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March 23, 2014


CR Sunday Interview: Mimi Pond

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*****

Over Easy represents a new direction in the professional life of cartoonist and writer Mimi Pond. A memoir of her time just out of art school and before formally embarking on a career that would involve television, humor prose writing, and a slew of high-profile magazine comics gigs, Pond's book establishes the parameters of her young life and details in full the scene surrounding the Oakland diner in which she finds work. Over Easy is workplace comedy, coming-of-age, a meditation on art and class and a snapshot of the time when the torpor of the 1970s begin to show signs of moving in a different, angrier direction. Nearly all of us have had a period of life like this, spent time in a place like this, have known people the way Pond describes them.

I am grateful Pond took the time to speak to me on a Friday morning on the phone from York, Pennsylvania. She is currently working on a second volume. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Here's a question I've never asked during an interview. How long are you in York?

MIMI POND: We've been here for two weeks, and we're here for another two weeks, until the installation [by Pond's husband Wayne White] opens. It's the kind of thing I welcome because it's so much easier for me to get work done when I'm away from home than when I'm actually at home. There are none of the interruptions of everyday life.

SPURGEON: What were the practicalities of getting the work done on Over Easy? Where did most of that work get done?

POND: Away from home. I had conceived of this book initially as a conventional, fictionalized memoir. Not a graphic novel. I started working on it when my kids were still in pre-school. I really needed to get out of the house at that point, too. The only place I was able to find workspace was an unused office at their pre-school. [laughter]

It was great, because I could just shut the door and be in this little room. I couldn't really leave. I was afraid they might see me. [laughs] It forced me to do nothing but work, which was genius.

So I wrote it and then my agent couldn't sell it. He couldn't sell it to save his life. I was forced to admit to myself that it really did want to be a graphic novel, since I am a cartoonist. That is what I do. It was such massive amount of work that it was inconceivable. I finally talked to Art Spiegelman, who's an old friend, about it. He said, "You should just do it." And I thought, "Well, if Art Spiegelman is telling me I just have to do it, I just have to do it."

SPURGEON: What was it that was daunting, Mimi? The sheer size of it? That you hadn't engaged with material like that in your cartoons before?

POND: I had never done anything that long-form before. It's 270 pages. It was like 130 pages of manuscript, but then every sentence wanted to be a page. [laughs] I was fighting with it constantly, going, "No, you don't get to be a page! You get to be a panel if you're lucky!" [laughter]

It was a matter of condensing. It was interesting going from a manuscript to a visual work because there's a lot of description that becomes show don't tell. And then there's stuff that kind of gets tossed out along the way because there's just not enough time. It would be too long to do every single detail in the way I had conceived of it as a manuscript.

SPURGEON: Do you find that the tone of the work is the same, now that you have the completed work to compare to the manuscript?

POND: Yeah. Yeah, it's very faitfhful. It's just that there were a couple of incidental episodes and characters that had to get tossed out along the way that really weren't that essential. It was a good exercise in editing, too.

SPURGEON: How much more is there?

POND: The second volume will be at least as long as the first.

SPURGEON: I'm always fascinated when someone takes this long to complete a single project. Does the voice change simply for the fact that you've worked on Over Easy for as long as you have? Does your perspective change over that period of time? Do you see those youthful experiences differently now than you did 15 years ago?

POND: All I can say is that I'm glad I wrote it all down back then, because I never would have remembered that stuff now. It was good that I got it down on paper. When I went to work in this restaurant in 1978 I knew there was a story. I absolutely knew that this was a story, and I had to figure out what it was and how to tell it. Over the years, it was always in the back of my mind. I would think, "I have got to get on that project. It's gotta happen. I can't let my life go by without doing it. It's just too important." Eventually, I figured out what the story was, and was able to start on it in fits and starts when my children were very small.

I think I started writing the manuscript around 1998 and then in the early 2000s my agent had it out and couldn't sell it and it was just sort of painful. He came back to me and said, "There was one editor who asked, 'Has she thought of doing this as a graphic novel?'" And I got furious, I thought, "If I wanted to do it as a graphic novel, I'd do it as a graphic novel! It's an insult!" [laughter] Clearly a nerve had been touched.

To answer your question, I think my perception of my youthful self has deepened then even more. Especially now that my kids are in art school. Actually, my son worked as a dishwasher in the same restaurant.

SPURGEON: Wow.

