You can tell your story and live with Lara Lillibridge and Alison Bechdel

Welcome to our LGBT podcast This Queer Book Saved My Life! In this episode, we talk with writer and teacher Lara Lillibridge (she/zher) about the LGBT book Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Lara shares with us, “There’s two things about Fun Home that were huge for me. The first was just representation. I had never seen anything at all like my family in a book.” Also, we are SO proud to welcome Alison Bechdel (she/her) to the podcast! We have a fascinating conversation about writing Fun Home, part of her coming out story, and reflecting on writing about our families. She told us her take that we shouldn’t wait to write about people until after they are deceased. However, she said, “There is something monstrous when you turn people in your life into characters. There’s no way around that. It’s an aggressive act no matter how loving or well written it is.” Transcript below!

Buy the books on this LGBT podcast at our Bookshop!

A big thank you to Natalie Cruz., Archie A., Bill Shay, and Paul Kaefer for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services that ensure this LGBT podcast is accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Patreon supporters help keep us on the air and promote accessibility. They receive a variety of benefits, including shout outs in our episodes, social media mentions, access to live-streaming events, virtual lunch with me, or even better, bring me to work day where I can do a talk and Q&A around queer diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook.

TRANSCRIPT

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Hey everyone. Well, I can’t believe we only have two episodes left before our season one finale on August 23rd! But don’t worry, season two drops on October 4th!

And to celebrate our first season, we will be at Lush Lounge and Theater on August 24th. 

We will record our first episode in front of a live studio audience featuring OutFront Minnesota’s Policy and Organizing Director James Darville. We will discuss the book that saved James’ life: The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s. The memoir, written by Minnesota author Ricardo J. Brown, is about the first St. Paul, MN bar that drew an LGBTQ crowd in the 1940s.

If you’re in and around the Twin Cities, join us! Lush will offer their full menu, plus a signature cocktail inspired by The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s. Quatrefoil Library will also be on hand to present and have a table of LGBTQ books for you to peruse. Plus, Patreon supporters who are at the Lifesaver and Legends levels will have VIP treatment. So, head to patreon.com/thisqueerbook to sign-up.

Speaking of Quatrefoil Library, thank you Quatrefoil for all of your continued support for this LGBT podcast. Quatrefoil Library is a community center that cultivates the free exchange of ideas and makes accessible LGBTQ+ materials for education and inspiration. Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visit them at qlibrary.org

That’s q library.org.

[theme music]

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: On today’s episode…

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: There’s two things about Fun Home that were huge for me. The first was just representation. I had never seen anything at all like my family in a book.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I’m talking with Lara Lillibridge about Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. This best selling graphic memoir was adapted into a Tony Award winning Musical. For Lara it provided not only representation but a pathway forward to write her memoir. Plus, we have a fascinating conversation with Alison about writing Fun Home and writing about your family.

ALISON BECHDEL: There is something monstrous when you turn people in your life into characters. There’s no way around that. It’s an aggressive act no matter how loving or well written it is.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: My name is J.P Der Boghossian and you’re listening to the LGBT podcast This Queer Book Saved My Life!

[plucky pizzicato music]

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Let’s meet Lara Lillibridge. Her pronouns are she/zher. It was hard for her tell me which was her favorite book growing up, but she did read The Hobbit a lot as a kid. Her mom was an avid reader too and she let Lara read the books from her own bookcase, whatever Lara wanted, even the age inappropriate books. Lara also told me that she lived across the street from a library, but due to a number of library fines she could never go.

When we recorded this episode she was reading Dear Queer Self by Jonathan Alexander. Jonathan wrote his experimental queer memoir as a letter to his younger self – because, and I love this, his younger self was always writing letters to his future self. Lara told me it is really wonderful.

Lara is an author in her own right. She wrote two memoirs: Her first memoir Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home was a Foreward INDIES Book of the Year Awards Finalist. She then wrote a second memoir: Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent – from Divorce and Dating to Cooking and Crafting, All While Raising the Kids and Maintaining Your Own Sanity (Sort of). That title! I’m here for it! For her kids, she also wrote a middle grade fantasy novel Dragon Brothers, which is out now.

