Monkeys, Cephalopods, and Creative Play: Lynda Barry on Picture This, an Amazon Best of 2010 Selection
Earlier this month, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, Lynda Barry's follow up to her stunning What It Is, made Amazon's best of 2010 graphic novels top 10 list. That prior book was one of my favorites of 2008, and made my list of the best of the decade. I wrote at the time that it was "one of those rare books that offers solace for the soul and brilliant commentary on the artistic impulse. The images by themselves would be amazing, the text by itself wise and luminous yet pragmatic. The combination of text and art provides new insight that feels three-dimensional and oddly soothing. I cannot over-emphasize the therapeutic effect." Picture This is a different type of creative play, but just as compelling and wonderful.
Barry talked to Omni about Picture This via email recently, touching on everything from the idea of creative play to, erm, how squid might serve up human calamari...
Amazon.com: You said in a Comics Journal interview that the book What It is wasn’t planned. But that you did fill in gaps once you had pages in a general order. Is this the same process you used for Picture This? And how is Picture This different from the prior book?
Lynda Barry: For Picture This it was pretty much the same process. I start with a question--in this case it was “What makes us stop drawing?” and I make pictures while I think about the question and pretty soon the book just sort of starts to gel. The difference was with Picture This I had to have the pages up on a wall where I could see them. And there were a lot of pages so I had to create ‘walls’ to put the pages on in my studio--there isn’t enough wall space to do it--and it turns out the 4 x 8 sheets of blue styrofoam used for construction insulation worked perfectly. The sheets are long, lightweight, sturdy and really portable. So I could put about 40 pages on each sheet and drag the sheets all over the studio so I could move the pictures around until they started to interact with each other.
I think my biggest challenge was accepting the fact that Picture This is a picture book. It was really hard for me to just put in pictures that weren’t comics. I was worried about that. I’ve never been known for my drawing skills. I was worried that people would feel ripped off.
Amazon.com: How has your perception of your audience changed as your work has become more widely known?
Lynda Barry: Well a lot of the people who read my comics are getting older--not just the people who are my age, I’m talking about kids--especially the ones who started reading my work when they were little. I love meeting them now in their twenties and thirties and having them tell me about sneaking my books out of their parents' room, or running into them at the library. I love that. And I love the younger cartoonists I meet because of my work. So maybe my perception of my audience hasn’t changed as much as my perception of my work as being something that moves reliably though time.
But the biggest change has come because of teaching my writing workshop for the last ten or so years. It’s changed my perception about people in general and the role that images play in our lives. I see people completely differently now because of it--my "audience" now is anyone who has had an urge to write a story or make a picture but is too confused about where to begin and worried about what the point of doing any of this might be.
Amazon.com: Has your art changed as a result of interaction with your readers?
Lynda Barry: It’s changed because of my interaction with my students and other people who are curious about working with images. I don’t get to interact much with my readers because unless I’m giving a talk or doing a book signing I don’t meet my readers at all. I live on a farm in Wisconsin and unless I’m traveling I’m pretty isolated.
However, I think I can say my art has been affected by other artists I meet on the road and the conversations we have. While touring for Picture This I’ve gotten to hang around some brilliant writers and brilliant cartoonists, some who are my long time heroes like Jaime Hernandez, some who are new to me and I’m completely smitten by, like Vanessa Davis and Sarah Levitt. And there are some who have no category--the badass ones who are completely unique in what they do, like Joe Sacco. I was lucky to meet Canadian writers like Ryan Knighton and James Grainger, and Vancouver’s poet laureate, the soulful and hilarious Brad Cran. I can say it was worth making Picture This just for these beautiful meetings.
Amazon.com: Do you find any value in misreading of your work by reviewers or your readers?
Lynda Barry: I don’t read what people write about my work and when people talk to me about my work I do my best to change the subject as quickly and politely as possible. Sometimes though when people get the name of my books wrong I love it. I really love how “What It Is” became “What Is It” and “This Is It” and “Where Is It” and “What Is That”.
