Few graphic memoirists have had the far-reaching cultural impact of Alison Bechdel. Born out of an underground comix movement with her prolific strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 to 2008 in Funny Times, she’s since landed squarely in the mainstream. In 2014 she was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant; a year later, her perennial bestseller Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) was adapted into a Broadway musical; and throughout the aughts, the Bechdel Test, which she’d detailed in a 1985 DTWOF strip, became well-known even in households without a single graphic novel on their bookshelves.
Bechdel, who is now sixty, is often credited with expanding readers’ appetite for comics, creating truly literary graphic work and providing an entrance point to readers previously-unfamiliar with panels and dialogue bubbles. It’s a designation she dismisses—right place, right time, she insists. Yet if you ask casual readers if they’ve ever read a graphic novel, you’re likely to hear Bechdel’s name. (I can attest that Fun Home is one of the first books of comics I ever read, and that it changed the trajectory of my life, which I now spend editing comics for this very magazine.)
Her latest book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, which comes almost a decade after her previous memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, is in some ways classic Bechdel—meandering, full of literary references and neurosis—and in others a real departure. It’s chattier, funnier, and after a career spent in monochrome, arrives in a delicious four color palette. It chronicles her lifelong obsession with exercise, the activity she considers the purest, most unburdened part of her life. If Thoreau’s “Walking” essay exulted the value of nature and solitude, The Secret to Superhuman Strength celebrates fitness trends, its accompanying gear, and beautifully argues that the most important practice we can undertake as un-superhumans is to rely on one another.
I spoke with her by phone earlier last month, and I only asked her once if she was afraid to die.
I. THIS ONE, BLISSFUL OASIS
THE BELIEVER: You often engage with literature in your books during moments of interiority and self-reflection. Do you see the act of reading as a form of autobiography or self-discovery?
ALISON BECHDEL: Yes. You know, strangely, I’ve never exactly thought about it like that, but yes. And sometimes, the fact that it might take me so long to write a book, I weirdly feel like I don’t read enough. I always feel like there’s something wrong with me that I don’t read more contemporary fiction. I do spend a lot of time just reading for research. And I let it ramble, wherever that leads me. And this book has taken me a lot of different places.
BLVR: So you’re selecting your reading based on a particular intellectual interest?
AB: Well, it’s really like stepping stones. Like one book would lead to another book. I didn’t have a bibliography in mind when I started. It sort of accumulated as I went along.
BLVR: You’ve talked in the past about being intolerant of distraction, and I think that’s a common feeling among artists in general. In this book, it seems like exercise isn’t really a distraction from your work, but rather in service of it. Why do you think that is?
AB: Well, exercises have evolved to be the one unconflicted realm of my life. It’s easy and fun, I don’t usually have to psych myself up, or do anything extreme to motivate myself. I just feel motivated to do it because I want to move, because I’ve been sitting at my desk or at my drawing table all day.
BLVR: If exercise was an uncomplicated thing for you, did you worry that by writing or drawing a book about it, you would kind of muddle that sanctuary space?
AB: Yes, I did. Why would I take this one, blissful oasis and turn it into something I’m gonna get cerebral about? Exercise has always been about getting out of my head; why would I want to drag exercise back into my head with me? But I still somehow didn’t get completely trapped by that. There were certainly moments of feeling like I should’ve chosen another topic, but there really wasn’t another topic. This is the thing I needed to write about and I feel like ultimately that wasn’t a problem. I was able to really just keep that physical life intact.
BLVR: Did you find yourself thinking through the book when you were exercising? Or did the act of running or moving remain a meditative space?
AB: I would often think about it, especially when I was running. When I was sick of writing, I would kind of bring a problem with me on my run and mull over, but then completely forget, what I was thinking about and arrive back with a completely empty mind. But that process in itself was helpful, too.
BLVR: Self-improvement and self-help is all so commodified. Did you grapple with your personal relationship to exercise and capitalism? Or was that part of the pleasure of it?
AB: I didn’t really grapple with it. I feel like some people might come to this book expecting that I’m going to do that, or expecting other things too, like that I might have some kind of critique of fitness culture and personal body image. But I don’t really delve into that stuff. I feel like, yeah, diet culture is bad, but there are better things I want to talk about. I did try to fit those critiques into my book and in the end, they just didn’t fit. So no, I feel like my athletic gear consumerism is a very harmless manifestation of capitalism. I mean, I’ve been very fascinated over the course of my life with just the evolution of gear, and the amazing innovation that has happened.
