TCJ ARCHIVE

The Phoebe Gloeckner Interview

Phoebe vs. Minnie

GROTH: In The Diary of a Teenage Girl, there were a couple of times when I thought the vocabulary seemed a bit expansive for a 15 year old. Words like “surcease” and “imprecations.”

GLOECKNER: Oh, no, no, no. I read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. “Surcease” is from Poe. In fact, it’s from “The Raven.” And I memorized that at one point. The line is “Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow from my books surcease of sorrow- sorrow for the lost Lenore.”

GROTH: Right. And of course as a 15 year old, you felt compelled to put that in your diary.

GLOECKNER: Well, yeah! I mean, where else are you going to say “surcease”? You say it to your friends, they’re not impressed.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Right. You know, I think when you’re reading something like this — when I’m reading virtually anything, I’m trying to determine how authentic it is, or how truthful it is. I think you measure everything against your own perception of what’s truthful and what’s real. One of the interesting things I noticed is that in an awful lot of diary entries, there was a last line, there was often a last paragraph that was only one line long, that was a non sequitur, but it had to do with some existential question. Or maybe it was just some minor observation, but you would go on for a long time about something that’s happened to you, and the very last line was something completely unrelated, that looked like it flitted into your head and you just had to put it down. I thought that was … That struck me as being really authentic.

GLOECKNER: OK. Good. Authentic to what? Diaries?

GROTH: Authentic to the truth of how people think and how they would put something down in a diary, which can be very focused for a stretch and then veer into a random thought or idea that pops into your head. I’m not sure if that’s in fact how people keep diaries, but it certainly seems plausible to me.

OK. As the author of the book, then, and not as the person that the diary was based on, I’m assuming you tried to maintain completely neutral moral stance. You did not pass judgment.

GLOECKNER: No. I’m afraid I’ve always been confused about morals. So, I probably said this before, but it always struck me as odd, like, you know how they say, the test of sanity is whether you know right from wrong.

GROTH: Yeah.

GLOECKNER: And I always thought, well, how can one know right from wrong? It’s a judgment we, as an individual or as a society impose on things that have no such value. In that sense there is no right and wrong. So …

GROTH: What sense would that be?

GLOECKNER: Well, a very basic sense. It’s like, you know, pre-sense.

GROTH: But as an artist, you’re constantly making decisions that seem to me to be based on right and wrong.

GLOECKNER: What do you mean?

GROTH: Well, whether you take out someone’s name because you don’t want him to be hurt. What is that based on, if not right and wrong?

GLOECKNER: Fear.

GROTH: Fear.

GLOECKNER: Yeah. You can hate somebody and love them at the same time. It’s like you have this odd relationship with characters or with people, and I don’t know that it’s a matter of right and wrong. I think it’s a matter of constantly shifting emotions about everything.

GROTH: But on a deeper level, when you do a comic, you have to decide how you are going to depict other people and yourself.

GLOECKNER: Myself? You mean Minnie.

GROTH: There’s an infinite number of choices you can make in terms of what you choose to depict and how you do it. And all of that seems to me to have a moral dimension to it. I mean you have to choose whether to make somebody appear to be a monster, or whether you want to make them appear sympathetic.

GLOECKNER: Well, did I make anyone appear to be a monster?

GROTH: Well, the most interesting character in that regard, I think, is Pascal, who, early in the book, Minnie comments on after she has a conversation with him or after she gets a letter from him. Initially, you dislike him and distrust him. Then as he continues to write and call, I thought, it was conspicuous that Minnie stopped leveling judgments about him. And then the more he starts writing and calling, the reader starts noticing that there’s something more going on between he and Minnie. Or at least there’s more going on from his side of it. He keeps insisting that she’s his daughter and that he wants to help her. He almost becomes more of a supplicant. Toward the end of the book, there’s this weird sense in which he’s almost flirting with her. He refers to himself as a “wicked step-father like me,” and it all builds up, almost a little too perfectly, to his having had that affair with Elizabeth, I thought. I thought that was a good example of you stepping back and letting the reader try to determine what he makes of Pascal.

GLOECKNER: I guess, but he’s a … It’s a complicated relationship in that he actually is really giving Minnie a lot.

GROTH: Yes. Yes.

GLOECKNER: Because she’s not getting a lot of what he’s giving her from anyone else.

GROTH: … and he appears to be very sensitive, and he appears to care about her, too.

GLOECKNER: And he probably does. But, he’s got another attraction to her and to girls that he’s more or less repressing, which I guess is bad, in the end, but, nevertheless, he’s given Minnie a positive vision of herself in a sense, but he’s also helped destroy her trust in people, in the end.

GROTH: … added to her distrust of the human race.

GLOECKNER: Right, but he’s also made her feel that she was special in some way, that she was able and smart, that she could do good things, because she felt singled out by him. She was getting this attention; he was writing to her. So, I don’t know if he’s a monster …

GROTH: No, I wouldn’t say that. But there is a very ambiguous moral dimension to the whole thing,and making it ambiguous is itself a moral choice.

