Only This: An Interview with Kristen Radtke

Mieke Eerkens

Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic memoir that explores the relationship between literal and figurative ruination. Radtke juxtaposes abandoned places—crumbling shells of churches, theaters, the spaces left behind by war and fire—with a meditation on failed relationships, family members lost to disease, and her own mortality as she recognizes the ways in which human lives fade into history.

Having studied the essay in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, Radkte resists the conventions of a linear narrative found so often in graphic novels and memoirs. Imagine Wanting Only This relies on a braided structure, allowing the work to become an essayistic meditation on a subject matter as each thread contextualizes the other.

Radtke is a writer exploring the parameters of what hybrid forms can do, and the result is a fresh take on the graphic memoir. I recently had a conversation with her about the book and the experience of bringing it into the world.

Mieke Eerkens: This is your first book-length project. I know that for me, writing a book presented so many more challenges than I had anticipated, for various reasons, and I wondered if you experienced the same thing? What did you find the most challenging part of doing this book?

Kristen Radtke: I think structure is the hardest part. It takes forever to figure out how things fit together. Often you can get stopped up by that, and it prevents you from making progress on the parts you need to write because you’re obsessed with how it will work in the end. One of the things I learned is you have to just keep writing. Structure will find its way. It seems like a miracle when things start fitting together, because it feels like it is never going to until you see, “Holy shit, it goes here.” That’s always a shocking moment.

The other thing is you really start second guessing yourself like crazy during certain parts of the project, and you think, “This was a huge mistake,” and you feel this need to undo things. I think about the sheer amount of time it takes and how much you change during the process of writing the book. So especially when you’re writing nonfiction, and especially when you’re a narrator in that nonfiction and it’s supposed to be some sort of representation of who you are, sticking in that mindset is hard, like figuring out how you allow yourself to change accurately without dismantling the entire project.

ME: I find I tend to experience my life very much through the lens of a writer. I think in metaphors and scenes as I move through my day, and am thinking about language a lot, especially when I am in the middle of working on a manuscript. I was curious if, after working on a book like yours, you begin to think in panels and imagery. Since you have a background in both disciplines, does your brain lean more toward imagery or language, do you think?

KR: I think it’s both, I think in both, but I know that I now process information a bit more visually than I used to. I start thinking about how things would unfold in panels and how they would unfold visually in a way I never did before. And even in the beginning of writing this book it was a struggle to figure out how things unfolded visually, and now it feels much more natural. But I can now look around a room and know exactly how it would look drawn. I can visualize it immediately now, which I never could before.

ME: Do you think you’ll ever go back to straight writing, or do you think you’ve found your thing in graphic work?

KR: I am working on a book of essays, but some of the essays will have images. It’s a book about loneliness, and I’ve been doing all these drawings of urban loneliness. So it will be half that, and probably some prose essays. I’ll see how it unfolds. But it will definitely still be paired with images. At this point, I don’t think I will ever do a book that is solely prose.

ME: We both studied the essay under John D’Agata, in a program that really focused a lot on the essay, and the act of essaying in our creative work. What struck me by your book was how present that essayistic quality was translated to image in the graphics, something I haven’t seen in the same way in the admittedly limited graphic literature I have read- Spiegelman, Bechtel, Satrapi, etc. For example, you seem to be working a lot out in view of the reader, such as with the calls to doctors and images of your notes about the genetic disorder that runs in the family. It’s very self-reflexive and essayistic, in terms of the word “essay” as a verb. It also really impressed me how you were willing to offer up a panel, or sometimes several panels, to visual silence or pause- your narrator just thinking, introspective, without also including something else to provide narrative information in the panel. It’s like it gave me a few beats to also contemplate without having to process or bank new information.

For example, we’ve got a young you staring through a window, you in college with a black background absorbing the classmate’s information about Gary, staring out of the car window on the way to the airport in Colorado, staring out of the window of the Greyhound on the way to Chicago, 3 panels of staring out the train window with your fiancé asleep on your shoulder, lying in the grass staring at the sky, etc.

