Interview: Vanessa Davis Pt. 4 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

vanessa_davis_jitters

We wrap up our interview with the Make Me a Woman author by discussing the self-indulgence of autobiography, tackling to death of her father in print, and what, precisely, the phrase “happy chappie” means.

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three]

Did you have any other titles for [Make Me a Woman] picked out?

Yeah.

Do you care to share them?

Well, I wanted to call it Happy Chappie. It’s an old nickname that I had. For me, I’ve always been really concerned about whether I’m coming off as negative or positive. A lot of my stories are kind of sad, but I feel like I have a cheerful sort of approach, so I thought it would be a cute name for the book—cute and snappy.

They were like, “what does that mean?” Nobody knew what it meant. It just wasn’t working. I just didn’t do it.

You did a reading from the book last night [at Baltimore’s Atomic Books]. There was some downer subject material in there.

Yeah, it was a major downer [laughs].

You were drawing attention to that fact, but trying to make people laugh.

Yeah.

You read one about your father’s death, but a panel later you had people laughing about something. I think they were laughing about you drawing attention to the fact that it was so sad.

[Laughs] Yeah. Well, I picked out the stuff for the reading last night really quickly, because I was visiting my mom. I thought, ‘ “Jitters” is a good strip. It has a lot of funny jokes in it.’ I totally forget about the fact that I would be reading about my dad dying in front of everyone, and how that would make people uncomfortable. But, you know, bad things happen.

And it’s possible to present bad things in a way that can not only entertain people, but can actually make them come away from the experience feeling better.

Well, I think people forget that, while some people are luckier than others, and there’s always someone who has had a worse or better time than you—not to sound too touchy-feely, but that really connects all of us. I just wanted to have that humanistic approach. I want to feel like I can talk about things and people can talk to me. I just want for people to be more open.

How long did it take for you to actually address that event?

My dad died when I was 19, so that’s 12 or 13 years ago, and I’ve never really known how to write about it. Tragedy happens in someone’s life, and it’s not just bad that my dad’s gone and I miss him—it affects people on an everyday level. It’s not always this time-stopping, big deal subject. Sometimes it’s just that you’re trying to fix your car, and your dad can’t help.

It’s this big thing, but it comes through in a small moment. It took a long time, but I think the way it popped into that story was really organic and natural, because I was talking about where a lot of my anxieties come from. Certainly they come from that, but they also come from a lot of other things. Small things and big things make you who you are.

The simplest way to do an autobiographical strip seems to be to follow a certain chronology. But you seem more interested in framing these bits and pieces of your life.

On the one hand, when you’re trying to find subject matter to write about, you’re thinking, ‘well, what is the biggest thing that happened to me in my life?’ And that’s one of the biggest things that happened to me in my life. But it almost seems more interesting to me to talk about other things in your life and see how those big things affect them.

Do you start small and get big?

Yeah, definitely.

So you didn’t go into that strip thinking, ‘I’m going to write something about my dad.’

No. I was like, ‘I’m going to write about Jewish stereotypes and anxieties.’ And then I had to think about where mine came from and my experiences with them. I also wrote about how my mom made me go to summer camp, and I was never able to relax. That’s not a big deal, going to summer camp, but it is a big deal, your dad dying. So, all of those things contribute.

If I were to write about just my dad dying, it would cast this idea that that was the only thing that ever shaped me. Whereas, it’s a lot of things. I like going from small to big.

It seems like your approach it in a big way in that strip—something like Jewish neuroses is pretty broad, but you’re narrowing it down to instances in your own life.

Right. Because I can’t write about everyone. I can only write about me and people I know. I can’t say that I’m the representative for everybody.

Are you trying to write something universal in that instance?

Well, I think that that’s part of my self-consciousness about it. I am writing about myself, but I wonder why anyone would care about that. I think there’s a difference between self-indulgent and self-based. If I wanted to do something that was like, ‘all these people were mean to me, and they’re jerks,’ and it was just completely un-examining—or I could write about how I’ve gone through some particular experience that probably a lot of other people have gone through, other people will recognize it as familiar.

It’s about monitoring those impulses narratively to make sure that you’re not making it a big bellybutton-fest.

Have you figured out why people are interested in your life and why they want to read your work?

No [laughs]. I think I’m accessible. I’m friendly, I have bright colors. I have a good design sense.

It’s like your readers are cats.

[Laughs] Yeah—no, it’s not I’m trying to make it as easy as possible. I hope what comes through is that I’m interested in them, too. I feel like I’m just a small part of the human experience. This is just a small contribution, but it’s a part that I’m interested in.

I don’t know if it comes through, but that’s how I feel.

You’re interested in your readers while you’re writing?

Yeah, I’m interested in everybody [laughs]. I think that people are fascinating. The only reason I write about myself is that it’s the person I know the most. And you can never be presumptuous writing about yourself.

–Brian Heater