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10 Questions with Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel is the author of the popular comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. Started in 1983, it portrays the lives of and issues affecting gay women with humor, honesty and compassion. Her graphic nove Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95) is a reflective, intimate memoir of Bechdel’s troubled yet loving relationship with her father, as well as her own realization of sexual identity. Virginia Harabin and Susan Skirboll asked the author about her life and her art. Bechdel appeared at Politics and Prose on Monday, October 2, 2006 at 7 p.m.
Virginia Harabin & Susan Skirboll ask Alison Bechdel 10 QuestionsVirginia Harabin: While the young narrator of Fun Home finds herself resorting to signs and symbols to represent what she is leaving out of her diary, the adult narrator is able to give voice to all of those silences. It’s an intriguing situation in which memories are preserved in spite of their falsification in the written record. Did the diary serve as a placeholder for the story you could not yet articulate?
Alison Bechdel: I guess so. I certainly would not have remembered the details so clearly later if I hadn’t written it down in the skeletal fashion I did at age thirteen.
VH: The scene in which Bruce becomes so obsessed with correcting his young daughter’s coloring that he creates “a crayonic tour de force” is wonderfully poignant. How did you protect your desire to draw from the competitive atmosphere in which you grew up? How did you begin to draw cartoons?
AB: The chapter of the book that contains that scene is about creativity, and one of the things I explore in it is the way I came to stake off my own creative turf apart from my parents. I had to find a mode of expression that wouldn’t directly compete with them. And they cut a pretty wide swath—they were both poetry fiends, and great readers. My mom was an actress and played the piano. My dad was this kind of design genius, obsessed with color. I feel like in a way I became a cartoonist by default. It was black and white, it wasn’t literary. It was a way of flying under their aesthetic radar.
VH: Fun Home contains scenes in which Bruce is physically violent with his kids. They are powerful, shocking moments. Nonetheless, the reader comes to share the narrator’s complex feelings for him. We’re shown, through the experience of reading, how to forgive him. That’s an extraordinary generosity on your part as an artist – to allow us to share the perspective of his victims, but also that of an adult who has worked to understand him. The book ends on a note of deep appreciation. Is your book a reckoning with the anxiety of your father’s influence?
AB: Ha! I like that. Yes, absolutely. In a lot of ways the book is about becoming an artist, because of and in spite of my father’s simultaneously encouraging and inhibiting influence.
VH: Some of the images in Fun Home are unforgettable because of the masterful use of light and dark. How do you study light in order to achieve its emotional effects in your drawings?
AB: Um….I’m glad you think this, but I don’t feel like I’m particularly skilled in the way I use light in my drawings. There are a couple panels I can think of where I did something dramatic, like the one where my dad shows my brothers and me the dead boy. But I wish I were more facile with light.
The shading technique I used did help to create more emotional resonance than if I had stuck to crosshatching, like I do in my comic strip. I worked with ink wash, which enabled me to get a lot of subtle tones and gradations.
Susan Skirboll: Fun Home is drawn in shades of blue and black and white. It gives the book a dream-like quality or even the feel of an old black and white movie. I wonder: is this what you intended? Did the lack of color reflect your ambivalence about your father and allow you the emotional distance you needed to tell your story?
AB: At first I didn’t want to use any color at all, because of the fact that my father was so controlling about it, like in that crayon scene. I wanted to show that I could achieve a very rich effect using only black and white and gray. But then I had to admit, I could get an even richer effect with color. So I decided not to let my father control that too, and went ahead and used that bluish-grayish-green.
VH: In a work of art such as this, the artist is very powerfully in charge. You control the images, the story, you chose which details to include and exclude, you write the captions, and you shape the narrative. This seems like the prefect form for a highly meticulous sensibility. Is this your ideal medium?
AB: Yeah. I’m as big a control freak as my dad any day of the week. And the beauty of cartooning is the fact that you never have to collaborate with anyone. I’m the writer, the director, the actors, the set designer, the costumer, the animal wrangler, the key grip—all me, all the time.VH: You have spent years creating characters and shaping experience into narrative, often narrative with a punch line. Do you constantly look for potential stories? Do you ever stop?
AB: No. I narrate my own life ceaselessly. It’s a kind of disorder. Actually, disorder is a funny word. I’m always trying to wrest order from chaos. That’s what narrative is for me.
VH: As your characters have matured, their problems have become weightier. We’ve been through breakups, beloved pet loss, loss of the independent bookstore, parental illness and death, cancer, and troubled kids. Your work has become even more sharply political in response to the war, the occupation of Iraq, and the current fearful and repressive climate. Are there any subjects you won’t touch, or do you find a way to put everything into the story?
AB: I once thought I’d never have the primary couple in my strip, Clarice and Toni, break up. I considered them like Rob and Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Rob and Laura would never divorce, and neither would Clarice and Toni. But that was a long time ago. I feel like the model for my comic strip has changed, modulated over the years into more Desperate Housewives than Dick Van Dyke. And I am indeed in the process of breaking Clarice and Toni up.
VH: In the strip, your characters constantly debate, fight, experience stasis and frustration, and often hurt each other. But the representations are never mean. Your work is satirical, and you make fun of corporate idiocy, but you don’t mock your own characters. Even the annoying know-it-all Christian is allowed to develop into a complicated character. Do you have principles that guide how you chose to represent people?
AB: My only principle is to try and be kind. Like Kurt Vonnegut says.
SS: It takes a lot of courage to be as honest as you are in Fun Home. I wonder if that kind of honesty isn’t sometimes a double-edged sword: simultaneously liberating and frightening. How do you feel about putting yourself out there so intimately and honestly?
AB: I feel like I have a kind of intimacy impairment. I don’t know what compels me to reveal such personal information to the world at large. But I find it strangely easier than one-on-one intimacy.I won’t disavow that it took a kind of courage to write Fun Home, but it didn’t hurt that I have this intimacy trouble, this kind of detachment. It wasn’t as brave of me to write this book as it would have been for someone who had very close family ties and a more normal sense of loyalty to their family. That’s the thing about growing up in an emotionally detached household. You grow up to be detached yourself. I learned my aesthetic distance from my parents.