Transcript from an interview with Raina Telgemeier

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Raina Telgemeier. Watch the video interview with Raina Telgemeier.

Growing up with comics

I was a pretty good reader in elementary school. And I remember being super excited to learn in kindergarten, because I would watch television and at the end of the cartoon they’d show the credits, and I remember thinking, like, someday I’ll understand what that means. So you know, my first early reader books felt like a huge accomplishment, and I always loved listening to stories, and my mom did a ton of reading to us when we were growing up. So, you know, books were a gift, and I was excited to learn to read and write from a pretty early age, and then once I started, I also started reading comic strips in the newspaper, and so that became sort of my first and primary love when it came to reading.

Every day I would wanna catch up on my favorite comic strips, and then read the collected versions when they were published. And then in middle school, I think I was looking for what we would call YA now, and there wasn’t a whole lot of it to be found when I was a teenager, so I gravitated towards independent comics, and comics by, you know, authors that were a little bit edgier than what you would read in the newspaper.

So one of my favorite cartoonists was Linda Barry when I was growing up, and she was doing comic strips, but they were about like, messed up people with like, sad family lives and stuff. So I was getting like the pathos from her work, and I was also able to say, you know, this wasn’t my life. My life was not as difficult as these people’s lives, and it sort of helped give me context for the problems that I was going through. But I think her voice is really authentic, and really, really captures, you know, childhood and the teen years. So I kept reading, I kept making my own comics, and I think what I read really inspired what I made.

Happy early years at the library

I did go to the library a lot as a kid, and we had a branch that was pretty close to my family’s house, and also like the mall. So sometimes we would go shopping for something, and then we’d go to the library afterwards. And I remember my favorite thing there being their encyclopedias, because we didn’t have a set of encyclopedias at my house. But being able to go in and sit down in one of the like, really soft, you know, well-touched wooden tables and chairs that they had there, and just be able to take a book off the shelf and look up anything, and fact find about anything.

And then I quickly discovered that, you know, in an encyclopedia you're lucky if you get one paragraph about any subject, so I started thinking oh, there's so much more out there to learn. And of course, you know, the internet fills in that gap very nicely for young people today, but that was my favorite thing to do. And also looking at the old magazines and periodicals always made me really happy.I remember discovering microfiche and being able to do book reports where you would look back at, you know, this day of 200 years ago, or whatever. And then, I mean, I was in San Francisco so the San Francisco Chronicle, which was our newspaper had a pretty long history, and so it was really neat to be able to dig through archives and discover, you know, who people had been, and yeah. So that’s — I think I was looking for information and history in the library.

Illustrated diaries

So when I was nine or ten years old, I started reading the comics in the newspaper, and then started creating my own. And it was the same time in my life where I was starting to go through puberty and starting to, you know, develop like, some of my mental health issues. I became a really anxious kid, and one of the ways that I coped with that was to write in my diary. And I remember trying to sort of establish the writing voice in my diary, similar to what Ann M. Martin did in the Babysitters Club, where she would describe all of her friends, and she would talk about the sort of interplay between them, and how long that they had all known each other.

And so I tried to write my diary like that. Like I really was a writer who was describing everything. And that quickly fell by the wayside when I started illustrating my diary entries. And so I have almost a perfect record of my life illustrated between sixth grade and the end of my college years. I would go home every day after school, after work, after anything, and I would need to write it down, and I would need to draw pictures and illustrate it.

And a lot of times there were word balloons coming out of the characters mouths, and you know. So but I never considered myself a writer because I was like, “Well, nobody wants to read about someone’s real life. That's not writing. That’s not storytelling.” I didn’t know. I thought, “I don’t have a very big imagination so there's no way I will ever be a writer.” And I thought at the time, “Maybe if somebody else would write comics for me, I’ll be able to do this for a living.” But as you know, there also just kind of weren’t graphic novels back then.

It was not a format that was available to me, so I just kept sort of doing what I was doing, and eventually I figured out how to make it work as my job.

It was a great way to manage my anxiety and to process everything that had happened to me during the day. And it was almost like I couldn’t move on until I had written it down. An then I was able to close that page, and say, “Okay. That’s done. That’s what happened.” And it was also useful to refer back to couple of years later. I had a habit of re-reading my diaries, and oftentimes I would go back and go, “Oh, that’s what I was dealing with right now.”

I just didn’t realize it at the time. Or, “Oh, I didn't know that this was something that was gonna change, or that I felt like I was stuck in that friend group forever, or that I was always gonna have this terrible teacher,” or whatever. But I don’t know. I gave myself the benefit of like, a rear view pretty early on in my life. And so I think that was something I was practicing again to aid me in my career in the future. And I still have those diaries. I still have access to them. They will never see the light of day, but they're there for me, and I think that’s really valuable.

