SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: Good evening. Welcome to the event which is not full frontal feminism. And if you're here for frontal feminism, which is upstairs, I think you should stay.
I'm welcoming you on behalf of a collaborative group. This performance-- this reading, this extraordinary event that we're about to see-- is provided by the anonymous funding of two anonymous Cornell alumni. It is co-sponsored by the Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay Studies program, by the gender and sexuality reading group, and by the department and program where all studies originate-- English.
AUDIENCE: Woo hoo.
SPEAKER 2: And creative writing. I'd like to thank especially Alice Hansen, who among many other things, is the associate chair of English and helped put this whole event together, and Molly Hite, the chair of English, who will be introducing Alison Bechdel. Molly Hite is one of the original feminists, not just in our program, not just in our university, but I think really in the country. In 2002 she won the Florence Howe award that's given by the women's caucus of the MLA. She's a legendary classroom teacher and has won the Russell Distinguished Teaching Award.
She's a feminist scholar whose worked on women's narratives and a wide variety of women writers and who also has worked on Thomas Pynchon. And she's a scholar who's also a novelist and who's published two novels. I can't think of anyone more appropriate to introduce a multi-talented woman than Molly Hite. Thank you.
MOLLY HITE: Looks like we're in Alison Bechtel country. Right?
I knew it. Alison Bechdel is one of my great culture heroes and she's a lot younger than I am, too. That happens.
First of all, I wanted to say we're honored to have tonight Nancy Bereano, who was the first publisher--
MOLLY HITE: --a long time friend of us in Ithaca and in the Cornell community, who was Alison's original publisher of the Dykes to Watch Out For books by the way. A huge assortment-- are they all there, though?
MOLLY HITE: They're not all there. You should buy them all-- and has had this long, long association with Alison Bechdel. I met Alison for the first time tonight. That's very weird to me, because I feel like I've known her for years and years. I feel like I've been living in her community for a long time-- even decades.
And I think a number of people also feel that way-- that somehow they've been living with Mo and Sydney and Ginger and all that extraordinary group of people that creates that very long and important sustained strip that sustains many, many of us. It's also-- I should mention to those of you who don't know the strip-- one of the very few-- I would say two-- genuinely political and genuinely funny strips. And I mean that.
And I would add that we never talk about universals in English. But I want to say that Mo is a universal character. She's an absolute point of identification and that my husband identifies with Mo totally.
MOLLY HITE: Little bit of genitalia but otherwise not a problem.
Now what's very, very strange and wrong is that Dykes to Watch Out For is not syndicated in an Ithaca paper. I don't know why, and I think we might do something about it. But I will say for those of you who want to follow it, it's been online for some time at Planet Out Com and also now on Alison Bechdel's own website, where she also blogs and discusses events like this one. So we can all go see what she sees of us eventually.
Alison Bechdel's career, however, took a momentous turn about two years ago. And the occasion was the publication of her graphic memoir, Fun Home, which is also there. I thought I was going to bring my copy, which I forgot. I left it in my office.
But it's interesting because it has all these little slips of paper in it. The reason it does is because I teach it. And it's an extraordinary major, major, major work of art. It is a memoir. I teach it in experimental fiction classes where it goes over amazingly well.
What happened with Fun Home is that Bechdel went from being a passionate object of interest to several thousand people to being a passionate object of interest to millions and millions of people. This book was an absolute phenomenon. First of all, it was a first for graphic books in that it was named one of the 10 best books of the year from The New York Times and the best book of the year. I'm talking book-- fiction, nonfiction, poetry, self-help-- the best book of the year by Salon and Time magazine. OK?
It was a momentous piece of work. Before that happened, I didn't caught on to it. I didn't realize this was happening until The New York Times did the review. And I thought, oh goodness.
I happened to be at a conference in Seattle which has a very vibrant independent bookstore culture. And I went to 12 or so bookstores trying to find the damned thing. And it was gone. It was sold-- it wasn't on Amazon, either. It was completely sold out for about two months. It just took off.
But I would go into these bookstores, and I'd say, I'm looking for Fun Home. And whoever I was talking to would say, oh, that's a really good book. So you know-- I think I own five copies now. I give it to everybody all the time.
It's a drop dead brilliant book. I'm now giving you my review. It's extraordinarily literary. That's one of the things that struck a lot of people.
I work in 20th century literature. And it's allusive. It's playful. It's structurally very, very, very, very complex.
