For a while, it looked like Allie Brosh might go down in history as the J.D. Salinger of web comics. In the early 2010s, the internet fell in love with Hyperbole and a Half, the blog where she offered insights into the human condition with her hilarious Microsoft Paint–style scribbles. (Brosh is to shaky black outlines what Seurat is to dots.) While she also covered everyday topics like family birthday parties and life with pets, some of Brosh’s most well-known work delved into her own struggle with depression, which she managed to depict artfully without deviating from her signature stick figures. But after the 2013 release of her first book, which became a bestseller and won critical acclaim, Brosh went silent for seven years: no tweets, no new posts, no status updates, nothing.
Now she’s back. The internet, and the world, has changed in her absence, but Brosh’s long-awaited second book, Solutions and Other Problems is as funny and sharply observed as ever. She writes sparingly but movingly about the major challenges she’s faced in the intervening years: her own divorce, her sister’s sudden death, and the subsequent dissolution of her parents’ marriage. Slate spoke to Brosh about the new book and how she’s attempting to be less of a recluse. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: You were originally going to release a second book in 2015. Is Solutions and Other Problems the same book you were envisioning back then?
Allie Brosh: The first time we were planning on publishing this back in 2015, it was a very different book. There are only a few chapters that are the same, and even those have been reworked a bit. The thing that changed was me. I’m a different person than I was then. And I think I needed to be a different person. As I was reading through the pieces in preparation for publishing [that earlier version of the book], I just felt like, “Oh my God, I don’t like this person.” It felt selfish. It seemed like I needed to retreat back into myself for a little while. I was trying to write it at a stage in my life where I was, like, between. You know how there are pictures of you, like, between facial expressions? It felt like that type of thing, where it was this awkward transition where I was starting to have new kinds of thoughts and be new kinds of ways.
What about it seemed selfish to you?
There’s a type of sharing that’s fun and feels like it’s like advancing your identity in some way, and then there’s a type of sharing that’s a little bit more honest and scary. I’ve been trying to learn how to do the second type more. I was 23 or 24 when I started my blog. That person was very much like, “Here’s what I am, look what I can do.” I think that I am more valuable to other people when I’m doing the other kind of sharing. I felt like I got to a point where I could share stories where I had a more sympathetic struggle—maybe depression was an example of this. You’re the victim of it; you’re the helpless thing that this horrible experience is happening to. But there are times where I’m really not proud of my behavior, where it doesn’t feel easy to say that kind of stuff. Those are the things that I’m wanting to move more in the direction of talking about.
You stayed off social media and didn’t update your blog during the seven-year period between books. Why?
I am somebody who is naturally extremely reclusive and introverted. I didn’t realize that when I first was starting social media. It took people paying attention to me to realize how uncomfortable that can be for me. Part of what makes me feel unable to handle that is the sense of, like, I don’t want to ask for too much attention. I feel guilty about it. I feel like people are going to get tired of me. There’s a part of me that’s trying to just make really, really sure that that doesn’t happen. I think I’m starting to realize that I’m overcorrecting.
I’ve very recently accepted that this is a thing I need to actually do, that I have a responsibility to people who are concerned about me. When I posted the announcement [about Solutions] on Facebook, I was absolutely inundated by messages of people saying, “Oh my God, I’m so glad you’re alive, I was worried about you.” It’s hard to comprehend that there are people out who don’t know me and who I don’t know who really, really care about me. I think there’s a part of me that didn’t really believe it.
In the announcement of the new book on your blog, you mentioned that some of your accounts were hacked. What happened?
So I’m still not a hundred percent sure what all is related to the hack, but I know that at one point I couldn’t log into my email anymore. I had this Hotmail account; it was my first email account ever. I’d been using it since the dawn of time. It’s the one that I signed up for Facebook with, for Twitter with, for everything. I contacted Hotmail support and we went through the process. I used the account to sign up for things but I hadn’t logged into it, and so we couldn’t prove that I’m me because of that. So it was just this nightmare of not being able to prove that I’m myself enough to get back into my Twitter account. I still don’t have access to my Twitter account. It is still posting spam messages without my consent.
It was back in February where we started talking about how there’s gonna come a point where I need to, like, share this thing on social media. It’s taken since February to get my Facebook account back. So it felt like a major victory. Me and a team of countless people have been working on this for months.
It’s funny that you mentioned Hotmail support. I wouldn’t have thought of Hotmail as a company where someone could still work in 2020.
People do and they’re very nice.
Now you’re using Instagram for the first time. How’s that going?
I got on Instagram with the intention of promoting my book, and that didn’t happen because I would rather do other things. I would rather draw faces on a cashew and tell stories about it.
There are times in the book, like in the chapter on daydreams, where it feels like you managed to empty the contents of your brain and inner monologue directly onto the page. How do you do that?
