Q&A: Alison Bechdel, Author of Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

A bit of background on me before this interview with the most daring living autobiographical writer I’ve encountered: Among my colleagues, I am known as what my father calls “a hard-ass.” I do not grant many books entree to the deepest recesses of my heart and mind‚ and not because I am one of those reviewers who derives a false sense of power from being exclusionary. Great books, like great music, distill the ethos of the ideal world I’d like to live in, so it’s a very serious business which ones come to inhabit my shelves and watch over me as I sleep.

Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May)‚ the long-awaited follow-up to her New York Times best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home‚ has earned a spot among Lester Bangs, Carson McCullers, Colm Tóibín, and Edith Wharton for its crystalline perspective and obsessive questing for the truth. The best writers, whether they are creating fiction or nonfiction, are trying to find out what makes people human for better and for worse. A taut, complex book within several books, Bechdel’s investigation of her relationship with her mother and the work of pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott offers the most articulate answer you’re likely to ingest. You’ll feel like Alice climbing your way out the jagged rabbit hole to limbo.

Warning: Are You My Mother? will not go down easily with the repressed, feckless, or matricidal (at least in a literal sense), and neither will this Q&A. Though if you are emotion-wary, prone to power tripping, and abhor the bonds of family, you’ll have much to gain from Bechdel’s gifted meta-analysis. Review forthcoming from LJ Graphic Novels columnist Martha Cornog.

HM: Just as you had difficulty pinpointing a beginning for Are You My Mother? I struggled with how to start this interview. Every question seemed to fail to honor the emotional and intellectual investment that you put into creating the book, especially, So, Alison, why write about your other parent after having stripped her pretty bare in Fun Home?

But here goes nothing: I understand why you wrote about your mom‚ because she’s one of the most important people in your life, and you couldn’t overanalyze her. How, then, did you sustain yourself throughout the grueling process of researching, writing, rewriting, and agonizing so soon after likely suffering the same for Fun Home?

AB: I did reveal a lot of intensely intimate things about my mother’s life in Fun Home, but I don’t think I exactly stripped her bare. I think she comes across in that book as an enigma. I tried hard to stay out of her story and keep the focus on my father. Whenever I talk in public about Fun Home, people are always very curious about my mother and want to know more about her. But I didn’t intentionally set out to answer their questions by writing a book about her. Are You My Mother? came out of my own organic desire to understand more about her myself.

It was a long slog, but the research per se wasn’t grueling. I enjoyed that, doing lots of free-range reading and wandering in and out of various rabbit holes. I was both putting off the hard emotional work I needed to do, and building up my strength for it. At a certain point‚ and the book is to some extent about this process‚ I realized that I was avoiding the real story of my mother and me. That’s when I threw everything out and started over.

If you mean literally how did I sustain myself, it was a weird combination of taking good physical care of myself and drinking more than is perhaps strictly advisable. I don’t want to mythologize or glorify the difficulty of writing this book. Writing is just hard.

But this project was harder than the book about my father because I knew my mother would see it. And I knew there were other people waiting for it with certain expectations. No one was waiting for the book about my father, or expecting anything from it‚ I was completely free when I was writing Fun Home. But I had to write this second memoir with a huge boulder strapped to my back.

HM: I have been practicing regular mental hygiene for nearly a decade. I sit on that couch trying to figure myself out just as hard as my shrink. I also delight in understanding the professionals who have dedicated their lives to deciphering human behavior and feeling.

I’d have to say, however, that we’re the minority. Most people I meet discount and distrust therapy/psychotherapy, so for you to use its practitioners and tenants as characters and plot points is brave. Why did you choose your own therapy sessions, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and psychologist Alice Miller, and dream analysis as the primary narrative lenses for investigating your relationship with your mother?

AB: It did feel like a huge risk to write about my therapy, and to drag people into my dreams and journal entries, and then into the books about analysis that I was reading. But so much of the story of me and my mother is about writing, the act of writing and publishing and what it means to be a writer in the world. And without therapy I would not have been able to become a writer. (I say writer out of convenience. Obviously my work includes drawing, and although I do think of myself as a cartoonist, that word somehow doesn’t yet connote participation in the hurly burly of literary life.)

So the theory and practice of therapy felt like a crucial part of this book about writing. Therapy fulfilled some primal need for recognition that I didn’t get from my mother. She was a great parent in very many ways, very capable and obviously a strong artistic role model. But she had a need for me to recognize her that left me unconnected to my own self and my own agency in the world.

I think many people who disdain therapy are afraid of their own agency. They’d rather remain subjected to the things that limit them‚ their compulsions and addictions, the grief they’re staving off, the expectations of their parents and society‚ than face real freedom, real liberation. I also think there are a fair amount of people who are just fine, who got enough provision as children and are just living their lives. But I think they’re in the minority.

