Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

July 9, 2016

An Interview With Geneviève Elverum, 2013



It was my great pleasure to interview the artist Geneviève Castrée Elverum about two and half years ago after reading her book Susceptible -- one of the best books of recent memory. Elverum passed away yesterday afternoon. The following is unchanged from its initial publication as a holiday interview. Our thoughts are with her family. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageI thought Geneviève Castrée's book Susceptible was one of the strongest releases of 2013, and I am delighted that she acquiesced to speak with me about it. I hope after reading what follow that maybe one or two of you that hasn't yet will buy the book or at least make sure it gets on your general comics-reading radar. Susceptible is the story of Castrée's childhood with a specific focus on her relationship with members of her immediate family. Like many of the best memoirs, Susceptible offers up wave after wave of specific detail that both distinguishes and universalizes her youthful experiences. It also sports one of the best endings of any book this year. The native Canadian artist, musician and cartoonist lives in Anacortes, Washington -- a small town north and west of Seattle. I was very excited to talk to her and any small mistakes in the transcript below can be attributed to my nervous interjections over something Castrée said. I also tweaked a few words of my own speech for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: You have to be through most of the cycle with Susceptible at this point, it having come out several months ago. Are you happy with the way the book was received?

GENEVIÈVE CASTRÉE: Yeah! Yeah, I'm happy. I would say that maybe I'm not even at the end of the cycle. Like maybe I'm at the beginning of the next one.

The weird thing I never thought about when I did that book was just like all of a sudden I spent nearly one year of my life talking about it, and that was weird. You finish a book and you think you're done with something and next thing you know... you're done with it but other people are just starting! [laughs] That was just... of course I should have known better, but I never imagined that way into October I would still be talking about it because of the German translation, still be giving the talk I was giving back in February. People still asking me questions like, "How did your family react?" [laughs]

SPURGEON: Did your perspective on the book change for having to talk so much about it?

CASTRÉE: Oh, yeah. Totally. It was this thing that... I used to be haunted by these stories. Then I told them in this book version and got over it pretty quick. I had these stories that just followed me around for... I don't know, almost 15 years of my life if not more. I found myself to be just like, "Oh, man..." To me these stories were so old, but for other people they were new. Then I had other people's insight and I just often felt like, "Well, it was not that bad..." [laughs] People are discovering them and they're like, "Whoa, that's intense!" [laughter]

SPURGEON: You've talked about Susceptible in terms of the longstanding offer you've had to do something with Drawn And Quarterly, an offer Chris Oliveros extended to you years and years ago. But I'm not really sure that I know the impetus for you turning all of these memories into a book when you did. If there was a triggering incident. You've said you've had all of these memories and stories for all of these years, but what was the impetus that took you to, "I would like to do a book now," where you knew that it was going to be this lengthier work you'd been avoiding and that this is the one that was going to go to Drawn and Quarterly.

CASTRÉE: It kind of was a series of events. And also it was this thing that I kind of felt like a bit of a mess of a person. I had this longstanding invitation and I wasn't doing anything with it. It had been really hard for me to make something more concrete and more to the point than anything else I had made before. I was wondering what was up with that. [laughs] I felt like I was always telling the same story over and over. It got to me. I had a series of bad depressions, and I just thought, "Fuck this. I'll just get rid of this story once and for all. And move on." It was good.

It was also the realization... I don't read a lot of autobiographical comics. I think some people are really good at it. I'm a big fan of Chester Brown's way of telling autobiographical stories, for instance. But I also felt like, "Oh, yeah, I don't want to make another boring book where not much happens and there's a 'poor me' feeling." But then I thought maybe that what happened to me when I was a kid were interesting in a way that didn't necessarily happen to that many people, or again, that happened to some people but no one has made a book about this type of family before.


SPURGEON: You're at a very specific place in your life as an artist, too. You've worked in different disciplines. I wonder if there was something about the nature of the work you were doing that made this book easier to do now? For instance, there's the idea that performing makes it easier to do confessional narrative. Do you feel like you maybe you had skills now that you might not have had earlier on that were applicable to doing this kind of work?

CASTRÉE: Yeah. Of course. It's this weird... I think I'm the type of person that will be terrified of riding a bicycle -- I'm just using that as an example, this is when I was six or seven or something -- or terrified of learning to do something new and then getting on the bicycle and falling down because you're terrified. And then one day you figure it out, and then a week later you're really good at riding your bicycle. [laughter] I think it was a little bit like that. I was scared of trying to do this... my other stuff before was more imaginative and not based on reality, so I was scared of actually addressing facts and things that were real, true stories. Then I went ahead and tried it out and once I got the hang of it I felt really comfortable.

