Some 20 years ago, without much notice or fanfare, Ariel Schrag created one of the strangest, most adventurous autobiographical comics series in existence. Beginning in her freshman year of high school, Schrag began working on Awkward, a series of short strips with cheerfully rudimentary drawing chronicling her real life, pop culture crushes and conversations with friends. By her senior year she was creating Likewise, an epic modernist/post modernist chronicle about her agonized relationship with her girlfriend and her own sexuality, structured half ironically around James Joyce's Ulysses, with multiple carefully calibrated formal shifts, including stream of consciousness narration, fragmented episodes, gestural sketch drawings, and obsessive self-referential interpolation of her earlier creations.
The huge leaps in style and approach across Awkward, Definition, Potential, and Likewise make Schrag's output extremely rewarding—or extremely offputting, depending on how you look at is. Certainly, the comics community has struggled to figure out exactly how to reconcile Schrag's initial success as refreshing, appealing young prodigy, her growth as a chronicler of queer youth, and her final intimidating high art ambitions. This confusion and frank indifference, has only been compounded as Schrag has moved away from the comics form as an adult—she's worked as a writer for television's The L-word, written novels, and worked on the screenplay for an adaptation of Potential.
Schrag's new comics collection, Part of It, structured around strips on belonging and not belonging, could be seen as a commentary on her own complicated and uneasy relationship with the comics community. But it's also simply about how one person can have multiple identities—as an artist, as part of a family, as part of a queer community, as a teen or an adult or a mother. Schrag's built an odd life in art out of different parts of it, trying new things in new mediums for new audiences. She continues to demonstrate that art, and life, don't have to fit into the boxes you've sketched out for them. I talked to her in October about her comics, her career, and her future projects. - Noah Berlatsky
Noah Berlatsky: Your family is from Berkeley. They come off as kind of hippies in the comic.
It’s funny, because I would not say that they were hippies while I was growing up. But then they got divorced when I was 17, and my mom started dating this man who runs an acoustic music club in Oakland. A lot of folk music and pot-smoking and that sort of thing. Once she joined that scene, she definitely became much more hippie-ish. And then just also on her own, of her own accord, she got really into potions and tinctures and was brewing things. And doing, yeah, more hippie-ish stuff.
But I don’t think she was ever…I think her partner, Joey, would identify, maybe, as a hippie, but I don’t think she ever would. She claims that she was a beatnik when she was younger. I’m not totally sure what that means other than wearing black and being into poetry, but—
Your dad, not so much.
My dad was never…although no, my dad, I think, actually was kind of hippie-ish in the ‘70s. He had long hair and a long beard, and he was really into underground comics and acting. But then when he was my dad, he just seemed like a businessman. A mustache, a button-down shirt, you know? So, he never seemed hippie-ish to me, and he doesn’t seem hippie-ish to me now. They both have a little bit of hippie in them basically, yeah.
Were they very supportive of the comic early on?
Yeah, they were both always really supportive. I mean, it my mom’s idea to self-publish Awkward.
Had they been involved in comics and zines before, or—
Well I became interested in comics through my dad, because he read a lot of underground comics, and just comics in general. He had these Disney comics that he would let me read. And he would take them down from the shelf in his office, and once I went back to retrieve them myself, and climbed up on his desk, and got them down, and I realized there was this whole other stack of comics next to them that I had never seen, and those were all the R. Crumb stuff and the S. Clay Wilson stuff.
So I took all of that and was like, “Oh my God!” I was like 10 or something, but I was totally entranced. And I think that I went back, and without telling him kind of would cheat and look at those comics for quite some time. And then in third grade they had Maus around the house. Maus I was published, because I think this was like…OK, in third grade. It was like, ’88, ’89.
And I was also completely entranced by that, and did a book report on it at school. And yeah. So that was his influence.
And then my mom is a composer and a piano teacher. And she put her work out into the world, sitting at her desk, writing out her music, and then making all these photocopies of sheets of lesson plans for her students. So, for her it was a very logical thing to be like, oh, well, — I wrote Awkward, it was just sitting in a drawer— and she was like, “Well why don’t we go to the photocopy floor where I make my lesson packets, and make copies of the book? You can have copies and do something with them.” So that’s how that happened.
Was Crumb an inspiration?
I would never cite him as one of my primary influences. But definitely what was exciting to me about Crumb was that up until that point, I don’t think it had ever even occurred to me that comics could be raunchy or X-rated, or about these disturbing psychological phenomena, and so that was very exciting.
I think that’s something that a lot of creators got from him.
Definitely. But for me, it wasn’t until I read Ariel Bordeaux's Deep Girl many years later, and saw more of myself, female, dealing with things like her period or dating boys, that I was then like “Oh, I can do this, I want to do this.” So, I was intrigued by Crumb.
But, I also discovered Crumb when I was much younger, when I wasn’t even…when it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to write about sex. And Ariel Bordeaux came along at the perfect time—when I was 14—and she was the direct inspiration for Awkward. I read Deep Girl, and was like, “I’m going to write this comic, about my ninth-grade year of high school.”
So, Crumb and Spiegelman were definitely there, but Bordeaux was more of the like, “Oh, she did this. I could do this.”
And her comics are autobiographical, right?
Yes. Deep Girl was a comic she did in the early ‘90s about her being in her twenties, and they were just self-published comics that I found at Comic Relief, which was my local comic bookshop.
And you know her now, right? I mean, she was in Stuck in the Middle, at least.
Well I met her. I think I’ve only met her once, actually. I met her because we were both in Megan Kelso’s anthology [Scheherazade]. So, then I asked her to contribute a comic to Stuck in the Middle, and now I follow her diary comics on Instagram.
Does she know that she was an inspiration?
I think she does, yeah. I think when I met her she mentioned that she had read that somewhere, so that was cool. One thing that was actually really important about her is that—so I read Deep Girl, I was motivated to write Awkward. And, as I was in the process of writing Awkward, I wrote her a fan letter, being like, “How did you do it? How did you get your comic out there? What did you do? Just tell me.”
I didn’t really expect to hear back, but she wrote back to me, and I just remember getting her letter, and running around in a circle in my room with my mouth open, just like, “Oh my God! This person wrote back to me.” When you have that connection, it really starts to feel real.
I was talking to somebody else about this recently; what is it about meeting celebrities? The older you get, you’re kind of like, “Who cares?” You don’t even want to meet the person that created the thing you like, because they’re going to be definitely disappointing. But when you’re younger, to touch that is like, “Ok, she sat down and wrote me a letter. I can do the thing she did. This is a real person.” And it’s very inspiring.
I think she just told me to schmooze, that was the main advice in that letter, which is great advice. But yeah, I think getting that letter from her, made me sit down. And when I wrote Awkward I was staying up until 2 a.m. every morning that summer, just working on it. And getting a letter was a huge part of fueling that motivation.
The other two things you mentioned are For Better or For Worse, and Jhonen Vasquez. I’m curious what you got from those.
It’s interesting. Jhonen Vasquez, I did really love his comics. They aren’t comics that I return to now, whereas…
That’s Johnny the Homicidal Maniac?
