Lucy Knisley on Comics, Family, and Live Octopus

Slate's Culture Blog
April 3 2013 12:21 PM

Food, Comics, and Live Octopus: A Conversation with Lucy Knisley

Relish cover

Lucy Knisley writes and illustrates a popular webcomic about her life called Stop Paying Attention. She published a graphic novel, French Milk, in 2008, and has another, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, out this week. She has also published a collection of her earlier comics, contributed to anthologies, and put out some music, too.

Her comics are mostly autobiographical, but they also incorporate elements of travelogue and food writing. Relish includes recipes that help to inform Knisley’s story of her relationship with food and its deep ties to her relationship with her family. (Personally, I can’t wait to try the pesto.)

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I spoke to her recently about her comic, her family, and food.

Slate: Why did you start making comics?

Lucy Knisley: My father’s a literary professor and my mother was an artist, so when I was growing up I was kind of instilled with these two passions—and comics was a good way to combine them. But I actually thought I wanted to be a writer or a painter until I got to college. I had been making comics and I started publishing them in the newspaper, and I thought, “This is exactly the perfect combination of what I want to be doing. Why have I never considered doing this as a profession?”

Slate: Most of your comics are autobiographical, and some of them include pretty personal details about friends and family. Has that ever gotten you into trouble?

Knisley: For the most part I’m not writing about super secretive things, and I mostly exploit myself rather than the people around me. The only time I ever got in trouble was with a self-published book called Radiator Days that collects a lot of my earlier work, my student work, and so there’s a lot of experimentation going on and sex and queerness and drug use. It’s not a book that I’d give to my grandmother, and so she didn’t have a copy. Then one of her busybody neighbors said, “Gloria, you have to read this book!” She read it—and none of those things bothered her. But there’s one journal comic, a throwaway comic, that’s about her house and how it’s weird. She’s trying to convert us all to Republicanism, so she puts these photos of George Bush’s family inside the dish cupboards. It’s a comic about how she’s slowly trying to turn us all. And she was so offended. She called my mother crying and asking “Why does Lucy hate me?” I thought, “Oh my god, I am completely out of the will forever.” So I don’t make comics about her anymore. And I profusely apologized. I try to not ever have my comics used as a weapon.

Slate: Relish covers a lot of personal history, some of it pretty far back. How did you go about reconstructing that?

Knisley: There were a lot of talks with my parents about their memories and mine and how those conflicted sometimes. I wrote it like a book, and then turned it into a comic. I didn’t really delve into my photo album until after I had made the book, and it was funny because I would find photos that would perfectly match what I had drawn. The opening panel from one of the first chapters in the book is me as a baby sitting on a counter, and I found almost the exact same picture: I’m sitting on a counter, eating an apple instead of cheese. I had not seen that photo before drawing it—I had really vividly remembered sitting on that counter. So that was fun.

Slate: The stories and details in the book, these were just the things that stuck with you?

Knisley: Yeah. A lot of it is family-legend stuff—like the story about me tasting foie gras for the first time. I had no idea what it was, and my mother had made it for a party. I went around begging at the table. That’s sort of a family legend: the origin of this foodie person. Everyone thought it was funny that this six-year-old would eat this weird food.

Slate: What is it that draws you to make comics about food?

Knisley: Comics adds an extra sensory level to your reading; you’re not just reading the story, you get to see elements of it, which I love. Food adds yet another sensory level, so people are also remembering a taste or connecting with me in that way.

Slate: It works! The whole time I was reading the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about food that I wanted to eat. There are also a lot of “me too!” moments, where I’d read something about dealing with family or growing up and know exactly what you meant. How do you go about trying to balance your own story with these more universal feelings and creating that kind of connection?

Knisley: With the webcomic, Stop Paying Attention, I don’t put myself on any kind of deadline. I make work when thought processes occur to me that I feel are true and can be shared with people. Something that winds up in a comic there is one of those thoughts that I’ve been unable to articulate until then, and putting it into a comic is my attempt to make sense of this thing. And I think that’s why a lot of people read it and experience something similar. I make these stories because I want to articulate these inner thoughts, and I think that when I’m honest people really respond to them.

Slate: You have a very straightforward style. How did you develop it?

Knisley: When I was in grad school, there was a lot of pressure to try different styles and make comics filmically, or cinematically. After trying that, I thought, “These aren’t comics anymore. It’s like storyboarding for a film.” Comics are a really easy way to tell a story—it’s like cave painting, pictures that tell stories. It’s the most basic way human beings digest information, reading pictures. So I tried to develop a style that is simple and tells a story well. I was influenced by Hergé’s Tintin and by Archie comics, stuff that I read as a kid and found easy to digest

Slate: Even so, your comics are very flexible, in terms of layout.

Knisley: Sometimes stories break out of formats. When you read a comic, you’re not supposed to think about the fact that you’re reading a comic—you’re not supposed to think “panel, gutter of panel, panel, gutter of panel.” It’s supposed to be seamless. When it’s always rigidly in its own box that can break you out of the story, and when it’s too out of its box, that can take you out of the story, too. So it’s a fine line.

Slate: In Relish you mention that Miracle Whip is the only food you really hate. Is there anything else you won’t eat?

Knisley: I was lucky enough to go to Seoul, Korea, this year, and I went on an amazing food tour. I ate all this cool street food and had a great time. But one thing that they eat there—it’s not a culinary thing, it’s a health thing—is live octopus. They’re little octopi, and they wrap them around chopsticks and shove them in their mouth, chew them up, and swallow them. It doesn’t taste good, but it’s supposed to be healthy. It’s so weird. When I went on this food tour, [the guide] was like, “You’re a really adventurous eater, right?” “Yeah, totally, I’ll eat anything.” “Live octopus?” And I was like, “Say what?” What I learned about this live octopus tradition is not just that it’s slightly barbaric to put a sentient creature in your moth and chew it up—and I don’t know if I could quite deal with that—but that some people die doing this. And I was like, “I actually don’t think I’m going to be able to do that one, sorry.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter.