With the publication of “Fun Home” in 2006, Alison Bechdel went from being the cartoonist behind the long-running comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For” — and a pop culture icon for crafting what has become known as “the Bechdel test” — to one of the most acclaimed cartoonists of her generation. “Fun Home” received an Eisner Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was named Time Magazine’s Book of the Year. Since then, Bechdel ended her comic strip after a quarter of a century, assembled “The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For,” contributed to “State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America” and edited last year’s volume of “Best American Comics.”
2012 has been a significant one for Bechdel. She was named a Mellon Fellow and has been co-teaching a class at the University of Chicago with comics scholar Hillary Chute and last month she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Nonfiction, only the fourth cartoonist to receive such an honor. Her new book, “Are You My Mother?” has just been released and she spoke with CBR News from her book tour.
CBR News: First of all, congratulations on the new book and on being named a Guggenheim Fellow. It’s also nice that you didn’t receive this honor as a cartoonist or as an LGBT writer. You received it as a nonfiction writer.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah, I love that. I am doing all of those things, of course, but it’s so amazing to not be pigeon holed in any sense.
I read “Are You My Mother?” a few times and it struck me that the book is like a therapy session in the way that it draws threads between memories and dreams and tries to explain events.
The technique, I eventually realized as I was muddling through it, was associative; like a therapy session. It took me a while to allow myself to follow the string of my own ideas where it needed to go. At the same time, I’m also offering myself up to the reader as someone for them to analyze. I was literally putting myself in their hands in the book and giving them my psychic material. I’m putting the reader in the position of an analyst, I think.
In that sense it’s very different from “Fun Home” where you were trying to understand your father. This is about how you’re still in the midst of understanding your mother and your relationship with her.
Also, I learned from writing “Fun Home” that a conclusive wrapping up of your own life really isn’t possible. [Laughs] I thought that’s what I was doing. I was trying to do that, but in the end I realized it’s a process that never ends. I think in the book about my mother I was just more aware of the open-endedness of my quest. That it wasn’t really possible to come to any kind of finite conclusion about anything.
Your mother is also still alive. You have a line in the book about how the mother must be “dismantled.”
Yes. It was much more complicated. I love what Winicott says about how the father can be murdered, the mother must be dismantled, because murdering is a lot easier to do.
As you’re creating this book, she’s commenting on it and she’s very critical. Not in the sense that she’s dismissive of you or your work, but she just thinks very critically.
And it’s how she thinks about herself. It’s always hard for me when she makes these comments about other writers or cartoonists or other people achieving things because I can’t help but take it personally, that I’m coming up short. I don’t think she really means it in that way. Well, on some level she does, but she’s genuinely very engaged with the literary and arts worlds. She’s just very up on everything.
One revealing moment is where she says that she could have been Helen Vendler, the great poetry scholar, and based on how you present her, it’s not idle boasting, she has those analytical skills.
It’s not arrogant, idle boasting at all. I feel like my image of my mother kept shifting through the book. I kept seeing all the different pursuits that she, for whatever reason, wasn’t able to live out. Her acting career. Her desire to write. But I think she really missed out on being an academic. I think that was really her true calling.
I think that the most heartbreaking scene in the book is when she’s struggling to breastfeed you and she’s told by the doctor that she’s not a good cow. That after giving so many of her own dreams and ambitions, she’s being told that she’s not a good mother.
That is heartbreaking. I’m sure that was upsetting at the time, but I think my mother is pretty confident in the knowledge that she is a good mother. Although, I don’t know why I’m saying that. I’m just making that assumption. That’s not something that I explored in the book. There are huge gaps of things that I didn’t get near in the book.
To what degree do you like your mother?
I genuinely enjoy my mother’s company. I like my mother very much. [Laughs] Of course I love my mother, but I really do like her. She’s entertaining, she’s wonderful to talk to, she’s always interesting. I think that’s unusual. I don’t know many people — and I don’t have any friends, I think — who have that. It’s not exactly closeness, because we’re not really emotionally intimate, but we’re very close in other ways. Like I can talk to her about writing. How many people can do that with their mom?
Has your relationship changed over the course of creating these two books?
I feel like it has. I feel like it’s forced me to open up more to her and engage more with her and that makes her do likewise. There’s more mutuality in our connection now.
It’s interesting that she and your father encouraged you to keep a diary, which is something that is so often seen as the province of girls.
I know! Isn’t that funny. I wish that I had addressed that explicitly in the book, but I didn’t of course. My therapist talks about the idea that both my parents encouraged me to keep a diary and my therapist’s idea was they wanted me to be the repository for all these unexpressed emotions that were flying around. That keeping a diary was a way of doing that, all very subconscious.
It’s interesting that your mother helped you write in your diary as a child and she’s pretty helpful as you’re creating these books, but she doesn’t think much of memoir.
I know. [Laughs] It’s sort of ironic. Something very powerful happened for me in that period when she was taking dictation like that. That was when I got some crucial attention from her. It’s one of the seeds of my turning into a writer, but also it has this ironic twist. Although my mother wants me to be a writer, she doesn’t like the idea that I write memoir, that I’m writing nonfiction. She wants me to be a fiction writer.