There is also an amazing way in which the strip is laid out and a number of different styles of drawing that go into this particular memoir. But finally it is a wrenching, powerful, true-- mostly true, right? We were talking about if memoir could ever be totally true. I don't think it can-- but an extraordinary story about Bechdel's father. I'll let you talk about that.
ALISON BECHDEL: Hi. Thank you, Molly. Man.
Thank you. Thank you so much. This is really amazing.
I'm very happy to be here at Cornell. I'm very happy to be here in Ithaca. I have a very special attachment to Ithaca because of Nancy Bereano and Firebrand Books, as you all seem to know. I don't think I would be here-- standing here tonight-- if it weren't for Nancy, who discovered me when I was 25.
AUDIENCE: We can't hear you.
ALISON BECHDEL: Oh. Is this is not working? Hang on.
SPEAKER 3: Little green light.
ALISON BECHDEL: How's this? Can you hear that? Can you hear that? Can you hear that?
SPEAKER 3: That's a microphone, too, sticking up.
ALISON BECHDEL: That's really far away.
Can you hear me if I talk like this?
AUDIENCE: Yes. No. It's better.
ALISON BECHDEL: I can't seem to really get it much closer. Can we turn this up somehow?
It's dead? It's working. It's just--
AUDIENCE: That one is.
ALISON BECHDEL: This one is?
SPEAKER 3: If you yell into that.
ALISON BECHDEL: All right. Let's just dispense with this altogether. All right.
As I was saying, I wouldn't be here tonight, hunched over this microphone, if it weren't for Nancy Bereano. She saw my comic strips I was publishing in Woman News, a feminist paper in New York City, in 1985. She wrote me a fan letter. I didn't know what to do with it. I'd never received a fan letter before.
And eventually she asked me if I wanted to do a book with her. She'd started up this publishing company, Firebrand. And I said, hell, yeah. And she published my Dykes to Watch Out For books for years.
And I also have to say, it was Nancy who encouraged me very early on-- publishing genius that she is-- to try my hand at a graphic novel, which no one had even heard of at the time that you were thinking about this. So I'm very indebted to Nancy for getting me started on Fun Home. So here we all are.
I'm going to talk to you tonight about Dykes to Watch Out For and about Fun Home. I'm going to start-- just sort of talk about my career and my work process. And then I'm going to segue into reading to you from Fun Home. So can we turn the lights down? Somebody? Somebody, anybody?
All right. Sorry for that little screen saver thing before.
Can you read that caption there? It says, well, Kendrick, still think I'm just an alarmist?
My earliest cartoon influence was Charles Addams. My parents had one of his books. And I would look at these cartoons all the time before I even knew how to read.
And I would try to decipher these mystifying scenes. When I finally did learn to read, I found that it really didn't help that much.
This one says, we won't be late, Miss Williams. Get the children to bed around 8:00 and keep your back to the wall at all times. I had no idea what that meant.
These just baffled me. Yet at the same time, they were deeply familiar. I grew up in an old, antique-filled house that looked very much like the world Addams was drawing. This is a panel from Fun Home.
So his cartoons were both very familiar and enigmatic at the same time. But actually the enigmatic part was itself deeply familiar, because I also grew up in a house that was filled with secrets and where appearances were extremely important. So the way that I didn't get Charles Addams' cartoons reminded me, I think, of the way that I didn't get what was going on in my life-- in this family where there was a real disjuncture between appearance and reality.
Are you unhappy, darling? Oh, yes. Yes, completely.
So it was somehow both tantalizing and soothing to see that disjuncture reflected back at me-- this slippage between the words and the picture, between the expected and the unexpected, between what Addams was saying and what you were seeing. Things didn't quite match up. And I very much wanted things to match up. I wanted people to tell the truth.
But what I found out as I went along was that nothing matches up-- that this slippage is everywhere. Even when you try to tell the truth, you can't because language itself has a slippery relationship to reality.
In my diary, when I was 10-- this is more stuff from Fun Home-- I started doubting whether the things I was writing were really absolutely demonstrably true. And I would qualify sentences with these tiny little I thinks at the end.
And then I started going over them multiple times to sort of reinforce them till they were blots. But that got very time consuming. So I abbreviated the I think into a symbol-- this little bird-like thing-- which I started putting over individual names and proper nouns as a sort of protective spell.
