Published on May 11th, 2017 | by Summer Pierre0
A Couple of Art Monsters: Summer Pierre talks to Lisa Brown
Born in New York and raised in Connecticut, the children’s book illustrator, author, and cartoonist Lisa Brown has made San Francisco her home for the last 20 years. She lives with her husband the writer, Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket) and their son, Otto. A creative partnership that began after college, with a one-sheet zine they made together entitled American Chickens, Brown and Handler have gone on to collaborate on several books, including the recently released Goldfish Ghost.
I first discovered Lisa Brown some years ago through her Tumblr blog, also titled American Chickens, where she used to highlight the work of other creators in a series called “Illustration Crushes.” But I became enamored with her nimble, poetic style when the Rumpus published her comic series, 3-Panel Book Reviews.
On a recent rainy Bay Area evening and a snowy night in the Hudson Valley, Lisa Brown and I Skyped. Immediately it was clear that her mind is always at work. She referenced books rapidly through our conversation, and I found I have a particular fondness for the way she pronounced the word, “literature.” The t sounds were paused upon making it sound both loving and lofty, as if she was holding the word up so you could see how it shined in the light.
When conducting a Skype call with a stranger I never know whether it means video or just audio, so I was surprised to see Lisa’s face emerge on the screen and hear her wondering where I was. “We can do a call,” she said gently as I made panicky squeals about being in my pajamas. In today’s technology language, her face on my computer screen felt like a generous offer, so I reciprocated, bed-head and all. Of course, we ended up doing audio when the visual streaming kept freezing. Before the signal faltered I could see behind her a jam-packed bookcase, with both volumes and objects. I knew immediately that whatever room she was in, I would be at home there. It turned out to be her studio.
In our pre-interview prep, Lisa had generously ordered the whole library of my comics. When she was done reading she sent me a list of common things we could discuss including the obsessions with the internet, running, living in New York, Prince, and coffee. As it happens, our conversation ran an hour and a half and while it touched upon some of these things, it also covered the gambit of motherhood, art making, logistics, kids, and yes, literature. – Summer Pierre
MUTHA: You are a busy lady. You teach, you make picture books and other illustrations. Maybe a good place to start this conversation is to ask you: how the hell do you get anything done?
LISA BROWN: I don’t know…how do you get anything done?
MUTHA: I think I trick myself into getting things done. I say, ‘I think I’ll just get this done over here’ and then done stuff accumulates.
Are you teaching right now?
LISA BROWN: I am. I teach Mondays and Wednesdays and it’s a 3-hour class each time, which is long. Plus time prepping for it. This is my fourth year so I have a shtick down, but I change it up all the time and this semester I have 18 students. A crit will take like 2 hours…
MUTHA: How do you have anything left?
LISA BROWN: I don’t. And San Francisco is getting… it’s really crowded here.
LISA BROWN: For me it’s getting. I’ve been here 20 years and the school is in an area that used to be warehouses and raves and nothing and had plenty of parking and now it is filled. I just feel like if I could take out the piece of getting around I’ll have so much more time!
Like yesterday I woke up and drove carpool and the kid’s school is right near my school so I had to find a parking spot for the whole day and then I had to go to a doctor’s appointment and then I had to come back and then I had to prep my class and there’s no place to sit except for the cold library, and then every time I have to go to the bathroom I have to bring all my stuff with me (laughs). And then I’m there for 3 hours. It just feels like a lot. I’m a suburban girl.
MUTHA: What you’ve described to me sounds so exhausting…and yet so normal.
LISA BROWN: I know. I was reading Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, by Shirley Jackson…. her two memoirs of being a mom with kids. In neither of these memoirs does she discuss being a writer at all. Like you don’t hear anything about her work, all you hear about is like making dinner, and the refrigerator being broken, trying to get away and calling all sorts of people to take her kids, and the dog and I feel like… (laughs) Shirley Jackson, Shirley Fucking Jackson.
MUTHA: Speaking of Shirley Jackson, I feel like you and she share a healthy sense of the gothic.
LISA BROWN: I have a picture book about a little vampire, Vampire Boy’s Good Night, and I was thinking of an (unwritten) sequel about a little ghost, and it would begin with children in a graveyard summoning him. I ran it past my husband and he was like, “Um…you can’t do that.” (Laughs)
MUTHA: Instead you have the ghost of a pet in your new book, Goldfish Ghost.
LISA BROWN: There’s a safety in animals.
MUTHA: I love that it starts with the goldfish dying and then its ghost goes on the adventure. It’s an oddly lighthearted, beautiful idea and also, it’s about a dead goldfish, something we are all so familiar with.
LISA BROWN: My son has a fish now that has lasted a pretty long time. But the previous fish, when he was much littler, it was a replacement for a dead fish and we brought it home and he went out with his grandma, and immediately after the fish was struggling, and I thought, ‘oh shit! We just bought it this morning!’ And so I bought a new one. I ran back to the store and I bought an identical one, I brought him home, and I never told him. (Laughs)
MUTHA: What’s your process with your illustration work?