GLOECKNER: OK. It makes me wonder about the morality of it, but I’m not sure that I’m making a moral judgment.

GROTH: No, but you’re bringing up moral issues that eventually the reader has to resolve one way or another. I mean, he can resolve it by saying it’s too ambiguous for him to resolve, or he can pass judgment. But one way or the other, he has to wrestle with it.

GLOECKNER: OK, but what’s the difference between making moral judgments and bringing up moral questions?

GROTH: Well, I think there’s a huge difference between making a moral judgment and imposing that on the work, and what you’ve done, which is more complex. You’ve created this character that isn’t one or the other, frankly, like most of us, right?

GLOECKNER: Right, exactly. You know, we’re mistaken so much of the time about almost anything. If you try to imagine what other people are thinking about something you said or did you’re going to drive yourself crazy because you’re always going to be wrong.

GROTH: How old are your daughters?

GLOECKNER: Twelve and five.

GROTH: When you were going back and reliving this period in your life, I wanted to know if it affected the way you saw your own daughters.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, of course it does. It’s very hard for me actually as a parent, it’s complicated for me to work, because I do work at home. I have a studio; I can lock the door, but, sometimes I let the kids in here and other times I don’t want them to come in because I don’t want them to see what I’m doing.

GROTH: You mean the visual work?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, the visual work, or… I don’t want the older one to pick up something and start reading. I don’t think she’s old enough, especially because it’s stuff that I wrote. I don’t know, , it’s a weird crazy position to be in.

GROTH: Your relationship with Monroe was also morally ambivalent, although less so than with Pascal.

GLOECKNER: Minnie’s relationship …

GROTH: Do you see it that way? Morally ambivalent?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. It’s complicated, because Minnie is getting a lot of attention from him, which she isn’t getting very much of from her mother or any other adult. So, it’s very important to her — that relationship. Plus she has difficultly relating to boys her age.

GROTH: Although she manages to.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, she does, but she never really has a boyfriend her age — not really.

GROTH: Now, would you refrain from saying what Monroe did was wrong?

GLOECKNER: No. Well, now you’re asking me if I have morals.

GROTH: Well, earlier you said there was no right or wrong, so …

GLOECKNER: Well if the question is whether or not I’d want my daughter to be in that position with my boyfriend, I’d say no way. I’d do anything to prevent it. But I won’t pronounce the relationship “right” or “wrong.”
Monroe, to me, is kind of a doofus, you know? He’s kind of unaware of his own motivations and doesn’t reflect on what he does or who he is. So, it’s hard to even say that he’s wrong, because he’s not a bad person, he’s just the kind of person who’s unaware.

GROTH: A clueless person.

GLOECKNER: Yeah. So …

GROTH: That doesn’t make him much more sympathetic, though.

GLOECKNER: No, it doesn’t. But I feel kind of sorry for him. He’s this guy who’s got dreams of having his own business and a hundred million guys have that dream — not having a boss, you know, and … I don’t know. It’s kind of pitiful.

GROTH: The dream’s pitiful or was the failure pitiful?

GLOECKNER: The failure is painful to me.

GROTH: Another thing that was interesting throughout the book was that Phoebe periodically expressed such devotion to him. She really did care about him, and thought he cared about her.

GLOECKNER: Phoebe? You mean Minnie?

GROTH: Oops. Yeah.

GLOECKNER: Well, yeah.

GROTH: And as you said, he wasn’t a bad guy. The question going through my mind is to what extent is he exploiting her? He wasn’t malicious so much as opportunistic, just taking advantage of the situation.

GLOECKNER: The main thing is a kid is in that situation. First of all, if there’s any relationship … Just imagine: There’s a teenage girl; she’s sleeping with one of her mother’s boyfriends, it immediately puts an invisible rift between the child and her parents, her mother. Any kind of closeness or trust won’t develop. Everything becomes a lie from that point. If there was any closeness possible, the possibility is destroyed. So, in that sense, it’s bad. Destructive. It’s bad for a teenager to be in that situation. The other thing is that at that age, you may understand sex, or something, but you don’t understand human relationships. You tend to assume that adults are right still, so you put a lot of faith in that, and are willing to resign any sort of judgment because you are hoping that you are being taken care of in some way, and that the adults who are making these decisions aren’t leading you in the wrong direction.

GROTH: I think one of the best things the book does is to illustrate that emotional confusion that seems so prevalent at that age. Sometimes it doesn’t get any better, but then it’s truly incendiary.

GLOECKNER: Yeah. And there is still a certain innocence, this hope, mixed with neediness, and dreams and … I mean, it’s a very vulnerable time.

GROTH: Another interesting current I discovered was that at first it’s a little shocking, and like so many things that are initially shocking, after a while it became almost normative. It barely registered when she would go over to his place and he would take her home and then he would watch TV with her mother … It became this status quo.

GLOECKNER: Which is how it had really become.

