Mimi will be reading at the November 4 Radar Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library. We asked her some questions about dating, writing and advice for artists.
Tell us about something that challenged you during your last (or a current) project.
The worst thing about writing the first book (The Gift of Freedom) was that I had to finish it according to an external deadline – tenure. At some point I found I wasn’t writing to answer a question about liberal empire, or to close the circle of the argument, but to meet an institutional metric for a “productive” scholar. And even though I was writing with friends confronting the same metric –we would literally sit in a room together and write for hours, next to one another, chatting about a sentence one minute and leading each other through some stretches another—it was still an incredibly isolating experience.
The moment I remembered that I had an intensely satisfying creative and intellectual life long before I came to the academy was transformative. A feminist literary scholar named Janice Radway came to my campus and in a lecture discussed my work as a zinester (with particular reference to the Race Riot compilations, and feminist critical theory in my zines) and its relationship to my scholarship now. I had been feeling so under seige on the tenure track that I cried for a few days afterward, because I understood so acutely what I had been missing for the last few years – which was writing to the question, for the argument, and of course, for myself.
You get to have an epic dream date with anyone dead or alive: who are they and where do you go on your date?
My friends reading this would know it’s a lie if I chose anyone but Keanu Reeves. That said, I have no idea what an “epic dream date” would be, and having only been on a few “proper” dates, and it seems like it would be awkward to go on a grown-up, straight-person date with Keanu Reeves.
But pretending as if this isn’t the most awkward question, we could just go to a punk show on his motorcycle (or if he still has access to that time-traveling telephone booth, we could take the booth to the Hong Kong Café to see The Bags or The Go-Go’s in 1979), and then spend a few hours going through the boxes of zines and records in my living room I haven’t made time to read or listen to yet. After that, we could choreograph a mash-up of a movie-fu fight with Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” dance and put it on YouTube as a performance piece. I hope he kept his sleeveless denim jacket from River’s Edge, because I would wear the crap out of it in the video. (Also I would be wearing Madonna’s boots from Desperately Seeking Susan, since those are the most epic shoes.) And then we could make a 24-hour zine about making art and getting older, and I could impress him with my carefully hoarded Letraset collection.
I should note that I am answering these questions with a cold fogging my brain. The other night, while otherwise wiped out on Advil, I randomly started a site to archive all the responses to Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby.” I am totally a good time, Keanu.
Give us one piece of advice you want to share with artists – about life, bills, process, editing, brainstorming, anything.
I don’t have advice as much as I have “random questions about the nature of work.” How do we reproduce troubling measures of civic and capitalist productivity through binaries of activity/passivity in our cultural work? How do we evaluate an artistic process or object or experience? Through what measures of value, accountability – and to whom? As a scholar, I hear from both administrators and activists that the intellectual labor I do “should” yield concrete outcomes – whether in publications or grants, or in something measurable as “social change.” I worry about what these utilitarian (and sometimes authoritarian) demands mean for us, especially because I want to hold out a place for creative and intellectual labors that are slow to unfurl, or otherwise appear to the efficacious eye as useless, obscurantist, impractical, marginal, or wholly unproductive.
Ann Friedman: One thing I think about a lot is, how do you take a complex project that you’ve poured so much of yourself into and distill it down when people ask you, ‘So, what’s your book about?’ I was going to ask for your elevator speech, or your pitch.
Thomas Page McBee: Oh no! I’m really bad at saying what my book is about actually. What I usually say is something like, ‘It’s a memoir about two traumas that happened at different points in my life and how the second trauma led me to figure out a lot about who I was.’ That’s like my most blanket sort of statement. And depending on the company, because it’s so heavy to describe it, depending on how much people want to know, I’ll usually start talking about how it’s about masculinity and how I transitioned and what I learned about being a man from living in a world where being a man can mean a lot of different things and a lot those things aren’t so good. How I sort of came into my own understanding of what masculinity was. The transition isn’t so much about a transition and gender as much as understanding how to be my own person in the world, which is a pretty universal transition I think most of us make in our late twenties. So, that is my broad attempt. But I’m still am so not good at it.