It’s not necessarily because she doesn’t want the family’s dirty laundry aired, she really just doesn’t think much of memoir.
Well, that’s a part of it. It is very much that she doesn’t want me to air the family’s dirty laundry.
There’s a quotation I wanted to get your reaction to because of your own thoughts about mothers and keeping a diary in the book. Terry Tempest Williams wrote in her recent book about how in Mormon culture, “women are expected to do two things: keep a journal and bear children. Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and future.”
Wow. That is so powerful. I just want to say something about my own mother and her diaries. She has told me, do not look at these. [Laughs] She has destroyed some of them herself and plans to destroy the rest of them, so I’m forbidden to look at her diaries. I need to think more about diary writing as a feminine work and why that is, but I like her connection to child rearing. That makes a lot of sense. Someone’s got to keep track.
Early in your book, you make the connection thinking about how old you were and what your mother was doing at that age and thinking about connections between creativity and conception.
I was actually going to a do a comparative timeline of each of our lives as the endpapers to the book. I would show what we were each doing at different points in time, but it seemed just too overwhelming. Instead I went with the much more emotional image of the watercolor pages of my mother and me as children at the same age.
Your mother gave you the tools and encouragement to be a writer, but you’ve created the type of work that she doesn’t necessarily like.
I think I found this very clever way to do what she wanted and avoid direct competition with her. [Laughs]
You mentioned that both your parents were born too early and weren’t able to take advantage of the opportunities that the feminist movement and the gay rights movement accorded you.
I feel very conscious of that. I feel like both books were attempts to sort of play that out and think about their circumstances and their lives and why they made the decisions they did. Whether they were decisions or not. How much of my mother’s life was just being dutiful, doing the things she was expected to do.
I wonder if part of your being so conscious of this is because if your parents did what they wanted and what made them happy, you wouldn’t be here.
[Laughs] Yes there’s always that reductio ad absurdum. I wouldn’t exist if my father was able to come out and my mother was able to marry someone who would have been a better partner, a better husband, a better father. Either I wouldn’t exist or I would be someone else who probably wouldn’t be writing memoirs. [Laughs]
You mentioned the endpapers. How do they relate to the images on the front and back covers of the book?
This ended up being a little cryptic. I was at one point going to have a more direct explanation of those, but it dropped away as I was finishing the book. There are two photographs of my mother and me at very much the same age. When I first saw the one of my mom I thought it was of me because it looked just so much like me. I realized that my grandmother had very likely taken both pictures and they were both taken at her house in the same place. I find that very fascinating. One of the great things comics can do is collapse time and space and here were these almost identical images in the same place forty or thirty years apart. I liked the way that those images linked my mother and me.
Why did you chose to set off the dream sequences in the book with black gutters?
I needed some way to set the dreams off. I struggled with that for a while. First I was just going to use wavy panel outlines, but that seemed weird. At some point I just hit on the idea of black and doing a bleed. That was an exciting moment because I feel like it just made me take control of the physical book in a new way. In “Fun Home” there’s only one page that bleeds. Here I was able to think a little more about the book and about bleeds and spreads. There’s more spreads in this book. Some of them are problematic. When we go back to press I’m hoping we can fix some of the gutter issues.
You use a digital font for the lettering, but there are longer passages of text throughout. Did you use a different font for them or did you hand letter those?
Those are all hand lettered. It’s sort of ironic. My own narration and the dialogue are all digital, but I do have these extended quotations from other books mostly from Winnicott but also from Virginia Woolf. Those are all hand lettered, very painstakingly. I’m not sure why I did that, but didn’t bother to hand letter my own writing. It’s so much easier doing my own writing digitally because it enables me to edit up to the last minute and have a lot more control over it than I would if I were hand-lettering. I have mixed feelings about it, but obviously I decided to go with a digital font.
In that sense, are the text passages more like art in some way?
I like treating text as images. I feel like one thing I was trying to do in those quotations was get the reader to really enter into the passage through my eyes or through my hands through my lettering which is more intimate and inviting. I think it’s important to set it off in some way.
I know that you’re teaching a class at the University of Chicago this semester.
I’m co-teaching a class called Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography with Hillary Chute, the comics scholar. It’s really intense. It’s a funny class because it’s combination of theory and practice. We’re reading comics, reading theories of autobiography, and we’re making mini-comics. It’s a really hard class. I can barely keep up as the teacher. I’m glad I’m not taking it.
How did that happen? I know that you were one of the subjects of Hillary Chute’s book, “Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics.”
Hillary and I had just become friends and someone at the University of Chicago told her about this fellowship opportunity opening up. It’s a Mellon Fellowship for Arts Scholarship and Practice. They pair an artist with a scholar or a practitioner and a theorist from any number of fields and we applied and we got it.
According to your Guggenheim application, you’re working on a third book which will be “an inquiry into the nature of family itself.”
Did I say that? [Laughs] Yes, that’s my plan, but honestly I am so burned out after finishing the book about my mom and being on this tour and teaching a class, I am daunted about embarking on this next book. I’m thinking I might even do some interim project that’s shorter and lighter. Something still autobiographical but just more everyday than plunging into the abyss of family.
“Are You My Mother?” is on sale now.