When I first met Keiler Roberts, I wasn’t aware of her work. Harboring feelings of untapped potential due to my art-major mother, it was a simple desire to learn how to draw that brought me into Professor Roberts’ classroom. But soon thereafter, I remedied that ignorance, and learned that the wry wit and earnestness that makes her a good teacher also makes her a good artist.
Known for her autobiographical comics that cast an unflinching eye on her life—and her perspectives on motherhood, chronic illness, and mental health—Roberts has released several books of vignettes covering these issues. Her latest book, My Begging Chart, deals with the pandemic, and her family life as her daughter Xia gets older.
I had the opportunity to speak with Roberts via Zoom about her process, how her work has evolved over time, and which moments she hopes to capture.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you view your comic work as autofictional, or true autobiography? Is there a distance between you, and the Keiler in your comics?
I think of it as straight autobiography. Everything that I write is very true, and the biggest changes I would make would be maybe I would put the thing that happened in a different room or outdoors or something.[That said,] there’s a huge difference between my life in comics and the way things really are, because of editing. I’m very aware of what I choose to leave out. It’s all me, but it’s just one-eighth of me that makes it into my comics, and then I have a lot of other parts of my personality and life that aren’t in there.
In your work, you depict yourself journaling a lot. Are you always journaling and looking for moments to capture and turn into a comic? When does something become worthy of making it into your work?
It’s really intuitive, and it’s changed. I used to set aside time to write, and looked at it like, “I could write about anything,” it seemed like there were so many options. But more and more the writing process is tiny. It’s like the way most people take photographs with their phones: something catches your attention. It wasn’t something you were looking for, but you know right away you want to take a picture of it.
And that’s exactly what the comic moments are. I tend to recognize them right away. I write them down if I’m near paper, and if I’m not, I make a note on my phone. [In those notes] I’ll describe, “Xia and I are going for a walk,” and then anything else I need to remember about the situation. Then I’ll write the dialogue down.
If I want to capture our bodies in [a specific] position, I’ll make a sketch before I forget about it, and I’ll sit there and think, “Okay, my left leg is bent,” like what is making this position interesting?
You mentioned not having the same kind of writing time anymore. My Begging Chart, compared to some of your other work, is a bit sparser in that regard; there’s less exposition at times. Was that intentional, or did that just naturally arise out of how your process has changed?
It was both. I had a big moment after I started My Begging Chart, where I sort of quit comics and didn’t think I’d be able to continue. It was a kind of artistic breakdown or something. I felt like I couldn’t write about myself anymore, and I did other projects to get away from it. I also just spent a lot of time crying on the couch (laughs) and obsessing and journaling. I did a lot of drawings of made-up characters. I wanted to make artwork that wasn’t about me.
And then when I came back to being able to make comics, it was really like, “no more narration.” I guess I got away from my identity a little bit, and [the work] became more about experience, and me as a set of eyes to witness whatever was happening. I think the stuff before maybe had more to do with my stories and personality.
A few times since that happened, I’ve had a memory or a longer story come to me and I’ve written it out. And I just feel so tired. Like, “Oh my God, it’s going to kill me to write this five-page story.” So I don’t try to do it anymore.
There’s so little control, in a sense. [For this] evolution of process, other people might evolve in the exact opposite way. They might start with something that’s more like vignettes and then be able to write a really consistent linear narrative memoir or something like that. And who knows why that is? They might make something amazing that way. I’m not changing because I’m achieving something better. Just for whatever reason, this is what I’m doing now. I don’t seem to be able to choose necessarily.
Do you view your work in terms of separate books, or is it all sort of the same project to you?
I still think of it as a whole. I mean, I recognize that this book is different, and I’m working on the next book which is more like this one, you know, in that same mode. But before this new book is finished, things could change a lot. I don’t know what’s going to happen 10 pages from where I am right now.
Even though my work has changed, I look at it like Powdered Milk #1, my minicomic; I still see it as connected. I still feel like I’m working on the same series. It’s still about me, my life; it’s just a different approach.
How does a book come together for you? Your work spans such a wide range: from comics that might have no dialogue and only consist of a single panel, to some that might be several pages. How much do you think about the flow of that in a book as a whole?
That’s changed, too. My Begging Chart is the most chronological book I’ve done. The pages were all out of order, and I used this complicated color coding system, and then I realized I was just putting them in chronological order.
In the past, with Sunburning, Chlorine Gardens, and Rat Time, those three, I printed out all the pages and spread them all out on the floor, and kept rearranging them. It was really based on themes coming and going. So one of those books has all the vignettes with my parents sort of lumped together, and all the vignettes with Xia. And then there are themes in each of those books, like MS, or bipolar, or parenting—that are kind of grouped together.
I also use different color markers when I’m going through pages. I’ll mark, “this is a funny page,” “this is ridiculous,” “this is kind of a sad page.” And then I’m able to look at the marker at the top and the whole book with an emotional trajectory to it.[In My Begging Chart], because it was more chronological, I did that a little bit. It’s like, “Okay, this section is Winter,” and then within Winter I can put things in any order and look at like, “How is this going to read, emotionally?” Or even just the amount of text. I don’t want to have pages in a row that are really text-heavy or that have no text. It’s about the reading pace, I guess.
You touched on this a bit, but of course with comics it’s a balanced medium. You have to balance the art and the writing. I was wondering if you think about that in the same way as the sequencing.
When I was doing painting classes in undergrad, one of my professors, T.L. Solien said, “You don’t have to do everything in every painting.” I still think of that all the time.