AF: Are you bracing yourself for people being like ‘It’s a trans memoir!’ Or something totally reductive like that?
TPM: You know what’s interesting is I think that anyone who’s read it so far that I’ve talked to have not said that at all, which has been really cool. The whole point of the book was to make something that was about an experience I had about gender, but again, I’m a universalist. The material of my life is kind of material that people have made sort of ‘othering’ and I hate that because I try really hard not to ‘other’ anyone else so, I was really trying to make a book that was about how my experience wasn’t radically different than anyone else. And I’m kind of very bored by.. I think identity politics are great of course to talk about power and how we all fit within the structure and oppression and all these things, but I’m just much more interested in like you know . . . how to translate experiences that might feel to somebody else like something they don’t know a lot about, and how similar our lives really are to each other. I mean that’s what I like at a party and that’s what the book was supposed to be, too. And so far I think people who have read the book have that reaction to it, which is really great. I’m so excited about how it’s landing, and I haven’t had a lot of experience yet with people who haven’t read it telling me what it’s about. But I imagine that’s sort of like when you write for new media and you go online and people just read the headline and then comment – you just sort of disregard. That’s not a useful place from which to engage from.
AF: It’s funny too, because I wonder if you feel this way as well. But sometimes I think about like, the idea of wanting to respect a different experience – of gender identity, for example – as also being an alienating thing. Like, I think about what it means to be a woman in my body, like, everyday. And I obviously understand that there are different, – you’re right – like, structures to that. Did you see the memoir as a salvo in that conversation? Sort of being like ‘Well, I’m just going to tell the story as it happened,’ and not write like ‘ . . .and here’s how it fits into power structures’?
TPM: Yeah. I mean, I guess it’s more like what you just said about your gender – I think we all have a gender and I think there’s a nuance to all of this. I think we all have a gender and I hope that when I write things about gender people realize just that. That alone is such an issue for so many people who aren’t trans or who aren’t women, that that can make a huge difference in how we treat each other and I like making it visible that gender affects how we are in the world and how we treat each other. So, I think that that sort of thing is really important and I hope that when I write anything that that comes through. But I also - it’s not typical that I go ‘well screw all of this I’m just writing my own story that has no relationship to any reality except for the people closest to me’ or something. I get that if it fits a larger dialogue and I like that. When I was first transitioning I started writing so much about it because I really didn’t see myself in the typical sort of transition narrative, which is pretty medicalized. It’s like, “I was born in the wrong body. I just want someone else to fix my body so that I can be normal.” I just didn’t feel that way.
AF: Right. There’s very much like a wrong and right narrative.
TPM: Yeah, exactly.
AF: It’s it’s about people like getting “right” whatever that means.
TPM: Right, well a lot of it is about getting medicine. When you don’t know how to explain what’s going on with you and you need it to be a simple process so that the people who have the hormones can say ‘Here,’ - you know, ‘You’re officially mentally ill and these will help make you right again.’ I think we all have different opinions and I don’t know anyone else’s sense of identity. I think everyone’s valid, but for me I just felt like that just didn’t feel like the right way to be embarking on this huge change. I just didn’t think there was something wrong with me. I was just different. So I was really interested in like, is there someway to communicate the sort of complexity and nuances of being this particular person in this particular body and will that hopefully maybe help people see that there are a lot of different ways to be any gender. Including whatever gender they are. So that’s sort of what I was attempting to do. I hope it kind of got there.
AF: I found myself wondering, at what point did you know or think that you were going to write a memoir?