Lara always wanted to be a writer but came to it later in life thinking she didn’t have anything to say. Pregnant with her second child, at 34, she went back to college to get her bachelor’s degree and then a graduate degree in creative nonfiction.

Lara is the Interviews Editor for Hippocampus Magazine.  She’s also a mentor with the Association of Writers and Poets Writer to Writer mentorship program. In 2019, Hippocampus awarded her with their Literary Citizen of the Year. She’s also written a number of essays and Huffpo blogs, all of which you can read on her website laralillibridge.com

When not writing, Lara says that she sings off-beat and dances off-key.

Here’s my conversation with Lara.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: So, tell us, what is the book that saved your life?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: I am so excited to get to talk about Fun Home because it was so important to me. Fun Home was a book that made me okay to write about my queer family.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: How would you describe it to the 2 people in the world who still have yet to read it?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: It’s a graphic memoir and it was the only graphic memoir I had ever read, but it is about a child growing up. Her family runs a funeral home. Her father is gay but closeted and gets arrested. I would say he’s mentally ill. I don’t recall if she ever uses those words. It’s also about the authors coming out and coming to terms with her own queerness.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Every guest on the show has been interpreting what saved means to them in relation to their book. What did save mean as you were reading Fun Home?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: There’s two things about Fun Home that were huge for me. The first was just representation. I had never seen anything at all like my family in a book. I was raised by Lesbian parents. One of them was mentally ill so I didn’t have a happy childhood story I felt as a writer, tremendous pressure to show gay families, particularly the Lesbian families in a positive way. I felt like I couldn’t let the community down. But the truth was that my childhood wasn’t happy, I had no idea how to write about this and yet I started as a baby writer, writing fiction and my childhood came into everything I wrote. I knew I had to write this memoir and get it out before I could do anything else creatively but I didn’t want to let down the queer community. I didn’t want to give the right-wing anti-gay family people ammunition. It was really conflicting for me. I read Fun Home and then the musical came to Cleveland. We saw it on the stage and I nearly burst into tears with happiness to just see something like my family. Everyone could see that was out there in the world because I’d never ever seen anything like that before.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: How did the book come to you?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: During my MFA it was recommended to me as one of only two books anyone knew about that had Queer parents in them.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: What was it like, those first few pages as you’re reading it?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: It was interesting because I had never read a graphic novel, a graphic memoir or anything besides a comic book! So, I was a little unsure when I started. I was surprised how easy it was to get into it and how much more expression and how much more depth could come out of the graphic memoir as opposed to just text on a page. I found it really eye-opening in a lot of different ways.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Was there a particular section as you were getting into it that you were like oh wow this right here is really speaking to me?                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: The whole mental illness or certainly inappropriateness of Bechdel’s father definitely resonated with me. I loved that she wrote about masturbation like that was something that I wanted to write about but was, you know, I had never seen anyone tackle these topics of emerging sexuality in a way that really liberated me as a writer and just really let me see that your story is your story. You can tell it any way you want. I think this was one of the first graphic memoirs to really make it big. I’m not entirely sure. You can use whatever form you want, whatever content you want and tell your story in the way that you need to do so. You don’t need to be quiet or behave or listen to other people’s ideas of what’s proper.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Can you give an example of what that was like if you were trying to tell your story and you didn’t have those words as a writer? What was that like for you in terms of that struggle?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: I just didn’t write about it. I just didn’t write about my moms at all. Everyone kept saying each semester I would have to write a goal and my goal would be to write about my moms and then every semester I would write about everything but them because it was so complicated for me. I didn’t have a way in. I didn’t want to open my family to judgment. I think one thing I love about Fun Home is that even though there’s all of these serious issues and heavy topics, the book itself shows also a lot of love and shows also good moments as well as bad moments. It didn’t feel attacking or like a hatchet job. It really showed that you can love someone who is complicated and does mess things up.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: How did that translate into your work then as you started working on your memoir, Girlish?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: I think it gave me mercy for my family and the ability to see beyond just the child’s eyes but the complexities of adults.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I’m curious then you because do a lot of experimental writing as well, do you think that it had an impact seeing the intersection and the experimental genres that were being challenged by Fun Home?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: Absolutely because I started my MFA thinking that I had to tell a linear story that I had to go about it a certain way and follow a certain formula Fun Home was one of the key books that turned that on its head. The idea that just because people say you can’t do that doesn’t mean you can’t do that! It was so resonant and it really reached beyond itself to really anyone any audience, any reader could connect with this. It showed me that if you want to do something a certain way and you believe in yourself and you’re good at it, that you can write the book the way that you need to write it.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Were there different ways that you were thinking about characterizing your relationship with your mom’s? As you were writing in isolation, did you feel that you needed that space or were you doing that in conversation with them by shifting perspectives?                                                                                                                                                                                              

