In her debut graphic memoir, Kristen Radtke layers a Wisconsin childhood with global travel, first apartments and a dystopian New York City. “We forget that everything will become no longer ours,” she writes amid images of abandoned ruins. An elegy to loss, she explores the transition into adulthood, ideas about home, comfort and our shaky relationship with permanence. “And when you love and then cannot continue that loving. And when the walls of a heart designed for protection turn in on themselves?” Radtke queries. “What can be made of the spaces that we cannot witness?”
Radtke, the film and video editor of Northwestern University’s TriQuarterly magazine, is an alumnus of Columbia College Chicago and the University of Iowa. She works as managing editor of Sarabande Books and her creative work features in many publications, including the New Yorker, BuzzFeed, The Rumpus and several anthologies. We conversed by email.
What was the most satisfying aspect of creating this book? Difficult?
Since “Imagine Wanting Only This” was my first book, I had no evidence that I could actually make a book. Even after I had a contract and a deadline, I woke up every day feeling like I couldn’t actually do what I’d signed a piece of paper saying I was going to do. So, for me, the most satisfying part of creating the book was actually finishing it. The most difficult part was sitting down every day and seeing dozens of blank squares in front of me that I had no idea how to fill.
Do images precede words, words before image, or do they come about together? How do you physically make the work?
I tend to work back and forth between text and image, at least as much as possible. I often storyboard before I begin drawing so that I get a sense for where things will fall, but the end result is often very different from what I originally outlined. I draw everything digitally, with a tablet, into Adobe Illustrator.
You use a variety of styles. Does that reflect different time periods? I notice your recent work (the New Yorker series) more consistently features line drawings and a recognizable look.
In my new work I didn’t necessarily set out to try a different style, but it just sort of happened. I think after thousands of drawings for this book, I was really desperate to try something new. I’m working in color a lot now, which still feels exciting.
I recognize the names of some incredible writing teachers. Who taught you to draw? I have long admired your video essays—are you still making that type of work? Why did you decide to focus on graphic essay?
I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, and took as many art classes as were available in high school. I had two very encouraging teachers there. Art classes were a reprieve for me from the rest of the school day where I couldn’t focus and where I felt pretty detached from what we were learning. I loved the bright industrial rooms and expansive drawing tables. Working on a graphic book wasn’t so much a decision as a gradual coming around. I initially envisioned the book as a prose project and then I started working some images in. It took a few years until I finally committed to it being a graphic book.
I laughed about the art school where students make puppets and have a high drop-out rate. Is that Columbia? What did you major in? It was obviously a good enough launch pad to get into Iowa—what were the positive things about going to college in Chicago?
Going to Columbia was one of the best decisions I ever made. I loved it there. I poke fun at it a little in the book, because, well, art school can be kind of silly, and we all took it so seriously. But I’m really glad that we did—I wouldn’t have been able to work toward making a life as an artist without that foundation.
You juggle a lot—Sarabande, including designing book covers; freelance work; conference presentations—is that type of “portfolio career” the norm for a creative life now? Is it sustainable? Is it utterly rewarding and fabulous or is it really, really hard?
It does seem like juggling multiple jobs has become the creative norm, doesn’t it? So many of my peers have a full-time day job and a couple of side projects, even beyond their own creative work. All I’ll say is that it can be really hard. I go through weeks where managing a day job, freelance design projects, writing and drawing assignments, and my own book projects feels absurd, especially if you get sick, or if your apartment’s plumbing starts leaking, or if you have to deal with really anything other than work. But it’s a privilege to get to do it and I’m lucky that I have a life that allows me to do it. I do wish there were a few more resources to make things easier for working artists and writers, though, like freelance jobs that actually paid on time, or access to affordable health care. I find it borderline unethical that I can see work on the newsstand that I haven’t been paid for yet. That’s not the norm in almost any other industry. We can do better than that.
Do you have any advice for younger writers/artists coming up?
You just have to do the work. You have to be relentless.
Where do you think home is?
I daren’t ask about next work, so only tell me if you have something to discuss.
I’m working on two new projects: A series of illustrations on urban loneliness, and a graphic novel on terrible men. I want to write and draw a book that represents exactly how people really talk to each other, with no pretense. It’s about a lot of things, but I like calling it my “terrible men book.” So let’s call it that.
“Imagine Wanting Only This”
By Kristen Radtke
Pantheon, 288 pages, $29.95
Kristen Radtke reads May 2, 7pm at The Whistler, 2421 North Milwaukee, (773)227-3530 and May 3, 7:30pm at Women and Children First, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.