“I ask myself, Was I born from a stone? Do I still speak Jewish? Does Jewish still exist? I try to say the words to myself. Maybe somebody should hear me. I try to picture a face. My mother’s face. If I could draw, I would draw her. Just to bring her back to my eyes.” ~ Bubbe in Flying Couch
Memory. Identity. Art. Amy Kurzweil blends all three together in tight unity in her new graphic memoir, Flying Couch (Catapult/Black Ballon, 2016). Using her artist’s hand, she tells of her journey to illustrate the story of her grandmother, who survived the Holocaust by living with gentiles and claiming she was not Jewish. Alongside her grandmother’s memories of the War, Kurzweil depicts the dynamics of mothers and daughters–then and now–in a mix of illustrated heartache and humor. She proves that while memory is fluid and fades, art brings back its form, returns us to our core, and helps us reconcile what has been lost and gained.
I’m honored to host Amy Kurzweil today, where we dig a little deeper into story and form. And there’s a giveaway (thanks to Catapult!). Enter HERE for a chance to win a copy of Flying Couch (deadline to enter: Tuesday, Dec. 20th, noon).
Now welcome Amy Kurzweil.
Christi Craig (CC): As a writer and teacher of writing, what do you appreciate most about the style and architecture embedded in graphic memoir as form?
Amy Kurweil (AK): I love the immediacy of drawing, how it connects to our emotional life so directly. I have to bring a certain quality into my arm when I want to make a line that expresses a certain emotion. My arm has to shake for a shaky line, has to tense for a rigid line. I can’t draw a sad face without frowning myself. And I love how with graphic memoir, the self is split in two: There’s the writing self, the narrator, the self reflecting here and now, and then there’s the figure I just drew on the page, the 2-dimensional me, an embodiment of memory. I think all memoir writing has this kind of splitting of the self, the past and present sharing the page, and I just love how comics makes this literal.
CC: In a post on Jewish storytelling, Erika Dreifus highlights this quote from Avraham Infeld’s “The 5 Legged Table” on Memory:
While history is about what happened in the past, memory is about how that past drives our present and our future.
Your book is an exploration of memories pulled from time spent with your grandmother and her stories about surviving the Holocaust. Now that you’ve published Flying Couch, how does memory, this narrative of your grandmother especially, fit within the framework of your life moving forward?
AK: That’s a wonderful quote. It resonates so well with my ideas about memory. Memory is one of the most interesting things in the world, I think. It’s still mysterious to me exactly why we remember what we do or exactly what our memories say about the facts of the past, but it’s certainly true that memories communicate what we once found and continue to find important. I’ve heard every time you remember something you change the story a bit, you rewrite the experience – the roots of the word remember literally mean something close to “rebuild,” or “refill” – but I don’t think this means our memories can’t be trusted, only that they may tell us more about ourselves than about the world. What’s also true about memory is that the more we recall certain events, the more we reinforce the narratives those stories support.
This is all to say that whatever compelled me to write this book has certainly reinforced my connection to my grandmother and her history, and whether that was necessary or inevitable I can’t say. Not everybody in my position wants or needs to do that. But I will say: having now understood my grandmother’s experience in the holocaust as deeply as I feel I can, having reflected on the psychological inheritances of this history, has made a lot of the horrible things that happen to people all over the world, all the time, less abstract and less distant. I don’t think that means anything specifically for my life moving forward other than a possibility that my writing and my art will be infused with a certain authentic empathy, and hopefully, in the best case scenario, this empathy-into-art does it’s tiny infinitesimal drop-in-the-bucket job to ease other people’s pain, and my own.
CC: In this interview on for The New School Writing Program, you say, “The reason Flying Couch was published is because I worked on it a lot for a very long time (eight years) and then I got lucky. I think that’s the only true story that you can tell about a published book.” For writers and artists alike, perseverance is the key. But is there another word, mantra, or even image you turn to that urges you on when “The End” seems eons away?
AK: I suppose I remind myself almost everyday that I actually enjoy writing and drawing. I mean I just viscerally and emotionally relish the act of making marks on paper, seeing the mess of my thoughts and feelings transformed into words or shapes. That seems like a requirement of this work. For me, making marks a basic need first, and an ambition second.
So it’s been important for me to separate career anxiety from writing anxiety. Of course career anxiety is tied to money anxiety, but just about every writer needs another job (publishing a book doesn’t necessarily change that!). Then, just holding all those anxieties apart from one another is helpful. Finishing a project, especially a first project, is important if you want to get on the literary map, if you really want lots of attention. But for most of us, our writing practice is not primarily about getting attention. I write for insight and understanding. What really gets me down is when I lose the private thing, when I’m unable to illuminate or understand.
You asked for images. Ok, let’s say my mind is a landscape: as long as it’s a field in bloom, who cares how long it takes me to collect all those wildflowers – it’s an enjoyable task. It’s when my mind is a barren desert that I really feel awful. So if my mind-field feels razed and empty, I have to go do something else. Reading or traveling usually helps fertilize the field.
CC: What are you reading these days?
AK: I see that what I’m reading now is quite disparate and a lot at once: I’m about to finish – and have been reading for months – Nabakov’s autobiography Speak Memory. It’s slow and to be savored. Next I will read Jonathan Safran’s Foer’s new one, Here I Am. I sometimes foolishly try to read from my boyfriend’s book piles (he’s getting a PhD in Philosophy) so right now it’s Personal Identity (essays by Hume, Locke and others). Comics-wise I’m reading Sarah Glidden’s Blackouts and I just assigned The Arrival (Shaun Tan) and Un Océan D’amour (Lupano and Panccione) two silent graphic novels, for my class at F.I.T. On train rides, I tend to read on my phone, usually essays published online, so right now: George Saunders’ piece on “The Incredible Buddha Boy” about a kid in Nepal who had apparently been meditating and fasting for 7 months (!). Oh and I just read my sister-in-law’s draft of a young adult dystopian novel. (Think: the next Harry Potter). And always: lots of peer and student work-in-progress.
CC: What’s your favorite drawing tool and where’s your favorite place in which to create?
AK: Hands down my Pentel brush-pen, with easy refillable ink cartridges. I think a brush is important for getting that connection I was talking about in the first answer: between mark and body feeling. I know it sounds a little pretentious, I mean, you can draw with anything, but the ink needs to really run or your lines get stunted. So for me a brush is more freeing. But I hate redipping. Thus: brush-pen.
I usually work at the tilted drawing table in my bedroom. It’s not a perfect setup – there are eraser shavings in my bed, but you can’t beat the commute.
If you’re interested, I just wrote/drew this essay about my process, which features a drawing of this table with all my supplies labeled.
Amy Kurzweil is the author of the debut graphic novel Flying Couch (Catapult/Black Balloon, 2016), which received a Kirkus star and is a Junior Library Guild pick. Her comics appear in The New Yorker and other publications. Her short stories have appeared in The Toast, Washington Square Review, Hobart, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. She teaches writing and comics at Parsons School of Design and at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Amy lives in Brooklyn.
Do check out her essay on her process and DON’T FORGET to enter the giveaway for a chance to win Flying Couch!