Interview: Glynnis Fawkes

This year we plan to introduce our special guests to our audience via personal interviews with the Short Run Board. We are very excited to welcome them to Seattle, and hope you will take the time to get to know their work prior to their arrival in November!

Cartoonist Glynnis Fawkes and Short Run board member Meredith Li-Vollmer met at the University of Oregon in 1989 when they took a year-long math class together. Thirty years later, Meredith interviewed Glynnis, who will be a visiting artist at the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival this fall. They discussed Glynnis’ unusual pathway to comics—via archaeology—and her two books that will be published this year, Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre and Persephone’s Garden.

Pencil drawing of Meredith and Glynnis in a college classroom

Glynnis Fawkes and Meredith Li-Vollmer in Topics of Modern Math class in college, circa 1989, where Glynnis did some fine comics doodling while Meredith looked over her shoulder. Drawn by Glynnis.

How Glynnis found her way to comics

Meredith Li-Vollmer: Do you remember that math class? I think it was called Topics of Modern Math and it was meant for humanities majors.

Glynnis Fawkes: Yeah, but it was still a struggle! The only way I made it through that class was by making cut-cardboard polyhedrons for extra credit!

MLV: I made a contraption out of a hamster wheel that somehow illustrated chaos theory.

GF: Did you bring it to class? I feel like I remember that! (laughs)

MLV: And I remember looking over your shoulder while you doodled in class. I remember your drawings so vividly, and I remember you did your senior thesis on Greek vases. After college, I wondered whether you ever did anything with your art. Decades later, just as I was discovering the Seattle comics community, I found out you were doing comics! How did that happen?

GF: It’s a long story. After U. of O., I went to art school in Portland. I started drawing comics in art school but it wasn’t something people really wanted to talk about. It was definitely about painting.

Then I went to grad school in Boston for an MFA. And there I did comics, but they were single panel cartoons without borders. I did them on the side because my main thing was painting. But for my thesis I did a whole book of single panel cartoons about my life and boyfriends and stuff, mixed with classical mythology. And at final critiques, all the people talked about the comics I put on the wall and pretty well ignored my paintings! And I thought, maybe there’s something to this.

After that I went to Cyprus on a Fulbright and to make a book of paintings. I was making cartoons about Cypriot archaeology at the same time. I had the idea of a book that would bring ancient sites back to life and to have paintings with cartoons on the side that spoke to each other. I found a publisher, but they thought the cartoons were too frivolous, too funny. Eventually I found a different publisher for the cartoons and they’re in their own book. But they’re also single panel, New Yorker-style.

I didn’t want to leave after the Fulbright was over. So I taught drawing in Lebanon and I worked on excavations as an illustrator for another two years. But there was no time to draw my own work because it was long hours of drawing pottery. I had enough of it because I didn’t have time to do my own work!

And then I went to a doctoral program in Australia. They have a doctorate of creative arts so I got a scholarship and went to the University of Wollongong for a year and a half. And there again I wanted to do a thesis that I would be able to do cartoons for. But my thesis advisor kept saying, “Yes, that’s a wonderful idea and you still need to do this-many-thousands of words of writing and exhibition.” And it didn’t seem to fit and I didn’t assert myself enough to make it happen. I couldn’t picture how it would happen.

I met John in Cyprus, who I would eventually marry. He came to Australia and then all of a sudden I was pregnant and then I quit the program because he didn’t find a job there and we came back to Woodshole, Massachusetts. And I had the baby there, and then we moved to DC for a year, and then I had another baby, and then he got a job in Vermont.

With two young kids, I was a bit lost for a while until I started drawing cartoons about kids, kind of out of frustration. I was also trying to do these big paintings that had to do with Greek mythology. And I just didn’t know where they would go and what they were for.

And so I kept looking online and finding books of comics in the library, like David Lasky’s and James Sturms’ books, and I’d always liked Roz Chast and Lynda Barry. But I didn’t really know there was a world of indie comics that were happening now. But then finding them at the library and following up on the internet, I found, “Oh! People are making these books now and these are the kind of books I want to make and I’m going to do it!” I feel like I had this epiphany about where my work could go and what I could do. Maybe ten years ago, I told my family I was going to SPX, the Small Press Expo outside of DC, and it blew my mind. I thought, “Here’s people I want to know and things I want to do!” But it’s taken a long time to go from not exactly zero—because I’d always drawn and drawn comics—but figuring out how to put them into a little book. I had always done single panel, so I had to actually make some panels and tell a story.

It’s been a long and meandering way to get to make comics but I’m very happy.

Fawkes’ current work: A book about a literary sisterhood and a personal collection on motherhood and daughterhood

MLV: When I read Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre, it read so well for me, but I noticed it will be published by Disney Hyperion. Is it for young people?

GF: They’ve determined that it’s a middle grade book, but I was really writing it for myself. Well, my kids for instance haven’t read it, but then I wrote it! (laughs) And they’re getting into YA. But YA implies that it has sex and romance in it, and this one doesn’t because that didn’t happen for Charlotte until this book is over. And also kids of that age would not have read Charlotte’s books because they’re not easy. I read Jane Eyre in high school and I just didn’t get it. I think any age is the answer, anyone who feels like it.