GROTH: Exactly. Oh, you know, I must say that one of the most bizarre parts of the book was Minnie’s mother’s reaction to the revelation that her boyfriend was sleeping with her daughter, which was her insistence to have Monroe marry her. That was just so weird, I couldn’t quite figure out what she must have been thinking. I would think that a normal reaction would have been anything but that. I mean, throw him out of your life, marry him yourself, whatever, but … How do you explain that?

GLOECKNER: It’s hard to explain. But I think…

GROTH: Let’s say that what really happened is irrelevant, but how do you explain that in fictional terms?

GLOECKNER: Well, for the mother, for that particular mother, she responded less out of concern for her daughter. She responded more to a narcissistic wound that had been dealt her. Her womanhood is wounded. Suddenly it’s clear that this child is a rival. And by saying “You marry him,” she’s transferring any responsibility she would have as a parent to the child. If indeed the child married Monroe, then the mother is totally out of the loop and nothing can be pinned on her. It’s the perfect solution for that particular type of person, who isn’t really capable of being a nurturing mother — this kind of a narcissistic personality that hasn’t developed emotionally in a certain way.

GROTH: The book is filled with these gray areas, and I thought this was one of the strengths of the book, that it was filled with these ambivalences. Clearly the mother was not a particularly attentive mother, but it also came across that she loved her daughters, so there was this dichotomy there. Why wasn’t she a better mother? I mean, she clearly did love them, but she was somehow incapable of giving them the time and attention that they needed. And I thought that paradox came across very well throughout the book.

GLOECKNER: Good.

GROTH: Another thing I was curious about: The strip that starts on page 153, the conversation between Monroe and the mother. I wanted to know if that actually happened, and if so, how you would know about it? Or was that something that you invented that you thought would clarify the characters?

GLOECKNER: Well …

GROTH: I mean, you couldn’t have witnessed that, right?

GLOECKNER: Well, you know, you grow up and you’re living in an apartment, you …

GROTH: … you eavesdrop.

GLOECKNER: Yeah. People are drinking, the don’t pay attention to who’s in the room half the time.

GROTH: You were like under the sofa.

GLOECKNER: [Laughs.] I never overheard that particular conversation, but it could have been based on some conversation that was about somebody else, not Minnie. So, yeah, it’s invented but it’s like these characters could very easily have that type of conversation, but I mean the truth is I always … Now, see, I’m talking about real life. I hate talking about real life.

GROTH: I know you do.

GLOECKNER: You know my mother did threaten to sue me several times about my work.

GROTH: [Laughs.] You have legal qualms. So this is why you have this pretense this has nothing to do with you.

GLOECKNER: [Laughs.] No, you always do wonder why your parent doesn’t know about something, or how they can’t know, especially when it seems like it’s so fucking obvious, and you’re almost hoping they will see, but you’re not going to say anything … and that was puzzling to me.

GROTH: But now it must be less puzzling because you’re a parent yourself. You know that kids have this secret life that you know nothing about.

GLOECKNER: Yeah. Like my five-year-old daughter: I guess it was last year, we were sitting at the dinner table, and suddenly out of the blue she says, “Mommy, am I God?”

GROTH: [Laughs.] And you said, “As a matter of fact, you are.”

GLOECKNER: [Laughs.] No, but it’s just so weird; you don’t know what they’re thinking.

GROTH: I know; I know. They come up with something that obviously required a vast amount of time to conceptualize, that they’ve been thinking about for days or weeks or months …

GLOECKNER: Exactly!

GROTH: … and you had no clue they were doing this.

GLOECKNER: Right, but it’s always so cute. It’s true, there are things you don’t know …

GROTH: You can’t be aware of it.

GLOECKNER: You can’t be aware of it, no, but…

GROTH: … and then after you are aware of it, you can’t understand how you weren’t aware of it.

GLOECKNER: Right. Exactly.

GROTH: I don’t know if I wanted to talk about Tabitha. There’s a lot of romantic delusion in the book on the part of Minnie. She’s deluded about Monroe. She’s not deluded about Pascal, interestingly enough. She seems to pretty much have his number. What is her reluctance to like Pascal based on? Certainly throughout the book, and especially in the first half of the book, he expresses a concern for her — what seems like a genuine concern for her, and she dismisses him.

GLOECKNER: I guess there is a relationship. You know that other book I did, A Child’s Life?

GROTH: I know that, yes.

GLOECKNER: OK. There’s something about Pascal in that book. It’s a totally separate book than this book, but there is something like he’s going to adopt them or something.

GROTH: Yes, and then after the kids ask him a lot of questions about it, he gets into a snit and refuses to do so.

GLOECKNER: Right. So, he’s the type of character that is untrustworthy on many levels. You know, once bitten, twice shy.

GROTH: I must say, in A Child’s Life, the character called Pascal comes across as much more of a creep than he does in Diary of a Teenage Girl. At first I thought, in fact, that you got the names mixed up, where you imposed Pascal in the comics and he actually represented someone else.