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: I would say I wrote in isolation. I sat down and when I decided to write Girlish, I just wrote and wrote for about six weeks; every single day 8 hours a day until it was done. I had no intention of showing my parents until it was too late! I sent my mom an arc shortly before it was published but I definitely didn’t want other people’s memories or other people’s stories or other people’s judgments to cloud my own writing.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Love that! Did you reread it multiple times?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: Yeah, and in so many different ways. My first draft was in first person and then after three or four drafts, I made it mostly third person. I interspersed essays and to me the revision process was what gave me the distance that I needed to be able to step away from bad memories and to be able to say they live here on the page. This is something I’m shaping into art. This is not just something that happened to me.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Allison I have a question for this as well. A question about this for you when I was interviewing Carmen Maria Machado in a previous episode. She said that she wouldn’t rewrite her memoir again. She said it wasn’t cathartic and it was kind of traumatizing to do that and she’s said the language she uses was passing a kidney stone! She felt like I had to pass this like a kidney stone so I could finally get on to do other work. Was this story for you something that needed to get out and just needed to be done or is this something else?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: I was haunted by so much of my childhood and I had so many resentments ongoing because of it with my family and I couldn’t stop thinking about it and writing the book. This made me reinhabit those spaces in a way. I do like that analogy of passing a kidney stone. It was really hard to get back into that headspace but coming through that I was finally freed from that. It was worth it. It’s something that I absolutely was changed by but I would agree that it wasn’t a happy process.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Were there perspectives or skills which you got from reading Fun Home that helps you through that?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: I have a lot of anxiety and when I was writing it was really hard for me. to imagine the other side and I would chant names of writers at night at 2 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep. ALISON BECHDEL Bechdel told their story and lived right? That was the end of every sentence that you could tell your story. You could be completely honest and Fun Home is so honest in so many different ways. You can be vulnerable and not be destroyed by it was something I desperately needed to know that you could be queer because I am queer too. I still say that sometimes relationships aren’t perfect and sometimes there is abuse and sometimes there are issues and just the ability to not feel like I had to have a representation for other people but that I could write myself and that it could turn out to be a beautiful thing and it could turn out not to be a negative story and not play into stereotypes.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Tell us more about that mantra. That’s really resonating with me. ALISON BECHDEL Bechdel told her story and she lived. I mean that’s a really emotional…that’s getting to me right now like where did that come from?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: The worst time for me was after the book was accepted edited and done but before it came out so it’s too late. There are arcs. There are you know actual copies. But I don’t know what the reception is going to be either in terms of the public; other writers; my own family and that time was devastating for me. I couldn’t sleep. I would wake up at one in the morning every single night and I would just tell myself that Lydia Yuknevich wrote her story and lived. Katherine Harrison wrote her story and lived. I had all of these writers and I would just chant their names and it was a reminder that I too would live. I had one writer friend a woman named Lynn Hall who wrote about sexual assault in the military at the air force academy and she was horribly attacked after her book came out. She said to me she would still do it again and that as terrible as responses as she got you know you you can deal with it when it’s known. Um, it’s the unknown before the book comes out when you don’t know what’s going to happen that she said is the hardest and I agree with her on that. Even if people are horrible trolls you deal with it because you have to deal with it.

