Gabrielle Bell on Ego, Animals and Her Intimate New Graphic Novel, Everything Is Flammable

Comics Features Gabrielle Bell
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Gabrielle Bell on Ego, Animals and Her Intimate New Graphic Novel, <i>Everything Is Flammable</i>

Gabrielle Bell’s comics arrive from unexpected angles. Whether her stories are dream-like fiction or drawn from life, Bell avoids the predictable, leading the reader to sucker punch emotional truths that emerge organically from words and pictures. Her work is subtle in its execution and grand in its scope, and never quite goes where one might expect.

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Over the decades, the focus of Bell’s work has shifted slightly: the off-beat surrealism of her shorter works collected in 2009’s Cecil and Jordan in New York has given way to the nuanced nonfiction of books like 2012’s The Voyeurs. Bell’s latest confessional, Everything is Flammable from Uncivilized Books, chronicles her experience after a fire consumes her mother’s California house. The graphic novel experiments with structure, telling Bell’s story along with several other narratives that serve as counterpoints. It’s a deft narrative, a moving story with a tactile sense of place throughout.

Paste talked with Bell at a coffee shop in Brooklyn as she sketched a street scene. An edited version of the conversation follows, as both parties free-associated about cats to a considerable extent.
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Paste: A few months ago, you did a piece for Vice about adopting dogs, and dogs also play a substantial role in Everything is Flammable. Is that coincidental? Is it difficult to draw dogs relative to people?

Gabrielle Bell: It’s gotten easier to draw them. As far as the book goes, everyone’s got dogs up there. I’ve always loved dogs. I wanted a dog for a long time, but I’ve never been able to have them.

I watched a documentary recently about dogs, and came to understand how remarkable it is that dogs are basically bred to be our friends. Over many generations, they were taught to want to be around people. It’s kind of sick, in a way [laughs]. The same is not true of cats. I’m cat-sitting right now, and he’s a wild animal. I mean, he’s pretty sweet, and he’ll sit on my lap and purr and let me rub his belly, but when he’s in a mood, he’ll just come in and scratch me and mess with me. With a dog, it seems like you could train them not to do that. A cat, it’s more like a person, a bad boyfriend or something.

There’s something pretty straightforward about dogs. But I think it’s a coincidence. It could be anything; one needs something to pay attention to, so I started paying attention to dogs.

Paste: Everything is Flammable is largely about you dealing with the aftermath of a fire in your mother’s home. When, as all of that was happening, did you realize that it was going to be a book?

Bell: I know there was a moment when I realized that, but I don’t exactly remember when. I don’t remember what it was that inspired it.

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Everything Is Flammable Interior Art by Gabrielle Bell

Paste: Were you working on the book as the events in it were happening, or did some time pass between the two?

Bell: Pretty much as it happened. I think there was some point when I thought, Okay, this is going to be sort of like my diary, but I’m going to turn the diary into vignettes, and eventually I’m going to string the vignettes into a book. I don’t know when it actually became a thing. My entire life, I’m going, I’m going to do a comic about this. And if there’s something bigger, I go, I’m going to do a book about this! And I don’t usually [laughs]. I mean, I’ll do comics about it. I have a lot of unfinished book ideas. Something about the subject matter kept me coming back to it.

Paste: Within the structure of this book, you were also able to do a lot of different things—both the overarching story you’re telling and interviews with some of the people you meet along the way. Was it difficult to make some of those scenes visually compelling?

Bell: It was definitely a challenge for me, yes, because I’m really self-absorbed [laughs]. It’s difficult for me to get out of myself and ask someone else about their life. I’m really scared of asking dumb questions, and I don’t have a lot of experience drawing people out. If my interview subject is friendly and sympathetic, and if I prepare a lot beforehand…

The character of Gus in the book, he really helped me a lot. He was the first person I interviewed. I asked a lot of probably inappropriate questions, and he was very patient. Me and my friend Ariel, we were listening to the tape of the interview, and I sounded like this really idiotic, naive child. We were both laughing at how stupid I sounded. He was using all this prison talk, and I was trying to understand it and repeat it back to him, but it just sounded ridiculously silly coming from me and my childish voice. He really helped me, because that was my first interview, and I felt a bit more confident going on.

Paste: Have you been doing any other interview comics since the ones that feature in the book?

Bell: No. I interviewed a writer on stage. I would like to do more interviewing, but I’m still not really confident with it. When I do my portraits, I try to draw people out.

Paste: What’s the difference for you between drawing a portrait of someone and depicting someone—or yourself—in the context of a comic? Is it a similar process, or are the two completely different?

Bell: It’s pretty different. In a portrait, I’m trying to get their features right. In a comic, it’s more like….they’re my puppet [laughs]. The features are secondary, which is not so good, because people often say that my characters look too much like each other. I’m more going for their dialogue and their dynamic within the conversation.

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Everything Is Flammable Interior Art by Gabrielle Bell

Paste: The scene in Everything is Flammable where you’re one of four people sitting around a table on a bus captured a really awkward dynamic very well.

Bell: That was fun. But also, if one person said something, but it works that someone else said it…or if I said something, sometimes I’ll give someone else my line. People are…not exactly interchangeable, but more like actors on a stage, and I’m the director.

Paste: There are many scenes of yourself in transit in this book—buses and trains, especially. And later in the book, there are scenes of shopping for pre-fab homes. Is it more important for you to get all of the details of those spaces right, or impart a more general sense of the place?

