By Sarah White
Last week, I posted my review of Susan MacLeod’s excellent graphic memoir. Now, I follow up with this interview with Susan. It gave me great pleasure to talk with her about the process of creating her book. The following excerpts are from that conversation.
Sarah: What were you trying to achieve with your book?
Susan: I found that experience of shepherding my mother through nine years of long-term care, quite isolating, exhausting, and lonely. Part of my goal was, I suppose, to heal. Also, this is the book that I would have wanted to have. There was nothing out there validating family members’ experiences. And then, seeing all that was missing in my mother’s care, and the kind of messaging our government gives—that I had given, as part of my career—I realized there’s a societal issue here, too. That was something I wanted to explore.
How did you decide how you would structure the book?
I knew going in that there were three threads I wanted to explore: What happens to families when parents decline? What contributes to such poor care in our long-term care institutions? And then, my understanding of the government perspective. I wanted to explore those three threads and also to tell my personal story. Any cohesion, any weaving of those threads together, came from the U-King’s program.
Your book is a graphic novel, it’s a memoir, it’s an expose that calls for action. In the MFA program, we were schooled to ask: Where does your book fit?
I think essentially, I ignored that question. The thing I struggled with or worried about was the audience. I wasn’t sure if graphic memoir was a genre that would be read by middle-aged women. Roz Chast was my inspiration to keep going.
How does writing something that’s drawn in panels differ from writing paragraphs on a page?
I knew nothing about comics when I started. I just knew I didn’t want to write this as a traditional book. I already had a BA in English and a Masters in Fine Art; I have always sketched since the time I could hold a pencil. My thinking was, I’m at this age, I want to use it.
I would liken this to copywriting for advertising in that you have to be succinct. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t have more than 21 words in each panel. And also, the words can’t repeat what you’re saying in the image—they have to work together, or else it’s just redundant. Those are confinements.
I’m curious how much the pages we see in the book look like your first drafts?
My first drafts were more like a children’s chapter book in that there were lots of text and then an image. Rebecca Roher mentored me during the U-King’s MFA program. She’s a comic artist who won the 2016 Doug Wright Award for Best Book. After I graduated, I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont for a 10-day course with New Yorker cartoonist Paul Karasik. He was like, “you gotta get this into panels.”
The MFA program had given me the narrative are, the chapter structure, and how those three threads were going to be woven together successfully. I had the book proposal and the chapter outlines done. At the Vermont school, I finished the first two chapters in the right comic format. That’s how I got Conundrum Press as my publisher.
Any words of advice for memoirists?
I’ve been fortunate in that I have the privilege and the family situation and the financial situation and the health situation that I could take advantage of all that, to write this book in my 60s. One good thing about getting older is that you do lose your fear of being a fool. I would just advise: Be fearless.
It’s not that I didn’t have all those doubts. It’s just that I had a lot of patience for them. figured I will try and be a comic artist and see what happens. I remember drawing and thinking, ‘this is so bad,’ but I just kept on drawing. I thought, ‘well, Susan, you’re not going to be the one to stop me. Someone else might, but not you.’
Susan MacLeod’s book Dying for Attention is available from the usual online retailers, but why not ask your local bookstore to order a copy for you?
Want to spend a little more time with Susan? Read her First Person essay that appeared in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in November 2019, “Sketching made me see the residents as real people, not ‘old people.“
Learn more about Susan and her work at her website: susanmacleod.ca/
©2021 Interview by Sarah White