[music]

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: After the break, we’ll sit down with Alison to talk about what drove her to write Fun Home. Plus, we’ll discuss the age old question: would you rather have a happy childhood and no book or a sad childhood and a book?

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J.P. Der Boghossian: Do you remember that rad alarm clock you had growing up? I do. Well, guess what? I found that exact clock at Alley Cat Antiques. They have games, pictures, clothes, furniture, kitchenware, pottery, toys, and all kinds of cool stuff. You can shop Alley Cat Antiques within the Mall of St. Paul, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and within Almelund Mercantile in Almelund, Minnesota. Tell them JP sent you. But don’t you dare buy that Thundercats lunch box. That’s mine!

[music]

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: It’s time to meet Alison Bechdel. Here pronouns are she/her. She told me her favorite book growing up was Harriet the Spy. She said her house was filled with books as a kid and she constantly read as a child.

These days she’s developed a penchant for reading biographies.

Her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For is classic and countercultural and Alison self-syndicated it for twenty-five years!

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Dykes to Watch Out For, there’s the Bechdel Test, which comes from a 1985 strip. The test tests the sexism of a movie. To pass, two women need to talk to each other about something other than a dude. BUT, Alison wants everyone to know, the test was her friend Liz Wallace’s idea. So, if you want to really be woke about the test, credit Liz Wallace.

In 2006, she published Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic which Time Magazine named Best Book of the year. And then a few years later along came playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori who adapted it into a musical. And then it won Best Musical of the year at the Tonys, along with four other awards.    

In 2021, Alision published her most recent book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Finally, someone figured it out! Amongst other things she writes about in the book she takes some side trips to visit Transcendentalists and climbs a mountain with a Jack Kerouac book.

Here’s my conversation with Alison.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: As I was prepping for this interview I was going back to some interviews that he had been giving in the past over the history of Fun Home and there was a few quotes that I pulled out that I thought were really interesting to me. One is you were talking about how after Fun Home had been published, you had gotten more information about your family and what had happened after you got more pieces of the puzzle. You said that you were actually kind of happy you didn’t have all that new additional information that had been a mystery or a quest and I’m curious as you got started in those early days of Fun Home like how would you characterize what that quest was for you? What did it look like?

ALISON BECHDEL: It was interesting hearing you talk LARA LILLIBRIDGE about your anxiety and sleeplessness as you were working on your memoir. It was definitely a very tough process. I’ve almost forgotten about it and you just reminded me that. I felt like I was just breaking a lot of rules like you weren’t supposed to write about your family like this. I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know how to write a book. I was sort of teaching myself to write as I went along. Just a period of a lot of doubt and self-searching but also feeling really driven to tell this story and to figure out how to do it.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: What do you think was driving you?

ALISON BECHDEL: You know I wanted to tell the story of me and my father ever since he died when I was 19. I had enough perspective on it to see that it was kind of a remarkable story. I felt a little monstrous having that thought but I felt like it was almost an obligatory story to tell. Here I was a young Lesbian coming out and in doing so I discover that my father is Gay or Bisexual. I think he was probably more accurately Bisexual than Gay. But I don’t know that labels matter anymore.

I had a sense that this was a story I wanted to tell from age 20 soon after my father died but I  didn’t know how to do it. At that point I assumed it would be prose.  I didn’t feel it was impossible to tell the story at that point. I could not reveal this family secret that my father had had affairs with his students or that he’d likely committed suicide. That was not something that people knew as far as I knew once I wrote the book. Everyone said oh I suspected that and oh I suspected he was Gay but not until I wrote the book many years later. Why do I want to tell that story? That’s a good story but I guess for me, it felt very existential like my father killed himself because he couldn’t live his full self in the world and. I  also grew up Gay in this little rural town in Pennsylvania but because of all the  political and sociological changes that had occurred in that generation between my father and me, I was able to come out, live openly and have a fine happy life. So that just seemed like a story worth telling.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: It took 6 to 7 years to write the book. What was that drive like around year three that you’re like I’ve got to keep going? What was that drive that was keeping you moving forward over that time?

