“Everything I Had to Say about My Life Is in That Book”: An Interview with Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden’s Spinning is a first-person memoir that focuses on the author’s years-long relationship with competitive figure skating growing up, first in New Jersey and then in Austin, Texas. But figure skating is just a backdrop.

Spinning explores Walden’s memories growing up, and how she deals with being gay, coming out to the people close to her, her first love, and learning to grow up and leave things behind. It is a powerful memoir in which Walden is unafraid to explore the most painful moments of adolescence with a maturity that is striking and admirable for her age (Walden just turned 21 earlier this year).

Below Walden talks about putting together a memoir, her relationship with figure skating, the importance of representation in the comics industry, her affinity for Studio Ghibli movies, and more.

You’ve mentioned that when you create fiction, you don’t take a lot of advice from other people during the creative process, but that it was different for Spinning.

When I do fiction, I have a lot of confidence. But when I was working on this memoir, I was very lacking in confidence, mostly just because it was a type of storytelling I had never done before. It’s quite an undertaking to try and turn your own life into a cohesive narrative, because life rarely plays out exactly as it should for a book. So the process was long and drawn out, with a lot of fiddling along the way. The book changed a lot between when I first drew it to the final form.

The first time I drew Spinning, it was an 100-page story in black and white. That was the skeleton version of the book that you’re reading now. My editor at First Second held my hand as I explored all of these memories, and helped me turn it into a book. I was extremely impatient with the entire process. I really just wanted the book to be done, and had to force myself to take my time. I knew this was a story that required some thought, and I just needed time.

What was some of the feedback you were getting from your editor?

She was pushing me to go further down, to go deeper into these moments that I had opened up. I would write a scene, and she would read it and say, “This is the start of something.” She would tell me I was touching on something that was leading to something more, and pushed me to dive deeper into my story, to seek out connections between things. In the beginning of the process, I looked at my story as individual events and not anything that was connected, but she helped push me to draw lines between things, and build something that was more cohesive.

How did you manage to overcome the impatience that you were talking about? Was it a process for you to really understand and accept that tapping into personal memories was going to be a longer undertaking than you thought?

It was. I really had to do that during the writing process. By the time we knew everything I needed to do and it got to the illustration process, I got to flex my muscles. I had a conversation with the folks at First Second about how much time I would have to do it. Basically, if I wanted the book to be complete, it would have to be done very quickly. They weren’t pushing me to do that, but I told them: “Wait, guys, I’m so bored of going slow, let me draw this book quickly.” So in like three months, I drew all the pages that you’re reading now. It was a lot of fun, and it made me feel more like myself.

I read in another interview that this book made you more nervous than your other works because you’re not just selling a comic, you’re selling your own story. Do you feel more nervous now that you’re finished, or were you more nervous during the process of putting the memoir together?

I feel like I was more nervous during the process. I’m now at a point where I finished the book over a year ago, and it very much feels like the distant past to me even though it’s just coming out now. My nerves have relaxed. I can look at it as a really personal part of myself and simply as a product and a part of my career, and now my job is to sell the book and get it out there.

Maybe I’m compartmentalizing, but I am less nervous now. Underneath it all, there’s an aspect of vulnerability to everything I do. Everyone I do an interview or talk about it at a bookstore, there’s always this vulnerability because the character I’m talking about is myself. I don’t know if that’ll ever go away. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful — because there’s vulnerability there and people read that and recognize it and connect with that.

On the other hand, you’ve also said that this is the most rewarding work you’ve done.

All the comics I’ve made before this and all the comics I’ve made after, all the fiction I’ve done, has been really fun and engaging. But when I finish it, I would very much feel done with it and I have no need to go back to think about it or hold on to it. With Spinning, when I finished it, I felt so accomplished. I didn’t want to fully let go of it. I think Spinning stays with me no matter what I do. It’s so hard to describe. It’s such a different experience. It’s so cathartic and bizarre to have made a memoir like this, and at my age especially, because this isn’t exactly the age when most people make memoirs. It’s rewarding. It’s sort of life changing to have done this book, and to feel like I’ve processed and dealt with a lot of my past. After finishing Spinning, I felt like a real adult for the first time. I know everyone starts to feel like an adult at different points in time, like when they get their driver’s license or when they’re 30 and they own a house. For me, I felt like an adult when I finished this book.

I was a figure skater for a few years growing up and definitely related to the competitive aspect of figure skating that you illustrate in Spinning.

I’ve heard from a lot of people who do ballet and gymnastics and they said it really resonates with them too, so there’s definitely some universal sports stuff going on in the book.

How would you describe your relationship with figure skating growing up?