TPM: What’s funny is that I was trying to write a book for a really long time and it was sort of evolving as my life was evolving. So for years and years I was trying to write a collection of essays that were just sort of about gender. They were about gender but they were about a lot of different things that just sort of became the theme of the book, but it wasn’t really working. I was trying to write about violence, I was trying to write about masculinity and like family and they were all these little vignettes and they weren’t really working. Then I was mugged in this sort of horrific way and it just, I don’t know what happened. My life really came together in a new way and I think that the book just sort of came from that life moment coalescing into something that made everything make sense up until that point. So it’s kind of a spiritual thing for me. I was living my life, I was trying to write about my life and I wasn’t able to do it in a way that had any coherence, and this terrible thing happened but it was very clarifying and that’s the only way I usually describe the book is that trauma and the way we react to trauma doesn’t have to be – it can be surprising, you know? It doesn’t have to be wholly negative.
AF: Right, and so it was after getting mugged that you were like ‘Oh, I have some perspective that I’ve been looking for about how to talk about all these things that I was maybe treating as disparate or separate sort points of inquiry or stories to tell.’ Were you like ‘Oh, I see how it fits now’ or was it a slow revelation?
TPM: It was sort of like, my writing life and my life life are really not separated at all. I think what it was is that what I was trying to do up until that point was to sort of skew a narrative that wasn’t necessarily my own onto my life. It was a lot of other people’s narratives, it was the narrative I grew up with in my family, it was the narrative of my culture. Everyone around me it was sort of ‘here’s how life works, here’s who I am in the world’ but it was always a translation of someone else. And I think this thing happened, and what was so powerful to me about it was that my body knew how to take care of itself in that sort of scenario. Like, I knew how to run away. I had a very physical reaction that was, I later learned, symptomatic of trauma, and that when you run the reason why you don’t get PTSD is you release all these chemicals and they get back into the mold of, you know, “the herd” or whatever, and there are another set of chemicals that are basically self-soothing. So, I guess there were moments right after that happened when I got really interested in like, ‘Why was I able to feel okay after everything that happened?’ And, ‘What made it so different than the original scary things that happened to me?’ and my own reaction. The answer I kept landing on was ‘Well I’m an adult, I can take care of myself.’ And I actually am telling myself my own story about what is happening. No one else is translating it for me and it’s only me who can actually tell the story of my life and myself, and you can be the person believing this narrative. So it’s kind of like this huge epiphany. I’d been writing a book, so I was like, ‘I think I’ll just take this idea and my own sense of narrative and like write a book from that place,’ and that was the first time in my life I’d done that and that lead to a lot of things including my transition.
AF: It’s interesting, too – I know you’ve written a lot about risk as it relates to lots of different things, but it seems really interesting to me to sort of say ‘This is about me claiming or telling my own story,’ but at the same time you’re making it public which is essentially sort of being like, ‘It’s not my story any more.’ It’s everybody’s story in a way. Do you feel like there is risk involved in publishing this as well?
TPM: Well, I guess my philosophy around that kind of thing is that I think it’s like a gift. I grew up reading all the time and reading other people’s stories. I realized that there are so many different way to be in the world. I realized that I wasn’t that different, or that my uniqueness was a good thing from reading constantly, so I always felt like to be in a relationship or to be in conversation with people – even as a kid at four or five years old – I felt like books were a way for me to feel connected to other people. And that for me is so much more important I think than then the way that could go wrong. So I think that for me I don’t think I could even write about my life and not feel, like, self-obsessed unless it was ultimately for other people who might need something from it. Because it really was so important for me to have that experience. I guess I do know, when you write for the internet you kind of have to have a thick skin. It’s almost like you have to go into this sort of space in your mind where it’s for everyone but it’s for no one in that way. Like there’s no one person for whom it matters the most, or you can’t really react to the sort of collective cacophony. So what I do with most of my writing – and we’ll see if the book is really different – but I just send it out there, I try and say like ‘Okay this is mine, I’m giving it to people to experience’ and people who contact me and take the time to say ‘this affected me’ in whatever way, that’s really beautiful and I appreciate it. And whatever sort of comment trolling stuff that happens I just disregard. Once that part is gone then I can move onto the next part of my life.