Get your feelings and ideas down on paper

So when I visit schools, I always give kids the advice to write things down, whether that’s in a diary, whether that’s an essay, a play, a song, anything at all. Just find a way to get your feelings out, your ideas out onto the page, or onto a recorded format. It doesn’t matter. But that’s so useful, and you'll have access to it in the future. And, you know, I know a lot of anxious kids, and I know that sometimes people are waiting for permission to do something like that. 

They don’t know if it's okay. They don’t know if like, that’s what they should do with their spare time, but why not? You know, all it takes is a paper and pencil in order to do that.

Guts: let’s just talk about it

So my newest book is called Guts, and it takes place in my fourth and fifth grade years, which again, those are the years I discovered comics. Those are the years I started making comics. That was when I started feeling a physical manifestation of anxiety in my body. And those things never went away. They were just part of who I was, and they’ve been part of who I am for a very long time. And then somehow, I made a career as an autobiographical cartoonist. But for the first several books I wrote, I think I was really focused on — here is a thing that happened to me, and it happened to me a long time ago.

So I was able to say, “The story of Smile starts when I knocked out my two front teeth.” And the story of Smile ends when, not only does my smile look normal again, but when I feel like I can smile again. And then with Sisters, the story is about a road trip that we took, which is a two-week chunk. And then I decided to intersperse that with flashbacks. And for years, people have said to me, “Well, when are you gonna write about your stomach troubles?”

‘Cause anybody who knows me, knows that I've always had tummy troubles. And I was like, “No, that’s too gross. That’s too personal. That’s too embarrassing, and I don’t really know how to tell that story without it being kind of disgusting.” But it hasn’t gone away. Nothing has changed. I'm still dealing with this. And I am finding that the more honest I am in my books, the further down I reach and, you know, the more open I am, the better.

That's where the really good stuff happens, and I do a lot of Q and A’s on stage with kids, and they tell me how they're feeling, and they ask me for advice, and they ask me, “Was this thing really true,” and “Did this thing really happen?” So I realized that I needed to write about what happened in fourth and fifth grade, which is that I was really dealing with some feelings, and when my best friend moved away, and it was really hard for all of us.

And there was another girl in my class that was having some health issues, and she wasn’t the nicest girl. But like, when I learned about her health problems, it gave me perspective that I didn’t have before, which was, “Wow, somebody’s dealing with a lot.” Like, everybody’s going through something, and even if they don’t tell you what it is, it's still there. And so, you know, being kind to each other is important. And for myself, I didn’t really know how to talk about what was happening with me, but I went to see a therapist.

And the therapist helped a lot to give me some coping techniques, and to just be able to talk about how I was feeling, because a lot of times you feel things, you think things, it's really hard to talk about them. But being able to talk about them is great. And I think that’s probably what's at the core of my work, so this book gets right down in there, and it felt very vulnerable at first. It felt like I was telling too much.

People that have read the preview are saying, “This is me. How did you know? How did you get this so right?” and, “I can't believe there's somebody else like this,” and, you know, it's just opens up the conversation. And they feel better, and I feel better, and I'm looking forward to talking about that with kids too, and letting them know that they're not alone. They're not weird. They're not different, it's just something that happens to a lot of us and we don’t know how to talk about it.

So let's break down those stigmas. Let's just talk about it.

Picturing a panic attack

So in Guts, you do see me having panic attacks, and that’s not something I've ever been able to describe. And no one’s every really asked me to describe it either. So again, the words were never really there for that. But I knew that I wanted to use color to depict that experience, and I knew I wanted to use sort of abstract art to show the character in tight spaces, and also falling through negative space, and feeling like she’s on unsteady ground, and just everything’s very shaky.

Because sometimes it's just — it’s the sensation of a trembling in your body, but with comics you have the opportunity to depict that in lots of different ways. And so they were in my original script, but my first round of notes, I had a couple of different people read the script, and they all said, “More. We want to see more of this. We want you to show us more, and tell us less.” And I mean, my editor, Cassandra [phonetic], she gave me a great note, where in the first draft, I showed this happen, and then at the end of the scene, I said, “I had just had my first panic attack.”

And she said, “Take that out. Don’t say that. Don’t tell us what it was, because then it kind of leaves a mystery, and then the character kind of has to solve the mystery over the course of the book.” So that phrase does come up much, much later in the story. But it's true when you're a kid, or when you're a young person, or anything, if something weird is happening to you, and you don’t know what it is, you probably don’t have a phrase to describe it, and everybody goes, “Well, I don’t know what's wrong.”

