Wednesday, October 23, 2013

[NYCC] Tableside Chat with Lucy Knisley of Relish

During my meanderings throughout the Javits Centre, I had the great pleasure to chat away with the delightful Lucy Knisley.  We sat down to talk about her latest graphic novel, Relish, published by First Second.  Like much of her work, it's an autobiographical book looking at various moments from her life with a focus on food and its importance within them.  We also touched on recipes, reader interaction, her cat, and much more.  We'll be on the other side of the cut, join us, won't you?

An accomplished comic book creator, Lucy Knisley been making autobiographical comics for a good long while now online.  Her first published graphic novel, French Milk, was relased in 2008 through Touchstone Publishing.  It is a drawn journal that follows her time living (and eating) in Paris with her mother.  Relish is her most recent graphic novel, having been released in April of this year, but it is definitely far from the last.

Grant McLaughlin: To begin, what's your background when it comes to art and the like?
Lucy Knisley: My mother was a chef and I grew up sort of drawing on the floor of her kitchens. And then I went to art school thinking I would be a professional painter and wound up wanting to tell stories with my art so I got into publishing comics in the local paper there in Chicago. After that, I went to comic book school at the Center forCartoon Studies and got my first publishing contract while I was there for French Milk, which was about Paris and was my first published graphic novel.  All of which brings us to this book from First Second, Relish, which just came out late April.

GM: And speaking of Relish, where did the urge to tell these little vignettes about your past and food come from?
Knisley: Well, I'm predominantly an autobiographical comic artist, and I really love telling true stories about my life. I find it creates a great connection between myself and the reader. And when I set about to write about my past and growing up, it is inexorably tied to the experiences of growing up in this food industry world among chefs and food writers and bakers and critics and all kinds of food people. So it was sort of a natural progression that I would talk about food and my historical connection to food and my family's connection to food.

GM: So in preparing the book, was the difficulty in finding enough vignettes or was it choosing which ones to go with among many?

Knisley: There were a lot that came to mind immediately, but it was tough to remember which chronological order they came in.  Choosing the foods and choosing the vignettes was definitely among the easier parts.

GM: Throughout the book, you get a little philosophical at times, kind of going into meditations on the relationships between identity and food and body and so on.  Was that something that you had in mind before starting on Relish or did it come into its own as you were writing the book?

Knisley: One thing I did when I was preparing for this book was that I put myself on a fast, a cleanse, to try to reconfigure my relationship to food, and what I really realized - beyond just the fact that food is so inexorably tied to my emotional well-being, in terms of being hungry equals being sad - it's also such a strong connector to each other. You know, we sit down and we share a meal or somebody prepares something for you or you prepare something for someone. It really connects you to the world and the people around you. And that was something that really came through in the book, I think.
GM: At the end of all the chapters, you decided to include recipes that often relate to what happened in the chapter itself.  When did that idea come into the process for you?

Knisley: I read this book, David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris, which is a prose book about his experiences living in Paris.  Each of the chapters are bookended by a recipe, because he's a chef and chocolatier. And I loved that idea that you could read about food in this kind of glowing memory context, where you're just imagining the food and then it would switch to this more concrete exploration of what food is.  That back and forth really fascinated me and I wanted to do that. At the time, I'd already been making a lot of recipe comics, because as somebody who learned to cook from my mother by watching her do it, participating in it, I find following along and learning from a cookbook kind of difficult, because it's this abstract column of words. You don't get to see the hands preparing the food. So I think that comics are a great way to sort of bridge that gap.

GM: And was there a favourite food memory or food recipe that you weren't able to get into the book?

Knisley: There were a few. I had one that I was talking about with someone recently, but I can't think of one offhand at the moment. Some, of course, that people have reminded me of after the book has been published that I was like “Ooo! That would have made such a good story!”  My good friend - my ex-step sister and good friend - told me recently that I introduced here to crème brûlée for the first time. She was really, really resistant. She was like “That looks weird.  That's hard. I don't understand.” She was really young. And I was like, “No, you gotta try it, you gotta try it, you gotta try it.” And she loved it so much that now it's like her signature dish.  That would have been a good one.

GM: Oh, well. Next time, I guess. Moving more generally, as you said near the beginning, you write a lot of autobiographical comics. Where does this urge come from? When did it first start?

Knisley: For me it really has always been about sort of making a connection between myself and the reader as a form of communication. When I was in college, I found, you know, you're in a new city, in a new place, with lots of new people. I think a lot of people suffer from social anxiety and shyness and I certainly experienced that. I was living in Chicago for the first time. I was 18. And I found it really difficult to connect with the world around me and the other people around me, so I started making comics about my experiences and the response I would get where people would say “I experienced something similar,” or “You put to words something that I had been feeling so much and that really made me feel less alone,” and that made me feel less alone to get that response, so I thought that that great feedback loop of feeling more connected to the people around us was such an amazing force in comics that I always try to tap into that.

