Alison Bechdel gained legions of fans with her syndicated comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” known for its mix of personal relationships and political issues, before turning her pen to even more overtly personal topics.
Her celebrated first graphic novel, “Fun Home,” published in 2006, focused on Bechdel’s relationship with her father, including his gay affairs during his marriage to her mother. Now, Bechdel uses her formidable storytelling and illustration skills to explore her relationship with her mother in her new graphic memoir, “Are You My Mother?” GA Voice: Your previous book “Fun Home” plays a considerable role in your new book, “Are You My Mother?”
Were you prepared for reception that the first book received?
Alison Bechdel: No! I think, in a way this new memoir is kind of my own working out of what happened with “Fun Home.” It was surprisingly, almost freakishly, successful. I was not prepared for that.
Therapy and therapists are central figures in “Are You My Mother?” and, as you said, this new book helped you work out that experience. But do you ever consider writing, drawing and making art in general to be an extension of therapy?
I guess I do. I feel like I have such an odd life where my work is about my life. That was even true, to a certain extent, when I was drawing my comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For,” where I was writing about the daily life I was living in the lesbian subculture.
Now I’ve gone further inward. My job is writing about my life, almost everything I do, including therapy, including my work. Everything just blends together in this sometimes confusing but mostly organic way.
Each chapter of “Are You My Mother?” begins with a dream. Was it always your intention to begin them that way?
That happened pretty late in my process. Even then I was kind of resistant to it, because it is sort of inexcusable to belabor people with one’s dreams. You’re not supposed to even talk about your dreams, let alone put them in a book.
I feel like they were the chronological key to the story. This book about my mother jumps around in time and in space so much that I felt like it needed some kind of spine or backbone. For me that was the sequence of dreams that I had in the process of writing the memoir about my dad. Those dreams happened in chronological order and I keep them in that order in the book as a kind of touchstone.
In chapter four you write about Dr. Seuss’ “Sleep Book. ” P.D. Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” — from Dr. Seuss’s “I can read it myself” series — also plays a role in your new book. As both an illustrator and a writer, how much influence would you say that Theodore Geisel had on you?
Dr. Seuss was a huge influence. I loved all of his books as a kid. Strangely though, I read the P. D. Eastman book as a kid, but it wasn’t [laughs] that pivotal for me. I didn’t click with that book. But I just loved Dr. Seuss. He was crazy!
Other writers, including Virginia Woolf and the recently deceased lesbian poet Adrienne Rich, figure prominently in the book. As someone who, like Dr. Seuss, both writes and illustrates, and even though drawing is still an essential part of the work, would you personally say that you identify more as a writer or an illustrator?
That’s a very interesting question. I want to argue that I am both equally. But the truth is I do think that I am more of writer than a drawer. I think the drawing is a little more in service to the writing then vice versa.
That balance varies a lot for different criteria. Sometimes the words have a little more primacy. Others are more driven by the images. We all want to think that it’s a completely inextricable balance and it is inextricable for me. Sometimes I feel like a crypto-writer, that I became a cartoonist as a way of being a writer that wouldn’t annoy or challenge my mother.
Have thought about your next project?
Yes, I have. I’m still excited about memoir and I have a lot more to say about my family. I need to sit down and talk with them about this, but I want to keep writing about my wacky family.
Top photo: Lesbian illustrator/author Alison Bechdel explores her complicated relationship with her mother in her new graphic memoir, ‘Are You My Mother?’ (by Elen Seibert)