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, yeah. It was super funny. Incredibly…his humor pacing was just so fantastic. I do think I learned a lot from him in terms of that. I feel like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac I was kind of obsessed with it for a year, you know what I mean? Kind of a short obsession.
Whereas, For Better or For Worse I read religiously, from age maybe eight to twenty, or whenever it stopped. It stopped in my mid-twenties. I just read every single strip, and collected the books, and would reread them. I was deep into that family. They felt very real to me. And I was about the same age as Elizabeth growing up, so that meant a lot.
They aged, right? I mean, her characters.
Yeah, they aged in real time. And so, it was just really cool. Before I did Awkward, I wrote maybe six short strips of a comic called Live It Like Me that was very For Better or For Worse-inspired. So that was basically autobiographical, but slightly different. I remember there was a comic—
For Better or For Worse isn't autobiographical, is it?
Um, no. I mean, the family has a different name. I think the kids actually had their middle names, which I then kind of stole for my comics. But originally it was modeled more closely after her family. She had an older son and a younger daughter. And then April was fictional, so April is the baby that comes along when she’s like forty, she gets randomly pregnant. And I think the older they got the more fictionalized they got.
So how did you steal the middle name thing for your own comic? Did you name people after…?
Oh, just that in my high school comics, my family members all have their middle name.
So, I have my name, but my sister’s middle name is Valerie, my dad’s middle name is Daniel, and my mom’s middle name is Frances.
To give them a little privacy.
Yeah, nobody has their…the only people that have their real names in the high school comics are me, and then my friend Julia. And I don’t really know why I didn’t change her name, but I just didn’t.
Awkward is all framed around these conversations with Julia, right?
Yes. She’s the framework. It’s like our phone conversations, yeah.
What led you to set it up that way? That’s not something that’s from any of these sources, I don’t think.
No. I’m sure I had read or seen something that used a framing device. I can’t think of now what it was, but I’m sure it was just taken from some book, or TV, or movie, or seeing storytelling done that way.
Was Julia just really important?
She was really important. It’s true, it wasn’t fabricated, we would speak on the phone every night for hours. Because we were so close, but we went to different high schools. So, in a sense, it did make sense, because we were sharing all the details with each other, so it was a way to kind of cut in and out of storylines. And it’s true.
One other thing that interests me, in your new collection of autobiographical short comics, Part of It: Comics and Confessions, which I just read, at the beginning, you say, “Can you ever have an identity without other people.”
Which was interesting to me, because obviously, the first comic is all told through Julia. One of the things that always strikes me about your autobiographical comics, as opposed to Crumb’s, for example—there’s just a lot of other people in them.
They’re very much about other people’s words, and what other people think of you, and your relationships with other people. They’re very outward-focused for a genre that’s often thought of as insular.
That is true. A lot of the comics that inspired me are much more insular, like Joe Matt. One of the big inspirations. And, oh my God, it’s literally just him in a room with his VHS’s.
Or I was thinking about Chester Brown, you know, Paying for It.
I love Chester Brown, too, yeah.
Actually, Paying for It, I just have a lot of issues with, but I Never Liked You was the one that really inspired me. And that book, the other characters in that do stand out, I felt. Like his brother, the two girls, his mother, they all feel prominent. It’s not quite as inwardly focused.
I just write about what I’m interested in, which is basically other people, and, myself in relation to them. I do think that, for me, a lot of autobiography is trying to freeze a moment in time that was important, and generally those moments are going to be an interaction I had with other people. That’s going to be what I’m trying to capture.
Sometimes it does feel there’s like a soap opera quality, in a lot of ways, rather than memoir.
I like the idea that you would be following these other people. But I never want it be like, “Oh, and now we’re alone with this character,” where I didn’t actually know what it was like to be alone with them. Everything is subjective. It's from my point of view, but you’re still following the lives of other people. And one thing that I thought would be fun about Part of It is that a lot of the characters that are in the high school comics are in those comics as well.
Right, they pop up here and there.
They pop up here and there. And some of them have different names.
It was interesting. I read everything straight through.
I was thinking about Elisabeth, who shows up early in the comics as a kind of friend, who, I think, you go to a concert with, right? And then, she starts dating Leonard, right?
And then you end up sleeping with her. [Laughter.]
It’s a different Elisabeth?
A different Elisabeth. I don’t know if you noticed, but one is spelled with an “s” and one is spelled with a “z.”
So it's actually a “Kirsten-Kiersten” situation.
Yeah, so the first Elisabeth was based on my friend, Kirsten, and then the last Elizabeth was based on my friend Kiersten. And so, I felt it was important that they had similar names because they were both these beautiful blonde girls that I had these intense relationships with. The idea that you could see my obsession with the one in Definition, and then, in Likewise, it’s this alternate version of her, who I then do get to sleep with.
That’s somewhat comforting. I was a little taken aback. [Laughter.]
Were you writing Awkward during your freshman year?
Um, no. During my freshman year, I started doing these one-page comics that I would call Awkward, that would be about just experiences, like me and Kirsten getting accused of shoplifting at the Safeway because we took some, like— [Laughter.] I guess we actually were shoplifting.
We were taking, like, sample candies, you know, from like, a candy bin. We were like “Oh, we’re just sampling it.”
They would just be about silly stuff like that, but they weren’t stories or characters or anything. And then, I found Deep Girl, kind of got more into comics and when the school year ended…I used to get really anxious and depressed during the summer. I think I just wanted to give myself a really intense project to do to occupy myself when there was no school. And so, I was like, “OK, I’m gonna write a comic about my freshman year of high school." Because it was also such an exciting year for me. So much had changed. I had gone from this middle school where there were literally thirteen kids in my class to this school of 4,000 teenagers. I’d gone from a small private school to a public school. I’d discovered music, I’d discovered drinking and drugs, I’d discovered dating, like, everything changed my ninth-grade year. No year has been—well, actually, no. Becoming a mother was just as significant [laughter] in terms of identity shift, but, other than that, my ninth-grade year, I wanted to capture it/explore it. Get it down. I decided that I was going to spend the summer writing the comic, and I gave myself this challenge of having to finish it over the summer. Because I knew once tenth grade started I wasn’t going to have any time to do it.I had this limited amount of time, and so that was what I did. I wrote, drew, and inked the whole thing in the summer. It was done by the beginning of tenth grade.
And then you self-published it—is that right?
You just said that you had a lot of anxiety and depression, because that kind of comes into the comics a bit….
No, not all the time. But I would get it sometimes in the summer. But I wouldn’t describe myself as an anxiety-ridden or depressed kid.
In the comics, you mentioned OCD off-hand. Was that something you’d been diagnosed with, or something you thought about that maybe you had? Because mention being obsessive about diseases….
Since I was 7, I have had hypochondria, some OCD tendencies, a lot of anxiety, and it waxes and wanes throughout my life. There will be periods where it’s more intense, and I go to therapy and I’ve been in therapy at different points in my life.