People who look down on therapy are obviously not my target audience. But I do have a bit of an evangelizing agenda. I think a world filled with people who have intact egos, who are able to access their emotions freely, who can recognize others as equals rather than subordinates or superiors, would be a radically different world where democracy could actually flourish. I know Are You My Mother? is a very personal, even excruciatingly internal project. But personal liberation and political liberation are kind of coextensive for me.

HM: SPOILER ALERT: I anticipate that some will unfairly criticize Are You My Mother? for leaning on psychotherapy for structure, as if most stories do not replicate others in terms of form. I loved the closing sequence with your playing the crippled child game with your mother‚ it equaled a complicated happy ending; extremely satisfying.

But I chafed at the preceding pages, where you seemed to apply theory too neatly to your life (At last, I have destroyed my mother‚Ķ). Did you really have such a clear-cut revelation? If you hadn’t known the language of therapy, do you think you would’ve settled on the illustration as ending, no more, no less?

AB: I sort of kept working back and forth between my story and the theory. I didn’t want to jam the events of my life into a framework that didn’t fit, but I also didn’t see any point to relating the events of my own life without any broader reference. Winnicott’s idea that the subject must destroy the object and the object must survive that destruction really did help me to understand my relationship with my mother, as well as how therapy works, and it felt like an authentic ending to the book.

The irony of this book is that I’m a person who is more comfortable with ideas than with feelings, but I’m using ideas in order to get at my own feelings, in order to feel. It was like navigating partly with instruments, and partly by the stars, and averaging them out to find the emotional trajectory of the book.

HM: How much of good memoir writing is about restraint? You can’t say everything, after all, owing to plain old space restrictions. But I imagine what you didn’t say strengthened what you did in both your books. How did you decide what to delete or keep to yourself?

AB: There was certain family information I knew I would not reveal. I may seem to flout utterly my mother’s desire for privacy, but I did honor it in some areas. I also knew I wouldn’t write about my own more recent romantic relationships. I would be happy to reveal all the gory details, but I haven’t figured out how to do that without infringing on other peoples’ privacy. In the book, I do examine a relationship I had in my twenties, but that seemed like a safe enough distance, like the gory details are practically in the public domain. None of the parties involved care like we would have at the time it all happened. I wouldn’t even remember most of those events if I hadn’t written them down in my journal.

In terms of the writing process itself, I deleted sheaves and sheaves of material. My process is at first additive, an attempt to say everything I ever thought or said or read or felt, until it’s just a huge chaotic mess. At a certain point I realize that in order to make any sense I have to start subtracting. This is reluctant and tentative at first, but it gets faster and more confident as I go along.

When I’m deep in the drawing phase, it becomes clear that certain passages of the text are redundant, and I just start shedding them like vestigial limbs. It’s very gratifying to see how much more powerful a panel gets by deleting a few words.

HM: One of your gifts is intermingling the child’s point of view with the adult’s. You were constantly toggling between the two growing up, and you have such a singular way of capturing the waxing and waning of innocence. How did you hit on the relationship between Dr. Seuss’s use of the idea of the plexiglass dome and Winnicott’s good enough mother? It made me cry on the A train.

AB: I hit on that connection just like I show it in the book. I was thinking and writing about my childhood offices, and the drawings I’d do in them. I started looking through my old drawings (which I still have) and noticed the keep out theme. That reminded me of Dr. Seuss, so I started looking at my favorite Dr. Seuss book [Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, which turns 50 this year], and my favorite image in that book, and there in the text I found the phrase plexiglass dome, which was the shorthand I used with my first therapist to describe the way my mother was both present and absent at the same time. And then suddenly I saw the Dr. Seuss drawing in a way I hadn’t before.

I’d been reading so much Winnicott and Freud, and seeing the convexity and concavity of everything I looked at, but the Seuss drawing just suddenly revealed itself as a beautifully drawn pregnant uterus.

I don’t really have a conscious strategy for how to do that toggling between my child perspective and my adult perspective‚ actually, there are many more perspectives that that because I’m writing about myself at multiple points in time, and at each point I have a different level of knowledge about myself and the world. It got kind of dizzying trying to keep track of all those iterations of myself and still keep the story relatively coherent.

There’s a scene in the book where my mother gives me written feedback on a short memoir piece I wrote when I was in my early twenties. She gives me my page back all covered with red ink. And one of her critiques is that I combine child’s language with adult perspective, sometimes confusing. So I guess that’s a writing problem that has preoccupied me for a long time and that I’m determined to solve.

HM: I imagine that people often thank you for helping them; I also imagine that you didn’t write your books for other people, but that’s been a lovely consequence of your delving into your own humanity.

AB: I do get thanked a lot, for Fun Home and also for Dykes To Watch Out For. It always makes me feel a little guilty or ambivalent or something, because, yes, I really just do this stuff for myself. It’s a great bonus when other people find solace and/or meaning in it, but that’s not why I do it.