SPURGEON: Did you have a support system during the creative process? Were you running events or ideas past anyone? Did you have an editorial process in terms of the making of the book, even, with Chris or anyone at D+Q? Or were you in the classic comic sense kind of left alone... maybe you even preferred to work alone on something like this. What was your support system like?

CASTRÉE: I really prefer to work on my own. I didn't have any input from my publishers that was like, "Maybe you should do it this way." I didn't have any of that. I was working simultaneously with Jean-Cristophe Menu who was my French publisher and with Chris Oliveros who was my English publisher. I would wait a really long time and not show them anything [laughs] and then I would send 20 pages or something. Both of them would give me feedback, but didn't give me the type of feedback that would change my way of going about it. They were very supportive, both of them.

I adore my publishers. I adore Jean-Cristophe and I adore Chris. I also have a very good relationship with my publisher in Quebec at L'Oie de Cravan. I haven't worked with them for a while. For this book I felt supported in a way that I felt trusted.

SPURGEON: Now those guys are... very different. Chris and Jean-Cristophe. At least in my limited experience and by reputation. Were their notes different? Did they pick up on the same things? [Castrée laughs] I'm kind of fascinated you were getting notes from two such very different-seeming people.

CASTRÉE: That's kind of an interesting thing to point out, that they're very different. But actually their notes were quite similar. I mean, maybe [laughs] maybe Jean-Cristophe was being more French about it. [laughter] But yeah, I don't know, that's the thing: now I miss making a book. That's the kind of attention I prefer. It's really sweet -- I'm not saying I expect it to be the same the next time I make something, but it was really a nice way to work. It was very emotional for me to work on this stuff, but my publishers they were really understanding about it. And patient. I've talked to other cartoonists, and I don't think that many people have that kind of working relationship. So I do feel blessed.

I'm not going anywhere. I'm hoping to work with these people some more.


SPURGEON: Was there any difficulty in the practicalities of doing a longer work? I'm not sure I know the exact size of everything you've done to date, but I think of most of your stuff from earlier as shorter, even much shorter. Were there practical considerations for you in engaging a longer piece for the first time?

CASTRÉE: I just kind of had to clear my schedule. I had to say, "No." I had to learn to say "no" to a lot of stuff that came up, like opportunities to go traveling. And actually that was nice, because that's the place I felt like I was at in my life. I guess when you -- and I'm changing the words here because I don't remember the exact words that you used -- ask if there was some sort of trigger that made me do this book, you get this existential crisis. People stereotypically get into this existential state when they're about to turn 30. And I had that. New age people around here call it Saturn Return, and that was very much what was going on. There's a Kurt Vonnegut quote where he says something like, "There's nothing more nostalgic than a 30-year-old." [laughter] So I was really in this place where I was revisiting... I was prompted to visit my past. That is nice. It's nice to move into adulthood and shed some of those weird, annoying things behind you.

SPURGEON: Thirty is also an age where you begin to question your career. There seem always to be vocational issues, too. Was there any of that, that you felt it was time for you to do a book, to do a longer, more considerable work? Do you even think of your art in those terms?

CASTRÉE: Yeah! Well, it's funny, and it might sound pompous or something, but I started drawing comics when I was really young. I was in my teen years when I started to make self-published comics. Then I met Benoit [Chaput] from L'Oie de Cravan, and he published my book when I was 18. I actually was this young person that had a few adults around me telling me things like, "Oh yeah, you have a bright future ahead of you" and "Oh my God, I can't imagine what you will have done by the time you're 30." And then I was 30, next thing you know. [laughter] And I hadn't done many of the things I wished I could have done.

That was a weird thing. It happens really fast. I realized how scattered I had been, that maybe -- I don't think I was necessarily aimless, but I wasn't supporting myself... I didn't do what was expected. So I felt like, "Okay, maybe this is one step in the direction of becoming more fulfilled as an artist." I already felt pretty confident about my work. The only thing is I wanted to prove to myself and to my publishers that I'm worth publishing. It's a hard time for a lot of people right now. I'm not successful in a way that there's no question whether or not people should publish me. I'm not there yet. Maybe I won't ever be there. You know what I mean. I'm not a highly celebrated and well known author. [laughs]


SPURGEON: I actually don't want to ask you a ton of specific questions about the work because I want people to find it on their own, but I had a few questions. Two things I thought were remarkable about the work. One was the nature and quality of the memories you present in your narrative. There's a scene where you're looking at your father on a motorcycle: it's very early on. It's astonishing that you even have a memory from that age, but it's also a really detailed memory: within the memory you remember another memory of the person that your father is meeting outside [Castrée laughs] and you remember sensory elements to where you were when you saw this. Are there flourishes provided to a rougher memory, maybe? Is that the way you remember things -- this kind of multiple-sense memory?