BLVR: So, did you just find these conversations about capitalism and consumerism and body image kind of boring?
AB: Not so much boring, but I felt like it was just getting sort of rhetorical, especially the body image stuff. I showed some of the work to a friend who’s a fat activist, and we agreed I just wasn’t hitting the right note. And she encouraged me with this idea that it might be more powerful for a woman to write a book about fitness and never once mention weight and body image.
BLVR: Yes, I loved that. The beginning of this book is very different from your previous books in that it’s so conversational. You’re actually like, “Hello, welcome, here’s the book!” and you’re taking the readers by the hand and talking to us directly. I’m curious about why that mode emerged for you in this particular project.
AB: You know, I just felt like I needed to introduce the idea of this book. I was going to be telling the chronological story of my life. I wanted to talk about a lot of these different ideas and I felt like I needed to explain them before going into it. So there’s a certain amount of exposition that I needed to put in place at the beginning, and in fact, I don’t know how I would’ve done it. I somehow needed to create a little outline.
BLVR: Like a preface.
BLVR: It feels so different in comics, the way we can do that, versus how one might approach exposition in a book of prose.
AB: I know. I love how much we can convey with images. It’s just a constant delight.
II. “TREES MAKE ME WANT TO KILL MYSELF.”
BLVR: Your attention to interior and exterior spaces also feels like one of those things comics can do in a really singular way. I always think about this page in Fun Home, wherein the top panel is you and your dad in a room, and you were drawing while he was reading. And then the second panel is a pan out—it’s the same scene but from the outside, and you’re each framed alone by the two windows. I think that’s just the perfect example of what comics can communicate without words. Do you see this movement in and out of physical spaces as a gesture towards the interiority or exteriority of the self?
AB: You know it’s funny you talking about that panel of me and my dad, because when I was a kid I almost always drew isolated figures without backgrounds. I found the backgrounds tedious and boring and so I just wanted to draw the people, the clothes, and the gear, whatever they were doing. And my father would encourage me to put in some background. So sometimes I would try to do that, to oblige him. Honestly, drawing a landscape is just baffling to me. Trees make me want to kill myself. How does anyone ever draw a tree? It’s difficult unless you really enter into it, you know? So I set my challenge in this book of doing these occasional scenes, where I’m not even using a pen, I’m using a brush and I’m just drawing. I’m not actually using a Sumi-e technique but I just sort of fake a Sumi-e kind of painting, which does require a great deal of presence. I can’t be listening to a podcast when I’m doing one of those drawings, I’ve really gotta be at the tip of that paintbrush, all aware of myself to be there. Anyhow, I’m still not very good at landscapes, but I did push myself to do them in this book. And it somehow feels like a good stretch.
BLVR: It does feel like you’re using more organic shapes and lines with the brushwork in the landscape drawings.
AB: Oh, good.
BLVR: Was that intentional?
AB: No. I can’t be that intentional with my drawing, even though I described this as an intentional challenge for myself. I just kind of draw by the seat of my pen. This just happened, and I’m glad.
BLVR: I’m reluctant to ask this question, because everyone always asks cartoonists this same very boring question, but I would love to hear you talk about your process.
AB: No, I’m happy to talk about my process. I never really understand it myself; in a way this whole book is an exploration of the creative process. Like, where does that inspiration and intention come from when we have it, where does it go, and when do we lose it? That’s part of why I look at these other writers, too, because they have such clear arcs of very productive moments from their life and very destructive, difficult periods. So I’ve always been interested in that. Since I was a kid, I noticed that I felt different when I was drawing, then as I grew I felt this burden. What was that about? I haven’t had the same access to that free style of drawing since I was a kid, and I always try to find a way to get it back. I have periods of access to it, in those rows of deadlines when I gotta be completely focused on something, but it’s a struggle to get into that state.
BLVR: It’s kind of like, the better you get, the worse you discover you are.
AB: Yes, exactly. And it took a really long time to get latched onto this book.
BLVR: Why do you think that was?
AB: I think partly I psyched myself out because I wanted to write a book about transcendence, and transcendence is so… impossible. How can anyone do that? I wanted to write a book about being embodied. My legs got very crazy over the period of time I was working on this book. I had this weird experience when Fun Home was made into a Broadway musical, and I just got pulled out into the world in a public way for an extended period that was—I don’t regret it, I’m glad for all of that stuff. But it wasn’t possible to do creative work, with all of that going on. I just couldn’t focus. So I lost time because of that. And I never really track my own process; I don’t have a formula. Nothing carries over from the previous project, and I have to learn about it all over again, and trust myself all over again. I never can quite feel the self-confidence that I feel like I should have at this point of my life.
