Interview with Allie BroshPosted by Goodreads on December 9, 2013
Goodreads talked to Brosh on the last night of her book tour for Hyperbole and a Half, which had taken her all around the country for three weeks. Speaking at a rapid clip with interviewer Margaret Wappler, Brosh shared her coping mechanisms for depression, her identity as a "draw-writer," and the links between horror and comedy writing.
Allie Brosh: Oh yes. I'm going to need a good three to four weeks of total hermit time after this to recharge the battery. But it's been really fun. My last stop is tonight in my hometown, Bend, Oregon. So far, I've been to New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon. It's been crazy and really exhausting, but in a good way. I was always surprised by how many people turned up and how long they waited. One of the signings in Brooklyn went till 2 a.m. Same with Seattle.
GR: So let's talk canines for a moment. As a fellow dog owner, I'm wondering what you do with Helper Dog and Simple Dog [two stars of Brosh's work] while on tour? Traveling is always a problem for us dog owners.
AB: We had a friend of ours watch them. She's a vet tech, and she takes really good care of them. We missed them so much! This is the longest we've ever been away from them. I was worried the Simple Dog wouldn't recognize me when I got home. I don't know if she did right away, but when we got back into the house, then she started putting the pieces together. "Oh, I know this person in this place!"
GR: Do you have a day job?
AB: I'm very fortunate that this is my full-time job. I was unemployed for quite a long time, and that's when I started blogging to occupy myself. I started making money off of merchandise in May 2010. It was a meager existence, but I was used to that by then. I could pay rent, buy food and stuff. And now with the book, I feel much more stable.
GR: Does that mean you're going to write more books?
AB: I should hope so! I really enjoyed the process of writing a book. When I told my editor and agent that I enjoyed it, they were like, "Wow, really?" I seemed sort of miserable the whole time, so they were amazed that I liked it. I get into these writer modes, these uncomfortable bursts of creativity where I can't stop writing. It's like once you get on the ride, you can't stop till the end. So it'd be 14 to 18 hours every day for five days in a row. The last three months of writing the book was all that—me hunched over my computer in my little room for 14-hour days nonstop. I started to go a little crazy, but I guess I enjoyed some part of that. I would like to repeat the process.
GR: How long did it take you to put the book together?
AB: I signed my book contract in May 2011. I had a slow start at first. I was hitting a writer's roadblock at that point in my life anyway. It was growing pains maybe. I was having a hard time identitywise, and then shortly thereafter I hit my depression, and that made it exceedingly difficult to write. So I took a good nine months off of anything. I started writing again in May 2012. Then I hit another depressive patch, and I started writing again in January of 2013 and finished it by May.
GR: That second depressive patch came after you published "Depression Part I" on your blog. Was it scary to put your experience out there?
AB: It wasn't all that scary. By the time I put it up there, I was ready to get it off my chest. It was my way of owning it. I actually felt relieved. I feel like I was depressed the entire time through "Part 1" and "Part 2." Slowly I started to come out of it. I got on Wellbutrin in March 2012. It took a while to kick in, but then I saw some improvement. Laughing again was a big thing. I've been constantly depressed on some level for the past three years or so, so I feel like it's going to be a lifetime maintenance thing. I have to stay on top of it.
GR: Goodreads member Kate asks: Are you aware that you have become the Patron Saint of Depression, and if so, how do you feel about that?
AB: I did not realize that I'd reached Patron Saint status! My immediate reaction is "I've won an award! I'm good at something!" Maybe there's some pride in there. But there's also immediately a feeling of "Shit, I don't know what I'm doing." No, don't give me the crown. (Laughs.) Sorry, I don't want it!
GR: Was having the book deal contributing to your depression? Because it's a major expectation, a lot of pressure.
AB: I don't think so. It was more that I was starting to get depressed and I have a tendency to question my identity already, but then the depression caused me to question it even more. The first half of my depression was very tied into self-loathing. Then the second half of the depression the self-loathing went away. I just didn't have any feelings. I didn't care enough to hate myself. But ever since having that experience I've been much less anxious and much less hard on myself about everything.
GR: I'm glad to hear that. Do you feel like you have better strategies now for coping with depression?
AB: There's nothing I can do to stop it if it's going to come barreling down on me. But there are things I can do to help. Even if it's a very small amount, they do help. Stuff like going for little runs. I used to be a big runner in high school and college, and I notice a slight improvement in my ability to handle things when I'm running regularly. And then staying on top of stuff and not allowing myself to spiral down. When I'm depressed, I'll stop showering or eating. I won't do anything at all. Eating is a big deal. Obviously the depression deepens when I'm not getting good nutrition. If I notice some of the signs, I become more vigilant about all those personal maintenance things.
GR: What is your drawing process? It looks very spontaneous and off-the-cuff, but I get the feeling that it must be labored over.
AB: I spend a lot of time perfecting facial expressions and moving stuff around. Moving the eye one tiny, tiny bit can change an expression so much, you wouldn't even believe it. Shaving a tiny bit off of the mouth to make it more serious or smug or whatever you're going for. You can capture that feeling with changing one facial feature just a tiny little bit.
GR: Is that what you spend most of your time laboring over?
AB: I also do the same thing with writing. I spend so much time trying to capture an exact shade of meaning, whether that's through choosing the right word or using a certain sentence structure or perfecting a facial expression in a little squiggly drawing. There's this thing in my head, and it's a very precise thing, and I'm always trying to figure out how to put that exact thing in someone else's head.
