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S2: I’m picturing myself writing a novel, I’m somehow picturing myself as like a small animal running towards feels like anything’s going to happen. Exactly opposite. The feeling of writing a memoir to be was much more like being an enormous animal in a very small cage who is like, how do I not crush everything that matters to me in the moment that I’m trying to say what’s happening?
S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Ramona, and I’m your other host. Isaac Butler.
S4: Isaac. This week you spoke to the writer Mira Jacob. Mira is the author of a novel, The Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing from 2014 and a memoir Good Talk, which was published last year to what seemed to me like universal acclaim. It’s a memoir in graphic form. Mira talks a little bit about the learning curve there. She wasn’t before this book, a comics artist, but Ed Pak said of the book in his review for the Times, quote, The old comic book Alchemy of words and Pictures opens up new possibilities of feeling and quotes. That’s pretty high praise for a first attempts.
S5: Yes. And I definitely think Ed Pak is right. I am a big lover of comic book work in general and in particular, actually, comic book non-fiction. A lot of my favorite books fall within that designation for whatever reason. And I think at least in part, it’s because of some things that are inherent to the medium, like when you have a still image paired with text, there’s at least three different layers of meaning created. There’s the words, the images and then the interplay between them. And then when you when those are panels and they exist in sequence, there’s even a fourth, which has to do with its relationship to what comes immediately before and what comes immediately afterwards. And so there’s this way in which you can appreciate them as they’re kind of atomized parts and then they gain additional layers as it all adds up. That I find really powerful. And you can really do a lot with that, even though, you know, as Mira and I talk about in the interview, that’s true. Even if your visual vocabulary is extremely restrained and good talks is really, really restrained.
S4: It’s such an unlikely turn, I think, because The Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing is a sort of big conventional novel and it’s quite lovely. And Mira is really adept at the novelistic form. And so there was no reason to expect that after one pretty successful debut, she would turn her back on that. Or maybe it’s less matter of turning her back on it than experimenting in a different way. But I do have this theory that the culture generally has become more forgiving of artists who skipped between these forms. I still think it’s kind of surprising since we’re listening to this interview and not looking at the images. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what could talk actually looks like.
S5: Absolutely. It’s very spare in terms of its means. Every page has one to two panels on it, and almost all the panels consist of a kind of still image in the background. It’s usually a photograph. Sometimes it’s a stock image. Sometimes it’s a photograph of the room or building in which the scene is set, or sometimes it’s a kind of associative thing, like a newspaper article or a magazine cover. And then superimposed on top of that is a drawing of whoever is in the scene. But they look almost like they’ve been cut out and then glued on. I mean, you know, that’s the sort of vocabulary we’re talking about. And they, with very few exceptions, speak directly out looking at the reader and their facial expressions never change over the course of the book. So you already have to, in your mind, do a lot of filling in the blanks both inside and between the panels. But what’s really fascinating is your mind just kind of does that automatically, and that’s part of the pleasure of reading it.
S4: It’s not similar visually, but aesthetically it is similar to a kind of educational animation I associate with like Sesame Street, where you’ll have sort of a flat image talking right to the young audience and imparting something. And then what happens is that you finish the thing in your mind and it sort of comes to life in a way that is distinct from what you might encounter on the page or just on the screen.
S5: Yeah. And at least for me, that’s part of the pleasure of reading comics in general. But that aspect of the comic reading process, I think, has taken, you know, extremely far within this visual vocabulary.
S6: So now let’s listen in. To help me read Jacob Works.
S7: So, as you know, I was a huge fan of your first book, Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing. And because I have a feeling that the process for the two books we’re going to talk about today were pretty different. I was wondering a little bit about just actually on a nuts and bolts writing level. What writing your first novel was like and how that proceeded.
S1: Oh, sure. You know, I mean, it is you’re right. It’s really different to write a novel versus a memoir. And I think if I ate a novel, if I’m picturing myself writing a novel, I’m somehow picturing myself as like a small animal running most fields, like anything going to happen. Who knows? Is it Joy? Is it terror? I don’t know. But it’s just like all possibilities are open. I don’t know what exactly I’m trying to get to. But the process of getting there feels really fun. Because I think by necessity, like one of the things that I love about a novel versus let’s say a short story is that it can wander a bit. And and what comes out in the wandering is actually usually as interesting as the story itself as anywhere you were trying to get to. So I started writing that book and I wrote it over 10 years and I wrote it through the death of my father and the birth of my child and getting laid off and all of these things. But it was really like going to an island where I got to control everything. And that’s what really amazing to be able to go to that place. And it’s really different from writing a memoir.
S7: It seems like there’s both logistical differences. And I don’t know if we call them spiritual differences between those two things.