AF: Did you picture more specific readers, or did you picture that kid whose experience is maybe similar to yours but has never read it articulated in such a way? Or, did you picture more, like, where these people live as they read this, or what their politics are, or did you just sort of say ‘This is the way it has to be and I’m going to send it out into a void.’
TPM: I think more the latter. I think that the book was more – like, with the Self-Made Man column I do I actually do have kind of a sense, because so many people have written to me that I know who reads it. So sometimes with that I have sort of an idea, I imagine a person who might be reading and I imagine what sounds interesting to them. But with the book I just, I knew that the stuff that I was going to go into was going to be much more vulnerable than my other stuff. I just knew ultimately that it was going to a reader, but I didn’t want to think about that person because I was afraid of holding back in someway. I didn’t want to go there. So I knew I was writing it for the collective everyone, but I also think I was just writing it for myself. And that was the only way to make sure I actually wrote it and didn’t hide anything.
AF: But you had to think about your family and loved ones and the people who actually make appearances in the book, or who experience some of these things alongside you. And that had to be really hard, right?
TPM: I think that actually it’s not so hard for me to be vulnerable or for me to be open. I kind of understand that I’m not normal in that way. Like to me it doesn’t feel scary to be this person who’s exposed in this way in the world. I don’t feel frightened of people’s reaction to that. And I don’t know why, that’s just how I am. But I realize that a lot of people in my life are very private, and so negotiating other people’s comfort levels was really challenging: trying to be cognizant of what’s actually a really important story and what’s just ‘color’ or ‘flavor’ that really doesn’t need to be in here because it makes someone else uncomfortable. I did so many revisions and that was a big part of what I was thinking about every time. And I’m so lucky that the people in my life ultimately really just let me be and put a lot of trust in me. So I try to be really sensitive to that.
AF: Did you ever worry – one thing I was struck by was that you must be an avid journal keeper. I know you’re also writing regularly publicly, but a lot of this stuff you describe with such an incredible level of detail, and I found myself wondering if you were documenting in real time or if you just have this incredible recall ability or what?
TPM: Well I think that the stuff that was happening sort of from South Carolina on – the second two-thirds of the book – I really was writing while it was happening. So, a lot of why that came out that way was that it was very much happening in the moment. But the first third or the stuff that refers to my childhood – somebody else asked me why I withheld a lot of detail about being abused as a kid, like why there aren’t a lot of scenes around that. To me, I had been thinking about alienating and not-alienating emotional texture is way more important than the visceral traumatic details of people’s childhood abuse. Which I actually think is really numbing for most people to read. I don’t that that’s useful in terms of helping people access empathy around experience. So I do have a very powerful emotional memory recall but not necessarily a visible memory recall and I think that that’s what I tapped into a lot with this book. I was trying to be like, what did it feel like, to be in whatever situation I was writing about. And I wanted to hopefully get people to experience that same feeling.
AF: It’s kind of like, sometimes I think about the scene at the end of Grizzly Man where Werner Herzog listens to the guy getting mauled to death but doesn’t ever choose to play it. And it’s sort of like that, where you can fill in the details with your own trauma, or your own emotional connection, when it’s not so literally described sometimes.
TPM: Yeah, and I think that’s such a great comparison. Because I love that about that movie. When you don’t have access to the visceral thing that’s so overwhelming you are forced to actually find your way into the setting, and I want people to do that not just with my story but with life in general.
AF: One of the things I wanted to ask about was the role that geography plays in this story. You mentioned going to visit family in South Carolina and there seems to be so much about you getting mugged ‘in Oakland.’ The sense of place seems to be really strong. I just wonder your thoughts about that. The ‘where’ and the setting for a lot of this stuff.