GLOECKNER: But, if you’re looking at someone from a little child’s point of view, and then a teenager’s point of view, they should seem different. Little kids tend to see things more as black or white, good or bad. Shouldn’t that refute your “revisionist” theory? I’m clearly taking different points of view, the points of view of the character …

GROTH: There’s no indication in the comics whatsoever that Pascal had this intellectual striving, or what you might want to call intellectual integrity.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, but how would a little kid even be aware of that? So, it’s a point-of-view thing, I think.

GROTH: And, as a kid, you intuited his untrustworthiness.

GLOECKNER: Minnie experienced it.

GROTH: And that’s why Minnie was so quick to discount him?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. There was a history …

GROTH: Right, right. So no romantic delusions about Pascal.

GLOECKNER: I don’t know … Minnie had some … towards the end, she thought she might be able to live with him instead of her mother …

GROTH: But, romantic delusions about Monroe and Tabitha?

GLOECKNER: Well, why are people deluded about other people? They’re projecting their desires and needs. Minnie wanted, needed to be loved, but couldn’t recognize what love should look like or even feel like … she wanted to be loved by Monroe, she wanted to love Tabitha … so she tried …

The Mexican Job

GLOECKNER: My daughter just came down … I just read her a bedtime story but she wanted another one and she sneaked down here. Anyway, you know how it goes.

GROTH: Now, you have to throw your child out. How old is she?

GLOECKNER: She’s five.

GROTH: Right, right. I can’t even remember what that’s like.

GLOECKNER: You can’t remember being five or you can’t remember having a five-year-old?

GROTH: Either.

GLOECKNER: Your son’s like eight or nine?

GROTH: Yeah, he’s nine. It becomes a blur, you know? They’re so vivid at the time, and then they just blur into the next stage.

GLOECKNER: Well, the vividness is what does it, because you’re so blasted by it that you can’t remember anything else in your experience.

GROTH: Yeah, yeah, you’re always living so intensely in the present.

GLOECKNER: This is such a drag. I should get a new phone, but I usually don’t talk for so long. It usually works. OK. So go ahead.

GROTH: Well, first of all, you went to Mexico in November of 2003. And you’re working on a story that you characterized as being about “a few murdered girls.” Can you tell me what that was about? Did you go there specifically to track down a story that you would later draw?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, well, actually I was asked to by an actress and activist who …

GROTH: This is a Canadian actress?

GLOECKNER: Yes, Mia Kirshner, do you know her?

GROTH: No, but apparently, one of her sidelines is commissioning cartoonists to go places and write stories about them.

GLOECKNER: Well, for this particular book, at least. She’s got like four or five people doing stuff. Joe Sacco’s doing part of it … So, you might have heard of that, right?

GROTH: Yes.

GLOECKNER: OK. So she asked me to do those sections about Mexico. I have the freedom to do whatever I want, to make it however long I want. I’m not sure at this point how long it will be, but it will be pretty long.

GROTH: What’s the unifying theme of the book?

GLOECKNER: I know what her idea is, but I don’t know what the unifying theme… I don’t know how other people are treating the stories that they’re doing.

GROTH: What is her idea?

GLOECKNER: She’s taking us to places where she sees there are injustices done particularly to women and children, and she just wants to tell the story of those people. And she’s doing it to benefit Amnesty International, but she is funding it.

GROTH: That’s interesting. Where in Mexico did you go, and what did you see?

GLOECKNER: I went to Cuidad Juarez, right across from El Paso. It’s incredibly impoverished. People move up there from southern Mexico in droves to be close to the border and close to jobs, and they can’t find places to live so the city just keeps growing out into the desert, and there’s all these cardboard shanty towns on the periphery, getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It takes 10 or 15 years for any of the infrastructure of the city to start reaching those places, so people live on the fringes with no electricity, no plumbing, no roads, no garbage service. So this desert is just filled with garbage for miles and miles and miles, because the trash just blows away, uncontained, and it’s dusty and horrible and you can hardly breathe because there are no paved roads and cars kick up all the loose dust and sand. Yet there are practically as many people on the equivalent of a block there as would be living in a block in Brooklyn, you know? Anyway, you’ve heard about these 300 unsolved murders of women and girls?

GROTH: Yeah.

GLOECKNER: … in about the last eight or ten years. And it certainly seems the police are involved in at least some of the murders. Anyway, this pattern of murders has also started to move down to Chihuahua the city, and I went down there too. Most of my time I spent with three families: one whose daughter had been found murdered. She was 17. And then another family’s daughter has been missing for two years, but it seems like she must be dead. And these families are incredibly poor, and it was so fucked up because the police actually found the body who they identified as this missing girl, and they came to take DNA tests from the mother — to get her blood — and they never got back to the mother to tell her if it was a match or not. Of course, this family doesn’t have a phone. The mother can’t leave the house because there’s no lock on the door. They live in this little shack and there are 12 people in the family, and someone always needs to be taking care of the kids. So she can’t leave. She can’t find out. It’s hard to imagine because we’re so connected. The communication is very slow there, and erratic. So anyway …

GROTH: Did you choose this location, or was it chosen for you?

GLOECKNER: No, it was chosen, but it was something I’ve always been interested in.