CASTRÉE: It is the way that the memory was in my mind like my whole life. I remember being a ten year old and thinking back on that moment.

I tried as hard as I could not to add flourishes to the book. There are so many things in the book that are kind of sensitive. Sensitive in this way that if I didn't tell them the right way, if I didn't tell them in the way that I remember it, it could give someone involved, one of the characters in the book, some some sort of excuse to deny the events. So I tried to stick to what I remembered and tried not to add onto it. This memory from being a kid, I know that. I know that I was looking out the window and I was like, "Oh, that's this guy. That's the guy with the little black dog." And remembering...I put it into words, but I have a very visual memory. So I remember looking out the window, looking at the motorcycles, looking at the rain. I remember thinking back at my arm that had been punctured by this little black dog that had bit me. And listening to this record with thunderstorms. [laughs] Maybe it's like... it would be so cheesy to say that, but the Proust effect like when he's eating the fucking cookie [laughs] and that thing people always talk about where he's eating the cookie and it brings on all the other stuff.

It's strange, though, because I have a very visual memory, but since I made the book one thing that I know has changed is that my memory is not so -- especially of things that happened, recent events -- my memory is not so sharp. Like I exhausted it or something. [laughter] I went too deep. I went pretty deep.

I would think of something that had happened, and I would try to write it down. Quite a few years ago, almost ten years ago, I wrote down most of these stories in a notebook. I wrote down what I remembered when I was working on the book, a couple of years ago, and I compared it with what I remembered 10 years before. That helped me, because in 10 years you can have this weird monologue with yourself. But the details were not really altered. These are sharp things... a lot of this stuff is pretty sharp in my brain. I had a timeline that I was following, too, because sometimes I wasn't sure if it was like, "Did this happen at Christmas or did this happen on my birthday?" And then being like, "Oh yeah, it happened on my birthday."


SPURGEON: The other thing I found remarkable about the book -- and this may be its defining characteristic for me -- is how non-traditional you were, at least in terms of comics autobiography, in terms of choosing not to present yourself as the vehicle through which to understand the events that happened to you. It's not "Hey, I'm screwed up... and this is why." You're very straight-forward of presenting what happened without filtering it through your present self. You don't overplay it. [Castré laughs] There's a very evenhanded tone because of that. I trust you as a narrator because you're not constantly making a case for yourself.

CASTRÉE: Well, it's just kind of how I feel real life works, is that there are many layers to every event. The thing about my book is that there are some things that I put in there that I didn't realize could have had a negative impact on me until I had drawn them, or written them. There's an example in the book where I go and meet my father in British Columbia for the first time. There's this moment where I go to his house and they put up a blanket to make me a room in one of the corners of his house. And he says, "Sorry -- ha ha -- as you can see, this was a house built for two people." And I just kind of laugh it off. I didn't really have any feelings like that until it was printed and I read it again. I realized that I could have interpreted that many different ways. I could have felt like, "Oh, you just assumed you'd never see me again." [laughs] "This was a house built for two people, but you do have a kid." So I think that one of the things I wanted to make sure of when I was making the book was I wanted to offer up this story of a childhood in a way that you get to choose what you think is right, what you think is wrong, as a reader. The judgment is not done for you.

On the other hand, there was kind of a part of me, and I actually have met people like that, there was a part of me that was kind of hoping I'd encounter parents who think that my parents were really cool. [laughter] Like people who think, "Man, your parents are so open-minded. Great." And it's not that extreme, but I have encountered people that have just said, "I'm so glad you talk about how it's awkward for parents that their parents smoke weed." And then they make the case for how weed should be legalized. They completely miss the point. I'm like, "Yeah, sure. Weed should be legalized." It still does not take away the fact that it's really awkward for a child when your parent is completely different all of the sudden because they went behind the garage and... [laughs] I Just wanted to leave it up to the reader.

imageSPURGEON: In one of your interviews, you talked about how you're not sure you can report accurately what happened.


SPURGEON: You say that making art of your memories changes it, and then the reader's perception changes it. So you have these two automatic distortions from what happened. I think that's true, but I wonder... accuracy isn't the only purpose in making a book like this.


SPURGEON: It's not the only purpose for autobiography. There are all sorts of things you might want to get out of it, all sort of specific truths that don't count on 100 percent fealty to what happened as a kind of progression of events. You must have had more than the worries of reporting things accurately, am I right? There must have been an emotional truth you wanted to convey.