TPM: I think that that aspect of the book – there are definitely some politics that could be vetted, you know aspects of culture and how where we are affects the way our bodies are perceived. And other bodies in relation to our bodies, how those things are interacting with each other. Like the opening scene. I like San Francisco a lot, I think that the Bay Area has a very troubled relationship with race and it’s very complicated there’s not a lot of dialogue and discussion going on around that, at least in my experience there wasn’t when I was living there. So I think that the way that the criminal justice system works there is really disturbing. You know, I was thinking about that even though I was sort of the ‘victim of’ in this situation, I felt a lot of mixed feelings about the way the crime was handled and the way this case was handled and it just seemed like there was a lot more going on. It wasn’t just me and this one guy on this dirty street. There was a lot that took us both to that moment in our lives and I wanted that to be clear. And the South Carolina stuff sort of similarly, there’s another perpetrator who’s my father and I’m going back to where he’s from and his family and there’s just a lot going on with religion and expectations. There’s a lot below the surface around gender and I wanted it to be clear that we’re all products of more than just these moments in time where we do terrible things or terrible things are done to us. And also I think in all these situations my masculinity was being read really differently than my body, and so that had do that had a lot of do with where I was at any given time and I wanted to illustrate that too, this interesting thing.
AF: I was also struck by the fact that there’s this road trip. This idea of intentionally moving location that was really interesting to me in the context of that as well. Sort of being like ‘I want to go to this place where my body may be perceived this way.’ For other reasons too, but sort of choosing a place to be seemed really interesting.
TPM: Absolutely. And then getting to do that. Which is like, I don’t remember how much of this is in the book, but it was such an interesting place to be around gender there, too, and so much of being moved to write was coming from me me after this. Around who I was relating to and why. I don’t know any queer people for a long time when I was living in New England, so I just would hang around with, like, pregnant women who would understand what it’s like to be on hormone,s and those people understood me better than anybody else did.
AF: I was wondering whether it was tempting at all to sort of – I know I made a kind of passing reference to the writing that you do that is more explicit about examining what it means to be a man in the world today. Like, if there were versions of the book where you address some of that a little but more explicitly, where you sort of stepped back and were less personal about it, or whether you knew from the start you wanted to write straight memoir and not really delve into your column territory.
TPM: I think for this book I was actually really more into doing the question of ‘Is there any way to be a good man’ because that was what I was so anxious about. The reason the book really started after I was mugged was because I was having to answer that question really directly. Like, how can you be a good man when all of your models around you are so negative and we live in a culture where masculinity is pretty toxic? Is there any way to be a good man specifically, not just a good person but a good man in this world? And so I wanted to answer that question in the book and that’s what I was writing about. But my next project is about masculinity and about American masculinity very broadly. A survey of American modern masculinity, and it asks a lot of broader questions that hopefully explores a lot more of those essay items. With this book I really was focused on how I fit into a broader culture, of course, but I knew it wasn’t going to have any macro lens at all.
AF: And it’s interesting as well – like, I found myself thinking about the word ‘choice’ here. This sense of , what kind of man do I want to be? Do I want to claim that term? Wherein so often the conversation around gender identity is framed around ‘it’s not a choice’, which is why we need to accept people. And I know that is a very clunky distillation of what remains a very contentious question and seemed like you kind of answer that. But I’m wondering if you feel like you do in the book or not.
TPM: I think what I learned is that it is such a paradoxical situation. Because in some ways, I think especially if you’re a feminist or if you grew up in the third wave there’s sort of this idea that gender is this performance and you can kind of ‘choose’ what your gender is. I think to some degree that’s really true and I learned a lot from that perspective and I think in the sense that we are encultured in a way that our bodies are assigned like ‘this is how you should behave and not behave’ and there’s all kind of power structures around that. There are a lot of problematic things about that. So I think to some degree of course you can either opt out and a lot of people that sort of don’t want to think about that, I think they just kind of roll over to expectations that are really problematic, especially men. In that way I think that I brought that perspective to my transition. I also think I have a very spiritual orientation to life in general and to identity in general and I just really feel like there’s also a truth to gender is pretty innate, and that’s pretty hard to understand when you have that other perspective. I don’t think I could have not transitioned, obviously. So I was in a paradox the whole time I was writing where I was like ,’I feel really compelled to do this thing. It’s not actually a choice, but how I behave once I’ve done it is.’ And I think that that’s how I am I intentional with my masculinity, how am I intentional as a man in the world, to what degree can I be in this male body and behave in a way that I have integrity and that brings my whole life that I had before along with me. I think that would be the answer to how to be a good man.