Somebody else once said this, but I do think a lot of cartoonists have OCD tendencies because there’s something about cartooning that alleviates— It also tortures you, but maybe it’s a really satisfying way to control a phenomena by turning it into this alternate world, where you’re drawing everything and you’re making everything and it looks neat and it’s organized into little boxes. It’s very organizational. I’m talking specifically about autobio comics. It's an extreme version of organizational.
I was wondering somewhat about your sexual identity in Awkward. Obviously, it’s not something that you talk about in the first comic, and then it comes out right at the beginning of Definition.
No, it’s broached in Awkward. I go to the L7 concert with that girl, Meg Bunt, and she’s an out and proud dyke, and I’m clearly very fascinated by that, and she’s like “Are you a dyke?” because she knows I’m obsessed with Juliette Lewis, and I’m like, “No, it’s just all about Juliette Lewis.” And she obviously thinks that's suspect, and I think I knew myself that was suspect. You don’t have a shrine to somebody that you kiss every night and there’s not at least something going on.
And caress, right? In the comic, you say that you kiss and maybe caress it.
Oh yeah, yeah. Also, in my relationship with the boyfriend, Michael, the chapter is called “Me, Michael, and the Girl Who Was Always There,” named Celeste. There's clearly something very intense happening with me and Celeste. I don’t even think I show a conversation with me and Michael. It’s all about these intense conversations I’m having with Celeste. And so that also was at least a hint toward sexuality, identity stuff.
You hadn’t quite decided yourself, though.
I hadn’t quite decided myself, but yes, it’s not until Definition that I come out to the world as bisexual.
Was Awkward picked up by Slave Labor during your sophomore year, or was that after Definition was published?
No. I self-published Definition, and during my sophomore year I met with Slave Labor, and they agreed to publish Definition. So then they put it out, and then they started serializing Potential my junior year. And at some point, around then, they were like “OK, now we’ll re-issue Awkward.”
Was there some sort of falling out with them?
I wouldn’t call it a falling out. They published Potential, and then they were publishing Likewise, so they published two issues of Likewise. Three, they published three issues of Likewise.
I have those [Laughter.]
I worked very hard on the covers. And it was just taking me a really long time to do the fourth issue, and this was around the time comics as pamphlets were just dying out. People just weren’t doing them anymore. They were becoming an archaic thing. And I had gotten a TV and film agent, because of working on The L Word, and with the TV and film agent came a book agent. And I had never made any money with Slave Labor. They always did a great job. Well, the first edition of Potential had a page repeated, which was unfortunate. [Page 178 was missing and page 179 was repeated.]
I remember that.
Yeah, that was pretty horrible. But Dan Vado really in a lot of ways made my career for me. He took me on so young, and so I felt a lot of loyalty towards them, and was happy with them, but at this point I was like, OK, “I have not made any money from them, I have an agent who says he thinks he can get me money to publish the book, should I try to do that?” And then try to find a publisher for Likewise as a full book, rather than continuing to do it in pamphlets, and if that felt like the right thing to do.
The agent sent the book out, and I did get a really good deal from Simon and Schuster to republish Awkward and Definition. They wanted to do it as one book, because they were so short, which I really don’t like. But had to accept.
Oh, really, that’s interesting.
Yeah, it really bothers me that they’re together, but. And then they published Potential and then they published Likewise. And that was a flop relationship, with them. And maybe this is karma or something, and I should stayed with Slave Labor. But it was also money I couldn’t say no to.
I couldn’t regret that money. I just graduated college, I needed to start making a living. But my editor on that book was let go before the books came out. So, I was given a new editor, who had been her assistant. It was a day they fired half of their company or something. I think they called it Black Monday. At first it was fine, the books came out and they did a lot of marketing and publicity, and that was nice.
But once the books passed that initial burst of selling, they continued to sell in small numbers, the way books do, but Simon and Schuster is now printing all the books on demand. Making them print on demand books. Print on demand is a fine model, I guess, if you have a novel, and it doesn’t really matter what the book looks like. It could be on shitty paper, whatever.
Not so great with comics.
No! Not great with comics, because now they’re printing my comics and a lot of them are basically illegible. It’s like a fucking nightmare, basically. They’re printing it on newspaper, it’s like bleeped out, and these are the books. And I talked with the editor, I went and talked with somebody who was high-up there, kind of begging them to stop doing this, and they refused. I’m hoping and waiting for some situation to happen where I can either get the rights back, or maybe if a movie or TV version of one of the books gets made, I could convince them to make a legible copy of the book for people to read. But yeah, it’s horrible.
Getting back to Definition, the comic from your sophomore year; it looks very different from Awkward.
Yeah, well the main difference is just that there’s black. It makes a huge difference.
The drawings and layouts are a lot more ambitious, as well. Were there things you were inspired for to change like that?
I didn’t really discover comics until after I wrote Awkward. I had seen a bit of R. Crumb, read Maus, found Deep Girl, read a lot of newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse.
But it wasn’t until after Awkward that I got into Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Eight Ball, Optic Nerve, Peep Show, Dirty Plotte, Nowhere, all of those. I was inhaling all of these other comics and getting really inspired. I'd be reading Joe Sacco, looking at his cross-hatching, and wanting to try that, and looking at Black Hole, and wanting to try lots of black. I just was reading everything, and so Definition was able to take from all of that in a way that I couldn't with, Awkward—I just hadn’t read as much. And I think also, you just develop, and I just wanted it to look good.
In Definition, the mood is pretty light overall, compared to some of where you go, but there are things that are disturbing, like the drunken night with Josephine and Leonard. Because it starts off—Josephine’s the one you do have this pure, good, noble chemistry with—and then everything kind of goes to hell. You sort of wonder, where are your parents? Were things starting to fall apart with them at that point, or…
Probably, to some degree. But honestly, they were at home, in bed. I don’t really look back on that night, even now, and I don’t really think it was all that bad. Yes, in the book you see pictures of teenagers looking crazy drunk, and now this boy is naked with an erection in the middle of a panel, and it seems all very seedy and dark, but really there are three teenagers, we drank a lot of alcohol, we kind of made out with each other, but we didn’t even really do anything. I think maybe he tried to go down on me for like five seconds or something, but nobody actually had sex, nobody did anything that dangerous, nobody did anything other than drinking, and we were all pretty much fine the next morning. I don’t think, compared to what a lot of other teenagers do…I think it looks worse than it is.
It’s less that it looks worse than it is, it’s just that you seemed really upset afterwards in the comic.
I seemed upset?
Yeah. You and Josephine were both like, “Uhhhhhhh.”
Yeah, I think we were like, “Oh, that was gross.” But consent is a big issue now, neither of us did anything that we didn’t consent to that night, that was all willing. Leonard did not pressure us or force us into anything, and we didn’t force each other or him into anything.
In retrospect, it was not especially traumatic.
Yeah, in retrospect it wasn’t so traumatic. It wasn’t so traumatic at that time. The thing that seems shocking to me now is that then I drew that comic and showed it to my parents and was like “Here you go!” That does seem a little weird to me now.
Ha! Were they horrified, or they just rolled with it?
No, they seemed fine. I don’t even remember them really commenting on it. I may be blocking it out, but I honestly do not remember any kind of pushback. Well, I do remember that before I gave it to them, I said, “I’m going to show you my comic, you’re allowed to comment on the art style, but you’re not allowed to comment on the content, if you want me to show it to you.” And they said “OK,” and they both respected that, so.
