The Montreal Gazette Interviews Lynda Barry about Picture This

“Drawing in 'a state of deep play'” / The Montreal Gazette / Ian McGillis / January 15, 2011

U.S. Comics icon Lynda Barry, whose books defy easy categorization, says most people engage in artistic creation, whether they are conscious of it or not

Is the wellspring of creativity something we can find and draw from at will? Why people feel the need to write and draw, and why most of us eventually stop, are mysteries pursued with the zeal of a great sleuth by U.S. comics icon Lynda Barry in her two most recent books, 2008's What It Is and the new Picture This.

While their success indicates they're finding their audience, for booksellers and librarians an unanswered question remains. Part coffee-table art tome, part comic, part memoir, part multimedia self-help manual for aspiring artists -where, exactly, is one meant to file these books?

"My favourite solution to the problem was Amazon's," says Barry, 55, interviewed last week by email from her home in rural Wisconsin. "They originally categorized it as science fiction, which I completely dug! The way I usually describe the books is to say they're activity books for adults, kind of like the ones we'd find in dentists' offices when we were kids, only I imagine my books in the room where you wait at an oil change place. I think of them more as monkey-around books rather than self-help books, although without a doubt I believe that this kind of monkeying around is very helpful to the self, and to others."

For Barry, part of cracking the forbidding mystique around artistic creation is the need to reconsider what constitutes a creative act. As she sees it, it's something most people engage in, whether they know it or not.

"People employ doodling all the time," she points out. "Even those who are certain they never draw will make a complicated pattern of marks on a Styrofoam cup when someone very boring is speaking at length. Nearly everyone does this. When I start a book I usually have a few questions I'm trying to answer and for Picture This, that was one of them. Why do people doodle and decorate things in boring situations? What happens when they can't?"

Central to Barry's philosophy is the notion of what she calls "deep play," a state most often seen in children and which she says "has nothing to do with fun. ... The play I'm talking about is the kind where the toy or the object you're messing around with seems to be playing back. There is a reciprocity in the interaction that is a lot like a very good conversation. Neither party seems to be guiding it exactly, yet something really interesting is happening."

Barry's faith in a non-intellectual, subconscious-driven approach to art and narrative took root in the late 1970s when she studied under Marilyn Frasca at the progressive Evergreen College in Washington State. (Among her classmates there was Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.) Her long-running syndicated strip Ernie Pook's Comeek, begun shortly after she graduated. Widely credited with expanding the thematic and emotional range available to comics writers, it proved the perfect forum for putting her experimental tenets into practice.

"One of the most important things I understood was that the relationship between me and my drawing depended on that state of deep play I described, a certain state of mind that is not planning, is not thinking, it's some other thing. When I made comics this way, they didn't behave like traditional comics with a punch line at the end. There was an ending line, to be sure, but the strips could be about anything, including very sad things. I was lucky to be working at time when alternative weekly newspapers could handle that kind of strangeness and were willing to print the work."

That time, sadly, appears to have passed. When downsizing papers look to make cuts, the comics are often the first things to go, and even popular pioneers have felt the pinch. So for Barry, Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly taking on What It Is couldn't have been better timed.

"I can't think of anyone else who would have been willing to publish such a strange book," she says. "I'd still be stuck on the roof with the flood waters rising if D & Q hadn't come along."

It's been a happy hookup for both parties: What It Is was the rapidly growing company's fastest seller ever, heading their best-seller list for over a year. Among the publisher's signings of recent years, says D & Q's Peggy Burns, "No one struck a deeper chord with fans of such a wide cross section than Lynda. Having been syndicated for 30 years, her fans are so varied and so loyal."

A far cry from the standard literary soiree, Barry's interactive live appearances have been described as being somewhere between a motivational seminar and stand-up comedy. I ask whether an event like the one she'll be doing in Montreal tonight is structured much in advance, or whether she holds to her stated belief that "the back of the mind can be relied on."

"I do plan my talks, absolutely. There are stories I want to tell and questions I want to ask and I always have notes written out because it's easy to become overwhelmed by the fact that I'm there standing in front of a bunch of people. There is a lot of back-of-the-mind improvisation that goes on once I'm going, depending on the people in the room and the odd technical glitch. But I plan as much as I can in advance because my magical hippie vibe can only go so far."

Lynda Barry appears tonight at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30) at the Ukrainian Federation, 5213 Hutchison St.(corner Fairmount Ave.). Tickets are $5 and are available online (http:// lyndabarrymontreal.,at the Drawn & Quarterly store (211 Bernard Ave. W.) or at the door.

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