S1: Yes. Sure. Yeah. But differences like to say that there are so the logistical differences. One is that my memoir is as you know, it’s a graphic memoir. So I had to teach myself how to draw to do that. And I had to kind of make up a visual language as I was going. And I had to learn a lot of programs to do all of it. And a lot of software or and a lot of like how to hold a stylus, all these weird, picky things. That sounds so boring. But in the moment that you’re trying to learn them, you can just feel so utterly stupid every second. I didn’t feel that way when I was writing the novel because I’d been writing my whole life and I had been trying to write a novel my whole life. So it it finally gelled. It was just like freedom, freedom, freedom. The memoir felt really different. It felt like, you know, I always think to myself, if I would have told myself in the moment that I decided to write slash drawer this memoir, OK, you’re gonna have to teach yourself how to draw and then you’re gonna have to learn these five software programs. And then you’re going to spend like whole days in which you basically stay in the same position because you get so focused on what you’re doing that by the time you think to move again, your back is going to feel like a pillar of salt. I probably wouldn’t have done it.
S7: That’s interesting because, you know, there’s two different constraints, right? Because there’s the constraint of the art and the constraint of it being nonfiction as opposed to, as you said, you know, the blank page where you can write anything. You know, it sounds like there is something good about those constraints that that those constraints helped in some way.
S1: I am a huge fan of constraint when it comes to creativity. I mean, I you know, I blame this on the fact that I’m a Capricorn, but really I need sharp edges and rules and that generates a lot for me. So, yes, the idea of me, one of the things that in the book, the artwork, you’ll notice that none of the expressions ever change on the characters faces. And that was that was a deliberate constraint, because I think, you know, it’s about all these conversations that have affected my life. But a lot of them are really racially loaded. You know, a lot of times white audiences just feel really like a lot of trepidation about even getting into that conversation. And even Branum black audiences, we can feel exhausted, too, just by having to talk about it all the time. So I was up against that and I was up against that and myself as an artist and a creator. And so I decided I was going to change the expressions because I didn’t want to have to perform this sort of emotional work behind it. But what that meant is that it put a lot of pressure on every single line, like every single line suddenly had to do a lot of work. And I have to tell you, as a as a former kind of like Metaphore Juggy and a person who really likes writing down the exact feeling of an exact feeling. It felt amazing to kind of be like, no, you don’t get to do that anymore. No more metaphors. None are allowed. You know, you’re not allowed to hint at anything. It’s either there or it’s not.
S7: It’s very rigorous in how fixed the means are throughout it. Right. It’s like there’s a usually not always, but usually a still photograph is the background. And then there’s these kind of do you could think of them as cut outs? I almost think of them as cutouts of the people who are having the conversation, and they’re almost always facing out towards the reader. And as you said, their facial expressions don’t change. So. Interesting how you develop kind of each of those things as the vocabulary for this book.
S1: So I can tell you that the first one of these that I ever made was when I was in India. And I was at my grandmother was sitting in her retirement facility. She hated it. And she got really into soap operas and watching them at, like, volume 20 every day. And I went to see her. And it was that typical, like the heartbreak of modernity thing where I think she had been. So I do not blame her for that. She had been isolated for so long that my presence there was kind of like I might as well have been another character on the television, if not slightly less interesting. She never turned the TV off. It’s like this idea that we were supposed to have a conversation. I was like, oh, we’re just not going to talk the entire time here, really. And then one day the power went out. And in like the span of three minutes, it was the craziest thing. She turned to me. And the first thing she was like, What happened to your face? And I was like, Oh, I don’t know what happened. My face just never mind. I was like, OK. And then she was like, you know, when my brother was 19 and she’s like, the British came and they, you know, we all left school. We all left college. We went to the streets and we protested them and we said, you will not break us, you will not break us. And we fought them. And we fought them. And they thought my brother, you know, was some revolutionary and they threw him in jail. But he wasn’t a revolutionary. He was just a kid. And, you know, we kept fighting. We fought them and fought them. And so this is like this is literally the televisions off. All of this information comes out of her. And then like two seconds later, she blinks and she’s like, you’ve gotten too skinny. And that was, you know. And then the conversation was over. I was like, what just happened? And it was it felt like I’d been in a car accident, like with my grandmother’s psyche. And so I drew us very quickly as cartoon characters and they cut us out. And I put these balloons over our heads. I drew those and I cut those out, too. And I said to all my cousins. And the thing that I knew that they understood immediately, they were like, oh, of course, this is our grandmother. This is how she speaks. This is how you drop through into another dimension with her sometimes. So when you ask me, like the rules, how did the rules come up? The rules came up because I realized that there was this urgency that I could get to if I left what you call cut outs. I think of them as paper dolls, if I let the paper dolls speak and if I couldn’t rely on expressions, but I also couldn’t relent action. Right. Nobody ever moves. You don’t see somebody like carrying something that’s not really what they’re doing. They’re just holding the space of basically a brain or a psyche on the page. And what happens with that? What happens in those moments? How does your brain work to fill in the story? And these were all things I figured out just kind of by process of elimination, by throwing things down on the page over and over again and then seeing what moved me and what worked and what my brain could handle and what didn’t. You know, what felt like it was losing the story?
