In the 1970s, Lynda Barry started a four-panel comic strip called Ernie Pook’s Comeek, about the personal travails, inner lives, and artistic ambitions of a poor extended family. When the Chicago Reader picked up the strip in 1979, she was able to become a full-time cartoonist, joining her old buddy Matt Groening (who frequently dedicated his Life In Hell book compilations to her) in the field. Over the past decade-plus, she’s expanded into prose novels (Cruddy and The Good Times Are Killing Me), comics autobiography (One! Hundred! Demons!), and most recently, philosophical treatises on the nature and purpose of art. These come in the form of adult picture-books that combine memoir, rhetorical questions, artistic experiments, and workbooks inviting readers to explore their own artistic sides. Barry recently followed the first such book, 2008’s What It Is, with Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, which openly questions why kids draw, and why adults usually stop drawing. She also recently stopped drawingErnie Pook’s Comeek after 30 years, as the shrinkage among indie newspapers such as the Chicago Reader took most of her remaining venues. She recently sat down with The A.V. Club in Chicago for a two-hour discussion of Ernie Pook’s past and future, her new book, her teaching career, her ongoing questions about the nature and purposes of images, why paper is a place, dead mice in baby buggies, and the trick she uses to get storytelling strangers to buy her beer in bars.
The A.V. Club: What It Is was an anxious, searching book where you appeared largely as yourself, in autobiographical segments, struggling with your art. Your new book, Picture This, is more dreamlike, and you appear throughout as the Near-Sighted Monkey, a peaceful, quirky character. Were you in a better place mentally when you were writing this book?
Lynda Barry: I think you nailed it. The state of mind for making pictures for me is a completely different—there’s a difference making pictures vs. writing a story. Part of that has to do with what language is being used: When we’re writing a story, we’re using words to make the images. And if we’re making a picture, we’re using paper and pens and colors. But for Picture This, I wanted it to be a drawing book that didn’t have any instructions about drawing, beyond the real simple stuff you’d find like in a Bazooka bubblegum wrapper, or in Highlights magazine. I just wanted it to be feelings about looking and seeing and pictures. What It Is was based on this class I’ve been teaching for 10 years—I wanted to write a book about writing that didn’t mention stuff like story structure, protagonists, and all those things that we know about only because they already exist in stories. When you learn about stories in school, you get it backward. You start to think “Oh, the reason these things are in stories is because a book said I need to put these things in there.” You need a death, as my husband says, and you need a little sidekick with a saying like “Skivel-dee-doo!” [Laughs.] The only reason we find structure in stories is because it’s there naturally in human interaction, and in the way that people tell stories.
AVC: What It Is is about creating dialogue. It asks the reader a lot of rhetorical questions. Picture This has fewer questions—it feels like an answer to the first book.
LB: When I work on a book, I usually start with a question. And I don’t sit around and go “I need to write a book. What’s a good question?” It will be a question that’s just clanging around in my head. So for What It Is, it was this idea of “What is an image?” Which is this question I’ve had in my head since my teacher, Marilyn Frasca, posed it to me when I was 19. “What is the thing contained by anything we call the arts?” Or “What’s contained by a toy that’s very dear to a kid? That specific toy that they need in order to sleep. What’s that little stuffed monkey holding inside?” So that’s what What It Is is about. I’ve been teaching now 10 or 12 years, and I taught this way of writing in so many different circumstances, from prison to graduate students. [Laughs.] They actually should trade places for a day, frankly. [Laughs.] I saw over and over again that everybody is completely able to tell a pretty compelling story if you can give them an unexpected memory and a specific amount of time to write. I’ll tell them they have seven minutes, so they start. When they only have three minutes left, I say “You have about three more minutes.” So it’s like somebody talking on the phone. You may think you have seven minutes to talk about this awful, horrible person you work with, and then you find out you only have two minutes—everybody knows how to edit a story to fit two minutes. So I got really interested in taking advantage of this natural ability that people have to tell stories. And it’s clear, because we understand stories when they’re told to us. So that was about that.
But then for Picture This, the question I had was “Why do we start drawing, and why do we stop? And why do we start up again?” One of the things that happens is when I teach, I often bring my little Chinese brush and ink. I was at a conference here in Chicago a couple years ago, the Cusp Conference, and there were all these designers, these really fancy designers who had done the interior of like the Chevy Volt, or they had designed the Segway… just these fancy, fancy designers. We’re having drinks. I always set up my little gear, my rig. And I usually just start painting. And if I do that, people come over and talk to me. And then I’ll hand them a brush. I’m interested in being able to teach painting someday. But the only way I could teach it is to watch how people naturally take the brush, and what they naturally want to do. The designers were all freaked out. I’d hand one the brush. They go “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. Mary, you do it!” “No! Hey, come on, Bruce!” “No, no, no!” I thought “This is sort of interesting. What I could do to get them to try it?” And I made up this game. The game is actually in Picture This. You draw a square and divide that in half, and then you divide that in quarters, and you keep going to see how close you could get. But if the lines touch, you get electrocuted. As soon as I said that, they wanted to do it. So I thought “What just happened? What changed this from ‘I can’t touch this brush in front of other people’ to ‘If I’m going to get electrocuted, I absolutely will do it’?” And I thought “When we’re playing with paper and we’re little kids, the paper is a place, someplace for an experience. And at a certain point, for all kinds of reasons, it becomes a thing, whether that’s good or bad.”
It’s the same idea of you’re riding your bike, and you love riding your bike, but then one day, it’s all about how you look riding your bike. So that experience of riding your bike, the original one, is gone. So my theory was, here were these designers all looking at this blank piece of paper, and each one was going to have to make a thing to show that they really were as good as their reputations. As soon as that was removed and we made the paper a place, for this game, we were ready to play.
That actually was kind of the guiding principle for this book, and the way I had to figure it out was to make a whole lot of paintings. I would just be saying to myself “You’re wasting time. You don’t have time to be making paintings for this book about making paintings!” And then I go “Okay, there’s clue one.” [Laughs.] Even I’m fighting making art. I also was really nervous to do a book that didn’t have as many words as my books usually have. I thought people would feel ripped off. [Laughs.] I really did! I put recipes on the side or something, some hints. When I pictured somebody reading it, I always pictured them in the Jiffy Lube oil-change room. You know, when you’re getting the oil changed on your car, there’s an awful room where you have to sit. The ancient-coffee burnt smell, and you’re so grateful, if you forgot to bring something to do, even for an old People magazine, with like Tom Selleck on the cover. I always imagined this in that room, and my whole idea was that somebody would look through it like a magazine. There’s no particular place to start. At a certain point, they would forget that they were waiting, even just for a small bit, because that is my latest belief about what images do. I believe that they actually alter our experience of time.