LISA BROWN: I do a lot of sketching. For picture books I do thumbnails, then storyboards, then make them bigger, then sketches on vellum, then re-sketch, constant building upon the images, and now I’m in the process of doing final-final art. It’s a long process and it probably doesn’t have to take as long. My goal is to work faster. Because I have a graphic novel coming—
MUTHA: (gasps breathlessly) What??
LISA BROWN: I am super excited. It’s due next year. It’s a story, it’s not memoir. It’s about Siamese twins in a circus sideshow… and it’s as dark as I want to be. Thank god I can do it. I kept putting it off because my modus operandi is to do all the things that are getting in my way and then to treat myself by doing the thing I want to do, and then I don’t do it, which is stupid because I’m under contract.
MUTHA: You have a right to make that a priority!
LISA BROWN: I’m not under contract to wash the dishes!
MUTHA: Oh, but aren’t you? (Laughter) A graphic novel is intricate, long-form work. How do you get back into the flow to complete it?
LISA BROWN: I’d been working on the script in pieces—that I can do in fits and starts—and then I needed to thumbnail it out. To sell it, I then drew a third of it in sketches. I had to go away for 2 weeks and focus on that piece, so I think actually clearing the decks is important to finish it. I have to learn how to do it on the go so I am trying to figure out tools so I can take it with me and I don’t have to sit at my desk in my studio.
MUTHA: And have you started on the final work?
LISA BROWN: Yes. I’m using an Aquabee sketchbook and a Pentel brush pen…. and then for final art I am watercoloring it by hand instead of digitally coloring it because it’s faster.
MUTHA: You’re more well known for your illustrations, but as we’ve just discussed, you also do comics. Your comics to me have such an amazing sense of rhythm and timing. This is going to sound cheesy, but do you read poetry? Do you have a background in rhythm?
LISA BROWN: I have a background in literature. Through picture books I have a background in boiling down things to the essentials and that’s like poetry. And I think the picture book page turn is like switching from panel to panel, in a comic, because it’s about art and sequence.
MUTHA: I see the rhythm best in your 3-Panel Book Reviews. They are so short, they are like haikus. You make it look easy, which is my favorite kind of cartooning, but it’s not easy–!
LISA BROWN: It’s not easy and I am such an anal retentive person or, I guess, OCD that I feel like I need to read the books. The book reviews are going to be made into a book and I have a contract and everything and it’s really really late because it just takes me so long to get to all the books I want to read. I could look at the cliff notes or drudge it up from my memory, but it’s not the same as reading the book.
MUTHA: Is that your studio that I see?
LISA BROWN: It is my studio. It’s like in an in-law apartment—2 minutes away from my house. We’re incredibly lucky we have it. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do that because if I were at home I would—well, I think I could work from home, [but] My husband also works from home and we would kill each other—well, I would kill him. His work ethic is so crazy and he is so prolific that I would feel upset.
MUTHA: Ah yes: Stop writing two books a day—just stop it!
LISA BROWN: –and get on Facebook like me and you won’t have any time because you’re looking at horror!
MUTHA: You have said in the past you love the Internet and in particular, Tumblr. Do you still love Tumblr?
LISA BROWN: Now, I just put my own stuff on it now so it’s less of a time suck. Deciding to do a sketch a day for every day of the year was transformative.
MUTHA: Really? How?
LISA BROWN: Because you get better when you practice. I try to do it every day…My caveat was to have one sketch for every day of the year, but not to necessarily draw or post daily. So if you do 10 drawings in one day you can post them and spread them out. I’m about a month behind after the election.
MUTHA: How do you fit in that time in?
LISA BROWN: Often I’ll draw when I go to readings, or when I’m in a meeting, so in a lot of my sketches you’ll see people from behind. I have to get back to doing it when I watch TV at night, but we just got a dog and the dog sits on my lap and I think: that’s it—I am not doing anything but having a dog on my lap.
MUTHA: But that’s the secret, right? Little stolen moments—you make it casual. But I feel like your daily sketches have a refinement to them. Even your doodles, you add watercolor. Do you bring all that stuff to your meetings or…?
LISA BROWN: I don’t. I usually do pencil out in the wild and occasionally I’ll also ink them out in the wild and then I’ll bring them home and paint them, or paint them as a warm up to my day. The whole idea is to get it fast and loose, which is a quality that is hard to get get into your final work.
MUTHA: Where do you go to get away completely?
LISA BROWN: We have a house on the East Coast where we go there in the summer and every other year one of us gets to stay late and the other gets to go home to put the kid in school. The other stays for 2 weeks or so…and that’s when it’s just…amazing.