And there's not anything physically wrong, so how do you say that you're sick? You're not sick, but something’s not right. So we changed the line to, “Something was definitely wrong.” But that leaves a dot dot dot for the reader, and I think that’s life, right?

Practicing mindfulness

So in the book, one of the ways the story concludes is by me learning about mindfulness techniques, and how to breathe, and how to ground myself, and how to sort of get my brain to a place where when I'm triggered by something that gives me anxiety I can tell my brain, “Nope, nope, nope, don’t go there. Don’t follow it down that dark path because, you know, nothing bad’s really gonna happen to you. You just have to learn kind of train your mind.”

So I’ve done cognitive behavioral therapy. I've done something called EMDR. I've done talk therapy. I've done several different styles of therapy, where I have learned all of these techniques. And so in this story, the characters have to give these reports in their fifth-grade classroom, and that’s something we really did. We really did something called an LDI, which stands for Lecture Demonstration Instruction.

So just the thought that you have to get up in front of your class and like talk about something. You get to decide what it is, but you still have to do it. You still have to give the oral report, and then demonstrate how you do the thing. So, you know, it's nice to share yourself with your class, and it was nice to be able to give them a piece of myself, and learn from your classmates in the process, like when they tell you something about themselves you learn about them. You learn about yourself.

And so the story ends in a way that is, I think, pretty cool. And I think that some of the techniques in the book are things that kids can actually use, which makes me feel really happy that I've been able to pass that gift along to them.

Advice to my middle school self

I guess what I wish that I had known in middle school was that it wasn’t forever. You know, these people in my classes, and these body changes I was going through, and these feelings of discomfort, they were temporary. And so I wish that middle school me could have met high school me, because I had so much fun in high school. I met my best friends there, and I got to try new things and experience new things. And honestly, middle school had some elements of that in it too. I discovered that I like to sing when I was in middle school, and then I ended up being in choir for four years when I was in high school.

So if little learning to sing me had known that, like I would have an even bigger voice by the end of it, I think it would have given me something just to kind of hope for, and just to aspire to, and to feel hopeful about. But you know, I mean, the term, it gets better, seems so clichéd, but it's true, you know, you just gotta stick out these experiences sometimes. And I think one of the qualities of an optimist is just knowing like, this isn’t forever.

It's gonna get better, and just hoping that it will change, and you know, hindsight is 20 20. Looking back, I think that middle school wasn’t so bad, but then when you're a writer, you have to pull all the conflicts out of the box and examine them all. And so I have somewhat made a career out of focusing on the trials and tribulations of middle school, because if I wrote one about just the cool stuff it would be pretty boring.

Share Your Smile: a guide to telling your own story

So Share Your Smile is my newest book that’s just come out. It came out in April, and it's a collection of story starters and idea builders. And so there's a lot of little prompts to have kids ask themselves questions, and then jot down their answers. And that’s what I always encouraged in the workshops that I did with kids was don’t over think it. Like, tell me a story about the time you — whatever. And then like, you get like, one minute to write it down. So no thought, just action and writing, and then what you get out of that is then like, “Okay, I have like two sentences that I wrote.”

Let's think about those sentences. Let's think about what's really crunchy about them, and what's sticky, and what we can pull from them. And so key words, or evocative images that you have in your mind. And I can't give this workshop or this talk to every kid, but I do get a lot of email from kids asking me like, “Where do I begin, and how do I start making comics, and how can I become a graphic novelist?” And this is my own process, you know.

This is how I start telling stories is I look at old photographs, or I think about my seventh grade math teacher, Mr. Theodis, you know, he was a character. And so let's you come up with just little bits of business from your life. I think it's a good place to start spinning. So there is room for kids to write. There's room for kids to draw. There's room for kids to paste in photos. And they're different sections of the book based on the books that I've done. So Smile talks about, you know, your experiences, your feelings.

Sisters talks about your family. Drama talks about school. So we’ve kind of seen this pattern that kids are really curious about certain things, and so Share Your Smile is supposed to kind of channel them all into one kind of guidebook. And it is kind of a one kid, one book experience. It's not like a graphic novel where you can pass it around to everybody because it's supposed to be where you personally write down what you wanna do.

Everyone has a story to tell

I think there's a lot of power in sharing your own story because all of our stories are slightly different. They're unique to us. They’re all real and true, but sometimes we don’t remember that. Sometimes we think, “Well, you're so different than me, and you see the world differently than I do.”  But I always come back to this, that the more personal your stories are, the more universal they end up being. It'Figuris a total paradox, but I get so specific in my stories.