BLVR: Do you think that each project demands a different approach in that way, and that’s why you have to relearn it every time?
AB: Maybe. Funny, I’m just thinking about the publicity blitz. I’m talking to a lot of people like you about this book, and every conversation is totally different. There’s no way to prepare, or know what I’m getting into. And I might have expectations about how something’s gonna go, but it always changes, so yes, I think that’s probably true of my books, of my projects, too.
BLVR: Do you storyboard?
AB: If this book took eight years, I spent seven of them on the computer, living in Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. It looks like I’m just typing, but I’m actually writing in this drawing program, placing panels, designing a page, putting text over there, writing what the drawing will eventually be. So it’s not like I’m just writing separately from any kind of image. The images are part of it, I’m just not actually drawing it. How do you do?
BLVR: Very similar to what you were saying. I don’t sketch during that stage; it seems agonizing to think about having to draft something twice.
AB: I know, I know! That’s what I do, I just put a little description of what goes here. And my wonderful editor was able to work with that. She can look at a whole chapter with no pictures, just the descriptions of what the drawings will be, and help me to shape it.
III. CONTAINERS FOR THE SELF
BLVR: Do you think your drawings have gotten more “realistic” over time?
AB: In general, I think that’s true, but I also feel like this book is somehow a little cartoonier than Are You My Mother? I think Fun Home was pretty cartoony, and Are You My Mother? got a little more photo-realistic, and this book has gone back to more cartoony. I feel like this book was just lighter and sort of funnier. You know, the first part I drew was that introduction, and I was just trying to get a handle on myself and the characters. I became a little skeptical, and that somehow helps me to understand what I was doing in the book.
BLVR: People always talk about comics as if they’re very fast reads. I’ve heard a lot of readers say to cartoonists, “I love your book, I read the whole thing in an afternoon!” But I feel like your books aren’t really like that. I read them very slowly. They’re very dense, and you’re a very writerly cartoonist. Do you think of yourself in a particular tradition of cartooning? Or do you feel like you kind of developed this form on your own without a lot of models?
AB: I feel like I’m an unusually wordy cartoonist. I often worry that that makes me somehow not quite authentic, like I should rely on the images more or give them more space, but I really do equally love to write and draw. I feel like these two elements are constantly fighting one another for space on the page. There’s never enough room for the drawing, there’s never enough room for all the words I want to use. And I like that process of just trying to trim it all down, and in the end not really being able to.
BLVR: Do you cut a lot out?
AB: I keep meaning to. When I’m in Illustrator and I’m in writing mode, and the pages are just like all black with overlapping text, and maybe images that I’ve brought in via the process of accretion, I’ll rewrite a panel and I don’t want to get rid of it in case I need to go back. So I drag it off to the side, and it’s just like a mess. Finally I reached a point with all that where I can start actually deleting text, then I can see what needs to be there.
BLVR: That’s actually a relief to hear. I feel like if someone saw my early Illustrator files, I would just have to shoot myself into space.
AB: It’s just like a portrait of mental illness.
BLVR: That reminds me of a time I saw you speak a decade ago, when I was a graduate student in Iowa, and you gave this fabulous presentation about your journals and record-keeping. Where do you think your impulse to create these personal archives comes from?
AB: This is my core flaw, my core issue, my core weaknesses, some kind of self-disturbance. I never got properly held or something as a child. I’m constantly trying to create this container for myself. Keeping track of myself, literally. Keeping this record of my own life. I keep hoping that I will reach a point where I don’t do that any longer. But I have not gotten there yet.
BLVR: Is that what your books are? Containers for yourself?
AB: Yes, very much. I feel so lucky that I can actually make a living at it. It feels a little psychotic.
BLVR: I don’t think so. But when you’re approaching a journal, something of a personal record, does that feel completely different to you than the way you enter what’s going to be seen and read by others?
AB: I spent a lot of time reading my journals in order to write this book. Writing this book was very different, but I had to feed all the data into it—I had to access these whole long, confusing records. I spent so much time just making little timelines of different periods of my life and seeing what was happening. You know, like, what other things were going on in my life when I was studying karate? And I would start to see patterns over the course of my life—
BLVR: That’s fascinating.
