Interview: Alison Bechdel on queerness, fame and therapy

Mission Creek Presents: Alison Bechdel

The Englert Theatre — Tue., Apr. 5 at 7:30 p.m.

When Alison Bechdel began Dykes to Watch Out For in 1983, it was with a single sketch in a letter to a friend labeled “Dykes to Watch Out For, Plate No. 27.” The “27” was fanciful — there were no other panels, yet — and even as Bechdel’s syndicated strip developed an increasingly devoted following over the next 25 years, an interviewer in 2007 still called the comics hard to find.

By then, the dwindling of the indie publishing landscape had propelled Bechdel to write Fun Home (2006), a memoir that was surprisingly successful for a cartoon that uses literary classics to elucidate the connection between a daughter’s sexuality and her father’s death. Like the memoir that followed, Are You My Mother? (2012), it’s a book that rewards multiple readings with its richly layered personal and intellectual inquiry. Bechdel was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2014.

Over the phone, she spoke about changes in her career and in her sense of self with characteristic candor, intellect and warmth.

Little Village: For a long time, you were writing and drawing for the counterculture, but the MacArthur and the new Broadway play based on Fun Home place your work squarely in the mainstream. What has that shift been like?

It has been very unmooring, and I feel like I’m still sloshing around in its wake, trying to figure it out. I can’t help but mistrust it a little bit. I’m very happy about it in many ways, obviously — it feels like a validation of what I’ve been doing all my life. To get recognized by more than 10 people is pretty awesome. But having spent so much of my career on the margins, fighting to get in, it’s very weird to find myself on the other side of that door. Perhaps some of it is just getting older, starting to learn that things really change as time goes on.

Even the subculture portrayed in Dykes to Watch Out For has become more mainstream.

That’s what I mean — change happens and accumulates and all of a sudden the world is a different place. I’m still trying to adjust to that. So much of my identity was formed as an outsider, it’s hard to know quite what to do with myself as an insider.

I’m working on a story now that I keep trying to convince myself anyone could read. And that wasn’t the case when I was writing Fun Home or Are You My Mother? Those are very personal, weird stories, and FH just by some strange fluke did manage to capture a big audience. I don’t really trust that I can do that at will. But I’ve always wanted to be able to write about my own life and have that be something anyone could relate to. The memoir I’m writing now, it’s an exercise memoir, about fitness. Which is something lots and lots of people do: They work out, they have a relationship to their body. And it’s still odd for me to feel like I can have that kind of rapport. But why not?

I feel like I’m always unintentionally dumbing down what I write, and I’m challenging myself as a cartoonist to not do that. My art does give me a depth and complexity that I wouldn’t have with just prose. Maybe it’s my subject matter — drawing people riding bikes. It’s hard to turn that into a complex intellectual experience. But maybe that’s part of the point, maybe I just need a rest from all this, maybe I just need to go for a bike ride.

Is this new project in some way a rest from the intellectual exercise of AYMM?

Yes. Although I wonder if I’m ruining the only untainted part of my life. Exercise is the place where my mind does shut up, you know? So do I really want to drag my mind into that place and contaminate it? I don’t know.

Has your approach to writing about other people changed since the publication of FH and AYMM?

I do feel much more skittish about it. When I was younger, when I was writing the book about my dad, I felt like the territory was mine. Even though I was revealing stuff about my father’s life and incidentally about my mother’s most intimate life, I felt like I had some legitimate ownership of that material too, having been brought up in that household. But over the years I’ve seen the repercussions of that, not just to the people in my family but to myself, to have given away my own intimate experience. I don’t regret doing it, I’m glad I did — I had to do it — but there was some privacy loss. I didn’t think I believed in privacy. But as I get older, I guess I can see where there’s perhaps something to be said for at least a shred of privacy.

How does that loss make itself felt?

Maybe this is also just an aspect of getting older, but I feel like I’ve kind of lost part of my personality, part of the thing that makes me whatever rich, strange, particular person I am. It’s like it’s off of my hard drive now. Because I put it out into the world, it’s not a part of me anymore. But maybe that’s what happens as you become less self-conscious — all that neurotic baggage starts to dissipate. And that too is part of the way I always defined myself. Without that, I’m a little adrift.

