Leslie Stein Talks to Her Mother

Family is one of the key themes in Leslie Stein's latest collection, Present, and so when we learned that she would be willing to speak with her mother about the book, it seemed like an obvious (if slightly risky) decision to commission that interview. The conversation that ensued proves that it was a risk worth taking. It opens windows and shines new light onto Stein's work, revealing some of what must inspire its heartfelt intensity.

PATTIE MACKENZIE: OK. I'm embarrassed to say that when you gave me permission to embarrass you during this interview, I was thrown off-kilter. Honestly, I try really hard not to embarrass you, with seemingly marginal success. But I think you’re saying not to worry about embarrassing you, right? Now that you’ve given me permission, I’ll try to be brave.

LESLIE STEIN: Honestly, I find self-promotion and interviews to be embarrassing in general, and a lot of times they are really boring, and I actually have no answers so I'm basically making them up. So I try to make it fun and light-hearted, kind of like my work. Anyways, thanks a lot for doing this!

Moms basically have the right to embarrass their kids. It's kind of like revenge for all the stuff you put up with. (Sorry for ages 12-18, by the way.) That said, no one likes the feeling, but we should be able to get over ourselves, I would hope.

In Present, your characters seem real. It's as though you've shifted into another direction from previous work. Watercolor Leslie is real to me. She is accompanied by swaths of color which ebb and flow in ways we cannot predict, much like life does. The interplay between Leslie and her mom surprised me because you and I have lived this rocky communication road.

What do you want your audience to experience through Present?

I get worried that people will misinterpret what I'm saying, and they have, but that's part of the risk of making art. I try to be kind to people in general, and be kind in how I portray others. People have said that it leaves them with a light or hopeful feeling, which I suppose is what I'm going for. I'm not trying to change lives here, but maybe bond with others through mutual experiences.

How do you feel about being portrayed in the comics as a character? The first story in the book, "Daughter's Day", is based on a conversation we had about different love relationships you've had over the years.

"Daughter’s Day" is about my love relationships? I thought it is was about you calling me two months early to say Happy Mother’s Day? I’m hoping that you and readers will not misinterpret my actions in your stories. I guess we are in the same place.

It's about both! I try to make my comics layered and approach various topics at the same time. Fun stuff like forgetting Mother's Day and more serious life stuff.

I’ve had practice as a character in your work so I’m over the initial shock. With you as an introvert and me an extravert, I’m still learning how to be less intrusive since public declaration can be so embarrassing! Take my mother, your grandmother, for instance. Everything she talked about seemed to be highly embarrassing. I haven’t wanted to do that to you.

Take "Mom Guilt" for instance. During the first read through, I realized that even though you say you don’t remember things that well, you captured the words and essence of our dialogue! However, it took me several readings to actually see your perspective. I honestly didn’t get how irritating it can be to ask for pieces of your work. Duh.

I wouldn't describe it as irritating. I'm happy you like my work. That's fantastic. But I think sometimes people assume it's all fun to be drawing all the time, and it's an incredible amount of work.

Which comes first? A visual, a feeling, the language, colors, or something else?

For comics, it's always the story, then finding a way to tell that visually in a unique and expressive way. I don't sketch or anything. I carry around a notebook and write. The colors I decide on to help set the mood or represent a feeling.

Do you know how much a gift you are in my life? From the moment you were born, I bonded with you as though it was you and me against the world. I was thrilled to have a girl and terrified at the same time. What if I made the mistakes my mother made? That’s treacherous territory. Mom/daughter relationships are fraught with danger. What I hoped would be easy was far from that.

I think you did a very good job! I've told you this a lot. When I published "Mom Guilt" on VICE initially, it got the best responses. Since I'm not a mother I only experience it from one side. But I can't imagine any thoughtful parent would not worry about these issues.

Part of the reason I wanted you to interview me, and have this particular site pick it up, is that many of the readers are other cartoonists, who all have to deal with balancing art and family. I actually think we have a pretty healthy relationship and I can still include you in my work, and I wanted people to feel that's a possibility?

Thank you, Leslie, so glad you said that. When others have read “Mom Guilt", they have strong reactions because the situation is more universal than I thought! I’m happy that some of our challenging conversations resonate with others.

Almost every time I looked at you when you were growing up, I wondered what you’d look like older. I don’t know what that means other than I wanted to know you and see who you would become. You have been a series of great surprises actually. Pretty much every conceived notion of who and what my daughter would be was wrong. You didn’t want to take dancing and singing lessons which I would have killed for when I was young. You go inside and I go outside in our orientation to the world. I didn’t know how to have an artist for a daughter. Somewhere along the way, I realized you would be my greatest teacher, because of our differences. And let’s admit it, you are not predictable, which I love.

