Alison Bechdel follows up Fun Home, the hugely successful graphic memoir about her father, with a poignant exploration of the relationship she has with her mother
Well-loved for Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF), one of the longest-running queer comic strips of all time, Alison Bechdel has since turned her deft hand to non-fiction, with stellar results. She scored a best-seller in 2006 with her first graphic memoir Fun Home, a family saga that revolved around her closeted father who ran a funeral home. Her latest, Are You My Mother?, revisits the author’s early life, looking at events from her mother’s point of view.
Here she discusses the connections among comics, LGBT stories and Toronto readers.
What made you choose the Toronto Comic Arts Festival to launch your book?
I’ve had really wonderful connections with audiences in Toronto. In 2000, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore got me in to do a presentation about DTWOF and I have never had such an amazing audience. Until I came back to Toronto with Fun Home! I think people in Canada and especially in Toronto have a respect for cartoonists that doesn’t exactly happen in the US.
Why do you think that is?
Because Canada is cooler!
Graphic novels do seem to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance. What’s driving it?
My cynical answer would be because people have become more verbally illiterate and more visually literate. My serious answer would be that this is an amazingly capacious medium that can do remarkable things and we’re only just learning its potential. For a long time it was just superhero comics, and these were a very effective storytelling technique but it was the tip of the iceberg in terms of what comics could do. The more people experiment, the more work that gets done and the wider the range of creators… the more the medium just keeps unspooling and opening up.
Is it a medium that’s particularly well-suited to gay and lesbian stories?
Part of why I did DTWOF was because I didn’t see images of people like myself in the world. Creating the comic strip felt like a natural thing to do: to create a visual image rather than a written story. I feel like there’s something about comics that’s particularly suited to autobiography. In that sense it’s been important for gay and lesbian stories to get out in the world.
Was it hard switching from the fictional world of DTWOF to writing about your own life?
For some of the time I was writing the memoir I was also doing the comic strip. I’d spend half my month writing two episodes of the comic strip and for the rest of the month I’d go back into the memoir. And that was a way of slowly switching gears, because ultimately I stopped doing the comic strip. It wasn’t hard. Even before I did Fun Home I had done a few small autobiographical comics. I did some for the comic book Gay Comics, and I realized I really loved writing about myself and that I would love to do that in a deeper way, so that’s the direction I moved in.
What inspired the new book?
The book about my father was a really big important story from my life and I didn’t have any more stories like that. So I conceived of a book that would be about my romantic relationships and about the problem of other people in a philosophical sense. But several years in, I showed my agent a draft of that book and she said, “This really doesn’t make any sense.” And I had to agree. I realized at that point that I was elaborately writing around a story that I did want to tell, which was the story of me and my mother. I didn’t intend to follow the book about my father with a book about my mother. It just sort of organically happened.
How have your family reacted to seeing themselves in print?
My mother’s reaction is basically in the book. She’s said, “It’s coherent, it has clear themes,” and that’s about the extent of her judgment on the book. I think she’s happy about it; when it got some good pre-publication reviews she was excited, but she doesn’t really want to talk about the content of the book. She’s very clear that this is my version of reality and it has nothing to do with her.
So you’ve covered your dad and your mum… who’s next?
I do feel like I’m not done with memoir and I’m not done with my family. I need to sit down and talk with them all about that! I’m just really excited about memoir in a way that I’m not about the fictional world of DTWOF. It just seems like where I need to be right now.
ARE YOU MY MOTHER? Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.