Meet Lucy Knisley, Author of French Milk
Your book went from being independently published to being put out by a major publisher. Can you describe that process and what it meant to you while it was happening?
When I came home with this enormous journal of my trip, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was too long to make into a mini-comic and too much of a whole to put sections online. I wanted to share it, so I looked into self-publishing. My mom runs a small publishing company with her husband, and they have a self-publishing division (Epigraph) that I used for the book. I took the book to the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Arts annual festival, where it was picked up by a keen editor (Amanda Patten) who was looking for new talent. It was really amazing to have such an interest in something I really did on my own, and it was a real learning experience to translate my book for a wider audience once I signed with Touchstone.
How has your mother reacted to the book? Did your relationship change as a result of French Milk?
My mom absolutely adores the book. She was a big part of the power behind its publication process, so it’s more of a collaboration than she gets credit for. It’s nice to have this detailed account of our trip together, and to be able to accurately remember all the fabulous Parisian things we experienced. Ironically, I think its publication helped usher me into working adulthood, so the book that focuses on my reluctance to grow up has helped to make my mom see me more as an adult.
How difficult was it to capture Paris on the pages of your graphic novel?
I thought Paris was absolutely begging to be recorded. Before I left and began my journal, I read a whole pile of books written by authors experiencing Paris. I think it helped me, beforehand, to begin to see how attention to detail is important and to write about the parts of the city that inspire you. Sometimes it was hard to keep up with writing and drawing all the things that I remembered from the day, but I was always willing to stay up a little later to make sure I’d included every last important éclair.
Which was more difficult—truly representing the details of the city or accurately depicting your relationship with your mother, boyfriend, and friends? In other words, did you feel more challenged as an artist or a storyteller when creating this book?
It varied from day to day. Accurately presenting Paris was hard to do in a little journal, so I felt challenged to do so every day, but I felt that the writing helped to show the city where my little drawings fell short. The interpersonal relationships were easy to draw, as I like drawing people and felt confident that I could create expressions and dialogue well enough from memory, but the writing doesn’t always have space to explain the full extent of every relationship, so there was a little difficulty in that. I should say that the book was mostly very fluid and natural when it came to the writing process, but the difficulty varied from day to day.
What’s been the most surprising reaction you’ve seen people have to French Milk?
I honestly didn’t realize how much people would respond to my descriptions of the food! Food is so important to me, and was such a big part of my trip that I chose to include my recollections of it despite the worry that people might find reading about my meals to be slightly uninteresting. I haven’t found that to be the case at all! Readers have reacted with passion and excitement to the loving detail in my descriptions of the Parisian food. It was a great way for me to discover how many people with whom I could share my gustatory delights!
Were you surprised at how well you and your mother got along on the trip?
Not really. My mother and I, when we left for Paris, were becoming a little more independent from one another, having been apart for the last three-and-a-half years while I was at college. The trip was a good reminder of the things that we have in common and the shared interests that create such a bond between us even in our changing relationship.
Can you talk a little about how you came to mix photos and your drawings together in the book? What was your creative process like while putting everything together?
I’m a very visual person, so I often find myself repeatedly flipping to author photos when I’m reading novels (especially autobiography). While drawings can bring the reader in to share the author’s interpretation of their experiences, I wanted to add another level of connection between me and the readers of French Milk by including photography. I think it suggests my truthfulness in my descriptions and also allows readers to look into my face and see me for themselves, rather than just seeing through my eyes in the pages of writing and drawing. I love to compare drawings of graphic novelists to their photos, as I can see the subtle differences between how they see themselves, and how they appear to my eyes. The photos in French Milk are another offering to the reader, in order to try to include them in my trip as much as I possibly can.
What do you find yourself missing most about France now (besides the milk)?
I’ve been pining over the food since I left, of course, but I suppose the other thing I miss is the constant awareness of the incredible beauty of the city around me. Chicago is lovely, but living so temporarily in Paris, I was visually shocked by all the ancientness and incredible attention to the esthetics of every part of the city. It’s partly due to being somewhere new, where your eyes are fresh and you notice with the documenter’s memory. But the beauty of Paris cannot be denied, and I sometimes really moon after the memory of being surrounded by such constant loveliness.
Did you grow up reading comics and graphic novels? If so, what were some of your favorites?
I was a big fan of Archie comics growing up. I still have a massive collection of them, rotting away in my mom’s basement. I also adored Calvin and Hobbes and Asterix and Obelix. But I think (other than Archie) I liked Tintin best.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a new graphic novel?
Right now, I’m working on a graphic novel about my experiences and memories of food and growing up with a chef mom. It’s a pretty natural progression from French Milk, and my biggest trouble with the writing seems to be that I can’t stop recalling foodie stories that I want to include. I hope it’ll be finished eventually, but my enthusiasm for writing and drawing food is worrying me that it might go on forever!-- John Hogan