That’s pretty great.
It is great.
It’s just interesting because in Potential and Likewise, especially, they don’t come off super well.
I know. That also shocks me, that I was like, “Here’s me saying a horrible thing about you.” I don’t know what to say. The thing is that art was really highly valued in my house, which I think was my great privilege, is that my mom was a composer, my dad became a lawyer but was an actor and a visual artist before that. And so to them the fact that I was doing art was wonderful. They just wanted to support it in any way, and they were really proud, and were able to comment on the content, or on the art rather than just the content.
I think other parents would be too overwhelmed by, “What is my child doing? What is my child saying about me?” But they really were able to see the artistic value in it. And I also was not a teenager that was in trouble, I always came home at night, I never ran away, except for a couple times I never really did hard drugs, and I did really well in school, so it’s not like they had much cause for concern. And in terms of writing about them, I just am thankful that they were okay with that, and I don’t know. I feel grateful for that.
Do you have a good relationship with both of them now?
Yeah, I do. I’m not as close to my dad. I’m closer to my mom than I am to my dad, but I still see him and talk to him, and they are both in my son’s life.
The art and story in Definition are a lot more complicated . How much longer did it take to do? Were you doing it during junior year? I mean, it doesn’t seem like something you could have done over the summer.
Right, so Definition I had the same goal, to finish it over the summer. But because it was so much more detailed and longer, it ended up taking me three months into my junior year to finish it.
Was that a lot of time from school? You must have been very busy.
I just worked on it during my classes.
No, I mean seriously, starting my junior year, I worked on Definition for the first three months during class. And then my senior year, all I did was work on Potential, every single class I was just drawing my comic the entire time. And that was fine.
They were supportive of it in school, too, it seems like.
Ok. I guess that becomes clearer in Potential, right? That the comic takes up a bigger and bigger part of your life.
By twelfth grade it was like my entire identity. It was a very bizarre existence. It’s like I had three lives. I had my past life, of my junior year, which I was totally absorbed in—because all I was doing was drawing that comic all day long and all night long. I had the present, my life, which I was least involved in. And then I had the idea of what my present life was going to be in the next comic, which I was heavily involved in. [Laughter.] I was doing the opposite of mindfulness. I was living only in the past and the future, and barely existing in the present.
That was in Likewise, your senior year?
In your junior year, Potential is all about deciding to be a lesbian. In Awkward, you’re sort of straight. In Definition, you say, “Well, I’ll be bi,” in Potential, you say, “Well, I’m gay.” But you go on to still have relationships with guys, especially in Likewise. What do you see your sexuality as?
My junior year I started out with this boyfriend, and I just found kissing him so unappealing. I was just so not physically attracted to him. And then I met this girl, the Alexis character, and was completely consumed with lust. And then fell in love with the Sally character, so I was just like, “I’m a lesbian, I’m gay, that’s who I am.”
And I didn’t feel attached to the bisexual label anymore, even though I still had some attraction to guys, but it just wasn’t as present, so it just made more sense to be dyke-identified. And then my senior year, I don’t know, I was a mess. I was basically only attracted to my ex-girlfriend, and most of the sex, or not sex, but at least making out that I was doing with other girls or guys was just about trying to fill some hole that she was not filling.
But as I’ve grown older I’ve come to identify as queer, I guess. You could say queer or bisexual, but I usually just say gay because at this point my partner is female and I’ve been with her for six years, and we have a child. So even though I would say that I’m bisexual, that I am attracted to men, it doesn’t seem that relevant, because the relationship I’m in is a lesbian relationship. But I had a sort of prolonged relationship with a man in my late-twenties, so I’ve experienced both.
Potential is obviously from Ariel’s perspective and Sally’s treatment of her is often painful. But you feel for Sally too, because Ariel is difficult to deal with in various ways.
Needy. You have these very particular expectations.
You have to go to the prom. You have to lose your virginity before your 17.
There are all these nonnegotiable barriers that she has to…
Guess that was kind of OCD too. I have to tick these certain boxes.
Well she contributed to a lot of that too, just to be fair. So much of that was an attempt to appeal to her because she was really obsessed with the idea of teenagerhood and that we were teenagers. She was obsessed with prom as this graphic thing and the concept of virginity. But she was obsessed with it and didn’t in her real life feel the need to like do anything, whereas I was like, “But, oh, that means we need to do this or that.” We were obsessed with being like self-conscious teenagers.
Did you want people to sympathize with her? How did you conceive of that as a creator?
I knew what I was doing was crazy. I wanted to be fair and the thing is, I think a big part of that was writing it during the summer, after it had all happened. Because if you read my diary entries from that year—which helped inspire that book but were not verbatim the book—the diary is like, “she said this and it was so mean and on and on.” When I sat down to write the book, I really wanted it to be a little bit more objective. I wanted to depict the truth.
A lot of it was that she wasn’t sure what her sexuality was…
That was part of it, yeah.
I forgot that she pursued you initially, but then she found out that she wasn’t that interested in girls, or, at least at the moment.
And that fed into to your…it seems that your parents were really accepting of you being gay as well, but you also had a lot of your own kind of internalized homophobia, you said.
I think so. I grew up in Berkeley where it was, for the most part, pretty welcomed. My parents never had a problem with it. But it was still the ‘90s, so it was still less visible in popular culture. I think we just had Ellen [Degeneras] or something, but that was like the only… that, and you have some movie where the queer character killed herself. Like there wasn’t that much, and even though there were other queers at my school, you definitely felt like a minority.
For me, though, personally, sexuality and gender identity were linked and created some murky confusion. So, that’s expressed in Likewise. I started having dysphoria around—does this body feel right? Like, you know, my obsession with my clothes was in large part me trying to make sense of like having breasts and tits and body parts that I didn’t feel comfortable in, and so that also made me feel I think a little alienated, feeling uncomfortable in my body…
Have you thought about being trans? Or was that something you thought about at one point, or was that not really an option?
I would not say that—if I really was trans that would have happened when I was in high school, because I had a close friend who transitioned…when did he transition? Actually, no, he was still a butch dyke our senior year. He transitioned like maybe three or four years later.
I remember reading all of these books I got from the library, about the science behind biological homosexuality, like science behind being gay, and at the time, all the research was pointing to this… There were all these studies done that were like, ‘Oh, well, the gay man has the part of the brain that is more like the woman,” equating homosexuality with a transgender physiology. I would read those things and think, well that’s probably true for me, I’m probably part man too. I remember hearing the thing where if your middle finger is longer than your pointer finger. And there were these studies that were out there, something about lesbians’ cochlea in their ears was like more like a man’s. There were a ton of theories like that. I kind of absorbed that and thought, well, maybe I’m part man.
And then, when I was like a freshman in college and Boys Don’t Cry came out, I think I wore a strap-on. I would sometimes wear a strap-on around. I pondered it, but it never felt quite right to me. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable in my body. I often sometimes still wish I had a male body. I think I would prefer the way clothes fit, or it would be fun to have a penis, or, you know, but I also really always wanted to be pregnant and give birth. That was always really important to me, so I’m glad that I was able to do that.