ALISON BECHDEL: In the in the twenty years or so between when my father died and when I decided to really tell the story I had become a cartoonist and I think that that that hybrid nature of the work I do or its images as well as words like that was kind of something that kept pulling me along I practiced drawing my father and my mother. I  drew pictures of our house and all of that stuff was really powerful in terms of , getting my head into the emotional space of this story.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I’ve read that you’ve had your diaries to draw upon and that you were in therapy as well to draw upon. I understand that as you were writing you were engaging with your family. You said that all of that contributed to the catharsis of the of the book. How would you explain the catharsis of what you got out of that? How were you changed by writing Fun Home?

ALISON BECHDEL: I want to clarify that I didn’t tell my family right away. I worked on the book for a year because I I knew if my mother had a very negative reaction, it probably would mean I wasn’t going to do it. I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. So I waited until I really had a grasp on the material firm enough that I knew I couldn’t be shaken loose. Then I talked to her and she did have a somewhat negative response. She was also encouraging. It was very ambivalent. I’m glad I did that work on my own first.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I had read that you got really excited reading the Virginia Wolf novel To the Lighthouse.

ALISON BECHDEL: That was something that came later when I started really dealing with what was happening and understood that I needed to learn to have my feelings so I went about this book in a quite deliberate way thinking that it was going to be a proper funeral for my father which she had never had in many ways. There’s this whole theme of the funeral home because my dad was a mortician and we had this very surreal funeral in our own family funeral home. But all of that was so inhibiting. I think a big part of why I wasn’t able to feel anything was because no one knew what had happened. I mean it was a secret what had happened.  No one knew about his Gayness. No one knew about mine. No one suspected that he had killed himself. It just felt like such a farce to me. What are we even doing here if we’re not talking about what’s happening? So finally I just felt like I had to do that and of course as I had learned in therapy, there is a release and an integration and a really positive feeling when you tell the truth about a lie.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I’ve read an interview that you gave where some folks have asked would you rather have had a happy childhood or have written Fun Home and you said in the interview that you didn’t even have to think about it. You take the book and your own way of relating to the world. Do you feel so?

ALISON BECHDEL: I do but I would say that only someone who’d had a problematic childhood would answer in that way. It’s sort of a a Catch 22 sort of question. I don’t really know what the alternative is. I’m happy that I have that.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Do you still feel that way?

ALISON BECHDEL: I’m happy that I have the ability to write. I guess for me, that’s really linked to my weird childhood!

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Tell us about the book Word is Out:  Stories of our Lives.

ALISON BECHDEL: This was the queer book that saved my life! It’s funny. I just want to say Lara I’m so happy to be talking with you on this podcast. I guess we’re going to talk later but I’m really honored that my book meant something to you but also, Fun Home is like a book about Queer books that saved my life. I mean my own coming out was completely through books. Before I ever had any kind of actual girlfriend or crush or flirtation, I read about homosexuality in books: very voraciously after this initial book. I came out instantaneously while reading that book. I was just browsing one day in the college bookstore which I did a lot of and I was just kind of depressed and spent a lot of time in the library or in the bookstore. I picked up this book. Word is Out. It’s a book of transcribed interviews from a film. It’s actually based on a documentary film made in the 70 s about Gay men and Lesbians talking about their lives and about coming out. What was so exciting to me when I read that book was that these people were fine. These people were all really happy and really glad they had done this and just fine and so my experience reading the book was: simultaneous identification and revelation that oh I’m one of these people but the big part of it was and it’s okay! Those things just collided and I was out and I never looked back.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: That’s amazing! Did you watch the movie after that? Was it what you were hoping to see? You probably knew all of the words and so what was it like to hear the voices behind those words?