Amazingly enough I’ve never been asked that in an interview. I would say complicated. I really enjoyed the feeling of skating fast and just the feeling and motion of ice skating, but I kind of really didn’t like every other part of it. My biggest issue with skating growing up was the culture, and the expectations, especially as a female figure skater. It’s a weird relationship. I jumped back on the ice a week ago to take some promotional pictures for Spinning, and I was like, oh my god, I get why I did this now for 12 years, and also, I was like, oh my god, why did I do this for 12 years. I still haven’t figured out my entire relationship with ice skating. It’s so tied into ice skating as a lifestyle and not just a sport. It was a complex relationship with a mostly negative edge. I’ll leave that as my answer.

At the end of the book, you mentioned that Spinning was originally going to provide more of an inside look at the world of competitive figure skating. What were the things you wanted to highlight?

I wanted to highlight the standards that they hold young girls to that I think are completely ridiculous and unnecessary. The amount of makeup we wear, the dresses we wear, it’s so ridiculous and stupid. Ice skating is a winter sport, and we dress like it’s tennis. I really don’t get it. There’s no other winter sport where they dress like this. I wanted to talk about that. I wanted to talk about the way the parents acted. The way competition can drive everyone a little crazy.

I just feel like so many people see ice skating as America’s sweetheart sport, and there’s so few ice skating stories that are realistic. Every movie I can think of, like Blades of Glory and Ice Princess, are such bullshit because they have nothing to do with the actual sport. I find it so shocking because there are so many skaters out there with so many interesting experiences. I wanted to talk about an authentic ice skating experience because there’s a lot of bullshit in this sport and industry. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that people higher up in figure skating really like figure skating’s image as a pretty sport, and I don’t think that’s completely accurate. I’m not a figure skater anymore and I don’t care about protecting figure skating and I think a lot of people in the sport do, and I don’t have to worry about that.

You start each chapter of the book describing a figure skating move.

The moves describe the different feelings and they get more complex as the book goes on. I had originally been writing larger numbers on the chapter pages to divide the book. My editor nudged me and said, “I want you to think about doing something with the chapter pages. Every page in your book is an opportunity to contribute to the narrative.” I was like, oh, I guess you’re right. I started by just having it to be ice skating moves, and then I realize that each move you do on the ice has a very distinct feeling, and I have my own relationship to all these different moves. That’s when I realized I could connect to the different parts of my story. People ask me about it a lot, so I think it strikes a chord with a lot of people.

There’s a specific scene in the book where you’re outside of your friend’s house, waiting for your mom to pick you up, and you are nearly part of a car accident that really shakes you up.

It was very scary, but it was worth it because by putting those scenes on paper I was really able to heal from them, which always sounds cheesey when I saw it but it’s true. As far as the near car accident, I think in childhood, it is very easy to be disconnected from reality, from your reality, from your parent’s reality, from just reality in general. An incident like that which I think plenty of kids have experienced really brings you back to Earth, and really forces you to be aware of your surroundings, to just be aware of your morality. It just really kind of shook me and brought me back down in an unfortunate way, because I think childhood should be disconnected from reality and that’s part of the joy of it, that you’re not forced to live completely in this world, and that really took me away from that sort of innocence of childhood as did a lot of events of this book. That’s the nature of most coming of age stories, it’s about the reality coming to you.

You detail a lot of your relationship with Rae. How difficult was it for you at that age to sort through your sexuality, and deal with a relationship starting and ending?

It’s a burden that most queer kids face in one way or another. I think a lot of queer kids are forced to grow up faster than others. I certainly was, and it was completely overwhelming. The idea of a crush or someone you like should be nothing but a joyous experience for a teenager, but because I was gay, and Rae was gay, it didn’t work out like that. It was a huge burden and really difficult. At the same time, while kids can’t deal with a lot of things, they are also adaptable and resourceful. I think a had a lot of that in me and was ultimately able to get through it and be an adult and look back and reflect on that experience.

Did you want this book to, in a way, inspire people or let people know you as a relatable figure?

Absolutely. The book is 14+ and I plan to make the most of that and get it in the hands of every 14-year-old and older that I can. I think there’s a lot of talk in the comic industry, and every industry, about representation. I want queer kids to read this story even if this story won’t necessarily relate to every queer experience. Just the fact there’s other people like them walking this Earth and telling this story, I think that’s hugely significant.

I love the various scenes when you decide to come out to your mom, dad, and brother. Was there one conversation that was most difficult?

Honestly, they were all pretty equal. Despite whatever anyone’s reaction was when I came out, just the fact you’re saying you’re gay out loud ... in the first year, it never got easier for me. I never felt easier. Every time I had to admit to people who I was, it felt kind of miserable. That was the hardest, and it felt kind of slimy. I think coming out is so silly because I don’t think a kid should have to admit to people who they are. They should just be who they are and it’s fine. By coming out I felt like I was admitting this flaw about myself that I was gay and that we had to deal with it. They were all hard. No particular conversation strikes me as more difficult than others because it’s all just really, really difficult.