S7: Were there a lot of kind of discarded versions of pages of what the visual vocabulary might look like when you as you tried to find it?
S1: Yes, there was one where in an early take I tried to draw one of a conversation with my mother in which we were both folding laundry in the laundry pile, was getting smaller between us. And then when I looked back at, I was like, what are you what are you doing? Why is the laundry more of a character, more of a moving character in this scene than either you or your mother? What’s that about, nose? Oh, it’s because I’m nervous. I’m nervous to let the stillness in. I’m nervous of just having the fourth wall broken and just having characters speak plainly to the reader while they’re speaking like to each other.
S7: Where do you think that nervousness came from?
S1: I think it comes from being a brown person in America. Honestly, I think those are being around here in America. I think it comes from being an especially being a woman. But I think it comes from being in the kind of body where people expect you to placate them and they put their nervousness all over you and they need you to take it away as quickly as they can foisted upon you.
S8: So I think there’s a part of me that’s very keyed in to trying to not be the scary seeing people imagine me to be not be the threatening thing people imagine me to be. At the same time, the thing that was making this book happen was a really deep sense of rage and a sense of being exhausted by the kind of person that demands out of me. So a lot of it was kind of walking into that space and saying, OK, so if you want to do it differently, how do you do it differently?
S7: You know, there’s both the decision to tell a memoir about the series of conversations and then also to tell it in comic book form or graphic memoir form or however we’re calling it these days. And I’m curious about how you made that decision and what made you decide to really go in that direction.
S1: There was a single kind of moment, an incident that actually put this whole thing into motion, which is my son was six. He was super into Michael Jackson. He was he would wear the fedora and the glove. And this is before all the sad Michael Jackson news came out. So anyway, he was really into Michael Jackson and my husband’s white and I’m brown. And so he asked all these questions and some of them were hilarious, like what happened to his other glove? And some of them were such the question. Right. I still think I’m like, that’s such a good question. No one ever asked that question. And then some of them were really harrowing, but they were sort of unintentionally harrowing. So one time he asked me, you know, he was really curious about, like, is my hair like Michael’s hair is my skin, like Michael’s skin was just trying to find himself in Michael. And he was sort of realizing at the same time that he wasn’t quite like everyone else, like he was looking at his own skin and at me and his father. And at one point he was like, you know, Michael Jackson, is he you see brown or is he white? And it’s like he’s brown. He’s black. You know, he’s a black American. But his skin is brown. And he, you know, kind of. So he turned white and he was like turned white. And I said, Yeah. He turned. Well, yeah, kind of. And he’s like, are you good at her? And white. No, I’m not going to turn white. And he’s like, am I going to really doesn’t know you’re not going to turn white. And he goes, Daddy. And I was like, that is already white. And it was so funny when he asked that and I was laughing so hard because I was like, I screwed this up immediately and forever. But then that same day, he was you know, he’d been asking me little bits about what had happened in Ferguson because he saw little parts of it. You hear it on NPR when we had it on avows and sort of trying not to really talk to him about it because he was six.
S8: And, um, and then he sort of came to me and was like, you know, Mommy, there’s a kid named Ferguson who was brown and he was shot by a white policeman. And I was like, well, OK. So his name was Michael Brown. He was a kid. He was in a town called Ferguson. You know, later on, he said, you know. He asked me at one point, are white people afraid of brown people? Which was such a crazy question to try to answer and then even after that. Is Daddy afraid of us and all of these things together, like all of the questions we’re getting so hard to handle. And they were really veering between this very funny place and then this really. Brutal place. And I knew if I were going to try to write an essay about it, no one would believe me because that’s what people do with essays right now. They just find a way to use every word against the writer and expose them for the ridiculous human feelings thing that they are instead of like, you know, just sitting with it for a minute. And, um, and so I knew I was trying to write an essay about it, and I couldn’t. And I couldn’t because it was my son. You know, I just didn’t want to expose him to those people. So that’s when I started drawing it. I started drawing it with the same kind of impulse that I had in that earlier moment with my grandmother, which was just like, I don’t know how to. I don’t know how to encapsulate what just happened and or what to make of it. But here it is.
S7: Right. There’s something about the spareness that just like exposes it totally.