ALISON BECHDEL: I did later. I got to see the movie and that was great. It was magical and I still have this very powerful feeling about all the people in that movie. I love them.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Last year you were doing an interview for the release for The Secret to Superhuman Strength. You said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. The full quote was “I’m writing about not so much finding myself as becoming free of myself that feeling of losing myself in a creative pursuit or an athletic pursuit is this great feeling that I’m always in quest of. I’d love for you to talk more about that.

ALISON BECHDEL: I feel like my subject has always been to some extent myself. My early years were spent writing this Lesbian comic strip which was a way for me to just make my own life visible. My friends, people who looked like me, needed to see that in some kind of mirroring sense. It was some sort of developmental stage that I had missed and I needed. I did that for myself and then I went on to write Fun Home which was sorting out this weird family and figuring out myself. I had been quite overpowered by both my very creative parents and so each of these books first Fun Home and then my book about my mother were ways of getting out from under their giant thumbs. The book about my mother was more explicitly about therapy and narcissism and the self and the way our egos operate. My next book was about what happens next. I really feel like I have been attached to myself and dedicated to figuring myself out. Being myself is kind of an uncomfortable experience. There’s something really amazing about the few moments of transcendence I’ve experienced in my life where I’m not connected to myself, where this boundary of my skin and brain dissolves and I’m no longer a separate self. That’s the best feeling in the world and so that’s what I’m working on I guess.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Do you come to those moments through exercise or through meditation?

ALISON BECHDEL: The older I get the rarer they become. Exercise has always been a kind of a shortcut to get to them. If you work out long enough and hard enough, uou usually get kind of a high feeling. The preferred way of achieving that state is through actual creative work when I’m actually lost in writing something or absorbed in drawing something. That’s the gold standard.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Your writing career has lived through some major cultural shifts in the United States. Dykes to Watch Out For and queer newspapers and in the middle of it you have Fun Home. Huge critical reception. Broadway musical wins a Tony and now Fun Home is being banned by school boards! How are you reconciling this career that has gone from here to big wide massive international audience to now coming back to book bans.

ALISON BECHDEL: It’s really chilling. I have to say in my gloomy gus way I always felt mistrustful of this spurt of incredible progress that that we’ve seen with gay marriage in the Supreme court and all of that. I have never quite really believed that that was really happening. So I guess there’s this certain way that I’m like, oh yeah I I was right all along. We’re just going down the Fascist tubes together. That’s really no consolation I assure you. I know I haven’t figured out how to even talk about this. I feel very upset. It’s bizarre to watch history moving in this retrograde direction. I don’t know if it can be turned around. I don’t know, personally what to even do. I’m sorry I wish I had a more constructive helpful answer. I feel pretty powerless right now.

[music]

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: After this quick break, Lara, Alison and I will dive into what does it take to write about our families, particularly navigating relationships with their mothers in the writing process, and also what it’s like to experience your memoir out in the world for everyone to read.

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J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Does one have to redraw every frame of a graphic memoir while writing it? How much should mother’s be involved in the writing process? Should you wait till someone has passed before you write about them? Here’s more of the conversation with Lara and Alison.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: I had one question about the process. How many times did you have to redraw each frame? Or did you not draw until you had the words or how does that work when you do an illustrated piece?

ALISON BECHDEL: I had to figure out how it worked because I didn’t know that I didn’t want to have to redraw everything. If you decide to remove a scene or move it to a different area of the story, it’s a huge physical task to do all that new drawing. I tried to avoid that by not drawing. I was very lucky to have an editor who was able to look at my pages when I would just write a description of what the drawing was going to be for a given panel and she was able to envision that. I drew a few pages of each chapter when I submitted the book so you could see what it looked like, who the characters were but after that I didn’t draw until the writing was finalized and then I just went in and drew it.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: That makes sense.