The way I show that people still do it, even if they don’t think they draw, is if you’re in a really boring meeting, almost everybody… Boring meeting, you have a pen, the usual clowns are yakking. Most people will draw something, even people who can’t draw. I say “If you’re bored, what do you draw?” And everybody has something they draw. Like “Oh yeah, my little guy, I draw him.” Or “I draw eyeballs, or palm trees.” Actually, everybody was pretty enthusiastic about showing me what doodles they do. So I asked them “Why do you think you do that? Why do you think you doodle during those meetings?” I believe that it’s because it makes having to endure that particular situation more bearable, by changing our experience of time. It’s so slight. I always say it’s the difference between, if you’re not doodling, the minutes feel like a cheese grater on your face. But if you are doodling, it’s more like Brillo. [Laughs.] It’s not much better, but there is a difference. You could handle Brillo a little longer than the cheese grater.
Then I thought about reading a good book. We’ve all had that experience of reading a really good book, where it’s like there are two lives going on at once. There’s the real room that I’m sitting in, the shared reality that we’re both in. But then there’s this other place that has this whole other sense of time going on. I guess that has become my focus, our experience of time, and what drawing has to do with that. It’s the same thing with kids. There’s a reason why restaurants have crayons. It’s not because we love children so much, we’re going to give them this fun thing to play with. It’s because those guys know that once a kid gets crayons, they’ll reliably be focused.
AVC: From what you’re saying, it seems like you’ve answered a lot of your own questions. Why put them in a book, still in the form of questions, instead of the answers you’ve found?
LB: Well, I guess I am maybe answering them, but they’re still questions to me. Like, what is an image? I have my idea about it, but I’ve been trying to solve this problem since I was 19. I’m 54. I still have new ideas about it, and that’s the thing. Why do shapes appear in shadows and stains? I don’t know the answer to that. There’s a lot of theory about that. I’m sure there are people studying this who are doing functional MRIs on what happens when that shift happens. I would guess that it goes from a small part of the brain, sometimes they call it the executive function—the part that’s “This is what time I have to be here, and I’m going to do this. And those pants look terrible”—to electrical activity that involves the whole brain.
There was a study done on what’s going on in the brain when a kid is in deep play, like where they’re playing with a toy, but the toy is playing back with them, and what’s going on with an adult who’s in a state of creative concentration. One of the hallmarks of both of those states was, the total brain was involved. In the study, they talked about how those brains look very similar. I started to think about the role of play, and its role in mental health. If I ask a 40-year-old woman “I have paper and a paintbrush, you wanna paint?” and she says “no,” we understand that. If there’s a 4-year-old and you say “You wanna paint?” and she says “no,” we worry about her emotionally. I think that implies there’s a tacit understanding between the relationship between art and mental health. But why is it okay for someone to be scared and never try it? I think that’s also a very interesting story. So those questions really still are questions for me, even though I answer them to some degree. I have theories about why we start drawing and why we stop, but I don’t know the true reason.
AVC: Have you been getting theories or answers to these questions back from your readers?
LB: No, I don’t really have a forum for that.
AVC: They don’t approach you at readings and appearances to talk about it, or send you letters?
LB: People do send me their drawings, or they’ll send me stories they’ve written. When people come up to me like at book signings, my happiest thing is when they tell me they’ve been making pictures or writing. That makes me really, really happy. For instance, when I teach, the question-and-answer period is very short. [Laughs.]
AVC: You don’t have much of a web presence. Have you thought about getting more involved in the Internet, either in a forum or as a two-way dialogue with your fans?
LB: As a two-way dialogue, no. But I eventually have to put up a website, just because of teaching my class. I travel around and teach it, and I usually find a forum, and then I set up classes, and sell tickets on eBay. But there’s never been a way to formally announce it, so I know I have to do that. And I’m gonna, I guess. I run a website for the wind-turbine issues, and it’s a lot of work. With the wind stuff, I’m kind of an invisible presence. I’m not invisible, but I try to keep it where it’s actually news stories that you can source. The only parts where my personality shows are the sassy headlines that sometimes I write. I know I should be on the web, but I’d rather talk to real people. Marilyn, she has a website, and she’s put up a lot of her early work, and that was really fun to look at. I thought “I can do that. This could be good.” I also planned from the beginning to make this all on the web, especially this writing part, so people didn’t have to buy the book, so you could actually access it for no money.
AVC: Did you expect any particular reaction to either one of these books? Is there a way you want people to react to them?
LB: No. Well, the Jiffy Lube fantasy, where the person is actually in there looking, and forgets they’re in this rotten room for a little bit. That was one fantasy. It’s not a huge one, but that’s actually one of the things. And the other was for What It Is—my hope for both these things is that they’re seen as support for the idea that art has an absolute biological function, that it’s not just aesthetic, it’s not decoration or an elective. That it has a biological function that’s as old as our opposable thumbs. I always think of it as the corollary to the immune system—it’s like our external immune system. My hope would be for people to look at the arts in a different way, rather than this thing that either makes you famous or an artist or worth something, or doesn’t. But to actually start to see that it has another kind of function, as support for a basic feeling, the feeling that life is worth living… Which is step one in any project. [Laughs.] I don’t think people have to think it’s really worth living, but just it’s worth sticking around for.
AVC: A lot of your work is so bleak, it does seem to call that into question.
LB: Oh yeah.
AVC: Is art cathartic for you?
LB: Yeah, you know, it can be. People always assume my work is autobiographical. One! Hundred! Demons! was the first real, straight-ahead… I mean, if you see Filipinos in there, then you know I’m talking about my life. I’ve struggled with depression forever. I mean, I struggle with it. You know, it’s not one of those little cute things like that Zoloft commercial, where they have that little creature, that little jellybean, looking sad. It ain’t like that. It’s more like having swallowed a running chainsaw, and you don’t know what to do or where to turn. [Laughs.] That’s what it feels like to me. Painting and drawing and writing and reading—in particular reading—and music, those things from early on were always very helpful. They’re helpful not in a way that they fix anything, but they make it so I felt like sticking around. Not that much. [Laughs.] But just enough.
