INTERVIEW: Emma Grove on transition and DID in THE THIRD PERSON
In The Third Person by Emma Grove, a graphic memoir available now from Drawn & Quarterly, the cartoonist shares her experiences with transition, and how it was affected by Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Prism got the opportunity to catch up with Grove over Zoom to learn more about the process of creating the comic, to discover which comic strip inspired her style and commitment to cartooning, and to find out how a 70-page mini-comic lead to the creation of the 904-page graphic memoir!
AVERY KAPLAN: Can you tell us about the genesis of this graphic memoir?
EMMA GROVE: It started out as just a small little short book, around 140 – 160 pages about my transition. Then there was the six-month period that I was riding around, and I didn’t want to write about or think about or talk about. It was that six months when I was seeing that therapist that you see in the book. There was this big secret that I had that I kept from my current friends and family and stuff that for most of my adult life: I have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
I just basically decided to try to start just writing about it, and then what came out was the book. The first thing I wrote was a 70-page mini-comic. I thought it would be a neat idea to take 24 hours of my life, and then just show it pretty much with the really boring parts cut out, but to show basically between — because actually when I started writing the book I wasn’t actually living full time.
By the time the book was done, I was. It was the end of me living two worlds. I did this 70-page little mini-comic called Midnight to Midnight and it was about 24 hours in my life and how I go to a bar and I decided to do this memoir about being transgender. It was just dialogue taken straight from your life, and what I started doing was things that I was ashamed of.
That actually led to the memoir: “Well, what if I did an entire book where it was everything I was ashamed of just on the page? What if I just put it out there and just everything that I was afraid of, ashamed of and I just put it out on the page, what would happen?”
Then I was doing this memoir about my transition, about being transgender, and then the biggest thing I was ashamed of was that I had DID. I said, “All right, well, this book has been all about me putting things that I’m ashamed of and that’s the thing I’m the most ashamed of, the most afraid of talking about.”
One thing I did in that little Midnight to Midnight mini-comic, the 70-page one that was 24 hours in my life: I was relating dialogue word for word. I said, “Well, what if I just keep going with that and then just use straight dialogue?” One thing I started doing in my memoir was I started to get into explanatory captions because Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home was my biggest inspiration.
I was trying to write like Bechdel: ”Well, it worked really well for her, what if I did explanatory captions?” For me, it wasn’t working, so what I decided to do is go back to what I’ve done in Midnight to Midnight, where I asked, “Well, what if the whole thing was just nothing but dialogue?” I went back and got rid of all the explanatory captions. One of the main reasons I wanted to do that was because I just wanted to show people what happened, and not give my take on it, I wanted to let the audience make their own interpretation.
I didn’t want to tell the audience what to think, what to feel. For example, if I showed a character and wrote, “Oh, this is a really bad person,” that’s what I did not want to do. I wanted basically the reader to see what happened, play by play and draw their own conclusions. I thought that would be more respectful to the audience and involve them more. I thought it would involve them more just to put them in the space with me and whoever I was talking to, and then let them just be in that space.
I thought that would be more respectful too because these are real people I was writing about. I didn’t want to inject my personal thoughts or feelings on these people, I just wanted to show what I said, what they said, what we did, and then let them draw their own conclusions.
KAPLAN: While you detail your creative process in the note section of The Third Person, I’m curious if you could tell us a little bit about your practical approach to a graphic narrative of this length?
GROVE: Everyone’s always flabbergasted by the length. I actually thought that would be a detriment to getting it published. I thought of breaking it into three books. I actually tried to get an agent back when I was thinking of having it be three books, and she turned me down.”No, this isn’t something we’re into.”
The reason that it was so long was because the way I wanted to do it was I just wanted to do the dialogue basically in real-time. If there were pauses in the conversation, then there were pauses. That just required a lot of pages. There’s just no way around it taking a lot of pages to do that. The only way that it wouldn’t have taken that many pages is if I did it another way, like if I did the explanatory captions or something.
Basically, the process for writing the book was, I was remembering things as I was writing the book. What you see in the book is me remembering what happened. The whole book was a therapeutic process of remembering what happened during that six-month period.