It seems like this is something which comes out a lot in your novel, right? Adam?
In Adam? Yeah. I just actually wrote another novel.
Is it out?
No, no, no. I just submitted it to my agent. Anyway, it talks about some of this stuff too. But yes, Adam definitely addresses a lot of that.
Right, because Adam is about a cis man who passes as a trans man. So, you identified with him? You thinking about being a man was part of what the novel was about, to some degree?
I did like the idea that he was pretending to be a woman who had transitioned into a man, but his voice…he was created by a woman. So in that sense, his inner voice did have the experience of someone socialized female.
So, we’ve skipped over Likewise again. Can you talk a little about the relationship between Likewise and Ulysses? Why did you decide to make this massive intimidating modernist novel central to your high school autobiographical comic?
[Laughter.] Well, as is written in the book, my high school obsession, this girl Sally, Ulysses was her favorite book. And she read it and had the annotations and I was always really fascinated and impressed by this because it seemed so cool and so much smarter and more interesting than what we were reading in school. And I just decided to read it. So I spent my senior year…it took me something like a year and a half to read the whole book.
It's like a thousand pages or something right?
It’s really long and I read with the annotations, which is just as thick. You’re basically reading two, thousand-page books. There are sections that are incredibly dense and obscure, so it took a really long time. But as I read it, I became totally fascinated.
One, in the idea that it was an allegory was interesting. But more than that, I had never really read anything that was one story written in different styles before. And so, now I know that that phenomenon is pretty common and you can pick up like any YA book and it does something similar. But at the time, I was like, “Oh, my God, that’s so cool, like this section is stream-of-consciousness, this section’s written like a romance novel, this section is written in newspaper headlines, this section is written like a medical text book.” It blew my mind. I was like, “That is so incredibly cool.”
That inspired me to, in Likewise, tell the story through these different modes of recording. There is the present day in Likewise, there is the tape-recorded conversations, there is the diary sections, there’s the computer-typed sections, there’s the flashbacks, there’s sections that are just imagined scenarios, and so that’s where that inspiration came from, directly from Ulysses. I just had so much ambition. I just wanted to create the greatest thing I could, and so aligning myself with Ulysses felt like the way to do that.
We talked about this a little, I think, in previous interviews, but the initial big reveal image in—it brings Ulysses into the comic—is a penis, right? He describes this flower which looks like a penis.
Oh yeah, yeah. That was really difficult. I really tried to make that penis that I drew look beautiful, when it’s supposed to represent the flower, the father of thousands, with tendrils. I don’t know that I fully achieved it, but it was not terrible. It was actually harder than it seemed, because in my mind I can imagine it happening, and you can imagine this floating penis with the pubic hair swirling around and it being somehow beautiful, but when I tried to actually draw it in pencil, it just looked weird.
Ha! And you did it in like charcoal or something, right? Am I remembering that right?
Did I do it in charcoal? It might have just been pencil. But whatever it was, it was a different texture than anything else in the book, yeah.
I had sort of forgotten this, but there’s a bit towards the beginning of Likewise, I think, where Ariel breaks the fourth wall and, she says, “I’m the same fun-loving person I always was,” and then she goes back into being completely miserable.
Oh, I don’t remember that. [Laughs.]
You don’t remember that? Really?
I think so. I don’t think it’s in Potential. I think it’s in Likewise.
Yes, now I’m vaguely remembering.
It’s just a couple panels, you’re walking along with your stream of consciousness like, “I want to die, I want to die, I want to die,” and then…
Oh yeah, and then it’s like, “It’s still just me, good ol’ Ariel.”
Good ol’ Ariel. And then it’s like, “Oh, God, I'm miserable."
Yeah, now I do remember that. I haven’t looked at Likewise in a really long time.
It’s so different from Awkward. Were you worried about alienating your audience?
I think I thought that it would have a better reception than it did. I mean, I remember at some point going on Goodreads and just one star review after one star review.
“Oh, my God, this is so boring, this is so navel-gazing, I’m in torture."
And I still think what I wrote was fascinating, I disagree with those reviews, but it was pretty crushing. I feel like Goodreads didn’t really exist before, so maybe people would have thought that about the earlier books, too. I don’t know. Although, I don’t know, they did write about Potential and Definition, and those are both popular. But yeah, a lot of people found it really hard to get through. I mean, even close friends of mine, would be like, “Ohh…,” I’d be like, “Did you finish Likewise?” like, “Oh no, I still need to finish that.”
I have read it multiple times.
Here’s the thing: There are a handful of people who have written me letters, who it has really resonated with. And that’s all that matters. You know what I mean? I believe in it, but if nobody responded to it, I think I would be like, “Ok, maybe this was not the best thing,” but even just a few makes it worth it, and they are out there. And people have responded to the density and the craziness. It’s probably the thing I’m the most proud of, with anything I’ve done.
I felt like the critical establishment just completely failed. Right? It's a book for critics almost. It’s like Ulysses, and it’s like you’re supposed to fall into it, and study it.
I felt really disappointed by the criticism, because it was all pretty positive. Most people that wrote reviews of it were like, “This was a good book,” but they would say, like, “This is a book about a teen experiencing love and romance and her parents’ divorce.” Nobody would get into any of the deeper stuff that I had been trying to talk about. It all felt fairly superficial, so that was disappointing.
Have there been academics who have written about it? It seems like a book for academics to write about.
I think so. Nothing that has really come my way that’s been too exciting.
But anyway, it’s out there, and maybe it will continue to…
Part of the shift in style is kind of why the whole project is exciting, right? Likewise is about the progression from Awkward to Definition to Potential, imitating them but in reverse order.
It does. It exactly unfolds backwards.
Right. I mean, the first part’s sort of a recap of Potential and then you kind of get this high art version of Awkward's simplicity at the end. But I feel like maybe people just didn’t know what to do with it. The audience you got with the first ones was one audience, and then people didn’t necessarily know how to follow up. It's also not just really complicated in comparison to your earlier books, it’s really complicated in comparison to everything out there.
That was my goal. [Berlatsky laughs.]
I mean, I’m reading a lot. When I wrote Likewise I was just on a reading tear, like Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, all these science books, this book Wittgenstein's Mistress [by David Markson], there was just a ton of stuff in my head, and I kind of was fueling—pouring everything into Likewise that I was being inspired by. And I really aspired to it being considered literature, or high art, or I wanted it to be as highbrow as possible, while also being a comic about a girl masturbating on her bed.
I loved the idea of taking this classically de-legitimized subject matter, a teenage girl, and then making it this really dense book with a lot of allusions, and references, and formal things happening. Because I was really inspired by Art Spiegelman, his comic Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, that was a big inspiration. The way he used form to depict content was really interesting to me, so there’s a ton of stuff. And even Maus, I mean, you look at Maus, there’s so many ways he’s playing formally with the page, so there was a lot of that as well.
That was not something that critics picked up on in Likewise.
[Laughter.] No, nobody.
That’s too bad.
