Tillie Walden: Talking Comics
"If it was torture, I’d’ve given up by now.”
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
3:00PM, Wed. Nov. 1, 2017
Tillie Walden, that Ignatz-winning author of the new graphic novel Spinning, will be at the Texas Book Festival this weekend. (For times, see below.) Until then, and after that, she’s – where? Los Angeles? Tokyo? Berlin? The new Central Library in this city’s own Downtown?
Could be anywhere, it seems – albeit ever upward, we reckon, as far as her career’s trajectory is concerned.
But a few weeks ago, Walden was definitely at Austin’s Brentwood Social House, where the talented artist – after noting that she and your reporter use the same uncommon brand of notebook – engaged in the interview that follows:
Austin Chronicle: Okay, so here you are – Tillie Walden, 21 years old, and you’re doing graphic novels. You were a figure skater –
Tillie Walden: For a long time.
Austin Chronicle: For a long time, and who knows what else you’ve been doing. So why, out of all the possibilities in this world, why graphic novels?
Tillie Walden: Actually, it’s a pretty straightforward reason. When I was 16, sort of on a fluke my dad had me go to this workshop with Scott McCloud – obviously, the very famous and prominent cartoonist, and he teaches these little two-day workshops in Los Angeles – and my dad and I straight-up got on a plane and went to his workshop. And after doing that workshop with Scott, it was as simple as that: I knew that graphic novels were what I wanted to do. It was like two days where all we did was think about comics, talk about comics, draw comics – and it clicked with me so easily that I felt kind of silly. Like, how did I not realize this sooner – that graphic novels were the medium for me. And everyone in that class was really encouraging, like “You should really try to do this,” so I came out of that workshop and started drawing comics every day. And I haven’t stopped since.
Austin Chronicle: But you must’ve – I mean, you’d been doing artwork of some kind before that, right?
Tillie Walden: I had been doing fine art – the kind of fine art that highschoolers do, where you draw moody self-portraits and, ah, you know. I was in art classes. But, at the time, before I went to the graphic novel class, I was sort of thinking I wouldn’t pursue art – because fine art didn’t work for me, I never liked the whole one-image thing. And then I realized, after the workshop, that I was just in the wrong medium the whole time. And all the skill I had learned through my fine-art classes finally came in handy. It all really came together in a natural way.
Austin Chronicle: See, that’s kind of what I suspected. Having just read The End of Summer, I was thinking you must’ve had some training, because, god, all that architectural detail in the opening scenes, and that excellent watercolor work.
Tillie Walden: Yeah, and Spinning has watercolor, too – it’s just toned, so you don’t see it as much as you do in The End of Summer. And, yeah, all that traditional technique? Learned in high school. I went to McCallum High School. They have a phenomenal program, I’d recommend it to any budding artist.
Austin Chronicle: I wonder how many other comic artists have that, where it meets up like that. Because I think of Adrian Tomine, whose early work reminds me of yours, and I think, ah, he probably started out sequentially? And learned as he went along? I should probably look on Wikipedia, instead of just guessing shit about him, but – I mean, you have this thing that you do, that looks like it developed over time. This fill-in pattern, I noticed especially in The End of Summer, that I’m already thinking of as The Tillie Walden Texture – it’s in the fabric of Lars’s pants, sometimes it’s a detail in a wall …
Tillie Walden: Those little swirls that I do.
Austin Chronicle: Yeah, they’re very distinct.
Tillie Walden: Well, it’s a way to make a tone through line. Because when you look at it from far away, it almost reads as a gray. And I’ve always sort of struggled with how to find the mid-tones. And I thought, well, markers don’t work for me, watercolor kind of works; but I need something else to create more tone and more depth. And I started doing that, and it was like, “Oh, this works – I’ll just keep doing this, I like it.”
Austin Chronicle: Okay, I have some friends who do too many damn things really well. Renaissance Men, right? Or Renaissance Women. Not that they do too many things for their own good, but too many things for my sense of, like, “Jeez, what use am I on this planet?” You know? And so here you are, and you’ve got the figure-skating thing down pretty fiercely, and you’ve got this natural brilliance with sequential art, and so are there other things you do as well as you do those?
