Phoebe Gloeckner on her book-turned-movie and working as a writer/artist

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Rachel Sherman: I first discovered your book The Diary of a Teenage Girl randomly, on my first book tour while waiting to read at Powell's Bookstore. It became a pivotal book in my life, always on my "Recommended Reading" list for students, etc. I think that I was most struck by your ability to capture adolescence in such a realistic way. Do you still feel close to that part of yourself now? I often wonder about whether one being able to write the book might, in some way, be because they are "over" the experience the writing is inspired by. Is this at all resonant?

Phoebe Gloeckner: First of all, THANKS FOR LIKING MY BOOK! Do I feel close to my own adolescence, or to the "adolescent state?" Life is a continuum of development, not easily divided into stages that are clearly delineated. Our experiences are a part of us and persist as memories according to how important they were. I think my adolescence had such an electric "fuzz" surrounding it that I was often compelled to communicate with that time, far into adulthood. I reached a point where the experience was distant enough that it no longer caused me the same anguish
or stirred the same desires. It wasn't that I was "over" anything, but that I could look at my adolescent self as a different self, almost as a different person, for whom I could have more empathy. At that point, it was possible to write the book.

RS: How do you (or do you not) share your work with your daughters? Is there a specific way you approach art in your own family?

PG: I suppose we don't see art as separate from any other part of life. My kids have always been surrounded by art and artists to some degree. As far as my work, I didn't want my daughters to read the books until they were older. I thought that the pain expressed would be too raw and too upsetting for them because I'm their Mom.

If I hadn't been their Mom, this wouldn't have been such a big deal. The sexual and drug stuff was also an issue, at least when they were young adolescents.

While we're on the topic of daughters... The Diary of a Teenage Girl has been adapted for the screen by director Marielle Heller. Both of my kids appear in the film several times as extras. Persephone (the younger) has a one-word speaking role. Fina (aka Audrey, the older) took a semester off from college to be an on-set production assistant. She was also a stand-in for Bel Powley as they were setting up shots since they happened to be close to the same size and age. I'm really happy that my daughters could be involved in the experience.

RS: I know that you are also a medical illustrator. How does that part of your artistic life relate to your other ventures, or do they feel unrelated? It occurred to me (and I might be projecting) that somehow drawing the interior of bodies is very much related to thinking about one's emotional interior.

PG: From early childhood, I was often absorbed by both the psychological and physical aspects of existence. My grandmother was a doctor, and I often sat in her waiting room, leafing through surgical journals for the "good" pictures—meaning the ones that were most shocking and brain-twisting to me.


As an example, I vividly recall an article on "pannus reduction" surgery. This involves removing pendulous sections of abdominal skin and fat from obese patients who had lost considerable weight. The pictures showed huge aprons of flesh lifted and suspended mechanically to clear the surgical area. Since the pictures were interesting, I read further and realized that it wasn't so simple a procedure you can't just "cut off" flesh. There were many layers beneath and between layers of skin and adipose tissue, as well as nerves and blood vessels that would be interrupted in the process. Would the vessels be re-approximated and stitched, or cauterized at either end? If they were cauterized, where would the blood go when the wound was heeled? And did the patient need to
convalesce in a prone position?

Because if they stood up, I thought, wouldn't gravity pull the stitches apart? Reading on, I learned that a special girdle would be worn to support the area while it was
healing.

This type of thinking sucked me in the physical body seemed to be an endlessly fascinating puzzle, with all parts interconnected in three dimensions. No part could be disrupted without affecting the whole. At the same time, I was aware that my thinking seemed to take place in my head, suggesting that thought was also a physical process. This was confusing to me because consciousness seemed to be such a magical state. And then, I wondered why we felt things with our hearts. I was aware of
feeling physical pain in my heart when I was very sad. Why? Is the heart really sad, or was the brain making it so? The connection of spirit and intellect to the body seemed pretty clear to me, although I felt more like an autonomous brain in control of a body for its own purposes than an integrated mind-body system.

So, although my "comics" have generally addressed the emotional interior, my interest in the physical interior drove me to study medical illustration (I had no interest in becoming a doctor). I was able to attend surgeries and autopsies, learning about life in a way which was not generally possible while living it.

RS: In addition to illustrating, you are also a professor. Is teaching inspiring to you? Do you have any thoughts or suggestions about reconciling the money-making aspect of life with the creative part?

PG: I don't practice as a medical illustrator any longer, now that I'm teaching at the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. There simply isn't enough time. If my books are my "first" profession, medical illustration was my second, and now teaching takes its place as a way to
support myself. I still rarely find myself with adequate head-time to work on personal projects. I'm very, very ,very fortunate to have received two fellowships that allowed me to work with more focus. One was a Guggenheim and one is a fellowship from the University of Michigan Institute for the
Humanities. The second begins this coming September, so I'll have a year to work on (and hopefully finish) my current project. I can't describe how grateful I am for these two opportunities.

So, in the past decade, I've been pretty fortunate to have a steady means of support but believe me,
there were some incredibly rocky times all the way into my late 30s. It's hard to make a living as an artist and/or a writer. One needs a combination of dogged obsession and luck to survive.

RS: I recently learned that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is coming out as a movie. How has this process gone for you? What were your thoughts about giving up control of your story? Has the experience been a positive one?

PG: It's been great. I never felt that I was "giving up control" of the story because I felt that the director, Marielle Heller, empathized with it and loved it in a way that gave me great confidence. Like any adaptation, many things are changed or abbreviated, but the heart of the story is there. Much of the original dialogue from the book is used and the appearance of places and characters are carried over in the film. I had opportunities to read the script at various stages. I'm very happy with the film. This was Marielle's debut as a director of a feature-length film, and she did an incredible job.

RS: Would you be willing to divulge a bit about your current projects? What are you working on now?

PG: I'm currently working on another hybrid sort of novel, which is about many things, but revolves around the lives of the family and acquaintances of Maria Elena Chavez Caldera, who was murdered at the age of 15 in 2000 in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

RS: And lastly, any advice to other writers and illustrators who are interested in making their career their passion?

PG: Well I think writing/drawing/creating must be one's passion before one decides on a career. Unless it's something you really must do because you're driven, and have no choice in the matter, the life of a writer or a cartoonist may be too difficult and fraught with uncertainty! Also, it might be best to support yourself with work that is significantly different from, yet complements, your personal work in some way.

 

Phoebe Gloeckner is a graphic novelist. Her book, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002), was praised as "one of the most brutally honest, shocking, tender, beautiful portrayals of growing up female in America." Cartoonist R. Crumb called her story, Minnie’s Third Love (published in A Child’s Life and Other Stories) one of the “comic book masterpieces of all time.”

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