An Interview with Kristen Radtke

What inspired you to write Imagine Wanting Only This?

I was writing about abandoned places, aftermath, and hidden histories for a long time—just as essays. I didn’t realize it was a book. Eventually I recognized that the essays all had something in common. It wasn’t necessarily an inspiration as much as it was a “realizing” or “coming around to” project.

The comic memoir is an unconventional medium for you to be writing in. Have you always wanted to convey your story in this way or did your book come together when you realized you couldn’t stop drawing?

I originally envisioned this memoir as a book of prose essays. In the same way I came around to the subject, I came around to the medium. My last semester of graduate school, I decided to make an essay in comics. I really liked the idea but it was labor intensive. I wasn’t confident in my ability to draw cartoons, although I had been drawing for a long time. It was a different style. I pushed myself to do a little bit more, then a little bit more. Eventually I gave in to the idea that it all had to be comics.

As an author, what was it like creating this book where you were very open about the issues you were going through and the demons you exposed to light?

It seemed natural to me and it also seemed necessary to the project. I drew myself so many times that I became really honest about myself as a character. I also think that our mistakes and our flaws are what make books more interesting. I’ve always been drawn to books where I see the memoirist or the protagonist make mistakes. I was not worried about exposing my flaws. I worried more about how I represented other people than how I represented myself.

When did you start this project?

I started in graduate school—a very different draft was my graduate school thesis. My thesis was primarily prose, when it was still an essay collection about ruins and abandoned cities. I had included some graphics—a few of the comics in my book are early versions of those. All in all, I would say the project spanned five years but it took me a year or more to understand that the whole book had to be graphic. And then I wrote an entire graphic version that was one hundred and fifty pages, which I later rewrote.

How long does it take you to finish a page?

If I am just drawing a picture of us in a room having a conversation—myself and you—I can finish a page quickly. If it’s a face I am used to drawing, it will take me half an hour. A landscape takes much longer, and I never know why. Sometimes if I am distracted, going slower, or not sure how something is supposed to look, it can take two days. Filling a page is more boring labor than writing. After I know what a drawing is going to be, it’s just execution. I think, with writing, there are still a few more discoveries to be had. Certainly there are in drawing too; I can make something bigger or I can work with shading. Basically when I see something in my head, I translate that directly onto the page. For me, the only way I was able to finish a book like this on top of my day job, on top of a lot of freelance work, on top of life, is something I can come home to, tired, and still work. I can do that with drawing but I can’t do that with writing. Anybody with a day job knows that coming home at seven and trying to be fresh with ideas is difficult. For me, stumbling into graphics is what enabled me to finish my project on top of having a job.

What is your storyboarding process like?

Sometimes I get it wrong. Sometimes I tell myself to just get a square’s full, get the panels full, draw something. Sometimes I just draw the first thing I can think of, which most of the time isn’t very interesting. After I finished my first draft, my boyfriend compared it to a really bad television show; the scenes are all two minutes long with quick cuts to the next thing. A bad show doesn’t know how to draw a whole scene out and keep you engaged. That’s what I was dealing with too—quick cuts. In my first draft, this interview would take four panels but it should probably take four or eight pages. At first I didn’t know how to extend scenes but now I think it’s one of the most fun parts. I draw the panels as I think they’re going to be in my storyboard with Adobe Illustrator, but the shapes might change. I include the text that will accompany the image.

There are two particularly striking scenes in this book, one in which you dissect a heart into a ruin in an underwater city. How do you draw something like this heart scene compared to a scene, say, of somebody talking over Skype?

I didn’t know how to be weird when I started the book, how to draw reality, or a representation of reality. At first I felt that I was faking it. Some comic artists can be weird and talk about life—Tom Hart, for example. His book, Rosalie Lightning, is beautiful and very much grounded in reality. But then he has this scene where he draws New York as a giant rat and he shows his family on a raft in the middle of it. I thought, “Wow, I have no idea how to do that.” I had to gain confidence in drawing. It didn’t necessarily mean I didn’t see imaginatively. I’m not a strong enough drawer or illustrator to be able to make a person look consistent for a hundred pages without looking at photos. So it just took time.

You have several large narratives and themes that weave throughout your life. How did you decide what belonged in this book and what was superlative?

My editor was really amazing. She cut whole characters, moments, and whole scenes. Several places I have traveled to didn’t make it into the book. It was something I was really worried about. So many graphic memoirs consist of one narrative with a few offshoots. I was waiting for the reviewers to ask, “Why is this all in one book?” That was really hard but I discovered that I needed to listen and let other voices in.

How did you take something that is unconventional to the marketplace?

That was really weird and scary. I thought a few small publishers would be interested in my book but they had no interest at all. Then I thought there is no way that a press like Pantheon Books, that in my opinion publishes some of the best graphic novels in America, would be interested. It just takes one person to respond and be a champion for your book. Every rejection felt like a pretty big blow. I work in publishing, managing at Sarabande Books. I started there as a publicist and I’ve been doing this for five years, so I know things from the other side. When it comes to publishing, I know what should be happening but isn’t present. It’s a double-edged sword.

What is the one thing you wanted to say with this book?

I think I wanted to talk about mortality and the way in which we memorialize things or forget things, the way we move through space, build homes for ourselves. I’m not sure that I had a singular message or remained consistent throughout the book. I also really wanted to make something—I wanted to make a full book.

Has writing this book changed the way you look at your life now?

I think it has changed certain moments in my memory. The actual writing of those memories has usurped the memory.

What is up next for you?

I am working on two projects now. I am working on a book of illustrations of urban loneliness. I am also working on a graphic novel in color—I am very excited not to be working in black and white. That’s another project that will take five years but my urban loneliness project is my interim project.

Dani Hedlund

Dani Hedlund published her first novel, Threads of Deception, at the age of eighteen. Experiencing the difficulties of breaking into the market, she founded Tethered by Letters in 2007 to help other new writers perfect and publish their works. Offering free writing coaching, editing, and publishing guidance, Hedlund expanded TBL into a global community of writers, editors, and artists. In 2010, she pushed the company to new heights, creating Brink’s literary journal, Tethered by Letters Quarterly Literary Journal which has since evolved into F(r)iction. In 2018, TBL was rebranded to Brink Literacy Project. When not working with the Brink and F(r)iction staff, Hedlund spends her days writing, consuming an ungodly amount of caffeine, and binge reading comics.