I was 14 when my friend mailed me a 1997 issue of Adrian Tomine’s comic, Optic Nerve, passed down from her own teen years. By then, Tomine was already illustrating covers for The New Yorker, but sitting up at night to absorb his black-and-white depictions of social anxiety and insomnia, I was convinced he lived in some vacuum where his sole purpose in life was to cure my eighth grade loneliness. Thankfully, he had actually written a lot of books for me to discover, and so, loneliness cured!!! *Pounds gavel.* His most recent, Killing and Dying, includes six stories about people being either too honest or dancing around what they mean. Adrian and I sat at his kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York, for the duration of a school day, to discuss it. When I finally shut off my recorder, he apologized for preferring a longer interview: “I just think it’s better when you can have a real conversation.”
TAVI GEVINSON: I’ve noticed that you’re often asked how much of your books is autobiographical, and I don’t think the point is to judge your character, but to understand the process. How much stuff that’s happened to you ends up on the page?
ADRIAN TOMINE: I think at this point, what makes it into the book are these two extremes of my real experience. There are the middle, day-to-day, bland, physical activities that I went through, or the exact experiences that I had—some tiny little throwaway things that I know only my wife will get. Like if the gardener character [in the book] talks about how sleeping on the couch is good for his sciatica or something like, [it’s because] I’ve had this weird, like, pain thing that’s been going on, so I threw that in there because I knew my wife would think it was funny. So some of it is like that: completely meaningless stuff from my real life. But on the other end, [there are] philosophical or psychological things that are more nebulous—like my anxieties somehow are turned into the cartoons.
This book was an attempt to do pure fiction. I hated doing the promotion for my book Shortcomings. It was really awful, because it really invited the most intrusive questions about how autobiographical it is, and it touched on delicate things like race and sex, and it was really hard for me to face Q&As about that. So I was like, “With this book I’m just gonna invent characters that have nothing to do with me and stories that are outside of my own experience.” And now that the book is done, and I’m going back and looking at it for the first time since finishing it, and I’m like, Oh, that was when I was really freaked out because [my daughter] Nora had just started doing tap dance and she was going to do a recital and I didn’t know if she was any good at it or not, or something like that. The more psychological stuff works its way in quite a bit, I think.
With this book in particular, I was trying to really enjoy the freedom of not working on a graphic novel. Shortcomings took me way longer than it should have. I was really locked into a specific way of drawing and writing, and to the same characters and everything, and so when it was done I was like, “I’m going to do short stories, and I’m going to approach each story in a different way and not feel obligated to be consistent throughout the book.” That even extended to the way the stories originated. I would consciously say, “Oh, I have vague idea for a story, but it’s coming from a totally different place from that last one, so that’s probably a good sign, [I’ll] focus on that.” When I was a kid, for a brief time I lived in Fresno, California, and I remember hearing about a sting operation where they had offered free tickets to a sports event to these kind of deadbeat dads. That had always stuck in the back of my mind. So something reminded me of that, and I built the “Go Owls” story [in Killing and Dying] around that. And then, yeah, it was just like a weird anecdote or a scene that I tried to build around. I guess some of them come from a more emotional starting point, like the [title] story “Killing and Dying” was really me just trying to invent these fake characters and situations, and they would somehow touch upon a whole bunch of the stuff I was feeling as a husband and a father at that period. I don’t think it ever really fully captures all of it, but I was just trying to nod to it all, and maybe in people who’ve had similar situations, it would trigger something in their brain a little bit.
I find the obsession with accuracy interesting, because that’s not really why I read or watch anything, even if it is in memoir form. Like I just listened to an interview with Mary Karr, and she said she sends people [who she wrote about] her pages to make sure what happened was accurate, which I guess is very fair, like maybe I’m just a bad person and I don’t care about people, but I’m like, “That’s not the point! We’re already away from the real events of what happened.”
