things: One is that you deleted material that you thought was either extraneous or irrelevant or whatever.

GLOECKNER: Exactly. I changed most of the names. I took all the bad things out about my relatives. And everybody else, like R. Crumb.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Right.

GLOECKNER: Well, I do have a fear of insulting anybody or hurting anybody’s feelings.

GROTH: Now, you did that because you wanted to save their feelings, or because you thought it simply didn’t work in the context of the book?

GLOECKNER: No, I did lots of things with that diary. When I wrote the original diary, I wasn’t thinking about having it published. When you’re writing in a diary, you’re talking to yourself, maybe to something bigger than yourself, the ether or whatever … because it makes you feel better. There’s no real idea that another person will ever see it. You hope maybe some one sees it, so they’ll know and save you from whatever you’re suffering, but you’re also hoping no one ever sees it. You don’t write every day. Continuity is often broken. A diary doesn’t read like a novel. There are lots of misspellings. You start talking about things that you never talked about before, so no one knows what you’re talking about if they just read it cold. Characters generally aren’t introduced — sometimes they are, but sometimes you just bring them up, so there are lots of things that wouldn’t make sense to someone just reading it. My original diaries were usually typewritten, because I used to collect typewriters. My grandfather was a junk dealer, and he gave me a few old machines. I really got into fixing them, and I always had five or six different typewriters in my room, and I love typing Anyway, my point is, I would always type entries on loose-leaf paper and stick them in a binder. But I hardly ever put dates on things, so when the loose-leaf binder would fall on the floor and all the pages would fall out, I’d end up with a bunch of papers out of order and undated, and I had to kind of reconstruct it.

I also cut out half of the characters that could have been in that book, and I consolidated some, thereby creating totally new characters. Then there’s the issue of time. I actually compressed everything in that book to a year, where in reality it was probably a two-year period. But for various reasons, it wouldn’t have made sense if I had done it a different way. I don’t know.

GROTH: I know that you deleted a lot of material for a variety of reasons, but how much did you actually add? In other words, did you find places where you thought, “I can add something interesting to this, in a revisionist way, that would be in keeping with the authenticity of the diary”?

GLOECKNER: Well, if you say in a revisionist type of way, that means to change the point of view, somehow, or change the … I think that’s what you mean.

GROTH: Well, no, any revision after the fact, from an adult perspective, would be, I think, revisionist.

GLOECKNER: Not exactly. Like I said, I’m not attempting documentary. When I add information, when I edit in any way, I’m trying to write from the point of view of the character, and in this case, we’re talking about Minnie Goetze, a teenage girl. “Revisionist” to me implies some sort of philosophical view … isn’t it an idea that has something to do with Marxism?

GROTH: What I’m trying to get it is how much invention is there; how much did you look back and say, “I could add thoughts to this or I could clarify this?”

GLOECKNER: Even when I initially wrote the diary as a girl, it was probably all my invention. [Gary laughs.] So therefore it’s all artifice. I don’t know. It took me … It was really hard for me to write that book — really, really hard, because I was afraid of it sounding false if I did write into it.

GROTH: When you say it was hard to write that book, do you mean it was hard to write it as a teenager or hard to write it as an adult.

GLOECKNER: Gary, it’s simply hard to live … no, it was hard to make it into a book. It was really hard, because I started out thinking I’ll preserve this diary and I’ll just add illustrations. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t make a book. And I actually started that, and then I thought, OK, I’ll add comics so somehow the illustrations have a different meaning and a different function. And I kept some of the single illustrations but then I added these comic sequences which for me I think had the effect of enabling me to get a slightly broader view of the characters, because it wasn’t so strongly from Minnie’s point of view. You could actually see the other people. You could at times see them acting without Minnie, not too often, but, so that it kind of opened it up a little bit more.

GROTH: It introduced a revisionist element as a matter of fact, because you’re looking back there as an adult and trying to interpret what you saw as a kid.

GLOECKNER: I don’t think so. You’re trying to force a point I just can’t agree with. Point of view is always biased, and I’d say that my perspective on my own experiences was just as warped and misinformed and biased as it is now. You used the word interpret … all recounting is an interpretation, no matter how temporally close to an event. We cannot be subjective be cause it is impossible to include all points of view in our observations.

Anyway, this story is about Minnie and in order to write the book I had to be Minnie. I really get into a certain mind frame when I’m working. I had to get into the head and heart of a screwed-up teenager. And it was very difficult to sustain that for a year and work on this book. I’ve got two kids, but it’s like I didn’t want to talk to anyone …

GROTH: Did you become schizophrenic?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, I did! It was also upsetting to be in that kind of emotional state that is expressed in the book. I mean, I was a basket case for a year. And then after the book was finished, I was incredibly depressed. It was really hard for me to do that book, but I’d wanted to do it for a long time.

