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Posted at 9:05 AM ET, 06/27/2010

The 'Riffs Interview: How the incisive TRACY WHITE made it to 'Eighteen' (A Cartoon Memoirist's Tale)

By Michael Cavna

Comic Riffs first discovered the beguiling work of Tracy White a couple of years ago at the SPX Small Press Expo in suburban Washington. Her animation on was nominated for an Ignatz Award, and her storytelling talent was obvious. Today, White is at the ALA Annual Conference to sign copies of her brand-new, mostly factual cartoon memoir, "How I Made to Eighteen" (Roaring Brook). Comic Riffs caught up with the New York native and NYU educator via e-mail to discuss her mostly true tales of memory and creativity.


MICHAEL CAVNA: So how long did it take you to write and draw this "mostly" memoir -- and was it a continuous creative process, or one of stops and starts?

TRACY WHITE: This book took about six continuous years from initial idea to hardcover novel. During that time I found an agent; wrote and drew a book to shop around (told as an adult looking back on my teen years and currently updating in episodes on my site); found an editor who wanted the story (only totally different); and from the teen point of view (so no hindsight), wrote and drew a test chapter, sold the idea, started writing, then my editor moved to another house with my manuscript, finished writing, and drew "How I Made it to Eighteen". Phew.

MC: You say this account is 95 percent true. Is the age (17) at the time of the events among the "true" things -- and what else is especially true?

TW: Yup, my book's mostly true -- and my online comics are 95 percent true, guaranteed. The book is a work of fiction because sometimes I wanted the freedom to change when things happened, leave out/add in events, or just plain make stuff up in order to get a point across.

When I was 18 (no I wasn't 17), the reasons for my depression, even during my stay in the mental hospital, were not so clear to me. I wasn't able to connect past experiences with present emotions as well as I depict in the book (those insights came later) but that's a really important aspect of the question, "Why do I feel this way," so many of those observations have been included.

MC: Are you doing okay today?

TW: Full disclosure: I was bulimic and had been since I was about 15. I'm more than okay today. In fact, I'm pretty sure my 17-year-old self would be totally amazed to see me -- a happy, married mom who doesn't feel compelled to work out every day. That is, after she totally took apart everything I was wearing.

MC: Did you discuss what you were creating with your mom, your ex-boyfriend, your "boarding-school friend" et al.? And if you did, how do they feel about being depicted in "Eighteen," so honestly?

TW: I didn't have discussions -- I had fact-finding sessions. The only reliable thing about memory is how unreliable it is. We forget some things, enhance or diminish others.

In order to write this book, even though it is based on my life, I had to do research. I got my old hospital records, interviewed and got the notes from the therapist I saw just as my depression was really settling in, reread my old diaries and called my five closest friends (in the book they have been squished into four fictional characters) who knew me then and interviewed them.They've all been supportive, although not all of them have read the book yet. I never went over the novel with my mom but I did give her the galley. The other day she told me she never said anything about the content because this is my story, not hers. As for the ex-boyfriend, I stopped all contact with him a few years after I got out.

MC: Has creating this work been therapeutic, if you will? How did it feel creating it and telling your story?

TW: The therapy was done a long time ago, that's why I was actually able to write it. I think otherwise it would have been really hard to get back into that mindset without becoming upset. Basically, I just wanted to tell a real story of what it's like when you are unhappy, forget how to be happy and can't remember why. I hope I have.

MC: What's the reaction been like to your book?

TW: A lot of people say they are amazed I was willing to expose myself so much. I never thought of it that way, but then when I read reviews that talk about the book as being "gut-wrenching" or "unsympathetic to [my] adolescent self," I think: Yeah I guess I really did put myself out there. It's just that I'm so over it all that it almost seems like it happened to someone else.

MC: What do you hope other people will take from your biographical novelization?

TW: I've always thought of this as a book for teen girls and women, but recently I had a conversation with a guy who'd read the book and he told me about his sister whose been depressed since she was a teen, and his wife who'd had an eating disorder, not to mention all the women he'd dated who all had issues around body image and how it helped him have a better understanding of why they might have felt what they did.

So today, I'll say this book is for everyone because things like depression and body dysmorphia and drugs, and cutting -- they touch more than the person they're directly affecting.

I tell stories to connect to people, and because I think we all share many universal experiences albeit with individual twists. I wrote this book because I didn't have something like it when I was 18. I truly believed I was totally alone -- that no one felt the way I did. Hopefully when people read "How I Made it to Eighteen," the emotions that they had or are having that make them feel alienated will dissipate for a few moments -- and sometimes that's all you need; a small jolt to nudge you in another direction.

MC: What are you working on next, and is it biographical?

TW: My next book project is just an idea in my head at the moment but by the fall (yay for deadlines) I'll have a fully formed idea that's most likely at least partly true some of the time -- and yeah,it'll be based on personal experience.

How I Made it to Eighteen, an almost true story. from traced on Vimeo.


By Michael Cavna  | June 27, 2010; 9:05 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, San Diego Comic-Con, The Animation, The Graphic Novel, The Webcomic  | Tags:  How I Made It to Eighteen, Tracy White  
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