CASTRÉE: I read a lot of novels. I read a lot of comics, too, but I've been reading a lot of novels as of late. And I do find comfort in reading something that I can relate to, that is similar to experiences I've had. Seeing the characters mess it up for me? [laughs] I'm very interested in human psychology. I don't read about human psychology, but I have this little -- and I think this comes from seeing a lot of different specialists when I was younger -- have this weird little psychologist residing in me permanently that has this analytic way of dealing with people.

It was important to me to have a book that painted things in nuances of grays, rather than in blacks and whites. I felt that there needed to be a book out there for people like me. And so I got a lot out of it. And I was hoping that people from my generation -- I think in at least Quebec that's a big thing, that people went from not divorcing each other to all of the sudden divorcing and experimenting in all sorts of different ways. They thought they were free and cool but they didn't really... a lot of my friends' parents didn't sit down and think about their behavior. And perhaps they should have. It seems like it was just a short window of time where people went from having a very traditional family to like the parents wanting to be more like friends [laughter] and now we're back to parents acknowledging that they should be parents. [laughs] I get along with a lot of people that had experimental childhoods.

SPURGEON: This is bad amateur psychology to even suggest this, so I apologize in advance. I know when I started writing, my father said that he'd support whatever writing I did... unless it was about him.

CASTRÉE: Oh, boy.

imageSPURGEON: [laughs] So I wondered about this book as a sustained act of disobedience, about it being you telling stories out of turn. Is there that element to it? Is there an exercise of your artistic freedom going on here, or is that way too easy of a summation?

CASTRÉE: Sometimes when it's easy to make a psychological analysis about something, it's because it's true. [laughter]

I feel like yeah, it was very liberating. It was very liberating and rebellious, and I'm still not sure what the price of this will be, for me to do this. I was scared shitless for years about addressing any of these issues, especially to my mother. Or acknowledging them in interviews or in book form or whatever. I just decided to go for it.

The thing that is scary, going back to the filter of me putting it down on paper and somebody else reading it through their own filter, the thing that's scary is that there have been few comments that people have made, whether it's in reviews or someone sharing that they enjoyed the book on their blog, there have been a few people that have made the assumption my mother was an alcoholic. I'm very uncomfortable with that term. Whatever, you can put whatever labels on anything, but for me personally I think she had a drinking problem. It kind of freaks me out, because if you're a character in my book and you read a review and someone just jumps to conclusions too fast, they're just like, "I don't want to read this book; they're full of shit." Specifically, I have no idea if my mother read the book. I do think that once these labels are put, it could be disturbing.

SPURGEON: You live in a small town. I do as well. You said in an interview this summer that you wanted to be more involved in your town, be more focused about contributing to your town, be a good citizen of the town.

CASTRÉE: Yes. [laughs]

SPURGEON: What does that mean to you, exactly?

CASTRÉE: I don't know. I'm a hypocrite; I can't really get involved politically in my town because I don't have American citizenship. I have a green card, but I still very much feel like a Canadian. There's not much I can do on that side, either. [laughs]

The place where I live is called Anacortes; it's in Washington state. I have a really good community here. My community is very supportive. Maybe the comments that I made have something to do with how I believe I get a lot out of living in this town, but I don't live in the type of town... I have a good community, but most people in my town don't know what I do. They don't know that that book in the window of the bookstore, that that's mine. Whether it's giving comics-drawing classes to kids here in town, or my friends and I organize this small music festival that also has a book fair portion -- I like doing things like that. Mostly what I feel about my involvement with my community is that once in a while it's important to take a rest from being so focused on my own personal projects and do something with other people for the place where I live to make it -- I mean, to make it my version of nice. [laughs]

SPURGEON: You did Autoptic this year, didn't you?


SPURGEON: Do you have that sense of community in terms of your relationship with other cartoonists? Certainly you lived in a place for a long time that had a scene like that. Was the Autoptic experience a good one? Do you extend that same community feeling to your fellow comics makers?

CASTRÉE: There was Autoptic and there was PFC, the Pierre Feuille Ciseaux.

SPURGEON: I'm totally conflating them. That's the specific name for the week-long program that happened before Autoptic, where you're staying in dorms with all the other artists.

CASTRÉE: That was life-changing. That was really incredible. I feel like cartoonists are weird animals. [laughs] I don't have... I don't know if that's true for a lot of other cartoonists, but the vibe I got from them is they do hang out with other cartoonists pretty regularly. Like the New York cartoonists hang out together.

SPURGEON: I think they do.