AVC: Is there a reason there’s so much less autobiography in Picture This?
LB: I didn’t want to have as much as I put in What It Is, but I didn’t know how else to tell the story. Yes, the Near-Sighted Monkey is totally me, but I didn’t want it to be about me, necessarily. One! Hundred! Demons! really is about me, and What It Is, I’m in there to move this idea along. I didn’t know how else to tell the story. For Picture This, I didn’t want to be in it at all, but there were certain ways I couldn’t not be in it. So whenever I was in there, I tried to always do it with just a pen, so it’s not as compelling to look at. Your eyes could kind of glaze over the parts that I’m in. Because this one’s not about me or my life, necessarily. Writing autobiography, because people have assumed that’s what I’ve done for so long, I have a weird relationship with it.
AVC: You’ve made it clear in other interviews that you had a terrible childhood, but that you don’t like discussing specifics. Readers may think your work is autobiographical just because it’s so often about terrible childhoods, and they don’t know the details of yours.
LB: Yeah. I think I probably had talked about it by proxy, certainly, with these other characters or with the story of Cruddy. The cool part is, it doesn’t have to be exactly what happened to me. I have these characters that just wander into trouble all the time. So that part’s cathartic, having characters go through this stuff. Yes, that part actually works. And I have to wonder if that’s not what playing with dolls is all about.
AVC: What’s the status of Ernie Pook’s Comeek?
LB: I stopped the strip, I guess, about a year, year and a half ago. It ran for 30 years. But there were fewer and fewer venues. Cascadingly fewer venues. Then the venues that I still did have, there was just this horrible feeling of having this sword hanging over me, and there was less and less tolerance for an unusual strip, like a sad strip, or a strip that didn’t seem to be about much of anything, like how to draw a bat or something. The tolerance for that really closed. And when the Chicago Reader was sold to Creative Loafing, a paper which purchased several papers I’d been in, I knew it was over for me. Because the Reader was one of my last papers. So I thought “Cut out the middleman—I’ll quit.” [Laughs.]
AVC: That had to be a blow. Our last interview with you was in 1999, and you talked about what a stepping stone the Reader was for you at the beginning of the strip’s life. Having that venue shut down for comics does feel like a full circle being completed, in a terrible way.
LB: Yeah, “in a terrible way” is right. And it happened for a lot of people who had seen the Reader as their family. The whole production staff, like everybody. It was just ugly. Ugly. So I thought “Well, there’s no place for this strip right now, so now what?” And then I finally realized that my characters were free. They were completely free. I could paint them as big as I wanted. I could use really subtle gray tone. So What It Is was the first time I saw them after I quit, when I started drawing them and trying to figure out about Arna and Marlys. Their characters are so strong in my head. I realized that they really are like the back of the mind and the top of the mind. Being engaged with something and having the top of the mind go “No! Watch TV!” It’s fun watching—I like watching Marlys, who I have a lot of admiration for, but she’s also awful, awful. Kick-ass, but awful. And I think the Near-Sighted Monkey is sort of the same way. And I think I’m sort of that same way, too.
AVC: She’s very egotistical, both in terms of wanting praise and producing her own praise, in terms of everything being about her. There may be something cathartic and familiar for readers in that.
LB: I one time did a calendar of zodiac signs where I described everybody. But in every one, I put “Secretly feels superior to others.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Drawn & Quarterly has a website that says the complete Ernie Pook’s collection will come out in 2008. That didn’t happen, and now they’re saying 2012. What’s the status of that project?
LB: That was my fault. I’m so used to working on my absolute own, and until Drawn & Quarterly, I’ve had difficult relationships with publishers. It’s a difficult relationship, and publishing houses change. Like, I never had the experience of having an editor who was attached to my work in any way. So I was very, very careful about never giving anybody anything to do besides me. So my idea was that if I was going to do all my old comics—because that’s what D&Q originally wanted to do, just to put all 30 years’ worth in reprint books—my thing was “Well, I’m going to design the book, and I’m the one doing it.” Because I didn’t know them, even though I knew that they were my favorite publisher in terms of the way their books looked. They have really good authors. Then I told [D&Q founder] Chris Oliveros “I’m working on this book, What It Is.” I didn’t have a publisher or anything. After One! Hundred! Demons!, I couldn’t find anyone to publish my work.
AVC: But that book did really well. It was a huge critical success.
LB: I know, but that publisher didn’t want anything else from me. My editor there told me flat-out, he said he thought the work was remedial, and he didn’t like it. So, I approached him, because I wanted to do What It Is. I wanted to do a companion book for One! Hundred! Demons! to show exactly the process I used to write it. It’s the whole thing of picking out a word. So I said “I want to do this other book.” And he said “Is it going to be more comics?” I said “Yeah.” He goes “No, we’re not interested.” So that was the end of that. Then when my novel Cruddy came out—and Cruddy got good reviews. My editor left before the book was printed, and then the guy who took over hated the book, and told me it was stupid. I mean, it’s wild to me that somebody will just tell you “This book is stupid.” Stupid! He hated the book. It was one of those things where he had to take it over in the shuffle, because this other guy got a better job. Then as soon as that book went to press, he went back to Reference—he was a Reference guy. They had no interest in another book.
AVC: Did that process hurt Cruddy, in terms of publicity or support?
LB: It might have, yeah. Now I know what it’s like to work with a really good publicist. Now I know, working with Drawn & Quarterly, what it could be like. But Cruddy had its own little rocket power. It found its way, and it’s still in print. I’ve always sort of relied on that, that the books sort of find their own way. But that was a real blow, to have everything just over, you know? The comic strip was kind of going down. No one wanted to publish anything. Then I had the brilliant idea to start selling things on eBay, which completely freed me. I had some friends who told me it was career suicide, and I thought “There’s really not a lot left to kill here.” [Laughs.] Then I started working on What It Is. I thought, “I’m not going to wait for a publisher. I’m just gonna start this book.” I found Chris, and since then, things have been very nice.
AVC: Do you have any sense for how many volumes the complete 30-year Ernie Pook will be?