S1: If you’re just looking at two people talk, it’s a little bit like eavesdropping and you’re totally OK with eavesdropping.
S7: Everyone loves eavesdropping. Doesn’t love me. You’re right. I’m good, Floyd. That’s a god. That’s one of the things I miss the most right now is eavesdropping on people.
S1: Oh, my God. Can we have a moment for that? Really? It is like the joy of my life is wandering around and listening to shit that is not my business. I just want it back.
S7: But it is something you sort of give the reader over the course of the book is like you’re eavesdropping on these conversations and then suddenly you’re implicated in them in this way because the people are actually looking right at you.
S1: Yes, that was kind of the fun part of it, is that I could both write the thing that I wanted to write and say it as truly and plainly as I could possibly get to and know that a story at a certain point the reader is going to be implicated. If they’re compelled to read the book, they’re going to feel it totally.
S7: I feel like a lot of people these days, including me, are changing forms, project to project. Right. Or they’re much more open to that idea that they’re going to jump media or they might you know, this might be a play. This might be a movie. This might be a book, you know, who knows? But there’s a certain terror that that brings with it, at least for me. I don’t know. And I was wondering about how you kind of ran off that diving board and psyched yourself into being like the right form for this is a graphic memoir, and I’m gonna go figure out how to do that.
S1: So I will tell you, one of the things that helped me that kind of ran me off that diving board was how many people requested a sequel to Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing, the novel that I’ve written. And it was really and it was like, you know, I was doing my I was kind of finishing up touring and I would talk to people and they were like, so what is next? Like, when is the next one? And are you going to follow up? And I was like, people like that book is over. That I ended it. It feels very ended to me. And I realize that the more they asked about it, the more nervous I felt about my own creative life, because I was I felt this need to placate expectations. It’s hard when your obligation marries your art. Right. I mean, at a certain point, we’re all working artists. So, you know, it’s not that you’re in love with every project all the way through, but when you’re first foot you set into it is one of obligation, then it’s really hard to produce something that you love in a vital way, or that’s true of me. I should say that I love it. By the way, it’s hard for me to do that. So part of it was that. But the other part was I talking a friend of mine who’s an architect who said the sweetest thing to me. He said, when I’m done with one building, what I like to do is I think of my kind of creative drive as a topographical map. And he’s like, you know, I’ve just covered one quadrant of it with what I’ve made. And he’s like, but I don’t want to go to the quadrant either one that’s like adjacent to me. I want to go to the one that’s like the tiny little glimmer. The diagonal one. And he said that to me in the same moment, I was kind of wrestling with this feeling of like, oh, do I have to do I have to do the same trick again? And it felt like such a liberation. Like, even when I tell it to you now, I still get very excited about the whole idea of like a topographical map split into quadrants and heading toward the one that is not bordering. What does that feel like? Doesn’t it feel like amazing to you? Like, is there just something like, oh, great.
S7: Like, it feels amazing, but it also feels like a little bit like parts of that map or like the old medieval ones that say there be dragons because they didn’t know what was there. You know, and part of you is like, great, maybe you’ll see a dragon. And then part of you is also like that fucking dragon, my bird, me to a crisp, totally.
S1: And I could tell you I knew the dragons, I knew the dragons that were gonna come for me. They were pretty obvious. What were they if I mean good comics dudes for one, you know, like there’s there’s a certain kind of comics, bro. We doesn’t love people of color. Being in the space at all doesn’t like women being in space at all and and both. And a mom, which is a super easy target. Look, I knew that there was a certain you know, why was I stepping into a space that I didn’t even have a right to? So I knew that that guy was out there. But that guy’s been everywhere for me forever. Right. And, you know, like, there’s no there’s no nothing I can do in my life that isn’t ultimately going to terrorize that guy. So I kind of knew that. And I knew that the harshest thing I was going to get was people saying that the art was amateur in some way or, you know, not sophisticated. I just sort of worked with that as a kid. OK. So let’s just leave it at amateur, like do the best amateur you could do. Like, what does it look like to make people that are paper dolls and flat static backgrounds and not worry too much about the borders of your boxes or how beautiful your dialogue bubbles are drawn and design for yourselves so that it looks like a font that you’ve probably designed yourselves and tell a story that is urgent. What does it look like to work within the boundaries, what you can actually do and go ahead and put your whole heart into it? I didn’t do this thinking I am going to prove to everyone that I am the greatest artist on every level. I just thought, man, I’ve got this story and I want to tell it this way and hopefully we’ll get that.
S7: Were there particular, you know, books or other pieces that you turn to for kind of influence or inspiration over the course of, you know, figuring out the drawing of it?
