Author Lynda Barry sets visions free
by Molly Gilmore
Cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry, an alumna of The Evergreen State College, will return to Olympia on Wednesday to promote a new book.
Barry, who now lives on a dairy farm near Footeville, Wis., is on tour for “What It Is.” She’s best-known for “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” which was first published in the Cooper Point Journal in Olympia.
Who was responsible for that? “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, then editor of the Cooper Point Journal.
In advance of her appearance at Evergreen, Barry agreed to an interview via e-mail. (She refuses to use the phone “unless absolutely necessary.”) She talked about her book, her comics, her days at Evergreen – and her new passion, fighting wind turbines.
Question: Why do you avoid the phone?
Answer: I’ve always gotten a sick feeling when the phone rang, ever since I was a kid. Some of my earliest memories are of being right there when especially horrible news came via the telephone. It’s the first time I remember seeing my parents crying really hard and looking out of control and that scared me pretty badly. So the phone has always seemed like a possible monster to me.
But I loved trying to win radio dial-in contests for tickets to concerts or movies. I won our Thanksgiving turkey five years in a row from the radio station. They’d play a turkey gobble right in the middle of a song, and when you heard it you had to be the fifth caller. Actually, a turkey gobble going off in the middle of a pop song is a good idea any time of year.
Q: How did you get started drawing/d oing comics? Did you do them as a child?
A: I always loved comics and storybooks . I liked the combination of pictures that I could understand and words, which I couldn’t read yet. I can remember looking at the daily comics in the paper before I could read. I remember picking what comics I would read when I was able to finally read. I didn’t begin learning to read until I was 6. By then, I was very attached to the comics and also drawing and messing around making marks.
I can remember writing fake letters in fake handwriting on stationary I stole from my mother. I loved making this fake writing, so moving a pen or pencil or crayon around on paper has always made me feel better. This never went away.
When I was in college, I was making comic strips for no other reason than to bother the mind of the editor of our college newspaper – that was Matt Groening. I liked to torment him because it made him laugh very hard – so I drew comics and dropped them in the mail slot to the newspaper office at night. Matt had a strict “I will print anything that you submit to me” policy as an editor. I liked testing that.
Q: A lot of your characters are young people. Is that the stage of life you identify with most? Is there one of your characters that is most autobiographical?
A: I don’t know why my characters tend to be kids or teenagers. I don’t think about it too much. Whenever I’ve tried to answer that question, I’m about as blank-minded as I am when I’m asked why I like monkeys or fungus or watching people get their hair cut or cephalopods or “America’s Next Top Model.”
Q: Did you always want to be an artist/writer?
A: I didn’t think I’d be able to do it – I mean, I drew and still really enjoyed the sensation of writing and, by junior high I knew I liked to write and draw a lot, but there were so many people who seemed 20,000 times better at it and who were going to college. That was something I never thought I could truly do.
Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter made college a possibility for kids like me right in the nick of time. I am more thankful to Jimmy Carter than I am to Richard Nixon. Going to college was what changed everything for me. I met my teacher there – Marilyn Frasca – and all of my work comes from what I learned during my two years of studying with her.
Q: Do you consider yourself primarily a writer? Primarily an artist? Both?
A: Funny question! For me, painting, writing, drawing, teaching – all of the things I do – feel very much the same. They seem to just be different hats on this thing called an image. But I like stories most of all, I’m trying to figure out what in the hell they are, how hearing a certain set of words in a certain order can make a whole place appear in your mind, and at the same time, you’re actually just sitting in your bed in your pajamas holding a book. Whatever that thing is, that entering the image-world, that’s the thing I want to be part of.
Q: What was your time at Evergreen like?
A: I started at Evergreen in 1974 and graduated in 1978. I loved college with all my heart and was very sad when it ended. There is nothing better than living at a small college with a big library for someone like me. I’ve always loved school.
Q: How did you meet Groening? Were you both doing comics at that time? Are you still close?
A: If you ask Matt, he will say we met because he’d heard I had gotten a letter from Joseph Heller. I did have a letter from Joseph Heller, it was a reply to a letter I’d sent him when I finished “Catch 22” a few months earlier. I asked him to marry me. Joseph Heller said he would marry me except he didn’t want to live in the dorms. That’s the letter Matt somehow knew about.