Tillie Walden: Outside of my comics? Well, I come from an extremely musical family. My twin brother and my older brother are both musicians, and I play cello – and have for a long time – and I’m also learning violin right now, just for fun. So, yeah, music is my fun outside of comics. And it’s really wonderful – my dad is also a musician, he plays a lot of instruments, and he plays banjo very well. And we’re playing tunes together, me on violin, him on banjo: Bluegrass and old-time, and it’s really fun, god, it’s really great. I’ve only been playing for about a month, but my cello abilities have helped inform my violin abilities. But, yeah, music is the biggest thing that I do outside of comics. And I love that I can do it without an audience or any pressure or anything, it’s just solely for fun.
Austin Chronicle: When you’re figure skating, at the end of it – well, with music sometimes, too, but not everybody has to be in a band or onstage – but, competitive figure skating, it’s something you have to have an audience for. Because that’s the whole thing, right? There’s at least a panel of judges. And, with comics, you’re working in solitary – solitary confinement, pretty much –
Tillie Walden: That’s what I love about comics.
Austin Chronicle: And then, when the work’s done, everybody sees it – but you don’t have to be there.
Tillie Walden: That’s actually one of my favorite aspects of it, because comics don’t feel performative to me. And I’m so done with anything that feels performative. And I can so easily shut it off. If I want to, sure, I can connect with my audience and read reviews and do all that – I can connect myself with the people who are reading my comics. Or I can just not. I can turn my phone off, I can close my computer, and it’s just me and my comics. And I think that’s one of the reasons comics works so well for me: Because I can do them just for myself. I mean, yeah, I have to share them – because I have to make some money if I want to do this full-time – which I’d like to do – but it’s great, because it really is completely different from skating.
Austin Chronicle: Reading Spinning and The End of Summer, and looking at your style, too – your style of drawing, the themes of the narratives – I had this preconception – just a vague thing, not to lock it down and make an ass of myself – but I had this vague preconception of, okay, Tillie Walden, she’s gonna be kind of quiet and withdrawn, like an almost Wednesday Addams sort of person …
Tillie Walden: [laughs] That’s hysterical! And people really think that! But that’s not me at all!
Austin Chronicle: I know, I know – it’s like you just stepped off one of the entrepreneurial episodes of Oprah or something. You’re so – outgoing!
Tillie Walden: You are not the first person to mention that.
Austin Chronicle: So, ah …?
Tillie Walden: What’s going on there?
Austin Chronicle: Yeah – what’s going on there?
Tillie Walden: It’s funny, because a lot of people who have read Spinning – and especially because you’ve read The End of Summer, too – they expect me to be really shy and introspective. This has happened, many, many times. And the thing is, I totally am, but that’s like a different side of myself. I’m a great public speaker. People really get surprised by it, but get me on a stage and I can really turn it on. But that’s sort of like my Business Tillie persona, how I approach my career and moments like this – interviews and public speaking. I think it helps when you can speak about your own work in a clear and informative way. I think a lot of cartoonists are really shy and kind of introverted and have trouble speaking about their intentions and what they do with their work.
Austin Chronicle: Oh, totally.
Tillie Walden: But, at the end of the day, when I’m by myself, working and making art and trying to channel who I am into the page? That’s really more of who I am. I’m more of a Wednesday Addams deep down, even if I don’t show it right off the bat. But, also, I think that’s a part of myself that I like to channel in my comics. Because there’s a part of myself that’s extremely energetic and boisterous and kind of loud and big – but that, for some reason, has yet to find its way onto the page for me. And maybe it will, in future works, maybe I’ll explore that side of myself more. But people think, when I went to school – I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont – everyone used to say that it’s because I was young that I was so energetic. And no, not at all – it’s just who I am. I naturally have a lot of energy. And I think it helps with my art, because I can channel a lot of that energy onto the page and work for long hours. Also, I’m different from how I was when I was a teenager. And even just the difference between 17 and 21 is pretty huge for a lot of people, right? It’s a big moment of transformation.
Austin Chronicle: How much does having been a figure skater, and especially working on a synchronized team, ah, does that at all inform the way you distribute figures in a panel or across a page?