And then it occurred to me, I could put it over an entire entry. And if I could do that once or twice, then why not do it multiple times? Until I was pretty much obliterating everything that I wrote.
Anyhow, I'm telling you this, because I think it all has something to do with why I became a cartoonist. And in one way I became a cartoonist because I like drawing funny drawings. But I do think that on some level, there was something else going on.
If language was indeed unreliable and appearances were deceiving, then maybe somehow by triangulating between those two things, you could manage to get a little closer to the truth.
And telling the truth remained a bit of a compulsion for me as I grew up. Our big family secret was that my dad was gay. So when I figured out I was a lesbian, I wanted to be very open about it.
Somewhat to my mother's distress, I started writing this comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. This is a very early episode about a young lesbian who keeps being mistaken for a man. And she has this encounter in the ladies room in the morning. And then as the day goes on--
ALISON BECHDEL: What I loved about cartooning was what I had learned from Charles Addams-- that the space between the image and the words was a very powerful thing if you could figure out how to work with it.
ALISON BECHDEL: The really sad thing about this cartoon is that I wrote it 20 years ago.
So Dykes to Watch Out For evolved into a continuity strip, like an ongoing soap opera strip with regular characters, which I've been doing for 25 years now.
And one of my preoccupations in the strip has been the tension between being an outsider and being a citizen. I always kind of liked being an outsider-- being, like, outside of civilized society. I felt like it gave me an objectivity about how the world worked that I would lose if I were completely inside the sphere of privilege and normalcy. Yet I also always yearned on a deep level to me to be normal or rather for my queerness to be seen as normal.
So the comic strip became a way for me to normalize my own difference. It was never about explaining or defending homosexuality but taking that as a ground assumption and then moving on from there.
ALISON BECHDEL: And I always really hoped that the strip would win a broader audience. Yet I was very committed to the specificity of my lesbian viewpoint.
ALISON BECHDEL: You know, I didn't want to have to water anything down. I wanted people to like the stuff or leave it. And I'm also very committed to specificity not just in terms of my viewpoint but in terms of detail. Detail is very important to me, perhaps to a fault.
Here's the scale that I work at. This is, like, crazy. There's a foreground figure. Then there's that computer screen. Then there's through the window in the background, there's this whole little psychodrama happening. It's about the size of a quarter.
But I'm always trying to get as much crap as possible into my panels.
The comic strip is a hybrid of a soap opera and an editorial cartoon that unfolds in real time. And I'm always trying to weave current events into the drama of the characters' relationships, which is sort of an uneasy mix but feels worth doing to me for some reason.
ALISON BECHDEL: I'm just confounded by the news. Whenever I pick up the newspaper or listen to the television, I can't make any sense out of it. So the strip has become a way for me to just make some order out of the chaos of politics and current events by recasting things in these more familiar everyday terms.
Like this destroying of the mall as a microcosm of the country.
ALISON BECHDEL: I came of age learning this mantra that the personal is political-- that our intimate lives have political implications. But I also believe the converse-- that our political lives have an intimate aspect, that the relationships between countries, between citizens and their government, between politicians and their constituents, are personal relationships writ large with basically the same dynamics as a marriage or a family, a severely dysfunctional one, but one whose basic workings we all recognize.
Which brings me to my dysfunctional family memoir. In a way Fun Home carries on the mission of Dykes to Watch Out For. It's an intensely personal story, but it's also a story about the way our most intimate selves can't escape their political and cultural context, as illustrated by how differently my father's life turned out from mine-- his life as a gay person and mine. The book is about his suicide, but it's also about the opposite of suicide-- about creativity and how I learned to be an artist from my dad.
ALISON BECHDEL: I had the somewhat unusual experience of being raised by parents who loved music and books and art and who really wanted me to become an artist or a writer.
And that might sound really great, but it's a double-edged sword because you still have to rebel against it.
So I think I came up with a pretty good way of rebelling. Instead of becoming an artist or a writer, like they wanted me to, I became both at once. That fixed their wagons--
ALISON BECHDEL: --or their canary colored caravans, which you can see here. In a way, Fun Home is really the story of how and why I became a cartoonist. A, because it was the only creative turf my parents had no interest in. And B, because the combination of words and images seemed to solve a problem for me. As this section here in the book progresses, I talk about how my favorite part of the Wind and the Willows coloring book, which my dad has commandeered here, is the map.
