THE FIRST TIME I encountered Raina Telgemeier’s work in person, at a convention nearly six years ago, I was immediately impressed with her gift for creating storytelling that truly connects.
And since that day, I’ve marveled at — but not been surprised by — just how much young readers have responded to, and embraced, her graphic novels, including the bestsellers “Smile” and “Drama.”
Late this summer, Telgemeier will publish a graphic memoir follow-up to “Smile” — titled “Sisters” (Scholastic) — about a road trip she and younger sister took when Raina was 14. In advance of that release, Telgemeier is on another road trip, of sorts, driving down from Astoria, N.Y., to appear in conversation with her cartoonist husband, Dave Roman (“Astronaut Academy”), tomorrow at 1:15 p.m. at the Gaithersburg Book Festival.
Comic Riffs caught up with Telgemeier to talk about the power of the graphic memoir, the loyal young audience that loves her work — and how she may be well-served to continue to mine her childhood for keenly crafted stories.
MICHAEL CAVNA: You’ve just come from Toronto — how was the [TCAF] festival for you? What were the highlights … because [reports were] that you rocked it.
RAINA TELGEMEIER: The highlight of my TCAF came early in the weekend, when I got to interview my cartooning idol, Lynn Johnston, onstage in front of 450 people! “For Better or For Worse” was one of the first comic strips I fell in love with as a kid, and I obsessed over it until the day it ended in 2010. My challenge was to moderate a panel featuring Lynn and Kate Beaton, one of Canada’s most beloved webcartoonists, and find the parallels in their careers. Luckily, they made it easy for me; both women are gracious, articulate, and hilarious.
MC: Congrats on the recent bestseller-list milestone for your work. Has the amazing response to DRAMA surprised you at all, or after the reaction to SMILE, did this seem like a natural continuation and logical building of your fan base?
RT: Thank you! I’m still amazed that my books found such a remarkable audience. Typically, a book is published and gets one season in the sun. Eventually you write another book, and maybe your old books get a bump, but my books seem to keep being discovered and recommended to new people of all ages. The same was the case with my favorite comics and books when I was young: I read them over and over, always finding something new to appreciate with each read. I now have college students telling me they read my books in middle school! That makes me feel wonderful — and old.
MC: Speaking of: Every time I see you at an event over the past half-dozen years or so, you always seem to be yet more popular with readers, and this seems largely a product of your continual and tireless work — the talent was clearly already there, but you seem to be in an amazing zone creatively. Can you describe your recent success a bit from the inside of the career ride?
RT: It’s hard to take stock of your own success when you are always busy! I’ve always believed in working hard, and I’m grateful that people seem to connect with the kinds of stories I’m passionate about telling. I truly appreciate all the support fans have given me, because it means I can continue to make stuff, and not have to worry about whether or not there is an audience for it. Going to so many book events keeps me connected with my readership, while constantly reminding me that all the long hours at the drawing desk are worthwhile.
MC: You have an uncanny [knack] for writing from a place of truth. How hard have you had to work to hone that voice, and has it felt natural when writing memoirs, or has it been a distinct evolution or development?
RT: I’m always writing my life in my head as it’s happening. That means paying attention, and focusing on the distinctive moments — especially visual details — that might be useful later. I also spend a lot of time listening to people talk, and much like a mimic, I love being able to capture a particular voice in written dialogue. I can spy a tin ear on a writer from a mile away, but that makes me appreciate good dialogue writing even more.
MC: Congratulations on your forthcoming SISTERS. Other than the simple fact it’s about your family of origin, what’s the origin story, as it were, behind this work? And is this based on a real car trip from your childhood?…
RT: My readers seemed very eager for a “sequel” to SMILE, but writing sequels to stand-alone, autobiographical stories isn’t something an author can just do! It took me awhile to realize what people were really asking for were more anecdotes from my childhood, drawn from my point of view. I started thinking about my craziest family stories, and the road trip we took when I was 14 was pretty nuts…so I fleshed that out, and added some flashbacks, and wove that all into what became SISTERS.
MC: What do you hope your readers will most appreciate or take away from SISTERS? And has your own sister read this yet — and if so, any reaction?
RT: I think a lot of readers will see themselves in this story, whether they have siblings or not. Everyone can relate to family tension and SISTERS is full of it!
My own sister did indeed read the story in its first draft, and she actually helped me remember a few details and gave me her side of things, which has helped me to understand her better. Hopefully, the experience of publishing this book will bring us even closer.
MC: You are a San Francisco-to-East Coast transplant. How has being in New York most of your adult life nurtured your art and talent and inspiration? Has environment made a difference as an artist?
RT: New York is great for busy creative types. The city has a pulse that races, and you either keep up with it or you leave. At this point I could take my work anywhere, but my husband and I both feed off the city’s energy. There is always something to be inspired by. San Francisco is inspiring too, and I really miss the natural beauty of Northern California. … Maybe that’s why, so far anyway, all of my books have taken place there!
MC: As events like Small Press Expo and Toronto reflect, the field of comics has never seemed more inviting and open for women creators — as the entire industry is evolving. What are you most encouraged by as you speak, and create, and inspire?
RT: There is no barrier and no glass ceiling. I have role models who came before me, and feel like I’m in a position to lead by example. A young girl reading comics today does not have to wonder if there is a place for her in this industry!