In January 2007, cartoonist Lucy Knisley helped her mother celebrate her 50th birthday with a six-week trip to France. Armed with a sketchpad and pen, Knisley documented her trip in a series of illustrated journal entries, now collected by Touchstone Books as "French Milk." The title refers to the fresh whole milk in France, quite different from America's processed milk.
In an interview with CBR News, Knisley reflected on the trip and what she learned from French culture and art. The book also delves deeply into food, no surprise as Knisley grew up the child of restaurateurs.
CBR: When you were preparing for the trip with your mother, did you plan to collect the journal as a book, or was it more a personal record?
Lucy Knisley: Originally I didn’t intend to publish the journal beyond scanning a few pages to share with online readers. When I came home, though, I had this massively thick notebook full of what I began to recognize as something significant to me that might strike a note of recognition in others.
How did the trip affect your art in the long-term?
I think that a trip to Paris can pretty intensely inspire a lot of artists. The process of recalling and recording my experiences there made it a lot more vivid for me; I became more aware of the importance of working continuously and attempting to retain a constant output in order to maintain a somewhat accurate account of my trip, and include all the wonderful things I ate and saw and experienced. It’s overwhelming, but really rewarding.
Can you compare the inspiration from the artwork you saw to just the general experience of day-to-day life in Paris?
It’s hard to differentiate, of course. Paris is such an intensely beautiful city that so much of my time there was spent taking in the gorgeousness. Even the miserable, freezing January days in Paris were gloomily picturesque. And the art is everywhere. As much as I loved the paintings and sculptures adorning the famous Parisian museums, it was just as great to spot an amazing piece of street art, graffiti or a gorgeous foreign bande dessinee in a little stumbled-upon comic shop. I think it’s easy to look at the paintings of Courbet and Monet and think, “Oh God, why should I bother?” whereas the day-to-day discoveries of beauty give you more of a desire to be a part of the grand art-making machine of humanity.
Looking back, what are the memories most important to you from the trip?
One of the absolute best parts of the trip was sharing my experiences with my mother. All the tectonic plates of our lives were shifting and diverging -- with my college graduation and imminent adulthood, and her growing independence from motherhood as she turned 50 -- it was a really vital time for us to have an experience that really showed us both how we could be bonded outside of our former roles as child and parent. And, of course, we both recall nearly every meal with a glimmering tear of fond remembrance.
Have you been back to Paris? If so, does the experience feel different now?
Last spring, my mom took a cooking class in Paris, and I tagged along yet again. This time, we were only there for a week, and my experiences of Paris in January [in "French Milk"] were vastly different from my experiences of Paris in April. The shortened trip brought out the need to savor the trip, and cut out all the time I’d spent previously on morose over-thought. The familiarity of the city really surprised me -- it was like going home again. I think my experience writing "French Milk" bonded me to the city, and made my memories of the feeling of Paris that much more vivid.
Beyond just seeing a recounting of your trip, what do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope that in reading through my observations and thoughts as I teetered on the brink of adulthood and clung to the sweetness of immaturity, readers can draw their own slow conclusions about travel, growing up and the relationships between mothers and daughters, as I came to my own slow realizations over the course of the trip. I also hope the book inspires readers to eat lots of nice meals.
What are you working on now?
There are a few things on my plate at the moment, but I’m mostly concentrating on a collection of short comic stories about my childhood, growing up underfoot in restaurant kitchens. In many ways, it’s a natural progression for me, as it retains the intense focus on food, mothers and daughters, and personal growth that’s present in "French Milk."