This is actually my copy of the actual map in the book. But this was really a profoundly mystical image to me as a kid, as powerful, in its own way, as the Charles Addams stuff-- and for a similar reason. Because the cool thing about the map was it was a map with a symbolic overlay of labels and the compass rose up there in the corner. It was this two-dimensional document.
But if you looked up close, it was also this almost animated depiction of reality.
You could see Mr. Toad careening along in his motor car there. And it was this bridging of symbol and reality of the label and the thing-- the thing itself-- that was so exciting to me. That endless slippage between the signifier and the signified that was so troubling to me in my diary seemed somehow to come to rest here-- or at least pause momentarily.
So I feel like I'm able to explain something through this combination of words and pictures that I can't in any other way. And cartoons are like maps to me in the way that they distill not just the chaos of the three-dimensional world but also the passage of time into a layer of pictures and a layer of words. And I feel like in the end, Fun Home is a fairly accurate map of my life.
In some ways, I think of my obsessive compulsive fifth grade diary as a very early draft of Fun Home. Because it's a similar attempt to pin down something accurate about my experience. And my creative process still entails a certain amount of self obliteration and obsessiveness as I will show you here. This is how I write.
It took me a long time to figure this out. But I started writing Fun Home in a word processing document. And that very quickly sort of came to a dead end. I couldn't get where I needed to go. I needed to be thinking visually.
So I started writing in Adobe Illustrator-- in a drawing program-- which gave me this whole two-dimensional field of the page to compose on. I could reshape these panels. I can type-- I used a digital font so I can type right on it and edit as I go and move these things. Move the panels around. Move the word, you know, reshape the words any way I wanted.
So once I would get the writing sort of nailed down, I wasn't doing any drawing. I was thinking visually. And here you can see I wrote a description of what's going to be in this panel-- table and living room with Jack in the pulpit.
But I would print that out just on typing paper and start drawing-- just really rough pencil sketch on the typing paper. And then I would refine that in a couple of layers. I would put tracing paper down over that and make it tighter and tighter by using various references.
In this case, I posed a lot for figures in the drawings. I posed as myself holding that dust rag in a photograph. I had a lot of visual references. This is an actual picture of the living room of our house. That's the table I grew up dusting.
And so all that research went into creating this final tight pencil sketch on my good paper on my Bristol board. And at this point the drawing itself was like 95% done. All the really hard parts were done. And I could just ink it. That was the fun part.
And then I would scan this into Photoshop. And then I shaded the artwork on a separate piece of paper. I would put that line art down on a light box and put watercolor paper on top of it and shade with watered down ink-- ink wash, it's called-- on top of that. And then I would scan this into Photoshop. And it wasn't until I had both those layers scanned and combined that I could see what it was really going to look like.
And I made all kinds of decisions as I did this. I took out that inked in wallpaper background because that looked too heavy and overbearing. So in fact, there really aren't any originals. There's nothing actually that looks like this in existence, because it's all in different layers and I made all these digital changes. And then I would add the text.
And the publisher would turn that gray layer into a color. Oh, here's a little movie. Let me see if this works. Is this going to work? I guess not.
Oh here, yeah. Oh, wait.
ALISON BECHDEL: Wait. Go back. Oh well, whatever.
This is me-- here I'm illustrating this crazy posing technique where I pose for the characters. And I'm describing to you what I'm doing. I have my camera set up there on a tripod. I'm wearing those stunt glasses.
And this is for a pose of a guy lying on a couch reading a book. So I set my timer and then I run over and assume the position. And the camera takes the picture. And then I have that right on my little LCD screen on my camera, which I just hold in my hand and draw from as I'm sketching.
It seems a little nutty, I know, but it's actually very quick and easy and a very cheap drawing reference. Here's the very, very rough pencil sketch of that scene before I had posed. I knew roughly that I wanted that guy lying on the couch, but I didn't know exactly how it was going to work out-- how his hands would look holding the book. So I got that from the photograph.
And then I did this more refined sketch. And then there's the pencil before I've inked it-- the really neat version. Yeah, right.
Here are some examples of these actual poses. That's me as my dad for this drawing.
I didn't always put on costumes. This was an unusual one. Because he had-- the angle of the lapels and the necktie seemed very challenging. Mostly I would just do stuff on the fly. Like here I am posing for my mom in this scene.
Or here I am posing as my child self for this drawing.
It was weird acting these scenes out, embodying the various people in my family. It was a very odd sensation.