AB: Well, I’m trying to sound fascinating. And you know, the job is to zoom outside, and find a compelling narrative that someone else would care to read. Because of course what I really want to write is absolutely everything that has ever happened to me in my life. But that’s not gonna sell a book.
BLVR: So when you’re sitting down to work, formulating your project, do you set out with a specific problem? Or a hope to figure a particular thing out? Are you searching for solutions?
AB: Yes. I might not have total clarity on that question, but eventually everything comes clear, and eventually I work it out.
BLVR: So the question becomes refined over time.
AB: Yeah, I mean in a way, this book is all about realizing that I’m getting closer and closer to dying. But I forgot what the question is—oh God, sorry, that’s a big question, and it kind of threw me out.
BLVR: It’s okay—we can talk about death! Are you afraid to die?
AB: I feel like I’m not afraid to die. What I’m afraid of, and this is what I was grappling with in this book, is the dependence and pain—and dementia, possibly—that I might experience before I die. That does scare me, losing control. That’s what I was hoping I would come to terms with by looking at all these forms of physical skill and mastery. And in reading about them, I know very well that I’m losing them. I will lose them if I haven’t lost them already.
BLVR: Do you think some of how you’ve chronicled and created a personal archive has to do with that fear?
AB: The fear of death?
BLVR: Or the fear of your life emptying out, or becoming less of what it is now.
AB: Oh. Huh. I’ve never thought about it like that. My mother died a few years ago, and she had a really similar compulsion to write down everything she did every day. I have a whole box of her records now, which she called her diary. But it’s not a very interesting diary, it’s just like a catalogue, almost like she had to get this out of her system, like she was excreting it in some way. And I really relate to that. Somehow I need to process, in words, what I did. So, I don’t know what that is. Maybe it’s just some weird tic, but what feels so tragic to me, is that after all that work, this huge stack of entries, like… you die anyway!
BLVR: You do.
AB: One day I might read some of my mother’s diaries, but…it’s just…it’s just too heartbreaking.
BLVR: Does making books about people, or writing about people, like your mother or your parents, change the way you feel about them?
AB: Yes. And I wasn’t really setting out to do that, but that very much did happen. When I wrote the book about my dad, in order to make it a good, honest book, I had to really learn more about who he was. That’s why the book ended up engaging with all those other writers, and it was a way of just, like, trying to get in touch with my father by reading the books that he loved. And through that whole process, I developed compassion for my father. I had been angry at him, and I worked through it, and I could understand more about what he had been up against.
BLVR: Did it make you love him more?
AB: You know, it didn’t affect my love for him. That’s somehow beyond reason… I loved him in spite of everything.
BLVR: What role does empathy play for you in your work? Either towards yourself, or towards the people you’re writing about.
AB: I think a lot about my drawing process, which has come to involve a lot of photoshoots— photo references that I will make of myself doing the poses of the characters I’m drawing. As soon as digital photography came along in the early 2000s, I started doing that a lot. And it was just really a drawing aid at first, and really that’s primarily what it is, but it’s also a window into the other characters that I draw. That I wouldn’t necessarily have had if I weren’t trying to, like, take their physical position, or, you know, imagine how they would say something. So, it’s almost like a Method acting exercise, and I feel like it does create a certain kind of empathy with the characters I’m drawing.
BLVR: And that’s also very particular to comics, it seems. Especially when you’re writing about someone who’s gone, or who’s no longer in your life, you have to sort of make them physically alive, all over again.
AB: You do, and it’s very intimate. Drawing someone’s face, drawing their hands; it’s a kind of touch, really.
BLVR: Your work has largely been in black and white, and in limited color palettes, and I was shocked and delighted to discover so much color in this book. How did you come to that?
AB: Well, I knew I wanted this book to be in color. I’ve never done full color, and I knew it would be a lot of work. I don’t know how people like Chris Ware do that; I really feel like that has to be some kind of superhuman skill. I didn’t want to color it digitally, because I didn’t want to spend all that time on the computer. I ended up not having time to do it at all, just because of my deadlines. And my partner, Holly, did the coloring. I would give her sketches of what I wanted, and she would make it happen. But we did it in this really crazy, complicated way. She was not sitting there with a lovely palette of watercolors, you know, and making blue skies and green trees. She did all of this work in grey inkwash.