GR: Do you lay down a rough draft pretty fast and then spend a lot of time fine-tuning?
AB: I work from an outline that starts with a basic idea. First I'll say, "Hey, I have an idea," and then I'll write down what are my first impressions of this idea. I write all that down, and over however many months or years, I'll open up the file and add any new insights into it so that I just collect a vast amount of material. Then I start outlining it and trying to hammer out a cohesive structure. That's the scariest part because I'm always worrying that I'm making the wrong choices or leaving stuff out. It's so uncertain. But once I get that done, then I can start drawing. By the time I'm at that point, I feel much more confident about everything. I learned sometime while writing my book that it's not good to start drawing before I'm done outlining. Otherwise it leads to many wasted drawings.
GR: Goodreads member Sam Wescott asks, My favorite part of Allie's work is her illustration technique. How did she come up with her own character? She's written about her pink dress, but I want to know how she came up with the body shape and hair triangle.
AB: It was a slow evolution. It started off very basic, but as I drew myself more, I would make little tweaks to make it funnier. I'd make this weird tube or tadpole person, these eyes like some poison dart frog. The shape of her body now was the final result of all these tiny modifications. These are all the shapes that I find funny. It's much more funny to me, the type of absurdity and silliness that's in there now. It's important that it doesn't look realistic. As far as the hair goes, I drew bangs on myself for a while, but it annoyed me that I had a hairstyle. I just wanted a cone.
GR: Sam also asks, "Why did she decide on that messy MS Paint style?"
AB: The drawing has to show that I don't take myself that seriously. I use Paintbrush, the Mac analogue of MS Paint. I do enjoy the simplicity, and it's really the only stylized thing in my drawings. I like that the program is very flat. If I drew this stuff in 3-D, it would be way too much.
GR: You've posted a lot of raw emotional material, but are there things that are sacred to you? That you won't ever post on the blog?
AB: Oh gosh, I don't know that I have anything touchy like that. There's nothing really about me that's off-limits. It's more like if it's a family member, then I'm not going to give other people the same treatment I give to myself. The whole reason I write about myself is that I have that freedom to say what I want to say and be however hard I'm going to be on myself. There might be things that I think I'll be able to write about better in the future than I can now, but there's nothing that's completely off-limits.
GR: Last December you married your longtime boyfriend, Duncan, who's appeared a little bit in your work. Will we see more of him?
AB: I do eventually want to write a post about Duncan. He has a unique blend of screwed-up-ness that's very interesting to me. Neither of us is very good at responsibility, but we procrastinate in entirely different ways. I've always been reluctant to do the relationship comedy thing because it can get hackneyed, but I know that eventually I'll do it. I just have to find the right way
GR:Do you show Duncan your work?
AB: I don't talk to anyone about the posts while they're in progress but I do show them to Duncan. He's very instrumental in telling me what's working and what's not. He's a great support system in all areas of my life.
GR: Do you think of your work as comics, cartoons, graphic short stories, or do you not get hung up on the genre categorization?
AB: I hate the word "blogger" or blogs. It's always been a big problem. I call myself a "draw-writer." I got that from a comment from one of my readers. It has to be together, drawing and writing without separation. I refer to myself as a comedian, too. That's the most catch-all term, but it's still not specific enough. It's tough trying to find the most accurate term for what I do. It's this big amalgamation of these things that I like all put together. Some parts are much more easily explained than others.
GR: I've heard that you like stand-up comedy quite a bit. Who are some of your favorites right now, and how does stand-up filter into your work?
AB: Louis CK and Patton Oswalt are the big ones. John Moloney and Dana Gould I'm getting more into, and I just got into Dylan Moran this summer. So much of my inspiration is based on stand-up comedy. I go for the same comedic devices, body postures, facial expressions, timing… with drawings I can actually do all that. The book is like the written form of stand-up. I eventually want to do stand-up, too, as a performance. I have routines that I've written, taped, and then critiqued. I like to play around in that form. We'll see what happens.
GR: Many readers want to know: Do you still have the kernel of corn from "Depression Part II?"
AB: Yes, I do. It's still under the fridge somewhere.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
AB: Usually the trick is to start writing. I go on the crazy train once I start, but I have to get myself to start. Most of the rituals involve tricking myself by leaving notebooks all over the place. Because, hey, maybe I'll just want to start writing if I see one lying open there. Also, I have a sign at my desk that reads "Party Area" to make it seem more fun.
GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?
AB: I do read a lot about psychology. I was a psych major in college, and my mom also has a master's in psychology. I read a lot of Douglas Adams as a kid and Stephen King. From when I was nine to 14, I would just devour his books. There are a lot of parallels between horror and comedy writing. Suspense, timing, and foreshadowing are all at play. That sort of story structure I absorbed from Stephen King books.
GR: What are you reading now?
AB: I'm reading Doctor Sleep, actually. I tend to read several books at once. While I'm writing, I don't allow myself to read because I start taking on the voice of the writer. I had a long, dry period where I didn't read any books, only articles, but now I'm binging on reading. I'm rereading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This will be only the second time I've read it. I read it in the eighth grade last time, and I laughed so hard that it was almost a little scary.
Interview by Margaret Wappler for Goodreads. Margaret has written about arts and culture for the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Believer, Fader, NYLON, and other publications. Her fiction was recently anthologized in Joyland Retro, and she has been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Black Clock, Facsimile, and Public Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.
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