The Lynda Barry Interview

Posted by on January 25th, 2010 at 7:04 AM

(Originally published in The Comics Journal #296.)

With the uncanniest knack since Huckleberry Finn for unsentimentally capturing the perspectives and voices of kids, Lynda Barry has been reminding us what the world looks like through the eyes of our inner child for nearly 30 years. Her early comics, including Big Ideas and Girls and Boys, mostly satirized a society of grownups, but beginning in 1979, her weekly strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek demonstrated an amazing facility with the way kids talk and think in the margins of the adult world. The strip was one of the prime critical and popular successes of the alternative-weekly boom of the 1980s.

In addition to her strip work, now coming back into print through Drawn & Quarterly, Barry has produced two novels (Cruddy, The Good Times Are Killing Me) and a major work of semiautobiographical comics (One! Hundred! Demons!) that she would be loath to call a graphic novel. Her newest work, What It Is, is another departure, although in some ways a natural extension of One! Hundred! Demons!. In place of her usual linear string of heavily narrated comics panels, What It Is offers a densely packed gallery of richly suggestive and ominous multimedia word-and-image collages.

Though couched in the structure of a grade-school activity book and partially marketed as a kind of how-to book for writers, its pages form, more than anything else, a meditation into the essence of imagination and creativity. Interspersed among the speculative collages on the nature of thought and imagery are a few autobiographical comics-panel vignettes. These episodes, along with parts of One! Hundred! Demons!, allow glimpses into aspects of her own childhood that evidently continue to haunt her adult self. She has reportedly been long estranged from her parents, and two questions about her family connections and the painful elements of childhood were the only questions that she declined to reply to.

Barry photo taken by Kristy Valenti at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con.

Her responses to the interview as a whole, however, were almost superhumanly generous, open and thoughtful. If I were going to take an expedition into some of the darker corners of the human cranium and try to figure out where memories, nightmares, language and drawing intersect, I can’t think of a nicer guide than Barry. At first glance, What It Is looks a little scary. Strange, malformed creatures peer out of gloomy swaths of black and brown and tumble together with antique diaries, primers, alphabets, photos and drawings — ghostly fragments of an early 20th-century childhood. To read the book, though, is to set sail on an open boat with a friendly, infinitely patient and inquisitive captain at the helm steering you through fundamental, sometimes darkly disturbing mysteries of consciousness.

The interview that follows is sometimes a clash of sensibilities, as I try to fit the ideas suggested by her book into various theoretical models, while Barry remains true to the intuitive energies that course back and forth between her mind and her writing/drawing hand. She made time for our conversation in between “tilting at windmills”: She and her husband, praire-restoration-expert Kevin Kawula, are resisting the installation of industrial wind turbines next to their converted-dairy-farm home in Footville, Wis.

What It Is asks question after question that you will have a hard time getting out of your mind, and I enjoyed the opportunity to turn the tables and assign her some of the hardest questions I could think of. Naturally, as it turns out, she eats hard questions for breakfast.

— Michael Dean

From the reviews and promotion I’ve seen, it appears that What It Is has to some degree been marketed and reviewed as a writing how-to book. There’s a thin line, though, between A) getting in touch with our memories as a way of writing and B) writing as a way of getting in touch with our memories. The Activity Book pages could be taken literally as a series of semi-automatic writing exercises, but they also function (brilliantly) as another evocation our childhood and our school days. So my question is: What is What It Is? Was your goal primarily to help readers to write or to explore, in words and images, the relationship between language and the unconscious?

What is What It Is?! I love that question. In terms of where to put it in a bookstore, no one seems to know, including me. Amazon seemed to have the more original solution. I heard they listed it in Science Fiction.

What It Is is based on something I learned from my teacher, Marilyn Frasca, at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. I studied with her for two years in the late 1970s. Her idea seemed to be that everything we call art, whether it’s music or dance or writing or painting, anything we call art is a container for something she called an image. And she believed that once you understood what an image is, then the form you give it us up to you.

This question “What is an Image?” has guided all of my work for over 30 years. Because of what I learned from Marilyn, there isn’t much of a difference in the experience of painting a picture, writing a novel, making a comic strip, reading a poem or listening to a song. The containers are different, but the lively thing at the center is what I’m interested in.

Sequence from the chapter “Where Do They Go?” in What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

It’s the living thing we activate when we read a book. Like Scrooge, for example. I know Scrooge came from a book, came from the hand of Dickens, but where is Scrooge really? Where is he right now? He’s not inside a book. If I say Scrooge and you know just who I’m talking about, and so do the first 1,000 people we stop on the street to ask if they know who Scrooge is, where is Scrooge located?

Scrooge is an image. Batman is an image. The alphabet is an image. I’d say Abraham Lincoln is an image, too. Although the bones of Lincoln are in a specific location, that’s not what we mean when we speak his name. We don’t mean his bones. Images are entities with no fixed location, they can occur to us at any place at any time. You and I can talk about them, though you and I have never met.

