“That’s Just What My Life Looks Like”: A Tommi Parrish Interview

Tommi Parrish seems to have an unparalleled propensity for depicting the way that we relate to one another. They do so not by passing judgment, or by having their characters make grand statements, but by documenting minute gestures with more care than other artists. This unique ability was demonstrated in their first book, Perfect Hair, which was published by 2dcloud in 2017, but is only stronger in their second, The Lie and How We Told It. In this book, Parrish lends their colorful, expressive style to the story of Cleary and Tim, two friends not quite rekindling an old friendship, but becoming up to date with the past year's events in each other’s lives in the span of an afternoon. Despite being so adamantly colorful, everything about Parrish’s work is subtle in a way that does not bore as a reader, but intrigue.

The real thrill in reading, and rereading, and rereading The Lie and How We Told It is in One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand, a book that Cleary finds under a tree in the story, but which we stumble upon in the middle of The Lie. One Step Inside is printed on different paper, and is entirely black and white, starkly setting itself apart from the rest of the book.The main narrative of The Lie, the friendship between Tim and Cleary, relies almost solely on the dialogue, so it’s exciting when Parrish picks up internal dialogue again in One Step Inside. Interior lines like, “I suddenly realize I’m arching my back in the way TV has taught me men like,” come as a surprise when they find themselves in the middle of The Lie, where we’re mostly left to come to our own conclusions about the way these people are affecting each other.

Upon the release of The Lie and How We Told It, TCJ talks to Tommi Parrish about bookmaking, working at Outback Steakhouse, and the Australian comics scene.

Rachel Davies: So you’re from Australia, you live in Canada now, and I know you’ve done a residency in Argentina. In what way does traveling affect or inform your work?

Tommi Parrish: I normally really love it. I suppose, just the way my life looks, I like work from home ‘cause I can’t really afford to rent, and so there are many days where I don’t leave the house. I just work from home, so my life is really, really, really sedentary. It gets like a little intense, how sedentary it is, sometimes. So traveling really helps me, it really feeds me in a way that I need. I feel awake when I travel, and I’m in just kind of quiet work zone when I’m at home.

What brought you to Montreal?

My friend moved here. A really, really close friend of mine, and I was really upset that she moved away, and I was coming to Canada, and North America [trying to tour Perfect Hair, which I did with 2dcloud]. It’s pretty easy when you’re under thirty, so I thought I might as well just try to apply for a two-year visa. I applied, and I got it, so I just stayed.

Have you lived anywhere long-term other than Australia, Argentina, and Canada?

I mean, I was only in Argentina for a second. I was only there for a few months. I lived in New York for a year when I was twenty. I didn’t do the whole visa thing, I just came here for a holiday because I wanted to be an artist, and I thought artists live in New York, and I just stayed. I overstayed my visa for like a year, and it was pretty bad. I’m 28 now, and so I’ve gone through this whole kind of intense rigamarole to be able to get let back into the States and tour it. Yeah, I was fully deported, and everything. I was put in jail, the whole thing.

Oh my God. That’s so scary.

Yeah, I know. It was so dumb. Really. I was at this point where the border cop was like, “What did you think would happen?” and I was like, “I don’t know.” [laughs]

Yeah, I have a bunch of friends in the States, and I can’t really move there without getting a job, and I remember one of the first times I went to hang out, I had googled, “Canadian just stays in the US what happens,” and I didn’t end up seeing that through.

Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, I was 20, and I had a bunch of really great ideas. Some were horrible. I was working at the Outback Steakhouse in New York, so there were a bunch of tourists there who had stayed for a bunch of time, and they gave me this idea that if I destroyed my passport, there’d be no record of me having overstayed. So I destroyed my passport, like I put my passport in the dryer. You know, obviously then I had to get a new passport.

Oh my God, I’m way too much of a coward to ever do something like that.

I don’t know, there was this whole thing when I was younger, I just didn’t experience a whole bunch of consequences to my actions, and now that I’m a bit older, I’m kind of experiencing those consequences now. Which is fine. I don’t know, it’s cool that it took this long to catch up with me. I feel pretty grateful for that, I had a bunch of years of living in a pretend world.

How did you get a job at Outback Steakhouse? Did you not have to give a social security number?

No. It was like, you know, like America’s so fucked that there are so many places that just pay you in tips, so basically you’re just working there for free. But, yeah, I didn’t have a working visa. Then I guess I came back, and like stayed for a bunch of years, and went to uni, and then moved here when I was 26 or something.