GROTH: How did you meet the people you specifically met and introduce yourself and become a journalist in their lives? Did you just knock on doors randomly, or did you actually have places that you knew you had to go?

GLOECKNER: We had to work with Amnesty International. We had lists of people who were missing or dead, and I did as much research as I could before we left, but there’s so much conflicting information, that it was impossible to know what would happen when we went down there. So, I had a translator who was from the area…or close to it. Greg Bloom, from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

GROTH: I see. But Amnesty International did a lot of the research and the leg work.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, they did, but certainly they did what they did because we were asking them questions. So, it was directed by me or by Mia. At the same time I was working there, she was too — she was interviewing other families and asking them to document their own lives, giving them cameras … and that is going to accompany whatever I do.

GROTH: Right, so what exactly will your narrative be? A chronicle of these families?

GLOECKNER: It’s more about the girls. I mean, it’s a strange … I don’t know; ever since I was a kid, I’ve been haunted by murder. I mean, who hasn’t, right?

GROTH: Right.

GLOECKNER: Right? But it’s hard to imagine … What happens when someone dies, Gary; what happens? Can you tell me?

GROTH: Well, you mean socially? Physically?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, what happens to them? That’s a question no one can answer, obviously. Where do they go? Nowhere, probably. Right? Who knows? But somehow, they remain apart of us, they stay with us …

GROTH: Right.

GLOECKNER: It’s a strange thing because your mind kind of rejects that. Like if your kid dies, some part of you wants to believe that they exist somewhere — and in a sense they do, because everyone you know contributes to producing you, has some influence on you. So in a sense, these people who were before you are living through you. Right? Or does that sound like a lame justification?

GROTH: Are you saying that someone who dies is essentially kept alive by the perceptions and memories …

GLOECKNER: Yeah. I don’t know if your parents are alive. Are they?

GROTH: Yeah.

GLOECKNER: OK, well then it’s hard for you to imagine.

GROTH: I have friends who have died.

GLOECKNER: OK, then you know that you can remember their voice and expressions and everything, and sometimes when you’re thinking about something, you remember something they said, or … You’re not even thinking if they’re dead or alive. It’s like they’re still kind of programmed into you, and in that way, they’re still alive.

GROTH: That’s right. In the sense that they became part of your life and still remain part of your life.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, they’re part of you. So, it’s just the way humans are. We pass things on.

GROTH: So you’re trying to visualize … to write a narrative exploring that dimension?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, and I’m also trying to think – I mean, I always do this and I’m never successful – I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to murder someone, and trying to imagine why, and what pleasure there is in that, and just trying to feel all of that. I don’t know exactly what it will be in the end.

GROTH: When you visit a place like that and describe it as such Third World squalor, it’s obviously appalling and disorienting and so forth, but can you expand upon your observations and feelings, what you went through down there?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, I mean, after you get over the initial fact of being appalled by all the squalor and everything — it sounds like a cliché, but you realize that people everywhere are more or less the same. It’s surprisingly apparent even if you don’t understand what they’re saying. There’s a basic human language. You can understand people whether you understand their verbal language or not. And you know humans can adapt to almost any condition and still have the same feelings and relationships, so in a sense, the squalor doesn’t matter. What matters are the basic components of a life. In a way, I’m trying to resurrect those girls who disappeared. It’s difficult because I’ve met everyone except the girls, because they’re not there.

GROTH: So what specifically did you do? Did you take a lot of sketches? Interview  people?

GLOECKNER: I took lots and lots of photographs. I didn’t sketch that much because I was recording people and talking to them. So it was really hard to interact that way and also draw, because drawing demands … If someone else is doing the interviewing, you could draw. So, I would draw a bit at night, back in the cozy hotel room.

GROTH: How long do you expect this to be?

GLOECKNER: It could be about 50 pages. Maybe less … I don’t know.

GROTH: Now, you said, you never make an outline of a story or book you’re working on. You do not like to know specifically what’s going to happen. So, this is a prime example. How are you going to go about shaping this?

GLOECKNER: Good question. If I knew that, I wouldn’t be so constantly frustrated. No, I think it takes me 40 times longer, mainly because of my work habits, to do anything. I’m working now with all these different elements, things that I want to do, and I’m just looking at it, looking at little sketches. You know, I collected millions of magazines when I was in Mexico and stuff that I … I went to card readers there, because these girls’ mothers go to card readers and sorcerers to find out where their daughters are. So then I wanted to go there too, to see what that experience was. I don’t know … What is my process? I don’t know. I’m trying to put it all together, it will shape itself … It’s always somewhat different and it’s never straightforward. Like, when I did Diary of a Teenage Girl, there’s so much reference material and so much raw material to work with, and so much — 75% of everything I gathered was abandoned. It’s just the process of … put these two things together, these two things together, and then abandoning that and …

GROTH: Well, let me ask you this: for this project, for example, would you do the writing first, or would you start drawing first?