AB: She did a cyan layer, a magenta layer, a yellow layer, and multiple other layers for each page. And then I would come in and do a layer for each page with just the shading, just to kind of give it my own touch and add some dimension. It was nuts! It was very frustrating for her, because she had to always be doing this math. It was awful! But what that gave us was really clear, luminous color. We didn’t have to worry about any kind of consistency. All she had to do was like, put down an area of gray ink, and it would turn this amazing color of purple, you know, or green. It was like magic when we’d finally tint the screens in Photoshop to see that and see the color coming into place.
BLVR: Have you ever collaborated with her before?
AB: No. Well, we had started doing a fun collaboration a couple years ago, where on Sundays we plan our week together in a little notebook, and she started playfully suggesting that I draw this or that. Did I just hear a cat?
BLVR: There is a cat here, yes.
AB: What was I talking about?
AB: Oh, yeah. So on those Sundays, she started telling me, “Oh, you should draw this.” And she would give me, like, a very specific thing to draw, like an American chestnut. She was reading a book about trees, and so I had to draw this thing. I resisted it at first; I didn’t like being told what to draw at all, but it was at a period when I wasn’t drawing. I was just, like, stuck in the writing phase of this book. I don’t keep a good daily drawing practice; I’ve never been able to do that,although I think I’m getting better at it. But I was just really stuck, and so we started doing these collaborative sessions, and eventually it got easier to take her suggestions and to see that it took me somewhere I would never have gone on my own, and that really opened me up. And so by the time we were working on this book, I was getting used to that. As a cartoonist, I’ve rarely had to collaborate with anyone. It’s not my forte. But it was interesting, too, that this book is so much about how ultimately we need other people, we’re not isolates. Here I was actually living that out. I really depended on her to help me finish this book.
BLVR: Was it ever frustrating to collaborate?
AB: Oh, yeah. We had quite a few fights. You know, mostly the hard thing was just being so indebted to her. Like, oh my God, this was just massive, massive, months of really intense labor. But I was eventually able to accept that, too.
BLVR: Color is really its own language. Did you know what the palette was going to be, or is that something you found through that collaboration?
AB: Well, I just have never had a skill with color, or even an interest. And part of the reason I went with that cyan, magenta, yellow palette was that it kind of made the process abstract and mathematical. I didn’t have to make a lot of choices about the palette. In fact, I even embraced a sort of cheesy comic book coloring look. I mean, that technique is how people would color comic books and Sunday funnies before digital technology. Like, they would actually make these overlays,and often the result would be quite garish and hideous. There is a sort of garish quality to some of this book. I mean, it’s a mix of a garishness and a subtle watercolor effect that I really like.
BLVR: I think that relationship is so interesting though. Color almost creates this third dimension in addition to image and text. There’s an argument being communicated by whichever color palette you’re working in.
AB: I don’t feel like I was quite doing that intentionally. I was just happy to get all the spaces filled in. And as you might notice, not everything is even colored. I didn’t do skin tones—I don’t even bother with that.
BLVR: And that was more of a practical decision?
AB: Yes. It was like, I can’t fill every inch of the book with color, I just can’t do it.
V. A NEW SYNTAX
BLVR: Comics are often called an accessible medium. Do you think that’s true? Do you feel that way?
AB: Yeah, I do.
BLVR: I guess I struggle with that. I mean, I think that comics are for everyone. If people sit down to experience them they are, but I also feel like there is a kind of intimidation sometimes, if someone’s not a practiced comics reader. You said once that “the process of reading comics is like learning a new syntax.” And I do feel like there is kind of a learning curve. If someone is not a familiar comics reader, that can feel kind of alienating.
AB: Yeah, that’s true. Not so much recently, but when Fun Home came out, I was hearing from a lot of people who had never read graphic novels before that they weren’t sure which direction to read in,or when to read the words and when to read the pictures. You know, in a way, that’s why I became a cartoonist, because it was a way of writing that my mother couldn’t really understand.
BLVR: That’s so interesting.
AB: I don’t think it was conscious—I mean, I know it wasn’t conscious, but I was just so intimidated by both of my parents’ artistic skills and tastes. But I didn’t want to ever risk being judged by them, so I found this medium they didn’t ever quite know what to do with.
BLVR: So is the language of comics, or the syntax of comics as you called it, something that just inherently made sense to you right away?
AB: Yes. I mean, I grew up reading comics and Mad Magazine and stuff like that. My mother did too; my mother was a big Wonder Woman freak. But my work didn’t look like Wonder Woman to her.