POND: It's still there. Actually, I'll be doing a book event there on April 17. It's Mama's Royal Cafe in Oakland. Some of the people I worked with back then are still working there. And it's the same owner. So yeah.

I think my perception of my youthful self has definitely deepened, even more than when I first started writing it. I was just fucking stupid. [laughter]

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SPURGEON: I'm curious with this book in particular how the focus is so solidly on you to begin with -- this traditional memoir telling of your story growing up and whatnot -- but almost by the end of at least this volume those elements are downplayed. It seems like you are slightly less the focus of the book as you move through Over Easy as you become part of this community of people. That last chapter seems almost about your integration within the scene more than your issues and the general progression of your life the way it is when we follow you from San Diego to the Bay Area. I don't know if you'd agree with that or not.

POND: It comes back to me in the second part. It's more about me and the Lazlo character in the second part. That's all I can say there.

The other thing that's sort of maddening to me talking to you about it now is that no one has seen it. No one! Drawn and Quarterly made me do tone separations, tones separate from the line, which has just been a really challenging experience. It's hard to show it to people and go, "Here's the tone part and then there's the line stuff underneath." You can't put that in front of most people and expect to get feedback about it. So aside from showing it to my immediate family and Drawn and Quarterly I don't have any feedback on it, I don't have anyone telling me what they think of it. So I'm breathlessly awaiting the world's response to it. After 15 years.

SPURGEON: Is it just curiosity or is there a specific response you're hoping for? Is there a potential disappointment, in that you think people might not get what it is you're trying to do?

POND: Oh, yeah. All of those fears cross your mind. Is this just me? Am I crazy? Is this going to resonate with people? You don't know.

SPURGEON: Do you have an audience in mind? Do you think it will have special meaning to other artists? There's a generational aspect to this book, too.

POND: Yeah, I think women 40 to 60 or so will be the target audience. I'm hoping that it will resonate with young women. I'm not sure if it will.

One of the things I hope to get across in terms of the tenor of the times... I've been using this phrase is that it was like navigating a moral swamp, the 1970s. There were so many gray areas back then. We'd gone from right and wrong, Vietnam = bad, peace = good, Nixon = bad, Watergate = bad, and then you had like Patty Hearst gets kidnapped and liberal white people supporting the SLA, which was completely fucked up because it was just this insane mob of nut jobs who kept this poor young women in a closet for 30 days and gangraped her and then dragged her ass from one end of the country to another. [laughs] You had Jonestown. Jonestown was based in San Francisco, and I was in the Bay Area. It had a local aspect to it that was really freaky.

There was I'm OK, You're OK transactional therapy bullshit going on. [laughter] There was EST. There was all this... morass of gray areas. It wasn't "Just Say No," everyone was saying yes to everything. "Yes! Bring it all on! Coke's fun! Let's get high!" And it was the same with sex. It was like your civic duty to go out and get laid as much as possible, as much as you could. It was the sexual revolution, and it wasn't like people were slut-shaming you. It was like it was your job to go out and enjoy your body. You weren't being analyzed that you had a deep, psychological need to punish yourself because you were filled with self-loathing because you had sex with a lot of different people. [laughs] It was like the thing to do. If you were bored, you could do that. [laughter] There was nothing else to do!

imageSPURGEON: Is it too stupid or straight-forward to ask you what you would have people think about that time period? Is it just the existence of this mish-mash of gray areas? One thing I got out of Over Easy in terms of a potential cultural critique was less about what was going on but the timing of the cultural moment. It was a transitional period but also unmoored; it was directionless in a lot of ways. Which certainly jibes with my memories of observing teens and young adults as one of those little kids in the corner of the room always curious what the older people were doing. I think you caught that aspect of it. Do you have opinions as to what was going on beyond the feel of those times, anything you'd want people to know?

POND: [pause] I think we'd just become so untethered from morality and authority because of Watergate. And Vietnam. Everything we knew was wrong. Everything our parents thought about authority and confidence in government, that was all out the window. You couldn't trust anyone anymore. So you might as well have fun. Politically, the war was over. No one had really much faith in our leaders. Jimmy Carter was in, and he was just sort of... you know... [Spurgeon laughs] I think he was a better president than he's given credit for but he was very undramatic. We were in a holding pattern until something else happened. And that was Reagan, and that was horrible. [laughter]

You look at the Democratic Party at the time and you had like [Walter] Mondale... there was nothing dynamic going on. No one I knew was interested in politics at the time. It was the kids who were slightly older that had been protesting against war and all this political activism was gone, too. The horrible part of the early to mid '70s that I'm always railing about -- I have this one-page rant about it -- is that we were left treading the bongwater that was left over. They had the Rolling Stones, and we had Seals and Crofts.

