Books + Comics

It’s Your Story: An Interview With Ellen Forney

We talk to the author of Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me.

I want our readers to know about your connection to this place, Seattle, specifically, because you’re really tied to this community. Do you think you can be shaped geographically as an artist? And how much has Seattle shaped your artistic experience? Is place important to where you do your work?

I came here twice—once was in 1989, when I came here and I worked on a psychiatric unit right after college, where I was a psych major. I’m from Philly, but I didn’t really want to stay on the East Coast. I had never been here before. I loved Seattle, but I really didn’t connect with working on the psych unit, so I had my early midlife crisis and moved to Taiwan to live with my brother. Around that time, I decided that I actually wanted to be an artist. After Taiwan, I moved to Philly where my dad was still living, worked for a little while, then I moved back to Seattle. And one of the reasons that I moved back here is that in reading a lot more comics, and finding out more about who lives where, I saw that there were a lot of cartoonists in Seattle. So this was an artistically appropriate place to be, kind of a cartoonists’ mecca in the early ’90s. I think the Northwest in general is pretty comics-friendly and fertile for cartoonists. But I really connect with Seattle. It seems like a very broad thing, but I really love the geography. I love living in a city, I love all the water, I love the smell of the ocean from downtown. I’m a lifelong swimmer, and in the summer I can drive seven minutes and be in Lake Washington, swimming around and looking at Mount Rainier! Every now and then I’m like, God, I live in a beautiful place.

I’ve had so many moments like that here. There’s not as much struggle here as I’ve had when I lived in other cities, and I think that supports doing better work. You can be a whole person here.

I always think of it in terms of East Coast and West Coast, because I grew up on the East Coast, but I think that raw generalization about the East Coast just being a little more driving and the West Coast being a little softer—there’s a lot of truth to that. I really enjoy the sense of openness and flexibility here.

The last thing I want to talk about is a quote from the first three pages of Marbles. After getting a tattoo and walking out into the [winter] cold, and you say, “This is an elegant nod of approval from the universe.” And it resonated with me because I think we all look for those moments. I’m wondering if you still get those, if you still get those little nudges and nods from the universe that what you’re doing is good and right.

Well, sure. I mean, I think that hopefully that experience is a normal one where, you know, the stars line up. I think that the difference for me, in that scene, or in mania in general, is that it’s just how exponential that feeling is. And so I don’t have that, because I don’t get manic anymore, but that was part of the euphoric part of mania—that sense of such BROAD connection. That sense of connection is really my experience of mania. So, I guess the answer is yes and no.

Because so much of the struggle in the book is “Will I still be creative on meds?” I feel like scenes like this are part of the worry. Like, will I still have these connections, these ways to check in with the world unexpectedly or creatively or in ways that open my eyes and make me feel, without the mania.

Right—OK, so here will be my analogy. [Laughs] You know how it is when you first totally fall in love with somebody, and you’re just like still crushing, like HEAD over heels, like, Awwwww! Like, I can’t even believe this experience would be happening! Right? And then let’s say that relationship extends into years. And then, ideally, four years down the line, you have this sense of deep love. And it’s still an extremely strong sense, and you can say that it’s even stronger because your feet are on the ground, and you can say, “I have this great thing.” It’s like that. ♦


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  • shelley October 3rd, 2013 4:39 PM

    wow what an amazing interview! will be checking this book out for sure

  • giov October 3rd, 2013 5:38 PM

    this is crazy good timing: I was basically crying over my current life situation (hint: mood disorder) when I found this AND I’m writing my dissertation on autobiographical comics. Possibly about female authors and mental health? Thanks Rookie!

  • riseagainstyourfate October 3rd, 2013 6:24 PM

    Thank you so much for posting this<3
    I currently have this book on order and I can't wait to read it. As someone who has been living with bipolar for many years now, who has spent a few months in psych wards, I really appreciate pieces of art like this. They help me feel less alone in a world where I often feel alienated.

  • elliecp October 4th, 2013 4:44 AM

    This is fantastic! Such an awesome lady to target such difficult subject matter…really brave and I can’t wait to check out the book!

  • mariasnow October 4th, 2013 8:34 AM

    I really want this book now. I was diagnosed with BPD six years ago and all the people in my life said it had to be a misdiagnosis, that I was really fine just a little sensitive and dramatic because of my artistic temperament. All friends, all family, everyone discouraged me from proceeding with treatment but I knew that something was very wrong and that I didn’t want to feel how I always felt anymore. So I got treatment, I got better and everyone said, “ok yeah, maybe there was something wrong before because…well I can tell you’re better.” I started art classes and finished every project and got an A on nearly everything. I could not have done that before treatment. I had been a very hit-and-miss student before treatment.

    I’m all for the explosion of this myth that you have to sacrifice yourself and your sanity to a treatable illness in order to make something great.

    • starsinyourheart October 4th, 2013 11:34 AM

      this is exactly what happened to me! my mother is an actress and artist, and i’m an actress too. she’s very highly strung, as a part of her personality. so when i started to go ‘off the rails’ i felt completely unsupported when she just suggested i was a sensitive artistic type. because just being ‘sensitive’ doesn’t drive you to harm yourself so severely as i was doing, in any way possible. i was so miserable and honestly looking back, probably a few weeks off killing myself (by accident or not) and i was only 16. she actively encouraged me NOT to take medication, which upset me so much because normally she’s so understanding.

      going against what she said was the best thing that ever happened to me, as i found a medication that pretty much saved my life. i got into therapy and worked out that i did actually have bipolar disorder and i didn’t have to live like that. it shocks me that anybody can suggest there’s ‘nothing wrong’ when you know yourself better than they do., even if they mean the best.

      • mariasnow October 4th, 2013 5:48 PM

        good for you! it can be really really hard (especially if you have bpd, i don’t know about other illnesses) to validate your own feelings. i had not a single person who said even , “well, it’s worth a shot.” i hope the people close to you got a sense of your recovery and were at least supportive of that. i don’t know what stage of recovery you are at (and i also think things just go dormant and you have to be aware of your issues for the rest of your life) but being told you don’t need treatment anymore because you’re on track is awesome and a few years ago i went back because i was really stressed out and the doctor said i was stressed out because i was under a lot of stress and was actually coping admirably and had no reason to think i was having any kind of relapse. that was even better. i hope you get there if you aren’t already.

        i’m sorry you were so close to the edge of the cliff. i find it’s always scarier when you’ve moved back and you’re safe and have a good sense of what would have been lost.

        now you get to live your life at an advantage. you know fairly well what you’re working with, that’s a gift. <3 <3 best wishes.

  • rahima October 5th, 2013 8:06 AM

    i just finished reading this book! it was totally worth reading. i learned a lot from it and really helped with my personal life.

  • bridge the smidge October 6th, 2013 1:49 AM

    I read this graphic novel last year while going through a particularly rough time. This book was really helpful and shed a humorous light on issues that often aren’t very funny at all. 100% recommend to anyone everywhere ever.