Bell: On a train, I want to get the idea of it. But there are other instances, like when my mom and I were shopping for a house, where I want to be a bit more specific. If it’s a thing that shows up that we won’t see again, I’ll be more specific. I do a lot of the traveling stuff because I write on the train a lot.

Paste: I also really enjoyed the panel where you say, “I’m not including any of the 12-hour journey because I slept.”

Bell: For some reason, a journey to someplace is always more interesting than a journey back.

Paste: You’ve been doing longer works alongside your diary comics for a while now. Do you find that the diary work influences the longer-form work you’ve done?

Bell: Yes. This book is basically made up of diaries. I go back to the diary because I have writer’s block. Always. I’ve never been without writer’s block.

Paste: The point towards the end where you’re walking past a bookstore holding a reading, and you express frustration with people’s book deals—that seemed like a very relatable thing for many literary people, myself included.

Bell: I like that I’ve been able to get more honest as the years go on. I don’t think I’d have written that a few years ago. It was too burning in me. I’m not so envious now. I mean, I am. But not so much that I can’t joke about it.

Paste: Over the years, it seems like you’ve moved from fiction to memoir. Was there one point where you realized that you wanted to focus more on nonfiction?

Bell: No. I still want to do fiction. I just haven’t succeeded. I’ve succeeded more in autobiography. I have a lot of unfinished fictional stories. It’s very hard to get the verisimilitude.

Paste: Have you found that each of your books has its own audience, or are your readers more people who have followed your career from book to book?

Bell: I think I do have a small but loyal following. I think some people prefer the autobiographical stuff, and other people prefer the fantastical stuff. I don’t think it’s individual books, so much. I think there’s something about me where it all blends together. I try to change my themes, but sometimes, I just have to write about anxiety. It’s a pervasive thing!

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Everything Is Flammable Interior Art by Gabrielle Bell

Paste: Do the people who appear in your books end up reading those books? And if so, what do they think their portrayal?

Bell: My mom read it, and so did Gus. Gus was cool with it, I think. My mom was a little uncomfortable with it. I sent it to another friend who was in the book, but I didn’t get any specific feedback. I’m a little worried, because it’s part of my life that I left behind. I haven’t sent it out to very many people.

Paste: You use a six-panel page for most of the book. What appeals to you most about it, as far as using it to tell a story? Do you ever want to deviate from it?

Bell: I’m more interested in the writing than in the visual experience, so I use the six panels as a vehicle for telling the story. I want it to be visually satisfying, for sure, and I want it to look cool. But I do a lot of editing, and sometimes I take panels out and put panels in and rearrange it. It’s much harder to do that if everything’s all varied. That said, I used to experiment a lot. I would like to go back to experimenting.

Paste: You’re sketching right now. How frequently do you do work like that?

Bell: Not very much. When I travel, I sketch a lot. When I hang out with people, I sketch, but I haven’t lately, partly because it seems anti-social and rude [laughs]. Sorry. I used to draw constantly, but now I don’t do it as much. I try to be more engaging and present.

Paste: Have you thought about branching out and trying work anything outside of comics, in prose or something similar?

Bell: Yes. I’ve tried different things, but I’ve always failed [laughs]. It’s weird, but the only thing I ever can seem to complete is comics. Now I’m starting to do portraits, so there’s that. The dynamic of the pictures and the words together—nothing [else] seems to trigger that spark.

Paste: Do you have a sense of what your next big project is going to be?

Bell: I don’t know. Does there have to be something? Can’t I just rest on my laurels for 10 years? Can’t I retire yet? [Laughs] I listen to NPR all day, and I don’t even know if there’s going to be a next year. It sounds fatalistic, but I just want to do short things.

I would like to work on another long-term project. I have a few books that I haven’t finished, and I’d like to finish one of them. This one happened so organically, I don’t want to force something long-term any more. I don’t want to force anything, though I’m sure that some things need to be forced.

Paste: Where in the process of Everything is Flammable did the title come about?

Bell: Oh, that part was not organic. That was a lot of brainstorming.

Paste: Your books have had pretty solid titles.

Bell: A lot of them didn’t come easily. Truth Is Fragmentary was going to be Travelogues or something really boring. At the last minute, I thought of Truth is Fragmentary. It was already programmed into the computer at Amazon and the distributor and bookstores, and they had to change everything. But they did, because Truth is Fragmentary was such a better title. It catches people, even those who aren’t into comics.

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Everything Is Flammable Interior Art by Gabrielle Bell

Paste: How would you say you’ve changed as an artist over the years since The Voyeurs?

Bell: Less hopeful. Less plucky [laughs]. More resigned. More cynical and bitter.

It’s all the same, kind of. I’m just getting used to it more. On one hand, I’m right in the middle of it. I’m not as famous or rich as I would have wished for as a youngster. But at the same time, I have something. And I get to work with that something, and I’m really glad to have that something. I’m a bit more stubborn and cranky about doing any kind of work that’s not my own, but then I suffer for that financially. On the other hand, it seems like I haven’t really changed at all. I’m still as anxious and as neurotic as I was in The Voyeurs. Maybe slightly less. Maybe I got a handle on it by realizing that I’m familiar with it.

Paste: Do you feel that writing about yourself in numerous comics has helped you to understand yourself better over the years?

Bell: I have so many different selves. If I’m with someone who I’ve known for 20 years, I’ll be a certain self. If I’m with somebody who I’ve only recently met, but we click and are friends, I’ll be this whole other self. And if I’m around people who have read my work, I’ll probably be a different self. I guess the self in my comic is a very purified version; I’m a diluted form of my comic-book self. Not purified as in “better,” but as in the most basic elements.

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