AF: Please write that explicitly somewhere – maybe that’s going to be in the new book? I actually feel like that’s a great way around what I often feel like is a counterproductive argument about gender identity. I mean, maybe you have written that and I’ve missed it.
TPM: I don’t know, I don’t think I have. I think you just drew that out of me. That was pretty good.
AF: Well anyway, let me know when you do write it, or maybe hold your fire for the next book.
Catch Thomas Page McBee at City Lights tonight for the Man Alive San Francisco Book Party: https://www.facebook.com/events/835187169854815/
. . . and in Los Angeles with Ali Liebegott at Slylight Books: https://www.facebook.com/events/1494424510805867/
Catch Thomas Page McBee AND Ann Friedman – and MariNaomi and Melinda Chateauvert – at RADAR October 14th: https://www.facebook.com/events/640403836076483/
Catch Thomas Page McBee at the Sister Spit Books LitQuake LitCrawl at the Lexington Club – with Virgie Tovar, Antonia Crane and Maryam Rostami: https://www.facebook.com/events/358982777559991/
Much thanks to RADAR’s Intern, Eileen Sochia, for transcribing.
How’s that homework/stuff you’re supposed to be doing for your job looking? You should really stop all that productivity and come watch RADAR’s August reading series because it’s now on YouTube! Don’t worry, you’ve got the rest of the night to do work/school related things. This will only take about an hour, plus you get to feel some things that aren’t task related panic.
Here’s the thing about Jamie: she’s amazing. Make yourself a cup of tea, bust out that old foot bath thing you never use and have yourself some bliss listening to her words.
Finish that tea before you commence this video, because Kate is so funny you will definitely pee it out. Also includes sporadic feels.
Do you have any idea what a tintype portrait is? Neither did I. But they’re fascinating and so is Kari’s creative process in general, check it out.
Go hide your credit card. Do it. Do it now, because there is some possibility that you are like me and will use your designated taco money to purchase Ariel’s book somewhere on the internet immediately after seeing her perform.
Now go out into the world a creatively stimulated human and do those things you’ve been needing to do/maybe go to sleep and just do it in the morning.
RADAR & City Lights Books present a most excellent book party for Lenelle Moïse’s Haiti Glass on September 16, 2014 at City Lights Books (261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco) at 7pm. This book is part of the City Lights Sister Spit imprint! Now you have one more book you should most definitely read before summer officially ends. The time is now! Start reading it.
Here are some reasons why:
Haiti Glass, the debut book from award-winning playwright Lenelle Moïse offers an unflinching look at Haitian-American identity, disaster, desire, and death-defying love. In her debut collection of verse and prose, Moïse moves deftly between memories of growing up as a Haitian immigrant in the suburbs of Boston, to bearing witness to brutality and catastrophe, to intellectual, playful explorations of pop culture enigmas like Michael Jackson and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Whether it is the presence of a skinhead on the subway, a newspaper account of unthinkable atrocity, or the “noose loosened to necklace” of desire, the cut of Haiti Glass lays bare a world of resistance and survival, mourning and lust, need and process, triumph and prayer.
