Alison Bechdel: By the Book Published: July 26, 2012
Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” I’m fascinated with the dividing line between fiction and memoir, so this book is a perfect storm. It’s the (ostensibly) true version of the childhood Winterson fictionalized so brilliantly in “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” over 25 years ago.
When and where do you like to read?
I read at my desk in the morning, in an uncomfortable sort of way. And I read before falling asleep, also uncomfortably, by the light of my phone so as not to disturb my partner. I haven’t had a good time and place to read since I moved away from New York City in 1985 and stopped riding the subway.
What was the last truly great book you read?
Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder.” I got to see her read a chapter when she was still working on it. This quiet woman in a plain cotton dress came onstage and proceeded to stun everyone in the room with the most hair-raising, bloodcurdling, fantastical, yet utterly believable, tale I’d ever heard. It was a primal storytelling experience, and the book is even better.
Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?
Despite what I just said about Ann Patchett, lately I tend more toward nonfiction. I love living inside a long, dense biography for weeks at a time (or sometimes months; I’m a slow reader).
What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?
“Harriet the Spy” in both cases. As a kid I just thought it made me want to be a spy. But now I see that it’s an excruciatingly accurate depiction of the compulsion to write (and draw — Louise Fitzhugh illustrated the book herself), and the toll that this exacts on one’s life.
What is your ideal reading experience? Your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes?
I’m still a hard-copy person. I very much need to underline and make marginal notes whatever I’m reading. I know you can do that with some e-readers. But I get disoriented in e-books the same way I do in audiobooks. I need to locate myself in a physical, tactile way. I remember that the passage I’m looking for was near the bottom of a left-hand page, three-quarters of the way through. In an e-book, that place doesn’t exist.
Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?
I have a bit of an inhibition about reading painful and disturbing books, which I am trying to work through. My reading life is split between research for my own writing and books that will make me stop thinking about my own writing, stop thinking period and put me to sleep. So that cuts out rather a large swath of material.
What were your favorite books as a child?
We had two books of John Ciardi poems that were illustrated by Edward Gorey. I loved those, not so much for the poetry as for the curious tension between the poetry and the pictures. I also loved “Ounce Dice Trice” for the same reason — the weird fusion of Alastair Reid’s words and Ben Shahn’s drawings.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I put down a disturbing number of books without finishing them, but this is mostly because I have the attention span of a fruit fly, not because they are bad books. I recently finished a book that I wish I hadn’t, though — Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Marriage Plot.” I kept forging on in the hope that it would live up to its initial promise, but it didn’t. Plus it almost ruined Roland Barthes’s “A Lover’s Discourse” for me.
What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?
David Carkeet is one of my favorite comic authors. I love his linguistic mystery, “Double Negative,” but the sequel, “The Full Catastrophe,” is even funnier. It’s about a linguist who works as a live-in marriage counselor, trying to solve a couple’s communication problems scientifically.
What’s your favorite graphic novel?
My desert-island choice, I have to say, would be the two-volume combo of Hergé’s “The Calculus Affair” and “Prisoners of the Sun.” And this isn’t a graphic novel, but I seriously love Kate Beaton’s crazy literary/historical Web comic “Hark! A Vagrant.”
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? Have you ever written to an author?
I used to have an elaborate fantasy about getting to be Jane Austen’s tour guide to the modern world. But then I started thinking it through too realistically, and imagined her having a psychotic break, and the whole thing lost its hold on me.
I have written to two authors: Paul Monette and Adrienne Rich. Both of them replied with very gracious notes, which still amazes me. I try to answer all my reader mail, but I just can’t always do it.
Which comics do you read regularly?
I love diary comics. My mainstay is James Kochalka’s “American Elf.” Gabrielle Bell’s “Lucky” is also a great autobiographical series. I adore the comic strip “Rhymes With Orange,” but I don’t see it regularly because it’s not in my daily paper. I’ve given up on the comics in my daily paper.
What do you plan to read next?
“Coming of Age in Samoa,” “What Maisie Knew” and “Varieties of Religious Experience.” I missed some days of school that I’m trying to make up for.