LYNDA BARRY HAS SCRIBBLED and painted and collaged cartoons for over 30 years. Recently, she has turned to making art about making art; 2008's What it Is and its just-released companion, Picture This, are elaborately collaged free-form narratives speculating on what makes adults so afraid to write and draw.
MERCURY: Hi, how are you?
LYNDA BARRY: Well, it's kinda fun to talk on the phone. I don't do it very often. I stopped using the phone for business about 15 years ago, and just got back into it. The phone doesn't ring here very often, so it's a thrill when it does. I just ran in to grab it.
Where were you when the phone rang?
I live on a little farm in Wisconsin, so there's a house and a little grain barn for my studio. I was in there and there's WiFi, but no phone.
Why did you stop using phones?
I don't know, it's been so long, I can't remember what made me not want to use it. But I think my last five books, I did them with editors without ever talking to them on the phone. It's all through email. I used to do interviews all through emails, but that's hard on me and it's hard on reporters. There's not that spontaneity.
Do you prefer the medium of email to talking on the phone?
Yeah, always, but actually, not in this situation. I realize when you email for an interview, you miss out on knowing who that other person is, even just the quality of voice. And also after living in the country for eight years, it's kind of nice to talk to another person.
You get kinda lonely.
Not lonely, I'm just interested in other three-dimensional people.
How come you like living in the country?
There's a whole lot of freedom and privacy. Yeah, freedom and privacy. And also it allows me to keep a frame of mind as long as I want to keep it. Usually when you live in a city, you run into people, or you go somewhere and it changes your frame of mind.
Well, this is sort of a weird way to start an interview, but I wanted to let you know that your work means a lot to me and was a big inspiration when I started writing.
Right on! I'm so happy to hear that! Every time anybody says anything like that to me, I feel like I have to bring up my teacher Marilyn Frasca at Evergreen State College in Washington. The lessons I learned from her when I was 19 and 20, I still use every day and have never been able to wear out.
What are those lessons?
The big lesson I learned from her was this idea, and I think it's kind of a revolutionary idea, that the one thing that unites everything we call the arts is this thing that she called the Image. This kind of living thing that's in the center of a song, a dance, or a piece that you're writing that you're interacting with. You can try and run the whole show, or you can see this thing as an interaction, where there's a reciprocal interaction going on. It's kind of like when kids are in deep play, the toy is playing with them and they're playing with the toy.
Also, the other thing is to just be able to stand what you're making long enough for that thing to exist. The problem with using a computer to write is that delete button. You delete everything you write and then there's no trace of it. I tell my students, you're going to write three sentences, delete them, and then write the same three sentences again. Whatever you're working on, you have to give it time to be in the world with you. It sounds kind of spacey, but I think the best metaphor for it is when you have a really good conversation with someone. There's you and there's the person you're talking to, but it's reciprocal. But then there's this third thing. And that's what I would think of as an Image. And you know from talking to someone, and I'm guilty of this myself, that's just sitting there waiting for you to take a breath so they can pop in with their thing. That's not a good conversation—it's not reciprocal. You're just sitting there, thinking, "Okay, I didn't know I was at a parade."
I like that way of thinking of it: a parade.
And I'm on every float!
Picture This looks like you're just playing around while sticking ideas together; it's all handmade collage and watercolor. I'm sure there's a lot of stuff you throw away, but it doesn't seem like you're stressed out while writing or drawing.
Not once I get into that state of mind, no, I don't stress out. For Picture This, it's a picture book. The way I always start a book is with a question and the whole reason I do the book is to see if I can get to the answer. The question for Picture This was: Why do we start drawing and why do we stop? When we're a kid, what attracts us to drawing? And what makes us stop, around the fourth or fifth grade—to be really worried about drawing? And what can make us start again? The only way I could do that was to make a lot of pictures that I didn't know what they were for.
What's your process for making a book like this, that's really a series of paintings?
Well, I always make paintings all the time for no reason. Sit down, drink a beer, turn on TV—gosh, I just watched the Real Housewives of DC, I love reality TV—and then I'll watch that and paint. So I always have these piles of paintings around and every once in a while there's a group that'll sort of emerge. For Picture This, there was this nearsighted monkey character that was really fun to draw. And my husband is a really good watercolorist, he can draw things that are far away and I can draw things that are close up. So I started drawing these monkeys and leaving them on his desk and say, "Put in a background." And then the picture I'd get back would just blow my mind. So I just let them sit there for a long time and then I started to think about them as a picture book. I don't know if you've ever gone with anyone to get their oil changed? You have to sit there in the Jiffy Lube waiting room and you're just desperate for anything to look at. I started to think about, what would be something I'd be really happy with in the Jiffy Lube waiting room? And that was my goal. To make this the book you'd be really happy to find in the Jiffy Lube waiting room. I wanted you to be able to just pick it up, flip to any page, learn something, and put it down, like a magazine.