Every now and then I’ll get sad that I feel like nobody really got… But every now and then I’ll get sad that it didn’t really have that response, but then I just move on, because you just have to keep making stuff.
Did you go to Barnard immediately? Or did you take a year off?
Basically, what happened is I applied to Barnard senior year and was accepted, but then my parents were in the middle of their very contentious divorce.
And your dad wouldn’t pay, right?
My dad wouldn’t pay. So, my mom was a piano teacher, and she didn’t have enough money. And because I was my dad’s dependent and his salary as a lawyer was what it was, I wasn’t given…
They wouldn’t give you aid.
I wasn’t given financial aid. And my dad did that really weird thing that’s in the comic where he for my birthday gave me a check for five thousand dollars, and said it was for my college.
That’s wasn't enough.
That’s not what college costs! So, I ended up withdrawing, and moved to New York to live with some other friends from Berkeley who were in college at Cooper Union, and I worked at a comic book shop, I did a whole bunch of odd jobs that year. I was working at the comic book shop, at Film Forum, stuffing envelopes for some university press, at A Different Light bookstore. I did phone sex for a month, I did babysitting. I just did a whole hodgepodge of jobs, and that’s when I wrote Likewise and finished drawing Potential. I wouldn’t have been able to finish the comic series if I hadn’t taken that year off. If I had gone to college, it just wouldn’t have been possible. So, within that year Likewise was fully penciled. I mean, I had to spend the next ten years inking it, but it was done being drawn, being written, by the end of that year. And Potential was done being inked.
And during that year that year I applied to college again, and was accepted at Columbia. And this time, because I was emancipated from my parents from having moved out, and lived on my own, I was able to get basically a full scholarship. So that was great, and that’s what I did.
So were still working on Likewise in college.
Yeah, I was basically working on Likewise just constantly, but I also while I was in college did some short comics, some of which are in Part of It. I wrote "Fight at the Gay Prom", which is in Part of It, while I was in college.
Then after college you got a job with The L Word, right?
How did you get in touch with them?
My junior year of college, I got an email from a producer that was working at Killer Films. Actually, she was working in development at the time, but her name was Jocelyn Hayes [now Jocelyn Hayes Simpson]. And she had found Potential at a comic book shop, and they just wrote me an email being like, “Oh, we’d like to have a general meeting with you.” And then I was actually in Germany at the time on a study abroad, so then my senior year I went in to the New York offices and met with them, and they were basically just like, “We really loved your books. We’d love to do something with you.”
And I was like, “Well, I think Potential could be a really good movie.” And I think that because the way they approached me like, “We just like you as a writer,” kind of gave me the confidence to be like, “Yeah, I’d like to write the script based on Potential.” It wasn’t the way many authors are approached, “Oh, we want to option your book. And you don’t worry about it, we’ll just give you a check, and go off and do it.” This was more like, “We respect you as a writer.” Even though I had never written any kind of screenplay before was able to say, “Yeah, I want to do it.”
I wrote a draft of the Potential screenplay for them, and in the process of working with them, I needed an entertainment lawyer to do my contract, and so I was recommended to, she’s still my lawyer today, her name is Jody Peikoff and she, at the time, represented Rose Troche, who was a writer/director/producer on The L Word, and I just remember watching The L Word and being like, “I should write for this.” And it really was kind of audacious, but in the best possible way, like, “Who are these people telling lesbian stories? I should be telling these stories.” And so I went to my lawyer and said, “I would like to write on The L Word, do you think I could?” And she was like, “Yes! I’ll pass along your books and your screenplay,” that I had then written, “to Rose.” So, she did that, and then Rose gave them to Ilene Chaiken, and I met with Ilene, and was hired.
Was it very different writing for television as opposed to writing a comic?
It was completely different. The biggest difference wasn’t even so much the collaboration, as just that I had to write fiction, which I had never really done before. I’d written a little bit of fiction in my creative writing classes in college, but I was used to taking something that happened and crafting it, which is very different from coming up with a fabricated story. And obviously, a lot of the things are taken from true life, but you’re creating a fiction.
I just learned so much. It was amazing. I really felt like the degree that I learned in just the first three months writing on that show was in some ways more than the four years at college, just about what it means to create a story. And then there’s many months in between before the next season. So that was really different.
And I remember at first being very scared, because you’d be sitting around a room, and you’d kind of just pitch ideas, and it was very terrifying, because I would just get nervous that I wasn’t pitching enough, or didn’t have a good enough idea, and it wasn’t what I was used to, because I was used to being like, “Ok, this might happen to me, how can I write about it in a way that’s funny or sad.” And this was like, “What should this character do?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.”
But then I got into the flow of it, and I remember sitting down to write my outline of an episode, and something kind of clicked, in a way that [high school] chemistry had kind of clicked for me, I just suddenly was able to write fiction. I kind of just would imagine what could happen, and I would take some stuff from my real life, and I just started to be able to do it.
It was also really different because when you’re writing for TV, unless you’re writing on a show that you created, you’re basically like a hired hand, you’re there to serve someone else’s vision. The whole thing is written in basically [L-word creator] Ilene Chaiken’s style. So you had to learn to mimic that to some extent, and she would rewrite most of what we did anyway, and that’s just standard in television, that the showrunner rewrites, because you want it to have a consistent voice.
But I had just finished Likewise, which was this intensely personal thing. And it felt really good to be working creatively in something that I wasn’t so attached to, or precious about. Like I would just redraw a panel over and over and over and over again for days, because if I didn’t get it right I was failing myself, and it was just OCD out of control, and then on The L Word it was like, “Here, I’m going to try this idea, you either like it or you don’t, and if you don’t, fine! I’ll come up with another idea.”
Plus, they’re paying you.
This is my job. I’m not just doing this to express the darkest parts of my soul, I’m doing this to make money. I will do my best to serve you. I will do my best to come up with a good story for you. It was just great. I really liked that.
So, you mentioned there hasn’t been a Potential film, right? It’s still…
No, it’s been through so many incarnations. Different directors. Yeah, it’s frustrating. But I hope that it will still happen, and I most recently have been working with a really great animation director/producer and we’ve contemplated doing it as a kind of Persepolis-type movie.
Which, to me, kind of makes more sense than a live action, because I just feel like, to m, the appeal of the story is the way the characters’ expressions are drawn, the mood, the change in style. All of that is so important to it. I think of a live action version and it just doesn’t feel interesting to me Not that there couldn’t be an interesting version if the right director was attached. But I like the idea of an animated one too.
It's been in this development hell for a long time.
Yeah, its just been rolling around in development, going up the hill and then down, then up again.
How long is it? Is it like ten years?
God, it's way longer than ten years. I first met with them in like 2002, so its been like sixteen years.
It's funny because when I first met with them I was like ‘okay, so this is the period piece of the late nineties. And it was literally 2002, and they laughed. And now, its like a legitimate period piece of the late nineties.
[Laughs]. You just had to wait.
I just had to wait, yeah.
You wrote for another show too, right?
I wrote on three shows. I wrote for The L Word, How To Make it in America, and then the second season of Vinyl, which was never released.