How conscious are those panels? How do you see them functioning in your work?

KR: One of the interesting things about talking to people about the book is how many of them mention that I show my source documents- like reproducing notes, or I show historical photographs, research documents, and I show my research process. That to me was never a conscious choice; it was just how I was going to tell the story. But the sort of introspective parts and thinking about what you represent visually when you are just thinking through a problem was a hard thing for me in the book. And I think it’s something I will do differently in future work.

Halfway through the book I thought, “I can’t show myself walking alone at night thinking again.” How many times can that happen in a book? But it’s hard, because it was my first foray into this medium, and I didn’t know what else to put there. And to me, it was how I was experiencing reality and I wanted to replicate that. But I am interested in finding more creative ways to do it in the future.

ME: I felt like that was one of the more exciting things about it.

KR: That’s because you’re a literary person. I think a lot of literary people respond to that, and then comics people are like, “What is this?”

ME: It’s the essayist in you. I respond to it very well because it’s giving the reader space to think. I feel like that’s doing something new that I haven’t really seen. Like you were saying, people who come from a comics background are always filling their panels; they’re thinking “I have to provide information in every panel to move this narrative forward. It has to be doing double duty in some way.” I enjoy that that you give the space- to borrow a literary term, the “white space”- within a medium that doesn’t often provide that.

In terms of essaying, I was wondering how this book came together thematically. Was there an idea driving you that you wanted to essay, and these examples- the loss of an uncle, the loss of love and places you loved, the abandonment of places- lent themselves to that idea, or was it the other way around? Were these life memories the driving force, and through thinking about them, the unifying themes arose? It’s sort of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question.

KR: I don’t know that the memories were the driving force. It was probably the specific abandoned places that were. But the themes definitely emerged through the writing. I didn’t sit down with some idea of what the book was about at all. I just wanted to tell the story of certain abandoned places and then I realized how certain parts of my personal life were impacting that desire and how related those two things were. And then the themes started emerging from there.

But I could never have said what the book was about when I started it. It was sort of like how we were talking earlier about how it felt like a miracle when things started to come together. I was writing about abandoned places for a while before someone said, “Hey, these are all part of the same project.” I think we are drawn to the same things over and over, and we often don’t approach it as a book project. But I also think that’s part of a first book, and why first books take a long time, because at first you don’t realize you are working on them.

ME: You have a line jotted down- “To abandon something beautiful is where the crime rests”- in a panel that shows your notebook. I think that’s interesting because the personal battle I see your narrator engaging with via these different threads in the book is culpability. There’s a slight difference, and hence a tension, between the idea of abandonment, which carries a more passive meaning of withdrawal, and ruin, the act of ruining, which implies a more active role in destruction. Later, you write about the actual creation of ruins, the fetishizing of ruins by our culture. Here, it’s not abandonment, but a theme of purposeful ruination. Am I completely off, or do you think there’s something to say about that tension in the book, the idea of intent and the fine line between abandonment or decay, and ruination or destruction. I felt your narrator might have been grappling with how responsible she might be.

KR: Personal responsibility is something I struggled with in the book a lot. And as I was sort of running through my past and trying to make sense of my experiences, I realized that I had made these decisions that weren’t very conscious and in a lot of ways were actually pretty thoughtless. I hadn’t thought about my relationship to them.

Several of the reviews of my book mentioned offhandedly that I abandoned my ex-boyfriend. They use the word ‘abandoned.’ And I never saw it that way at all, but then I thought, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s what happened.’ But I think that’s also part of being young, and I was also really young in the parts about my personal life, like early twenties. So I think in general we are still kind of coming into our own consciousness then and trying to navigate what we owe to a place, what we owe each other.

ME: I sensed in the narrator a kind of guilt for these cities that were abandoned, and a questioning to what extent we are all responsible for that or maintaining that state. Whereas war is such a deliberate act of ruination, of destruction, abandoning something is such a passive way of ruining. I see in the character a sort of guilt walking around these abandoned places, at least in the beginning and the middle of the book.