What I would do is I would take these just regular 8.5 by 11 pieces of paper. I would fold them. I would have a pre-made four panels. Then just really, really, really, really quickly, I would do thumbnail sketches, not more than maybe 30 seconds to a minute on each sketch. I would just write down the dialogue as I remembered it really, really quickly. Then when I made the book, I just pasted the two pages together.
I gave away a big secret in the book. You can see it. There was a little bit of a gap between the top four panels and the bottom four. I just gave away the book’s big secret. Then basically, at the end of months and months and months of doing this, I had a stack that just kept growing and growing and growing.
Honestly, because each page that you see in the book is two of those 8.5 by 11 pieces of paper, the actual finished book is literally three feet tall. I took a photograph of it. It was literally, it went up past my knees. That’s how tall it was. It was just gigantic.
It was, actually, originally 1,200 pages, but I edited out 300 pages. There was this whole 100-page section that covered my animation career and when I moved to LA, I did edit that out. There was a sub-plot of how I remembered the book and the process of remembering it and talking about it with my friend, that all had to be eliminated.
Then once I had a stack of pages three feet high, I just had to edit it into something resembling a narrative. The main thing I focused on was not necessarily myself, but the relationship between me and my therapist, the relationship between my second therapist, the relationship between me and my alters, and especially, my relationship between me and my main alter, Katina.
My relationships with my main alter became the focal point of the book. At one point, I actually thought of naming the book after her just because my alter, Katina, became such a huge driving force of the entire book that for a while.
The big focus of the book became my relationship with my alters. People with DID, their relationship with their alters, is actually very real. It’s very profound. These are not only your protectors, they’re almost like your brothers and sisters. I wanted to talk about that very real relationship that I had with them and the role they played in my life.
KAPLAN: Do you feel that this is a story that could only be told via the medium of comics?
GROVE: The short answer to that is, yes. I think for this particular story. I think in order to get across to people, what it felt like to live with DID, I think the only way to do that would’ve really been through the visual medium.
Actually one of the things I did write when I was seeing the last therapist you see in the book, I actually did write an autobiographical memoir that was somewhere around 300 pages. It was called Spiders are Stupid. It did have some pictures, but the pictures in the book were just drawings that I had done.
I think to tell this story in this way, I think the graphic novel medium was the only way to do it. To show people visually what it felt like to put them in that space and feel, and experience what I was going through.
One of the things that made the book instantly fascinating for me was the relationship between me and the therapist, Toby, and the fact that I was able to step outside of myself and see things through his eyes.
That was actually therapeutic for me also. Being able to see what he was seeing helped me figure out what was going on with me because there was a lot of things that, until I started writing the book, I didn’t know about. There was certain things he had said and certain things he alluded to that I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I wrote the book that I could see what he was seeing.
That’s what made the book interesting for me, was being able to step outside of myself and see things through his eyes. That gets into empathy, being able to empathize with what another person is seeing, what they’re going through.
KAPLAN: While it occurs late in the memoir, you mentioned in the notes that you did not reconstruct the narrative in a chronological fashion. At what point did you create the graphic depiction of DID, and were there any works of graphic medicine that inspired you during your work on this project?
GROVE: Marbles by Ellen Forney. I just loved how forthright she was writing about her bipolar disorder. I came across that in the library one day, that was a big inspiration. Obviously, Bechdel’s book Fun Home was a big inspiration, just her bravery being that forthcoming. She gets into a lot of things that people might be ashamed to mention. She talks about her obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I think those are the two biggest books that were an inspiration for me. As far as depicting DID graphically, the way I chose to do it, that was actually the hardest part of the book. I knew what it was like for me, but how could I get the audience to feel that.
The color black actually played a big part in helping that narrative, but a lot of it was just stuff that just came naturally. For example, in the early sessions, there was this part where alter Katina is sitting in the therapy sessions with Toby, and over her is looming this big black lobby cloud of a shape. At the time that’s actually what it felt like, all of these suppressed memories.
All these suppressed emotions, it literally was like this gigantic dark cloud that was hanging just over my head that I could see, and I could almost touch, but I could not expose, I could not get into. A lot of the graphics in the book came very naturally. The use of black became a huge narrative device in the book that really helped a lot.