Is that something you think you’ll do more of, or are you done with that?
Oh, I’d love to, yeah. I really love writing for TV. I love going into an off-season. I mean, every show I’ve worked on has been full of really smart, funny, wonderful people. And I don’t like always being alone writing. You know, I like being around other people. They’ve all been great experiences.
Okay, so one of the other collaborative things you did was the Stuck in the Middle project, right? Which was around 2007?
Well, I don’t know if I would call it collaborative, but I was an editor.
Was the project your idea?
So, that was an editor at Viking, Joy Peskin, approached me after having read Potential and wanted to work with me, and we talked about the possibility of me writing a graphic memoir or comic for a YA audience. And I of course had already done high school, so we talked about me possibly doing middle school. But I just didn’t feel inspired to do a whole graphic memoir about my middle school experience. I had like a few stories that I wanted to tell, like the Shit comic and the Plan on the Number 7 Bus comic. I basically said to her, “What if we just publish those and we publish some other stories from middle school and we put it all together.” That’s what we decided to do.
How did you decide what went in it?
Well, some of them were reprints of comics I had liked like the Joe Matt and the Daniel Clowes comic, and then other people were cartoonist friends of mine: Gabrielle Bell, my sister, Lauren Weinstein, Ariel Bordeaux, who I asked—who did original comics for it
I've always felt that you weren't necessarily central to the indie comics scene, but in Stuck in the Middle you were working with a lot of critically acclaimed cartoonists. Did that change your position in the field at all?
I don’t know that Stuck in the Middle changed any of that. [Laughter.] It was not the best reviewed anthology, I mean it was fine. I wasn’t working as an intense editor with anyone because I wouldn’t want anyone to edit my work. So they would turn it in and I would say that it was great. So I wasn’t even in a ton of contact with people.
It was still fun to do. It was fun to get a comic in the mail by Ariel Bordeaux or to read Gabrielle’s comic. Dash Shaw did a great comic for that too actually.
The anthology was censored, right? It had censorship problems.
Yeah, well the problem was a few things. The problem was that it was a YA book and it says on the front ‘twelve and up’ and it had some swear words we actually bleeped out. Instead of ‘fuck’ it says ‘f—k.’ But there is some teen smoking or talk of sex, really nothing that bad.
But enough to freak some people out.
But enough to freak out some parents in South Dakota. CBLDF came to its defense and that’s been really great. But in large part, parents would see it and open it up and immediately see like, a picture of a teen with a cigarette. Whereas, there are plenty of teens smoking in a lot of YA books, but its just harder to immediately see what they would find offensive. In prose, they would have to read the books. But because comics are visual, its easier to point to it as being offensive.
But then the other problem that happened, because its been challenged a number of times, but the most recent problem was that there was this [software] program that basically categorizes books into reading levels. So like it categorized this book as a third grade book…
I've used those. I do educational exam stuff. You write the passage and you put it into this program and it tells you the reading level.
Oh, okay great. So you understand, so they’ll say “oh, this book is a third grade level book” and the problem is that it’s determined by how many words are on a page. It’s really stupid. The way they determine it is something as simple as you need more words for it to be a higher grade level. So you take a graphic novel where there might be like 5 words per page because it’s pictures. But then, they were assigning Stuck in the Middle as third grade reading material. So, even though this book says “12 and up” on its jacket cover, it’s now in the library in the third graders’ reading section. And so a parent of a third grader sees the book and understandably is upset and then the book gets banned.
Did you have any problems with censorship with your other books? Like with Awkward and Potential? I mean I guess they weren’t trying to teach them in schools.
They have sometimes wound up in, like, the x-rated section at comic book shops which is like the opposite problem [laughter.]
I know that they- I had a letter from a friend who- a friend from middle school who was living in Saudi Arabia for some reason and he said he tried to have his books sent to himself there and they were burned at customs.
Oh my god!
Which was kind of cool- I mean it’s sad! It’s horrible. But it’s also- there’s like- a small part is like, you know, imagine someone lighting your book on fire and you’re like “wow, I guess it’s powerful!” in a way.
But they hadn’t run into as much trouble because they were never marketed as YA.
You mentioned Joe Matt, that he was a major influence on Likewise and Potential?
He was a- I would say he was more of an influence on Potential.
I thought that was interesting because often his comics are very inward-focused…
[Laughter.] Solipsistic. And often seen as not that welcoming to women, necessarily.
Not that welcoming to women. Hm. It’s funny, I never actually thought about it that way. I just thought they were really funny. He- ‘cause I first read his peepshow diary, the large book with the one-pagers. That's probably my favorite book of his, and it’s much less about him, like, lusting after or hating women or watching his VHS’s. Instead there’ll be a page about him trying to write or like when he was a kid, and ways that he would entertain himself during church and it was just- they were about a wider array of life experiences.
And I found them super funny and well paced and then I went on to continue to like his books. I mean, his cartooning style- I still feel very inspired by it. It’s just so clean, like the lettering is so great. The visuals just really appeal to me. I really like his style. I became friends with him in LA when I lived there.
Was that after college?
Yes, so I lived in LA between- well I lived there in 2005, 2006 and then half the year there between 2007 and 2010.
I became friends with him there and he showed me a lot about cartooning and he can be really wonderful to talk to, very interesting. But he also… I felt often a little weirded out by how he was about women. Which is a little sad for me. But he was also a good friend in many ways.
Are you still friends? Are you in touch?
No, we’re not really in touch anymore.
So I guess the thing after- after that was Adam, which we talked about a little bit. I guess I was curious with Adam, what kind of feedback you’ve gotten from trans readers.
Well I’ve gotten- well there’s personal feedback I’ve gotten from friends of mine who are trans and then there’s the internet, which is a whole other level of feedback.
Were people very critical?
Are you not aware of the extreme backlash that the book received?
No, I’m not.
Oh, yeah. There was a lot of criticism of it. For various reasons. It kind of turned into a bit of a wildstorm where many people who just hadn’t even read the book but just didn’t like the premise, you know, would go online and be like “this is the worst book I’ve read the synopsis of."
So, the book isn’t perfect or anything and if somebody is pissed off or reads it and has a critique then I’m interested in that but it’s kind of hard, at least on the internet- it’s kind of hard to find that within the barrage of people who haven’t read it or who skimmed it or who just want something to be angry about.
But most people- I have a lot of trans friends who have read it, and there are a lot of reviews by trans people that were positive and some that are negative. As long as somebody put thought into it I’ll pay attention. But, the main thing that people took issue with were that they don’t like the idea that a lesbian would date a trans man because that means she’s not a lesbian. Which is the point of the book.
There's also a lot of difficulty with people understanding the difference between showing a character doing something bad and condoning that behavior. But they also don’t like it because it promotes incest, because Adam watches his sister have sex. It’s just weird to me. It’s not how I’ve ever experienced media-
You didn’t get these kinds of criticisms for Awkward and Potential?
No, but I don’t think as many people have read those so maybe they would- there’d be more-
You think, more people have read Adam?
Yeah, I think so. I could be wrong. It could just be that there’s more- because of the way that the internet has changed. There’s more people- that could be it.