CASTRÉE: Where I live, I wouldn't say I'm the only cartoonist, but I don't have cartoonists friends in Anacortes. I know some people in Seattle, but I don't go to Seattle that often. I don't even know how to drive. [laughter]

When I was at PFC I felt a very strong sense of kinship. It was so easy to talk to each other. I was very excited because there was a bunch of cool people there, and a bunch of cool dudes, but it was really nice to hang out with people like Domitille Collardey and Lisa Hanawalt and Eleanor Davis... you don't have to do that basic groundwork where you have a conversation. You don't have to explain what it is you do. You speak the same language; it's really exciting. Also getting to know that other cartoonists feel like shit [laughs] and feel like that they have got to get their act together the same way you do, it's exciting because you look at what they do and you think, "I would never have guessed..."

I don't know how much I would feel inspired -- I do feel it once in a while, to do something comics-related, and try to bring cartoonists to the town where I live. But I don't know if I have the energy to do that.

SPURGEON: How did you find the ending to Susceptible? I don't want to give it away, but I'm interested in where it came from. Did it just sort of bubble up from the creative process more generally? Did you know you were going to end the book that way all along?

CASTRÉE: I kind of like to know what the end is going to be like when I do something like this. The thing is... it really did happen, it was just a matter of choosing where I wanted to end the book. It's my life, so I know what the story is. [laughter] So I have to be like, "Okay, where do I draw the line?" It's impossible to end something like that, because really there is no end. It just keeps on going.

There is this moment... it is good to realize, to have this epiphany if you're a kid that's moved out of your parents' house and it was hard, to have this epiphany of "Well, I'm grown now. I'm responsible for my own actions." The ending... I got a little more poetic. The book starts on a more poetic note that's metaphorical, so I wanted to end it on a metaphorical note, too. It was really important to me since it's never over to make it very sparse, because I wanted a sense of release.

SPURGEON: I spoke to the cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez earlier today and one of the things we spoke about was his occasional frustration that maybe his work wasn't getting into the hands of everyone that might enjoy it. In one of your interviews you spoke of pressing comics into the hands of friends because you didn't think they were reading them, and this was particularly true of your female friends. Further, you noted that these are comics those friends enjoy when you place them in front of them. Do you worry about the size of the audience, the nature of the audience, for works like yours?

CASTRÉE: It's true; I worry about that. I don't know... sometimes it can be too easy for someone like me... All cartoonists put a ton of work into their thing. I feel like comics themselves are hard work. There aren't a lot of comics out there done very fast. For me, there's often a feeling of, "Okay, I spent two and a half years doing this. I didn't make any money -- with the two versions of my book combined, I've maybe made $4000 this year, which is not enough to live. [laughs] I feel like... you do see people that seem to be having more success that you are out there, so I can get lazy about it and say like, "Put me out there, coach! Put me out there!" [Spurgeon laughs] Because you feel like somebody is being given a chance. It's like, "Put me out there! I'll prove to you that I'm good!"

The hard truth is that this is a depressing book, and it's not for everybody. I think generally there's a lot of people that don't want to hear about other people's problems. That are like, "Uh! I don't want to her about that." They don't see anything past whiny-ness when they look at my book. But then I do feel, I do believe that there are other people out there that may be interested in this kind of work. Sometimes if especially a woman friend of mine is going through something in their life where they need a little pep, I like to hand them a book and be like, "Check this stuff out." It's so much faster to read than actual novel. [laughter] It can be so inspiring. I have a lot of friends that are good at art, good at drawing, but they never consider reading comics. I don't think people read many books any more, straight up. I have friends that especially when they spend the night, I'll make them a little stack. "Here, read this!"

I hate making comments that are generalizing things, but at least in my immediate surroundings the women that I know that are buying comics, draw comics. I hate to do the gender, to divide it, but I know so many guys that don't draw comics and that will never draw comics but will read them. And do buy them. I wonder why that's the case. Who knows? It's changing. I get really angry when women ask me about being a woman cartoonist because this year I feel like we've arrived at this place where it's like "Let's stop making a fuss about it" because clearly everybody will agree that many of the best comics put out this year were done by ladies. We're no longer female cartoonists. We're just cartoonists.


* Susceptible, Geneviève Castrée, Drawn And Quarterly, hardcover, 9781770460881, 2013, $19.95.


* cover to Susceptible
* one of the countless times the cartoonists drew herself in this work, at all sorts of ages
* photo of the artist
* a bit of writing I've seen multiple reviewers note
* the two-page sequence showing off the depth and breadth of Castrée's memories
* a mother-daughter moment featuring an altered state
* two stand-lone image from the book I just like
* a panel from a collaboration done at PFC
* an illustration, with a lovely use of color (below)



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