Tillie Walden: Oh, absolutely. When you’re a figure skater, and it’s the same with a synchronized skater, you get very used to being small. Because rinks are just really massive, cavernous spaces. And when you’re standing n the middle of a giant sheet of ice, you’re very aware of your size compared to – you’re aware of space in a different kind of way. And I think, because of that, it’s really informed how I visualize space. You’ve read The End of Summer, and you know how I think about big places. I’m really comfortable making characters and compositions that have this big contrast to it – and that’s all from skating. Because most often in daily life, you don’t find yourself in giant places too often. Your classroom is never gonna be cavernous. But I used to go to different rinks every weekend, and I was constantly in these huge places, and I think it sort of sunk in. And someone brought that up in an interview a while ago – he asked if moving to Texas informed how I drew space.
Austin Chronicle: Because of the big sky and all?
Tillie Walden: Because of the big sky! And I think it has.
Austin Chronicle: You’ve been out to West Texas, then?
Tillie Walden: I’ve been to West Texas, I sure have – I have family in San Angelo. I’ve been to West Texas, I’ve seen it. And I think that, paired with the ice rinks, have sort of combined inside me to inform how I deal with space – and composition and figures in general. But I love that that guy brought it up, because I’d never thought about Texas, but – it’s so different from New Jersey, you know? [laughs]
Austin Chronicle: Are there things in interviews that people haven’t asked you yet that you wish they would ask you? Like, “Okay, I’ve got a little media soapbox now, let me tell you what I think about …”
Tillie Walden: I usually get asked the opposite question, like, “What question are you tired of?”
Austin Chronicle: Okay – what question are you tired of?
Tillie Walden: I’m tired of being asked about my age. [laughs] Only because of sheer volume of how many times I’ve – because people ask me what it’s like to be 21. And it’s like, I don’t know, I’m just 21 – I don’t know what it’s like to be 22 or beyond that. But – what have I not been asked about? I don’t get asked a lot of nit-picky questions about figure skating, but that’s because most people who interview me aren’t figure skaters. I did do one interview with a woman from Ice Skating magazine, who was a figure skater, and I loved the stuff she asked me about – because it was super nit-picky. She noticed the blade thing in the book, and nobody else notices the blade thing.
Austin Chronicle: Tell me the blade thing.
Tillie Walden: The blade thing in the book is that, on an ice skate, it has these three rods that connect the blade to the boot? But the way I draw it, I only draw two. And it drives the figure skaters who read my book batty – because it’s completely inaccurate. But I did that because it’s, um, for whatever reason, in my 12 years of skating, I never properly looked at my skates – and never realized there were three rods. It felt like there were two. And now of course I know, I know what figure skates look like, but I felt like, in drawing the book, I needed to channel my flawed perspective at that age.
Austin Chronicle: Oh, that’s great.
Tillie Walden: Yeah, but it drives people insane! Because they think, they’re like, “Were you really a figure skater?” Because they start to doubt that.
Austin Chronicle: It seems to me, from what little I know about you, that even The End of Summer, as fantastic – as fantasy-based – as it is, there’s bits of autobiographical things in there. Do you feel a pull to do less or more autobiographical stuff?
Tillie Walden: You know, I never really felt a pull to do autobiographical work, it just seemed like the logical conclusion when drawing. When trying to tap into something in my art, it always seemed to make sense to use something from my own life – because it felt more real and more authentic. And it’s easier to draw experiences that I have a connection to. But I’ve never felt this need, like, “I need to be a memoirist, I need to share my story.” And actually, going forward, I’m much more interested in fiction than I am in memoir. Spinning, in a way, is a bit of an outlier for me. Because I never felt like, “Oh, I need to do this tell-all story about my time as a figure skater, the world needs to hear this.” It was more like, “Oh god, I think I’m really hurt from this experience, and the only way I’m gonna truly process it is if I put it down on the page.” And I was right with that – because it did help, a lot. It helps to put hard memories on paper – because, in a way, you’re not the only one holding them any more. They’re out there, physically, they’re not just sitting inside you. And I don’t even think of myself as a memoirist at this point – which is funny. I keep forgetting that I just did this memoir, because it just never occurs to me. I just see myself as a cartoonist, and I try to tap into real experiences because they’re there – and I think they make for better art.