Did Adam do well in terms of sales?
Yeah, it did pretty well. it wasn’t like a blockbuster or anything but I think it did okay.
Did [trans activist and writer] Julia Serano comment? I know she appears briefly in the book.
No, I don’t know that she ever read it but she did give permission to be in the book.
So I think we’re up to Part of It now, which is your new book.
How did that come together? The comics in this collection weren't written for this book in particular, is that right?
Well, basically what happened was during college I started writing these short comics just about stuff that was happening, and just collecting them, and at a certain point, I begin to think I would like to have a collection of comics. And, I looked at them and realized that they- a lot of them had this theme of wanting to fit in or trying to find my place in a group and so then with that in mind, I started to write more comics that kind of spoke to that theme.
Some of the later comics like "Kids Corner", about working with kids, speak to that feeling of inclusion more specifically. I mean I have a lot of other short comics that I’ve done over the years that are fiction that didn’t make sense in this book.
One that made a big impression on me was the one about your epic, brutal quest to buy a new pair of glasses.
Oh yes, that’s going to be the one that I think that I read from in my events that I’m going to do. That’ll be fun to perform.
Did you write that for this or had that been around?
No, that I had started writing like in my mid-20s and it took a long time to finish.
It goes on forever.
It just keeps going on. You think it’s going to be over and it’s not.
[Laughter.] Do you still have those glasses? Did you have to get new glasses?
I still have those glasses that I finally ended up with and then I did actually end up, a few years later, buying a pair of wire frames. I just- I just wanted wire frames. And my girlfriend at the time was very supportive of them, she liked them a lot, and I wore them for a while and then I think- I don’t know what made me make the change- but I decided to get another pair. I think I just was working on a TV job and had a lot of money so I was like “I should buy new glasses.” This was maybe eight years ago. And so I went and bought another new pair which is the pair that I currently wear. And now my current partner just- will not let me wear wire frames.
So [laughter] they’re back in the drawer. But I now have this one pair of tortoise shell glasses that I really like and I’m terrified of them breaking.
It’s funny that your partner is making that decision, because in the book you're also very sensitive to what other people say about them.
Well that’s the thing! It’s all about what other people think.
Which is a bit terrifying in the comic. Because your sister makes some offhand comment and that sends you into a weeks long panic attack.
Yeah, my sister calls them sad, I have to get rid of them immediately. My friend, Melissa, who in the book is called Sam, you know, so she says like “return them, oh my god” I have to return them. Anybody says the wrong thing and…this is why I can’t show my work to anybody. If somebody says the wrong thing I just completely- it’s really hard.
And that’s so funny because your work often deals with controversial material…
Well, here’s the thing: at least with work, once it’s out in the world I’m okay with that. I can deal with negative feedback because it’s done. And once I bought the glasses and couldn't return them I was just like “alright, that’s it. I don’t have any money left. These are my glasses.” The problem with it was I was allowed to keep returning them.
The reason I had trouble showing drafts to people other than my agent or editor, which you know, of course, you have to do and which I really value their feedback. But some people will have tons of beta readers and that’s fine. But for me- if someone says the wrong thing- I don’t even know what would happen. Maybe I’d be fine but my fear is that I’ll be like “oh my God, now I have to get rid of this. The whole thing’s not right.”
It’s during that—the creation process or with the glasses—it’s during that window of “Should I? Should I not?” that I feel very unstable.
Was the problem with your glasses in part because of insecurity about your appearance?
So much of the glasses comic, I think, had to do with gender, because—And glasses are really difficult. I think there’s this Seinfeld episode where George gets women’s glasses. I don’t think I’ve even actually seen this episode but I’ve heard about it and that was really part of the problem was that, at least at this point in time, so many of the women’s glasses that would fit a small-boned face like mine were really stylized for women. At that point in time it’d be kind of rectangle thin glasses one and there were just everywhere and I couldn’t find the larger frame. Now, more recently, really large framed ones are also—Have become quite popular. So that’s easier, but at this point in time, in the mid-2000s, the kind of big glasses look hadn’t hit yet. And so, everything I put on just felt really feminine and so then, I ended up buying these male glasses—these glasses made for men—where I loved the style but they really were way too big for my face, they just kept falling off and so, it was very frustrating.
The glasses I have now feel comfortably unisex but, this has always been my problem with clothing. I wouldn’t say that I’m super butch but, I’m definitely—I still dress more masculine than feminine and it’s hard to find masculine clothes that fit a female—fit my female body.
You were more butch at various points?
I’ve gone through phases, yeah.
So, I guess we’re more or less up to the present. And you said the big thing in your life now is that you had a baby.
And you were pregnant it sounds like, is that right?
I was pregnant. I wrote a comic about it. That you can read if you like, it’s online. It’s called Pregnant on the Subway.
So, how old is he?
He is 14 months.
And how are you enjoying being a mother?
It’s hard [Laughter.]
[Laughter.] Are you sleeping?
Yeah. I actually was fairly lucky on that front because he started sleeping through the night at like 8 weeks. Which is unusual but, he didn’t take naps and he still does not take—he’s not a great nap-taker. So the daytime is just being constantly on and in some ways it’s been great because my partner is a filmmaker. And so she also has worked from home this past year and we basically traded off taking care of him and trying to do our own work, which in some ways is good because I’ve, you know, basically gotten to be with him.
But it’s been very difficult to get work done and even with a partner who’s also doing childcare and the occasional babysitter—it’s just really hard. We’re going to figure out something to get more work done.
What are you working on? I mean is this—are you working on the comics?
Yeah, so I’m finishing up the comic strip part of it—while I was pregnant and during the first year of his life and I also—on my due date, I finished the first draft of my next novel and then I just spent the last year doing a second draft and a polish and I just sent that to my agent so we’ll see where that goes.
Well to finish up, I’m sure you get this question all the time, but I wondered if you still had a relationship with Sally?
I do. Sally actually gave me—basically, every item of clothes that Robbie wears, belonged to her children.
Yeah. So he wears all hand-me-downs from her children and she gave us the bouncy chair—basically his entire childhood [laughter] is from her. Which has been really wonderful because it’s just really sweet because he—he’s connected to her in that way.
Reading Potential and Likewise you wouldn’t necessarily think that things would turn out that well.
No, they really have. I mean she lives in Rhode Island now. I see her every couple years—I did just see her maybe like 6 months ago—no, a year ago. She came to New York. I see her occasionally, we’ll get dinner and it’s always really nice. She's an amazing person and I love talking to her and it’s nice to be able to experience her out of these stupid throes of anxiety.
[Laughter.] What about Julia? Are you still in touch with her?
Yeah! I’m still really close with Julia. She was here for Robbie’s first birthday so that was really nice—to get to blow out his candles with her and—yeah, she lives in Chicago so I don’t see her that much. We talk on the phone—we never let more than a couple months go by without having a long phone conversation.
Are you working on something else or—it’s the novel, is the thing that you’re.
The novel is really the main thing, up until a few days ago, or like a week ago when I gave it to my agent—you know, I was writing that. But I have other possible projects that I’d like to do. I'm figuring out what I want to focus on.