A Conversation with Marisabina Russo: Celebrating Her Graphic Novel Memoir, “Why Is Everybody Yelling?”
“I think you have to continuously challenge yourself
as an artist.
Learn a new vocabulary. Solve a puzzle.
Go down some dead ends.
Otherwise it gets boring.”
— Marisabina Russo
I admire the survivors in this business. The people who have carved out long careers in children’s books. Sometimes the light shines down brightly, other times they stand alone. And yet the survivors persist. They keep creating, keep making. Hey, it’s not like there’s a choice. Fun fact: Marisabina and I both published our debut books in 1986 — 36 years ago! — and exactly one of those books is still in print. (Clue: It’s not mine.) I first met Marisabina at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival some years back. We were wolfing down free food. I hope you give this interview some time. Marisabina is wise, perceptive, modest, kind, experienced. All the good things. Btw, does anyone have a better first name? Marisabina! It’s a joy to say out loud. Look! Here she comes now.
Congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement. This new book feels like the summation of everything you’ve learned as a person and an artist — and yet, also, it shows that you are still growing, still learning new things. After a long and successful career, is this your most deeply personal work?
First of all, thank you! This book took me seven long years to complete and it only covers ten years of my life. I’m still recovering! It was the most challenging project of my career for several reasons. First, I had to dig deep to explore some pretty painful memories. Then I decided to tell my story in a graphic format, something I had never tried before. Next thing I knew, I was writing a script and teaching myself Photoshop! But I think you have to continuously challenge yourself as an artist. Learn a new vocabulary. Solve a puzzle. Go down some dead ends. Make discoveries. Otherwise it gets boring.
I love that. I think of it as: go to the thing that scares you. The project you aren’t sure you can handle. The challenges bring the best out of you.
Absolutely. It’s a leap of faith. The hard part is taking the first step and then trusting yourself to figure it out.
My pal, illustrator/author Matthew McElligott, has a great expression for that. “You know how to land the plane.” It’s a reassuring thought when you are circling rough terrain, low on fuel. A benefit of long experience. It might be scary, but you are pretty sure that you’ll survive without too many civilian casualties. I was wondering: When did you start thinking about writing a memoir? That your story could become the story?
This madness all began back in 2008 when I was emerging from a harrowing year of cancer treatment. I did what I’ve always done in times of darkness — kept a journal/sketchbook. I took it with me every day; on the train, to the hospital for radiation, to the clinic for chemo, to my couch where I crashed every afternoon. I’d been reading a lot graphic books and it occurred to me that if I wrote about my cancer in a comic form, it would put this buffer of humor and art between my ceaseless anxiety and the deep unknown of my illness. I was doing it only for myself as a means of survival but then I happened to meet Mark Siegel of First/Second Books and he told me to be “brave” and send it to him. Obviously, the whole thing morphed from a cancer memoir into a coming-of-age memoir, but that’s another story. It was Mark who encouraged me to keep going. Then he offered to show it to Margaret Ferguson at FSG and to my great surprise, she took it.
You’ve said that if you realized at the time how much work it would be, you might not have done it. But now that it is done, you must feel immensely gratified.
Drawing a page or two of a comic is fun. Drawing over 200 pages is terrifying! I remember moments of despair as I looked at stacks of paper awaiting inking and painting. Would I ever finish? I felt as if I were running as hard as I could but staying in one place. Some panels took days to complete! But, yes, now that I can hold my book in my hands, I am thrilled. And in some ways, I really miss working on it. I still have a twinge of postpartum depression.
Well, if you really miss that feeling, I suppose you could hit yourself in the head with a hammer.
Or maybe just start another graphic novel? Less violent.
As the youngest of seven children, I could really identify with the sense, especially early in the book, of listening in on conversations you didn’t fully understand. You are constantly trying to figure out what’s actually happening.
In my family, I was always the only child in the room. Nothing revolved around me. I was expected to be polite and quiet. So I listened. My mother sometimes spoke to me in Italian when I was young but never in German. That was the language of secrets in my family. Of course, I wanted to know what was going on especially when the conversations grew heated! So I listened like a little mouse with big ears. I watched their faces and body language and one day I discovered that I understood German! It was like that feeling you get when you’re a child and you realize you can read. Everything shifted.
So . . . all that artwork. Did you ever count the number of images you had to produce? I asked a similar question to Matt Phelan, and he was like, “Oh no, you can never count!”
Ha ha! I agree with Matt. Sometimes my husband would try to estimate how many drawings I was doing and I would make him stop!
Oh, wait, you’re married? Now this is awkward. I thought this was date?