S1: You know, I read a lot of Lynda Barry’s books just for. And those are great. So there’s great. She’s amazing. And I think of her as a kind of just a beloved figure in just the amount of generosity that she has when it comes to art. So I read, you know, she has obviously syllabuses from our famous book. But what it is, is super smart and has a lot of about like how to connect the sort of drawing mind the story mind and what do we look for and how do we move through worlds. So that was really helpful. And then, you know, I mean, this sounds so cheesy, but like in terms of fearless. I’ve got you know, I came from immigrant parents. Like, if there are people who have had to learn and relearned how to start over and how to become new and how to kind of loblaw their way through a world, it is them like an ability to win. You get scared, get curious. Yeah. And I’ve seen them do that over and over. So a lot of that was, you know, when I would freak out, like, I have no idea how to do a fight. What do you do? It lead me to a fight. What do you do? How do you do a fight? And then I would just calm down and be like people have made font’s you can make a frickin prompt, like just sit down and do it, like sit down and figure it out and troubleshoot and do it, do it to the best of your ability. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be legible so someone can read the book. That’s it. There’s so much to be afraid of in this moment, right? There’s so much to be afraid of. And I find that when I can get back to curiosity, that’s when I feel like I’ve got the ground under my feet again.
S6: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with the writer Mira Jacob.
S4: One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration or discipline. Send them to us at working at Slate DOT. If and when we can, we’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests.
S5: And before we get back to the show, we have one more announcement on Wednesday, June 24th, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, June Thomas. We’ll be talking with Hooghly, Otras Anna for Braga and Fred Armisen from the amazing HBO show LOEs a Spookies. They’ll talk about how Locy spookies came into being what it was like for sketch comedians, Toryism for Brager to write a sitcom, and the challenges of making a bilingual show. You can join them and ask questions by going to Slate’s Facebook page or YouTube channel. At the time of the event, we’ll have links to those in the show notes and you can go to Slate dot com slash live for more info.
S4: Welcome back to working. I’m Vermont Alarm. Let’s hear the rest of Isaac’s conversation with Mira Jacob.
S5: So when you were writing good talk, like the original pages or each scene or whatever. How do they start? Do they start with the text? Do they start with the images? What what comes first?
S1: I read it like a screenplay. And then because I. I love dialogue. But then when I would put those words on paper, I would I would understand immediately that I had overwritten by about 60 percent, but I would write the kind of emotional beat of what needed to happen. And then once the picture was behind it, I would let everything that was an essential drop away. So the lines would get spare, like more and more spare, basically, because good talk is a memoir.
S7: You’re writing about real people, many of whom you share your life with, like your husband or your son or your mom. And how did that affect the writing of the work? What is the process of of kind of writing that story when your characters are real people who have real opinions?
S1: So remember how we were talking about how fiction is like a little animal running across a field in the opposite, the feeling of writing a memoir. To me was much more like being an enormous animal in a very small cage who is like, how do I not crush everything that matters to me in the moment that I’m trying to say what is happening?
S8: There’s a way in which you’re sort of taught to have distance from your own experience. And that that distance will provide you with a way to tell it. Well, I didn’t get that choice because I was writing this book. I pitched it before Trump was elected. I thought it was gonna be a kind of book of funny conversations about identity as I was writing it. Trump was elected and my in are ever Trump supporters. And my family started kind of breaking apart in a way that was very painful for everybody involved. And so at some point I was like, oh, my God, you’re gonna be writing this from the middle of the battlefield. This is not great. This is not an ideal situation for maintaining objective. And what I came up with was this idea, which is that, you know, my my in-laws, I, I love them very much. My father in law recently passed. I was very close. Amstell still close with them. It’s been really terrifically hard. Their support of Trump, it’s caused an enormous wedge between us and has broken my hearts, like all of those things are real at once. None of them really weighs more than the other. They’re just all kind of bafflingly hard to hold. And what happened was I. I wrote like 80 different conversations and I realized that there were some of the conversations with them were just such.
S1: Because you just call it low hanging fruit. Like such an easy way to paint them into a corner of, you know, vaguely racist, you know, liberal ish. Not really. You know, just like it was. It was very easy to write a scene that I knew would get all of Twitter enraged.
S8: What was harder to do was to write the book in a way where it was, where my love for them felt just as present as any of my issues with them. To do that, I just found myself asking myself over and over again. I wrote the whole thing. I would read through each section and especially with them, and I would ask myself if I was writing it for vindication or if I was writing it for clarity. And if it was for vindication, then I had to cut it. No matter how good it felt to air that dirty feeling. No matter how entitled I felt to the rage behind it, if it was indication that it just had to go right.
S7: That’s one of the seductive dangers of autobiographical writing is right. You know, you can be like, OK. And here’s how right I am.