SPURGEON: That's a cultural idea that's difficult to communicate to younger people.

POND: Everything was all plastic and phoney all of the sudden.

SPURGEON: I was thinking more of the idea that we had just missed the party, that the present was a poor reflection of what had just been here.

POND: There's always that, though. That always happens. There's a great book on the history of bohemians that I read. I think it was called The History Of Cool or something [Editor's Note: it may have been this book]. It talked about people being in Greenwich Village in the '20s and people telling them, "You know, you should have been here five years ago. That was when it was really cool." [laughter]

Our kids say, "Oh, you were in the East Village in the '80s. That was when it was really great!" And we're like, "No... not really." [Spurgeon laughs] While we were there, people were saying, "Oh, you should have gotten here in the '70s. Then you'd have an affordable apartment. That was when it was really great, when it was all run down and scary." [laughs]

SPURGEON: There a number of entry points into Over Easy. One that intrigues me is how patient and thorough you are at nailing down the nuances of interaction in this scene in which you find yourself, the overlapping relationships between all of these people centered around this diner. How much of that is documentation? How much is you simply depicting what happened as opposed to fashioning an approximate of what happened? Were people and events sometimes combined?

POND: Some of the people are absolutely portraits. Some of them are almalgams. Three fry cooks became one. There were so many people that passed through there, there were so many strange, weird personalities because of the way people got hired there: "Tell me a joke or a dream." And of course Lazlo is totally faithful to the real person, who's now dead. He hired people like he was casting an opera. [laughs] There were so many facinating characters.

I spent a long time winnowing it down, seeing who would make the list of people that were in the book. There's one very dear friend of mine that still works there. She's a career waitress. She's one of the most unique people, there's abosultely no one like her. She's not in the book because she deserves her own book. She's too big a personality to fit without being a major character into that story.

So I would say about half of the characters... a third of the characters are real people and the other two thirds are like combinations.

SPURGEON: Was that you just feeling your way throught it, or did you look at other close portrayals of a scene for clues? Were there any models for you?

POND: I think it was just what felt right to me about that time. I'm glad to hear you say it captures a microcosm because that was... literally -- well, not literally, people use that wrongly so much -- but figuratively I've been working under a rock for all of these years. So it's gratifying to hear you see that.

A very early inspiration in terms of capturing a time and a place was Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha Of Suburbia. That's sort of set in the same era. It's about a young, half-Pakistani, half-Englih kid growing up in the suburbs of London. He also wrote My Beautiful Laundrette and a bunch of other stuff. His father in mid-life decides to reinvent himself as a kind of guru among his suburban neighbors. His son is coming of age and trying to figure out what it all means and travel through this weird time. That was an early influence. Also, Dave Eggers' big book [A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius]. Whatever that was. That was an early influence, too.

I think visually once I saw Fun Home, I felt like I had a visual model for what it could look like. I don't claim that my style is similar to Alison [Bechdel]'s. She draws very beautifully and it's a very different story. Just the way she condensed everything visually was a big inspiration. I love all of her detail work. I kind of fell into this thing of drawing the restaurant where I felt like I had to include every single detail. [laughs]

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SPURGEON: How much work was done on character design? I liked the way the characters had this cartoon verve to them while also representing a lot of realistic looks and body types. Did you explicitly work on your characters' designs, or did that kind of develop naturally?

POND: That was just kind of instinctive. I had photos of people from that era. The characters that are amalgams are almost literally amalgams of the faces I remember. Bernardo the cook... he's an amalgamation of a number of people. He's completely fictitious visually. He was fun to come up with. [laughs] He was kind of a whole cloth character. Everyone else was... maybe it was more a 50/50 range of real and imagined now that I think about it.

SPURGEON: Were there specific aspects of the work that you enjoyed drawing? I have to imagine just the length of it it would have been crucial to find things that you liked.

POND: I had better like it! I had better like drawing! [laughter]

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SPURGEON: It's just that there are some people and some projects where the cartoonist will talk about being miserable the whole time, just something in the nature of the project where the drawing made them miserable. I have to imagine some of the scenes were more fun than others. Were there sequences you looked forward to doing?

POND: I'm always happy to go back to the restaurant. Maybe it's that I'm so familiar with drawing it now that it's become easier, I've done it so much.

