Spinning’s Tillie Walden on the Power of Pursuing and Ending Childhood Dreams

Comics Features Tillie Walden
Share Tweet Submit Pin
<i>Spinning</i>&#8217;s Tillie Walden on the Power of Pursuing and Ending Childhood Dreams

In the few years she’s been active, cartoonist Tillie Walden has published three books, been nominated for an Eisner and won two Ignatz awards. Not bad for anyone, let alone a young artist born in the mid-90s. Her work ethic and ambition are evident through previous projects I Love This Part, The End of Summer and A City Inside , and now First Second has released her biggest project yet, Spinning, a 400-page memoir that uses her years as a competitive figure skater to tell a story about learning to follow your own path. Walden answered Paste’s questions over email, including how she manages to wake up at 4 a.m. to work.



Paste: Spinning is your thesis work for the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), right? Can you talk a little bit about how it evolved during the long process of creating it?
Tillie Walden: Wow, it’s so funny to remember that. It feels like centuries ago that this book was just my thesis. Yes, it was the project I worked on and graduated with in my second year at CCS. It really just slowly grew throughout the year. The scope of the project kept getting wider. It started out as just a collection of small black-and-white scenes of me on the ice and looking a little grumpy. And with the help of James Sturm (my thesis advisor and friend) I turned those scenes into a skeleton of a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. After I graduated from school and made a deal with First Second Books, my editor Connie Hsu helped me turn the skeleton into the 400-page graphic novel that you can read now.

Paste: How much changed between your submitting it to CCS and publishing it through First Second?
Walden: Ah, I guess I sort of got into that in the last question. It really just got fattened up. Nothing major changed, and it was the original version that everyone at First Second fell in love with in the first place so no one was interested in a total revamp. My editor at FS really just helped me add transitions and depth and the finishing touches. She held my hand through it all, thank god! I needed it.

Spinning Interior Art by Tillie Walden

Paste: Your work is pretty focused on line (more than on shape or color). Has it always been that way?
Walden: Yes, I think that’s something I learned from manga. I read a lot of manga as a kid, and for those who don’t, the majority of it is black and white. So I spent a lot of younger years focusing on line and realizing the power in it. I think that really influenced how I think about my own art and how I approach visualizing the world.

Paste: What’s your set-up for drawing? Are you particular about materials (i.e., specific pens or pencils)?
Walden: I have a little desk from IKEA that I’ve been drawing all my comics on since the dawn of time (or at least it feels that way.) And as far as materials go, I tend to switch around a lot. I have an alarming number of pens and pencils, a lot that are the same brands, but in different colors. Bear with me. Some days I feel a powerful need to draw with a pink pencil; the next day, I need a white pencil. It’s the same with pens. I really just pick what I use that day based on my mood. It’s the same with my paper. I use different paper with every project I do in order to have a paper that I can deeply associate with a specific comic. Someday I’m going to run out of options though.

Paste: How much time do you spend procrastinating?
Walden: Very little. I tend to procrastinate after a project is through. Once a project is done, and I need to think of a new idea, that’s the time when I roll around and think and sketch and watch endless movies to get inspired. But when I’m in the middle of drawing a comic, I rarely get off course. Maybe for 10 minutes I’ll stare into space. But that’s about as far as I go. I do all my thinking and wandering in myself while I draw. It’s easy for me to get work done and also disconnect my mind. So procrastination just doesn’t seem all that necessary.

Spinning Interior Art by Tillie Walden

Paste: Do you see parallels between the way you approach drawing/making comics and the things figure skating prizes?
Walden: Ohhh hmm, that’s a good question. In a very basic sense, I see a parallel in the simple fact that comics and ice skating both take a lot of hard work, and a lot of commitment. Instead of waking up at 4 A.M. for a skating lesson, now I wake up at 4 a.m. and draw. But I think after that the similarities disappear. Figure skating prizes performance. It’s a sport that smiles upon you when you excel in its image, in its expectations. But making comics isn’t about performing, and it doesn’t have a rule book. Making comics, for me, is about expressing yourself. And in a perfect world, yeah, skating should be about expressing yourself too. But 10 years in the ice-skating world proved to me that that is not actually the case.

Paste: That’s a good point about the discipline both comics and figure skating require. I was also thinking about the importance of line to both, which is something you bring out in the book—the fact that performing a maneuver in skating is basically drawing a particular kind of line, just with your feet and your body instead of your hands.
Walden: That’s a very interesting point! There’s some of this in the book, but skaters often memorize routines or moves based on the line-drawn version of what their blade would be mapping on the ice. In fact, after I would do certain jumps or spins, my coaches would have me go back and look at the lines I made on the ice to see if I had done it correctly. This is a great parallel. I gotta remember this one.