KR: Yes. That’s definitely how I felt when I was there. I don’t know why that was, necessarily, other than the fact that I also felt kind of guilty for being in these places where the stories weren’t mine and were so removed from my own life. I think that was part of it too, just an uneasiness about being there and inserting myself in that narrative.

ME: I love this passage of you arriving home and thinking about Detroit and the empty homes and buildings, and the line, “We forget that everything will become no longer ours.” It kind of reminds me of that Ani DiFranco song, “Both Hands,” when she sings of the end of a relationship, and the line, “I’m recording our history now on the bedroom wall, and when we leave the landlord will come and paint over it all.”

But there’s a great counterweight to this theme in places. For example, your mother’s research into the family tree indicates a resurrection of people who have faded. And the biggest example of this is, of course, your book itself, which is a kind of preservation and permanent documenting of yourself and these events like the Peshtigo fire, which might otherwise fade into obscurity. Does writing serve that purpose of preservation at all for you? Like, “pay attention to this, don’t forget this”?

KR: I don’t know. It wasn’t really an intention of mine. I don’t think there is ever going to be a “Radtke scholar” and I don’t have a desire for that.  I have so many male friends who say, “I don’t care if people read me now, but someday I just want there to be someone who has my last name in their job description.” Maybe it’s a male thing. I think women want to be read now and be part of the conversation now, and men think it’s more noble or something, to be read later, after we’re gone. I don’t care if anyone’s reading my books in fifty years. To me that’s ridiculous. There will be new work.

One of the reasons I like graphic novels is they mark time in an interesting way. You can see things like technology. You know how in so many novels someone will be writing a letter, and you think, “Come on, you didn’t write a letter. You sent an email or text messages.” There’s this resistance to acknowledging technology. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was show how those things change really quickly. Like, when I am in college I am using a flip-phone and near the end I am using an i-Phone. I like that it documents time in those specific ways. But I didn’t think of this as a way to document anything, necessarily.

ME: I was thinking of it more in terms of the themes in the book, like the idea of preserving something—people, places, events—that might otherwise maybe fade away. I’m reminded so much of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which really explores that theme of presence in loss. I was reminded constantly of this theme in your book. I was thinking about the things you are writing about- there is a lot of yearning, rumination on loss. There is a sort of resurrection by the act of invoking that sense of loss. It’s actually bringing it back by focusing on it.

KR: That was definitely very true during the writing process. One of the strangest things for me was having to write about people who had been gone from my life for a long time, and how they became super present again. I would start dreaming about them, and I would start thinking about them all the time. And that was a sort of weird and unexpected part of the project for me.

ME: What does your ideal reader walk away from this book with?

KL: I have no idea how to answer that question! I mean, I want them to like it.

ME: Well, as John D’Agata would say to us in workshop at Iowa, “What is it doing? Does this book matter?”

KR: Ha. Right. Well, I want them to have a good experience reading it. But I don’t know. One of the things that has been cool is to see how really differently people react. Even reading Goodreads reviews—which everyone tells you not to read but of course you read them—the reactions are so different. Like some people hate the drawings and love the writing and some people hate the writing and love the drawings. And then some people think it’s super nihilistic and think there is no point, and others felt very refreshed by it and very hopeful, and I just think it’s interesting how people can project whatever they want onto it.

That’s cool for me. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like it’s mine anymore. It doesn’t feel precious to me. Even when someone has a negative reaction to it. The week it came out I wouldn’t have said this. I would have died. I didn’t want anyone to say negative things and I was miserable about any negative feedback. But at this point it is just interesting to me more than anything else, how people will react, even if the reaction is negative. I just think it’s out in the world and no longer mine. People can say and react to it however they want, and that’s sort of part of the process as well.

Kristen Radtke is a writer and illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York. Her graphic memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This, was published by Pantheon Books in April, 2017. Radtke is the art director and New York editor of The Believer magazine. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Radtke’s writing and comics have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Oxford American, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

Mieke Eerkens is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her book, All Ships Follow Me, is forthcoming from Picador.