Austin Chronicle: And as far as the art itself – the drawing that you do … Like, in The End of Summer, when you’re drawing those establishing shots, you don’t already have it in your mind “Okay, it’s gonna look like this, and now I have to deal with the pain of actually drawing it,” do you? It seems like that’d be a joy for you. Is it?
Tillie Walden: It’s a joy because I approach it differently. I still remember drawing the first panel in The End of Summer, and I was drawing that ledge next to the staircase before I started? And the fun of it is that, when I started drawing that staircase, I had no idea what the room was gonna look like. But the bigger I made that staircase, the more I thought, “Oh, this is a big room.” And then I added columns, and I was like, “Oh, okay …” It’s like this little discovery thing for me. And you add layers upon layers until – it reminds me of playing The Sims as a kid: Building a house, building the characters – that’s what it feels like. People ask me how I can do that, how can I just make something up like that. But when you think about architectural spaces, it’s all about your components. It’s about stairs, columns, tiles, windows – you basically just pick and choose: I want a window here, I want a column over here. I want the floor to raise here, for whatever reason – because I can, and it will look cool. It’s totally fun. But comics are fun for me – that’s why I’m able to do them in such huge amounts. Because it’s fun. If it was torture, I’d’ve given up by now.
Austin Chronicle: And since you can do your comics pretty much anywhere, what is it that keeps you in Austin?
Tillie Walden: I honestly haven’t been in Austin. It’s sort of a fluke that I’m even here right now. My parents are in Austin, and my brother, too, so I often come back to visit. But, for the past six months I’ve been overseas, and I’m currently hopping around the States for a book tour. But I was in Japan for three months, and then Germany after that. And before that, I was kind of in Vermont, kind of in Austin. Austin is my in-between home. When I’m in between places, or when I feel kind of unsteady, it’s like, “Oh, I’ll go to Austin for a few days.” But I’m in the process of moving to L.A., and I’m gonna go overseas again in a few months, so I’m constantly moving – but it’s because I can. And if I have the resources and the time to travel, to see other parts of the world – it’s not always easy, jet lag sucks, and foreign countries present a lot of challenges – but it’s totally worth it, you know? The world is there, it’s waiting for me – shouldn’t I go see it? But every couple of months I manage to find myself in Austin again, to get a breakfast taco and some coffee and see my parents.
Austin Chronicle: So you’re working as a graphic novelist, you’re traveling all over the place and promoting everything. And I can see that, talking to you, you have no problem promoting things and being, as you say, outspoken. But it’s gotta be something of a struggle still, right? “Is this gonna sell? How am I gonna do this? Am I gonna be able to pay the rent?” All that kinda stuff. So let’s say somebody – some ridiculously rich woman, sees your work and says, “I like what that young person is doing! I’m going to give her $750,000 so she can take five years, and she has to produce one work, just one distinct work of art.” Is there anything that you have in mind, some grand scheme that’s maybe only vague right now, that would meet those parameters?
Tillie Walden: I feel like I had an idea for that, but I already did it. It was my webcomic – On a Sunbeam. I did it after I finished Spinning, and it was 700 pages, and it started with a very vague idea – it was this big space opera, and it was just an endless joy to create. And I’d love to do something like that again, to make up a giant place, a world, a big cast of characters, and just go on a goddam adventure. Why not, you know? That sort of thing. And if there was this amazing woman who’s gonna give me $750,000, what I’d do with that, is that I’d make a large-format book – like, really, really massive pages.
Austin Chronicle: Like, ah, those Little Nemo collections?
Tillie Walden: Exactly like Little Nemo! And I’d spend a month on each page, just make some big, beautiful thing! That’s what I’d do with all that money and all that time. Although, to be fair, nothing’s stopping me – I should just get some big paper and start doing that right now.
Austin Chronicle: Did you ever read Dave Sim’s Cerebus? Because all of Gerhard’s crosshatching details –
Tillie Walden: Exactly!
Austin Chronicle: That’s what I thought of when I saw that first page of The End of Summer.
Tillie Walden: I’ve never actually read read Cerebus, but I’ve seen Cerebus. I don’t really read comics anymore.
Austin Chronicle: [laughs] Not even indie comics?
Tillie Walden: No, I spend like six to eight hours a day drawing comics. And when I finish that, the idea of reading a comic seems so repulsive to me.