GLOECKNER: I don’t know. I mean you’re going to think I’m an idiot, but it’s really true. That’s how I’m working. I have sketchbooks filled with writing and drawing, and I know that half of it I’m not going to use in any way, and half of it will turn into something else, but the way I do it, it’s almost as if I’m sculpting — it always feels more like that. I just never think in a linear manner, and it’s very frustrating, but I just can’t. I’m telling you, if I plan anything out, I don’t do it because it’s so fucking boring. I can’t do that. I mean, it’s boring in the sense that … Maybe some part of my mind knows what I’m doing at some point, but…

GROTH: Well, it’s almost as if you have to duplicate the life process, which is not necessarily organized, not highly structured.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, but this is how it feels.

GROTH: So, can you send me a few pages of sketches and scrawl?

GLOECKNER: I guess I can.

GROTH: For the interview.

GLOECKNER: [Stammering.]

GROTH: It’s OK.

GLOECKNER: Drawn and Quarterly once asked me to do a story and I said sure, and they said, “We’ll want to see sketches before you start the final art. I said, “I can’t do that. I don’t work that way.”

GROTH: In order to approve them, you mean?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, and so I didn’t do it. I mean, this has happened a lot. I do complete sketches on illustration jobs. But I hate the constraint of sketching out stories so much, I would never do it on my own.

GROTH: That seems like an odd thing to ask for a …

GLOECKNER: Well, you know, maybe they weren’t sure if they really wanted me to do it.

GROTH: That’s like calling up John Updike and saying, “Could you send us a few sentences?”

GLOECKNER: [Laughs.] A synopsis of what you’re planning to do for us, this story for which we’ll ultimately pay you 5O cents.

GROTH: We’ll tell you if we like the sentences and then you can proceed.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, fuck that shit! You know, if I’m going to do it, I’ll do it anyway. I don’t care who publishes it.

GROTH: It seems to me that you ask an artist to do something because you trust what the artist is going to do is going to be good or what you’re looking for, and therefore you have to put your trust in that.

GLOECKNER: Right, and see I really like that because for The Comics Journal, I never knew what I was going to do.

GROTH: God knows I didn’t know what you were going to do.

GLOECKNER: But I just like that because it’s so much more fun.

Professor Gloeckner

GROTH: Well, let me skip over to the next subject, Professor Gloeckner. You taught a couple of classes at S.U.N.Y. Stoneybrook?

GLOECKNER: Actually, I taught one class at a community college and one class at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook. Two classes.

GROTH: These were drawing classes, I  gather?

GLOECKNER: Yeah.

GROTH: When was this? When did you teach these two classes?

GLOECKNER: I taught at Stony Brook last semester and the semester before I taught at Suffolk Community College.

GROTH: How did you get these gigs? Did you pursue them?

GLOECKNER: No. It was kind of a weird situation: My cousin got married, and the acting chairman of the Art Department at Suffolk Community College happened to be at her wedding and heard that I was an artist and they needed adjunct … so I just did it. It was an accident.

GROTH: Pure happenstance, right?

GLOECKNER: Right. Then, out of the blue, the University of Michigan asked me to apply for this job. I said, “OK, sure.” I went for the interview and they asked me to take the job right there, the next hour.

GROTH: Must have left quite an impression.

GLOECKNER: [Laughs.] Well, you should have seen me. It was actually really fun going there. But then, Stony Brook … My husband taught at Stony Brook. He’s a professor of chemistry, and he brought big grant money into the university. They were trying to hire me in the art department so he would stay. But there really wasn’t much chance of it working out. I taught there last semester. They asked me to propose a class to teach this semester, and it had the word “comics” in it, and they asked me if I couldn’t re-write the proposed course description, with different wording, basically not using the word “comic” or “cartoon” because it sounded so déclassé. The chairman, who is a great Francophile, said, “Well, maybe you could substitute bande dessinée, sounds a little better, I think.” [Laughs.]

GROTH: It’s like the difference between “cinema” and “movies.”

GLOECKNER: I guess. But for some reason, I think it’s even worse.

GROTH: It is. It is worse by a magnitude. It is pathetic.

GLOECKNER: I mean, cartoonists, basically …

GROTH: Well, they’re a little behind the times. They don’t understand that cartooning is now hip.

GLOECKNER: Is it?

GROTH: Well, that’s what I hear.

GLOECKNER: I guess you would know.

GROTH: I have my finger on the pulse. Well, now the syllabus of the two classes you taught at Stony Brook, look pretty rigorous to me. It didn’t look like you were fooling around.

GLOECKNER: Well, I wouldn’t want students to get the wrong impression, that an Art class might be easy. I was teaching a level one drawing class, and there were a few art majors enrolled, but most were nursing, business, or engineering students…it was an enthusiastic group.

GROTH: These were business students and they were very enthused about learning how to draw?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. They seemed to be… but come to think of it—one day, I had a nude model, and this is the first time they’d ever drawn a nude. The model was a man — it had to be a man because that was the only model available. He’s 45 years old, kind of scrawny and hunched over, kind of depressed looking. As he modeled, taking various poses, the students were so attentive, and focused totally on drawing. I thought, “OK, that went well.” But the next class they were crying, “Damn, I’m never going to draw a nude model again! That was disgusting, man! I couldn’t even look when we were drawing that part! You know, I couldn’t even look at it, man! It was disgusting!” I didn’t have a clue. But they’re like kids, you know?