Yeah, you’re not reading a news account, you’re reading a person’s view of what happened. Something has happened in our culture where people who listen to music and read books and watch movies, [it’s like] their greatest fantasy would be to have the creator strapped to a chair, and they get to say, “What about this? Did that really happen to you? And this lyric, who’s that about? Tell me the name of this real person.” Just until they’ve exhausted the person’s whole catalog. Even, like, very respectable journalists in interviews, I can sense that they’re kind of just plowing through a bunch of bullshit questions, hoping to say, “Is this song about so-and-so?”
You said in one interview that a lot of the stories in Killing and Dying were written in your head, while you’re waiting for the subway or falling asleep, a long time before you actually started putting them down. I become frustrated with that impulse of mine. Are you able to turn it off? Is there a more optimistic spin I could have on it? Are you equally cynical?
I like it! I enjoy it. I’m really unhappy right now ’cause I’m in full promotion mode, and I’m not actively working on anything. I’ve actually found—this shows how troubled I am—I’ll find myself getting in the elevator or getting into bed, and usually I can begin a thought with, like, “How am I gonna fix that story, let’s see…” But if there’s not a story to obsess over, I’m literally up thinking about, “Did I write a stupid caption on that Instagram photo?” Really ridiculous things! Like I’ve had half-dreams of like, hashtags floating around, and I’m like, “NO!”
That’s a good point! I am a really obsessive person, and I can be super negative and gross, so then I can try to transfer that obsessive energy over to an idea that’s actually interesting!
I think most humans have a better capacity to multitask with their brain than they give themselves credit for, and I think it’s just so tempting to pull out your phone and just get lost in that, as opposed to thinking about something you’re working on. At the playground, when I’m actually working, I can keep my eye on my daughter and at the same time be like, “Why did that one line of dialogue that I wrote this morning seem so stupid?” And I sort of turn it over in my head and try out different things. It’s not even that I need to pull out a pad and write—it’s sort of stored there, and then I go home and eventually, when I have a minute to sit down at the desk, I can jot down what I was thinking about.
A lot of your stories bring me both comfort and sadness, and then I put them back on the shelf. But you live in them and work on them for a really long time. Do you ever reach a point where you’re like, “God! Why did I write about an abusive boyfriend? This is upsetting to work on every day.”
It doesn’t bleed over. Like, I can be working on a very dark story and, in a way, it’s refreshing to then be able to stand up from that and walk away and go push my daughter on the swings and just be in a good mood. Sometimes I’ve thought about, like, what if for some reason I was forced into a situation where I had to write and draw like, some mainstream kids’ comic? I feel like I’d become a much darker and more depressed person in my real life, ’cause I’d be forced to draw these happy Smurfs or something like that!
I feel like it’s very clear to me where writing or acting become cathartic, [like] you enter “the zone,” but there’s so much planning in cartooning. Does that still happen for you?
I think only in the drawing phase. Maybe I’ve just been at it longer, and that area comes a little more easily to me, whereas I think the writing, and even just designing the book, is like this horribly sweat-drenched, hand-wringing process. I feel like I’m always, especially with this book, getting into stuff that could be very sentimental, like family stuff. It’s my version of a tight-rope walk, where at any minute I could just totally fuck this up and humiliate myself. And it’s really stressful and it becomes almost, um, kind of obsessive, where I’m trying out different options of how to tell the story. And once that’s all settled, and I kind of have it clear in my mind what I’m doing, there can be the occasional day where I’m just drawing, or just doing lettering, where I can actually enjoy some music that I’m listening to. To me the big goal—it’s not even a goal but just a nice thing that happens every once in awhile—is, like, when I was a kid, I would sit down with my crayons and my paper or whatever, and then I would look out the window and suddenly it’d be nighttime. That feeling of moving at a different pace than you expect. And every once in awhile, that’ll still happen to me, where I’ll look at the clock and be totally shocked at how much time has gone by. When that happens, it feels like a really nice reminder of why I started doing this. The idea of having a childhood hobby, something that you loved for the purest of reasons, turn into a business and turn into a career, and have other people dependent on it in certain ways—it’s been more on my mind than ever. That became a conscious goal for me: when I close that door to my studio, to just shut that all out and try, in some way, to reconnect with the teenage version of me that was doing this stuff because he enjoyed it.