S1: Right. And this is how exactly how right I am. And I am so right. I have that right is the right. Yeah, totally. But that’s. I feel like that’s just not a very deep understanding of who any of us are at any given moment. With any luck. You know, if you’re reading this book, you think that I’m a real asshole sometimes and because I am a real asshole sometimes. And there are a lot of people who who read that and are like, I can’t believe you’re that person. You know, you should be nicer to me like I should be, but I’m not. So, like, so what does that look like? What does it look like to admit that I’m actually not that nice on a page. But what is also look like to admit that I love my, you know, pretty racist laws and I’m brown. And it’s painful for me and it’s painful for my son. Like, what does it look like to hold all of that at once? That was I was trying to get to. And the difference is for me, like when you’re writing something for clarity is when you can really when you when you’re writing something that you didn’t know yourself and when you’re figuring out something in the course of writing it. That to me, the right level of vulnerability to bring it to something like a memoir.
S7: It’s like you have to you write yourself into it. And by doing that, you actually figure out your life at the same time. Yeah. You’re one of the other things that the book becomes about is, of course, your relationship with your husband, Jed Rothstein, who’s also a wonderful artist in his own right, a documentary filmmaker. And I was wondering, you know, you’re both creative people. You’re living these creative lives. Are you involved in each other’s work? Do you give each other notes? You know what?
S1: I’m laughing because. Yes, yes, we do. He is my most feared critic and also the person that I cannot do it without it. I mean, like, I write something and I show it to him and he has a reaction and I have to kind of recalibrate. And, you know, it’s it’s interesting. Like, a lot of times, even when he’s trying to get the words about out of his mouth, I feel like there’s most of me that sort of quietly shrieking like, shut up, shut up, shut up. Because I don’t want to know what it is that he doesn’t like that. I know I have to address it in some way or if I don’t know, a lot of times, as with anything, I know any of us that are used to getting feedback about our art. It’s not that you do the things someone suggest to you, because that’s usually their answers or not your answers. But the kind of weakness they show you or the floor that they show you has to be addressed. Or the place in which, you know, that didn’t kind of communicate to them is a place that has to be addressed. So, yeah, we do communicate a lot about stories about what’s working. We help each other brainstorm sometimes when really interesting thing to me about this process, because you just asked me about having it be based on real people. What are the most interesting things about Judd Rothstein to me is that no matter how I wrote him in this and I wrote him several different ways and some of them really that it’s. Really? Had they gone out in the world, they would have done a lot of damage to him because I think I was so scared to write about it as a real person at first that I kind of wrote him as a white every man, which is not who he is. And but no matter how I wrote him, he never objected. He just said, it’s your project. There were certain things that were sort of just blocking and the theatrical of it because it’s a visual book that he would kind of weigh in on. But in terms of the contents and specifically, you know, it wasn’t he was like, I’m not going to edit your rage. I’m not going to tell you what to say and what to not say. And I’m like, what do you want to tell me when you’re uncomfortable? Is like, Oh, I’m uncomfortable the whole time. I’m going through the entire time. Do we need to talk about that? Yes. It’s uncomfortable for me next, you know, because it’s sort of like, OK, so, you know, that was it was really interesting. I think, yeah.
S7: Because it sounds like he was able to recognize that his discomfort was not actually a creative problem for you.
S1: But I think that is true. And I think I do think of it as an enormous gift to be able to write about. The problems in our interracial relationship in a way that was true and real. I know other people that are in interracial relationships recognize them. I know because they always come and tell me, oh, my God, you wrote down the stuff we’re not supposed to write down. And, you know, then there’s such relief when they’re like, oh, you guys do it, too. And I’m like, yeah, we all grew up in the same way patriarchy. And we really go through it with each other because we are both products of the white patriarchy. He happens to be a white man and that sets up a fucked up dynamic. So we have to investigate that shit constantly.
S7: It seems to me that that’s one of any number of difficult for me and also quite painful subjects that your book is grasping towards holding for long periods of time, looking at from a lot of different angles. How do you create space for yourself to explore and hold kind of the emotional parts of the creative process?
S1: Wow. How do I. I mean, I can tell you, I’m just being totally honest. I was terrified the entire time I was writing this book, which is funny because I don’t actually talk about that. A lot of people. I know that it’s funny. Like, it’s a really funny book. And so that’s I think what’s partly helpful about getting about people picking it up is that they’re laughing a lot. Or what I hear most often is I was laughing and crying and I don’t know why I was doing both of those things at the same time.
S8: But my experience of writing it was intense fear, fear of betraying the people around me, feel of fear of cracking. I think the psychological toll felt really deep. I wish I had a boat to put on that for you. I don’t actually have one. All I can tell you is I was really scared the whole time and I have some really good friends and I went to a lot of walks and at some point I could draw myself back out of that place, like literally draw myself back out. Out of that place. But in the two years that I was doing the really deep work in this, I was pretty shaky.