I can see that there’s something there that I’m trying to describe or something that I’m trying to get at, but it can take a very long time to get there. I can hold the feeling in my head. It’s like, there’s a shape my brain is making, and I know this’ll be funny if I can figure out how to draw it, but I don’t know how to yet. I’ve just got to sit down and ask my brain, “Please show me the thing that you’re trying to describe to myself.” Then I try to make the picture and it’s like, “OK, I can see some parts of that. Does it look like this? What if I draw a line here? Is that the thing you’re feeling?” And then to myself I say, “That’s getting closer.” Like a game of hot and cold, like troubleshooting.
Do you have a favorite chapter?
The last chapter, probably. I kind of saved that chapter to work on when I was feeling really, really low, because it’s about being friends with myself and it was kind of a bonding activity for me. It was something I could work on when I was feeling like I couldn’t deal that would help me feel understood, even if only by myself.
How have the people (and animals) in your life reacted to being portrayed in your work?
It’s a very core concept of my life and, like, ethical underpinnings to be fair. Don’t say anything I would not be willing for this person to hear. I want to portray everybody I talk about as a sympathetic character.
With my mom in particular, I want to do it in as loving a way as possible and in a way that ultimately ends up celebrating her as a person. My mom is like my biggest fan. She drives around with bumper stickers, and she’ll walk into bookstores and check whether they have my book.
I can’t ask my cat how he feels. I don’t think he would really care one way or the other. He’s not self-conscious.
What about the grocery store self-checkout attendant? Almost a whole chapter in the book ends up being about one such person. [Brosh’s cartoon alter ego is giving meditation a try, and she is instructed to think of someone she doesn’t know well, and things spin out from there.]
I’ve wondered about that. This guy kind of became an important character in my life. I wonder if he could identify himself. I tried to write it in such a way that he would feel OK about it if he did.
That’s also the way I felt about the neighbor kid I talk about who’s always like, “Hey, you want to see my room? Can I come into your house?” There was a time that I actually had to talk to her while I was tripping on acid. I had taken acid and I went for a walk and I was coming back from the walk and this 7-year-old comes up and latches onto me. I appreciated her wanting to reach out and make contact with me, even if it didn’t happen to be in the most convenient circumstances. I feel like we’re all kind of little space probes out here in our own little universes, feeling isolated and lonely, and that contact can be really important, even if it’s weird.
You don’t write much about love or romantic relationships. You mention your ex-husband, your divorce, and your new husband pretty sparingly in the book. How come?
It’s difficult to say exactly why it’s something I avoid. It’s hard to do it with the right level of sincerity and nuance. I’m also a bit annoyed with movies when they make the focus about the romance. It seems like it brings up all these other associations of the traditional role for women. Maybe I’m avoiding something in that.
What are some cultural things that bring you joy?
The last book I read was called Things From the Flood by an artist named Simon Stålenhag. He’s Swedish. He does these post-apocalyptic drawings or paintings—he’s a digital artist—and he’s unbelievably talented. I will spend so much time zooming in on every little detail of his paintings just trying to figure out how he does what he does. I think Simon Stålenhag has taught me more than probably anybody else about how to draw things, how to be a better artist.
Dave Chappelle has been an inspiration. His recent stand-up specials—he put out a few back in 2017 and in the years since—really spoke to me. He was dealing with a nuanced balance of cynicism and hope. There were these very conflicting messages that came together to embody a type of optimism that felt real to me that I could relate to.
What’s a typical day been like for you in the coronavirus era?
I wake up and make coffee for myself and go up in my room and play games and just be completely alone and do whatever I want to do for a little while. It takes me a long time to wake up in the morning, so I really need to kind of be in a cocoon for a bit.
Maybe a couple hours later, I go downstairs where my husband is and the cat is, and either start working for the day, writing or drawing, or I’ve been really into Hearthstone. It’s a digital card game. Do you know Magic the Gathering? It’s very similar. There are times when I’m like, “OK, I’m gonna try to be the best in the world at this.” I try very hard. I would seem ridiculous if people knew how hard I was trying to play this children’s card game.
Or there’s been times where I’m trying to teach myself something. So I’ll sit down and read a bunch of articles or read a textbook. Not like a college textbook—there is a man named Kalid Azad, and he has a website called Better Explained where he explains things like the Fourier transform, which is a calculus theorem. He takes these complicated concepts and breaks them down into easy-to-understand pieces. I sort of see math as a tool I can use to understand things better. [Azad’s] article about imaginary numbers was life-changing for me, like genuinely life-changing in terms of thinking tools.
Then at some point it’s time for dinner. I have a weird relationship with food. It’s a hassle for me. I avoid the chore of having to make myself food for as long as possible. But at some point I become very hungry, and I am forced to make dinner for myself, so I do that. That’s usually the point at which it becomes relaxation time. So I’ll watch stand-up comedy or whatever TV show I’m into or a streamer that is playing Hearthstone that day. And then I smoke a little bit of weed and I go to sleep.