LB: Ten. They’re going to be pretty fat. Yeah, so it’s 10, and I want to call it Everything, because “everything” is 10 letters, one on each volume. So it will be, like, three years in each one.
AVC: How fast will they come out?
LB: I forgot to answer that part of the question. What happened is, I started to trust Chris, and he sees how long it takes me to do a book. So, I said they could design it. Once I get back from all this book-tour stuff, I’m going to start packing stuff up and just sending it to them.
AVC: You still have all your originals?
LB: Mm-hmm. I probably… my whole life, maybe I don’t have 20, maximum, of the weekly strip. But yeah, I’ve hung on to pretty much everything. And you think they’d be neatly stacked or… they’re truly in those banker’s boxes, like just strewn all over the basement. My husband keeps finding stuff and going “Honey, you really should take a little better care of this stuff.”
AVC: Do you feel any compulsion to continue with the Ernie Pook characters after being with them for so long?
LB: Oh, yes! Yes, yes, yes.
AVC: Have you thought about doing the strip solely for the web, or doing original books just about those characters?
LB: Yeah, absolutely. That’s why I was so happy to have them in Picture This, sort of bookending the story. I was really happy to see them. That was the part that was the surprise. Because when I thought the strip was done… Turns out they just don’t exist in that strip.
AVC: You talked about ending the strip in the sense of not doing it as a weekly, but do you ever see yourself ending it in the sense of getting them out of the situation?
LB: Like Roseanne, when she wins the lottery? [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s a cheesy example, but it’s a good one. When you talk even obliquely about your own childhood, you always come down to “And then I got out.” Their lives are so painful, it’s hard not to want things to get better for them.
LB: Well, they do. They clearly get better for them.
AVC: How do you mean?
LB: I mean to say… That’s so funny, because I never ever expressed it, but you know, they’re in a certain phase of their lives where they’re young. But they both have something that I feel like is necessary for whatever “getting out” is. Marlys is very smart. She’s a gifted child—she’ll let you know that immediately. She’s very egotistical, and she loves to succeed. So she’s going to be a weirdo, but I totally see her getting to school. I think Arna is brilliant, but in this quieter way. I never thought of this until you put it, but to me, the “happily ever after” is college. Freddie will find his boyfriend. He’ll find the nice gay community, and it’ll be a lot easier for him.
AVC: With Ernie Pook’s Comeek, there’s a constant fear of that inner spark dying because of the characters’ circumstances.
LB: Yeah. Like Maybonne. I don’t know about her. She seems to me somebody who could get pregnant pretty easy, her and her crazy-ass friend, Janet Jimmers. But, yeah, I don’t know about her. Then there’s all of these things… This is actually from my childhood—always teetering on the edge of being homeless. In the strip, they move several times. They lived in a trailer for a while. Now they’re living in this fucked-up house. And the moms both work at the cannery. That is very much like the way I grew up. There was just this feeling of terror all the time that we were going to lose our house. We lived right near the projects, and we had lots of relatives who lived in the projects. That’s where I always thought we’d end up. That didn’t happen.
AVC: It’s easy to see the process that would lead Arna to become Maybonne, and Maybonne to become like their mothers.
LB: Yeah, yeah. I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Maybonne maybe, but Arna and Marlys, no. I don’t see it. I just think they have too much interest in the world around them. Also, when I think about my own life, now that I’m thinking about it, I think the strip is very much about the stuff I leaned on and clung to in order to climb out. The one thing they don’t have that I had is, they don’t have the same good experience of school that I had. I mean, I didn’t have a good experience of school in terms of… just because I was weird. I was a strange kid. So that part, the social part, wasn’t that fun, even though I tried like hell to make it fun. [Laughs.] “Where are you guys going?” [Laughs.] But I had some good teachers—a couple. What’s amazing is how little a kid needs to be able to just roll on. It’s just a small amount of rocket fuel, and a good teacher can give you that. That’s the subject that if I ever was going to throw myself into something, it would be public schools. The whole story of public schools, and what’s happened, and how the whole country could turn their back on public schools, you know? I do not know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t been able to go to these schools—I mean, they weren’t great schools at all. They were funky schools, but just having that reliable atmosphere. As soon as the bell rang until it rang again at the end of the day, that atmosphere was absolutely reliable—until you got to junior high and you got your ass kicked during lunch. [Laughs.]
AVC: How does the strip come together? How does bringing the emotions out of your past, out of your subconscious, relate to what’s in Picture This and What It Is about making drawing an unconscious process?
LB: For me, the thing that I learned—I think it’s because when I studied with Marilyn, I was very interested in being a painter. So, to me, making the comic strip is… in the same way when I was writing Cruddy, I tried to write it on the computer, and it wouldn’t come. Forever and ever, it wouldn’t come. Once I used a brush, and when I realized I was actually painting the manuscript, then the story came to me. Even if it’s done with letters, it was still painting, and I realized it had something to do with hand motion. My work always starts with me either doing the alphabet really large, or by drawing a meditating monkey, or something I know how to do. I always compare it to when I was a kid and I used to like to jump rope a lot, and the two girls would be holding the ends of the rope. Before I jumped in I did this. [Motions with open palms in front of her body, indicating the rhythm of the rope.] You know that thing?
It’s really interesting. It’s universal. Everyone does it. The minute you do that, you’re ready to jump in. So once I figured out that there’s something about motion, and in particular the motion of the hands, and this idea of shifting the brain from the executive function, going “I want to make a really good comic strip that’s going to be fantastic!” to one where you kind of forget, and you’re making these motions. It’s a reciprocal process, when you make a line, and you kind of respond to that line. And it feels like you’re in conversation with something.
So, for the comic strip, the only thing I need to know is how long is the strip. Physically, how much space is it going to take up. So oftentimes, I would do my strips, each panel on a separate sheet of paper. For instance, One! Hundred! Demons!, each of those panels is on a completely separate sheet of paper. Then I need to actually draw the place where the experience is going to take place. And then I do the alphabet, and whenever I get stuck, I always have a separate sheet of paper next to me. So, while I’m working, if there’s nothing there, instead of going “God! I have to think of something!” I just move over to the extra page and draw whatever the hell I want. And inevitably, the rest of it will start up again.