GROTH: Now, you’ve never taught before?

GLOECKNER: No.

GROTH: Did you come up with your own curriculum entirely?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, within the limitations I was given…

GROTH: How did you proceed to do that? Just by logical extrapolation of your own …

GLOECKNER: Yeah, I had all these ideas that seemed to inspire them actually. For example, when I was in graduate school, I had to do a written thesis, which I always thought was kind of ridiculous because it was medical illustration, but because it was medical school, and part of the health sciences, we had to do a regular, 200-page written thesis. So I did something — this is pre-Scott McCloud, OK? — I did a semiotic analysis of medical illustration. It actually had a whole lot about the narrative quality of medical illustration, which are often multiple illustrations depicting surgery or explaining some physiological process. Anyway…you know what a projective test is in psychology?

GROTH: No. A projective test?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, like a Rorschach test, where the patient is presented with an image that they that they talk about or identify, presumably revealing, or projecting some aspect of their personality. There’s this one test called the Thematic Apperception Test, and it’s a series of cards with illustrations on it that are very vague and evocative — for example, a man and woman looking angry, standing by a pile of crumpled clothing. You don’t really know what’s going on, but you could certainly make a story about this.
I showed the students some of these images, and explained to them what this type of test was supposed to glean from the patient, and all this stuff. Then I had each of them draw one image that would be a similar type of image that could be shown to someone. And if that person were to tell a story about it, it would reveal something of their personality — but at the same time, the artist is revealing themselves. That really turned them on. They really enjoyed that, and so did I.

GROTH: It’s contagious.

GLOECKNER: Yeah. It’s really fun.

GROTH: Is your University of Michigan gig going to be teaching drawing?

GLOECKNER: It was funny, because they were looking for faculty that could actually cross over into different departments, and my background is in science, basically, and art — and then you could argue that I write as well as draw …

GROTH: You’re a renaissance woman. They hit the jackpot.

GLOECKNER: They were looking for people like that. They actually used to have a medical illustration department. [Phone dies; Groth calls back a different number.]

GLOECKNER: Hello?

GROTH: You have two phone numbers?

GLOECKNER: I do, but this phone is always fucked up. Can you hear me?

GROTH: I do, yes. We gotta get you a new phone. Professor Gloeckner needs a good phone. You know, especially because of all those late-night calls with students. You’re going to need …

GLOECKNER: I do i-chat with them.

GROTH: Oh, that’s right. Well, you and I should do i-chat sometime.

GLOECKNER: You don’t like that kind of computer stuff, though, do you?

GROTH: The rumors of my Ludditism are exaggerated.

GLOECKNER: Oh, they are?

GROTH: They are.

GLOECKNER: That’s good. I love computers.

GROTH: Do you?

GLOECKNER: I do.

GROTH: You don’t use them in your art, do you?

GLOECKNER: Well, I do my own website, and I do millions of things like that. You mean in my drawing?

GROTH: Yeah. You don’t draw with them.

GLOECKNER: No. I can use them with any program, but I’ve never learned Illustrator because I hate how it looks.

GROTH: Well, now I think you were telling me about you’re going to cross curriculums at the University of Michigan?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, they’re moving away from a traditional art curriculum. Did you ever take anatomy for artists?

GROTH: No.

GLOECKNER: It kind of sucks because it’s not really hands-on. You’re usually watching someone else do a dissection. You’ve got an old cadaver, generally not the best one, and you’re just watching, and you very superficially learn the muscles. It was much more interesting when I was taking anatomy with the medical students. It was the same thing, that same anatomy and same pathology. I would love to take artists who had something of a science background into surgery and have a class dealing with those experiences, but not teaching them to be medical illustrators.

GROTH: You think that would be helpful in learning anatomy?

GLOECKNER: Yes, but not just that. It’s important because, to me, with that experience, you’re getting so close to death and at the same time getting close to life in ways you never understood before.

GROTH: How are you getting closer to life and death, and what exactly do you mean by that?

GLOECKNER: People tend to think about how they feel, and their emotions, and typically people who are self-aware at all can think about that, but how often do you actually picture what your pancreas looks like?

GROTH: You got me there.

GLOECKNER: How often do you see someone cut open? We can walk around …

GROTH: It gives you a greater realization that you’re a biological creature?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, but in a way that’s fascinating but horrifying at the same time, because you are looking at death, or you’re looking at ill people. I don’t know … I can’t verbalize the whole experience, but it’s a very strong one.

GROTH: Do you think that can improve someone’s ability to draw, to be an artist?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. I just have to know everything. Or try. Unlike most other professions, you really have to know everything.

GROTH: When are you going to the University of Michigan? When are you going to start teaching?

GLOECKNER: In the fall.

