Catching up with Alison Bechdel

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Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel

For all her newfound commercial clout, it might seem strange that Alison Bechdel recently returned to her less-mainstream roots.

Even though her self-proclaimed “tragicomic” novel Fun Home has become a Tony Award-winning commercial smash, and is currently on its first national tour, Bechdel couldn’t ignore her despair when Donald Trump was elected president. Attempting to process the startling outcome, the Vermont-based graphic novelist sat down to draw the iconic characters from her popular Dykes to Watch Out For, which was first published in 1983 in a feminist newspaper, WomaNews, before being widely syndicated to outlets across the U.S.

Bechdel hadn’t revisited her popular strip’s lesbian clan in eight years. Within that time, she released two graphic novels: 2006’s Fun Home, about her father’s gay secret and her coming out, and its 2012 companion piece, Are You My Mother? In 2014, Bechdel was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Grant.

Alison Bechdel at home.
Alison Bechdel at home.

Recently, the 56-year-old artist talked about getting back to the lesbian characters that first endeared her to LGBT audiences decades ago. Moreover, she discussed her doubts about Fun Home becoming a Broadway musical (“I’ll take your option money, but good luck!”) the next-level catharsis she experienced when it did, and the pressures of critical and commercial success.

Are you a fan of musicals?

Alison Bechdel: Honestly, I really have not been. I didn’t quite understand the whole culture around musicals, and there are just people who are so passionate about musicals. That was not me. You know, I sort of thought of musicals as Guys and Dolls and people bursting into song inexplicably, but I also understood that there are beautiful musicals out there. I was a big fan of Sondheim, but somehow didn’t think of Sondheim stuff as musicals in the traditional sense.

Do you have a new appreciation for musicals now that Fun Home is one?

AB: Absolutely, yeah. It’s an amazing form, or it can be in the right hands. I’m just thinking about the sort of stock Broadway musical where there’s a conflict, but things end up all happy. That’s not so interesting. But the amazing emotional depth you can get in a musical is really interesting to me, and I was excited to see that happen with Fun Home.

What was your first thought when you heard Fun Home was getting the musical treatment?

AB: My first thought, honestly, was, “That’s impossible. Yes, I’ll take your option money, but good luck.” I did not know much about musicals or the stage at all, and it just seemed like a crazy, complex book. Of course, they left out large parts of the book as one has to do, but in the early days, I just couldn’t imagine how that would be put on a stage. Also, because it’s just so dark and so sad, it seemed like the antithesis of a musical.

Because of the emotional depth you explored in your book, did you have trepidation about how it might be portrayed on stage?

AB: If I had known more about musicals when I said yes to that project, I would’ve had a lot of trepidation, but I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. I also knew that Lisa Kron would be writing the book (for the musical), and I was a great admirer of hers and really trusted her to get it right as much as she could.

Were you consulted during its evolution?

AB: I had pretty much zero to do with what you see on stage, and didn’t have any official involvement in making that show.

How difficult was giving up control of your source material?

AB: It was a leap of faith. I trusted Lisa, and (composer) Jeanine Tesori came on board. I also had trust in her. When I say I wasn’t involved, it wasn’t that they kept me out – I just didn’t have any formal role. But they would meet with me periodically and pick my brain about ideas about the book and my process writing it. So, I felt very connected to them even though I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was telling them. (Laughs)

Fun Home opened off-Broadway in 2013 at New York’s Public Theater. When did you first see it, and what was your initial impression?

AB: The whole process took years, but the first thing I saw or heard was at the end of 2010. I got a script in the mail and a CD with music on it from a workshop they had all done that I didn’t see. Up until then, it just seemed like a fantasy that may or may not happen one day. But when I heard those songs, I was just blown away. It was really powerful, and very few of those actually made it through to the final musical. There were so many songs that came and went, but I knew that they had something really magical happening.

Do you remember the experience of seeing this stage interpretation of your life?

AB: That too went through an amazing transition. At one point the stage set was an exact replica of my home studio, where I spend all my time, and that was really freaky. It was like I was looking in the window at myself working. But that got abandoned at one point and the set became a much more stripped down, sort of imaginary space. But it was pretty freaky all around, watching this musical about my family and me.

Do you have a favorite song from the musical?

AB: It’s really hard to pick. I know that sounds corny, but I love all of the songs. Of course “Ring of Keys” is just incredible. You know, I’m not really a big song person. Some people just don’t have that part of their brain, and I think I’m one of them. (Laughs) It’s funny to me to see how that song has caught on in the culture, to see just how it’s gripped people, especially young people. Children just love that song. I mean, little kids who don’t even know what it means are singing it on YouTube — it’s crazy.

Fun Home is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian lead, which is groundbreaking. Did you ever think we’d have a lesbian lead on Broadway and the lesbian lead would be you?

AB: No, I never did! (Laughs) Not that Broadway ever took up any space in my brain at all, but yeah, it’s pretty surprising all around.

How do you process the mainstream appeal of Fun Home and its resonance beyond the LGBT community?

