Been checking out Marbles, cartoonist Ellen Forney’s latest book. It’s a mature account of the period in which Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The definition of that disorder is one thing to grasp; Forney’s work in Marbles gives any second-hand notion of it depth. Untreated, it seems like being both in and part of a whirlwind. Forney’s wrestling with such feels grounded by her sense of humor and obvious humanness. Seeing her personally get those qualities in focus is poignant.
The first interview on here not by me–a Gotham Books Q@A with Ellen Forney:
What compelled you to write a book about such a difficult time in your life?
I feel like I had to. When I was first diagnosed, two memoirs about mood disorders were hugely important to me; they gave me company and the hope that things would eventually be okay. Through the hardest parts of producing MARBLES it was my resolve that the book could help others that kept me pressing on.
Plus, it’s my best story. MARBLES is the most wrenching, exhilarating and cathartic piece of work I’ve ever done.
Were you open about your bipolar disorder before you started your book?
No, it’s always been a personal, private thing. Putting my story out in the world now is totally new, and totally intense. And nerve-racking, exhilarating, empowering, and a zillion other things.
Since your diagnosis do you think differently about what “normal” and “crazy” mean? How?
“Normal” and “crazy” are fuzzy terms on a fuzzy spectrum. And getting fuzzier: a recent Wall Street Journal article said that one in five American adults takes psychiatric medications, which feels backwards, like “crazy” is being co-opted by people who are “normal.” Shortly after I was diagnosed, I felt personally wounded by the word, but it doesn’t have a specific meaning. Now, when I say I’m crazy, I’m saying I have a mental disorder, but I’m invisibly doing jazz hands at the same time.
There’s a lot of dark humor in MARBLES – did you feel that at the time, or is that just how you’re telling the story now?
My dark sense of humor is with me always, except when I was most depressed. Looking back at that time with a sense of humor has been incredibly therapeutic. Laughing at myself and the absurd things in life has long been an invaluable coping mechanism. Like, dealing with taking meds by pretending to be a pill-popping rock star worked pretty well for me.
You note that for research for this book you went back to friends and family to discuss your disorder. What was the scariest experience (or the one you thought would be scariest but wasn’t)? The most rewarding? The one you put off until last? Why?
I talked for hours with my family members and with friends I hadn’t seen in years, and with good friends after never having discussed their views on my behavior at that time. I remember resting my head on my desk for a long time after getting off the phone with my dad, after the longest and most intimate conversation we’d ever had. They were exhausting but those conversations felt very cleansing, like setting the record straight.
Why did you become a cartoonist?
I think I’ve always been a cartoonist. Even when I was small, I’d draw while telling myself stories. I love it, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Which is more important in MARBLES, the words or the pictures?
Both! They work together. The language of words gives the specifics of the story, and the language of pictures is more emotional. I need both for this story full of details and mood shifts. For example, I use sharp narration boxes on a stark solid black page for a scene describing my fall into depression, and lots of words and loopy, energetic brushstrokes on a two-page spread for a manic party-planning scene.
Is there a way that the comic form specifically is useful for telling your story?
Comics work well for memoir because they express facts and emotions so well. My thoughts come out in words and pictures; I can’t imagine any other way I could tell my story. I’m hoping this story in comics form will resonate for other people in a way that a memoir in prose might not.
What do you hope readers take away from MARBLES?
My hope is that MARBLES will appeal to many kinds of people. For people who are bipolar or have other mental disorders, I hope they will find comfort, company, inspiration, hope, self-acceptance; for people who aren’t bipolar, educational information, compassion; for everyone, a specific understanding of bipolar disorder, the value of art as therapy, yoga as therapy, doing comics as therapy. And if nothing else, a good read!