So many years! We met in college. My husband is my rock. He helped me enormously on this book by scanning all the artwork. If that doesn’t sound like much, try scanning 200 pages just for fun.
I sometimes work with high school students on their college application essay. I tell them how much I love that essay, the opportunity to pause and reflect and find meaning in their lives. A memoir is much the same exercise. Did anything surprise you along the way?
When I was in high school, I often wrote about the things that were going on in my family. I don’t think I was reflecting on any of it. I was just trying to record the craziness and kind of tame it. I remember my favorite English teacher suggesting there was no way these stories were true, that I had a big imagination! I assured him I was not making it up but I’m not sure he ever believed me.
Writing about some of these same events now, so many years later, I did find myself reflecting on my relationships with different family members. I think I was lucky to grow up in an era of letter writing. It was especially moving for me to reread my brother Piero’s letters. Each envelope is a work of art. The words are poetic. His love for me is so obvious. As the years went by, his mental illness took a toll on all of us. It was hard for me to shake the memory of seeing him homeless on the streets of New York. But as I reread his earlier letters, I was swept back to happier days when he made me believe in magical things and the possibilities that were awaiting me in life.
That’s beautiful and heart-wrenching. Did you have a full script and then illustrate? Or do the two elements — word & image — come simultaneously?
At first I wrote and drew pictures all at once. But when I started working with my editor, Margaret Ferguson, she asked me to write the complete script before doing any more drawings. It felt like I was writing a film script and I enjoyed it. Of course, later, as I started to lay out the drawings, I would ask myself, “Really? You had to set all these scenes in the Louvre?”
There was a lot of research I had to do for the pictures to be sure they were accurate, everything from the paintings and interiors of museums and churches to the advertising in the subway stations.
Bernard Waber — something of a forgotten genius, IMO — once told me that the writer in him tries to please the illustrator. And vice versa.
I knew Bernard Waber from an annual author dinner we both attended for several years. (They were organized by a school librarian in Putnam Valley.) He always had a twinkle in his eye. I truly hope he’s not forgotten!
I have a sweet story about him, an unexpected act of kindness. A good man. I interviewed him at a time when my oldest son, Nick, was very sick. He popped a Lyle plush toy in the mail along with a sweet card. I will forever love him for that.
My writer and illustrator selves sometimes have to duke it out. When you’re making your own picture book, you have the freedom to move between words and images, rearranging, cutting, and editing as you go. But your two selves may not always agree! If anything, I think my writing self is the bigger diva, never wanting to cut a word or phrase.
Besides the art — and we’ll get to that in a minute — what was the hardest part about it? I’d think that it requires a heaping amount of courage.
It felt, at times, like I was putting myself through therapy. I relived some difficult scenes from my life like my mother yelling at me, yelling at my stepfather, and the general unpredictability of her moods. I didn’t want to overdo it and turn my mother into a monster so it was a delicate balance. I also found myself writing at length about my brother, Piero, and ignoring my own story. I was very lucky to have Margaret as my editor because she would reel me back in and remind me this was my story, not my brother’s. She consistently pushed me to be more introspective. It could be painful but I knew she was right!
It’s easier to write about someone else than to turn that same tough gaze inward.
Is there a particular sequence, or page, or passage, where you think, Oh, that part there, I’m proud of that.
Well, about halfway through, Margaret left FSG and I got a new editor, Wes Adams. The first thing he did was ask me to expand the book. More writing! More pictures! He encouraged me add more full page illustrations and so I did. One of these was the last page of Chapter 10, the aerial view of my friend, Karen, and me on the corner next to my apartment building. It was a lot of work to get the perspective right and draw all those bricks, but I’m very happy with it.
It’s a wonderful illustration, especially effective after five consecutive six-panel pages. A refreshing change of pace. It also brings home your youth, your smallness — and, of my, that is a lot of bricks! Why don’t they make these buildings out of stucco?
Ha ha. We’re talking Queens in the 1950s.
That’s a lot of bricks to color. Could you take us through one brief section in more detail. One image, or one page, or one sequence of images. Why do you think it works?
The image at the bottom of page three where I picture myself as a little nun walking with other nuns felt like such a funny scene sitting as it does below the picture of my family arguing in a mixture of Yiddish and English. I think the pages of my visit to the mental hospital (30 – 32) are successful especially where the text with the first mention of Auschwitz is boxed alone next to a close up of me looking at the numbers tattooed on my Tante Anny’s arm. It stops the chatter of everyone arguing for a moment and reveals how deeply confusing and scary the adult world can be for a child.
Amazing work. This is a book that rewards scrutiny. The more a reader puts into it, the more depths that are revealed.