GROTH: Most of us don’t have to think about a period in our lives that intensely, and remember it that intensely. Apart from being slightly disjunctive, was that painful?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, but I don’t really shy away from feeling pain.

GROTH: Was it revelatory? Did you learn things about yourself that you had either forgotten or didn’t know you knew?

GLOECKNER: Well, I don’t know. If you’re looking at yourself at a different time in life, it’s almost like you’re looking at a different person, and I actually found myself feeling some compassion for that character, as if she were some kid I was getting to know. Not me.

GROTH: Right, right. You had to be both inside and outside the character, in a way.

GLOECKNER: Right. I don’t know what it means. I wanted Minnie to be more than me. I think I said this before: I don’t care that I am preserved in that character. I’m willing to expose myself or my feelings or anything about me if it serves to express something that someone else has felt and hasn’t been able to express. You just want to communicate, and not just for yourself. I’ve had all these teenage girls write to me and say stuff like, “That character is me. How did you know how I felt?” Not even because they’ve done the same things in their lives, but because they’ve felt the same things or thought the same things, and I’m really glad. A lot of them say, “I really want to write, now.” Do it! Anyway, it makes me happy.

GROTH: You referred to the book, in the last 20 minutes as both fiction and artifice.

GLOECKNER: What’s the difference?

GROTH: Well, you can’t have fiction without artifice but you can have artifice without fiction.

GLOECKNER: OK.

GROTH: Anyway, what you’re saying is that you see the work as fiction, and I thought it was kind of strange hybrid of fiction and autobiography or non-fiction. And that’s one of the things that interested me so much about the work: where those boundaries are. Where does the art begin and the straight autobiography end? Did you think about that as you were doing the work? Did you think that you were inventing this person as well as being this person?

GLOECKNER: Yes … and no. I am inventing this person. That isn’t me any more. And as I’m doing it, it feels like creation entirely. As if I were looking at another person and trying to make a story about them. It is all creation because if I never did it, there would be nothing there and it wouldn’t matter.

GROTH: Now, given that, you have to feel certain limitations, like there were certain things you couldn’t do. I would assume.

GLOECKNER: What do you mean?

GROTH: People you couldn’t invent. There were boundaries that you made for yourself. Is that safe to say?

GLOECKNER: No, I did invent people. Like I said, I took three people and mixed them up and made them one totally different person. And there’s a difference between couldn’t invent and not needing to invent …

GROTH: All right, let me ask you a couple of specific questions, because I’m curious about the mechanics of it and what you allowed yourself to do and what you refrained from doing. Now, I never kept a diary when I was a teenager. I only kept a diary briefly as an adult, so I’m not exactly sure …

GLOECKNER: Recently?

GROTH: Yeah, about six or seven years ago, when I was going through a particularly grim time.

GLOECKNER: When you were getting divorced?

GROTH: Well, it was heading for divorce. So it was a particularly tumultuous period.

GLOECKNER: Which goes to show, people write when they’re upset.

GROTH: Yeah, and trying to make sense of it — having some need to, I don’t know, organize your feelings, and putting them in writing helps do that — allows you some distance, I suppose. But, for example, on page 36, there’s a verbatim exchange, a dialog that you had with Pascal. Now, was that in your original book? Is that something a teenager would do?

GLOECKNER: No… I don’t know.

GROTH: That struck me as artifice. So, why did you feel the need to do that? Was it something you remembered as …

GLOECKNER: What do you mean, “artifice?” You mean “it didn’t really happen,” right? Hang on a second, let me think … I’m trying to remember … I don’t know. I’d have to look at the damn thing. I probably did say … Pascal called, too. And then I might have had a little bit of a conversation, but then I wanted to put more information in it. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to remember. OK. Look at this. Let me ask you, because I’m sick of talking about this shit.

GROTH: [Laughs.] What else would you like to talk about?

GLOECKNER: Well, I don’t know! I mean, I feel like, OK, I feel like I’m an artist, or a cartoonist, whatever the fuck you want to call me …

GROTH: But this goes toward constructing a work of art — how you go about constructing it.

GLOECKNER: I guess so, but it’s such a complex process, a fluid process, and you seem to want me to break things down for you in a way that doesn’t seem significant to me. I could give you the real diary and you could figure it out for yourself. Surely, that’s not all that’s of interest about the book, is it? Look, if I wasn’t an artist and I had the same life that’s written about in this book, then this book wouldn’t exist. It’s not as if … as if it’s just cobbled together bits of reality … as I was working on the book, I was suspending the whole story above me, in my head, trying to imagine it all and how it fit together, what it meant… “what would happen if she did this, or if he says that?” “How should this character look?” I had to create a world out of vague memories and scraps of paper. I don’t know.