The other was a big challenge in the book was trying to show graphically to somebody who hadn’t lived through it, what it felt like and what it was like. I did my best, only the reader can say if I did it or not, if I accomplished that.
KAPLAN: Can you tell us a little bit about the creative decision to use full color in the memoir to use it for the one scene?
GROVE: I actually made sure with my publisher that part was in color. The main reason I wanted specifically that section to be in color was because I think that’s when I was the most real. That was when I was the most together and whole, and I wanted to have at least one drawing where you see me in caricature form throughout the whole book.
I wanted at least one drawing where you get to see what I look like in real life. What I did was I just sat down for hours and just tried to… It’s really hard to draw your own face when you’re looking at a mirror, because you’re looking at the mirror. But I tried to draw myself as accurately as possible. I think that’s a moment in the book where you finally see me as a whole person.
Then reverting back to basically cartoon form had a narrative reason also. It’s basically me reverting back to my internal world. One of the things my old animation director said after working with me for only a few months, he’s like, “You have the tendency to internalize things,” and I do, I live in my own internal world much of the time.
That just goes along with being an artist and a writer, but there’s obviously other reasons I chose to live in my internal world more than the external world. I think the reason that that part was in color because you’re finally seeing me living, not in my internal world, but finally living in the external world as a full person for the first time in the whole book.
KAPLAN: Do you have a creative schedule or routine, surrounding your work?
GROVE: I was working a full-time job at the time and I still am. The way I would do the book is if I had basically… It was just whatever time I had free. During the entire process of the book, when I was working on it, I never got more than a few hours of sleep a night just because the time had to come somewhere and it takes a long time to do these things.
If I was lucky and I had a three-year or four-day weekend, then I would just cram as much work on the book as I could. During inking, when I was working during the week, Monday through Friday, my schedule was to ink in at least one or two pages and then on the weekend, my schedule was to ink in around 20 to 30 pages.
That was just my schedule seven days a week. I did take breaks from the book here and there. But that was my schedule when doing the book, I worked on it pretty much every day. My biggest inspiration for doing a book that was this thick was actually Charles Schulz, Charlie Brown in Peanuts.
I was at a bookstore once, and I just saw the volume of his work. Just the thousands and thousands and thousands of pages he had done, and all of the ink drawings were very high quality. That was the biggest thing that inspired me. What inspired me also was that he worked every single day on his comic strip. In 30 years, I think he only took a three-week vacation.
But his work also was a big inspiration for me. You can see a lot of the influence of his work in The Third Person. Charlie Brown was the first comic strip I’d ever seen when I was a little kid and I really loved Snoopy.
But what I loved about Schulz’s comic strip was the graphic simplicity of it. He never included anything in those panels that didn’t absolutely need to be there. For example, if Charlie Brown and Sally were walking outside, he would show a tuft of grass, a few leaves on the ground and a tree. That was all he needed to know that they were outside, and they were wearing their jackets. I took that to heart when I was doing The Third Person. I kept the background detail to a minimum unless it was important for the narrative.
KAPLAN: Is there anything else that you’d like me to include?
GROVE: One of the inspirations for doing this book was, there was a lot of horrible things that happened to me in my life and a lot of horrible, awful things that I had to deal with.
The one question I always asked was, “Why did this happen?” I didn’t ask to be transgender, I didn’t ask to have all these horrible things happen to me. I thought that by making this book and turning things that had plagued me most of my life into art, that I could make some sense into what happened. I thought, “All right, well, these terrible things, but if I can make it into art, I can take these terrible things and turn them into something positive.”
Also, when you’re an artist and a writer, when you have the ability and the gift of drawing, I think it’s your responsibility as an artist to share that in a positive way with the world. So this book is my gift basically to the world. If I do nothing else, at least I’ve done this. I tried to make something positive out of my talents.
My hope for the book is that it will — if this was just a book about myself, I would’ve lost interest in it years ago and I probably wouldn’t have finished it. My big inspiration for doing the book was I thought that by sharing my story, I could help other people just to say, “Oh, this person got through this and maybe I can too.”
If it even helps one person, then I’ll be happy in some way.