What exactly did you study in university? I know that you also work in sculpture sometimes.

Yeah, I studied fine art. I studied design when I was 19, but I only did that for a year. It was too boring.

Did you start working in comics in Australia, and when you were in university?

No, it was definitely before university. Art school, it seems like things are changing now, but art school really, really hates it when you make comics. I don’t know, there was no––like it’s fine, the only way to really have a job in art is if you’re a teacher, unless you somehow win the destiny lottery, and actually live off your art. So they were trying to produce academics to be teachers. I was making comics in secret, and making fine art for school.

Now that you live in Canada, do you see a big difference between the Canadian, or North American, comics scene, and the one in Australia?

Yeah, a massive difference. There’s less opportunity [in Australia]. There’s a huge difference in attitude. I don’t know, there’s something very validating about being close to a bunch of other people where making comics is their whole entire life, whereas I didn’t really know many people, at all, in Australia [who worked exclusively on comics]. I knew a lot of writers ‘cause I worked at a magazine for a bunch of time, but in terms of people who spend all their time making comics, who wanted comics to be their career, there were three people maybe. I don’t know, that sucks.

Are there many festivals there?

Not really, no. Nothing like the festivals in North America. I guess just because I don’t know, there’s like less people, and with the amount of people, there are fewer schools that are teaching it, and so there are fewer new people who are starting to make comics, and starting to take them really seriously.

Yeah, that makes sense.

But it’s starting, it’s definitely starting to take off. There’s a zine fair called the Festival of the Photocopier which I really love. It’s connected to this kind of community zine-making space that I’ve been going to since I was a teenager, and they do this huge zine fair that’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s very much about zine culture––not comics and art books.

I know that you had some comics in the Art Gallery of Western Australia. How did that come about?

Oh, yeah, that was wild. They did a huge show called Comic Tragics, and like me and Ron Regé, and I was asked to be a part of it when the curator didn’t even know that I was Australian. It was pretty cool, I was the only Australian that was a part of it, which I think says a bit about what comics in Australia are like. Ron Regé got flown over, I got flown over, and Ron spent two weeks there, because he spent a week doing a mural as well. The two of us spent a week there being put up in a hotel doing like media stuff. It was wild, it was really cool.

Wow, that’s so sick.

Yeah, I thought it was a joke when I was asked to do it actually. I was like, “That’s a really mean joke. Why would you ask me to do that?”

So a lot of your work, like the pieces used in that show, and a lot of your older work on Tumblr, seem to revolve around a specific idea, like the idea of doubt, or the “I was just trying to be alive” one about an anxiety attack. Do you feel yourself moving consciously toward more narrative storytelling comics, or was that just incidental?

Yeah, I think I’m just trying to make more interesting stuff. I think also my life might be a little bigger than it was before. I’m just more interested in talking about other people’s stories, than like constantly writing about feeling sad. I think it’s totally just a [product of] maturing as a writer. I was starting to feel frustrated with what my work was looking like––I mean I’m still frustrated with my work, but I was starting to feel frustrated with constantly making the same thing. That’s how it felt, anyway.

I wanted to ask you about writing The Lie and How We Told It because what I liked about it a lot was that there was a lot of tension in figuring out how these people knew each other, and trying to figure out their relationship. That’s part of what made it exciting to read. I was wondering if you separately outlined their relationship, or if you were figuring it out as you were making it?

Well, the relationship was my best friend in high school, and I loved him a lot. We really were each other’s allies for a long time, but he was, I don’t know, really frustrating, and a huge mess, and you know, just kind of an avoidant dude, and an addict. It got, I guess ‘cause of a whole bunch of reasons, we drifted apart. It just got too hard. Also, I was always overseas. Basically I had a conversation with him on the phone because every couple years we try to reconnect, and it’s always awkward. Every time it’s shocking. I had a conversation with him on the phone, and it turned out that he was sleeping with my boyfriend at the time, for a bunch of the time that we were together. It was this huge revelation, and I was really angry and upset ‘cause it felt like a betrayal. Yeah, I kind of wanted to write something about it, but I wanted to write something about it in a way that wasn’t like, “Oh my God, and it was gay the whole time!” I didn’t want that to be the punchline because that’s so boring. I wanted to somehow write about this person who I loved so much, who is so frustrating. That’s kind of where the story started, even if that lynchpin idea never ended up in there.

