2016 is starting off with two milestones for Non-Fiction by Non-Men! This installment marks the tenth interview in the series and the first interview with a graphic artist and writer. This month, E.B. Bartels speaks with writer, cartoonist, and memoirist Liz Prince.
Liz Prince is the author of many collections of comics, including Delayed Replays (Top Shelf Productions, 2008), Alone Forever (Top Shelf Productions, 2014), and Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed (Top Shelf Productions, 2005), which received the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Debut in 2005 and has since been published in both French and Spanish. Prince’s book Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir (Zest Books, 2014) was named one of Kirkus Review’s best books of 2014. She has also contributed to many anthologies; for a full list, see her website. Prince lives outside of Boston with her cats Wolfman and Dracula.
EB: How did you begin writing and drawing nonfiction? What first attracted you to the genre?
LP: I’ve always loved reading personal stories. I grew up in the punk and D.I.Y. scene, where zines were used to write about things both personal and political, that maybe wouldn’t otherwise be published. The book that really solidified the whole idea for me was Ariel Schrag’s Potential. Ariel is a queer cartoonist from the Bay Area who was writing and drawing autobiographical comics about her experiences in high school while she was still in high school! Reading those books was inspiring because 1) she was one of the only female comic artists I was exposed to at the time, 2) she was only a few years older than me, 3) reading her comics was like reading her diary and seeing the way she viewed the world. It really resonated with me. It was one of the first times I’d seen a comic and really thought, “I can do that.” The comics that I write are pretty different than hers, but it was a revelation nevertheless.
EB: How would you describe the comics that you write?
LP: My comics use humor to discuss personal and emotional topics. I translate my experiences into narratives that other people can relate to, or find some solace in.
EB: Are you always a character in your own comics?
LP: So far! I have written and drawn comics for Cartoon Network properties like Adventure Time and Regular Show, and sometimes I sneak myself into the background, but those are pretty much my only comics that don’t focus on me.
EB: Your comics also include friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. What is it like to draw and write about people who are still alive and part of your life?
LP: Well, when I in my early twenties, a lot of my comics were shorter gag strips about humorous situations my friends and I would get into, so my friends would actively try to make it into my comics. A lot of people assume that my friends would want to avoid being depicted in my work, but it’s actually been the opposite: I had friends who were hurt by the fact that they hadn’t shown up in my comics. They would say, “What, am I not funny enough?” So while I was deciding what I might put in a comic, my friends were trying to guess those situations or manipulate them in some way.
EB: I find writing about friends is a losing battle. You can’t win. People don’t like how you portrayed them when you do write about them, and people are upset at being left out when you don’t write about them. Your dedication at the beginning of Delayed Replays really sums it up: “This book is dedicated to everyone who stars in these comics with me. If you are one of them, please write your name here: __________. This book is also dedicated to everyone who has complained about not being in one of my comics. If you are one of them, please write your name here: __________.” I love it. But what about you? How does writing nonfiction affect you?
LP: As a person, I’ve always been very self-reflective, which is great for writing purposes, but a little less great for general existing-as-a-human being purposes. (I suffer from anxiety and constantly overanalyze everything, which is the downside of being so self-reflective.) A lot of my comics provide a release. I get to process things when I write about them, so for me nonfiction can have almost a healing aspect to it.
EB: What else has been challenging about writing and drawing nonfiction?
LP: It can sometimes be a struggle to portray the situation as accurately as possible, without endangering the identity of someone else involved. I used to think that everything in my comics had to be exactly how it happened in real life, and that included using people’s real names, but I’ve since realized that changing someone’s name doesn’t change the story. I’ve even started to consider nonfiction to really be more like personal fiction: every story that is only told from one point of view is inherently too biased to be TRUE. I think one of the only reasons why using real people from my life has worked out for me is that I’m usually focusing more on how I behave(d), and I’m not afraid to present myself as being fallible. I think that gives this kind of nonfiction storytelling a more fair and even keel.
EB: What do you think you personally bring to your nonfiction?
LP: I think I have a distinct voice. I try to make my writing both poignant and humorous. Especially with a book like Tomboy, my graphic memoir about gender stereotypes, it was really important to me to be emotionally vulnerable but make people laugh as well. A lot of people have told me that the book really did make them laugh and cry! But that isn’t to downplay the illustrative parts of it, which to me are equally important to the process. I’ve been told I’m a master of the cartoony side-eye.
EB: How has being a woman affected your experience as a writer and artist? Do you ever feel there are certain subjects you have to write about (or not write about) because of your gender?
LP: I don’t think that my gender dictates my work in any way, but curiously, my gender does dictate who people assume will read my work. I constantly get emails from male fans who tell me about buying one of my books in a comic shop, and the clerk saying, “Oh, is this a gift for someone?” As if a guy wouldn’t want to read about the foibles of a female. I guess comic shops are still trying to catch up to that whole gender equality thing.
EB: Finally, do you have a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
LP: I have a really hard time choosing favorites when it comes to works of art because my answers change with the circumstances. So instead of picking a “favorite,” I picked something that has been meaningful to me for over fifteen years. The following pages are from Ariel Schrag’s graphic novel Potential, which is the book I cited above as having started my lifelong addiction to autobiography. I like this short little bit because it so concisely translates that feeling of borderline obsessive teenage crushes, with the sort of family dysfunction that I grew up with. And the pacing of it is spot on, from a graphic storytelling standpoint. I sometimes find myself thinking how awesome it would be just blurt out “SALLY JULTS SHE LIKES GOATS” in the middle of conversation, but I don’t think many people would get the reference.
Excerpts from Potential by Ariel Schrag:
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.