It’s a really hard thing to teach students. The two things I always try to teach them is, one, you have to stay in motion. It doesn’t mean that you have to just write blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Write the alphabet. You have to stay in motion. And the other thing is, when you get stuck, don’t read over what you just wrote. Especially if you have a computer. Maybe by hand is not so bad, but with a computer, what happens is… My experience has always been that there is a point when the story just stops. Always. You know, it’s just like when you’re dancing. There’s a time when you’re fake-dancing, because the groove has stopped. Then you’re back in the groove. So if people understood that that’s a natural part of making something, and they knew what to do during that time… But what people will do if they’re writing on a computer is, when that time comes and it’s quiet for a minute, they panic and go back and start fixing stuff above it that was not even broken. You can’t start to fix something until you know what it’s for, you know? So I always try to get my students to just sustain the state of mind for a certain amount of time. Even though I use 24 panels for my students, they’ll have seven minutes to just sustain this open state of mind while they’re writing, keep their hand in motion. But it’s really tough to get them to believe me, to just to even give it a try. And then once they do, it’s really fun.
AVC: Do you just script directly into your panels? You don’t prescript or figure out what’s going to happen before you start?
LB: I don’t know what the strip’s going to be about when I start. I never know. I oftentimes have—I call it the word-bag. Just a bag of words. I’ll just reach in there, and I’ll pull out a word, and it’ll say “ping-pong.” I’ll just have that in my head, and I’ll start drawing the pictures as if I can… I hear a sentence, I just hear it. As soon as I hear even the beginning of the first sentence, then I just… I write really slow. So I’ll be writing that, and I’ll know what’s going to go at the top of the panel. Then, when it gets to the end, usually I’ll know what the next one is. By three sentences or four in that first panel, I stop, and then I say “Now it’s time for the drawing.” Then I’ll draw. But then I’ll hear the next one over on another page! Or when I’m drawing Marlys and Arna, I might hear her say something, but then I’ll hear Marlys say something back. So once that first sentence is there, I have all kinds of choices as to where I put my brush. But if nothing is happening, then I just go over to what I call my decoy page. It’s like decoy ducks. I go over there and just start messing around.
That’s how it works. It comes very slowly, and what’s really strange is, by the third panel, there’s a part of me that is having a hard time going “So how does it end? How’s this going to end? Because we’re on deadline! How’s it going to end? You can’t start talking about penguins right now. You can’t bring up penguins in the third panel. There are no penguins. This is about, like, getting drunk.” It always seems to end. It always seems to find a way.
AVC: So you never go back and have to do a second draft, say because you get to that fourth panel and you want to get in more words than will fit?
LB: You’ve seen my work! [Laughs.] Sometimes you can barely see the characters down at the bottom of the panel because of all the words. And I swear, I probably should go back and edit it, but no. Nope. [Laughs.] There have been times when I haven’t finished a strip. Like, I wasn’t patient enough to wait for that last panel to show up. So I have several where it’s just three panels, and I’ll look at them and go “What was wrong with this? Why did I abandon this?” But, no, in general I don’t. I will sometimes, after I have the four panels, I’ll look at them. Sometimes I’ll switch the order. Like I did that at the very end of Picture This. The two middle panels when Arna goes to the library and sees that it’s closed—there’s this part when she’s remembering Mrs. Kedzie and this little dog. Those two panels used to be this way [Gestures.] And that’s how they were printed in the newspaper. When I looked at them and I moved those two [Gestures reversing them.], there was just something extra that it did that I liked.
But I’m so by myself when I do this stuff, and I don’t really talk to people about it. So it’s a little bit surreal to even talk to somebody. Because you daydream all day long, and somebody comes over and talks to you about your daydreams. It’s a really weird feeling.
AVC: The books talk so much about trying to get to the unconscious state where you’re not questioning yourself or thinking about your art. Then you go on a tour, and you meet fans, and you talk to interviewers who sit here and ask you all these intrusive process questions. Does that interfere with the process once you sit down to do it again?
LB: No, and the questions never seem intrusive to me, because I’m so delighted to see someone who’s three-dimensional. Everybody seems like a genie to me. “I love the way you move! Now turn to the side!” When I travel and when I’m on tour, I like to talk about the people I’m talking to. I like to talk about this thing we all have in common, and about this use of images. Do they realize they’re using images all day or not? And what I love to do, I have a little trick that will honest-to-God, if I’m in any bar, people will buy me a drink. If I sit at the bar and talk to them, and they say—if they’re not scared of me. [Laughs.] Because I do look like a monkey with a bandana on. But if they want to talk to me, and they ask what I do, and I often tell them “I’m a writer.” And they’ll say “Oh! I wish I could write!” And I say “Well, I teach writing. I bet you can.” “Oh, no, I don’t think I can.” And then I just do this little trick that always ends in me getting free beer, and it’s me saying “Well, here. Here’s an example. So when you were a little kid, could you think of a car of when you were a little kid?” Can you think of a car from when you were a little kid?
LB: Are you inside of the car or outside of the car when you think of it?
LB: What part of the car are you facing?
AVC: The left side, from the back.
LB: Is it day or night?
LB: What season?
LB: Summer. And, so what’s directly in front of you? Is it the car?
LB: And then if you turn your head to the left, what’s over there.
AVC: A tree.
LB: Uh-huh. And what’s to your right?
AVC: The house.
LB: Uh-huh. Behind you?
AVC: The garage.
LB: Don’t you want to buy me a beer? [Laughs.]
AVC: How does that extrapolate into sitting down and writing?
LB: Because what usually happens at that point—I never say “Don’t you want to buy me a beer?” If I’ve had a couple, I might say that, I might actually start with that. So I’ll ask them questions, and you can watch when somebody’s talking, like you said this thing, and you were quiet, and you were quiet, and you went “…a tree.” And then “…the house.” So I could see that you were moving around in there, in that space in your mind. Then I could ask you “What’s beyond the house? What’s beyond the tree?” So in my class, what we’d be doing, this is how you turn it into writing—we would have written down a list of 10 cars, circle one, do the same thing… I always have people draw an X on a piece of paper. I love having them do it. Teaching is so fun, because people will do what you say—“I want you to draw a line here, and draw a big X.” And they think it’s something really important, and then I tell them “I bet that’s the longest line you’ve drawn in 20 years.” So then I have them write down the answers to those questions that I was just asking you: “What season is it?” And by the time I’m done asking those questions, it’s almost like a dog that hears you pick up the leash. The people want to tell the story, even if they don’t know quite what the story is. And then I have them write in first-person present tense, like it’s happening now, and do that thing, the other magic trick, which is you write for four minutes, and then I just softly say “You have about three more minutes, start to wrap up.” Then we read what we’ve written.