And then people come up to me and they say, “This is exactly like my life.” When I wrote Sisters, my mom expressed a little bit of concern that readers would think our family was strange and that we were weirdo’s. And I was like, “Mom, they're not gonna see you. They're not gonna see me. They're not gonna see your siblings. All they're gonna see is themselves.” And I've never heard any feedback to the contrary.

It's just, “You understand. Somehow you captured my relationship with my sister on the page,” and, “I'm more like Amara, and this one’s more like Raina.” It's incredible. So when kids share their stories with each other it just opens that conversation. It opens that door, and I encourage it, and I love seeing it, and I love those like, little private whispered conversations that I get to have with my readers. “Me too, you know. I am just like this.” It's really touching when that happens.

In the characters’ shoes

So I think kids are drawn to comics a lot of times because they're funny. It's a great way to connect to readers is to make them laugh. But, you know, there's also personal storytelling, there's visuals on the page, and there’s some magic that happens with that combination. It's not quite first person, and it's not quite second person storytelling. It's like you are in the characters shoes.

You're seeing what the character sees. And then you're reading their words coming out of their mouths in word balloons. It's just this like fascinating combination of being an observer, but also a participant. And I think that’s kind of true when you watch movies, but you're still watching an actor who’s not you playing a character.

You're still hearing the voice of an animated character giving that person life. It is still not you. But when you read a comic, you're experiencing all of these things simultaneously, and there's empathy. There is empathy for a character, and it doesn’t matter what they look like. It doesn’t matter what shape they are, or what their life experience is like. You get to live their story.

Filling the reading gap with graphic novels

So I think that a lot of kids have been somehow left behind for a lot of years of their life. Either they weren’t a good reader, or they weren’t up to the level of their classmates, and you know. That means they didn’t get to experience the joy of like, sitting down with a good book. But graphic novels so often fill in those gaps, and then those kids become voracious readers, and they're able to talk about the stories with their classmates and their friends. And so, you know, I was a kid who loved to read comics, and I only had access to comic strips, and a few really underground small published graphic novels that were floating around out there.

The manga boom hadn’t happened yet. The indie comics boom hadn’t really happened yet, so I didn’t know where I was going with it, I just knew I loved it. I wish that I could be a kid today, because they have access to so much good stuff.   

From thumbnails to the printed book

So my process is to create something called thumbnails, and that means that I have an idea of the story in my head. I can sort of see the characters in their environment, whatever it is. And then the first thing I put on the page still looks like a comic, so I'm drawing the squares, the boxes, the panels, and then I'm putting little stick figures inside of those. And then their dialogue is drawn in word balloons that’s coming out of their mouths. And so, I mean, we’re talking rough, very, very, quick.

But it's still look like what it's going to look like eventually. It's a blueprint. So the reason I like to do that is because so much of what happens in a comic is in the quiet space. A lot of it's in the body language. A lot of it's just in the pauses that the characters do when they're talking to each other. So making a thumbnail means that I get to see that whole exchange. I get to see the whole thing right away. And so that’s what I give to my editor.

I give her 250 pages of thumbnails, and we edit from that stage, and then once we’re both happy with it, I start working up the pages on better paper. It's called Bristol Board. And I do my pencils with like just a cheapo retractable pencil from Staples. And then I ink over the pencils with a brush in India ink, waterproof. And then when the inks are done I scan them into a computer. And then the colorist puts the colors in. I don’t do my colors. That’s the only part of this that I don’t do myself.

Colors are all digital, done in PhotoShop. And then the files get sent to the printer in Asia, and then it all comes back to me. And it’s kind of cool ‘cause I feel like when it all gets assembled, I get to see it myself for the first time. And it's kind of like magic that way, and I'm like, “Oh, yeah. I did write that story. I did draw all those pictures, but look at it. Look at it. Look, it's so pretty.” So it's always gratifying to see your book for the first time in your hands.

Figuring out dialogue, pacing, clarity — then inking

I would say that most of the revision happens near the beginning. So in the thumbnails, I am working out the dialogue. I'm working out the pacing. I'm working out if I need another page in there somewhere to sort of stretch a scene out, or make it clearer. Sometimes it's just a matter of making the action clearer, and then you know, the characters were like, facing the wrong directions, and the word balloons were not flowing well. So I don’t know. I think this something you just get better at the more you do it, which is why I encourage kids especially, don’t wait, like start now. Start making bad comics now so that eventually your comics get better.