Austin Chronicle: [giggles like a fool]
Tillie Walden: No, but! The thing is, it’s brought about so many other joys for me. With, like, television and film and prose and poetry, and all this other wonderful stuff that isn’t comics. And I think that’s good. I think that so many cartoonists look at comics to learn everything – and you can’t learn everything about comics from comics. You need to study writing, you need to study film, you need to study everything else. There’s so much to know! Don’t get stuck in comics.
Austin Chronicle: Ah, and what if someone wanted to adapt your work for another medium? As a movie or something? Like, someone reads On a Sunbeam and they’re like, “Hmmm. A space-going miniseries …” Would you, ah –
Tillie Walden: Would I sell my soul to Hollywood?
Austin Chronicle: Well – yeah.
Tillie Walden: Yeah, absolutely.
Austin Chronicle: Okay, then if you could choose any director, for any one of your works …
Tillie Walden: Oooh, I love this question! Well, okay, okay – different directors for different things. Okay, you know who I would love to direct Spinning, as a movie or a miniseries? Wes Anderson.
Austin Chronicle: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too – that’d be perfect.
Tillie Walden: And I would love for, like, the Coen Brothers to do On a Sunbeam – because it’s got a lot of action in it, and a big cast – and the Coen Brothers are so excellent with dealing with that, and dealing with place. And they’d make it so dark, which would be great. Although … I’d kind of want a woman to direct it. In fact, I’d really prefer a woman to direct all of these, but – oh well, I’ve already said male directors, I’ve buried myself in. But definitely Wes Anderson for Spinning, that’d be a total dream.
Austin Chronicle: Now, okay, this is like cheap scientific shorthand … but you seem to have the “DNA” of a storyteller.
Tillie Walden: I think I do. Narrative always came to me very naturally – which is one of the reasons comics clicked so easily, that there was never any question about this working or not for me. And maybe that had to do with the fact that I was sort of a quiet kid, and was constantly constructing things in my head. But it’s as natural as walking down the street. I don’t have to think about it anymore – everything has a beginning, a middle, and end. And everything changes and goes somewhere – I couldn’t imagine looking at the world in a different way: It just makes sense. And I sometimes wonder if my twin brother sees things the way I do – I don’t know if he does. But I guess I do have a predisposition to narrative – and I’m glad I do. And, again, that’s probably why fine art didn’t work for me: It’s like standstill, right in the middle. It’s just one image, it’s not a story. And it could be – in amazing fine art, you do see a story in it – but that wasn’t enough for me. One image couldn’t represent everything.
Austin Chronicle: You started out, in The End of Summer, you started out by drawing the bannister. And then you went from there and discovered the rest of the building as you drew it. How much of that story, and the other stories that you’ve done, work like that on a narrative level – as far as plotting or events go?
Tillie Walden: Almost all of them. I’m rarely a planner. I don’t script, and I’ve kind of stopped thumbnailing, too. Thumbnailing is where you draw mini-versions of your page before you do the final art? And I stopped, because I realized that, if I can plan it and do it, then I can just do it and cut the planning out. Like, a lot of creators pencil before they ink? I just stopped pencilling. Because if I can draw it in pencil, I can draw it in ink. It’s a lot more scary, but who cares? You know? Get over it! If there’s a part of me, somewhere, that can do this? Then why not just tap into that right away? And when I’m making a story, it’s a lot more fun if I’m not following this long guide. Scripts are so dull – I’d much rather discover it on my own.
Austin Chronicle: [laughs] Tillie, y’know, I’m glad that you’re a creative and sensitive person – because you seem unstoppable.
Tillie Walden: [laughs] I like that description.
Tillie Walden will appear at the 2017 Texas Book Festival in two sessions:
Catch the YA Buzz!, with authors Nic Stone (Dear Martin), Brandy Colbert (Little and Lion), and Martin Wilson (Now We Return to Regular Life) Sat., Nov. 4, 10am, in the YA HQ (Congress & 10th); and
The Space Between, with authors Brandy Colbert (Little and Lion) and Julie Murphy (Ramona Blue) Sat., Nov. 4, noon, in the YA HQ (Congress & 10th). For more information, visit www.texasbookfestival.org.