MLV: I read Jane Eyre in college and loved it then, and your book brought me back to who I was then. A kid could read your graphic novel, but what they would take away from it would be really different.

GF: I know. I think that’s so true of literature that you read at different times in life. I didn’t get Jane Eyre in high school, I wasn’t ready for it. And this year I’ve listened to it twice and it gets better every time.

MLV: It focuses it on Charlotte, but less on the other Brontë sisters. Why did you focus on Charlotte?

GF: She made that decision for me by having more of an external life than her sisters. There’s so many more letters written by her and diary papers and there are not such things for Emily and Ann. And if there were, Charlotte might have destroyed them, I think, to save her sisters’ reputations. All three of them are very interesting. But Charlotte went to school and so she made friends that she kept up a lifetime correspondence with. Emily and Ann didn’t have the same outside-of-the-family friendships, so they didn’t write that many letters. It’s all the because of the evidence, because of what’s there.

Cover for "Persephone's Garden" by Glynnis Fawkes

MLV: I’m sure excited for Persephone’s Garden to come out. Can you describe it?

GF: It’s a collection that spans six years of comics that are observations of my family as well as a bunch of new comics that are about my mom and her Alzheimer’s. It’s really the vision of Leon, the editor at Secret Acres. He asked me to make this book out of comics over the years and also short things that have been published in the New Yorker and other places like Spiral Bound and Popula.

It’s all color, so I had to spend a lot of time coloring older comics. Some of them are very simple and some of them have very complex color. I’ve seen it as a color-corrected PDF, but I haven’t seen the book yet so I‘m not sure what to expect. I’m pretty curious to see how it will all come together.

MLV: I can’t wait. I’ve loved your parenting comics, the ones about your family. They have that very fluid style that I remember from your doodles, so lively and also such wonderful observations. I haven’t seen as much of that richly detailed landscape work that I know that you’ve done—except now in the Brontë book—so I’m really excited to see that. And I’m curious about the title: why Persphone’s Garden?

Six panels from "Persephone's Garden".

GF: It took a long time to figure that out. It’s a made up thing—there is no Persphone’s garden in mythology. But I wanted to bring her in because of the story of Demeter and Persphone. Demeter is always looking for her lost daughter, Persphone. She looks for her, she finds her but she’s disappeared into the underworld. I feel like that with my children who are growing up. They will grow up and disappear and go somewhere else. Or in relating on a daily basis: sometimes you connect with the family, and sometimes they’re too snarly to reach, or I am.

And my mother with her Alzheimer’s. I feel like now she’s the one who’s lost and I’m looking for her. The roles are reversed. Like she’s halfway in the underworld and I don’t know how to talk to her anymore. So those are the reasons that I wanted to use Persphone’s name. And I was working on a comic about being in my mother’s garden, helping her pull out weeds. The short was just four pages, but there’s more that wasn’t online that is in the book that takes place in that garden. A flowering meadow is the site that Persphone was abducted, and it’s not a garden—it’s a wild place by the sea. But a garden is more domesticated, cultivated place. It’s more like where we live now.

MLV: I love it. The connections between mother and child going both ways.

GF: A scholar friend was talking about Demeter, after she loses Persphone, she enters a different level in her life. She also remembers her own coming into being as a woman instead of a girl, and marriage itself is a loss of her earlier part of life. I feel like as my daughter grows up, I can live it again through her and also lose childhood yet again. And meanwhile, my mother is more and more like a child, so it’s coming at me, both ways.

MLV: When you’re writing comics about your family, is there a different experience in writing about your mother than writing about your children?

GF: Yes, for sure! I can’t write anything about my kids anymore. They absolutely forbid it. So this book is the end, I’m not doing that anymore. And I was just thinking, I just read my friend Summer Pierre’s Paper, Pencil, Life. And I so appreciate documenting everyday life and the day-to-day observations you make about lights on trees, or a bird that flies by, or how you feel about the political situation, or your family. Things that capture the feeling of everyday life. I haven’t done that for almost a year because I’ve been working so intensely on the Brontë book and other projects. And I feel like I want to get back to it, but it doesn’t have to be about my children.

Six panels from "Persephone's Garden".

It’s easier to write about my parents. I mean, my mom can’t understand, but I want to be sensitive to my dad because he’s the one taking care of her completely. And I had never drawn them before until a few years ago. I just never drew about my parents. I never wanted to. They have their own world and they’re both artists. And I wanted to make some distance. But I think this Alzheimer’s has made me want to revisit. And it made me very nervous about my dad seeing the first one that I drew about him. And I thought, “Oh no, what is he going to say?” But he didn’t say very much and I think it’s going to be OK.

MLV: We feel like this is our lucky year to have you at Short Run the year that both these books come out!

GF: Yeah, feast or famine!

See Glynnis Fawkes at Short Run, November 9th, 2019.

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