This is just another example of some crazy, obsessive behavior I engaged in while working on the book. I had to quote a Charles Addams cartoon at one point. And I couldn't just steal his artwork. I didn't-- that wouldn't work. So I figured it would be OK if I meticulously copied his cartoon by hand.
So this is his original on the left. And here's my painstakingly copied version. That took me like two days.
And another thing-- another project I had to do was create a generic New Yorker cartoon.
And this took me, like, a week. Because I had to look at hundreds of New Yorker cartoons. I wanted a generic analyst cartoon. So it couldn't look like any particular cartoonist's style. It just had to evoke that New Yorker quality.
Yeah, that was a week's work. And it was all just for this tiny little one-inch square thought balloon.
I did a lot of painstaking copying of text. This is a dictionary and here's my copy of the dictionary. I got really crazy about this.
I would actually-- I wouldn't just scan the books. I would photograph the book so I could preserve that curvature of the line of type as it goes down into the gutter. This is a very unsuccessful example of it, but you can see that these letters are closer together than these. It's a nice idea I didn't quite carry off.
This was an entire lost weekend.
ALISON BECHDEL: This is the living room wallpaper of the house I grew up in. It became the endpapers of the book. But I had to paint that. It's like this big and I just copied the pattern. It felt like some kind of strange penance.
This is a photograph of my dad. I used a lot of photos in the book. The book actually sort of came out of a photograph-- this one key photograph that I found of one of my dad's boyfriends in his underwear. It was stuck in an envelope with our family photographs. And I found that when I was, like, 20 soon after my dad died. It was really the thing that sparked this whole book-- this key to my dad's secret life that I wanted to uncover.
But each of the chapters in the book-- there's seven chapters. And each one begins with an actual-- my copy of a family photograph. This is chapter one.
The book itself is drawn in my regular loose, cartoony style. But these chapter head drawings were drawn very photographically like this. And I got very into the challenge of trying to reproduce the tone of a photograph in line-- in just little black and white line segments.
I don't know. In a way I think that's sort of what the whole book is about-- taking the richness of life and trying to put it into this digital format. And I selected the photographs-- I picked photographs that had a lot of meaning for me. This one-- I took this picture of my dad one afternoon. I remember this.
To me it just captures this kind of funny, playful intimacy that we had. We would call this his Mick Jagger photograph.
ALISON BECHDEL: And he wasn't really trying to look like Mick Jagger. He was just being silly, which-- I don't know if that translates or not. But to me it just infuses this image and shows this intimacy and shared understanding that we had.
So now I'm going to read to you a little bit from the book. Chapter one. Old father, old artificer.
Like many fathers, mine could occasionally be prevailed on for a spot of airplane.
As he launched me, my full weight would fall on the pivot point between his feet and my stomach.
It was a discomfort well worth the rare physical contact and certainly worth the moment of perfect balance when I soared above him. In the circus acrobatics where one person lies on the floor balancing another are called Icarian games.
Considering the fate of Icarus after he flouted his father's advice and flew so close to the sun that his wings melted, perhaps some dark humor is intended. In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky.
But before he did so, he managed to get quite a lot done.
His greatest achievement arguably was his monomaniacal restoration of our old house.
When other children called our house a mansion, I would demur. I resented the implication that my family was rich or unusual in any way. In fact, we were unusual, though I wouldn't appreciate exactly how unusual until much later. But we weren't rich.
The gilt cornices, the marble fireplace, the crystal chandeliers, the shelves of calf-bound books-- these were not so much bought as produced from thin air by my father's remarkable legerdemain.
My father could spin garbage into gold.
He could transfigure a room with the smallest offhand flourish. He could conjure an entire finished period interior from a paint chip.
ALISON BECHDEL: He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor.
For if my father was Icarus, he was also Daedalus-- that skillful artificer, that mad scientist who built the wings for his son and designed the famous labyrinth.
ALISON BECHDEL: And who answered not to the laws of society but to those of his craft.
Historical restoration wasn't my father's job. It was his passion.
I mean passion in every sense of the word-- libidinal, manic, martyred.
Our Gothic revival house had been built during the small Pennsylvania town's one brief moment of wealth from the lumber industry in 1867. But local fortunes had declined steadily from that point. And by the time my parents bought the place in 1962, it was a shell of its former self.
The shutters and scroll work were gone. The clapboards had been sheathed with scabrous shingles.