What’s exciting to you about your newest book?

I think the greatest gift you gave me as a human was your acceptance. Exactly, we have very different interests and personalities, but when I showed interest in art and playing guitar you were supportive about it and hands off. I think you gave me all the opportunities you thought I'd want, and let me make the decisions I wanted to.

I did hate dancing but I really liked tumbling, remember? Where you basically just got to fall down large foam shapes without getting hurt. Scott [my brother] always cracks up remembering this. I would get up, "Ta-da!"

What's exciting to me about this book is some of the travel I get to do to promote it. I've met some really great authors at book festivals, and then I get to wander around and find boiled peanuts and peach vermouth in Georgia, or beef stroganoff and craft beer in Ohio.

Also the holes on the cover.

Holes. You are so funny!

When you were three years old, you looked up at me and said, “I’m an artist, Mommy.” I was flabbergasted. I thought, how could my three-year old know what she wants to be in life, when I’m still uncertain? I’ve told you this story many times but I wonder what you remember.

How did you know you were an artist?

From what you told me, it was after a day of preschool or something when you asked me how my day was? My guess is that I was drawing very intently and a teacher told me that, or introduced me to that word. I've always thought it is kind of a nature/nurture debate when it comes to what your passion is. I was constantly being rewarded for my little drawings and crafts, so I'm sure that's part of what made me keep going very intently.

I will say, though, the first time I realized I was different in my relationship to making things. I was in kindergarten and we were using construction paper to make a lion's head. I think we had a half hour or so to do it before recess, and as soon as the teacher said we could go play, everyone sprang out of their seats and started running around, and I was so surprised because none of them were done yet. So I sat there until I finished it. I enjoyed it way more than aimlessly running around.

I didn’t know that story! What I remember is the artwork you created that year that was part of a city artwork display at a bank downtown. I framed it and it’s still in my living room. I was and am so proud.

It was a little collage of a sun.

What has being an artist been like for you?

Ugh, it's a terrible lifestyle. But fun, too. Every day I'm peaceful, awed, humiliated, and deeply sad.

Our former neighbors Dori and her daughter Erin came into town this week. They both follow your artwork. When asked what they would like me to ask you, they both said, “What did you learn about yourself while creating this book?”

This I honestly don't know how to answer. I don't think I had any huge epiphanies… maybe that some of the experience we think are unique to ourselves are universal? And that we can't know that unless we speak about them?

That’s interesting coming from an introvert.

Dori mentioned that she has practiced a tradition I started about saving all your notes, drawings and messages from the time you were born. I was saving them so that when things got tough in our mother/daughter relationship, I could pull out a happy note for every not-so-nice thing we might say to each other. I calculated I’d need them to remind myself that you and I were going to be okay… eventually. It means a lot to have you ask me to be your interviewer. I’m honored. I still save every note you give me.

I didn't know that's why you did that! I'm sorry you had to be wary of me at times. From my perspective, you may have internalized some of the ways I relate to you, that really just have to do with my general world outlook instead. I don't know how you couldn't have taken a lot of it personally, and I apologize.

No! I saved your drawings and notes because I remember how challenging it was between my mother and me! It wasn’t you. I was thinking ahead.

Oh, okay! That's good.

The general misery I was experiencing most of my younger life had to do with being born into a societal system and way of thought that I disagreed with. All I wanted to do was run away to California and make friends with other weirdos and feel less alone. You know how independent I am and how I need to make my own way and frankly, try not to care about living some mainstream lifestyle.

I’ve had some anger lately in terms of people judging me based on what they view as important in their own lives. I think we should judge people based on their integrity and not their "achievements." Success is a myth. It's all about process.

I agree 100%! I learned the word “nonconformist” in seventh grade and knew it was me! I’ve never looked back except when others judge my choices. I love living my life my way. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree after all.

Although it was actually the first question that came to mind, I’ve saved one last question for you. What don’t you want your mother to know about this book?

I can't think of anything! I guess I don't want you to worry about me, but that only exists in some parallel universe. Love you!

Just so you know in case it isn’t evident, I still adore you and greatly appreciate your uniqueness. Thank you for teaching me what I wouldn’t know and experience if you weren’t in my life. I am so much better for it.

Thanks, Mom. Love you.