I think the most difficult thing for me, and I hope people won't go, "A-ha! I knew it!" is drawing cars. I hate drawing cars. I draw cars like a girl. I used to go draw buildings in downtown San Diego where I grew up. There were all of these beautiful buildings and I would draw these pen and ink drawings of buildings. I would it on the curb and draw. People would walk by and make comments. Old winos would stagger up to me and try to make conversation. I remember this old wino coming up to me once and going, "That's good. But you draws cars like a girl." [laughter]

It's haunted me ever since. I'm like, "Just draw it like a fucking car. Don't be a girl about it."

I hate seeing that in art, in any kind of art, where an artist is giving away a dislike of what they're drawing. So I try to do it as carefully as I can, but there are things I'm more passionate about drawing than others.

SPURGEON: One of the things that's interesting to me about this book is your role as an artist. Your art is your entry into this world, but at another point when you talk about your art, it's literally been shelved; your sketchbooks are on a shelf of this restaurant. They're sometimes pulled out and shown to people. You also talk a bit about how you knew of no female cartoonists that might point the way to your doing that as a profession. In fact, the whole idea of working in a milieu that's actively not an arts milieu is a significant element of the work. Was this something you struggled with? Was it partly the time in which you lived?

POND: Oh, yeah. It's always really hard to be an artist and go to work. I have to say that a lot of people that went to my art school ended up working at this restaurant. So there were people who had been in school who were now in a world of work. A lot of people you could see had given up the dream right away. Working all day and spending their paycheck at the bar, saying, "Screw it. I don't care anymore. I'm a working stiff." I was determined.

I wasn't going to let that happen. I was railing against this attitude. There were people there that had been in art school and people there that were working-class kids. The prevailing attitude was -- and I think this is true of any artist that goes and works a job -- the reaction of other people is to feel threatened, because you are stating your identity in terms of "This is not who I really am. I'm an artist. I'm just here for a while. I'm going to get out of this." And that threatens people! They're like, "Oh, you think you're better than we are." And you're like, "No, I'm just a normal person like you are. I'm just not going to do this for your whole life." And they're like, "Sure, you say that now. Good luck." [laughter]

That's a universal thing that artists go through in the world at large outside the coccoon of art school and outside the bubble of their other artist friends. Telling the world, "Screw you, I'm not going to wind up in a cubicle. I'm going to make art and I'm going to make it work." The reaction is almost always completely negative.

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SPURGEON: You have a really great sequence in there, where you break down in detail the events of your first day. It's almost this poem to hard work. A tribute to physical effort. That's also a stereotype of artists: that they're lazy, and given a chance avoid hard work. But you suggest a straight-forward value in putting effort into something like this.

POND: Well, yeah. The other thing that made that experience so important to me is that Lazlo, that character in real life, was someone that supported this attitude that this was just a role we were playing temporarily. We work in a restaurant, but really we're subversive. We're taking notes the whole time, and we're going to use this material later. It's important to write everything down. That's what saved the experience for me. Having that person on my side and supporting that vision that this is not who we really are. We're playing a role here. We're just actors. Behind it we're going to take this experience and make something bigger of it.

SPURGEON: That's not just a coping mechanism, either. Certainly because of how the book turned out, it was absolutely true, and that was indeed the lesson you needed to take out of there.

POND: Yeah.

SPURGEON: Can other people take that from the book?

POND: I hope they do. Because that's really what it's about. It's all material. Your life experience that you have outside of being an artist or a writer or whatever. The experience in the world at large are the raw material of your work. You have to use them. I think it's why a lot of primetime television is so bad. They recruit kids out of college to work on TV shows and write jokes and they've never had to do anything horrible in their lives. [laughs] They've never had a negative experience that's galvanized them in some way.

SPURGEON: Now that you're going to have this book out there, Mimi, you've certainly done a lot professionally -- you did some humor books, you've worked in a variety of artistic milieu. Is there anything you've noticed about the comics-making world now that you're settling into this part of it? Is there something unique to this time and place?

POND: This is a very different book. This is extremely personal. From the first day I went into this place I knew it was a story I had to tell. It's been in the back of my mind haunting me. I've had these experience like where I'm in a near-death traffic experience and my thought was, "It's good that didn't happen because I have go to finish that book." [laughs] This is the most personal, visceral thing I've ever worked on.

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SPURGEON: What does comics publishing look like to you given the breadth of your writing experience? Are you appreciative of being able to work with a boutique publisher like Drawn and Quarterly, someone very focused on making a certain kind of art?