S7: Was there a moment when you realized that that it kind of gone away? Maybe after the book was published or months later or something where you’re like, oh, I actually feel 15 percent less scared about my book right now.
S8: I’m not scared about my book anymore. That’s true. No, it’s just the world. Exactly. It’s just the world. Now, you know, I think at some point. When it was done and when I could read it and when I think when it went into the world, what I was I was really prepared for the angry white hordes to come after me. And some have. You know, that’s what it is. But the thing that’s more interesting to me is all of the black and brown teenagers that have found me and have said, like, you are telling some part of my life or my life or my parents’ life or this thing that I couldn’t say out loud, you put it on the page, it feel like someone saw me. No one sees me. And I think that thing actually is really healing, even though. The thing I’m showing them is not some peeled version of myself. And I mean, like, that’s not I’m not offering them some hero’s journey through. That’s not really what the book is. But I think just the idea is, like you showed me some part of me. I think that’s helpful.
S7: There’s a lot of in the book, kind of like I am illuminating this problem, but I am definitely not fixing it for you.
S1: I’ve no idea how. I have no idea how. Yeah, it’s something that you just don’t know how to fix.
S7: Yeah, of course. And of course, that’s also something that, you know, particularly I think white readers go to writers of color expecting. And so it’s another thing you kind of withhold from us that I think is part of how the book is working and its power.
S1: You know, that was that last piece in there, which is a letter to my son in which I originally when I was starting to write the book like this will be the thing that wraps it all up and makes it all makes sense. And then afterwards, you know, as I was sort of writing, it was like, I don’t have any wisdom to garden here whatsoever anyway. You know, once I realized that was it. Okay, so you’re going to have to let go of the idea that this is going to wrap this up. This is going to like seal this up into a into a nice, tidy place. You are not that person that was never going to be the end of anything that would even be vaguely described as a memoir by you. You’re just going to have to like wrap this up into the place where you live, which is with a wild amount of unknowing and a real curiosity about all of it.
S3: Mira, thank you so much for coming on working and talking about your work in the creative process.
S1: Thank you so much for having me. It’s almost as good as running into you at a coffee shop.
S7: I know one day, one day there will be coffee shops again.
S9: It’s true.
S4: So, Isaac, there are about 10000 things I want to follow up in this conversation. I loved hearing Mira talk about constraint as an essential part of her work as an artist for her. She’s talking, I think, about formal constraints, about literally learning how to draw a comic and using all this unfamiliar technology. Whenever I talk to people about the balance between the work that I do, which is writing and parenthood, I point out that I never wrote a book in the many years that I was not a parent. And I think that little bit of constraint is really necessary for creative work. Or maybe I’ve just convinced myself that because I have two kids and unlimited freedom, like four months at a writers colony is impossible for me to imagine.
S5: Yeah. You know, you and I are both parents and we both have work to do. And there’s also this pandemic. And most people have at least two of those things going on. And those are big limitations no matter what. And I’ve really found that part of what comes out of that for me anyway, is that I do far less procrastinating because I have less time within which to do it. It’s just, you know, there’s only so many hours in the day. Then I have to take care of Iris and cook dinner and stuff like that. And so often I’ve managed to be sort of more productive and more immediately creative with the time that I have, which has been an interesting thing to discover.
S4: I think you have to look for those silver linings wherever you can find them. Yep. I was struck in this conversation, too, by how you and Mira talked about the nature of autobiographical writing, that it’s not necessarily about giving the writer the chance to work out her grievances or to reframe reality. And that’s sort of not what I expected to hear because the novel is entirely invented. Right. It’s a wholly made up construction in which the writer gets to play God effectively, whereas the memoir, you know, to hear Mira say it should aim for some kind of objectivity. But of course, that’s a subjective and personal exercise as well.
S5: You know, this is actually one of the reasons why I love comic book memoirs and don’t always go for prose memoirs in fiction, as you said, it’s all made up. So if you have a first person narrator that narrator is not the author, even if they’re an autobiographical standard, they aren’t the author. They are instead a construct. And all narrators are inherently, on some level, unreliable. So when part of the pleasure of reading a novel is having a relationship to that narrator in prose memoirs, the narrator is the author and they are in absolute control of the experience. So they are not only giving you a story, they are usually interpreting that story for you. And there’s very little room for the readers subjective experience of that story. And I personally, as a reader, find that actually extremely frustrating because I want to have my own experience of the story. But I actually think part of the appeal for a lot of people in many contemporary memoirs is that the sort of subtextual thing they all have in common is that the first person subjective truth is truth, that it is as valid as objectivity, whatever that might be. And so that’s actually why we go to them, is that we want to be comforted that our own experience of the world is determinative. I think that’s actually what the appeal of the memoir, the contemporary memoir is. But in a comic book memoir, because the character is drawn, it’s immediately placed into a kind of third person. And because you can’t put as many words on the page, there’s all sorts of room for the reader within that to have different experiences and judgments and everything. And you can actually hear Mira talking about it, that one of the reasons why the comic book form worked so well for her is that she could sort of let herself be an asshole and not try to fix that for you and not try to be ingratiating and just let you have your own experience of whatever it is that you’ve read. And that’s why, you know, I love this one. I love fun home. I love Mauser’s, all sorts of kind of comic book memoirs that do that. And I think it’s a really powerful thing. It’s also terrifying if you are the writer of Hit to expose yourself to the reader in that way.