But the goal for me is to do as much revising as I can before I start the final art, because, at that point, I'm really committing to, you know, making it look the way that I want to. And then I can kind of go into auto pilot. By the time I get to inks, I wanna be like, barely even paying attention to what's in front of me. It's just shapes now, It's just kind of like a technical process where I'm filling it all in. And then I can listen to, you know, audio books and podcasts while I'm doing that.

Whereas up to that point, I need either silence or very, like, chill music. So there's just different stages, and each stage takes about six months. The pencils and inks — depending on how long the book is — can take a little longer. And sometimes the script comes together very quickly, and sometimes, you know, the thumbnails — I think the fastest I thumbnailed a book was one month, but I had been thinking about what the story was before I started. It wasn’t like I just dove in and made a story up from scratch.

But the longest it's taken me to thumbnail a book is more like six or seven months, because I was pulling myself out of it and thinking, “No this story’s not really working. I need to kind of go back to the thinking stage.”

Creating a sense of place

A sense of place is pretty important to me in my work, and my childhood all took place in San Francisco, which not everybody lives in San Francisco, but I did. And so I have tried consciously to sort of bring the atmosphere of that city into my books. And sometimes it comes into my fiction work too. So I wrote a book called Ghosts, where they spend a lot of time on the beach in Northern California, which is not the sunny California beach that some people think of. It's windy, it's chilly, it's very damp, it's usually very gray. And that’s what it's like in San Francisco in the summertime.

So all of my summer interludes in my books are me, like shivering under a blanket and wearing a jacket, and, you know, kind of hiding out and feeling sad. And I remember when I first turned in Smile and the editorial team was looking it over. One of the notes I got was, “It's really hard to tell the passage of time in your stories.” And I said, “Well, that’s because we don’t have summer, fall, winter, and spring like you do in other places.” And so that’s just like a natural progression of time that most people are familiar with.

I'm like, “We didn’t have that.” We had commercials on television telling us it was Christmastime. Sometimes people had Christmas trees, and there were certain songs that people sang. Like that was how we knew it was Christmas, not because we were building snowmen, or drinking hot beverages, or anything like that. We drank our hot beverages in the summertime because it was foggy then. So that’s just true, like it's just true of that place.

I've always been really tuned in to how that makes my body feel. Just the fact that in October the light is lower in the sky. Like the leaves didn’t change, we didn’t have that like crisp fall air that you get on the east coast, but because the light was lower. Every October I was like, “Oh, it's almost Halloween.” So maybe I was just more in tune with the natural world than some people. But, you know, San Francisco has interesting architecture, and there was a huge earthquake when I was 12. So I put that into Smile.

And kids always ask me, “Was that really true? Did that really happen?” I'm like, “Yeah. It's on Wikipedia. You can look it up.” But mostly what I hear from is parents of kids who are like, “Oh, my gosh. I was there too,” or “I remember when that happened ‘cause I was watching the world series,” and it happened as that broadcast was on television so people all over the country got to experience it. And those are the little details that give you context, and I never say explicitly, “It was 1989.” But, you know, it does give it a sense of place, and a sense of history, I guess, which that’s pretty cool.

Feedback from young readers

I probably hear from hundreds of kids every single month. And a lot of their feedback is, “I thought it was funny when this thing happened,” or “Did you really have a snake get into your car? That sounds terrible.”

But mostly what I hear is, “I see me. I see my sister. I see my brother. I see my friends, and it's given me the confidence to be myself, or to stand up to people that are bullying me, or just to know that like braces are not forever.” They might be painful right now, but when kids read my story they go, “Well, she definitely had it worse than I did.” So I don’t know. I've heard from the loveliest kids.

A lot of times it's struggling readers, and they are so excited that they finished a book, and it was over 200 pages long, and it's chunky, you know, and they can hold it in their hands, and it's just such a tactile experience. I think that’s one of the things we’ve all loved about books. It's something that connects a lot of people from a lot of generations, and so we all know that satisfaction of like holding a big book. So when they feel that satisfaction too, they're so proud of themselves

But, you know, kids re-read graphic novels. They go back again and again, and I think every single time they're discovering something different. They're learning more about the interplay of the dialogue and the pictures. They're seeing things in the backgrounds they didn’t notice before. And then they're like, “Oh, I saw that you hid yourself and your sister in the background of this scene.” And I'm just like, they're observing. They're being so keen, and it is really, really, cool to know that all of that hard work pays off when that kid has such a personal experience with the story.

And I wish I could hang out with every single kid who reads my books, but I’ll just keep writing more books and then they get to keep hanging out with my character.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." — Frederick Douglass