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Tillie Walden’s debut graphic memoir Spinning is a sprawling, elegiac bildungsroman of angst, grief, love, and lust—not bad for an 21-year-old. Walden’s book, like her life, is framed through the prism of competitive figure skating, which provided both punishment and structure throughout her youth. Ahead of her Wordstock appearance, Walden discussed her approach to memoir, fear, and writing as therapy. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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MERCURY: In your author’s note you mention that you purposefully didn’t want to see people, places, or photographs you depict in the book—that the book was about “sharing a feeling.” What drove you toward this approach?

TILLIE WALDEN: I’m not entirely sure... I think it just felt right. Memory is so warped, and the past changes the further we get from it. And I wanted to be honest [about] the twisted way we experience our own stories. I think details often get lost, but the real truth of an experience lies in the emotions we experience. The emotion is what endures. So in order to really capture that, I tried to focus on the emotion over the details.

Spinning by Tillie Walden First Second Books

You mention that first love as a closeted teen is less about freedom than about fear. Were you fearful about including details and names in the book?

I was in touch with certain people about [using] their names; others, I changed. It was a process that I decided for myself. There’s plenty of fear involved in a memoir, but I quelled it. I knew I needed to make this book for myself. Which is honestly pretty selfish, but it was the only way I knew how to do it.

There’s a pattern of self-containment that almost seems like a form of therapy. Was it a relief to find?

It was a form of therapy, absolutely. I’m not exactly the type for memoir, so in a way Spinning is an anomaly for me. I prefer fiction, still. But the act of creating this book, of sweating over those pages and pushing myself—that was so healing. Spinning felt a bit like going off-road, bumping along a dark place I’ve never been, and now that it’s done I’ve returned to the well lit path that I’ve always been speeding down.