MUTHA: How long does it take you to get into the solo, non-family mindset?
LISA BROWN: Maybe 3 days. It depends. I really want to try an artist’s colony because when I am at my house and I go early before my family, I am making sure that air conditioner works and that the internet is still up…and ‘oh my god there’s a leak!’ And if I stay late after my family leaves…I’m cleaning and removing all traces of my family…so I feel like if I go to a space that’s already taken care of by someone else maybe I’ll be able to relax a little faster.
MUTHA: That’s the point, right? Someone else to take care of things. I’ve been reading E.B. White lately and he and his wife had a farm in Maine and a busy New York life and a kid and it turns out they also had a cook. Can you imagine how much time that would free up if someone were doing the grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning your kitchen?
LISA BROWN: Have you read The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offil? It’s a beautiful little novel. She talks about how she wants to be an Art Monster—someone who sacrifices everything for her art and allows herself to be selfish. She wrote this through the lens of being a mother. I feel like so many artists, especially women, feel like they want to be an Art Monster and just won’t and can’t.
MUTHA: As an artist you’re always sort of “on.” Even if you’re not actively working, you’re thinking and looking and processing. Then there’s the job of parenting. One thing you can’t know until you have the baby is just how all-encompassing parenting is. I mean, even when you’re away from him, you’re still interruptible. You constantly have your ear to the ground. What has your experience been with those two competing currents?
LISA BROWN: I’m trying to remember what I was like pre-kid. I think I was always distractible and that was always in the way, so I don’t think I’ve changed that much except that now I have an excuse. (Laughs) But now I look at people who don’t have kids and I think, ‘why are you complaining about anything? You have so much time and you have so much head space!’
MUTHA: I know, I look back at myself before I had a kid and think—get off the couch! You can write a novel—this afternoon!(Laughter) How old is your son, is he a teenager?
LISA BROWN: He’s 13. He’s very young in some ways and very sophisticated in some ways. He’s a little boy still, which is great. How old is your son?
MUTHA: He’s 7. He lost his first tooth today.
LISA BROWN: Does he believe in the Tooth Fairy?
MUTHA: He does, but I have no idea what to pay him. What’s the going rate?
LISA BROWN: I’m cheap. So we get him a dollar or two. He gets almost no allowance. In order to get that almost-no-allowance he has to invoice us.
MUTHA: Are you kidding?
LISA BROWN: No! The invoice can be scrawled on a stickie note, he just has to write it down. He’s incapable of doing it. And he can’t accumulate, he forfeits after two weeks and so he hasn’t gotten his allowance in like 6 months.
MUTHA: This is kind of a brilliant system because it speaks to both your child’s strengths and weaknesses and also speaks to your freelance home.
LISA BROWN: You want money? You have to chase it.
MUTHA: As two highly cultural parents did you guys try to “brain wash” your son with only things you like, like only allow him to listen to the Ramones? I feel like our generation is particularly guilty of this.
LISA BROWN: When he was really little it was about Kraftwerk and there was the Beatles, you know, but he’s still to this day into Stars and Metric, and Prince. We had a discussion with him when we started listening to Prince where we were like, “Prince is allowed to say these things, but you are not allowed to say these things. These are Prince’s words. He’s the sexy motherfucker.” But now he likes Top 40 and it’s brutal for us.
MUTHA: I love that you and your husband made American Chickens together. Do you ever miss making zines?
LISA BROWN: Here’s what we do that sort of fulfills that urge—we have crazy New Years Eve dinner parties and they always have a theme, so I create intricate menus and games and swag for the party. It’s not for public consumption, it’s just for those guest and then it goes away.
MUTHA: That so speaks to the intimate spirit of zines—it’s not for everyone, but it’s for someone.
So, how often do you get approached in daily life with, “Oh you’re an illustrator? I have a great idea for a children’s book!”
LISA BROWN: It’s constant. I get a lot of e-mails from friends of friends…and I have a stock advice letter, because I do remember what it was like when I was starting out. I mean, when I was starting out it was easier for me because Daniel had already broken into the children’s book world, but when he was starting out no one told him how to do it. You don’t learn it in school. I always try to be kind and so I have this advice letter [showing] this is how it works. When in person, I hate it when they ask me to illustrate their thing.
MUTHA: I get asked that all the time. People have this attitude like, “Oh but drawing’s the fun part—why don’t you just do it for me, for free?” That’s not how it works. I mean I think everyone has an idea for a children’s book.
LISA BROWN: Yeah, I was in a cab just the other day and lo and behold, the driver pitched us!
I’m just not that chatty to strangers.
MUTHA: That’s very un-Californian of you.
LISA BROWN: Yeah well, I’m a New Englander. If I haven’t known you for ten years then you’re not going to get a smile.
Goldfish Ghost is available now — get to your local indie bookstore to buy it! Or library, they’re also fab.