May 14, 2009
The first time I met Gabrielle Bell, she struck me as a tall and elegant woman, with long, soft-looking hair, a wise face, and a placid smile. Then I added her as a friend on Facebook. I looked at her picture and thought: I guess that looks like her, but it could also be a little kid, her younger sister maybe, snapped on the run, late at night. The next week, I ran into her on the street, and didn’t recognize her at all. She had to remind me of her name. Her hair was up in a hat, and her face looked more boyish and playful, and for the first time I focused on her eyes, long-lashed and amused. She seemed to me to be a completely different person. Finally, I bought her latest book, Cecil and Jordan in New York, a collection of smart, wry, and tender autobiographical and fictional short comics with a dreamlike quality. I read the title story – now a short film adapted by Gabrielle and Michel Gondry as part of the “Tokyo” triptych – about a girl who keeps transforming herself into a chair in order to make herself feel relevant and connected to the world around her. It all made me wonder if Gabrielle was a bit of a transformer herself.
You were just on tour on the west coast for Cecil and Jordan in New York. Do you like to tour?
I love to tour, and get out and meet the people. Traveling is a difficult thing for me to do but having a book to promote makes things smoother. I've been doing these slideshows for some time now, and I still always get paralyzed at the beginning, but then I warm up and people seem to enjoy them. It's all part of the job, I would say, and I love my job.
I could do with a bit less of sleeping on couches though. I don't like the feeling of waking up in someone's living room much.
Well, privacy is pretty important in a writer's life, especially when it comes to where they work. What kind of workspace do you have?
I recently rented a studio, and I liked it, but now I live alone and am converting the extra room into one. Before that I've always worked out of my bedroom. I really, really like to be at home, and to be alone, and have at least some work ethic, so it's not really been a problem. My work and my life are so intertwined together that it's better not to try to separate them.
I am actually resentful of when I have to leave home for the tiniest thing. Sometimes I just won’t, even if I really need milk for my coffee.
Yes, I do that milk thing too, where I'll just drink black coffee for a couple days.
Right now, I'm writing something highly autobiographical and I am residing in this gigantic creative bubble. So the minute I leave home that bubble pops, and boy, do I feel it. I've actually been struggling a bit, especially with where to draw the line in incorporating details of my life into my fiction. How do you draw the line with your work? And how do you know when something is supposed to be memoir and when it is supposed to be fiction?
Deciding where to draw the line is just another complicated factor that makes the whole process so tricky! Often I don't decide if the story is fictional or autobiographical until I'm writing the story, or I'll change my mind.
There are some things that need to be written, I think, despite feelings being hurt.
As a child growing up, I tried to make sense of the weird behavior of the people around me, adults and kids, and myself. But I could not, as I was just a kid. So I promised myself I would try to make sense of it in hindsight, when I became an adult and would – presumably – understand things better. I don't want to humiliate or expose or hurt anyone, but I don't want to protect bullies either. There are things that happen in life that you can do nothing about, except write about them, try to understand them.
If I'm doing strict autobiography, about things that are happening currently or just recently, and I'm worried about what someone will feel about how I'm portraying them, I tend to talk to them. If I'm writing about the past, I just go to it and don't worry about it till later.
I'm reading a galley of Stephen Elliott's new memoir, “The Adderall Diaries,” and in it he writes: "People often feel exploited when they find themselves in my work. It doesn't matter if I call it fiction; I know as well as they do that's not an excuse. I don't bother trying to defend myself. It's not defensible, it's just what I do."
I wish I were so reconciled. Although I find with most writers we're reconciled one day, and self-loathing the next.
I wish I were so bold!
I wanted to ask you about what it was like to draw yourself. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the world?
It's hard to do an honest self-portrait. I look different to myself depending on my moods. I often catch myself in mirrors looking sort of shabby and hunched over, my clothes kind of dirty looking even when they're clean, and a kind of clueless look in my face. I used to draw myself mousy - kind of chubby and in baggy clothes, with no distinctive features, because that's how I felt inside. Now I draw myself cuter, skinnier and longer, with more form-fitting clothes, wide eyes, better posture, etc. Maybe in hopes that life will imitate art.
I really love Alice Neel's self-portrait, the nude she did at 84. When I first saw it as a teenager I was appalled, but now I find it humbling.
That's a lovely painting. When we're young we don't want to even think about that as a possibility, the way bodies can age. But the older versions of us are probably more capable of tuning in on what - I think - is the best part of that painting: the defiant look in her face.
I resisted the urge to google you and to just base this whole interview solely on my personal impressions of you and my readings. I think you're a really wonderful storyteller, so dreamy and sincere, and your voice just comes throbbing through the page. Can you talk a bit about which writers influence your work?
I can't really say which writers influence me. When I read someone whose work I love, it seems to carve out new paths in my brain, and changes me, and my outlook, forever. And sometimes it's so strong I do see an obvious or even glaring effect on my work, but it's hard to pin down specifically.