But by far my favorite mix up was when someone was telling me how much they liked my book “Cruddy” but they thought the name was “Crappy”--which still cracks me up. I don’t correct anyone about such things and my hope is no one ever corrects them. I like that kind of "misreading" the best.
Amazon.com: Can you talk about the importance of creative play in art? Is it underrated?
Lynda Barry: I don’t think art is anything other than a form that contains the potential for that very thing I think you’ve nailed with this term: "creative play".
It’s the interactive element through which an image is transferred from one person to another, or between one part of the self to another part of the self. When I read a poem by Emily Dickinson I have to hold my mind open in the same way I do when I’m listening to someone in conversation. A good conversation can’t be forced or led a certain way. The moment that happens, the conversation sort of dies. What makes it good is both people being absolutely present and interactive with no plan in terms of where the conversation is going. The conversation is a third thing that is neither of the people who are talking, though they are making it happen in the way musicians might be make a song happen by playing their instruments--but they are not the song. Reciprocity is an essential element of play in the same way it’s essential in conversation. Otherwise you’re just stuck listening to some blowhard go on and on, or worse, you’re that blowhard.
The best thing I ever learned to do was stop, look and listen and then respond. This is true for conversations with others as well as making pictures or stories when I am alone.
Amazon.com: What would you say to someone who asks about the functionality of your books, their purpose?
Lynda Barry: My goal is to make a book for someone who is sitting in the waiting room at the Jiffy Lube while they were getting their oil changed. I want to make books that are picked up by a bored or waiting person who starts to thumb through them and gets drawn in enough so that they stop noticing they are waiting at the Jiffy Lube and instead start to itch to make something with their hands. A picture, or a comic or anything at all. I’m devoted to the idea that the use of images can not only transform our experience of time and space, but also has an absolute biological function that is directly tied to an essential state of being which is this: the feeling that life is something worth living.
I don’t mean this on a huge scale. I mean this on the smallest scale. The feeling that life is worth living is like opposable thumbs. They are physically very small things compared to the rest of our body, but so much is possible if we have them.
Amazon.com: I love cephalopods and I get the sense you love them too, from your art. What draws you to them?
Lynda Barry: Well, they are spectacular creatures, very smart, able to change their skin color and surface, some can strobe a bioluminescent trip on you, and nearly all can squeeze in and out of tight spots. Also they have beaks. They are wonderful to draw.
Unfortunately they are also very delicious. That’s been tough. I love them so much. I also like to eat them so much. But I like to think they would feel the same about me. That I’d be something worth eating as well. I don’t know what the squid equivalent of deep frying, salting, squeezing on lemon and serving with sauce would be, but cephalopods aren’t fools. There must be a way to prepare people like me in a way that would make a fantastic appetizer.
Amazon.com: Any recommendations of artists you think are underrated and deserve more attention?
Lynda Barry: Actually what fits that description--underrated and deserves more attention--is poetry. There is something about poetry that I’m only now beginning to glimpse and I think it’s huge. I’ve only been able to get closer to it by memorizing poems. Just reading them on a page doesn’t really have the same power. It’s like reading sheet music or hearing a song once. Those are legitimate experiences but there is something so much deeper going on if you spend time with the music. Same with poetry. It’s much more alive than I ever suspected. And much more useful than I could have known had I not memorized some poems. I try to memorize at least one poem a month. When I’m working on a book I try to memorize one poem a week. These are very short poems. Not epic poems. Emily Dickinson is a particular favorite. A.E. Houseman and William Blake and Issa too.
Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
Lynda Barry: I’m working on a novel called “BIRDIS”--but it’s hard to do while traveling. I am aching to finish this book. Mostly because I want to be in the world of the book for a sustained period of time because that is a miracle kind of feeling. It’s as good as reading a really good book, even if the book I’m writing isn’t all that good. The feeling of being in the story is incredible. Again, there is a feeling of being able to transform my experience of time and space. Who doesn’t want to be able to do that? I love to be in an image world that rolls out in every direction as long as I keep moving my brush across the page. Not much more to say about BIRDIS except I’ve been working on this book for awhile. Picture This was an unexpected book that popped out where BIRDIS was supposed to pop out in time. Picture This jumped the line. But I’m very glad it did.