That makes sense. That’s something that I really like about your work. Like a lot of people are like, “oh, comics have such great representation,” but with your work it seems like it’s not trying to be that way, it just is, so that makes sense with what you’re saying about telling the story, but not trying to just be like, “It was gay the whole time.” [laughs]

Surprise! Reveal! [laughs] Yeah, but that’s just how it is, right? It’s just people living their lives, trying to work it out, and fucking it up sometimes, and not fucking it up other times. They’re the stories that I find really interesting because they make up everything.

Also, just even visually, I feel like sometimes when I’m starting one of your stories, I can’t quite tell––like I was saying the story’s ambiguous, but I feel like there’s a lot of gender ambiguity until you read pronouns, which is also exciting to see. I was wondering if that’s something you're doing consciously, like not using any codes, or anything.

I think that’s just what my life looks like. It feels stressful deciding what––it feels stressful unnecessarily gendering the character. I don’t know, it’s just happening right now, and I haven’t really thought about it enough to have a really succinct answer for it. It just feels right.

No, totally. I think it makes a lot of sense, and that it is often more conscious to try to like gender people visually, than not, and you’re someone who’s not doing it, whereas it seems like most artists are trying to consciously gender characters in the way that they draw them.

Well, I feel like that’s also reflective of their lives, right? I feel like often the characters that you write, and the stories that you write, are a pretty direct reflection of what kind of person you are.

I thought that it was so exciting to see that this book had a book within the book, and the found book––cause she does find that book under the plant, right?

Yeah, and then she’s leave it on the train!

I thought that was so cool. I read this Eileen Myles essay about found books, and I have experiences with found books. Anyway, do you have like any particular experiences with finding a book that feels like it fits into your life?

Hmmm, I think I potentially just put that in ‘cause I couldn’t work out how to weave that into the story, or maybe I just liked that it was connected, but not connected. The tone of it was connected to the overall story, but in terms of the actual dynamic of the characters, it had nothing to do with them like moving through that day. I’m not sure. I think it’s a really cool gimmick, and not just a gimmick, but Olivier Schrauwen does it really well. It’s kind of a trick to ensure people are paying attention. You read a comic, or you read whatever book, and you kind of race through it, but if it’s cut up into sections, it’s sort of like a slap in the face to pay attention. Olivier Schrauwen does a similar thing, his comics are extraordinary, and he goes through a bit of the story, and then he’s like, “Put the book down for a week,” and you do that. Just cool tricks to help the reader stay focused.

Yeah! I also found that whenever I talk to comic artists a big thing people talk about it how with comics you’re spending so much more time making it than people are gonna spend reading it, and with this book especially I found that with that in the middle of it it makes it so much more meaningful to reread. You’re tricking the reader to spend more time with the work again and again. It was really cool because I’ve never seen such a direct way of counteracting that.

Yeah, I don’t know, I love bookmaking so much, and I feel like part of being an artist is working out, you know, making what you want to make, what feels meaningful, but also always trying to think about what will keep people engaged. I feel like if a person doesn’t connect to an artwork, it’s an artist’s fault, it’s not the audiences fault.

Totally. On that note about bookmaking, I was so shocked when I first got The Lie in the mail because of its size ‘cause Perfect Hair is almost like a pocket book, or something you can easily slip into a bag. I wanted to know if when you’re making the drawings, you’re thinking about how it’s going to look physically.

I try to! It’s a really important part of how the story feels, how the object feels in your hand. Ideally I’d like it all to be one of the same. I don’t know if everyone’s the same with this, but it really affects the way that I feel about a piece of writing, if I feel like the vehicle for it is clunky and ugly. I don’t know, making something that’s strange and beautiful, and also trying to make the contents of the book pretty, but also engaging. I want it to all be like… all of it as an object, I guess. I don’t know, I was really unhappy with how Perfect Hair looked.

I really like it!

It was a fun book.

I really like, I don’t know the technical term, but how it has the reflective title.

The spot gloss! It’s all about the spot gloss.

But this book is so beautiful too, I love the different paper stock for the book inside the book. They’re both great. Are you working on any other books right now?

Yeah, I’m just starting to work on another longer story. I was like pretty burnt out after the Fanta book. I kinda just decided that I wanted to work on my writing, and like just work on a bunch of small things, but not rush the process of putting another big thing out. I just finished the Perfectly Acceptable book, and I’m working on a mini at the moment. That’s kinda it, it’s amazing.