Double-give: an interview with Alison Bechdel
An initially daunted Sophie Mayer is heart-stunned by the generous, delightful artist and writer
The Times, it is a-changing. It says something about the incredible trajectory of Alison Bechdel's career that Are You My Mother?, Bechdel's second graphic memoir, is lauded as Memoir of the Year by the Sunday Times Culture Magazine. Even in the year that Claire Balding became the nation's sweetheart as she held together the Jubilympics coverage, it still prompts a double-take to see the author of Dykes to Watch Out For recognised by a Murdoch paper for her complex, beautiful, cunnilingus-including, D.W. Winnicott and Winnie the Pooh-citing memoir of her relationship with her mother and how it shaped the relationships with other women in her life, both lovers and therapists.
The double-take is a quintessentially Bechdelian gesture: barely a DTWOF strip passes without Mo in a head-spin, offering two opinions or addressing two characters at once. Meeting her involves a double double-take, as through the steamed-up windows of a tiny independent teashop in Soho I see an instantly recognisable version of the Alison - brush cut, bespectacled - who appears in almost every panel of her memoirs.
Although the characteristic figure of a Janus-faced talking head only shows up once in Fun Home, Bechdel's first graphic memoir, about her father, the sense of doubt, ambivalence (and multivalence), qualification and complication runs through both her memoirs as Alison, the protagonist, pulls together the multiple strands of her life. In both books, that includes her family history and her collegiate self-fashioning as a lesbian. So quotations both verbal and visual from Dr. Seuss mingle with Adrienne Rich. This richness, coupled with an honesty earned and burnished through years of therapy, makes Bechdel a daunting interviewee - but also a delight.
"Most people don't delve. Maybe because they're embarrassed. But it's what I want to talk about. I realised that my primary goal in life is to change"
As are her books, which - like Bechdel in person - have a combination of direct clarity and generous warmth. We start (as we end) by talking about the book as object. She misses print, the flowering of alternative presses and newspapers where DTWOF got its start. "I'm a book fetishist," she says, "not a reader. I haven't read all of Proust, I just skimmed it." It's a surprising admission concerning one of the main texts that form a substrate to Fun Home. "People will be appalled to hear that!" When I offer to leave it off the record, she says "No, this is your job, getting at this information." Double-take.
Or, to put it another way: double-give. Bechdel not only answers my questions thoughtfully, but often analyses both question and answer. At one point, she worries she's spiralled into a depressing account of her struggles with evaluating Are You My Mother?, and I catch the hyper-analytical bug, worrying aloud that I'm positioning myself as her therapist. "Please do!" she says, "Please tell me the answer!" Are You My Mother?, is, among other things, a sterling recommendation for the power of therapy - a process that has been hailed as vital and condemned as selfish at different moments in the feminist movement.
Bechdel is convinced that change begins with work on the self. "Most people don't delve. Maybe because they're embarrassed. But it's what I want to talk about. I realised that my primary goal in life is to change. Maybe that's ridiculous because I don't change, I remain problematic and neurotic despite pushing to take risks. There's something that doesn't change - but there's something that does."
"I'm passionate about non-fiction: about reclaiming it from being seen as a lesser genre that's not as true as fiction"
Part of the charm of DTWOF was how it charted that aspect of political culture in the US, through "an arc of progress, then the Bush years were awful" - not least with the changes in print culture and loss of alternative outlets that led to the strip going online. She notes that she's "not a natural news junkie" and has stopped following current events, but tuned in to the recent election. "The election in 2008 felt like staving off barbarism, but this year, there's a flush of optimism! There were so many great victories, I'm almost afraid to talk about it." She watched the election with trepidation, she adds, wondering, half-joking, whether she might have to seek asylum in the UK. What did Mo make of the election campaigns, I wonder? Bechdel says she's done with the characters, and never thinks in those terms. "But I did dream recently that I was drawing about them..."
Dreams are a key element of Are You My Mother?, achieving equal status with the lived, conscious events that the book charts. They're key to the ways in which Bechdel has renewed the genre of memoir, infusing it with something at once edgy and profound in an era of misery lit and celebrity bios. She says, "Maybe I'm done with memoir! It's now a tapped-out genre. But I'm passionate about non-fiction: about reclaiming it from being seen as a lesser genre that's not as true as fiction. It's a fine and noble calling."
And she talks about her next project - a memoir about her relationship with her siblings - hinting it will be concerned with whiteness, in the same way that Fun Home, she notes, was concerned with homophobia and Are You My Mother? with "the misogyny that limited my mother's choices and thwarted her aspirations to be a writer in a masculinist moment."
If you can't afford a course of therapy, reading Alison Bechdel's memoirs might just be the next best thing
The rapturous reception of the book suggests that moment has, to some extent, passed. But Bechdel says she struggles to read positive messages from readers. "I feel a vague dissatisfaction with Are You My Mother? The book doesn't make any more sense than life." She wonders whether fiction might provide a sense of control or closure that memoir hasn't, but disagrees with Virginia Woolf's claims that fiction elevates facts. At the end of the interview, she suggests another answer to her own question of why the book isn't satisfying her. "My mother's read it, and her comment was 'It coheres.' I'm glad - I prefer that to 'It doesn't cohere.' But I want a personal response, which I failed to get. I knew I would. But I still have a lingering desire for her to break down in tears."
At which point, as an interviewer, it was hard to focus on doing my job, and not to break down in tears. It was a heart-stunning moment to crown a head-spinning interview, during which I struggled - repeatedly - to express how much her work has meant to me. Bechdel says she struggles to "access emotion - I have to figure it out intellectually via psychotherapy, so if my work helps other people to have feelings, that's amazing." If you can't afford a course of therapy, reading Alison Bechdel's brilliant, brave, alive memoirs might just be the next best thing.