Senior Moment : an Interview with Ariel Schrag

During the 1990s, while still in high school, Ariel Schrag produced a number of autobiographical comics — Awkward, about her freshman year, Definition, about her sophomore year, and Potential, about her junior year. The series started off as a relatively light, entertaining look at high school life — crushes, getting drunk, obsessing about bands, hanging out with friends. Over the course of the three books, however, Schrag dealt with more and more fraught material: her parent’s divorce, her coming out, and finally her devastating relationship and break-up with her girlfriend, Sally.

Schrag finished the writing and drawing for Likewise, about her senior year, soon after she graduated from high school, but then college and life — including a stint writing for the L-word — intervened. She didn’t complete the inking for another decade. The book was finally published by Touchstone this year. I spoke to Schrag about it on May 1.


NB: Likewise is very stylistically varied. How did you decide which style to use for which parts of the book?

Ariel Schrag: I was really into in Ulysses how different parts of the book are in different styles. Some is stream of consciousness, some is like a play, some is a romance novel, some has medical jargon…it sort of varies depending on what the theme or content is. There’s one section where the main character, Bloom, is lusting after this girl he sees on the beach; the whole section is written in super-flowery romance style. I thought it was a really cool thing to do with comics because there would be this visual difference that would stick out. I was also really inspired by in Maus, the part where he finds his Dad’s comic; I really like how you’re going along and there’s this comic where everything’s dark and it’s all woodcuts, it’s drawn in a totally different style and it’s all dark, and you close it and you’re back to the regular sparse white drawings.

So sort of inspired by those two things, I wanted to do that in Likewise, and the way that I wanted to use it mainly was to express how…what happened in the senior year, the ways I was recording everything became more important than what was happening…I was totally removed from my surroundings. So the way in which I recorded the present ended up dominating everything. So halfway through the book, the stream of consciousness narration sort of recedes and the story is only told through these three different methods: what’s typed on a computer, what’s handwritten in a journal, and what’s recorded on a handheld tape recorder. So halfway through the book the methods are…I mean the methods are introduced as recording methods in the beginning, but the narration is just her stream of consciousness, but later in the book the narration changes so it’s the actual typed words or the actual words in the notebook, or the actual tape recording. Things that are typed on the computer, the text box is actual computer type and the drawing is done with an ink wash; things that are hand-written in a journal, the text is scrawled and the drawings are very loose and rough; things that are tape recorded, there’s no narration, and the dialogue appears in square boxes, and it’s done all in black and white. I wanted to shift between those modes of recording and have which mode was being used be more obvious. It’s only at the end of the book that the present day character comes back with the stream of consciousness. Also, there’s flashbacks, and that uses computer grey-tones.

When did you decide to use all of these methods to tell the story?

I really did write the book ten years ago; I’ve been inking it for the past ten years. The whole thing was completed that long ago. And I really didn’t change anything. There were minor edits…I took out a few things that were too personal for other people, and I took out a few lines that were unclear. It’s basically the same book I wrote ten years ago.

I also wanted a way to…when I wrote it, there really weren’t that many comics around. There was Maus and Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine and Joe Matt, there hadn’t really been this graphic novel boom. So there was still this sense of trying something new, still this sense of charting uncharted territory, I wanted to use the comics medium in every way I could think of and use the opportunity to have all these different styles.

It still seems to me very different from anything out there. Do you still feel that way, or do you think….?

Hopefully it’s still original. There’s just more now. I was motivated by…at the time I thought, I have never seen anything like this, I can be doing something new. That was what was driving the whole thing.

So you said that halfway through is when this change happens; do you mean at the end of Part 1?

You’re going along, you’re following the story…at the end of Part 1 when Ariel and Sally are having the conversation in the car, the stream of consciousness has been getting more and more like first person narration,…it starts to seem like it was not what it was before…there’s a break with Ariel at the computer…and then instead of getting Ariel’s version you get only what’s in the computer….and then you skip ahead a few days, and Ariel’s getting this freak-out about what to record…you get flashes of different styles and flashbacks all sort of jumbled and happening at once….and then Part 1 ends with what she’s written on the computer.

And then Part 2 starts and you begin with the stream of consciousness, and then it cuts into this tape-recorded version, and it basically goes and then it will cut into a journal written version, and as the stories continue in Part 2, you get stream of consciousness switching with present day styles.

Towards the end of Part 2 the tape recording and handwriting take over the present day reality…and soon the only time you see Ariel in present day reality is when she’s thinking about writing the new book…you get the sense of how much the new book has taken over her mind.

In Part 3 the present day steam of consciousness has totally gone, and you start getting even things that you wouldn’t want to record. Like blank spaces on the tape, or blank pages in the journal…sort of the downside of a story being told only through what’s recorded, you get this warped and biased view

And that continues through Part 3 and then it’s not until the very end, and she’s finally done with it, that the very last page returns to the stream of consciousness reality.