ALISON BECHDEL: Lara it was interesting to hear you talk about my father as someone who’s mentally ill because I’ve never done that. I mean I think you’re absolutely right. But that’s another layer of this whole family trauma that I haven’t really excavated. Of course someone who commits suicide is mentally ill and someone who lives this kind of strange double life has got some sort of issues. It was interesting that that was your connection to the story. This representation of a mentally ill parent.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: I’m sorry that I used words that perhaps you had not intended.

ALISON BECHDEL: No, that’s what happens when you write a book. You can’t stop it.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: My mom’s partner was depressed so I’m coming from the lens of growing up with a depressed parent. How do you commit suicide if you’re not depressed?

ALISON BECHDEL: I have a question for you. You said you didn’t talk to your mother about this until you just like presented her with the advanced reading copy.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: My mother knew that I was writing it and she was always very supportive of me and she read other things I had written: essays and first drafts. She was one of my readers for most things I wrote. I told her that I wanted very much for this to be not influenced by her or her partner Pat. She respected that. She would say oh when can I read it? I’d say not yet. When I got the arc and I sent it to her I was of course very nervous. Then she decided she didn’t want to read it! She said oh I don’t want to know and that really broke my heart I have to say.

ALISON BECHDEL: Wow.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: Her best friend at the time who I was also close to really pushed her to read it and when she did read it, she said that other than a few minor places here and there she thought that the book was honest and was true which was very important to me. She wished I’d had a happier childhood and so did I you know. My stepmother Pat refused to read the book. my mom said with her bipolar disorder, she can’t read it. It would be too upsetting to her. I was fine with that. But then she wrote me handwritten letters that she’d been crying for weeks about my book and I thought if you’re not going to read it, I can’t have a conversation with you about it. It was interesting because while I was writing I had conversations with Pat a few Times and she sobbed because she cries a lot and she hugs me and she said you have to write your story. You have to write your truth. The world needs your story and she was so supportive of me writing honestly about some of the worst parts of my childhood. When the book came out, she was just completely the other direction which in its own way was not surprising.

After a few years went by then we were able to put aside all of our complicated feelings about the book. But it was a rough first year. I do think if I had let my mother read it, she would have wanted to protect Pat and I would have never written it. I would have just given up and people used to say well why don’t you wait till she dies and I thought I’m not waiting 30 years. My mom’s 78, she’s still alive I would still be waiting.

ALISON BECHDEL: That’s a funny response to me. It seems a little cowardly to wait till people die. I mean part of this process would you rather have had a happy childhood or someone who’d had a very unhappy childhood and got a book out of it. I would choose the book.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: Can I interrupt and ask a question? When my book came out, the fact that everybody in the world wouldn’t see it was reassuring and you had the other side of that where your book was huge and then it was a musical and then it won awards and it toured you know. Everyone had access to your story and how terrifying was that? I imagine that you were both incredibly proud but was there a level of exposure that was uncomfortable?

ALISON BECHDEL: Well, all of that stuff happened very slowly. The book did well right away and that was very gratifying. I didn’t know what to expect. I was quite naive going into the whole thing. I mean I’d been publishing for years to this small queer audience. I knew that I would like to reach a broader audience but I had no idea what that would really look like. It happened gradually. The book sold more and more. The musical didn’t happen for another 7 years. So the book was just kind of going along and building up steam quite slowly. When the musical came out, that was a whole new level of exposure. By that time I’d had enough practice and preparation to be able to handle that sort of onslaught of exposure but that too was interesting for my family. that. When the musical happened that created more tension than the book had because relative to the musical, no one no one saw the book you know? It’s just had this sort of ongoing life and things keep shifting. Now, there’s going to possibly be a movie of the musical and god knows what that will be like.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Like a recording of the cast like they did with Hamilton or like an actual dramatization?

ALISON BECHDEL: No like a dramatization of the musical but it would be set in a world not on a stage.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: You had said that you had turned down film rights originally and were kind of okay with a musical because you’re like well if the musical is no good, it won’t be living out in the world. Do I have that right?