GROTH: You said this book wouldn’t exist?

GLOECKNER: I don’t know. It really seems like it belittles the act of creating a book to always refer back to whether it’s true or not. It becomes like nothing …

GROTH: Well what I’m interested in is how you interpolated invention and fact. If we can consider your subjective observations in the diary as fact, as direct observation, how much of it was later invented?

GLOECKNER: I guess I finished this book a year and a few months ago or something. And I wish I had talked to you a year ago …

GROTH: Because it would be more vivid in your mind?

GLOECKNER: Well, I was just so … Now I haven’t looked at it in a long time. And these questions have no interest for me … you really should have interviewed me then. I’ve been asked the same questions too many times. Sorry.

GROTH: Well, you can dither about until you remember something. But do you understand what I’m saying? In other words, the Diary of Anne Frank, presumably — I don’t know that much about it — it was published verbatim.

GLOECKNER: Well, actually, I’ve heard differently. I heard that her father heavily edited it.

GROTH: Didn’t it recently come out that it was edited. But not by her.

GLOECKNER: No, by her father.

GROTH: But that is of interest, don’t you think? And whether or not he did that for artistic purposes — and I assume there’s a difference between, say, cutting something because you essentially want to censor it, or you don’t want certain things revealed or whatever, and shaping something for artistic purposes. I’m most interested in exploring the latter.

GLOECKNER: OK. It’s of interest but only marginally. The book is interesting because it’s an intimate portrait of a vivid, intelligent character …

GROTH: All right, but I want to poke around and see what you invented in your book and why you did it. Because you could have just published the diary verbatim, maybe edited out a few things here and there, but essentially published it verbatim. But you decided to revamp it, to reshape it, to do some major surgery, and all that involves artistic choices. At least that’s my impression.

GLOECKNER: Yeah. Like I said, it became unimportant to me that the original diary be integrated into the novel. I mean I didn’t revamp it; I created something totally new, which contains parts of this diary, but it something other than the diary that exists in the real world.

GROTH: Right, but you definitely had that as a basis — this authentic document from which to work.

GLOECKNER: Right, but, it is something entirely different. And you’re forgetting that the original diary wasn’t something I plucked out of nature like a chunk of iron ore to work with—the diary was something I wrote. I’m not sure that I see it as any more “authentic” than the book that arose from it…

GROTH: But the interesting thing to me is: How is it different? How did you go about, and to what extent did you reshape it to suit your aesthetic goals.

GLOECKNER: I’ll bequeath the original diary to you and you can figure it out for yourself … Let me try one last time to explain myself, Gary … and this thing about autobiography and my work … although it seems obvious that words fall short when describing a creative process that is essentially, and by that I mean at its source, an interior, wordless process.

I haven’t been disingenuous in what I’ve said describing my perception of “truth” and “reality.” Certainly, I understand what is generally meant to be the “truth,” I understand this notion, but it’s not something I trust in, OK?

The only answer that feels true (I said feels, not is) is that yes, the character Minnie is me, but she is not me. She is a projection of some tumult which originates within me, but she is not me. I use elements of myself, including my likeness, for the character, perhaps as Cindy Sherman uses herself in her work, but like Sherman’s photographs, the work itself is not any more about the creator than it is about everyone. I won’t deny that Minnie does things I have done, and that things happen to her that have happened to me, but she, unlike me, having been created, is who she is and will remain so, unchanged now. I make no attempt to create “documentary.” There is a process of dissociation that takes place when I make a story, I make creative decisions in a fugue state that I could hardly describe to you, but the end result is, I hope, a story with some meaning or resonance, something created, with a beginning, a middle and an end, an encapsulation of feeling and impression, but in no way a documentary of anything other than an “emotional truth.”

If I told most interviewers that my work is “true” and that it is based on real events that occurred in my life, they would more readily accept this than they do the explanation I try to give. Sadly, what they would believe feels to me like a lie and a simplification of a process that is for me as complex and vague as life itself …

GROTH: This seems eminently reasonable to me. I didn’t accuse you of being “disingenuous,” by the way — at least I don’t think I did — but I think you were being less than clear and I think it’s my job here to push you into clarifying your thoughts. I think this is probably the first order of duty when anyone states something counterintuitive (such as “There is no reality” or “there is no truth”).

I assume that when you deny that there’s any such thing as “truth,” you’re doing so on a more metaphysical plane than, say, George Bush, but as an interviewer I wanted you to explicate this …

I note that you are now referring to “emotional truth,” which I consider no small advance in our dialogue.

GLOECKNER: Well, OK, then.

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2 Responses to The Phoebe Gloeckner Interview

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