Have you ever collaborated with someone before like that?
No, I've been with Kevin 17 years, and I've always really liked his work. I was never so attached to the painting I would give him, no matter what he did with it, I was always really happy.
Why do you like reality television so much?
You know, he asks me that a lot.
It's a you thing, it's not a we thing?
No, it's a me thing. I think it's a lifelong fascination with narcissists who are given a full-speed-ahead signal. I love to just watch them. People who are really into themselves drive Kevin crazy, but I could just watch them for hours. Like, if I'm watching it on a DVD, I'll even put it in slow motion so I can just watch their eyes when they say that terrible thing. I like that non-scripted language. Like the first Real World, before they had their editing down, they used to let the cameras just roll a little too long and there'd be quiet moments in there. They didn't feel so compelled to lead us by the nose through the story.
You like thinking about the way people talk.
Yes, I also like to transcribe. There's this book I want to write about people who live on wind farms, I've been following 20 families for the last two and a half years and going to hearings and stuff. I love videotaping stuff and then transcribing them.
Like boring city council meetings? You go to those and transcribe them?
I could just do it all day long.
I have a job for you.
[Laughs.] I love to transcribe. There's something about the way people speak. Like, I've been following this group of 15 people who write the rules for regulating wind in the state, they're all pretty heavily on the wind industry side. And there's this one guy who can't speak in a direct sentence no matter what. He gets almost to the middle of it and then it forks off. He's really hard to transcribe, but then I'm fascinated with how once his sentences are written down, they contradict each other constantly. And then the corporate speak, "We're flyspecking the rule," this corporate lingo that, for some of them, makes them feel very powerful. Some of them get really into saying, "We're going to roll up our sleeves."
So is that going to be a book? Is it going to be illustrated?
Yeah, I think it's going to be. I've been trying to figure out what the story is here, how to unite the book. I think I'm just going to stick to my whole experience from going from someone who had no experience in politics, except for yelling at the TV that politicians suck, to being someone who's really active both in my city and state. Democracy is so interesting. It's a very boring topic. Most people that know me, they try their hardest not to bring it up, because I'm like a kid with Aspergers.
Okay, before you go off on a tangent, we should stick to writing and drawing. Why are people scared of drawing?
That's so interesting, I think it's the same reason they're scared of singing and dancing. But writing people are a little less afraid of, because writing you can cover it up with your hand while you're doing it. I had this kind of breakthrough when I was at a big design conference in Chicago. If you know my work, you know I use hand-ground Chinese inks, thousand-year-old tools. So I always have a little set that I bring with me and wherever I go, whether it's for drinks or whatever, I usually bring it out and do some drawing. And people always come over and ask me about it, and I explain, and then I try to hand them a paintbrush and say, "Do you want to make a line?" And kids always will. But these people who were big designers absolutely would not touch the brush. So I made up a game, where I said, "Okay, draw a square, then divide it in half, then keep dividing it and try and get as close to the line as you can without touching it. If you touch the line, you get electrocuted." Then they all wanted to do it. As soon as it's a game. Nothing has changed, it's the same brush, but it's no longer drawing, it's something else. And that's one of the reasons why we stop drawing, at least with kids, a piece of paper is a place for something to happen. And for adults, it's a thing. And it's either a good thing or a bad thing.
Are you still scared of drawing after all these years?
I'm not at all unless I'm writing or drawing on really expensive paper. I have this paper I bought in bulk when I was in my 20s, and it's very nice paper, but I still can't draw on it. I freeze. Because it's too expensive. I can use paper from the garbage and that was a big revelation for me: As long as the paper doesn't have a big monetary value, and I don't feel like I'm wasting something, which is something I've never gotten over, I can draw whatever I want. With writing, I love writing, and I have the same problem everyone has, which is sitting down to start it.
Did you grow up reading art books? You make fun of how-to art books in Picture This.
No, we didn't have any of that stuff at my house. I was a huge fan of the library, I was one of those kids who went early to school and stayed until the librarian left. I loved books so much and there just weren't any in my house, there was no interest in any of that. Dr. Seuss was the biggest influence on me, because he was one of those guys who wrote and drew, but his images weren't sugary.
I've given your book One! Hundred! Demons! to a couple people who are just getting started writing. I want to know, how did you get to the point where you can write and draw about the things you don't want to think about?
To not know what you're going to write about until the moment you're doing it. For One! Hundred! Demons!, I knew that each story was going to be 24 panels. So I'd sit and draw 24 squares. [I had a] brown paper bag, I'd stuffed it with index cards that just had a word written on them—"teeth" or "broken" or "screaming." Then I number a page from one to 10 and swear that no matter what word I pulled out, that would be the word I'd use to write the first 10 images that came to me when I read it. And no matter where I teach, no matter what word I choose, people have some association with it.