I can’t help but believe that our use of images has an absolute biological function. It’s not decoration or an elective or something like what was once so pompously called “junk DNA,” though our current culture treats it like junk. The public school system certainly does.

I believe that images are also at the center of what we call deep play for kids. It’s something like our immune system and autonomic nervous system. I believe it has a vital role in creating and maintaining our mental health, which first and foremost requires a feeling that life is worth living.

About 10 years ago, I decided to try to teach this thing I learned from Marilyn. I found that writing was the easiest way to do it because it involves practicing a physical activity with a state of mind. Handwriting is a physical activity that works perfectly for this and it doesn’t seem to make people as nervous as drawing does. And in the beginning I like to use spontaneous memory because it approaches the state of mind I’m referring to and quickly lets you know what an image feels like.

An image feels much like the sensation of smelling something that makes your Aunt Carol’s kitchen come flooding back to you. It may only last a vivid instant, but for that instant the image of the kitchen is entirely there. It’s much more than a picture of the kitchen in your mind. It’s an entire experience. Much like the one we get when we’re reading a good book. We forget we are reading, although that’s the physical activity we are doing. The state of mind is the state of experiencing something and that is very different than thinking about something.

From “Where Do We Keep Bad Memories?” in What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

Once you know what this feels like, it’s not hard to learn to sustain it and to transfer it to fiction, if that’s what you want to do. One of the reasons I think people believe all my work is autobiographical is because of working this way, working with something that feels absolutely alive.

I wanted to find a way to make a book about this thing, but I didn’t want to make a book that was writing about how to write. I’m lucky that Drawn & Quarterly was so willing to risk publishing such an odd book that has no obvious spot in any bookstore. I have a hard time explaining what this book is to anyone who asks, but I especially like the way you asked. That sentence “What is What It Is?” is one that makes me laugh.

What It Is has possibly more questions than statements in it. How transparent do you want the book to be? Is there an element of mystery to the work’s themes that you would like to preserve and protect against too many nosy questions? Or is your main goal to communicate as clearly as possible to readers who are interested in strategies for writing?

The questions in What It Is are questions that, for me at least, created that state of mind I keep referring to. For example, is a dream autobiography or fiction? In the first moments of pondering that question, before logic and reason jump in to answer, there is an odd openness of not having considered this question before, and not knowing the answer even though we know what dreams are, what fiction is and what autobiography is. When I was working on the book, these questions would just pop into my head and as I painted the letters that made up the question, I’d find myself in that state of mind, that kind of open wondering. Kind of like the way the underside of the Magic 8-Ball looks just before the answer floats up. When I work, I like to keep my mind as much like a Magic 8-Ball as possible. Including the “ask again later” option.

I’m tempted to describe it as a series of Socratic questions, except that Socrates was leading his disciples down a deliberate path toward anticipated conclusions; What It Is feels like a journey, but with neither a path nor a particular destination. Here’s an activity question for you: Can you name three conclusions that you drew or things that you learned in the process of producing this book?

I don’t think conclusion is the right word, it’s more like realization than conclusion. There were big realizations and small ones. The biggest one was the same one I had when I wrote Cruddy. The realization that the back of the mind can be relied on to create natural story order. It’s not something I have to try to do, or think too hard about. If I just work every day on a particular project, it seems to begin to form itself if I keep moving my hands while maintaining a certain state of mind. I wish I could do that right now as I answer these questions, because answering questions like this directly this is much harder than making a comic strip. It feels like commentary about a thing that can’t be explained with commentary but here I am trying to do it anyway.

A smaller realization was noticing how free I feel with garbage paper. Once a piece of paper is in the trash, it’s something I feel I can finally use. And while I’m working on collages it’s a mistake to sweep the floor or clean up my desk, because often it’s scraps and garbage that help me finish a page.

From “The Three [Thousand] of Us” in What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

The most gratifying realization was that I actually have a publisher who will let me make something as non-commercial and unclassifiable as What It Is, and who actually seems to have some attachment to my work. I never felt like Drawn & Quarterly was trying to talk me out of anything, or giving me tips on how to make my book more saleable, or insisting that I explain the book before the book existed. To have a publisher like this is a very nice gift after having had such a sad experience with other publishers, and then going through that very long period of no one wanting to publish any kind of book from me. That was a strange feeling because I’d been putting out books for half of my life and then it just seemed over.

The good thing about it was that it got me to sell my art on eBay, which was one of the best moves I’ve made. I was lying in bed thinking, “What the hell?” There is a preciousness about original art and how it’s sold in galleries that I’ve never liked. There was something about selling my work for under $100 and then throwing in extra images when I sent the work to the buyer that really made me happy. I felt free of “The Man” when I did it, and free of coolness, and free of success. I felt like I had a reliable decent job. I wish I had artwork up on eBay right now, but the turbine fight has taken all of my time and crushed it. I miss my life very much. I miss open-ended days and following images along. I hope that will be back someday.

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