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August 26, 2009

Antiheroines: Emily Flake

The Antiheroines series features author Jami Attenberg interviewing up-and-coming female comics artists.

Vanessa Rocker

A few years ago my friend Whitney moved from New York City to Los Angeles for a fancy job with an entertainment magazine, but before she left, she made sure to introduce lots of people to each other through various boozy events, mostly literary or sports-related, sometimes both. Often these events also involved fried food. Obviously Whitney was a genius. It was at one of these events – a potluck Super Bowl party at Whitney’s place in Queens – that I met Emily Flake. With her one-two punch combo of big blue eyes and the pottiest of potty mouths, I was totally smitten. I went home and read all the archives of her acerbic, self-deprecating, extremely saucy “Lulu Eightball” comics on the Baltimore City Paper website, because I stalk like that. Then some other things happened. She did illustrations for my first book, Instant Love. Atomic Books released a collection of her comic strips. (A second, Lulu Eightball Volume 2, will be released on September 30.) Then Bloomsbury published her extremely well received These Things Ain't Gonna Smoke Themselves. Now she contributes to The New Yorker. And throughout all of this she did not change her voice or her style one lick. She has not compromised her work because people recognize her voice is singular. This is an inspiration to me. Also she’s funny as hell, and is great to be around. I mean, whatever, Emily’s the shit. Thanks, Whitney.

Jami Attenberg: I went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and studied creative writing as an undergrad. I would say I learned a handful of things that I still carry with me every day, and I was introduced to a lot of great authors I had never read before, though perhaps I would have found them eventually. I still think it was worth it to go even though obviously my degree was useless in terms of finding a job. You went to art school, to MICA in Baltimore. What do you think art school did for you?

Emily Flake: I was lucky enough to have some really top-notch instructors, and I am definitely glad I went. I entered that place as soft and unformed as a newly hatched slug and came out with much more of a semblance to the goober I am today, for what that's worth. Which I think is partly school and partly growing up, especially given that I had gotten out of my hometown and to the bright lights and shooty-stabby streets of Baltimore.

That said, I often wish I had taken a year off before going to college and just moved out of my house and worked a regular job, maybe grown up a little and been able to appreciate school more. That's an expensive lesson to learn while actually in school. Also, the price has grown so exponentially in the ten years since I graduated - across the board, not just MICA - that I have a hard time recommending university to anyone who plans on getting a liberal arts degree. You would be better off begging, borrowing, or stealing a few grand and traveling the world, reading, and looking at things than saddling yourself with the kind of debt kids are these days.

And in fact you do travel quite a bit these days. I know that you spend a lot of time down in Buenos Aires. Can you talk about the appeal of that city for you, and if it has any impact on your work?

I love to travel. I love seeing new things and places, and I particularly like meeting people from different places. This is a big difference between my fiancé and myself. He too loves to travel, but could kind of give two shits about meeting people. He will suffer politely through the chatty guy on the bus, but he doesn't love that sort of thing. I, on the other hand, will chat up just about anybody, which is not always an awesome trait.

Buenos Aires is appealing on almost every level - it's beautiful, the people are incredibly smart and erudite, it has an amazing comics scene, the food is fat-makingly delicious, and though prices have gone up, it's still freaking cheap.
And yes, prices are going up for tourists, but boo-fucking-hoo. It's pretty disastrous for Argentineans, this inflation business. The exchange rate works very much in our favor. It's sort of a holiday in somebody else's devalued currency. There are things in my life I feel better about than that.

There are plenty of my favorite kind of old man there - charming, smart, with lots of stories, willing to chat a bit, always in a cafe, or walking along the sidewalk at a leisurely pace, hands clasped behind their backs. The downside to a place like Buenos Aires is I become keenly aware of my general schlubbiness - it is a thin and well-dressed populace down there. Also, my Spanish is good enough to have a slow conversation but not good enough to not sound like an idiot, so A. I sound like an idiot and B. I have to spend a lot of time in my own company, which I discovered I don't love.

As far as the impact on my work goes, to be honest, I rarely draw much when I'm traveling - except for assigned work, because you know, freelance never sleeps. I write stuff down and kind of digest and draw later. A place like Buenos Aires makes me wish I were better at landscape drawing. The cityscapes are really something, a view becomes an almost abstract chatter of soft gray and white bleached by the sun, under a brilliant sky. What I really like to draw is people, and I am acutely shy to draw in public, especially at a bar or any setting like that.