I think, regarding “Cecil and Jordan,” books like “House of Mirth,” “Jane Eyre,” “Tess of the d'Urbervilles,” influenced some of the stories - not that I set out to be some ardent feminist! (Not that I set out not to be one either.) Also, Stefan Zweig had a big influence. And probably Somerset Maugham.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? Mine was called, "Me Myself and I," and it involved three little girls that looked exactly alike, and coincidentally also like me. (Even at a young age, I was a narcissist!) Were you always doing comics or did you ever write literature?
So you were originally a cartoonist? As a little girl?
I think I was still coming out of picture book territory then. I was probably five or six. So it made sense to me that a story wouldn't be complete without pictures.
I don't really remember my first story. I did want to write literature and I started out writing prose. I kept piles and piles of diaries, which I've been rereading lately. Occasionally I'd try to write a story but it was always, without fail, bad. Also the endless self-obsessed philosophizing I did. But when I described things in my life around me I had more compelling things to say.
I was always writing and drawing, so naturally I gravitated towards comics. I guess if I hadn't discovered them I'd still be trying to write and do art, in a sort of parallel way. I remember reading “Crime and Punishment” and thinking, "I really want to write a novel." I didn't understand the intense discipline and drive that goes into writing fiction. I didn't understand that even writing a good short story is an incredible accomplishment.
When I first decided to do a comic, I spent about a year working on this short story called “Laser Eyes,” about a very shy and quiet girl who, when she got mad, would shoot lasers from her eyes and kill people. I never finished it; I got bogged down in the penciling stage. I don't remember why, but I suddenly decided to just crank something out, to prove that I could, so I did a comic based on a dream I had. It was ten pages and took three days of work. It wasn't that good, but it was the first thing that ever really worked for me. I didn't need to rely on anyone else, and I knew that with each comic I did, I could improve. There was real feeling in that, and I've kept at it ever since. I don't know what I'd be doing now without it.
How old were you when you did that first comic? Did you ever have big dreams of being anything else?
I did really want to be a writer when I was young, and really badly. At around eleven or twelve I wanted to be some sort of rock star, but I have absolutely no talent for music. I always loved to draw, but I couldn't really imagine myself as an "artist," painting at an easel in some sort of studio. I most intensely wanted to be a writer; I wanted it so bad it hurt. But I was too confident and naive. I had this kind of intensity, this naive seriousness, a kind of determination. I'm very lucky I found comics, something to focus it on. Otherwise I might have frittered my energy away on all different projects that wouldn't have come to much.
I was around twenty when I was working on “Laser Eyes.” It was, of course, embarrassing. I am something of a late bloomer. I've spent a lot of time with good intentions but clueless. I wish I could do it all over again.
Ah, I think you're right on schedule, Gabrielle.
By the way, I have since googled you and now know a little bit about you personally. Reporters interview you about your love life! This seems so dramatic and exciting. I'm not going to ask you questions about it, I'm just going to ask you if it bothers you to talk about your love life. Like mining it for your own work is one thing, but talking about it to a stranger seems like another.
That's all too new to me to even know how to handle it. Yes, it's not a good idea to talk to any interviewers about my love life. It's complicated and sticky even talking about it with a close friend, so it seems all wrong talking to the "public." But when I am asked questions I don't even think about whether or not I should answer them or not, I just think about the best way to answer them. That's me trying to please everyone. I sort of feel like I can't control what people think about me, so in a way I just have to give up trying.
I just think that applies across the board. I think we -- women, artists, New Yorkers, whatever -- have to try to be fearless in every area of our lives, or at least do a good job of pretending we're that way.
We have now arrived at the Largehearted Boy Mini-Music Questionnaire portion of the interview. Do not be afraid.
What was your first rock show?
I think it was the Grateful Dead. After I ran away from home to live at this summer camp at a commune, this one woman, Dorge, arranged for me to come to see them at the Oakland Coliseum. A bunch of us went in this school bus that had "Nobody for President in 1984" painted on it. I got to hang around back stage. I didn't even notice the music. I remember the chocolate eclairs on a table that I could just help myself to, and that someone had a snake I could pet, and one time I went out into the audience and there were tons of people dancing so intensely it was more than I could handle. On the way back Dorge bought me two books: “The Babysitters Club,” which was my choice, and “Island of Blue Dolphins,” which was hers. She was really, really nice.
What albums do you listen to while you work?
Sibylle Baier, Colour Green.
What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
As a child, classic rock on the radio: Steve Miller Band, U2. Later, my uncle gave me a Green Day tape, and an Operation Ivy tape. Those really grew on me. After that, I liked the Dead Milkmen and Bad Religion. I had this one Circle Jerks tape that I loved: “Wild in the Streets.” I lived way up in the country on dirt roads, there weren't any "streets" to be wild in for miles around, but that made it all seem even more exciting.
Did you ever date anyone in a band?
Only once, I think, and only one date, so I don't think that even counts. I think musicians are a bit higher on the social scale than cartoonists. The worst of them seem more confident and graceful than the best of us.
Gabrielle Bell links:
also at Largehearted Boy: