A page from What It Is (Drawn and Quarterly, 2008), Lynda Barry’s new book about how to write as good as she does.
If you were ever a weird kid or a sad kid, you have to read Lynda Barry’s comics and novels immediately because they will freak you out with how much you’ll relate. It’s embarrassing how many of her comics have made us get all emotional, even the funny ones. They’re like repressed memories of childhood coming to the surface in cartoon form and going “Holy shit.”
And then there’s Cruddy. Cruddy is the novel where you’re either with us or against us. It is the dark, and we mean daaaaark, tale of a teenage girl who meets a bunch of freaky kids, does acid with them, and then recounts her experience of going on a crime and murder spree with her insane dad when she was 11. It’s gory and nightmarish but also unexpectedly kooky. And it’s beautifully written in this signature language that Barry has that is so perfect, it kills us. Oh, and she wrote the whole novel by hand! Man.
So basically Lynda is our #1 hero. We’re excited because Drawn & Quarterly is putting out a gorgeous five-volume hardcover reprint collection of all her Ernie Pook’s Comeek strips. Yay! And if she ever brings her Writing the Unthinkable workshop to New York (please!), we are very there. We’re sorry to hear about her turbine problems though. We officially hate turbines now. Down with turbines!
Vice: You. Are. Amazing.
Lynda Barry: Thanks, but I’m not feeling very amazing at all. Ever since I found out an industrial wind farm is being planned for right beside our place—67 turbines, each standing 40 stories tall, 1,000 feet from our door. We’re looking at losing everything we’ve worked for—maybe having to move and start over. I’ll try not to mention it again, but if you would like to know more about a whole other side of “wind energy” you can visit the website I run for our community. It’s at betterplan.squarespace.com. I do want people to know these machines are not benign. They bring a lot of misery to those who are forced to live among them.
I’m sorry to hear that. But you’re still amazing. Which of your characters do you most identify with? Are you Marlys or Maybonne or Arna or Freddy or bits and pieces of all of them? Do you have a favorite?
I dig them all, completely! Even Arnold, the very straight brother of Arna. They all appeared at once in one comic strip called “The Night We All Got Sick” in the mid-1980s. I had no idea they would stay with me for so long. I relate to all of them and I’m always glad to have them come out of my brush or my pen because it’s the only way I get to see them. I never know what they are going to do or say because I don’t plan anything out before I start a strip. It’s kind of the way kids don’t have to plan everything out before they start playing with hand puppets. You just start wiggling the puppets and the story comes. I wiggle a pen or a brush but it’s the same thing.
Can you tell me what a typical day in your life is like? Do you write and draw every day?
Well, there was life before the turbines and life after the turbines. My life now is non-stop work on helping our community and other communities in Wisconsin get the word out that 1,000 feet from a home is just too close for these machines. I’m working to get setbacks of at least 2,640 feet. The wind developers are livid about this because it cuts into their profits, but it gives people some chance to stay in their homes. The main problem with the turbines is the noise they make at night. But enough about turbines.
Before the turbines I had a very happy, hardworking life that actually makes me cry when I remember it. I liked getting up at dawn or just a little before dawn, and going to my studio, which is an old grain barn about 500 feet from our house. I did work every single day, but to me it was a joy. It’s like asking a kid if they really played every single day. I did. I painted and read and wrote every day. It was my job, the beautiful job I always dreamed of. I can hardly stand to think about it. I don’t get to do any of that now. I try to find some time to make a few pictures or write a bit but my head is too worried about our future to work very well. We put all our savings into our farm. My husband, Kevin, has a small native-plant nursery and he does prairie-restoration work. We heat with wood and cook with wood and grow a lot of our own food. We don’t have a dryer and we hang our clothes outside all year round on our covered porch. I can’t believe we’re going to lose it all but it’s looking that way.
I’m really sorry. Writing in a barn sounds great.
It’s a small barn with a wraparound porch my husband and my neighbor built. It has a tin roof and a lot of windows and a wooden ceiling and it’s filled with books and art supplies. Before I start to write I always read something—I’m still trying to keep that up every day before I start my AT (After Turbines) work. I either read poems—Emily Dickinson is a favorite—or philosophy—Zhuang-zhi, who is considered to be the kind of far-out Lao Tsu—or one of Shunryu Suzuki’s wonderful Zen talks. I like to read something that shifts my mind from the hamster wheel that it can become otherwise. BT (Before Turbines), I would grind my ink on my inkstone and paint out the alphabet slowly on legal paper. Sometime during that painting of the alphabet I’d get a feeling about something to make. If it felt like writing then I’d work on my novel—writing it with a paintbrush. Slower writing is better for me. Better for my ideas. The novel is in an overflowing laundry basket on the floor of my studio right now. I miss it so much. If the feeling I had while writing the alphabet was more toward drawings or collage I would work on those. If there was no particular feeling I’d keep on writing the alphabet and moving my brush around the page in an unplanned way. Something always came up to meet me from this activity. There weren’t many bad days.
From The! Greatest! of! Marlys! (Sasquatch Books, 2000)
What is the best thing about living on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin? What is the worst thing?
We have an old oak grove behind the barn—with trees dating from before the Civil War. We have a lot of birds. I love birds. I can’t believe how many kinds there are. The barn swallows build their nests in the barn. Kevin has done a lot of restoration to the land here so the plants that support the native populations of insects and animals are here, and the birds seem especially happy.
I love my community too. It’s good having friends who farm. It’s good to know the names of their cows and the calves that come in the spring. It’s fun to see the new ones when I head up to get eggs from my neighbor. It’s good knowing they would be here in a minute for us anytime day or night, and it’s good knowing they can count on us the same way. We have a 1958 Ford tractor that I love. We have silos and a barn that has been here 100 years. The original house burned down years before we got here. Our house is a little tract house—nothing much at all. But we put on a tin roof and a covered porch and built a masonry bread oven. We have a big garden—man, I’m starting to cry here. It’s not the prettiest farm at all, but it’s the best place I’ve ever lived in my life.
Wow. Do you bother watching TV at all? What do you like to do for fun?
I love TV. When we moved to our farm Kevin asked that we not get a satellite dish and that we make do with local reception. At first I couldn’t even consider it. But it’s been very good for me to have an actual limit on what I can watch. Our reception is horrible. We hardly get a channel clearly. And pretty soon when the analog signal is gone we’ll get nothing at all, and I’m ready for that step. But I love TV! My favorite shows are Wife Swap and Super Nanny. I’ll miss those the most. When I travel I have a hard time leaving a hotel room that has cable.
What I like to do for fun is draw, write, garden, and visit the historical society in Footville—the closest town. It’s packed with scrapbooks and diaries from people in our area. It’s in a tiny old bank and smells like the best library. I call it the time machine. The woman in charge of it, Kay Demrow, is 72.
I love her. She has devoted her life to organizing and transcribing thousands and thousands of handwritten documents.
Can you tell us about how your most recent book, What It Is, came about?
What It Is is based on a writing class I teach called Writing the Unthinkable. I’d been wanting to make a book version of the class for a while but couldn’t figure out how to do it. I didn’t want it to be just text instructions or texts of ideas about how to write. I wanted handwriting to be a big part of it and I wanted it to make people just itch to make something. To me, writing or painting or collage are not different at all. They are like different hand puppets—but the living part of them is something I call “the image” because my teacher, Marilyn Frasca, called it that when I studied with her in college in the 70s. I was able to work with her for two years straight and everything I’ve done since is connected to what she taught me. My class is based on it, and the book is dedicated to her, and in a way all of my work is dedicated to her. She gave me something that has shaped my entire life and made me want to find a way to show it to other people.
I love teaching my class. Actually it’s been the one thing untouched by the turbines. When I leave here to go teach a workshop in Chicago or San Francisco I am free of worry and I am always elated by being in a room with students who are working hard. When I was little I wanted to be a teacher but never thought I could do it because I’m a terrible speller. I’m so happy to have found a way to manage it anyway.
From What It Is (Drawn and Quarterly, 2008)
Did you know that Cruddy is in our top five all-time desert island books? What would yours be?
I’m so glad to hear that! I adored writing Cruddy. It was the best time. I was having just as good of a time writing the novel I’m working on too—I could really feel it moving. I miss it as badly as I miss a person I love. But anyway, my desert island books are: a complete anthology of Dr. Seuss, D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality, the complete poems of Emily Dickinson, the whole George Smiley series by John le Carré, and an anthology of talks given by Shunryu Suzuki.
Is it true you wrote Cruddy entirely by hand, in cursive?
I wrote it with a paintbrush on legal paper. I don’t think it would have happened any other way. I came to that way of working because I had been trying to write a novel on my computer but the problem was that dang delete button. You can get rid of something before you even know what it is. Also there is all the difference in the world between tapping a finger to make an “a” and drawing the letter “a.” For me at least, it’s the movement of my hand that makes a story come to me. After ten years of trying to write a novel on a computer in the way I thought novels were written, I gave up. I remember walking around my workspace saying “OK! OK! If I were doing this, how would I do it?” And I realized that all I needed to do was do what I did when I made a painting or a comic strip. That meant slowly and by hand. It seems like writing a novel with a paintbrush would take a long time but I finished the first draft in nine months. I had the best time working on it. The story was so alive and unexpected. It seems like slowing way down is no way to write a story but it made Cruddy the way it is.
The weirdest thing about that book is the day I finished it, the book really ended. I never saw Roberta or any of the other characters again. I think of them, but they don’t think back to me the way they did when I was working on it. I was really lonely for them until the new book showed up. Now I think to the characters in it and they think back. It’s been especially hard not to work on it. I believe I will again after this turbine stuff is settled. I feel a real longing to be with the characters inside of it. To see what they are up to, and what happens. I love the not-knowing part, and at the same time having the feeling that they know, the characters know, they just have to move my hand on the page like a Ouija board for a while to tell me.
You have such a cool way of writing dialogue for your characters, especially for kids. The weird phrasings and grammatical strangeness is like a whole other language.
The language comes from handwriting. It really comes from the motion of the hand. Like a hand puppet—you start moving its mouth with your fingers and you look into its eyes and you get the feeling it is saying something and the it that is doing the saying is a little bit different than you. Different puppets have different ways of talking. My characters are like that. I crack up when I hear the next sentence they say. They make me laugh really hard sometimes. I know it’s me! But it’s also not me. The best part of this is there is nothing magical about it at all. Human beings have been doing it for a very long time and we all seem to be able to do it. Once I saw two guys do a scene from Romeo and Juliet using garbage they had just found in the street. It was at one of those freaky Renaissance fairs and I was not finding the groove of the situation at all until these two young men picked up a bottle cap and cigarette butt and did Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene with them, and I stared at that cigarette butt and bottle cap like they were actually talking. It was mind opening.
From The Freddie Stories (Sasquatch Books, 1999).
In your book, one of the writing exercises you describe is using specific words or phrases like “car” or “other people’s mothers” to bring up memories that can then be described in detail and begin to tell a story. So, can you tell us a quick, short story about, I don’t know… “haircut” or “mosquitoes”?
I could if I had more time. I’d have to do it by hand and I know that my head won’t go there today with all the turbine stuff hanging over me. But you should come to my class and I’ll show you how to do it. It’s a lot of fun! You can find out information about the class on MySpace—do a search on “writingtheunthinkable.”
From My Perfect Life (HarperCollins, 1992)
OK, well, at least please tell us about some of your upcoming projects so that we can have something in life to look forward to.
My novel! I want to say the name of it but I can’t until it’s done. And the great singer Kelly Hogan and I are working together to get the writing workshops going in different areas. And I really, really want to write a musical with her because she is a genius and hilarious and also serious and deep. I don’t want to die before I do that. And more paintings and more comics. But for now I’m in the army, fighting irresponsibly sited turbines. I’ve been drafted and I have to give it my best.
Do you like teaching?
I adore it!
What kind of stuff happens in the workshop?
Spontaneous and surprising story writing. It’s a hard class to describe but it’s pretty intense and also very anonymous. We don’t introduce ourselves, and we don’t discuss the work at all. It’s not a social situation, but it’s pretty fun anyway. I try to make it so that any student can be as involved or as uninvolved as they want. The writing method I teach is really specific so we’re basically just working on learning the method part of it so that people will be able to do it when they get home. A lot of what we do is in the activity section of What It Is.
Do you think people can really be taught how to write?
I don’t think anyone needs to be taught how to write. They just need to be reminded that they already know how to tell stories in the same way they know how to use their thumbs and fingers. The class is about what people already know how to do but most have abandoned, kind of like the way I abandoned my best ways of working to try to write a book on a computer.
What is your favorite animal?
I love dogs. Also birds. Also cephalopods. And fungus.
Have you ever had a vision or seen a ghost?
I have a vivid memory of seeing a ghost when I was about five. I can still see it. It was at the top of the stairs of a house we just moved to. It was just a shape that moved kind of like the northern lights move. A weird glow-in-the-dark ripple. I remember backing down the stairs and going back to bed and freaking out. Luckily I was sleeping in a bedroom with about 15 of my cousins and my grandma so I wasn’t alone. I still don’t know what it was or even if it was. It’s just an odd vivid memory. I also met a drag-queen psychic in the Philippines who told me my boyfriend and my best friend were in bed together at that very moment. He turned out to be right. I think he was a slightly mean drag-queen psychic because he was laughing when he told me. He was kind of a catty psychic. I’m not sure about psychics.
Can you tell me the key to eternal happiness? I have a feeling you know it.
I do! The key to eternal happiness is low overhead and no debt. The key to temporary happiness for me at least is no turbines. Solar power and manure digesters will be mentioned in my next letter to Santa.