The bare light bulbs revealed dingy wartime wallpaper and woodwork painted pastel green.
All that was left of the house's lumber-era glory were the exuberant front porch supports. But over the next 18 years, my father would restore the house to its original condition and then some.
He would perform as Daedalus did dazzling displays of artfulness. He would cultivate the barren yard into a lush flowering landscape. He would manipulate flagstones that weighed half a ton and the thinnest quivering layers of gold leaf.
It could have been a romantic story, like in It's a Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed fix up that big old house and raise their family there.
But in the movie when Jimmy Stewart comes home one night and starts yelling at everyone, it's out of the ordinary.
Daedalus, too, was indifferent to the human cost of his projects.
He blithely betrayed the king, for example, when the queen asked him to build her a cow disguise so she could seduce the white bull.
Indeed, the result of that scheme-- a half bull, half man monster-- inspired Daedalus' greatest creation yet.
He hid the minotaur in the labyrinth, a maze of passages and rooms opening endlessly into one another and from which astray youths and maidens discovered to their peril, escape was impossible.
Then there are those famous wings.
Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea?
Or just disappointed by the design failure?
Sometimes when things were going well I think my father actually enjoyed having a family-- or at least the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit, a sort of still life with children. And of course, my brothers and I were free labor.
Dad considered us extensions of his own body like precision robot arms. In this regard, it was like being raised not by Jimmy but by Martha Stewart. In theory his arrangement with my mother was more cooperative.
In practice it was not.
We each resisted in our own ways.
I'm sorry. This projector is lagging.
We each resisted in our own ways, but in the end we were equally powerless before my father's curatorial onslaught.
I'm not sure what's going on-- why this is taking so long.
My brothers and I couldn't compete with the astral lamps and girandoles and Hepplewhite suite chairs. They were perfect.
I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children and his children like furniture. My own decided preference for the unadorned and purely functional emerged early.
ALISON BECHDEL: I was Spartan to my father's Athenian, modern to his Victorian, Butch to his Nelly, utilitarian to his aesthete. I developed a contempt for useless ornament.
ALISON BECHDEL: What function was served by the scrolls, tassels, and bric-a-brac that infested our house? If anything they obscured function. They were embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies.
My father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret.
He used his skillful artifice not to make things but to make things appear to be what they were not.
That is to say-- impeccable.
He appeared to be an ideal husband and father, for example. But would an ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys?
It's tempting to suggest in retrospect that our family was a sham-- that our house was not a real home at all but the simulacrum of one, a museum. Yet we really were a family. I really did live in those period rooms.
Still something vital was missing-- an elasticity, a margin for error.
Most people, I imagine, learn to accept that they're not perfect.
But an idle remark about my father's tie over breakfast could send him into a tailspin.
My mother established a rule.
If we couldn't criticize my father, showing affection for him was an even dicier venture.
We were not a physically expressive family to say the least. But once I was unaccountably moved to kiss my father goodnight. Having little practice with the gesture, all I managed was to grab his hand and bust the knuckles lightly as if he were a bishop or an elegant lady before rushing from the room in embarrassment.
This embarrassment on my part was a tiny scale model of my father's more fully developed self-loathing. His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it.
Mirrors, distracting bronzes, multiple doorways-- visitors often got lost upstairs.
My mother and my brothers and I knew our way around well enough. But it was impossible to tell if the minotaur lay beyond the next corner. And the constant tension was heightened by the fact that some encounters could be quite pleasant.
His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark.
Although I'm good at enumerating my father's flaws, it's hard for me to sustain much anger at him.
I expect this is partly because he's dead and partly because the bar is lower for fathers than for mothers. My mother must have bathed me hundreds of times, for example. But it's my father rinsing me off with the purple metal cup that I remember most clearly. This effusion of warmth as the hot water sluiced over me, the sudden unbearable cold of its absence-- was he a good father?
I want to say at least he stuck around. But of course he didn't. It's true that he didn't kill himself until I was nearly 20.
But his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him.
Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb.
He really was there all those years-- a flesh and blood presence steaming off the wallpaper, digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials, smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne.
But I ached as if he were already gone.
And that's the end of the first chapter.
ALISON BECHDEL: Thank you.
It's really hot in here. Are you guys sweating? Can we open the doors or something? We can do questions if you're not dying.
Does anybody have any questions?
AUDIENCE: I have a question.
ALISON BECHDEL: Yes.