I’m sort of embarrassed to say that, while I got the stylistic shifts, I can’t say I really got all of that.

I didn’t want to make anything too obvious, because I wanted it to be something you could go back and figure it out. When I was 18, I was really into books that were scavenger hunts and puzzles. I wanted to write something that I wanted to read at that time. Something that was confusing but that would pay off if you would put in the work. That’s why I do appreciate anyone who takes the time to try to read it.

I mean, it wasn’t hard to read. I didn’t feel it was inaccessible.

That was the other thing that I thought was cool about doing a book like this; the thing about Ulysses is it was so dense and confusing and all you have are these words and you’re straining to make sense of it. But with a comic, I like the idea that you can be confusing and have this non-linear story-telling, but you’ll always have this picture of this person to ground you. You always have this anchor in the drawing.

Besides Joyce, I’ve seen you mention in interviews that Joe Matt , who writes autobiographical comics often about masturbating, was a big influence on you. One of the things about Joyce and Joe Matt is they’re both very male creators, or very focused on being male in a lot of ways. I wonder if that’s something you thought about at all, especially in relation to your own insecurities at the time about feeling too male or too butch.

Yeah, I don’t know. I guess I related to the obsessive thinking about women that they both had, and maybe related to their work more than I would to a straight woman writer.

That’s interesting. Because there’s also the scene where you go to the strip club with Zally, and you seem to be really trying to approach it in a guy way — a kind of swaggering, I’m going to get off on this approach.

The thing I thought about was funny in the whole scene…Zally went to the strip club and the girl rubbed on him and came, and I’m thinking, so that’s what I’m going to do…a five-minute ordeal. And then my experience is this long ordeal and I’m intellectualizing and over-thinking and it’s like the opposite. What I wanted was the macho posturing, but instead there’s this twenty minute ramble about every minute detail.

It seems to me that that’s kind of reflected in your comics as well though. That is, part of the reason that you have trouble getting off is that you are thinking about what the woman is thinking, or you’re interested in that. In your comics in general, even though they’re autobiography, you’re really interested in other people.

I don’t really understand comics that don’t have more about other people. I mean if I’m writing in my diary I’m going to write down the quotes that other people said, I’m not going to write down what I said to other people.

But we kind of have this problem with the screenplay of Potential [the in-development movie version of Schrag’s junior-year memoir], which I was working on, and Rose [Troche, the director] said, you have to make your character talk more, right now it’s like all other people.

Do you think that’s a gendered thing? I a lot of male autobiographical comics, I feel like there’s not an effort to talk about other people.

I would just say in general I don’t like comics that don’t put out an effort to have meaning. I think there’s a sense of entitlement with males, a sense that “my life is interesting;” whereas women feel like they have to work harder. I think that that’s possible. When I think about female cartoonists I don’t see as much rambling for no reason.

I never thought about my comics being different because there are other people in it, though now that you say it I can see that…I don’t know. I’m trying to think of autobiographical work that does have a lot of characters…Gabrielle Bell’s work has different personalities and characters in it.

In the book near the beginning there’s a long scene about “It” with a capital “I”, which seems to be basically “coolness”. And you were talking about whether this person had “It”, or that person had “It”. I wonder what you thought about that scene now?

For one thing I think that scene goes on way too long. When I do readings, I’ve been using an excerpt from that scene for my slideshow, and I edited about half of it out, and it still feels too long. I was really obsessive inking the book…I wouldn’t let myself cut out any pages.

I wondered in part because I felt like it cold be considered the most embarrassing part of the book in some ways; the most embarrassing thing you revealed about yourself was that you had this conversation.

Yeah. But that’s actually the scene that people relate too, they say they had the exact same conversation…some people called it “It” some people called it something else, It’s a very 18 year old conversation to have. When you’re separating from your parents and leaving high school, you want to feel that you’re the best you can be. There’s also just the sense of being really discerning. Being 18, or the way I felt about being 18, was very much like putting on glasses…all of a sudden everybdoy’s flaws and truths came into focus. I felt like “I’m understanding it for the first time. When you’re 18 or 19 you kind of feel like you’re the smartest you are in your life. You’re judging the world really harshly.

I thought the detailed drawings of the leaves in that scene were really nicely done.

I worked really hard on the leaves. The main thing was I knew this was going to go on for thirty pages and I wanted it to be pleasing to look at, so I hoped that by making an intricate engaging background it would make people not flip through those pages.

I also liked that you kept getting up to go to the bathroom; it seemed like a kind of ironic comment.

Right, that basically we’re talking bullshit. Whatever I’m doing in the bathroom is the equivalent of what we’re talking about out there. Also, we were saying, “you have It if you’re cool and relaxed” and then by constantly having to go to the bathroom I was like the exact opposite of that.