ALISON BECHDEL: I did say that but that was quite naive because it could have been a terrible musical and quite successful and then what would I do but it was actually, I think quite a good musical so I was really fortunate.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Did you find areas where your mom was being very protective about parts of the story?

ALISON BECHDEL: Yes. I gave her the opportunity to tell me what she felt she wanted me to change. There were only a few little minor things that she wanted me to change even though it was clear that she was uncomfortable with the whole thing. But man, that was a tough process. That was so painful knowing that I was hurting her. That’s what I was talking about before and like my mind went blank because it was it was too hard to think about. Writing about living people is a really difficult thing. One thing my mother would do with me when we would talk about the book was make these subtle little jabs about other writers who she felt were being bad people. She would talk about the running with scissors guy and how he must have been lying because his mother wants to write her own memoir! That was a little hint that she wanted to write. I was like mom please write your version. Please do that. She got really mad at Joyce Carol Oates for writing about her dead husband in a certain way that she felt was disrespectful so she would always be making these little comments to me. I just had to weather that I had to take it but she was right. There is something monstrous when you turn people in your life into characters. There’s no way around that. It’s an aggressive act no matter how loving or well written it is. Who wants to read that? That’s very difficult. It takes a certain kind of person to be willing to do that and to risk those relationships and to not be seen as a good person by some people.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: It’s funny. I have two kids and my mother’s line is “I wonder what your son will write in his memoir?” It does make me pause. Um, when I was writing girlish. They were very young like nine and eight and were not reading at all. Now that they’re older I do have a different perspective on my parents and I do wonder how I would feel if my child wrote a memoir about his growing up. On the one hand I would always be proud and supportive of him and their right to tell their own story but it is terrifying!

ALISON BECHDEL: That’s one of the interesting ways that books remain alive. Their meanings change for the parties involved over time as the as the book meets with different fortunes in the world; as conditions in the world change and as more information about the story comes out, like it’s a living thing.

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: There’s a writer in Minnesota named Kao Kalia Yang and she said your memoir is a snapshot of who you were when you wrote it. It’s not a static thing. That speaks for your entire life or your entire experience and to look back on your earlier writing is sort of like looking back at a picture of yourself with pimples in high school. There are parts that might seem awkward but you still have to love that younger version. And I thought that was a really nice framing of it.

ALISON BECHDEL: I like that. That’s very astute too. It’s been odd with the ongoing success of Fun Home to have to keep talking about this book that I wrote so long ago. Not only did I write it fifteen years ago or twenty years ago it’s about things that happened forty years ago so it’s sort of hard to keep doing that because I’ve changed and I sort of feel when I’m doing an interview, I have to give the same answer that I gave fifteen years ago. That’s very confusing. I sometimes get caught up in like what am I even talking about?

LARA LILLIBRIDGE: That makes sense. I find that I forget what I wrote that long ago. I don’t know if that’s true for you, but someone will ask me a specific question and I’m like geez that was so long ago I’m no longer in that moment!

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I want to thank Lara and Alison for joining us here on our LGBT podcast This Queer Book Saved My Life!

Visit laralillbridge.com to learn more about Lara’s upcoming book about her father that will come out early next year. She is also working on a fascinating manuscript that tackles gender, sexuality, and shame. You can also follow her on Twitter at Only_Mama. You can find her on Facebook and Insta too.

And even though Alison is heading off-line, you can still go to dykestowatchoutfor.com. And soak up all the Bechdel goodness.

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J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Thanks everyone for listening to our LGBT podcast This Queer Book Saved My Life! Our season one episodes drop every Tuesday until our season finale on August 23rd. Season two drops October 4th. And mark your calendars to join us August 24th for our first live recording. For all the updates follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Transcripts of this episode are available on our website. Please don’t forget to support our sponsors Robert Berdahl at Edina Realty, Bookshop.org, Alley Cat Antiques, and Quatrefoil Library. Please visit patreon.com/thisqueerbook to sponsor the show. And most importantly, keep writing, and keep reading!