Geneviève Castree is "Susceptible"

Geneviève Castree is a self-taught Canadian artist and musician who's published a few comics, including a contribution to Drawn and Quarterly's "Showcase #3" in 2005. She came out of zine culture and her new book out from Drawn & Quarterly is "Susceptible." An autobiographical tale of a young woman growing up in Quebec, the book is a collection of the indelible moments of childhood that haunt or inspire long into adulthood. Artistically polished but emotionally raw, "Susceptible" is a heartbreaking book with a perfect ending.

Castree spoke with CBR News just after she returned from the Angouleme Festival in France and before setting off on cross-continent book tour taking her from Los Angeles through the United States and back, with the final date in Seattle.

CBR News: My first question when someone releases their first book is to ask the artist to introduce themself. Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to comics.

Geneviève Castree: I was born in Quebec City, spent most of my childhood in the Montreal area and moved to the West Coast of British Columbia when I was seventeen. That is a good, child-friendly summary of "Susceptible."

What is funny is that this is not my first book. I understand why it is being announced as such (by both of my publishers, Drawn & Quarterly and L'Apocalypse in France), but this didn't feel like something I hadn't done before; it felt like something I hadn't done in a long time, or perhaps something I got much better at doing. I have three other comic books out there and two other books which came with LPs.

I got into comics when I was seven years old. It started with "Tintin." Then I would go to the library and borrow piles of hardcover comic books. "Mafalda" and "le Scrameustache" were my favorites, then I started to get into stuff that was a little more mature, like "Claire Bretecher," "Gotlib" and a Quebec humor magazine called "Croc." By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, I knew I wanted to grow up to be a cartoonist.

What is "Susceptible" and where did this book start for you?

The book is autobiographical, a collection of memories from my childhood. But the more other people read it, the warier I become of the term "autobiography." I tried as hard as I could to stick to the truth, but it seems that as soon as the ink hits the page, the story is compromised, and then as soon as it is read by another person, it is distorted. A book can be read a million different ways by a million different people, so I am glad I changed the names of the people involved. It gives everyone some sort of veil to be safe under. I left a lot of stuff out. Telling all the stories would have had too much destructive power.

I started to work on the book right as I started experiencing what some people call "Saturn return." In between 27 and 30 years of age, Saturn (the planet) returns to the spot it occupied in the sky when you were born. I am not that into astrology, but I do think that there was a shift for me as I was ending my twenties, and I like the expression "Saturn return" a lot.

Goglu is the name of your main character but it's also the name of a bird, which English speakers may know it as the bobolink. It's a bird that's fed by both the mother and father, it's the only member of its genus, has very distinctive markings and it migrates long distances. I kept thinking that the name was very intentional -- was it?

That is absolutely fascinating. I didn't know anything about the child-rearing habits of the bobolink. The name "Goglu" is a nickname I was given by my mother as a child. I used it because it was unusual, and also loving. As dark as the book gets sometimes, there was some love there. Maybe calling me "Goglu" was prophetic in a way.

I know that you sing in French and that it's your first language, so I'm just curious how you think the book reads in English vs. French and what about the French language you enjoy and prefer.

I think the book reads slightly differently in French, because it is the language I am most comfortable writing in, and also because I was able to tell the story with honest Quebec colors and nuances in the language. The book has more of an origin and place in French. In English, it's just "North American."

There's a great line you have in the book describing British Columbia as "a mythical kingdom where dads go to disappear."

As a child and teen, I bonded with so many other kids whose biological father was living "somewhere near Vancouver." I am not sure if it was a generational thing, but it felt like Vancouver was the place you went to when you needed to get away from your duties. I had been there as a four, then a five year-old, and all I could remember was that it was lush and overgrown, had men in t-shirts, old ladies with hats and totem poles.

What has it been like working with the people at D&Q? You came out of zine culture and really doing your own thing and what has the experience been like working with a publisher like D&Q?

Before working with Drawn & Quarterly, I hadn't made a zine in years. I had mostly worked with L'Oie de Cravan, a poetry publisher from Montreal, we did three books together. I had already been to Angoulême and met many of my influences. Chris Oliveros actually approached me back in September 2001 about doing something. This is the part that makes no sense to me: I was approached by my dream publisher that long ago and it took me eleven years to come up with something. I managed to do a story for their "Showcase" series back in 2005. I think I just got lost in smaller projects, in music projects and in depression. 

I guess Drawn & Quarterly is a big publisher, but it doesn't really feel that way.  They are very author-friendly. There were a couple meltdowns I had towards the end which I don't think a "big" publisher would have handled as kindly as Drawn & Quarterly did. When I think "big" publisher, I think of corporations, I think of Rupert Murdoch having some sort of money-tie to the enterprise. I think of stress, pressure, and the possibility of being dropped any minute. 

So far, the experience is that I feel like so many more people want to hear what I have to say. It's nice on the ego, but if you let the ego get stroked too much, sometimes it bites and scratches like a cat.

You're largely self-taught, and I'm just curious how valuable not having a formal education in art or music has been to your work and to the aesthetic you'd developed. I ask, because "Susceptible" is very emotionally raw, but it's also very polished, and that's a very difficult combination to achieve.

I think the importance of formal education comes and goes, and also depends on the person, or depends on what they aim to do with their life. If I had wanted to be a concert pianist, it would have required a lot more supervision. In the case of art studies, I know so many people who have debts to re-pay, years of university, diplomas, who don't even work in art. Most of the people I know who do work in an art-related field are teachers. When the people on the radio talk about folks who didn't go to college, I am like, "Woah. That's me!" I think in my case it came down to knowing what I wanted to do for a living and having the drive to pursue it.

What I have known all along is that cartoonists make no money. They work hard and get very little in return. You have to be OK with it and you have to remember it. Musicians can make money. Crafts people can make money. Maybe one or two cartoonists will make money. But overall, it is a true labor of love. I think cartoonists may not be as poor (financially) as poets, but poets get to do more things on a whim. You can write poems on the beach, you can travel to Tibet. Cartoonists are indoors, translucent-looking and their back hurts.

What's next for you? What are you working on or planning?

When I was working on the book, it was weird and hard, but my life had a nice harmony to it. Drawing is calming. Then, waiting for the book to come out I was pretty depressed, and now I am feeling over-stimulated. I am doing too many things at once. I look forward to sitting down and spending time with the next book. I look forward to finishing another small project which has been sitting on my desk for too long.

I am currently organizing an exhibition for myself and eight other artists in Anacortes, where I live, in Washington state. I am organizing a one-day music festival to celebrate the exhibition. It is feeling really good. I am happy to move away from all the navel-gazing I have done these past three years. I want to serve my community a little better. Making "Susceptible" was very selfish in more than one aspect, and this is not false-modesty. Exorcism made me vulnerable and turned me into a crumbling weirdo. It's like a switch was flipped and I am fun, all of a sudden!

Castree's book tour starts Friday, February 15 at Skylight Books in Los Angeles at 7:30 pm and will take her to Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Brooklyn, Portland and Seattle in the coming weeks.

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