As history has proven, times of struggle often lead to great art.
And while Mimi Pond wasn't exactly having a terrible time when she worked at a diner in the late '70s, it wasn't her dream job, either, which was to make a living as a cartoonist.
Pond's fantastic new graphic memoir, Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly), tells the colorful story of her years employed at a restaurant in Oakland. The job came at a time when hippie culture was rapidly giving way to the punks, and drugs and casual sex were just another savory part of life.
"It's really about navigating that moral swamp of the '70s when there were no rules and everything was 'I'm OK, you're OK,'" Mimi told me on the phone last week. "And it wasn't OK. It was really fun until one day when it wasn't anymore."
Pond, 57, spent more than 15 years working on Over Easy. Though she took some time off to raise her children — her husband, artist Wayne White, was profiled in the 2012 doc Beauty is Embarrassing— she stayed quite busy in the '80s and '90s as an author, cartoonist for publications including Seventeen magazine and TV writer. (Fun fact: She penned the first-ever episode of The Simpsons.)
Pond called me from her home in Los Angeles, where she's currently working on a sequel to Over Easy.
"The thing is, when you're young, there's always someone slightly older than you who tells you you just missed the boat: 'Oh, you should've been here five years ago, that's when it was really cool!'" she told me. "It takes you years to realize that the time you were living in really was dynamic and exciting."
Me: I heard you've been working on this book for 15 years, which is pretty amazing.
Pond: I've been thinking about this from the very first day I started working in the restaurant 35 years ago. Finally, about 15 years ago, I started writing it initially as a conventional fictionalized memoir, not as a graphic novel. My agent couldn't sell it, and it was really frustrating.
I had to break down and realize that it did want to be a graphic novel. I say "break down" because I couldn't conceive of doing that much drawing. But finally, this little voice in my head said, But you like to draw!
I'm so fascinated by the time period — you say the switch to punk culture happened so suddenly, almost overnight.
Yeah, that's how I felt. The character in the (book) who tells me "art is dead" and punk rock is where it's at was really Ted Falconi of the band Flipper. He had been a sculpture major at my art school and had graduated, but just kept hanging around.
Something I kept thinking while I was reading is that you must've taken meticulous notes. How did you document everything back then? Was it in sketchbooks?
No, there was no time to draw when you were on the job. The Lazlo character and I were very close, and after I left and moved to New York, he and I corresponded. He was a great gossip, and he told me everything that was going on. He was a wonderful writer and a very talented poet; unfortunately, he put almost everything into his letters instead of focusing on developing his craft.
And I must say, it's nice to read a story where the women are getting as much action as the men. (Laughs)
And nobody thought anything of it! There was no shame, there was no judgment, it's just the way it was at the time. We were young, AIDS wasn't a factor yet. You had sexual liberation and women's liberation, and the feeling was it was your sworn duty to go out and get as much as you could.
I'm sure you've spoken about this before, but I wanted to ask you about the pilot of The Simpsons, which you wrote. How exactly did that come about?
My husband and I were friends with (series creator) Matt Groening, who at that time was just a cartoonist living in a shack in Venice. He had been introduced to us by Gary Panter, who my husband had worked with on Pee-wee's Playhouse.
(Matt) had been doing Life in Hell for the L.A. Weekly for a while, and suddenly he had this deal to do this TV show and was asking all his cartoonist friends if they wanted to write an episode. Everyone else, as far as I know, was like, "Oh, that's beneath me!" I was like, "Hell yeah, I'll do that." But it turned out to be a giant boys' club. … I wasn't asked to be on staff, and no one ever called me to explain why. It just took years of sussing it out through the grapevine.
Today, do you consider yourself a cartoonist first and foremost? Would you consider writing for TV again?
Drawing is the most gratifying thing for me, and I've had enough experience in Hollywood to say that I probably never want to write for television again. Though I'd love to write the screenplay for the movie made for Over Easy.
Honestly, when I initially was trying to figure out how I was going to tell this story, I thought I'd try to write a screenplay. But the longer I lived in Los Angeles, the more I realized I could write a screenplay and it could be taken away from me at any time and be completely destroyed or just vanish, never to be seen again.
Do you have any advice on how to get creative work done when you have young children? I know yours are older now, but I have a 1-year-old.
It's hard. I started working on (the book) when my kids were in preschool and first grade. I was looking for a place out of the house to work, a room where I could just close a door and be completely undistracted. The most ironic thing of all is the only place available to me was a small office at my kid's preschool.
That made a big difference, just leaving the house to work. I think you just have to physically remove yourself. Because it's so hard when you're at home — everything will get in your way.