AUDIENCE: The panel where there's the permanent linoleum scar where he's drawing the piece. Did you intentionally put the Sunbeam bread there as an allusion of things to come? It was a Sunbeam.
ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah. Yeah, I tried to work a Sunbeam bread allusion into each chapter. My dad ironically was killed by a Sunbeam bread truck, which I just found kind of like really morbidly funny. You know, because bread is life. So I don't know.
And the logo for Sunbeam bread was this annoying little pink-cheeked girl that I had to look at my whole entire childhood. I just hated that drawing. So I don't know. It was just like this graphic fixation on that image. And so I thought, OK, I'm just going to put that in each chapter.
One chapter I couldn't find a way to work it in, but in all the chapters there's a Sunbeam bread wrapper somewhere. Yeah it's an allusion to my father's death. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Have you been approached to make it into a motion picture?
ALISON BECHDEL: There was some interest in doing that. But I thought the worst thing in the world would be to have somebody make a bad movie. And what are the chances it would be a bad movie? Like 99.9999 to one.
So I asked for a ton of money. I asked for way more money than they would give. I decided how much money is my soul worth.
ALISON BECHDEL: And they wouldn't pay me that much. So no, there's no plans to make it into a movie.
ALISON BECHDEL: Yes?
AUDIENCE: The way you drew your father's mouth-- it was very small, very tight. There were no lips. It was almost like it was a minus sign, as though he's really holding something in. Were you-- how did you think about making all those lines on his face? It was very-- there was a lot of line. It was quite severe.
ALISON BECHDEL: It was a funny experience having to draw my father, to draw everyone in my family, to draw myself.
It took a lot of practice, like a lot of failed efforts before I got comfortable doing it. And it's also a very intimate thing to do. It's like you're-- drawing is like touching someone. So it was weird to just be drawing my dad so many times. I didn't really consciously think about how I was drawing him. I just tried to make it look like him in a way that I could duplicate.
Somebody pointed out that he doesn't smile at all in the book, which is kind of unfortunate because he did smile a lot. He would be very silly sometimes. So I failed to capture that part of him, but I didn't know. Memoir is fiction. So I had to make it up. I had to make it fit my story.
AUDIENCE: You know what's happened to the home that you grew up in? Is it still in the family?
ALISON BECHDEL: What's happened to the home I grew up in-- at the time Fun Home came out two years ago, it was on the market. It was for sale. And The New York Times did a little article about it. They invited me to come back and they took pictures of-- the wallpaper was still in the living room.
And I think they expected me to have some big emotional experience. But I didn't really. I couldn't really oblige the writer.
But someone-- a Mennonite family-- bought it. First two gay men bought it, which I thought was wild. But the deal fell through. And then this Mennonite family bought it. And now a bunch of Mennonites live in my house.
ALISON BECHDEL: Anyone else? Yes.
Did you ever feel jaded because you grew up in a funeral home? Did you ever feel jaded by the death of people you knew, like, your father? And other people that you knew?
ALISON BECHDEL: Well, yeah. But part of the book is about how weird it was having grown up around this as just a matter of course of everyday life-- having dead people around-- how weird it was to actually have someone that close to me die. It was completely unreal, even more unreal than I think it is for anyone. Because I had a context for it. And it was just crazy.
So rather than making me more used to death, it had sort of the opposite effect. But yeah-- my whole family-- we had all these jokes. The title of the book, Fun Home, is the joking term we would use to refer to the funeral home. So yeah, I guess I was kind of jaded, you could say. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I was hoping I'd know from your website that you're working on another memoir and that you also have a big anthology of all the Dykes to Watch Out For cartoons.
ALISON BECHDEL: Thank you for mentioning that. Yes.
AUDIENCE: OK. Tell us about both of them.
ALISON BECHDEL: OK. OK, there is a big anthology coming out of all these books that are impossible to find individually anymore this fall. It's called the Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. I'm supposed to be reading the introduction right now. And it's going to be great. It's going to be a nice big-- it's the 25th anniversary of the strip this year. So it's kind of like--
ALISON BECHDEL: Thank you.
I hope it will be a way to keep the strip alive and keep new readers coming to it. Because the books are just really hard to get a hold of sadly. And then I'm working on another memoir. I'm just going to milk my life for as long as I can.
It's not going very well. Fun Home took me seven years to write. This next book is due in, like, 15 months. And I haven't done anything on it for six months.
