Coming to Terms with Impermanence




AN ACCOMPLISHED WRITER and illustrator (also the managing editor of Sarabande Books), Kristen Radtke has published her work in a range of venues, including The New Yorker, Guernica, the Oxford American, and Buzzfeed. Always, she skillfully combines an artist’s eye with an essayist’s natural curiosity and thoughtfulness. Often, she has given her readers a way to think about deserted venues, from deteriorating apartments to semi-vacant train cars to urban parking lots.

Her debut — a graphic memoir in which both her prose and her illustrations shine — offers all this and more. Imagine Wanting Only This propels Radtke’s various preoccupations into a meditation about how place and people are shaped over time. 

Recently, Kristen and I emailed back and forth about writing and drawing, structure and form, the rewards of revision, and how this first book finally came together.

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MICAH MCCRARY: On more than one occasion, Imagine Wanting Only This has been categorized as a “coming-of-age” narrative. (Eula Biss in particular called it “a remarkable bildungsroman.”) How much of the story, as you initially developed it, was conceived with that in mind?

KRISTEN RADTKE: This is a hard distinction to parse, since I was working on the project during, or in some cases only a few years after, the events that take place in the book. I can’t say that I ever had any intention of writing a coming-of-age narrative — in some ways, I was really reticent about this, worried that I’d be taken less seriously for chronicling and exploring the time between college, grad school, and those transitional years after. The essayist Lucas Mann talks about this in Essay Daily:

How many of us spent (or are spending) much of our twenties writing with a narrative voice that is tired and beaten down and aged beyond anything we’ve ever experienced? […] Instead of writing into the discomfort of a narrator mid-struggle, confused, we create false safety. That’s how last year becomes a weary “once.” How grad school, becomes “my years in a run-down apartment at the edge of a small Midwestern town where whiskey was cheap and nights were long.”

That anxiety was present for me throughout this project, and throughout most of what I wrote before I began it. I’m less worried about it now, perhaps because 22 and 24 feel further away to me now than they did when I started.

You bring in a sort of collage of different art forms here: photography, illustration, writing. When did these forms really begin to coalesce for you during your project?

I originally envisioned the book as a collection of prose essays, for no other reason than that I love essays and that was the mode I’d always written in. I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, and moved back to visual art a lot — design, stop-motion animation, little projects here and there. My last semester of grad school I tried a graphic essay in comics form, and that turned out to be the beginning of the book, and then it took me another year or two after that to commit to drawing the whole thing. It was just a slow coming-around. I was teaching myself to draw comics while I was drawing the project, so much of the process was just about convincing myself that I could do it.

But you’re also a practiced essayist: How did you “translate” those tools — like reflection or digression — into a narrative-in-images? Did you feel particular constraints with the graphic form?

I didn’t feel any constraints, other than the fact that I was working on a page, the same way I might if I were writing straightforward prose. Even when I’m drawing I’m still making essays, or at least that’s what I set out to do. I like that I can craft a meditation in two different modes — text or image — and I like seeing how organically they fit together. How they communicate as one singular entity.

You write about your West Side house during your time in Chicago being a “backdrop,” conveying it as a space where you and your then partner, Andrew, “spent most weeks talking about art we did not understand, creating earnest impersonations that are the hallmarks of young art students …” Since then, what has become the “backdrop” for your work? And how do you know which form — or forms — will work best?

Like many people, I’ve always found myself hyper-attuned to place. It’s really hard for me to produce good work in a place where I’m not physically comfortable, but I suppose what I mean by “place” can shift pretty dramatically. I’ve had terrible apartments in towns I loved, for example, and that was always enough.

I don’t think choosing forms is ever a conscious decision, at least not for me. The best thing I can do for myself is follow my intuition — to write, or draw, in the direction I feel compelled to move. If something is loud, it seems counterintuitive to shut it out, unless it’s something that’s distracting or destructive to your work. That might mean a TV show that’s too easy to binge-watch or a job that consumes all your creative time. Or a bad relationship. I think we have to do whatever we can to carve out a space in which we can create, and guard it ferociously.

Some might say the story of Imagine Wanting Only This starts with your randomly learning of the death of man named Seth Thomas in Gary, Indiana; others might trace its beginning to the discovery of the illness in your uncle Dan. Where does the story begin for you?