“Lenelle Moïse brings fierce passion.”—New York Times
“Piercing, covering territory both intimate & political . . . vivid & powerful.” —Curve Magazine
“See Moïse push stories from her mouth like it might save your life.”—The Root
Lenelle Moïse is an award-winning poet, playwright, essayist, and internationally touring performance artist who creates jazz-infused, hip-hop bred, politicized texts about identity, memory, and magic. Her poems and essays are featured in several anthologies, including: Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution and We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists. Her writing has also been published in the Utne Reader, Make/Shift, Left Turn, and numerous other magazines and journals. A current Huntington Theatre Company Playwriting Fellow, her plays Womb-Words, Thirsting, Ache What Make, Expatriate, Matermorphosis, Purple, and Cornered in the Dark have been produced across the country. She lives in Northampton, MA where she was the 2010-2012 Poet Laureate. This is her long-awaited first book, and she is available for interview.
RADAR interviewed Ariel Schrag, author of graphic novels Awkward, Definition, Potential and Likewise. She has written for TV shows such as The L Word and HBO series How To Make It In America. She recently published her first novel Adam. She will be attending RADAR’s August reading on the 12th.
R: You did a tour with Sister Spit, right?
R: And was it just one tour or a couple?
A: I just did one tour in fall of 2009.
R: Had you already started your work for Adam, or how has your work changed since your tour with Sister Spit?
A: I think when I went on Sister Spit I’d written maybe like around 60 to 100 pages of Adam, I was really just at the beginning. And I was reading from short comics on that tour so I wasn’t doing any preliminary Adam readings.
R: So for the comics, you are at a projector type of thing reading along?
A: Yeah, basically starting around 2005/2006 a lot of cartoonists who had previously had to use slides to show their comics and read them all began using Powerpoint or other various software programs to use kind of rapidly on the computer through images. What most cartoonists would do is take a page of comics that had may twelve panels on it or six panels on it and then in Photoshop go in and separate the panels and turn it into individual slides that you could then put onto a Powerpoint. Some people would erase, if you had a lot of text in your comics it made sense to erase or to take out and photoshop the text so that people wouldn’t be trying to read too much at the same time as you’re reading. But yeah! So basically the idea is just that you read the voices and whatever missing text there is along with the slides and I would also include a musical sound track so music would be playing at the same time and it was super fun.
R: We’re you the only one on the tour who did that type of thing?
A: On our particular tour I was the only cartoonist doing that but Michelle’s definitely had other cartoonists on the tour.
R: So the next question is totally different. You moved from the bay to New York awhile ago, right?
R: I recently moved from NY to the bay and I’m wondering how exactly New York, the stereotypes that you think of when you think of New York, how it lived up to that and how it was different than you thought it might be?
A: I think my main motivation for moving to New York when I was 18 was this whole idea that it was this creative hub where if you wanted to be a writer this is where you go and I was definitely not disappointed. I found myself surrounded by people excited to do interesting things. So of course when I first moved I had to kind of work a string of pretty shitty jobs but, you know, whereas I had worked at a movie theater in Berkeley and most of the people I worked with, you know some of them were creative and had other pursuits, a lot of people were totally happy to just work at the movie theater. And when I moved to NY and worked at the Film Forum, I felt like everybody was like really intensely working on something else at the same time. I remember I came in one day to work and my coworker was reading Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, gosh I love that book, he then introduced me to what would then become one of my all time favorite books. That was just sort of like the type of environment that felt like everyday you would meet someone who was doing something exciting or would introduce you to something exciting. You need to feel that way you know, and now I’ve been here, I don’t know 15 years or something and I’m always meeting new and exciting people.
R: Mmhm, I feel like the level of productivity in NY is a little higher.
A: Berkeley’s great and I’ll always have a fondness for it and could see myself maybe living there when I’m older but I don’t feel the same kind of creative energy. Obviously some people in the bay area have it but I think, for the most part, you tend to find a type of intensity more often in NY.
R: What brings you to the bay at the time of the August 12th reading?
A: I’m coming out for the RADAR reading and also I’m going to visit my family and then go to spend some time in LA as well to visit friends and I’m going to be pitching an animated television show that may or may not happen but that is my August California visit.