POND: I'm extremely grateful I get to work with Drawn and Quarterly. It's a personal mission for them to do these exquisite books with first-rate talent. Having run the gamut of horrible experiences with mainstream publishers, with heads up their asses in so many ways, I've been through the mill with that. I've published books where I thought, "Why don't you just throw it down a well?" [laughter] The same effect. The same effect. Throw it down a well! It's done! Throw your money down there, too!

It means the world to me that it's being done right, the right way by Drawn and Quarterly. If it has any chance of success, I think it's with them. Knock wood.

SPURGEON: What is success, then, with this book? Getting a certain number of copies out there. Having a cultural moment? Hearing back from people in a certain way?

POND: Having it resonate with other people. Making some money hopefully. [laughs] Having some validation in terms that what I put out there people get it in the way that people understand it.

As far as teaching comics, I'm sort of flummoxed, because my education in comics has been all instinctive. I've never read that big book on understanding comics [Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics]. I'm like "Why? I don't need to." I don't want to intellectualize it.

It's great that there's this explosion of graphic novels out there. There's some good stuff out there and there's stuff that's absolutely horrible. It has no right to be out there, and it's a waste of everyone's time and energy. Or it's pretty, but it's empty. There's a lot of stuff that's visually -- books that do well, and they're big name, but the story is kind of "Meh." Besides being a good artist you have to be a good writer and you have to be a good storyteller. You have to have a feeling for pacing and rhythm, and not just visually. You have to create compelling characters that make people want to turn pages. Not just like dazzle them with some visual stuff.

There's also a lot of mainstream-y comics stuff that looks like nothing more than sophisticated storyboards for movies. By that I mean it hasn't any juice to it, it's a diagram for someone else -- another empty action thriller. It's the boring movie you don't want to go see.

SPURGEON: When I was reading Over Easy and getting an idea of where you were generationally and what was going on around you, it does seem like that there's a lot of interesting art that comes from there, it does seem like there are more than the average number of artists that come out of the in-between times. Not being a part of generation or a strong cultural stamp might be a boon. Do you think you're a better artists for not being in a strongly defined group coming up?

POND: I guess it's easier in that you don't get lumped in with a bunch of other people. In the same way, my husband is from Tennessee and he's a visual artist. I feel sorry for a lot of southern writers because you're instantly compared to all the other southern writers. It's like being an Irish writer. Everyone's a storyteller. It's a lot of competition. The disadvantage of being a girl from San Diego -- which is such a nowhere place. My husband is tired of me telling this story, but they say to him, "Oh, you're from Tennessee? That's fascinating. Tell me about the Civil War and gothic this." And they say, "Where are you from?" And I say "San Diego." And they say, "Oh... so tell me more about Tennessee.

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SPURGEON: It's a place that resists the idea of place.

POND: It's sort of happy and sunny and the zoo. No one has an idea of it being a place in particular. It's like Orange County. It deserves a better story than that. Maybe I'll get to that eventually.

Oakland is kind of the same way. I adore Oakland. I hope people will see this as my love letter to Oakland. I've always seen it as San Francisco's ugly step-sister. Everyone's scared of her. Black Panthers and crime... [laughs] but it's so much more than that. It's grittier and more working class and visually it has great charm. It has all the Victorian houses and it's industrial... I don't know.

SPURGEON: Dan Clowes once described Oakland to me as eminently graspable, never overwhelming -- it had one of everything you might like about a city but not too many of anything.

POND: People are more down to earth there than they are in Berkeley. Berkeley is just impossible. [Spurgeon laughs] Between the old hippies and the New Age people and the yuppies, it's just a clusterfuck of political arguments.

Oakland is more laid-back. It has weirdos in it! Old lefties, working class people. Not hippies but weird old lefties and people that have lived there their whole lives and have stories to tell you about Huey Newton. [laughs]

It's kind of fascinating.

*****

* Mimi Pond
* Mimi Pond On Tour
* Over Easy, Drawn And Quarterly, hardcover, 9781770461536, 272 pages, April 2014, $24.95.

*****

* cover to new book
* Mimi as a waitress
* one of a few moments in the book's last third where it's almost like the book's protagonist became the scene itself rather than any one member of it
* the times
* there different character designs
* the restaurant
* playing a role
* Mimi's early jitters
* Mimi loves Oakland
* agreed (below)

*****

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*****
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