And the way I run the class, no one is ever allowed to look at the person who’s reading. Absolutely never. In fact, I have the class draw. So I try to get them used to moving their hands while listening, making a line while listening. And I give them the same assignment, tight spiral, closer and closer, if it touches itself, you get electrocuted. And that provides just enough concentration for them to forget about figuring out whether they like someone’s story or not. So in my class, we listen to people read, we never comment on the work, it’s forbidden to bring it up, and you can’t talk to anybody during the duration of the class about anything you’ve heard in the class. Like if you and your friend took my class, and you went to lunch, I would ask you to not even discuss any of the stories. I really try to scare people from even thinking critically about them. They can later. I always say after the class, they can do that. So we don’t comment on the work. What starts to happen is that first, everybody sees that the work happens anyway, the writing happens anyway, without talking about it. The other thing that’s great is that people learn to stop manufacturing these comments, because they’re of no use in that environment.
And I know for me, big mouth that I am, if I was listening for some story in class when I was younger, the only comment I’d make was to make everyone in the room think I wasn’t an asshole, or that I was funny. Or I was envious of the person who read. So I would say something like “That would make a good young-adult novel.” [Laughs.] Those little cutting remarks. So I wanted to get rid of that. Then I started to—everyone can do this, because that’s the way we work. People everyday will smell something that will bring back a place. You smell something, and “Oh, that’s Aunt Carol’s kitchen.” Or there’s that guy you had a crush on in eighth grade. One of the things I think about is that it is a place. It seems like a picture when you visualize Aunt Carol’s kitchen, but if we freeze-frame it, you say “What’s behind you, what’s downstairs, what’s up here?”, you can move around in that space. So once I found out that everybody could do this, I started getting really interested in how far I could push, and that’s when I ended up in prison teaching. I was just there two weeks ago today.
AVC: How did you get involved in prison education?
LB: There’s this really interesting woman named Mary DiLullo who works at Haverford College. She runs the bookstore, and she’s a filmmaker. I was there teaching my little class, and I just hit it off with her. We started talking just like this, and I said “I would really like to find ways to find more and more people and just test my theories out.” She arranged the first time I taught, in Philadelphia. The first time I taught, it was to inmates who were about to be released. The prison was built at the turn of the century, it looks like something from Dickens. You see it from above, it looks like a 10-legged spider, really wild. Patdowns, security, people screaming at you through the bars. But then I taught in this little quiet trailer they had off to the side. They had 10 men and 10 women, and we wrote four stories in two hours. They were amazing, amazing stories. Because when somebody’s writing first-person present-tense from a memory that’s just coming to them, there’s no writerly quality. It’s just vivid and with details.
I went back two weeks ago, just for fun. But this time, I was in medium-security prison, and I actually had to walk through these five gates, like a kennel. They let you in one side and they lock you in, then they let you out. When I finally got to where my guys were, it was completely concrete, everything’s hoseable. You’re really in a place with no comfort at all. It was this completely concrete room, no windows. Tables and chairs bolted to the floor, but no hard edges, everything’s rounded so you can’t… because that’s what I would think about right away. [Laughs.] When the guard asked me—in front of the guys, too—“Would you like to me to stand inside or outside the door?” I said “Outside is fine.” There was a little window. He said, “You’ll be locked in.” And I go “Okay.” He goes, “That means you can’t get out, you’ll have to knock or yell.” And I said “That’s fine.” There’s something about being middle-aged and female where you can just totally rock the auntie vibe, the Auntie Linda vibe, or Grandma Linda. Some of those guys were pretty young. I felt like spookily very comfortable in prison. I loved it. I also knew, because I’d had this experience with the other prisoners, I knew that these guys had some really good stories, and I felt really confident that I could teach them something they were gonna totally dig and be able to use afterward. It’s those little details like, I asked them about the car. “Remember a car that’s vivid.”
The first guy who read, it was all about the first time he was arrested, so he just describes this sunny day… And that’s the other thing! All these guys grew up in the projects in these really rough neighborhoods. Their descriptions are filled with kids and moms. The backgrounds they paint are so different from the way I see where they live. There’s always kids, and something going on. So he’s talking about getting arrested, and how the cop has him up against the car, and how the car feels, the heat of the car. All this stuff going on. Finally he’s in there, handcuffed, and these little kids come up and start going [Imitates sirens.] “Woo! Woo!” [Laughs.] It’s just these details, where it’s so vivid. First draft written in seven minutes, and you could see that everyone in the room was sort of electrified, and there was not one bad story. Because when it’s written from that place, then it really becomes a transferring of an experience. “I had this experience, and I wrote the formula down. Now I’ll read it out loud.” It’s the original wi-fi. [Laughs.] That’s the part I find really encouraging.
It’s the same with elderly people. Like, historical societies in our area, there’ll be people in there who are in their 70s to 90s, very concerned about losing their memory. To show them that this spontaneous memory is completely intact, they can write a story. Like, this one woman wrote a story about a little baby buggy that she just loved, and it went missing, and she didn’t know where it was, and she was really distraught about it, and her mom said “Maybe Santa will bring you one. Christmas is coming.” And sure enough, she comes downstairs, and under the tree is a baby buggy. It’s brown, but fine, she has her buggy back. Then they go over to her grandpa’s for dinner, and come to find out that all of his cabinets are the same color. They were broke, so he stole her baby buggy and painted it. And she talked about how she could never forgive him for painting it brown.
But the real reason she needed her baby buggy [Laughs.] was because, these are all homes that cooked with wood, heated with coal, so you had an ash heap out back, which was also where they’d throw the dead mice from the traps, and she had this real feeling for the dead mice. So she would always go out, and if there was a new dead mouse, she’d take it and put it in her buggy and give it one last ride around. So she couldn’t do her funerals without her buggy. [Laughs.] See! Seven minutes! Seven minutes! And just the way you’re feeling hearing that, when I talk about the biological function of images, that’s what I’m talking about. You hear that story, and you feel better. I don’t know why. There’s something about it, it’s so consistent, that when somebody’s not able to do it, that becomes interesting, too. The people who have the hardest times are the really good writers, because they have their own special way of writing, so trying a new way can be difficult for them.
