“If Anything, The Book Would Be Longer”: A Conversation With Kelsey Wroten

Kelsey Wroten’s debut graphic novel Crimes from Pyrite Press became a book so close to me that I brought it as one of the few books I re-read when I checked myself into a psych ward earlier this year. Their work has that power to me; her books so far are portraits of young queer women self-destructing, and they are richly and tenderly observed. Their protagonists are by turns funny, charming, and irritating to those around her, and according to Wroten in this interview, those varied reactions carry to readers as well. Wroten’s new book is Cannonball from Uncivilized Books. Kelsey Wroten and I spoke by email. -Annie Mok

Annie Mok: First of all, thanks for making Cannonball, I loved it. The book helped me work through some of my troubled feelings about fame, artmaking, and my career in the arts.

So far, the two major works of yours I read—Crimes and Cannonball—function in part as character studies of young queer woman artists who are in ways perhaps self-destructive. What was it like developing these characters? What were the original impetuses behind them?

Kelsey Wroten: In Cannonball I was working through some residual emotional gunk from my senior year in art school, and creating a character that was also going through that was a way to sort of exercise and analyze that. I think with Caroline in particular, there have been mixed reviews on her "likability factor" which is interesting to me. I developed her from the most negative feelings I was having at the time (jealousy, inadequacy, fear, betrayed entitlement) but I figured a person could see those things in themselves and sympathize with her. I saw her as essentially honest, if an asshole. For Crimes I was exploring something more simple, "la douleur exquise" is a phrase I heard recently. I think if I surmised Crimes in a phrase that would be it. Again, not far from real life. I'm sure we've all experienced intense feelings for someone precisely because we couldn't be with them and had some sort of regret for it later after our heads have cleared (if not as extreme as Willa's will be). The characters I write often carry the emotional burdens I'm struggling with at the time in the background of my life to the center stage. 

Cannonball centers often around protagonist Caroline Bertram's feelings around her writing, and her responses to others' responses about her own work, and how she perceives those responses. What has it been like to face others' responses to your own work?

Caroline and I differ here in our response to criticism. I think we are both scared of it. Caroline is afraid that her "big secret" that she's "useless" will be exposed by some deft critic's hand and therefore is always trying to stymie and belittle anyone she perceives as perceptive/worthy enough to uncover it (such as Dayne in the story). She has a fight impulse that I don't have as much. I tend to hide from criticism and whimper. And so I don't read stuff written about my work. I did look at my GoodReads score once, and that's all it took to know to never do it again. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster.

The book switches between visual styles, between Caroline's external experience and the internal experiences of her writings. How did you develop these specific visual languages which sort of ricochet off each other?

I think an even bigger question here is how style is chosen for something as huge and craft altering as a graphic novel. I started drawing Cannonball about a year after graduation from KCAI. I think I took an approach that was familiar to me at the time, which was brush inked simple cartooning done on a computer. As I progressed through the story my approach to art-making changed as I was no longer in school and the pressure was off in some ways. I started getting looser and experimenting more. I tried to use the fresher more direct approach to drawing in the portions where Caroline is writing Healers of the Cosmic Heart. It felt like the right approach for that story. The others fell flat to here perhaps because they weren't scratching that itch for her. The strangeness of the appearance of Healers is a reflection of that exploration, too.

Your comics are, besides say Lynda Barry, some of the wordiest I've come across. However, unlike many text-heavy mainstream comics creators like Neil Gaiman or Brian Michael Bendis, the quality of your visual storytelling remains intact, and silent visual moments help the effectiveness of Caroline's diatribes play out. How do you balance out the drawings and words in this dialogue-heavy storytelling style you're developing?

Someone else described my work as one of the densest comics they've read in a while, which I agree with. I am wordy. But I use dialogue in place of almost every other type of text a cartoonist might use. There is no external describing of scenes or feelings or locations. The dialogue does that work. I wanted to treat it like a movie, and my movie wouldn't have a voice-over narrator if I could help it. There is maybe one or two times text in a box or thought bubble is used, and it bugged me I used them. This, of course, is outside of the book within a book portion. In retrospect, I think I could have given the text more space to breathe, and would if I started the book over now (a cartoonist's constant woe lol). In some ways, I think I was still operating under self-imposed zine rules for Cannonball, where you can't really have a bunch of blank space because you have to pay for the prints at Kinkos. Crimes which, in a funny publishing time twister, is actually a more recent book I've made (though Cannonball was released later) has a lot more "quiet moments". Though it, too, is wordy as hell.