R: Very cool. Where are you at in the production of Potential?
A: That is now working with a new director named Matt Wolf who is really awesome. He recently had a narrative documentary film come out called Teenager about teenage living in the early 20th century and it is based on a book. He also is currently working on a documentary for HBO about the artist behind the Eloise books and he also grew up in the bay area and we’re now collaborating on the Potential film right now. We’re adapting the script based on his vision for it.
R: So, you’re pretty established in what you do, I was just wondering, as someone who isn’t so much, do you ever find yourself stunted by the expectation that you continue creating things because it’s how you make your living? Or I guess another way of saying that is how do you come up with your ideas when other people are expecting you to create ideas?
A: I mean I think there’s always going to be, you always have to find a balance. Most people have to find a balance between kind of art and commerce and when I was younger I never wanted art to have an expectation of money around it, that felt really stressful, and so I’d always planned to be a high school biology teacher and I would do comics on the side and so that was sort of, my plan for awhile. As it turned out, when I finished college, I was originally planning on looking into teaching, possibly teach for America, when I had the opportunity to write this Potential screenplay. Because of that, I was paid to do that which meant that I only needed to sort of work other jobs for a time and then the Potential screenplay led to a job on The L Word where I was then making a lot of money doing something that I really enjoyed and so I sort of found myself going down a path of making money through writing. And what I found was, I liked the idea that I could have jobs that were writing but done for money, such as working in TV. But then I could also do my own private projects on the side. So that way I wouldn’t have to feel so much pressure or stress around the things that were more personal to me but could pursue the other avenues and I found that they helped each other. Working on The L Word allowed me to get a book agent that helped me sell my books so the two could kind of help each other in a way that a separate career could not help my artistic projects. But it is definitely, it can sometimes be stressful when you’re working on a more commerce-type job and you kind of conflate the act of creating with something stressful or something that you need to do for money. And I don’t like when I get that feeling but I think that it’s just a painful part of the way it is and no one’s jobs are ever going to feel perfect at any point in time. So I just try and sort of make it work and set a balance between staying afloat with various types of work and working on stuff that is important to me.
R: And you still teach, right? I read somewhere that you teach at The New School, is that still a thing?
A: Yeah, every spring I teach a graphic novel workshop at The New School and I really like teaching sort of random comics classes just two hour comics classes at colleges throughout the year and I find that, that’s not something that I just do for money. Obviously I like the money but I also really like getting to meet new people and it’s fun to engage with people that are really excited about comics. And I also don’t feel burnt out on it because one class a year is really not that stressful.
R: You could always come to Mills College.
R: How exactly for Adam, how did you come up with the premise? Are you scared that it could perhaps become a guide for a cis-male into that queer world?
A: (laughs) Do I think that somebody would read it and be like “oo this is what I can do.”
A: No, I don’t. Or, maybe, I mean who can say? I guess that person could be out there but I think there’s a big difference between the scenario my character Adam finds himself in which is that he is at first mistaken for a trans guy and eventually throughout the book ends up allowing a girl that he has a crush on to believe that but there’s a big difference between coming at that predicament that way than being some cis-straight guy with the ambition to infiltrate the queer scene. I honestly feel like most straight cis guys are just not that interested in infiltrating the queer scene. My character wound up in that situation because he gets ostracised from his group of friends at school and he gets to spend the summer with his sister who happens to be gay and this happens to be the subculture that she’s living in. I mean it’s really very circumstantial, this hook of cis straight guy pretends to be trans is not say that it’s like a how-to or anything like that. I do feel that it is in many ways a guide to a cis straight guy understanding queer culture and trans identities, more than they would have before having read the book.
R: Do you know what you’ll be reading on the 12?
A: I’m not sure yet, I haven’t decided.
R: If you could eat one thing right now what would it be?
A: Maybe like a duck in orange sauce, with some rice on the side.
Ariel will be reading at RADAR’s August 12th reading.