I figure if I go around in public enough talking about how panicked I am and how behind schedule I am it will kind of light a fire under me, but--
ALISON BECHDEL: --it's not looking very good right now. It's going to be about my relationships. It's going to be about relationships in general. I'm going to draw on material from my own actual documentary relationships to illustrate these abstract ideas about intimacy.
AUDIENCE: You showed us how big the actual scale is of the drawing and inking of the Dykes to Watch Out For panels. But how large was the actual drawing and inking and watercolor on the Fun Home--
ALISON BECHDEL: It was about that same scale. Yeah, yeah.
AUDIENCE: That's really incredible.
ALISON BECHDEL: Well, it's nutty. It's not the way you're supposed to do it. Cartoonists are supposed to draw twice as big as the final reproduced-- well, that's what I learned anyway. But my stuff is, like, maybe 150% bigger.
But it's just the scale I got stuck on. If I worked really big, I would just fill a bigger space with all those tiny details, and no one would be able to read it.
AUDIENCE: How does it work when you're writing about people who actually exist? I probably don't. My exes probably don't want me to write about them. And if they write about me, there's going to be problems.
How does it work as far as-- do you get permission? Do you talk to them first?
ALISON BECHDEL: That's my plan. I've been talking to--
Do you think that's unrealistic? I was just listing to a really great interview with Isabel Allende on Democracy Now the other day. She was talking to Amy Goodman about her memoir writing. And she gets total-- she shows her drafts to everyone in her family. She'll rewrite the book if one person says, I don't want my story in here and it's somehow crucial. She said she rewrote the book around one guy who didn't want to be in it.
That's amazing. I don't know if I could be that committed to have that kind of integrity. But my idea is to really have people OK for what I do and have that not hopelessly take me off track of my own story. But we'll see. I haven't really gotten into that yet.
OK. Way back up there.
AUDIENCE: You said you're struggling with writing the next book. And I wondered if you have to write it to live or if you're already rich.
ALISON BECHDEL: No. The sad truth is I really do have to write it to live. And it's funny, because Fun Home I totally wrote-- it was totally a labor of love. You know, I didn't sell it until I was four-- five-- four years into it.
And I just did it at my own pace. No one was expecting anything. And that was a great luxury, although, of course, I was broke. But now, still, I haven't-- I mean, Fun Home-- I have a lot more money than I used to, but it's still-- I really have to produce this book or I'm in big trouble.
But that's OK. I'm motivated by financial extremity.
ALISON BECHDEL: OK. One more? Up there.
AUDIENCE: Speaking of your soul and how much it's worth to you, I used to be the editor of the alternative news weekly here in Ithaca. And I was dying to put your Dykes to Watch Out For--
ALISON BECHDEL: Wait. What's your name? Oh, sorry.
AUDIENCE: It used to be Claudia Montag.
ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, we talked.
ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: The problem is I had a publisher who was a Catholic who went to church and cared about his reputation in the community. And the sex scenes just wouldn't fly.
ALISON BECHDEL: Uh huh.
AUDIENCE: And I seem to remember sometime in the 90s, someone did a cartoon about how you were approached by one of the mainstream syndicates. And you had to think about whether you wanted to have a house or maintain the style of writing that you were used to. And I just wondered why is that so important?
I think Ithaca would have loved Dykes to Watch Out For. But the naked penises and the breasts and all that just wasn't going to happen as long as the publisher was there.
ALISON BECHDEL: Why are those things so important to me?
You know, I just-- I'm not being noble or anything. I just couldn't write-- I couldn't do anything. I just do what I can do. And what I do is write about the community that I live in. There's naked people having sex and going to the bathroom and-- it would just be--
ALISON BECHDEL: The thing about the syndicate offer has gotten kind of mythologized. It was just a vague offer that-- it wasn't really clear what compromises I would have to make. I just knew I didn't want to make any compromises. So I didn't even pursue it.
That's just my thing. And it seems to be working out OK. Finally people are, I think, coming around a little bit more to Dykes to Watch Out For. That sensibility is a little more acceptable.
It's not like all these newspapers are dying to carry it. But I do feel a very different change in who's reading it. You know?
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Alison Bechdel, graphic novelist and author of the syndicated comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" discusses her early influences and creative process, with readings from her New York Times best seller Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
The event is part of the Creative Writing Program's spring 2008 Reading Series, which features established and emerging artists.