GM: And how do your friends and family feel about all these autobiographical comics that are sometimes of intimate, maybe less than flattering details. How does that play with them?

Knisley: I'm very lucky.  And I'm an only child so I'm spoiled and I can do what I want. But for the most part my friends and family have been very, very understanding and generous with their likenesses. But I think it helps to draw people hotter than they are in real life.  Make sure you draw people as flattering as possible. Then they could be saying or doing anything, and they're like “Look how great I look! That's really nice!” So I always try to make an effort to do that.

GM: Good tip. How – you touched on this a little bit – but how important are the autobiographical comics for you to understand yourself?

Knisley: Yeah. It's partly free therapy, for sure. To be able to navel gaze a little bit and understand my place in the world in relation to everyone else. But more than that, one thing that I get a lot when I'm at conventions like this, is when people come up to me and are like “It's so weird, but I know the name of your cat.” And I'm like “That's not weird, I put it in my comic! Let's talk about my cat. This is great!” And, you know, people don't always understand that everything is very carefully edited and I'm very comfortable sharing this stuff. I have friends who make comics about their sex lives that I'm like “Ooo! Scandalous! I've never drawn my vagina in a comic, but I'm proud of you that you did.” So I think everybody has their own level of sharing that they're comfortable with and, for the most part, I'm very comfortable with what I put in mine.

GM: And when it comes to the creation of your comics, what is the balance between the importance of narrative versus truth to life? Is there one that is weighed maybe more than the other?

Knisley: You need to tell a story, right? You can't just say “I got up, I went to the laundromat, I got home, and went to bed.” I think a lot of the frustration in autobio comics comes with that sort of lack of clarification when you talk about autobio it encompasses memoir and journal comics and true to life stories that aren't necessarily all equally related to one another. So I think that there is a little bit of a stigma to it, but some of my favourite comics to read are true life stories.

GM: I've found that in pretty much all of your work there is this nice, subdued but very clearly there sense
of humour to it all. Very playful and nice little addition or existence --

Knisley: Right. It's not ba-dum-tssh. It's more titter-titter.

GM: Where do you think that comes from? What would you attribute that to?

Knisley: Well, I am a graduate of the same school that David Sedaris graduated from. I love his form of humour, the sort of true life story that is just told in a funny way that actually has a lot of depth to it and that creates this great connection to the reader. It could be the saddest story ever told in a funny way, and I've always really loved that style of humour and that kind of subtlety.

The nice about comics for that is that you get the physical humour in that as well. It doesn't all have to be in your eloquence.

GM: And with your comics having such a personal flair what would you say is your relationship between yourself and your readers?

Knisley: I think there's a lot of back and forth, definitely. It feels really good to know I'm not writing into a void. So I feel a responsibility to create content for people that speaks to them and that people find to be true and find connection to in their own lives.  I'm lucky enough that I get a lot of responses back from readers who then do feel that I've made this connection. So I feel that there's a great responsibility that keeps me on my toes, keeps me creating forever and keeps me motivated while at the same time, you know, I feel that I give a great deal back into that void.

GM: And for, you know, perhaps newer readers who aren't familiar with your work yet, where can it be found?

Knisley: Either my main, which is, which is a pain to spell because there's a silent 'K'. The easier one is Same website.

GM: And just kind of looking forward, are there other projects on the horizon (realizing, of course, that Relish just came out)?

Knisley: I actually have a new book contract with First Second as well, and that is sort of a follow-up to Relish. It will be my high school years, and it will sort of be what Relish does for food, but for art and art education and the importance of that in sort of saving a kid that struggles through high school. I had a tough time in high school. I went to four different schools and kept being diagnosed as learning disabled.  Turns out I was just an artist. So it's really about the teachers that saved me through that. So that's the next big book from these guys.

GM: That sounds really cool. And how did you first come to be with First Second?

Knisley: I've always admired their company. I love it. It's a very female strong company, and all of their books that were coming out when I was shopping Relish were so wonderful that I really couldn't think of anyone I would rather work with at the time. And I told my agent that these guys are awesome and they do really beautiful, beautiful books and I want this book to be beautiful. I think it's a great marriage.

GM: It certainly seems that way thus far. And so just as we move towards the end, at The Weekly Crisis we finish our interviews with what we call the Literary Rorschach Test. So I got a couple of words for you and your job is to say the first thing that comes into your head.

Delicious - Cookies
Experiment - Cocktail
Creation - Comic book
Recpie - Fabulous
Memory - Food
Friends - Food
Family - Cooking
Bon apetit - Delicioso
The End - Delicious. Basically delicioso.
GM: Awesome.  Thank you very much for your time.

Knisley: My pleasure.

As mentioned, more of Lucy Knisley's work can be found online at her websiteRelish is available through First Second and wherever books are sold.  If you haven't already given it a read through, you should ketchup.  If you can mustard the time, that is (sorry, I coudn't resist).

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