If you ask me how I met Matt, I’d say it’s because he was the editor of the newspaper, and when he started, he printed something about his policy of printing anything anyone submitted. I wanted to see how far I could go with that. I started dropping things off at the newspaper office – sometimes outraged letters to the editor about things that happened to me when I was 12 and a variety of comics that somehow always involved people’s limbs suddenly falling off.
One day, one appeared in the paper. So I dropped by the paper in person. A lot of how I learned to make comics comes from trying to torment Matt. And he tormented me right back. He invented this wire antenna headpiece he’d put on when he didn’t want me to talk to him because he was in the middle of something. I’d try to talk to him, and he’d just point to the antenna sticking up from his head.
We are still very good friends, we still very much like to torment each other and play certain tricks. He makes me laugh in a way that no one else does. Literally. There is a kind of laugh that I have when I’m around him that I never have with anyone else. It sounds like a high-voiced turkey gobble.
Q: I understand your creative process was influenced by Frasca. Can you tell me about that?
A: Marilyn Frasca showed me everything I use in my work to this day and try to teach during my workshops. “What It Is” is built around the question she asked me when I was 19 years old, and I’m still working on the answer. The question is: “What is an image?” What is the thing contained in a song that completely changes your mood? Or contained in the scent of something that makes an entire time and place come flooding back? It seems that an image is the living part of a book or poem or song or picture or anything we call the arts and kids call play.
I don’t think art or play are things people can live without. But by art, I don’t mean a thing external and hanging on the wall. I mean the part of us that contains and uses images. We may not always be aware of how often we experience and use images, but there are ways to begin to notice. I’d say it’s thousands of times a day. No matter how powerful that experience was of Auntie’s kitchen brought back by that slight scent, most of us forget it even happened less than 30 seconds later. That scent contained an image, the image bloomed and flooded over conscious thought, and for a moment, it replaced all else for us, and then the world comes back and we keep strolling just as if that extraordinary experience hadn’t happened. I think images are critical to the function of the mind.
Q: You’re described as reclusive, but right now, you’re on a tour teaching and making appearances. Is that challenging?
A: I actually love to travel and be around a lot of people, but my work doesn’t seem to like it very much. My work seems to happen best when I’ve gone the longest without seeing anyone except my husband. If I could go six weeks with no conversations with anyone and never leaving the farm for even a minute, I would be in heaven, work-wise. And when those six weeks were over I’d be like the wild dog that finally gets out of the backyard. From “loner” to “glitter-covered ham” in less than an hour.
Q: What would your ideal day be like in terms of where you’d be, with whom, what you’d be doing?
A: My ideal work day is to get up at 4 a.m., head straight to the studio, build a huge fire, work until 11 a.m., go back to the house, go back to bed, wake up again around 2, head back to the studio, work until 7 p.m., go up to the house for dinner, back to the studio till 10 and then go to sleep.
Ideal fun day I think I just had in Toronto at the International Festival of Writers. It was great to wake up and then wander into a big festival that is going on, and it’s about the very thing I think about the most, stories. I wouldn’t have guessed I’m the type to love festivals and conventions, but I am.
Q: How did you get involved with fighting wind turbines?
A: Like a lot of people, I assumed that industrial-scale wind turbines were green and did no harm to the environment or wildlife. When I heard about plans for wind farms in Wisconsin, I was pretty excited. But as soon as I began to look into it, alarm bells started going off in my head.
There are physical impacts on people living too close to these machines (documented in a peer-reviewed study; go to http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com). There is a horrible impact on bats and birds and insects that use the wind corridors to migrate. Though a turbine has a 1.5 megawatt capacity, even the wind industry admits they are at best 25 percent to 30 percent efficient, and there are studies that question the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from wind energy. The more I looked into it, the more horrified I became. What’s driving the wind industry is not concern for the environment, it is greed.
My husband is a naturalist, and we have a native plant nursery here on our farm. Our lives are very much about the environment and sustainability, and our goal is to be off the grid completely if we’re able to stay on our farm.
I do feel that my battle is a hopeless one. I feel like I get up in the morning and all I have to fight with is a bag of pink aquarium gravel that I throw at the oncoming Sherman tanks.
But just as people began to understand that ethanol wasn’t at all what we thought it would be, I believe people will understand this about industrial-scale wind energy.
I wish conservation and efficiency and on-site energy production were the route we were choosing. Less in this case is much more.