When Lucy Knisley was on her book tour for Kid Gloves, her newest autobiographical work, about her difficult pregnancy and childbirth experience, she wore a jumpsuit made from fabric she designed herself, covered with drawings of babies. She also tossed out tiny care packages to anyone who’d had a baby in the past few years, handed out stickers, gave out prints she’d made, had activity books for kids on hand (i.e., “draw faces on the baby”) and, most incredibly, drew a tiny pencil portrait of every person who came to the signing who wanted one, packaged neatly in a little gold envelope. That’s a lot, and it explains a lot about what kind of a person she is and what her comics are like.
You could also just read Something New: Tales From a Makeshift Bride, her previous book, which discusses her desire to make things and personalize experiences as a way of expressing gratitude as much as individuality. You’d think, therefore, that Kid Gloves is about the realization that every pregnant woman has about her lack of control over the process. But it’s not, and that’s a good thing. Instead, it’s a look at Knisley’s specific situation and how it illuminates larger truths, including our general suckiness as a society at improving maternal health. That specificity and her openness about the whole process have been met with great enthusiasm, and listening to the ways in which people responded to her in person with their own stories was touching and powerful. Knisley answered half these questions (over email) before the book tour and half after, but hopefully you can’t tell which came when.
Paste: Making a comic: is it more like cooking or more like baking? Discuss?
Lucy Knisley: I think it depends on the comic! Short sketchbook comics are like throwing together a quick and easy snack, but they’re often the best/tastiest. Long-form graphic novels that take a long time and planning are more like baking—exact and meticulous.
Paste: Along those lines, people tend to refer to being pregnant with baking metaphors. What do you think about those? They’re weird, right?
Knisley: EXTREMELY weird. I never felt less like an oven [than] when I was pregnant, and there’s something super creepy about talking about babies being “cooked.” It also equates it with such an automated process, when really there’s so much WORK involved.
Paste: I guess it also makes it seem like there’s one right way to be pregnant, as opposed to a more improvisational process like cooking. And that creates a lot of stress for pregnant folks (that then continues into motherhood, when everyone is telling you you’re doing it wrong all the time).
Knisley: Yes! As if there’s any one way to bake a damn cake!
Paste: Do you think making autobiographical (confessional, even) comics is a way for you to process your own thoughts and feelings about your life? How do you decide what not to put in your books?
Knisley: Yes, definitely. I try to think about everything in life being subjective, and trying to tell a story in a way that is honest and can evoke empathy with the reader, which makes it easier to decide what to include. Making comics, for me, is a form of creating order from chaos, and hopefully finding a commonality with the reader.
Paste: What did you want to be when you grew up when you were a kid?
Knisley: A midwife! I spent most of my childhood reading books about birth and pregnancy, and imagining delivering babies when I grew up. But I had dyscalculia and struggled with math. I loved drawing and reading, and my mind often wandered in class. School was hard for me, and I had a lot of moments throughout my education when I was told that I didn’t have the predisposition to medical science. Fortunately for me, I still get to study and write/draw about pregnancy and birth, fulfilling a childhood dream!
Paste: It’s interesting that you talk about your mind wandering when one of the great strengths of your comics is focus. Could you talk a little bit about your writing process and how you streamline a narrative?
Knisley: When I was in school, I would often make comics in class while I wasn’t paying attention. I found that trying to make myself do an assignment—focusing on what I was SUPPOSED to be doing—I never seemed to make work I was proud of. Making comics that allowed me to simply ruminate was the key to finding my voice. I’m very disciplined about sitting at my desk and working, now, particularly once I became a mom and had to pay someone else to hang out with my kid while I worked. But I still try to leave space for that rumination, which is why keeping a sketchbook is important to me.
Paste: Did you always have the work ethic you have now? If not, how did you develop it?
Knisley: I wasn’t ever really sure about being a comic artist until I was one. I loved writing and drawing, but never put it together that it could be a profession until I was in college and started meeting professionals in the industry, like Hope Larson. I always figured I’d wait tables or sell cheese forever and make art on the side, but I was lucky that the art started outweighing the cheese mongering, and I was able to make the leap early on.
Paste: Do you enjoy book tours? What’s the best thing about them?
Knisley: I haven’t been on a book tour since 2013! My last book came out when I was too pregnant to tour, so I never got to tour with that one. I loved it, then. I really love meeting readers and chatting about their lives and they way they intersect with my own. I’m looking forward to this one, and hopeful that people will bring lots of babies for me to meet.
Paste: How did your schooling shape your work?
Knisley: I had a wonderful sixth-grade english teacher, with whom I had a two-person book club. Yes, I really was that cool. She gave me JK Rowling, Jane Yolen, Diane Duane, Lois Lowry. She gave me an escape into the world of books that was a major contributor to my current work, and introduced me to the authors that would give shape to my eventual profession. I really struggled in high school, switching schools four times in three years. But I was rescued by an arts school and an art teacher who didn’t just teach theory, but brought us to galleries to interact with art by living artists. I credit these two teachers with forming the basis for the combined art and writing that I do today.
Paste: Which living artists’ work made that impact on you? Who continues to inspire you?
Knisley: Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Hope Larson, Raina Telgemeier, Vera Brosgol and so many more! Those are just the comics artists I most adore!
Paste: Having a child is like stepping through a doorway that changes you in a lot of ways, and you can’t ever go back through that door. Yes or no (and why/how)?
Knisley: Yes, but I’d add that every single day with your kid is like a whole new doorway. I feel like I’ve been multiple iterations of myself in just the past few years. Every time I think I have a handle on how to be a parent, some new challenge totally throws me. This past weekend, we took on potty training, and it felt like learning how to fly or something.
Paste: Oh god potty training. It is something else. Do you think being a parent makes you more or less self-reflective?
Knisley: I think it’s made me value my self-reflection more, in that having some time to think and focus on something other than potty training is so precious and important to me!
Paste: How do you think it changes your perspective on your own parents?
Knisley: I was so mean to them. UGH.
Paste: How do you think your visual style has changed over the years?
Knisley: I’ve been so lucky that this age of easy access to artists all over the world through the internet has given artists so much in terms of constant exposure to new and exciting artwork. Every day I see something inspiring and cool, and I think that’s the best way to develop your own work—through that inspiration. I’m lately discovering a lot of cool Little Golden Books artwork from reading them to my son, and I can see how it influences my style already.
Paste: Holler at me about your favorite Little Golden Books artists: Gustaf Tenggren? Garth Williams? Mary Blair?
Knisley: Of course I’m a huge fan of Richard Scarry and Tibor Gergely, but there are a few of theirs that are a bit “out of date,” shall we say. I like to go through them and edit a bit. My son loves Scarry’s Cars and Trucks, but “The mothers go shopping for the groceries” becomes “The people go shopping….” Because, come on. There’s one page in there where they’re all on vacation, and the father is outside reading while the kids are playing, and the mom is literally inside the camper doing dishes. UGH. But the illustrations sure are nice!