Thank you. I’ve heard from several readers that they rushed through the book the first time because the words and story were compelling them to finish. Later they decided to read the book a second time so they could absorb the pictures.
Lastly, as a writer, I’m envious of illustrators who can listen to podcasts while they work. I need either silence or instrumental music for (rare!) times of Deep Thinking. What did you listen to while doing all that artwork?
While writing, sketching, and even sometimes even inking, I prefer silence. When I start painting I need music. I especially like listening to jazz. Some days I prefer old school R&B. Of course, that can be risky if I have a deadline because I might find myself dancing around the studio instead of painting! When I got to the teen years in my memoir, I played a lot of the songs I used to listen to on my record player, stuff by the Supremes, the Temptations, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas. It’s amazing how music can transport you to a long ago time. There I was, back in my room in that small apartment in Queens, listening to music and starting to imagine my future.
One of my favorite ideas in Harry Potter — are we still allowed to talk about J.K. Rowling? — is the portkey. The object that transports you to another time and place. Those exist in our muggle world, too. And for me, albums, songs, have that same ability.
That’s why my husband and I will never get rid of our albums or our turntable! We used to have a jukebox to play our big collection of 45s. It finally broke but we still play 45s.
Marisabina, I want to thank you for this book, this long career of yours, and the time you gave us today. I enjoyed every second of getting to know you better.
Same here, Jimmy. And thanks for letting me blab on about my book!
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FABULOUS WORK OF MARISABINA RUSSO, THERE’S THIS THING CALLED “GOOGLE” . . .
End-of-year lists help me find music I missed, or prod me to listen again, more closely, to albums I may have dismissed too quickly. I heard 127 full albums that came out in 2021. It’s a challenge to pick out the albums that were fresh, distinctive, original, best. I enjoy the process of puzzling it out for myself. What am I saying? I guess I’m a cliche.
For the third consecutive year, I continued the project in which I try to listen to at least one complete album a day. Often twice through. In 2019, I got to 778 full albums, in addition to all the other random-scattered listening I do. Last year the number was 711. In 2021, I listened to 702 complete albums, starting with “Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows” by SF Seals and concluding with “Living in the Material World” by George Harrison. For no rhyme whatsoever.
It was a pandemic year in music and many albums felt scaled back, smaller in ambition, more intimate and modest. Logistics played a role. And, also, context: people were dying; the world in general felt more introspective. For whatever reason, I don’t think this was a year when many truly “great” albums came out.
Jimmy Fun Fact: When I got my iPod in April, 2008, I started making a 30-song monthly playlist. Part of that was a response to having nearly everything available instantaneously. Each month, I created a little home base full of new music as well as old reminders. I have now kept that up, switching to Spotify in 2017, for 165 straight months. Maybe that tells you something scary about me? As always, I don’t pretend that my taste is any better than anyone else’s.
Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders: Promises
Julien Baker: Little Oblivians
Helado Negro: Far In
Black Country, New Road: For the first time
Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert: The Marfa Tapes
Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorry, Linda Oh: Uneasy
Cassandra Jenkins: An Overview of … Nature
Madlib: Sound Ancestors
Katy Kirby: Cool Dry Place
Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg @ 2021
Arooj Aftab: Vulture Prince
Arlo Parks: Collapsed in Sunbeams
Hayes Carll: You Get It All
Indigo De Souza: Any Shape You Take
Bonnie Prince Billy, Matt Sweeney: Super-wolves
Sons of Kemet: Black to the Future
Michael Hurley: The Time of the Foxgloves
Myriam Gendron: Songs of Love, Lost & Found
HONORABLE MENTIONS (35)
Note: Ditching categories here because they give me such trouble. In alphabetical order . . .
Rodrigo Amarante: Drama
Amyl and the Sniffers: Comfort to Me
Marisa Anderson/William Tyler: Lost Futures
Bachelor: Doomin’ Sun
Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time
Adrian Crowley: Watchful Eyes of the Stars
Lana Del Rey: Chemtrails Over the Country Club
Dinosaur Jr.: Sweep It Into Space
Felice Brothers: From Dreams to Dust
Les Filles de Illighadad: At Pioneer Work
Flock of Dimes: Head of Roses
Hand Habits: Fun House
Illuminati Hotties: Let Me Do One More
Pokey LaFarge: In the Blossom of Their Shade
Langhorne Slim: Strawberry Mansion
Little Simz: Sometimes I Might Be an Introvert
Lorde: Solar Power
Low: Hey What
Mountain Goats: Dark In Here
Navy Blue: Navy’s Reprise
Robert Plant, Alison Krauss: Raise the Roof
Gavin Preller: There Is Wonder
Allison Russell: Outside Child
Sturgill Simpson: Ballad of Dood & Juanita
Sonny & The Sunsets: New Day New Possibilities
Jazmine Sullivan: Heaux Tales
Tyler the Creator: Call Me If You
Adia Victoria: A Southern Gothic
Villagers: Fever Dreams
Nick Waterhouse: Promenade Blue
Yasmin Williams: Urban Driftwood
Faye Webster: I Know I’m Funny haha
Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend
Steve Earle: JT (covers album)
A beautiful tribute to his son, Justin Townes Earle, who died from a drug overdose. The last song, the only original, “Last Words,” slays me every time.
