So many of your stories—as you pointed out at that speaking event—are about people whose dreams have gone unrealized, or who are maybe creative but not necessarily talented, or who just never went after what they wanted, and now it’s too late, and they carry with them a sadness about it. From where I stand, as an admirer of your work/a person who has seen only positive reviews of your last book (and all of your books) in prestigious publications, I would say you have found success in a creative field. What part of you consistently writes the story of someone who hasn’t?
I feel extraordinarily lucky for any so-called success I’ve enjoyed, and I’m deeply grateful for every single kind word and generous sentiment I’ve received. It’s a far cry from what I experienced as a kid, and not what I ever expected my adult life would bring, though I’m sure whatever counts as drive within me was forged in that crucible of self-doubt and fear-of-being-jumped-in-the-hallway I endured in my early adolescence. Beyond that, I believe that everyone has within them some urge to create something—whether it’s a story, a picture, a song, or a child—but for one reason or another many of us simply aren’t lucky enough to be able to. [That drive] comes of trying to understand and to feel and to empathize; it’s the reason we have language and, in turn, art.
But to answer your question more directly: I went to art school, and while I did intend to write and draw comics, I also thought maybe I could be a more traditional fine artist—a painter or a sculptor or whatever. I didn’t, and while in most ways I’m grateful for the directness and artistic freedom comics provides, sometimes I still feel as if I “gave up” on something.
Normally your books are quite carefully put together, and reading them can be like solving a maze—the order and arrangement of the panels is very purposeful and important. Your new book, Building Stories, is a box of books and pamphlets and broadsides and the like, but you’ve set no guidelines for where to start or finish. Why?
I wanted to make a book that had no beginning or end, and, despite the incredible pretentiousness of how that sounds, to try and get at the three-dimensionality of memories and stories—how we’re able to tell them starting at this or that point depending on the circumstance, and to take them apart and put them back together, whether to actually try and make sense of our lives or simply to tell reassuring lies to ourselves. I also wanted to make a book that seemed fun to read, and the idea of a box of nonthreatening booklets has always appealed to me. Also, I had a dream about exactly such an object.
There’s a quotation from Picasso on the inside cover of Building Stories: “Everything you can imagine is real.” You said at Unity Temple that you can remember stories your grandmother told you and how they looked in your head more vividly than some events that actually occurred in your own life. There’s that part in one of the booklets where one of the characters dreams that she finds an amazing book she wrote, and even though it only ever existed in her subconscious, it confirmed for her that she had that potential in her. I’d never considered giving so much validity to a reality that’s so personal and in-your-head and fictionalized, and I found it very comforting. So, how did you figure that out on your own—that something that exists only in your mind could have a valid enough reality to be a comfort?
Well, really, our memories are all we have, and even those we think of as “real” are made up. Art can condense experience into something greater than reality, and it can also give us permission to do or think certain things that otherwise we’ve avoided or felt ashamed of. The imagination is where reality lives; it’s the instant lie of backwash from the prow of that boat that we think of as cutting the present moment, everything following it becoming less and less “factual” but no less real than what we think of as having actually occurred.
Do you ever dream about any of your characters?
I do. Some of them have come to me fully formed, very vividly, in the same way that I can only really feel the presence of people who have died in my dreams. Sometimes I think [dreams are] how we sort through all of the day’s new data and file it as ideas within the story-like structure of how we imagine and remember our lives.
Do you ever dream in the style of your drawings?
No—the way I draw is intended to be completely transparent, though maybe I’m the only person who sees it that way. I consider my drawing, for better or worse, to be a way of showing things translucently, the way typography is transparent on a page—intended to be read, but not really completely seen.
What would you like to tell the young, impressionable minds reading Rookie?
Well, that life is a lot more serious and shorter than it seems like it will be. And that you can easily waste it. And that happiness is overrated. Be kind. This said—and I can’t talk about the rest of the world—but I’d say that you’re a member of the first generation of modern Americans whom I consider genuine, ready-made citizens. And by that I mean America has essentially exited its protracted national adolescence (approximately the 1920s through the 1980s, with the 1960s being the apex and the baby-boomer presidencies of Clinton and Bush as the hangover) and as a nation we’re at something of a deciding moment of anxious self-awareness, both as to where we’ve been drawing our resources, and from what and how we’ve been weaving our moral fabric.
I’m not blowing smoke here, but I’m overall quite impressed by the seriousness, intelligence, and maturity of the generation half my age, both on the larger scale of considering social issues without the giddy recklessness of the 1960s all the way down to the way I’ve seen children and teens treat each other one-on-one. My wife is a high school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and she regularly comes home with stories of kindness and empathy on the part of her students that I find absolutely unfamiliar to my own teen experience, which was marred by self-preservation, meanness and insobriety. There appears to be a certain clearheadedness and sense-of-place-in-the-worldedness with “the youth today” that wasn’t prevalent when I was a kid or a teen. I think there’s a sense of direness or a certain kind of embarrassment if not plain disgust at the foolish reluctance my generation and my parents’ generation might have enjoyed which you all seem to have refreshingly no time for at all, while also seeming to know how to have a fine time yet to know the relative value of fun versus what makes life important. In short, I think you’re doing great, and I’m impressed, if not a little envious. ♦