BLVR: So when you have these readers who’re saying Fun Home is the first graphic novel they ever read, do you think that’s because your books are so literary, and they find literary audiences as well as comics audiences?
AB: I think that’s what happened with Fun Home. I feel like I was just really lucky with that book, with the timing of it, that it came out right at a point when people had, like, evolved to the point of being able to understand graphic narrative as something more capacious than a superhero comic.
BLVR: Do you consider your work political?
AB: Yeah, I do. I mean, certainly during my comic strip days. It felt like the fact that I was writing about lesbians at all was a political act. You know, my book about my dad is about how different our lives turned out because he grew up before Gay Liberation. I grew up after it, on the other side of it. And it’s the same with my mother and feminism. I’m really looking at the material facts of how our lives have been different because of political movements. I think this book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, is in some ways less political than the other projects. But there’s a political strand in it, in terms of this notion of community that feels inherently progressive.
BLVR: Yeah, a sort of mutual aid point of view. But I also feel like queer artists get branded as political even if their work isn’t inherently political.
AB: Well, that’s true. Within the context of the culture, it is.
BLVR: You’ve talked before about how you feel like there’s maybe less rigor around comics criticism, and you said sometimes you feel like you’re “Unintentionally dumbing down what I write, and I’m challenging myself as a cartoonist not to do that.” I wonder why that is. I mean, there’s certainly great scholarship around comics, but I also feel like comics criticism isn’t quite as expansive as literary criticism.
AB: That makes me think of two different things. First, it reminds me of when I was doing Dykes To Watch Out For in the early days. People were so hungry for stories about lesbian lives, like, they didn’t care what I did. They just wanted a cartoon. And it could be dumb, and it could be, you know, not good. It could just suck, and they wouldn’t care. But I would push myself to really do work that I knew was good, that had integrity. Now, it also reminds me of the fact that many people who talk about comics in a literary way often don’t really have much to say about the drawings.
AB: I think we just don’t quite yet have a critical language for people that do both of those things. Or maybe I’m just not reading it, but I think it’s hard for people to really see them both. The people who are really tuned into the substance of the writing often don’t do that with the drawing, and vice versa. That’s a terrible generalization.
BLVR: I think you’re right. Cartoonists are often asked, “How does one edit the drawings of a graphic book?” Which to me feels kind of silly, because you can edit a drawing just as you can edit text. A drawing can fail to communicate something in the same way that text can.
BLVR: And we have very rigorous art criticism, and we have very rigorous literary criticism—
AB: I was just gonna say, I should be careful. Because I don’t feel like this drawing is as strong as it could be in many cases.
BLVR: What makes you say that?
AB: Oh, I’m just looking at it right now, and, you know, I was rushed. I was out of time at the beginning of it. I knew I hadn’t kept up a good drawing process, and so there was a certain amount of just getting into the swing of it. And it got better as it went along, but now I’ve just given people liberty to critique my drawing.
BLVR: I love how open you’ve been in talking about feelings of envy. You’ve said before that envy kind of motivates you, or has motivated you.
AB: Yes. I wish that weren’t true. I mean, I wish I didn’t feel envy, but if you’re gonna feel it, you might as well make use of it.
BLVR: But what kind of things do you feel envy about? Is it a simple sort of materialistic thing, or is it like someone’s drawn something you feel like you can’t draw, or…?
AB: That’s a good question, and in general I feel much less envious than I used to. I think just getting some ignition went a long way towards allaying a lot of that stuff. But I think, you know, anyone who’s publishing has envy when other people have successes, no matter how much success you’ve had. It’s always just a little flicker there, of being displaced. My big fear is that I’m going to be knocked out of the frame. But that’s good. It keeps everyone on their toes, and doing their good work, and not resting on their laurels.
BLVR: Do you ever still feel, despite being at this point in your career, like maybe you just fooled everyone? I’m asking for myself.
AB: I do. I’m sorry to tell you that I still feel that, and it feels almost narcissistic to have such a ridiculous concern. You have these books, you have this recognition. Shut up! Do your work, stop fretting. But I haven’t quite been able to do that.
BLVR: Why do you think that is?
AB: The same thing that motivates me to do this work: this weird flaw in my self-formation, something very deep and early that I’m constantly trying to make up for. I think, whatever our issues are, we never really fix them. I’m never gonna rebuild that missing structure, but I will learn how to work around it, you know?
BLVR: I do.
AB: And that is the work of my life.