ABOUT MY “NOT NEW” INTERESTS
Because I’ve now got this large file on my desktop, and I’m insane, I noted the not-necessarily-new artists I listened to most widely (by the arbitrary measure of at least 5 different full albums over the past three years). This list also reflects little jags I went on, where I’d get inspired and go deep on, say, Warren Zevon or Rickie Lee Jones, for extended periods.
5X: Don Cherry * Bill Evans * Ahmad Jamal * Laura Cannell * Grouper *William Tyler * The Byrds * Hot Tuna * Bruce Springsteen * Steely Dan * Tom Waits * The Who * Bruce Cockburn * Joe Henry * Paul Simon * Jeff Tweedy * Courtney Barnett * Beach House * Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst/Better Oblivion Community * Death Cab for Cutie * Decemberists * Giant Sand * Robyn Hitchcock * Microphones/Mount Eerie * Silver Jews * Sufjan Stevens * Sun Kil Moon * Teenage Fanclub *Hayes Carll * Jason Isbell *Laura Marling/Lump * Alasdair Roberts * 6X: John Coltrane * Charles Mingus * Nick Lowe * Lou Reed * R.E.M. * Leonard Cohen * Joni Mitchell * Alex G * Yo La Tengo * Jayhawks * Lucinda Williams * Sam Amidon * 7X: Thelonious Monk * Brian Eno * Frank Zappa * Rickie Lee Jones * Ryan Adams * Lambchop * Drive-By Truckers * Magnolia Electric Company/Songs:Ohia * 8X: Beatles * David Bowie * Kinks * Van Morrison * Bonnie Prince Billy/Palace Music * Mountain Goats * Steve Earle * Willie Nelson * 9X: Warren Zevon * Elliott Smith/Heatmiser * Kanye West * 10X-plus: Grateful Dead * John Prine * Wilco * Miles Davis * Rolling Stones * Neil Young * Bill Callahan/Smog * Bob Dylan.
Yes, I listened to 49 different Dylan albums over the past three years, often more than once.
CONCLUSION: It’s an impossible task, a fool’s errand, keeping track of things. It’s Schrodinger’s cat. Altered simply by being observed. I think I’ve gotten better at that, not thinking about the document as much as the moment. Screw it, I want to hear The Steve Miller Band right now and I don’t care what that does to the list. Nobody cares what I like or dislike, whether I have “good taste” or bad. The best part is the music itself, and the artists who put it out into our world. Always grateful for that.
We lost one of our greatest writers today. She was in life, and remains in death, a treasure. Just a remarkable woman.
Regarding that quote up above, it is one of the reasons why I am often paralyzed by the idea of outlines. More and more, publishers require them. A box to be checked. I used to balk at that, because — of course! — how would I know what’s going to happen until I start writing? But I’ve learned that they don’t expect writers to doggedly follow the outline. Editors want a general idea — and, yes, managing editors certainly like to check off that box. A way to keep things moving along the conveyer belt.
When writing, I always have a plan. At least for that day, that scene, that chapter. An idea of what I want to accomplish, the ground I need to cover. And I always have a more general idea of where I hope to end up.
A metaphor: I’m in a sailboat, I’m aiming for an island in the distance, but the currents are strong and the wind is kicking up. I might get blown off course. And even in the best circumstances, I’ll have to tack back and forth; I won’t get there in a straight line.
Just today, in fact, I was finally ready to begin outlining the final chapters of a book that’s two-thirds finished. So rather than blasting out a lot of words, I spent the day plotting in detail that final sequence of events. It took that long for me to reach that level of clarity, far different from anything I might have imagined, or “outlined” to my editors, three months ago.
I noticed how much of the original outline didn’t make the final draft. Some ideas (and characters) got crowded by other (hopefully) better ideas.
Writing as discovery. A way to find out. A path into the deep, dark woods. For me, it’s impossible to plan in advance what exactly I might find there.
If you have not read The Year of Magical Thinking, that’s a terrific way to meet Joan Didion. But there are many avenues of entry. You can’t go wrong. Just pick up something/anything that she’s written . . . and start reading.