However, I wouldn't change the density of the storytelling of Cannonball if I did it over again. I wanted a lot to happen, and to have a lot of time spent inside this little world. There was just a lot I wanted to do with it. If anything, the book would be longer.

Caroline's narrative arc is striking to me, and in the interest of spoilers I'll say no more. What was it like crafting her arc in terms of her relationships, her artmaking, and her career? What were your influences or inspirations here, and what was the process like?

I think her arc comes from my own perception of the field as a new graduate from art school. While in college you have a regulated pool of peers to measure yourself against. In that pool, Caroline was the big fish. As soon as she graduates, she doesn't have that anymore. And there is no Ferris Beuler like parade in the streets for her in the professional community. On top of that, Dayne is the new young gun seemingly instantly in the department. [Caroline's] yesterday's news. It can be a real mind-fuck, and this part is hardly fiction. This is one of the primary themes of the book. However, I also wanted to explore what a more moderated adjustment post-grad would be with Caroline's friend Pen. Pen has a period of sadness, grieving even, over the future she thought she'd have (being a painter) that is aligned with Caroline's at the start of the book. However, she realizes a lot of the disappointment she feels is self-imposed and based on some sort of egoic ideal that is rife and fostered in the naval-gazing environment of college. She then finds emotional and financial stability in a steady job and girlfriend while still making work. Caroline has none of that foundation and doesn't seem to want it instead preferring to torture herself.

As far as other thematic inspiration goes, I was exploring the notoriety aspect of creative work. If a person is an athlete it is easy to understand why one is greater at any one thing. If a person is the fastest there's nothing to debate. Creative work is somehow devoid of those external markers. It's experiential. It's like instead of being the fastest, a work is on the racetrack of trying to make someone feel something, whatever that comes to mean. The work that does that best is given a prize. This all seems well and good, but it also plays into other factors, like market saliency, accessibility, audience, and zeitgeist to name a few, all having nothing to do with the content of the work at all. Caroline is a 4 on the Enneagram test. She needs external validation for her internal life, which is setting herself up to fail from the start.

Both the protagonists of Cannonball and Crimes, Caroline and Willa respectively, harbor a lot of old hurts and seem to talk a lot as a shield. What was it like writing the dialogue in terms of figuring out the subtexts of these characters' speech?

I would say Caroline uses aggressive, defensive speech as a way to protect herself. She wants to shoot others down before they can even get close to her. Willa uses it in a way to disarm the potentially barbarous perception of her by others. She is self-deprecating and the first to say "sorry" about herself. This too is a kind of shield. Bas, another main character in Crimes uses talk as a way of self-mythologizing. She tells stories about how things happened, and while Willa believes them, maybe we as the reader don't.

We can't possibly see inside another person's head. Language is the closest thing that we have. It can bring us the magic of intimacy or keep us from it. I love subtext in dialogue. A lot of it comes from what I observe in reality. How you know when someone is not saying what they really mean.

I admire your drawings! They feel organic and observed. Do you have a specific credo when it comes to drawing and/or writing for yourself, a mission or specific intent?

I come to comics from the perspective of 'writing first, art second' where I want the story to be the most important thing. As I've gotten my sea-legs so to speak I have begun to experiment with the art side more. At first, I was worried about legibility. I wanted a story that could be easily read and understood. So in Cannonball I did a great deal of the work digitally to keep it clean and used a typeface made from my handwriting. In Crimes, I did everything by hand on paper. I found the second experience to be more intimate and emotionally gratifying for me, but there are some parts that loose legibility. Losing legibility hurts the story. It's a constant struggle finding the balance.

What do you hope readers get out of these books?

I hope that they find some part of it that is poignant to them. I am of the school that if you are honest in your work people with see that and find it's sincerity meaningful. I want to make stories that reflect some part of life as effectively as I can, even if they are about little girls and magic dogs, or about herpetology and love triangles.

What are your ambitions? What's next for you? (Besides getting married—congratulations!)

Thanks! I'm currently working on a book with Maddy Court (aka @xenaworrierprincess) called The Ex-Girlfriend of my Ex-Girlfriend is my Girlfriend a book of funny and sincere queer dating and life advice. I'm illustrating it and doing a few comics (you can submit questions here). I'm also in the process of writing my next graphic novel. It's a little chaotic, but I think it'll land somewhere good? I can't say too much about it yet.