Narrative is a strange thing, because it happens all at once. I was writing about my uncle, and I was writing about Seth, and I was writing about abandoned places; it took me a while to realize that they were all pieces of one whole, larger thing. The structure of this book changed dozens of times before it landed as it is here. And who knows if “here” is the right place, either?

If “here” isn’t the right place, where is? That is, if the narrative “happens all at once,” how did you decide where (whether from your images or from your writing) to follow Imagine Wanting Only This?

It’s really hard to say, because I worked in the wrong direction so many times — I can’t count the number of rewrites and restructures. I always laugh when people ask how many drafts I go through. (When is a draft a “draft”?) In the end, I think, something just feels right, or right enough, and if it keeps feeling that way when you read and reread it, and when your agent and editor and best friend do, then maybe you’re there. To me, the only really interesting part of making a book was seeing how dramatically it changed over the course of making it.

As you began “teaching yourself to draw comics,” did you turn to other graphic artists for help?

Sometimes I feel embarrassed citing famous writers and artists as influences, but I would never have started drawing comics if it weren’t for Alison Bechdel’s work. I don’t think there’s another person doing what she’s doing with graphic nonfiction — she uses transition and physical space so compellingly, and the way she moves us through a narrative visually is truly literary.

Restlessness is a subject many writers can identify with, and it’s also one you touch upon in your book. At what point did your sense of restlessness transform into productivity? Into an accumulation of artifacts and memories?

For me, restlessness has always been pretty helpful in terms of my productivity. I don’t necessarily see restlessness as a lack of interest in where you are or what you’re doing — rather, it’s a “wanting more.” (My deadly sin is definitely greed.) And for me, work is always a given. I know that I’m going to work every day — maybe not on what I want to work on, but on something that needs to get done. All that is to say that there’s a way to use any potentially detrimental impulse you have to fuel your creative work.

What about decay? You write about planting flowers in Italy that you “wouldn’t keep alive,” and how Gary, Indiana, the city itself, caused you to become “consumed by the question of how something that is can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” How did your considerations of decay (ruins, bodies, photographs) develop throughout the writing of this book?

I think I came to see it as something not so tragic. The metaphor became less grand to me. Decay is just another stage in any life cycle, and it becomes so familiar. That isn’t to say I’m not completely terrified of death or aging, or that I don’t sometimes hug my cat and whisper, “don’t ever die,” into his little ear, but I’ve definitely come to terms with impermanence in a way that’s comforting to me. I don’t mean that I understand this process — how “is” can go to “isn’t” with alarming speed. I don’t. I don’t think I understand ruins or collapse any better than I did before I wrote the book.

Much of this narrative requires consciously thinking about the slow passing of time, but which parts of the process for you moved forward abruptly or swiftly?

Honestly? The rest of my life while I was writing the book. A lot changed for me during those years. The project itself seemed slow and endless. There were moments, particularly toward the end, when I’d look at the manuscript and feel startled that so much of it was done — on a daily basis it felt like I was getting nowhere. I think that happens when you’re inside something, looking at it so closely. I had to step back in order to realize that I was making any progress at all.

You also use the word mythology in describing your fascination with the story of your distant relative Adele in Peshtigo, Wisconsin (the site of the Great Peshtigo Fire in 1871). What role do you think mythology might play in your gravitation toward other places and their stories, like Gary or Detroit?

I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes none at all. I hadn’t heard much about many of the places I visited in the book before I went. I didn’t have many preconceived notions about what I might find. With a city like Detroit, I intentionally avoided writing about it — there are maybe a few sentences in the book about the place — because its story felt distinctly not mine. I was fascinated but disheartened by the way Detroit’s story had unfolded in the news and on the internet. I didn’t want to be just another voice spewing about a place she didn’t really understand.

Last, as you’re illustrating a scene, do you work from memory? And at what point do you begin to recognize your depiction of a place or person — even yourself — as authentic?

I do work from memory, yes. And one of the strangest things about drawing and writing is that what you’ve written and drawn becomes more real to you than what you actually experienced — I know a lot of writers feel that way. Everything that I put into the book feels, otherwise, less tactile to me now, or at least present in a different way that I can’t quite pinpoint. The act of making takes on a meaning separate from the acts themselves.

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Micah McCrary’s essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Essay Daily, Assay, Brevity, Third Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, and is a doctoral student in English at Ohio University.


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