AVC: Are you interested in doing anything with all these stories? Putting them together in some sort of book or comics project?
LB: You mean with those people’s stories? There’s a part of me that wants to do everything with them. But in a weird way, the success of the stories depends on them not having any other destination, any known destination, anyway. It’s really hard—it’s like watching a shooting star. Someone will tell a story like that one, and it just rockets through. You feel really good, you want to catch it and do something with it, but I’ve really learned to let them go. [Laughs.] There’s a billion of them.
AVC: At times in your recent books, it feels like you’re creating art solely to play with techniques, or for the moment of creating art. Do you go back and look at it as a finished project?
LB: It’s about the moment. Sometimes I go back and look at them. Mostly with horror, but I think that’s common to people who make images. My dear friend, and one of the best artists I know, Chris Ware, thinks his drawing is horrible.
AVC: I don’t think anybody in the world understands how he feels about his art, or why he feels that way.
LB: You know what it is? Younger people will never have this experience, but for a lot of us who had the experience of hearing our voice on tape for the first time, it’s just like “Uhhhh…” I know how he feels. I believe him. I think he’s a fool, but I completely believe him. I just let people feel that way about their work. I don’t hate my work completely. Not completely. But I’m glad it’s in the book, and not in me anymore. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is it going to be odd looking at your oldest art as you send out the material for the Ernie Pook’s collections? Are you going to have to go back and look at them?
LB: See, that’s why it’s better for me to give them to D&Q, because that was part of the problem. Once I started looking at them, I was like “No no no no.” I’m surely not the person to decide on this, so I’m just gonna give them everything, and try to see what they come up with, and try not to look at it.
AVC: That process you described of writing directly into five panels at a time, and seeing what happens—is that how you’ve worked on that comic from the beginning?
LB: Yep, it’s the same technique I learned from Marilyn. All of my work, everything I’ve done, comes from what I learned from her. Even the way I teach. I did learn about this way of writing, a version of it, from her. The coolest thing of all is, every year, I teach this five-day class up at this place called the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. It’s my favorite class, because I get students for five straight days, for six hours a day, and we just work like hell. We live together—it’s a summer camp for adults. Two years ago, I flew Marilyn and her partner, Sally, out to the class. I was teaching her class, they were in there. It was the most amazing experience, because as much as I talk about Marilyn, I didn’t tell them that she was in the classroom. And then in the last hour, I asked them if they wanted to see a magic trick, and they said “Yeah,” and I go over and take the hand of this gray-haired lady, and bring her to the front, and go “This is Marilyn Frasca.” And people went nuts! It was like [Screams.]. I had told her I was going to do that, and she’s shy, not shy but she doesn’t interact that much. And she said “I’ll let them see me, but then I have to disappear.” And I said, okay. So there’s the magic trick: I said “This is Marilyn Frasca. Now I’m going to make her disappear.” And then she went out the door.
AVC: Does she still create art? Does she still teach?
LB: She’s retired from teaching in college, but she still teaches her workshops. A year ago, she came out of retirement to teach one semester at Evergreen, my alma mater, so I went back and taught with her for a week, which was amazing. So I didn’t get the kind of family that was a really loving family, but I sure have loving teachers. After all this time, she and I are still really tight. I don’t want to be friends, because I really like having her as my teacher. [Laugh.] But there is definitely friendship, and we’re colleagues in a way.
AVC: In Picture This, you talk about her refusal to give you feedback on your art. Did that ever change? It sounded like she never wanted to shape you or push you in any particular direction.
LB: Yep. That’s right. She’ll say “It’s terrific!” or “Good.” That’s the only thing I say to my students, too. It’s disorienting at first, but I’ve just seen the power of it over and over again, every time I teach. When people give me their work—“I’d really like you to know what you think about it”—I always tell them, “I’m delighted to look at it, but I can tell you already what I’m going to say to you: ‘Good!’” That’s it, because anything else could throw off your compass. Even if it’s “This part is really good, this is very strong, I loved it when the man goes up the mountain, there’s that witch up there,” that might make you think “Well, then maybe the other part with the chicken isn’t as good.” I have the same policy with my own work, where I tend to not read anything that anybody writes about it. But I like talking to people about it. That’s fun.
AVC: Do people find it frustrating? In a class setting, are they programmed to want constructive criticism and more specifics?
LB: There are a few people in the classes who might feel that way, because they really need to talk about their own work, and they need that social atmosphere. There are people who want to be the stars. But what starts to happen is, the class gets so interested in the stories because the stories are powerful, and funny. That is the really weird part—why are they so funny? Like the mouse story, it’s delightful. So what starts to happen is, people start looking forward to the stories, to the reading part, and kind of getting blown away by them. And I think that takes the place of needing one-on-one criticism or feedback. I always say feedback—if you’ve ever gone to a concert, you know exactly what feedback is. [Makes screeching sound.] [Laughs.] It’s a perfect word. I always tell people, “It’s not anyone else’s business—it’s not even our business what you’ve written.”
AVC: You talked about how you’ve realized your characters are free now—you can draw them bigger, or in different styles, or in color. But in these books, you’re still working in four panels, with a title at the beginning, as if they were stand-alone strips. Do you think you’re going to move away from that style?
LB: I wonder. Four panels is awfully nice. It works like a waltz has a nice three-beat. I just don’t know. I never know ’til I’m actually doing it. It’s like that thing I used to think I could do, which is change my personality just by will alone. So it’s the first day of seventh grade, and it’s like “This time I’m not going to be shy. This year, I’m going to keep a neat locker. This is what I’m going to talk about.” But it never pans out.
AVC: Describing the prison stories, you said the first-person present-tense style brings in an exciting intensity. When you’re reading for fun, is that the kind of thing that you prefer to read? Does that style in and of itself appeal to you?
LB: That’s definitely one of the styles that appeals to me. Like a lot of people who love reading, I’m usually reading several things at once. But there’s a part of me that will read anything. I really learned the hard way, because growing up, we didn't have any books. There were newspapers, and my mom was a janitor at a hospital, which was a job I eventually had as well. So she brought home magazines. I read so much Readers’ Digest when I was a kid.
