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For more than 20 years, Alison Bechdel was feted for writing and illustrating the syndicated cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which chronicled the lives of lesbian city dwellers, but was little-known outside the gay community. Her breakthrough came with 2006 graphic novel Fun Home, a dysfunctional-family memoir that profiled Bechdel’s closeted father and his effect on her as she came of age. Bechdel’s forthcoming follow-up, Are You My Mother?, is about her life after college and relationship with her other parent, who is less outwardly damaged but no less complex. Aside from conversations with her mother, the book is punctuated by scenes from Bechdel's love life and therapy sessions in which she discusses her ambitions and her sometimes-paralyzing neuroses.
In Are You My Mother? you talk about the difficult circumstances under which you wrote your first book, as well as the stress you felt writing this one. Was working on AYMM? more or less difficult than working on Fun Home?
It was more difficult, but in different ways. I’d gotten a sizable advance to write this book, but that created its own terrible pressure. I knew there was an expectation for this book where there had been none for the book about my father. Fun Home was surprisingly successful—it came out of nowhere—and it was difficult to feel like I had to top that or improve on myself. That was very paralyzing for a long time.
How did you choose which therapy sessions to use for the book?
I spent a long time not just reading sources such as [psychoanalyst] Donald Winnicott, but also the primary source of my own diaries. I don’t make many journal entries now about my therapy sessions, but when I first started in my late twenties I wrote down a lot of what happened in each one. I’m really glad I did, because now I can go back and construct those interactions pretty much verbatim. But it was a very uncomfortable process—spending months and months steepedin my own diary entries—it was really kind of nauseating. I mean, I’m a very self-absorbed person and I like doing things like that, but even for me it was a lot. [Laughs]
You frequently quote Virginia Woolf in the book. Woolf said writing To The Lighthouse freed her from her parents, and lifted a psychological weight. Do you feel similarly?
I did feel like that with the book about my father, like I was able to take this whole memory chip out of my brain. Like a computer after you take a lot of files off of it—it had been taking up room, and suddenly my brain had more space. But it’s not just the process of writing the book; part of it is taking the book out into the world and seeing the reactions.
As for my own thoughts about the book in my head…I’ve been living in it, writing and going over every square inch of it, but haven’t really had the experience of reading it. Until I can have quiet in my life to do that, I don’t feel I’ve gone through the process.
In AYMM? you show how significant and encouraging it was to receive a letter from Adrienne Rich when you submitted to a literary journal after graduation. Have you had many mentor figures in your career?
I like to think of myself as very solitary and in some ways I invented my own little niche, but I certainly had help along the way. The cartoonist Howard Cruse, the founder of Gay Comix, was a wonderful mentor to me. I was able to see him write a very ambitious graphic novel [Stuck Rubber Baby], and he helped and inspired me to take on these kind of projects myself.
Alison Bechdel reads at Barnes & Noble 82nd Street Tue 1.
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