I’ve recently started to see that what I’ve always been doing in my work is trying to create a reflection of myself. With DTWOF, I wanted to see images of women who looked like me and my friends, because I didn’t see myself in the cultural mirror.

In Fun Home, I used the reflection I had created with DTWOF in order to tell this very queer story about me and my father, a story I couldn’t have told in a culture that hadn’t reached a certain stage of acceptance and recognition of LGBT people.

In Are You My Mother? I’m kind of zooming in on the very act of reflection. Why is it so crucial, how does it work? How does it affect the way we become ourselves? Why does false reflection go hand in hand with oppression? How do you undo internalized oppression? The book, as my mom observes near the end, is a metabook, a book that’s about its own creation. It’s also as detailed a self-portrait‚ as detailed a reflection of myself‚ as I can muster.

HM: What was the funniest thing your mom said during the writing of Are You My Mother? I won’t ask for the most harrowing.

AB: I think I already mined all her funniest lines and used them in the book. She did say something hilarious on the phone yesterday that I wish I’d been able to use. She was describing an arduous walk she had to make with her rolling suitcase: I was like Mother Courage dragging that damn wagon.

HM: Do you read other graphic memoirs, for inspiration or just out of morbid curiosity? For some reason, I can’t envision you cuddling up with Craig Thompson’s Blankets. But tell the librarians who are dying to know what you’re reading and loving right now, pretty please, be it fiction, nonfiction, or cereal box.

AB: I actually liked Blankets a lot and admire Thompson’s fluidity, both of line and storytelling, if you can separate them, which you can’t. I have his new book Habibi in my queue, but haven’t read it yet. I kind of have an inhibition about reading Chris Ware because he’s so brilliant. I can look at his work, and I often do. But reading it is too threatening.

I love Aline and Robert Crumb’s collaborative autobiographical work. Their stuff is some of my most unalloyed reading pleasure because of the beautiful drawing and the rigorous confession. I was very absorbed by Chester Brown’s Paying For It, his memoir about how he solves the problem of romantic love by deciding to stop having relationships and get his sexual needs met with prostitutes. It’s a weird mix of deeply confessional and deeply elusive, I haven’t quite figured it out.

I love Gabrielle Bell’s autobiographical comics. She has a diary comic online called Lucky. I love diary comics, where people write about their lives as they’re unfolding. James Kochalka’s American Elf is another great diary comic that I follow religiously.

HM: Out of sheer coincidence, I read Fun Home for the first time just two weeks before getting the galley of Are You My Mother? Reading them so closely together gave me a palpable sense of your creative drive.

The words mystical and obsessive come to mind, and I wonder if you’ve been able to Create and Live (eat, maintain relationships, etc.) the way your mother did while she raised you.

AB: Let’s just say it’s a good thing I don’t have children. My work fills up a huge chunk of my time. Again, I don’t want to get all self-mythologizing about how hard my lot is, but the thing about cartooning is, you’re working at least two jobs, and sometimes three. I’m writing a book, drawing a book, and also designing it. I do a lot of the production-related tasks. I have some help with that, but I’m down there in the page layout trenches. For the last nine months of this project, all I did was work, eat, and sleep. My girlfriend Holly did everything else, which was an amazing gift.

My process is 99.97 percent a grimly obsessive-compulsive activity, but there are a few shimmering mystical moments.

HM: A dorky one-off: your favorite place to go in New York City, and why?

AB: The Astor Place barber shop. It’s the only place on earth I can get a decent haircut. I feel deeply serene there with a complete stranger running clippers up and down my neck.

HM: In Are You My Mother? you state that, I am not actually interested in writing fiction. I can’t make things up. Or rather, I can only make things up about things that have already happened.

This is your To the Lighthouse, though, in the way that you intercut so many people’s biographies‚ from Winnicott’s to Virginia Woolf’s. Your voracious synthesis of seemingly disparate sources is a clear sign that you’re a novelist. Is it so strange to conclude that the idea of making up more of what you already know will lead you to write a straightforward novel?

AB: One of my preoccupations in the book is trying to find the delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and kind of concluding that there isn’t one.

I feel really committed to doing the same kind of imaginative and structured work with the actual facts of my life that fiction writers do with invented material. I derive as much pleasure as anyone from being immersed in a great novel, but I’m always somewhat distracted by wondering how much of the material the author has experienced firsthand, and if so, what mechanisms are they using to disguise it.

I want to give people a good story and not leave them wondering about all that stuff. I don’t know. Maybe other people don’t care about whether things really happened. But I care a lot, and I’m not exactly sure why.

Telling a true story that’s also an interesting story, and is also a bigger story than just my own personal experience is a challenge I still feel excited about and want to keep working at.

That being said, I have wondered if maybe Are You My Mother? has perhaps been a way to clear a path for myself to try something fictional. Like maybe I not only got my mother out of my system in writing it, I got myself out of my system. I’m not there yet, and don’t know if I ever will be. But I’m starting to sense that fiction is possible in a way that I haven’t before.

Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.