Talking food with 'Relish' creator Lucy Knisley

Lucy Knisley's Relish: My Life in the Kitchen has been one of the most talked about graphic novels of the year since its debut in April at the MoCCA Arts Festival. That's not too surprising, as the emotional pull of food and the way it intermingles with family and other relationships often makes for compelling reading. In Relish, Knisley has put together a series of short stories about her foodie parents and her own experiences in and out of the kitchen and accompanied them with some favorite recipes, all illustrated in her loose, colorful style.

For a while it seemed like everyone in the world was interviewing Knisley, and as someone who enjoys a good food story, I didn't want to be left out.

Brigid Alverson: Obviously food is very important to your family, but why did you think it was a good theme for a memoir?

Lucy Knisley: Sense memory is a great connection to our past! I grew up with a family that cares a lot about food, and learned from them how to care about food. I have so many wonderful memories associated with foods, it makes perfect sense to tell these stories centered around the food I love.

In the prose world, food writing has become its own genre. Do you have any favorite food writers?

Lately I love David Lebovitz's food writing — he has a great (and hilarious) voice, and writes quite a bit about Paris (which I love) and chocolate (ditto).

Your first book French Milk came out five years ago. What have you been doing between now and then?

I've been working on Relish (it takes a while to make graphic novels) and working simultaneously as a freelance illustrator. I also like to travel and make travelogue comics, so I've done a few of those.

How was the experience of making this second book different from the first?

With travelogues, like French Milk, it's all very immediate. You work quickly and intensely, and come away with a book at the end of a fairly short period of time. With Relish, it was very different, because it was scripted and planned out, and I took my time to make it finished and pretty, working with my publisher to get the book ready.

As a former editor, I'm always interested in this question: How did working with an editor change the book (if at all)?

Yes! My editor was very helpful. The process involved a lot of back and forth about the chapters, and it was great to have an excellent sounding board in my editor who was able to lend her advice to the book.

A couple of times I have read your webcomics and thought "How did she know?" You seem to hit a resonant chord with a lot of your readers. How do you get your ideas, and what is your work process? How do you go from a thought to a finished comic?

I take my time and try to focus on thoughts that are true in way I hadn't before been able to articulate. It often takes a while, which is why I don't usually have fixed deadlines on the comic. Instead, I allow the ideas to come at their own pace. I usually talk through the topic with friends to clarify the content in my own mind, and then write it out and translate it into comic form.

How do your family and friends who appear in this book feel about being characters in a graphic novel, and how did you broach the subject with them to begin with?

I'm lucky that I have a very supportive family, who loves my work and enjoys appearing in my comics. My parents helped me with the stories, and were pleased with their depictions. Fortunately, this book doesn't have a lot of embarrassing parts to it (at least for them!) so they were happy to be a part!

What was the hardest part of making this graphic novel?

It's hard not to share work as I make it, as someone who is used to posting work online pretty immediately. I love the instant feedback of working online, so it was tough keeping the pages of Relish to myself for 3 years. But it was worth it, to share it now!

And what part of the process did you like best?

Getting the finished copies of the book in the mail, and getting to open those boxes and hold the book in my hands! Unfortunately, I live in a 5th floor walkup, so that feeling of joy was shortly followed by a feeling of exhaustion from having to lug a huge box of books all the way upstairs!

Your drawings are very detailed, which is one of the things I really enjoy about the book. Were you working from memory or did you have a lot of photos from those times?

I was working from memory. I have a pretty good visual memory, though, so it was a fun project for me, to delve into those memories and try to dredge up the details.

You wrote a lovely comic about leaving Chicago. Where do you live now, and what are your current favorite hangouts and foods?

I moved to New York, to be closer to my family. My dad and I go out to eat pretty much every week. We like trying new spots around the city together. Right now I'm very fond of Mas La Grillade, a wood-fired restaurant in my neighborhood that makes delicious food and also makes the whole neighborhood smell like woodsmoke!

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