GROTH: So people reading this should start applying now.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, right. There are lots of good teachers there…

GROTH: I thought your syllabus was pretty funny because it was so brutal.

GLOECKNER: You mean hard?

GROTH: Yeah. No nonsense. You have a list of student obligations. “They’re ultimately responsible for their artistic and academic development. And they are expected to devote themselves to these objectives.”

GLOECKNER: Well, I don’t think that’s unusual. I think lots of professors write things like that. The first day of class I always say, “Who here thinks art class is going to be easy?” I think drawing is extremely difficult, because it’s not just the act of drawing — it’s observing, and it’s hard to see, hard to understand what you see. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that you understand what you see. So learning to draw is learning to stop tricking yourself. It’s kind of like behavior modification, in a way.

GROTH: Where do you fall on the debate between people who think that anybody can learn how to draw and that some people have a more innate talent?

GLOECKNER: I definitely think there are people who have more talent than others. I mean … sure … everybody knows how to draw.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Badly. Yeah.

GLOECKNER: But some people draw better than others, no matter what they say. But you can always improve what you do, right?

GROTH: Are you talking about me? Of course not.

GLOECKNER: Well, one.

GROTH: Do you know what you’re going to be teaching right now?

GLOECKNER: No.

GROTH: But you’re looking forward to this?

GLOECKNER: I am.

GROTH: You like to walk up and down the classroom, muttering things like, “What is art?”

GLOECKNER: Yeah, I do.

GROTH: Do you pontificate in the class?

GLOECKNER: I’m may be not that good yet. Maybe I’ll learn to pontificate.

GROTH: You’ll be a first class pontificator before it’s over.

You Ought To Be In Pictures

GROTH: I saw two of your films. You made two short — and I do mean short — ones. And this would have been in college.

GLOECKNER: Right.

GROTH: You were at the San Francisco Art Institute?

GLOECKNER: No, I went to San Francisco State. But I didn’t take film classes. I just wanted to do film so I had a friend who was at the Art Institute and he let me into the editing room at night. So I used their equipment, but I wasn’t a student there.

GROTH: So, you’ve had a lifelong interest in movies?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, but that’s not unusual …

GROTH: I see. Is this an equal interest to drawing and …

GLOECKNER: Yeah. It’s hard to explain. It’s weird; recently, I’ve been doing these kind of photo things, but …

GROTH: Yeah, fumetti type …

GLOECKNER: Right. But I’ve been doing a lot of them. I really like doing them, and people say to me, “Oh, but I really like how you draw. I’ll be so sad if you don’t draw.” But, you know, after a while you get tired of doing the same thing. It no longer holds the same interest.

GROTH: Well as an artist you have to do what you’re compelled to do. You can’t do …

GLOECKNER: Right. The horror is repeating yourself in a way that you don’t want to. There’s nothing more deadening than that. You know, anything: drawing or taking pictures or making movies — they’re all tools. Means of expression. Any tool I suppose you should be able to master well enough that you can use it as a tool of expression. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not married to cartooning. I could say that I like to tell stories.

GROTH: In various media, yeah. You said you were working on a feature film?

GLOECKNER: Yes, I guess.

GROTH: Tell me about that. How does one go about working on a feature film?

GLOECKNER: Well, a few directors were interested in developing a movie based on Diary of a Teenage Girl. I looked at their work and tried to imagine what they would do with the film, and many of them didn’t seem like they’d do something I’d like…

GROTH: All of them?

GLOECKNER: Well, the last one I was really tempted because I like his work a lot. Maybe he’ll do it after all … that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But, I still have this desire in me to … I want to do it myself.

GROTH: You want to direct it yourself?

GLOECKNER: Yeah.

GROTH: Who was this last one whose work you liked?

GLOECKNER: I can’t tell you.

GROTH: And you’re holding out because you want to direct it yourself?

GLOECKNER: Yeah.

GROTH: Have you got any nibbles for you to direct it?

GLOECKNER: Yeah, there are people who have been very supportive. I might be a total fool, but in the end, you have to do what you have to do. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s probably premature to talk about this, so let’s not.

GROTH: I’m curious about your interest in films. What kinds of films do you most like, and what kinds of films are you most attracted to? What films have affected you most deeply?

GLOECKNER: I’ve always been attracted to psychological melodrama type things. When I was a kid, I was absolutely obsessed with Dark Shadows.

GROTH: The TV show?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. And then, I loved Bergman when I was a teenager. There’s so many things I like… Can you hear me?

GROTH: I can hear you. Are you having trouble hearing me?

GLOECKNER: Yeah. There’s also this weird clicking.

GROTH: Yeah, I’m hearing clicking. I was going to ask you to stop clicking.

GLOECKNER: I wasn’t clicking!

GROTH: Sure. [Faux skeptical.]

GLOECKNER: I though you were clicking.

GROTH: No. I never click.

GLOECKNER: Yeah, right.

GROTH: Not when doing interviews.

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2 Responses to The Phoebe Gloeckner Interview

  1. Pingback: Interview with Phoebe Gloeckner | Colby Comix

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