So when I finally got to college, I had no idea what was worthwhile to read and what wasn’t. I was really trying to get my cues off the smartest kids in class, and what the teachers were doing, and I got this false impression of what was worth reading and what wasn’t. Anything that was literature was worth reading. If someone hands you a book, just close your eyes. If you put your hand on it, and you could feel an embossed cover, you can’t read that book. I had these really crazy ideas, like “Oh, I would never read Stephen King.” Of all people, I was a total literary snob. The thing that changed it was reading, trying to work my way through all of D.H. Lawrence, and there was one story where it was just pages of the character thinking. It was a things where you’re reading it and little tears of boredom are running down your face. Then you say “This time, I will pay attention to that paragraph! I’m gonna read it. You read it six times, and you’re like, “How could it be that I am purposefully trying to pay attention to what this paragraph is, and by the second sentence, I have drifted off?” In the course of that story, someone in the story gets really impatient with him and picks up a glass paperweight and hits him in the head, and I perked right up and I thought “Maybe that’s what’s been missing!” So I started to read—I think it was John le Carré. I think that was the first “shouldn’t read this” kind of book I read in a long time, and I just went nuts, and realized I had been so completely wrong.
I started reading mysteries. I literally will read anything now. I read Danielle Steel, I had a ball reading it. That is a woman with absolutely no hesitation. She’ll write sentences like “I hear you’re dating a Nazi.” “Well I am, but he’s nice!” And she’ll write “A Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi.” And I’m like [Laughs.] “Next!” “He would hate it if his legs were amputated.” So I got free from all that idea of coolness, and what’s worth doing, and what isn’t. That was a very good thing for me. But it was a hard one; I really had to learn the hard way.
AVC: Do you tend to respect that feeling that someone is obviously just writing from the hip than a D.H. Lawrence, where you could feel the sweat and the craft that went into every single word?
LB: [Laughs.] Bless his heart. Bless his little heart. He was making a very difficult sachertorte. And bless her heart, too. I don’t know. I admire balls-out. I also admire no-balls. There’s no real hard-and-fast rule, except for I know I love John le Carré. I love him. And I love to read a lot of books about the brain, and the unconscious. I love documentary, books about stuff that really happened. I just really like to read. And I love tabloids. Oh my God. And I love reality shows too. That’s my little weird tumor. I don’t even know who these people are, and every week, I really need to see what the Kardashians are up to.
There are different websites where you can see what they’re all doing. Like I care? But I do. And the Real Housewives just blow my mind. Oh my God. It’s the new ones from Hollywood, I saw a little bit last night—I just get so excited about their freaky lips. You know they get Botox injections, right? So there’s a theory about empathy, and part of it has to do with being able to mimic the face of the person talking to you, so when they’re concerned, it’s obvious that you’re concerned. So there was some curiosity about whether people getting Botox are less empathetic. So they did a little study, and guess what? They are less empathetic! [Laughs.] It’s weird, if you can’t make the same expression as the person you’re talking with, the worried or concerned expression, in a weird way, the situation doesn’t come all the way in. It’s pretty interesting. It also sounds like a study I would find and say “Find that answer. Everything that leads to that.” I don’t know why I enjoy looking at those people, and just this whole thing where it’s all external. In a little container.
AVC: Your work is so idiosyncratic. Talking about keeping it all external—do you think all the stuff that you read and watch makes it into your work in some way?
LB: I think it all does. It will be an image or something that’s on my mind. In fact, I look for stuff. Recently, I just keep thinking about the sirens that call Odysseus. That’s always such a compelling image, all the other guys have wax in their ears, and he’s tied to the mast, and whatever these chicks are singing, it’s just making him nuts. “Please let me go! What I said before about not letting me go to the sirens, I was just kidding! Please, please, please!” That’s such a compelling image to me. I started thinking recently, did he ever get over that. Did he forget the song? I don’t know exactly how I’m going to answer it, but I was spending some time seeing “Was there any other mention of the sirens in The Odyssey?” And that’s a weird question to have pop into your head. Of all things I could be thinking about right now, why am I wondering if Odysseus was able to shake off the siren song?
AVC: Most of these pages in Picture This seem to be on lined paper, or graph paper, or magazine pages or newspaper. Did any of that cause reproduction problems?
LB: No, and you would think it would, right?
AVC: Especially where you’re using cotton balls or crumpled foil—
LB: No. It turns out you can just lay it on a scanner. There was no problem at all. Even when I paint stuff, and the paper would be kind of wrinkly—I like the way that looks. And one of the inspirations for Picture This, for the format, was this series of magazines that elementary-school teachers subscribe to called “The Grade Teacher.” They came out every week, and I happened into a stack of them from the 1920s to the 1960s, and they have templates to use for your “Easter bulletin board,” and what to do about your problem children. But the two big advertisers were coal, the coal industry, and asbestos. So what’s really wild is to see these pages where it’s just like “Coal is fantastic! Teachers, you can get a free everything that has coal on it for your classroom!” And it has some recipes for taking asbestos and making little jewelry for the kids. And that’s what made me think of having Picture This be sponsored by “Don’t Cigarettes.” I wanted to piggyback on that idea that people know cigarettes will kill you and are bad, and I wanted to have this idea that not drawing will also kill you. [Laughs.] Also, I have a hard time with real art paper. It’s easier to just use trash.
AVC: What’s next for you? Are you still working on your next novel, Birdis?
LB: Birdis for sure, because he’s very loud in my head, and I’m very happy about that.
AVC: Is Birdis the character’s name?
LB: Birdis is one of the characters. The narrator is a girl, but Charles Birdis is one of the main characters. And teaching. I’m still really interested in teaching, and what I’m hoping is that in about a year, I will try teaching a painting class. I still have to watch people. Like I said, in my drawing classes, I usually will set up painting, and if people want to hang out afterward, I give them minimum instruction and I just watch, see what they do, what they like to do. Because there are certain things I can’t figure out at all without students. There’s just no way to figure it out unless I have someone else there. And there’s a position at the University Of Wisconsin that’s an artist-in-residence for one semester that I’m applying for, but I never get anything I apply for. I’m one of those people who never ever gets a grant or a prize or any of that stuff. I’m not counting on it. But I’d like to, because then I can have some students for a while and see what could happen over a period longer than five days.