Your MacArthur Award gave a lot of legitimacy to cartooning but also to memoir, which your mother considered “a suspect genre.”

It’s hard for me to ever eradicate my mother’s voice inside my head saying those things. But I’ve always identified with being an underdog as a cartoonist, trying to be respected in the world; as a lesbian, trying to get respect in the world; but I haven’t really felt the marginalization of being a memoirist. By the time I embraced memoir, it seemed like that was a pretty cool thing to do. And that people had already worked out their reservations about it. But maybe not.

I do think cartoonists still get a pass, or a kind of latitude, that a prose writer doesn’t. I’m not sure why, except that cartooning is still a new exciting thing.

How central is queerness to your thinking about yourself as an artist?

It fits in with everything we’ve been talking about. My sexuality hasn’t changed, but I feel much less queer than I used to feel. I know there are still huge struggles going on — look at these bills people are trying to pass to keep trans people out of bathrooms, or to allow cake makers to refuse to make cakes for gay people. So I don’t want to suggest that everything’s fine now and I’m not queer. I know I would be in a lot of trouble in a lot of places in this country and the world, just being who I am. But what a great thing, to get to not feel queer, to get to that experience in one’s historic period.

When I was a young person coming out it was like I just signed up for this crazy marginal life. I thought that’s what it would be. I knew it was a much better deal than people a generation or two before me, but I still had no expectation that things would change this fast or this much. So if I sound a little bewildered, it’s because I am.

Has your understanding of the stories you told in FH and AYMM? changed since the books’ publication?

Definitely. And that’s odd, because I find myself having to do a lot of publicity around the play, and I have to talk about the book as if it’s still somehow current. But it’s not. I’ve gotten so much additional information, I’ve had so many further thoughts about my family. I know that story is missing a lot of things, I know that it’s wrong in some ways. It’s based on the best information I had at the time, but now that story is different. But it’s not like I have any compulsion to write an updated version. This one is just out there, and now has this additional life as a play. So it’s been interesting trying to navigate my relationship to it as I get older and it doesn’t.

Do you feel affection toward those projects, as artifacts of your past?

I certainly feel affectionate toward FH. I feel much more ambivalent about the book about my mother. It’s such a strange book. I put so much work into it, and I don’t have anything like the sense of resolution or relief that I felt after writing about my dad. There’s an interesting review that came out by Heather Love [in Public Books], suggesting that FH is very much an Oedipal story — it’s about combating the father, slaying the father — but AYMM? was about that place before language, this pre-Oedipal zone in our lives, and that is necessarily a much murkier place. I like to think that, yeah, I was trying to do something that was necessarily not a tight, tidy narrative. But I still feel a little bit like that book just didn’t work. That’s not a pleasant feeling, but it’s a feeling that is motivating.

I wonder if in some sense AYMM? is a truer book because it doesn’t allow itself to have that satisfying narrative arc.

I like that interpretation too.

Did the process differ between books?

No. It was very similar, and, in fact, because FH seemed to go so well, I let myself keep doing what I was doing, keep indulging my discursive whims and letting stuff take me wherever I wanted it to go, trusting that people would go along. But I think it got a little out of hand, I think I needed to rein things in a bit. That’s always my problem. I can’t tell you what it is I’m trying to say until I’ve found a way to say it, and that usually entails huge amounts of digression and confusion. I wish I could just make an outline.

Seeing the therapeutic relationship drawn out in AYMM? was so enlightening. I’m curious how you understand that relationship between writing and therapy.

Therapy has been so useful to me, and very much in connection with my writing. For me, when I’m writing these stories, I’m trying to get to my feelings. It’s very hard for me to know what I’m feeling, to really be in touch with my feelings, and therapy is my remedial method of doing that. If you’re writing, you have to understand your emotions.

The longer I’m in therapy, the more complicated it seems to get. Like, I always think I’ve ripped up the last layer of linoleum but then there’s another layer. Sometimes I feel like I should just stop and see what happens. Maybe I’ll feel more relieved if I’m not always excavating the kitchen floor. But I don’t know, I don’t think that’s really true either.

Helen Rubinstein lives in Mount Vernon and her unfaithful imitation of Are You My Mother? can be found in the Beyond Category issue of the Seneca Review. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 195.

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