At the end of the book, you said Spinning was not about sharing memories, but about sharing a feeling. Do you feel like you accomplished that?

I do. I know people approach memoirs in lots of different ways. A lot of people look back at photos and journals and try to connect the dots. I’m pretty aware that memory is flawed and that everyone has their own idea of what the truth is. I didn’t want to set out to make a book to tell exactly what happened in my life as accurately as possible. I didn’t know if I could do that. What I felt like I could do was tell a story accurately of how I felt, and I do feel like I accomplished that. I don’t know if I’d be talking about this book if I didn’t feel like I had done that.

Were you inspired by any other memoirs?

I read memoirs as a kid, but for this book specifically, no. I didn’t want to be influenced by the way anyone else approached memoirs. I wanted it to be distinctly my own. I made a point to not take in a lot of influences while I was working on this book because I wanted it to be its own creature.

I’ve read that Studio Ghibli is a huge influence on your work.

Studio Ghibli has completely shaped my visual vocabulary and how I think about stories. I’ve thought about it a lot, and how the influences of those movies have seeped into my own work. What I see now is I think the best part of the Studio Ghibli movies is how the animation, for example, the way they animate tears, it’s not how tears are, but how they feel. They feel big and overwhelming. The way their hair moves, the way their clothes move, it’s now how it is in real life, but it’s how it feels. I see that so completely in my own work. I care a lot more about the feelings over the reality of the situation, and I appreciate that in all the Studio Ghibli movies, there’s never a layer of justification. No one is like, wait, hold on, can people fly in this world? Or what is a Totoro ecologically? No one ever asks those questions. They just present the world and basically asks you to accept it as truth. I just love that. I think it’s so powerful to just present your own story and your own narrative as a reality, and I do that in my faction and I see it in Spinning too.

I’ve also read that your dad encouraged you to get into comics.

My dad has been the behind-the-scenes guy for my entire comics career. I realized that when I start looking, he’s been everywhere. He was the one who bought me manga as a kid, and he just sort of gently left books around and encouraged me to read. He was never like, “you need to do this, this is your career,” all he did was present me with material that I could learn from and enjoy. When I got older, he signed me up for a workshop with Scott McCloud and that was a turning point for me. After that, I started making comics. It was just one of those amazing moments, where I wonder if he saw the potential in this career, or did he just do it because he thought I’d enjoy it. Who knows. Still, to this day, he’s supportive of everything that I do as is my mom. It’s amazing. I didn’t realize how significant it was that he was getting me these books and signing me up for these things at the time, and now I realize how important it was.

Have your parents read Spinning and what’s been the feedback and conversations you’ve had?

I get that question a lot. I get a lot of questions about how people in my world have reacted to the book, and I always have the same answer, which is, that is between me and the people in my life. As a memoirist, people are very eager to hear more about my story. There’s a lot of my story that I’m willing to talk about, but I have to draw clear lines to keep some of my life to myself, because so many people think that just because you’re a memoirist, you’re a very public person. In reality, I think I’m a pretty private person, and I control what I let out about myself, and in this book, I obviously let out a lot.

There is often this expectation from people that when you do something personal, they just expect you to be an open book.

I find that a lot of people expect it to be a continuing conversation, and in my mind, it’s like, no, everything I had to say about my life and my story is in that book. Outside of that, sure, there’s tidbits I’d be happy to talk about, but no, it’s not a continuing conversation. That book is it. That’s what I’m putting out, the rest of my life is for me and my loved ones.

I always use Instagram as an example. People can share personal things on there, but they’re not there to have a conversation about those moments.

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by like-sharing, especially with social media. You really have to control your own flow of information.

Is that part difficult for you?

It’s pretty easy. I think I’ve in recent years gotten pretty good with that. Also there’s a slight joy in telling people I’m not going to answer that question.

I’ve heard you mention having artist’s block before. What’s your approach when that happens?

I find the best cure for any kind of creative block is to draw a really bad comic. It works every time, without fail. That’s what you’re afraid of when you have a creative block, that you can’t making something good, or what you’re going to make isn’t going to be worthy, or you have no good ideas. If I sit down and slam down a page, and it’s god awful, now I’m going to make one that’s better. It works every time. It’s like letting it out of your system. Somehow you just work through it. I find sitting around waiting for a creative block to go away doesn’t work for me. I would just keep waiting. I prefer to be proactive about it.

Do you think Spinning will be your most personal work, or do you think you’ll do something more personal in your career?

That’s a good question. I don’t think it will be my most personal work. I expect there will be fiction that I do in the future that will be deeply personal to me in a different sort of way, and I imagine everything that I do has some of me in it. I don’t expect Spinning to be the creme de la creme or the most personal thing that I’ve ever done. I think Spinning will always be distinct among of body of work, but I think there’s a lot of myself to give in stories, just in different ways.