But I think travel has the effect of opening your eyes in general and making you think about the world, which can't help but affect your work one way or the other. One of the most delightful things about Buenos Aires was that so many of the apartments open right up onto the street. I found myself trying to lurk and spy. I spend a lot of time just taking things in.

You mentioned that you talk to just about anyone, which is one of my favorite things about you, your chattiness and general outgoing nature. This works extremely well for you in terms of your public performances. Have you always been a natural performer?

Thank you for calling me a natural performer. I don’t think I am one at all. Sometimes when I'm up doing one of my little things I hit sort of a sweet spot where it really flows nicely and I can make funny asides and generally engage, but sometimes I trip over all my words and generally make an ass of myself.

That said, I love doing the slide shows. Cartooning is a solitary gig, and it's really gratifying to show what you've done to a roomful of people and hear them laugh. Assuming they do. I certainly wouldn't say that I have the need to be on stage that real performers do, but I enjoy it on the occasions I'm there.

Also, it leads to nice things sometimes - and editor from MAD was in the audience once, for example, and invited me to submit to the magazine. I think any kind of exposure that way is great.

If I regret anything it's having been utterly clueless about the tech side - I just sort of assumed people would have the equipment I needed, and since that's not quite how it works, I actually couldn't perform at a gig or two. I have made many mistakes in this life, Jami.

When I saw you most recently perform at an event for the anthology Love is A Four-Letter Word, you did a piece about throwing yourself at an older man during your college days. Your representation of yourself naked was elegant, tragic, and I suspect unfair. (Not that I have seen you naked. Or thought about seeing you naked.) But I was wondering as you read that, with your fiancé seated in the room, if it at all made you uncomfortable talking about your frailties, which you do so incredibly well. I guess the bigger question is, how do you know when to draw the line, or is there no line?

Well, I figure it can't be awesome to hear tales of me throwing myself at other dudes. But talking about my frailties is kind of my thing. It's a good thing I figured out that angle, because I don't see those frailties disappearing anytime soon. I don't think there's a line. Not for proprieties sake, at any rate. I think as long as something is funny and honest - and I privilege the latter over the former actually - it's all open season. It would be extremely dishonest of me to stop telling these kinds of stories because it might bum out my fiancé. And anyway, he should know what he's getting into by now.

We have now arrived at the Largehearted Boy Mini-Music Questionnaire portion of the interview. Do not be afraid.

I am not afraid.

What was your first rock show?

Girls Against Boys at the UCONN Student Union in 1991. A handful of local punk rock bands were opening for them. I want to say Bimbo Shrinehead and Maude and Big Gulp, but that might be entirely revisionist history. (A shout out to nineties Central Connecticut punk rock for you, though.) And my friend's dad was picking us up at 11:00, so the local bands were actually the only ones I saw, as Girls Against Boys didn't come on till 11:30. Oh, to be young.

What was the best performance you've ever seen?

Oh, that is a tough one. Especially given that I used to work for a record distributor, and so was sort of obligated to go see shows, which kind of took a lot of the joy out of it. I saw a lot of punk rock shows as a kid that I can't exactly say were the best performances I've ever seen, but I miss being so excited to see a show and the happiness of kind of finding your people, even though I was also extremely shy and lame and thought everybody thought I was a world-class noodle.

But I'd have to say one of the shows that has impressed me the most in recent years was the Wildhearts. The songs just tear out of that man like he's possessed, like he'd die if he didn't sing them. I walked away a convert and truly excited.

What albums do you listen to while you work?

Mostly very bouncy, sing-alongy stuff if I need the energy, which I almost always do. New Pornographers, Jawbreaker, the Pixies, The Descendents, Belle and Sebastian, Husker Du, Arcade Fire, a skate-punk band from Argentina called Massacre. But I also listen to an awful lot of NPR, because I am an old fart.

What music did you listen to when you were growing up?

Looking at how similar this list and the one above are going to be makes me slightly ashamed. My favorite bands are still the ones I listened to 15 years ago. The first bands I ever truly loved were REM, the Descendents, and the Dead Milkmen. When I was thirteen or fourteen, that was pretty much my whole musical world. I don't seem to have really stretched it that much.

Did you ever date anyone in a band?

My very first kiss was from a boy that grew up to be the bassist in Isis.

Emily Flake links:

Emily Flake's website
Emily Flake's comic strip, Lulu Eightball

Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by Emily Flake for Lulu Eightball
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by Emily Flake for These Things Ain't Gonna Smoke Themselves

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Antiheroines interviews
musician/author interviews
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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