S4: In a lot of ways, I think I don’t think I could ever write a memoir for particularly that reason. It just seems really terrifying and really exposing and especially with respect to BURA, for somebody who is already kind of talking specifically about being scrutinized and less powerful in in the culture as a whole, because she is a woman, because she’s the person of color, and because that’s sort of the reality in which we live.
S5: Yeah, absolutely. I am obviously not a woman of color, but I did try to write a memoir. At one point about some stuff that happened with my family. And, you know, I’m one reason why I stopped trying to get it published was that I felt like I was exposing all of us too much. Again, I’m a white guy. You know, I there’s I am in less peril. In this world to begin with, and Mira was pretty clear that this was a really scary experience and one that made her feel very vulnerable. And obviously, you know, feeling exposed and vulnerable, as is a key part of a lot of people’s creative process. But I think there’s a whole different level that attaches to this kind of experience. And what I was really fascinated to hear Mira talk about was how those dynamics actually really found their way into all sorts of decisions around what the book was and how was going to be made.
S4: She was sort of deliberately probing stuff that made her uncomfortable. And I think that a lot of good art comes from that impulse. I think if you’re writing from the inverse impulse of sort of like grandiosity, then really what you’re talking about is a kind of mania as opposed to a kind of vulnerability, which is probably the better place to be. I liked hearing Mira talk about kind of clearing some of this material with her husband, you know, and sort of he her husband is also a sort of creative professional. And so hearing her talk about him as both like a partner in the story, because it is the narrative of their shared life and also it’s like an outside voice or an outside set of eyes.
S5: I think that every couple kind of navigates this stuff a little differently. Right. Like I said, I interviewed Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen for working and they co create stuff together, which is a different kind of relationship for being too independently creative people who give each other notes. Then there’s folks like me. I’m married to someone who isn’t an artist. She works in corporate America. She came from a theater background and she’s a great, tough note giver, but has an extremely demanding job and does not always have hours to read drafts of everything, you know. And I know like Ruman, your husband is a photographer, and that’s a very different medium from writing. Do you two give each other notes? Does he read your drafts? Do you look at photos? And you know how? How does that work with you?
S4: Yeah. I mean, obviously, we’re married. We respect and value one another’s input and insight. And I think it can be incredibly valuable to me as a writer to have a voice very close to me that does not belong to a writer. It belongs to somebody who thinks with his eyes as opposed to whatever dumb corner of the brain that I’m using to think of of words. And I think similarly for David, I hope anyway, that if I can look at something and say, oh, it doesn’t look right because my eye is not trained, I hope that will be useful to him. But, you know, obviously, this is just one more tricky component of balance in a healthy relationship. Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s funny because you and Mira talked about eavesdropping and that really struck a chord with me because I also really miss that. And I think that that is like a huge part of maybe not just creative life, but actual urban life and the leisure and the texture of urban life. He has to go out and hear outlandish things being said, or you hear a snatch of conversation in a foreign language and you think, wow, what is this amazing place I live in where people are talking about all kinds of things that I don’t understand and I never really get to know. And it made me really miss being out at coffee shops.
S5: Me too. I mean, I think, you know, I write from coffee shops. I actually mirror and I met because we were both writing from the same coffee shop, you know? So I do think that sort of being out in the world, sponging up what people have to say, you know, thinking about it for later, making up a whole scenario around a snatch of thing that you just heard, all of that is so invigorating. And it’s not until you’re sort of removed from that hurly burly of city life that you realize how much you miss it.
S4: I think it’s like Joni Mitchell said, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. But I do think this conversation helped scratch some of my eavesdropping Jones. So I appreciate that. It was great to listen in. If you enjoy the show, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate, plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slate dot com slash working plus.
S7: Thank you to Mira Jacob for being our guest this week. An enormous thanks to our producer, Cameron Drewes.
S6: We’ll be back next week for a conversation between June Thomas and the writer Jasmine Guillory. Until then, get back to work.