Paste: You seem like you don’t really mind getting up at 4 a.m. all that much. Or at least you’re committed to doing it. Do you think it’s just your in-born work ethic?
Walden: Honestly, I think skating sort of broke me a little bit in terms of mornings. I don’t think I am naturally a morning person, but I was sort of forced to become one. And now I have this bizarre stamina in me to just rise at 4 and start working. I mean, sure, some of it definitely comes from the fact that I’m really committed to what I do, and I don’t mind the slog or the long days. Plus, watching the sun rise while I draw is one of my greatest pleasures in life.

Spinning Interior Art by Tillie Walden

Paste: It seems like a major theme of this book has to do with learning how to lose control (maybe that’s not the right way to phrase it: give up control? not obsess about control?). Do you think that’s true?
Walden: I think that’s true. It’s difficult for me to see themes in this book—it’s just too close to me. So I’m always fascinated when others tell me the threads they find. And what you say makes a lot of sense. I think my path in ice skating, and in my life, dealt a lot with aspects of control and power.

Paste: Is learning how to quit as important a skill as learning how to persevere?
Walden: Absolutely. And in a way it depends a lot on the person and what their instincts are. My instinct is always to follow through, to never give up. So learning to quit was hugely important for me. I think a lot of kids in competitive sports could stand to learn that skill. And honestly I hate the word “quit.” It has such a negative connotation, and it implies that you’re losing something, somehow. I would much rather think of it as being finished, being done. There’s so much power in being self-aware, in knowing when to say when.

Paste: I see a lot of similarities between Spinning and Nicole Georges’ new book, Fetch. (For example: the way both of you title your chapters after a concept that has to do with dog training or figure skating, but then expand out that concept metaphorically). Did you work with her at all at CCS?
Walden: Huh, I haven’t read Fetch, and this is the first I’m hearing about the chapter titles. That’s cool! No, I never worked with her, and she was at CCS at a different time from me, so we never actually crossed paths. That’s interesting, though.

Paste: Did you deliberately approach Spinning as a YA comic? Or do you think that most books that focus on a teenage protagonist tend to be categorized as YA?
Walden: It wasn’t deliberate. I think you’re right in that a lot of books with teenage protagonists tend to be categorized as YA, which makes sense to me. The book naturally fit into the YA category just because of its content and the ages of the characters. And I’m really glad, because I think the YA genre is a great place to be.

Paste: Do you think skating is a Trojan horse for what this book is really about? Does it enable the book to reach a larger audience, potentially, than if it were marketed as a coming-out story?
Walden: I’ve never thought of it like that. I think the ice-skating theme has a lot of potential. You would be amazed how many times people have told me about their own dreams to be a figure skater when I would mention that I used to skate. It’s a sport that a lot of people are interested in. I guess I can hope, right? I would love for the ice-skating aspect to help propel the book to further spaces. But honestly this is not my wheelhouse; marketing is a little baffling to me.

Spinning Interior Art by Tillie Walden

Paste: What’s harder: memoir or fiction?
Walden: There’s no comparison in my mind. Memoir is 10,000,000,000 times harder than fiction. Easily.

Paste: You don’t talk much in the book about reading, but were you reading comics while you were pursuing figure skating? Which ones? Did your friends read them too? (Are you just so young that reading comics is a totally normal thing to do and not one that’s segregated from reading books that just have words?)
Walden: Haha, I’m not that young. I didn’t have friends who were into comics, which is one of the reasons it didn’t figure into the book much. I read comics very casually, and sort of on and off throughout my life. I wouldn’t categorize myself as any sort of hardcore fan. I enjoyed reading manga the most as a kid, specifically books by Osamu Tezuka, Yoshihiro Togashi and Rumiko Takahashi. And then in my teen years I started picking up more graphic memoirs (and how they influenced me is probably pretty obvious) like Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Blankets by Craig Thompson and Stitches by David Small.

Paste: One of my favorite things about this book is the way you manage to capture the feel of different spaces through small details, like the flecks on the walls of your Austin rink. How do you approach that task without having to draw every detail?
Walden: Comics are all about choices. The choice to include a wall fleck, or the decision to not draw a building because it seems too annoying to deal with. I find that I just go with my instinct. I’ve drawn hundreds upon hundreds of pages of comics in my three or so years in this industry. And all that drawing gave me quite a set of skills in being able to make decisions about what to put on the page. Those wall flecks mattered to me. I spent so much time staring at the tile floors and the grimy walls around the ice rink, because it was all I could stand to look at. And if a detail matters to me, then I put it in.