AB: I guess it’s just really a picture of what’s been going on in the culture, and my story and the play came along at this particular juncture when people were finally open to hearing a queer story that’s also a human story. There was finally space for that. I think if the play had come out a little sooner, if the book had come out a little sooner, it might not have caught on the way that it did, but somehow people were ready for it.

What do you think it is about the musical and the book that is resonating on such a universal level?

AB: For one thing, it’s about a family. Everyone’s got a family, of one fashion or another. Also, I think it’s about a family with secrets, and most families have some kind of secret. I think people relate a lot to that, to the catharsis of having a secret brought out in the open. I’ve heard stories of people from all different kinds of permutations — not just gay family members, but all kinds of issues: mental illness, affairs, double lives. I think it’s a great relief for people to see this secret cracked open.

What have been some of the most memorable responses you’ve heard regarding the book over the years?

AB: God, you know, it’s hard to hang onto those. Whenever I go to the show — I’ve seen it 15 or so times – people will recognize me in the audience afterwards, and I hear the most incredible stories, and people are sobbing. I get so caught in those exchanges — it’s really intense — that I can’t remember the details. So, I’m sorry I can’t give you a good anecdote, but I’ve had amazingly intimate encounters with audience members.

Of the three characters representing your life at various stages in the musical, do you have a favorite Alison Bechdel?

AB: (Laughs) I don’t. To me they all sort of fuse into a whole, and they’re bound up. I couldn’t single one out. I do think it was a really interesting choice to have the adult Alison telling this story because that wasn’t really technically part of the book at all. That was part of Lisa Kron’s genius, and it’s an odd role. She’s just mostly observing the action. The adult is having memories of her childhood and her young adulthood and her family, and they’re playing out before her as she’s trying to write about them, trying to make sense about them. So in a way, she’s kind of a passive observer, but she’s really not; she’s actually very actively engaged with these memories of her former self. I think it really pulls everything together in an amazing way.

Is there something you get out of somebody else’s interpretation of your life versus the way you presented it in the book?

AB: Yeah, I feel like this play has been such a gift to me — a real kind of healing or catharsis that I thought I was getting from writing my book. But there was another level the play went to that’s much more emotional. Before, I was talking about the emotional power of musicals, and I felt … it sounds so trite to say healed, so I don’t want to say that. It was just such an amazingly respectful look at my particular family, the way that they stuck to my story and the details of the character. They invented a lot of stuff – they invented almost everything the character said because there wasn’t much dialogue in my book — but somehow it felt very accurate to what I had written.

Did you worry about the way they might portray your father?

AB: I hadn’t considered the ramifications of that, and then in these early versions that I saw — different workshops and stuff — he would go from being a super negative character to being a little too soft. It was very interesting to see how that got calibrated in the end. It’s a very delicate balance to make him sympathetic enough to care about, and also threatening enough for the story to work.

So you were seeing these drafts of his evolution?

AB: I was seeing actual actors portraying him in different ways, reading the same lines in many cases but with really different emotional resonance’s. Some lighter, some darker.

What intersections do you see between graphic novels and musicals?

AB: There’s a way the combination of music and drama is sort of like the combination of pictures and text. Very different too. But the way those two planes combine to create something greater than the sum of their parts is very similar.

What kind of influence does the mainstream appeal of Fun Home have on your current work?

AB: I feel a bit like there are more eyes on me than there used to be. (Laughs) I used to be able to work free of that sense of anyone waiting for my work. So, I feel like there’s a little added pressure now, but I’m trying to use that in a positive way, like to motivate me.

How’s the fitness memoir coming along, then?

AB: It’s coming along. I’m not as far along as I’d like to be. I’m juggling a lot of different projects, so it’s hard to stay focused, but it’s coming, you could say that.

Are these projects you’re working on graphic novels?

AB: Oh, some of them. I’m doing a lot of big stuff I can’t really even explain.

Do you ever plan to revisit the characters from Dykes to Watch Out For?

AB: Funny that you should ask that, because right now I’m just so distraught over the election that the only way I could see out of it, the only way I could help myself figure it out, was to start writing a Dykes to Watch Out For strip. I haven’t thought about these characters in eight years, but I’m right in the middle of writing an episode and kind of dragging them all out of storage.

I can’t think of a better and worse time.

AB: I know. (Laughs) I don’t know if I’ll keep it up, but I’m definitely writing at least one episode. I’ll put it up online. I’ll do it for my local alternative weekly and put it on my website.

Why did this feel like the right time to revisit these characters?

AB: When I wrote the comic strip, I did it in some ways just for myself to figure out what was going on in the world. I always found the world so confusing and baffling, and by using my characters and having to talk through stuff that was happening in the world, I could find my own way. I felt like — I’m so confused at what just happened to our country that I needed to sit down with these characters and figure it out, so that’s what I’m doing.

Will you continue working with these characters?

AB: I might not have time, but maybe I’ll have to keep going.

For Fun Home tour dates, visit funhomebroadway.com/tour.php
dykestowatchoutfor.com.