Like, this comic is really about this one page, and it doesn’t have these other qualities that another page has. It’s about using the variety. I think about a body of work in terms of paintings, they’re all connected, but they’re all separate.
I think comics have the same [sort of thing]. Each story or page I want to work on its own, but it doesn’t have to have “everything”; it’s connected to not just every other page of that [particular] book, but to all my books. The more you read them, the more I think they work together.
Do you have a favorite vignette from My Begging Chart?
There’s one where my husband and my Mom and I are all standing in my Mom’s bathroom, and I’m just wearing a towel, and we’re having a conversation. There was some reason for it to be happening in the bathroom, but if you detach from that, adults don’t have a conversation in the bathroom. Maybe in a partner situation that happens, or Xia and I have conversations in the bathroom constantly, but for my Mom and my husband to be there in this little room?
I get so much pleasure out of these sorts of “wrong” situations, things that you wouldn’t plan that are just spontaneous. I love that.
In My Begging Chart, your daughter is getting older. Has your choice of what to capture of your relationship with your daughter and your experience of motherhood changed as she’s aged?
An older child is more embarrassed; you have to keep some things private. I used to be able to draw her little naked butt when she was two and potty training; obviously I can’t draw her naked anymore, or anything she would feel self-conscious about. I have her proofread my pages, and give me approval just to make sure I’m right about the assumptions I’m making about privacy and stuff like that.
But also the way she’s funny is really different [now]. She’s really intentional and she makes jokes on purpose. And sometimes they’re extremely funny because of her intent. [There’s a moment in My Begging Chart] where she says, “What are you going to learn at this meeting, how to control your behavior?” She’s really sharp, and she knows how to make fun of me. When she was younger, it was more like this “accidental truth,” where it’s funny because you can’t believe a three-year-old said it. Right now it’s like, it would be funny even if an adult made some of the jokes that she’s making.
Your work is so incredibly intimate and portrays real people; how does it feel to create work like this, and have it seen by so many?
It’s different with each person. I definitely let people know what I’m doing. I’m very careful to do that. And so if I do draw a page about somebody, even if I think it’s completely innocuous, I send them the rough draft and ask for permission directly. And people are different about whether they want to be depicted or not.
Some people love getting in, they love the attention. That’s the ideal situation for me, because I obviously really liked something about this moment, you know? And everybody in my comic is someone I really like. Even my doctors. I don’t portray people I think are being jerks, or people whose behavior I don’t like; I wouldn’t bother to put that in, because then it’s just complaining.
In this book, there is a conversation I have with my friend Adar. He’s been a character since the very beginning, and he’s always been a good sport. [But] he was concerned after reading [a scene he was in], [wondering if] it makes him look like he’s not being sensitive enough.[In that scene], he says, “You’re three-quarters of the way to enlightenment,” and I say, “Or psychosis,” and he says, “Either way, you’re hurtling towards it!” which I think is one of the funniest things you could say. I wanted to get his joke in there, because Adar is super funny, and that’s what I want to come through.
And so the fact that he makes the joke in that moment, when I’m talking about how hard things have been, I see it as proof of our intimacy and our friendship, that we can talk about things really honestly, but also not be devastated. How we can have a nice conversation, and we can still joke.
I love that moment. And what you say rings true. You don’t want a friend to come to you with pity, you want the joke. It captures it so well.
There are lots of people writing about illnesses, and it’s very common in these sorts of memoir books for there to be a page where people don’t react well. They say all these things that make you cringe, and I’ve never included that; I’ve never wanted to criticize people, you know? It’s a really hard thing. When people tell you some bad news about their health, it’s hard to know how to respond. I’ve said the wrong thing. I would feel so awful if my insensitivity was recorded forever in a comic by someone else; that would kill me.
You’re obviously so careful about what you show of others. How hard do you have to work to extend that same sort of care or generosity towards yourself?
I’m really glad it’s had that effect on you. I do want to show vulnerability, but I don’t want to betray myself. I don’t want to make my life harder. I tell my students, when you’re deciding whether to put something out there or not, you have to think that kind of everybody might see it, you know? And if there’s even one person, or one type of person, who you don’t want to expose that part of yourself to, make that decision in your own favor. Things I don’t want to show people, I don’t show people.
I can show a lot of things and talk about a lot of things, because just having the ability to package it the way I want gives me that freedom and protection. I don’t want people to actually see me when I am having these problems. The things I can draw, that’s a safe distance. But I’m terrified of somebody seeing me lose control of my feelings. And it does happen, and I hate it every time.
People can misunderstand you as a person. They can misunderstand your emails. They can misunderstand your books. And that’s something every single person has to deal with. Like how much of ourselves is going to be understood and how much is going to be misperceived and held against us.
I don’t know, I have a lot of magical thinking. I’m able to forget a lot of things and just pretend they don’t exist. Or they don’t exist to me. When we’re talking about the pandemic, “Oh, it’s going to change once we have a vaccine and it’s going to change it in these ways,” I could not believe that that was going to happen. Or something like, “Oh, our kids are going to be in high school one day!” I’m like, “No, they’re not. That is not going to happen. That will never happen.” And now it’s only a few years away.
But it’s like the way you can’t think about death, and the way you can’t think about the universe, as if there’s a certain point where you just can’t comprehend infinity. I’m so much more in this little tiny shell. There’s so many things that I can’t even fantasize about, and that gives me a sense of privacy.
I still don’t believe that more than 50 people have read my work, you know? And no matter how much proof there is, that’s how I feel.
My Begging Chart
By Keiler Roberts
Drawn & Quarterly
May 25, 2021
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.