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Interview: Alison Bechdel
Comic strip author talks about ‘Dykes To Watch Out For’ and her new book

by Gregg Shapiro
Before a word is even written, a memoir is a weighted undertaking. Add a detail, such as the writer being a lesbian, and the book is already bent in an interesting direction. On top of that, the lesbian author’s father is bisexual. Where can you possibly go from there? Let’s see. How about the father’s untimely death, at the age of 44 in 1980? Might have been a suicide and not the accident it was presented as? Oh, and one more thing. Since the author is Alison Bechdel, whose beloved “Dykes To Watch Out For” comic strip has been running in LGBT publications around the world from more than 20 years, the memoir is told in the graphic form.

“Fun Home,” Bechdel’s picture-perfect graphic memoir, brings her “family tragicomic” to life. The same precision she brings to her drawings, she applies to the deeply personal story. Because the illustrations tell so much of the story, the economy of language borders on the poetic, making this one of the great literary achievements of the year. Following a recent reading in San Francisco in June, Bechdel talked about life, her comic strip and the new book.

Q. You were signing your new book “Fun Home” at BookExpo America (BEA) in Washington, D.C., in May of 2006. Was that your first experience or had you attended the BEA before?

A. I had attended BEA before, once or twice. But those times I was with Firebrand Books, a small feminist press. I mostly went just to meet the various reps and distribution people who handled my books. I observed all the big author signings from afar and felt rather out of the loop.

Q. What was this year’s experience like for you?

A. This time I did one of those book signings, up in the big corral. It was quite a change. From outside to inside.

Q.“Fun Home” has been embraced by Entertainment Weekly. You received a rave review, which qualified the book for the magazine’s “A List” and the book was also included and recommended in the summer book preview. How does it feel to be receiving those kinds of accolades?

A. Very, very odd. It feels good, but also unnerving. I’ve gotten used to a rather low profile over the years and also to feeling increasingly bitter and jaded about never seeming to get as far as I’d hoped with my comic strip. I’d like to think that sort of external approval didn’t matter, that it’s all about the work. But in fact, getting a little recognition is a very constructive, positive experience.

Q. In the acknowledgements page you thank your mother and brothers “for not trying to stop me from writing this book.” How important was it to you to have your family’s cooperation when it came to writing “Fun Home?”

A. It was very important. It might be impossible to do something like this without hurting someone, but I felt like I at least wanted to keep people in the loop about what I was doing. My mom and brothers objected to a few things in the book. I changed some of it and other stuff I argued to leave in. Then did so.

Q. The concept of queer parents has changed radically in recent years. Do you think that if your father had been of a later generation, that things might have turned out differently for him in terms of his sexuality?

A. Yeah, absolutely. In a way, the book is a sort of sociological study of these two generations of gay people. My dad came of age a decade before Stonewall. I came of age a decade after. My circumstances were completely different from his, and I was able to make choices he wasn’t. Some of that was about historical circumstances, but some of it was just who he was. In the book I try to sort that out a little bit.

Q.“Six Feet Under” gave many people insight into the daily operation of a funeral home. Did you watch “Six Feet Under” and did you think it was an accurate portrayal?

A. I couldn’t watch that show. It premiered very early in my work on my memoir and when I first heard about it I felt devastated. Like, “Oh, god, someone else is telling my story.” Eventually I did watch two episodes, and the parallels were pretty stunning. The father who gets killed in an accident. His surreal funeral in the family’s own funeral home. The gay brother. The wacky sister who drives an old hearse. My brother drives an old hearse!

Q. There is a proverb that goes “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When telling this story, how did you decide what to illustrate and what to write?

A. Well, theoretically, the words and pictures are interdependent. You don’t say something in the text that you can show in the picture. And you don’t put something in the picture that’s more economically handled in the text. There’s a sort of logic to it that you start to internalize after doing it for a while.

Q. Is there a particular order in the creative process — do the pictures or the words come first?

A. I do tend to start with the words. But at a certain point I hit a wall with just words and can’t complete my ideas unless I start thinking of the story visually.

Q.“Fun Home” is such a deeply personal work. Do you think that you will continue to explore that realm?

A. Absolutely. I really love working autobiographically and am beginning a new project in that vein.

Q. With “Fun Home,” how does it feel to be a part of the ongoing evolution of graphic literature?

A. I’m feeling pretty fortunate about the timing of everything. Graphic narratives are moving from the subculture to the mainstream in a very similar way to how queer narratives are moving into the mainstream. I feel like I was in the right place at the right time. Though of course, I’ve been doing both these things for nearly 25 years.

Q. Eric Orner’s “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green” has been made into a movie. How would you feel if you were approached about making “Fun Home” or “Dykes To Watch Out For” into a feature length film?

A. I really don’t think “Fun Home” would translate to film. I mean, I suppose someone could do it, somehow. But to me it’s very much a sequential graphic story. There’s not a lot of action. It’s very internal, there’s lots of narration, it has long essayistic passages. It’s not like a movie that follows a simple three act structure. I just can’t see it. DTWOF, on the other hand, might be cool as a movie. I’d prefer to see it live action, I think, and not animated. Animation is mostly so shoddy. I think it would just look dumb, you know?

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