We spoke to author and illustrator Alison Bechdel, who after her wildly popular sessions at the New Zealand Festival’s Writers Week in Wellington, will be speaking at the Freemans Bay Community Centre, Auckland on Sunday March 16 at 7pm.
We loved Alison Bechdel’s long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which among other things featured the highs and lows of independent bookselling via the social hub of a feminist bookshop Madwimmin Books. Bechdel’s 2006 autobiographical and revealing graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was a critical and commercial success and has since been adapted for Broadway. While Fun Home dealt with her relationship with her father, a closeted bisexual, her most recent book Are You My Mother? looks at her mother.
UNITY BOOKS: I remember once hearing a writing tutor say that when it comes to writing about your family, you need to approach it was if they are dead, otherwise you’ll self-censor yourself and hold back in fear of offending them. How did you approach writing about your family?
ALISON BECHDEL: (Laughs) That is the best writing advice I have ever heard! My father had conveniently already died when I wrote Fun Home so that made it a much easier book to write than Are you My Mother?
I tried to be honest and to explore her strengths and weaknesses but I think I did still hold back. It’s hard! Especially when you’re writing about someone as close as a parent. And while I know I did hurt her, I could have said more!
In Are you My Mother? there is a moment where you talk about how when you’d be talking to her over the phone, you’d be transcribing what she was saying. And you say, “I don’t think she knows I’m doing it, which makes it a bit unethical.” What was her response?
Well, I tried to be as ethical as I could. I showed her everything. She did request a few changes but she had her own process going on, which was to disassociate herself from this. She was aware that this was my story and she didn’t have any investment in it. She really didn’t care.
It’s remarkable she had that kind of detachment. I think I became the writer that she was not able to become. She understood the life of a writer. She was a writer herself, just not published.
I’m interested in memoir being your medium of choice. It’s quite gutsy to not just tart this up as fiction. I love how you say in Fun Home, “I can’t make things up or rather, I can only make things up about things that have already happened.” So, how much is embellished?
More and more there is very little difference between fiction and memoir. They both come from the same place. Maybe memoir is more sociopathic! (laughs). Maybe fiction is more ethical.
I think you recording everything translates really well in the finished works. What strikes me is the immense detail you fit in. How good is your memory? I mean, how much of this is straight memory and how much is fictionalised and how do you balance this?
I feel like I have a very good memory, although, getting older, I can read a journal entry from 30 years ago and I will have no memory of it! But, I have a pretty good memory. I also have this amazing thing called the Internet, which allows me to do visual research. I can look up the street that I grew up on.
In terms of craft, your story development and illustrations are very refined and relate really well. Do both aspects come naturally to you or do you enjoy one more than the other?
I find the writing more difficult and painful. It’s the hard work. Writing is rewarding and drawing is pleasurable.
What sort of impact does your writing have on your relationships with your family, in particular, your mother? What about your siblings?
Well, it has been a process with everyone and it’s constantly changing. When I told them I was writing Fun Home, they said “Well, OK. Why would you want to bother doing that?” Dykes to Watch Out For had a small audience. My family never saw that work. But with Fun Home, the more exposure and attention it got, the more exposure and attention my family got.
Fun Home was recently adapted to a Broadway musical. Who would have thought a memoir about a lesbian growing up with a closeted bisexual dad in a funeral home would make a musical?! What was it like for you, seeing your story and life activated in a context like that?
It was a whole other layer. My mother died last year and I feel… relieved she didn’t see the musical. If she wasn’t dead already, it might have killed her! But I’m glad she saw the book.
You know, I’m still trying too figure it out. I think I’m still in a state of shock. It could have been a horrible experience but it’s a very beautiful and amazingly composed work. It really transcends itself. It just works and I feel incredibly lucky.
I did get my brothers to come with me. They liked it, they were really moved. Actually, my brother almost got kicked out of the theatre because he stood up to take photos in the middle of it.
I read that you were thinking about perhaps moving away from dysfunctional families and looking at functional ones. What about romantic relationships? Is there any interest in there for you?
That is a really difficult area to get into. In fact, Dykes to Watch Out For started as a book about romantic relationships. I would love to do that but I just can’t expose these people. I’m thinking more about privacy. Whenever I write about someone real, I show them what I’ve written.
What are you working on next?
Yeah, I just started work on a new book. I’m trying to take a break from family stories and I’m writing a lighter, more fun book about exercise. It’s a cultural history of fitness culture but also a memoir of my experience of this.
I think it will be nice to get out of my head and into my body!
Alison Bechdel will be in conversation with Carole Beu from the Women’s Bookshop, at the Freemans Bay Community Centre, Auckland on Sunday March 16 at 7pm. Tickets for this event are $25, and available from our friends at the Women’s Bookshop in Ponsonby, Auckland.
Alison Bechdel’s books are available to purchase from our online shop HERE