As for your process, what comes first? Do you write the text, with images to follow? Or do you “envision” the story first? Or is it, perhaps, a more organic process than that implies?
No words or pictures, just lots of dishwashing and other mindless tasks. For some reason during these moments of mammalian staring, the least-guarded things pop into my head—as I mentioned before, what I think of as false memories. But once I actually start drawing, a different process takes over, with the drawings on the page suggesting all sorts of new things, based both on my own memories and ones I’ve made up. Beyond this and some planning notes and an outline, I just start at the upper left-hand corner or the center of the page and see what happens, which is something maybe I shouldn’t admit, but it’s true.
I don’t script anything, because then all I’d be doing is illustrating my words, which to me isn’t cartooning. Cartooning is a mysterious process that involves writing with pictures and seeing what recollections they dredge up and superimpose as one reads what one has drawn (which, hopefully, is analogous to what happens when someone else reads them too). The mind is a very organized thing, and organically produced comic strips illuminate its structures in a strange and very tangible way, I think.
If you were working exclusively with words, do you think you’d be writing novels or memoirs—or poetry?
I’d probably try to write novels, but I’d just rewrite the first page over and over again. Writing in words only feels like skating on oiled glass to me. I need something solid to grab or I start rolling backward.
Who are some of the writers who have inspired you? Any poets? In a number of panels, especially in Building Stories, whether you intended it or not—it’s poetry.
Though my reading of poetry is humiliatingly limited, I realize what I’m aiming for is almost a kind of synesthesia, which I guess is the clinical description of poetry. I also consider the artist Joseph Cornell—whose work was a big inspiration for Building Stories—to be as much a poet as a visual artist.
I’d probably pick James Joyce as my favorite English-language writer, and Tolstoy as the greatest who’s ever lived, and then add in Chekhov, Updike, Nabokov, Melville, Flaubert, Proust, Cheever, Hemingway, Maupassant, Maugham, Woolf, and Strindberg. John Steinbeck was the first writer who made me cry (thanks to Mrs. Byers, my seventh grade English teacher). As for contemporaries, certainly Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and Alice Munro. Last year I read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and a little Charles Dickens.
The presentation of Building Stories is so odd and uniquely compelling: the story in pieces. What was your thinking behind the different formats, including short books, brochures, newspapers, and pamphlets. I assume it is a deliberate attempt to disrupt the typical A-to-Z order of making one’s way through a story. Is this a commentary on traditional modes of narrative?
The format is both an attempt to get at that non-beginning/non-end of every story that we have within our minds, and also at the notion of immersing oneself in a memory to the point that one can almost lose all sense of the present. I wanted readers to experience something as if it were happening right in front of them, but then discover later that the story actually happened in the character’s distant past, with all the uncertainty that suggests. I hope for the inverse of this experience as well. This possibly too-rarefied approach nonetheless seemed like a fresh bet on how to treat memories on the page, to break them apart and allow for more of the multiple connections and overlaps that happen naturally within us…. Finally, and I don’t want to give too much away here, but the book itself is supposed to be an entirely imaginary object, which, hopefully, syncs up with a strange experience pretty much everyone has at one point or another.
As I mentioned before, Joseph Cornell’s boxes and dossiers were an inspiration, and I can’t take credit for the idea of a box of books, either (even if I did suggest it to my first publisher in 1987). Most recently, McSweeney’s has issued many such things, and there was also a strange burst of this sort of “ephemeral” publishing in the seventies and eighties that inspired me as a kid. Though I worry that the end result might seem a little too precious or “enchanting,” this feeling is, I hope, tempered by the tone of the stories themselves. Overall—if I can say this without sounding like a jerk—it’s intended as a serious, sober book.
Do you do all of your drawing and writing on paper?
Yes, indeed. I am very old-school—pencil, ink, and brush on Strathmore 500 Series Bristol board. Can’t think any other way.
What does your revision process look like—do you, like a writer replacing an adjective or an adverb, find yourself laboring over the expression on a character’s face, or revising a character’s stance in a certain panel? Or is there more of a flow to those kinds of decisions as you proceed in the story?
I do a small amount of editing once I scan it into the computer sometimes, but it’s always 98 percent there on the page. The adjectives and adverbs mostly come in when I color the pages.
I think it’s interesting that you see yourself as less plot-driven than most cartoonists. Do you see these longer works—Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories—more as character studies, with the character in your new work being the building? Can you talk a bit about your idea to use a building as the structure of your new novel? It reminds me of that Walt Whitman line, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
That’s very kind of you to say, and I wish I felt so confident. I guess if “character study” is the usual term, then yes—although Jimmy Corrigan was probably much more about history and causation of character, however pretentious that sounds. Building Stories is more of a portrait told from the inside out and then dumped into a box. The "building as character” comes from the main character’s overreaching for meaning in a creative writing class and accidentally finding it; i.e., every home and building we choose to live in reflects or contradicts our childhood and what we want ourselves to become, and homes can even form the shapes of our memories—which also sounds way too pretentious, but is something I do believe.