Going back to the style again, I was wondering if you felt that the style of the book in Likewise, especially the scribbly rough style you use in parts, was similar to or based on the simple style you used in Awkward, your ninth-grade memoir?

In a way it is similar to Awkward, because…one thing is that the scribbles come in a lot at the end of the book, when everything’s moving by much faster in a way that Awkward does. Awkward is these rapid chapters, and that’s the way these stories are told. When I drew Awkward, I inked directly on top without adding much detail, because I didn’t know how to, and the way I did these drawings in Likewise was to ink directly on top of my rough drawings, and not redraw, retaining my original sketch. All the drawings in the book start out looking like those rough drawings, so for the journal entry drawings you just get the rough sketch. When I write in my diary, it’s just getting out the emotion in the most crude rough way possible, as opposed to the comic where you’re trying to make it sound better.

The books get a good deal darker and deal with more traumatic issues as you go along — your sexual identity, your parents divorce, your relationship with Sally. Was that mostly a change in how you approached the comic, or did it just reflect what was going on in your life…or some combination of both of those things?

A combination of both; breaking up with Sally and my parents divorce, the aftermath of both of those and the fear and anxiety of graduating college, all of that added to that intensity. But also the idea that I really wanted to reveal a character to the fullest extent possible. The way to do that is to reveal the most shameful, embarrassing, traumatic events, because those are the things that people want to hide. So those were the things I wanted to do.

Do you see the books as a whole as a coming-out narrative in part?

Sure. They totally are. But I think that what’s interesting, or what makes them work in a way that other genre coming out stories don’t, is that they weren’t written with that intent. In Awkward I’m basically straight, and then in Definition, I kissed this girl and it’s so exciting and it’s what I want to write about, and this coming-out storyline evolves. But that wasn’t, “I’m going to set out to write a story about coming out.” In Definition, when I was being bi, I didn’t know I would decide I was only gay. It was this very natural story that didn’t really know where it was going.

How do you identify now?

I identify as non-identity. I’m mainly gay. I’m not really a fan of labels. I feel like they help when you’re dating, you can say “I’m gay,” and then your friends can say “okay I have a gay friend” when they’re trying to set you up. But we’re heading towards a future where those words have less and less meaning. But in terms of who I seek out to date, it’s girls.

What project do you have coming up now? Are you planning on doing more comics work? Are you doing any writing for television now that the L-word is over?

I’m writing a screenplay with my best friend, based on her memoir of being a New York City cab driver, and I’m working on some children’s book ideas with my friend Toby.

He’s the one you did that X-rated choose-your-own-adventure zine with, right?

Yeah. We’re going right from that to children’s books.

I’m also inking these daily diary strips I did while I was in Berlin during college, study abroad. And I’d like to write a graphic memoir about moving to LA. And I’m working on a fictional prose book.

That’s a lot of projects. But…what are you doing to make money?

I’m not making any money. I’m living off of my L-word money; and I did get a very good advance on Likewise and the other books.. I’m also looking into writing for another TV show, I really enjoyed doing that.

A theme through both Potential and Likewise was you trying to find a scientific explanation for homosexuality that made sense to you. Did that ever happen? Or did you eventually decide it wasn’t necessarily important?

It still really interests me, and I’ll still read all the latest research that comes out about that. In high school it was much more about needing validation…I was in this paradox, where the girl I was in love with, who I thought had been gay, wasn’t gay, and since she was the version of all truth, it made me really question, “Am I really gay, is this a real thing?” I didn’t trust anybody else, I lost all sense of…I didn’t trust anybody.

Was that in part because of your parents divorce?

Yeah. Whatever stability had been with my parents had long gone. I felt very freefloating. But then, as I got older and dated other girls, girls that were gay, I stopped needing this answer as much. I didn’t need it to prove to me that there was such a thing as homosexual that existed. I believe now that gayness is a thing about both biology and environment, for some people more one or the other, and I don’t think that it matters. And as a teenager, I would have said, “fuck the people who are only environmental.” But now…our brains and our bodies are so fluid and in constant flux and created through all of our experiences, it really doesn’t matter whether something is a choice or not; it just doesn’t matter, as long as somebody likes what they’re doing. And I do think that people can change too, and that that’s okay. I think people are way more fluid throughout the span of their lives than a label can allow for. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call yourself gay, because it’s a really convenient way to find the people you’re interested in dating.

Was Ms. Salt, your teacher who was a lesbian and who mentored you, was that part of the reason she was so important that year?

Ms. Salt…she basically just…she was so important, because I think there is a thing…I think that there’s something straight people can’t get, especially ten years ago. There would always be… I remember going to my Mom’s therapist and talking about Sally, you could just sense a tension, you just sense a level of alienation from that experience. With Ms. Salt I could just be sad about this girl and that was what it was about, and she understood. There wasn’t that blockade. And she just also was so supportive of my comic, she just let me come into her office and work on it all day long. She gave me the confidence that this was a worthwhile thing to do.

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