toggle navigation

French Milk

August 18, 2009


I’ve heard other writers complain when people openly admit to reading their book in a day or two, because it certainly didn’t take the author one day to write it. But, I read Lucy Knisley’s travel journal/comic/coming-of-age story in about that long. And I don’t think that’s an insult.


I found her book to be such a refreshing way to tell a particular chapter of life – that period in your early twenties, where you’re about to be on your own and excited about the possibility, but scared shitless and insecure all at the same time. In the end, Lucy’s story wraps around you all sweet and comforting, much like the milk in Paris.

I’m so thrilled with this week’s travel piece, a Q&A with Lucy Knisley, the coolest chick with a pen, and the author and illustrator of French Milk.


danapop (dp) The period of time in which you illustrate in your book is pivotal – you’re a grownup yet, still in some ways a child, how do you feel when looking back on that time now?

Lucy It really fascinates me to think about where the line is drawn between adult and child. In America, I suppose it’s generally considered to be sometime around when you graduate from college. Hilarious, because we’ve already made so many important life choices, and yet we’re still, mostly, completely unable to function as an adult in society. I was twenty-two when I wrote French Milk, and I was just about to graduate. I was completely petrified by the thought of existing outside the constructs of university, and the idea of what was expected of me, now that I would pass into the “realm of adulthood.” The book chronicles a lot of that anxiety, and the additional complexity of my changing relationship to my mother, who was also dealing with brand new age-expectations, as she celebrated her fiftieth birthday on the trip. I’m only twenty-four now, but I’m a bit calmer, I suppose, than I was during French Milk.

dp I saw on your journal that you and John have been back to Paris, just this summer. How was that trip unlike the one you took with your mother?

Lucy When my mother and I went, she tended to lead me through the city like a general. She was the map-bearer and the schedule-ruler, which suited me fine, as I was mainly focused on trying to keep up and take it all in while being simultaneously consumed with the impact of everything at a time of change and possibility. This time, I was the one with the map and the plans, and dragged John all over the city, mostly re-seeing the things I saw and did with my mother. It was nice to share those things with someone new, and to be the one who knew where I was going, for once. My mom is the ideal Paris companion– passionate and knowledgeable– but it’s nice to know I can hold my own, too. And good to know that I remembered everything so well!

dp What would you tell that version of yourself in French Milk traveling with you mother? Would you have done things differently?

Lucy No, that trip happened at a perfect time and place. Paris in winter was the ideal setting to think about life and change and art (I was about to graduate from art school, and working as a professional artist was part of what daunted me most. Paris’s art history and present kept it at the forefront of my mind.). If I could tell anyone anything, it would be to tell my 11-year-old self to take a few French classes, because that would have helped me quite a bit, later on. I wish I could have been less grumpy, but that’s always the case, and part of travel and life. I think I really experienced that trip deeply, and it changed me a bit. I’m very glad it happened when it did.


dp Are you more confident in your work as an artist now? Do you think all artists have a certain level of insecurity within their work, or was that a period/life stage you were processing through?

Lucy I certainly like my work better now. It would be cripplingly sad to look back and feel that I was, at one time, more talented, and have since gotten worse. I always try to keep learning and getting better, and it’s nice to look back and see how I’ve developed, but that occasionally means cringing at parts of my previous work. It’s always a struggle, and it comes and goes. Every artist has to scrutinize what they do, but I hope that, eventually, I’ll learn how to separate scrutiny from insecurity completely. When I work, I’m usually pretty happy with what I make. It’s surviving and existing as an artist economically and striving to produce good work every day that is harder for me. And telling good stories the best way will always be something to aspire towards.

dp Did French Milk change the way you think about your art? Did it help or hinder?

Lucy Because I kept French Milk as a journal during my travel, publishing it as a book gave me more insight into how readers can connect with something personal and truthful. Whenever I feel down on myself about making mostly autobiographical work, I think about what I like to read, and how much I enjoy reading personal accounts, memoir and food writing. Making French Milk gave me the opportunity to frame my work in the context of memoir, rather than simply keeping it as a personal journal.


dp Your relationship with both of your parents is so beautifully explored, but one of my favorite parts in the book was the day you spent with your father at Oscar Wilde’s grave on your birthday – what was your favorite moment during that trip?

Lucy Certainly not that moment! Though it was important to me. I hadn’t been looking forward to my birthday, as it drove home this idea that I was not prepared to be an adult, and so chose to ring in the day in a rather morbid fashion. I love Wilde, and his aesthetic ideals mean a lot to my art-making process (to think of beauty for the sake of beauty, and art for the sake of art). We visited his grave in Pere LaChaise cemetery in northern Paris, where I was spending a few hours of my birthday contemplating his untimely and poverty-stricken death, having been disgraced and ruined despite a lifetime of brilliant work. As I pondered the grave, I was deep in a mope-hole of worry about the futility of art-making and the stupid cruelty of life when a bird took a poop directly on my head. At the time, all I could think was, “And on my BIRTHDAY, too!” But now I think of that day, and that moment, as a hilarious image of overwrought me, and how I should really take everything less seriously. There are, after all, worse things than being like Oscar Wilde. Maybe that was my favorite moment…

dp You’re not living in Chicago any longer, but Vermont – how do you think where you live influences your work, or does it?

Lucy Actually, I do live in Chicago! I need to update my website… I moved back to Chicago about a year ago, after I finished my first year at a graduate school in Vermont. The second year, being a thesis year, can be performed from anywhere, so I chose to return to Chicago to do so. Vermont was very nice, but I’m a bit of a city-mouse. The city has always influenced my work (I grew up in New York City). I work best in the isolated crowdedness of it, where I can be alone among people. I like living in Chicago because it’s so cold in the wintertime that it’s a good excuse to stay in and draw. When I do need to go out, there’s lots to do and see. In the summer, Chicagoans get so excited that it’s not miserable out, that the city explodes with outdoor festivals and concerts and movies in the park. I love it. I lived in a tiny town in rural Vermont, and when I needed to get out of the house for a bit, there wasn’t much besides the bar and the typewriter repair shop across the street from my apartment. I like having plenty of access to input in order to make work, so I moved back to Chicago. I live in a small apartment with John, my boyfriend.

dp Do you think comics are sort of the stepchildren in the art world or do you think they’ve found their home in mainstream pop culture? Or do you even want them there?

Lucy I think this depends on who it is you talk to, and what their experiences have been with reading comics. Comic art and cartoons (or whatever you want to call them, sequential art? They have so many names) are present both in the art world and in pop culture, along with holding their own among literature and subcultures of geek and punk indie stuff. That’s what I love about comics– They’ve managed to sort of infiltrate all these various places, crossing over between genres and people. I love that you can talk to almost anyone, these days, and they’ll have a story about how they connected with comics, somehow, be it through a newspaper strip or some obscure zine, or reading Calvin and Hobbes as a kid. It’s such a natural way for people to take in information– pictures and words in sequence that tell a story. If people want to frame comics as art, that’s great, or as literature, or kid’s stuff, or porn or geekery, that’s great, too. I like that there’s controversy over this, because clearly there’s no way to pigeonhole comics into being one thing or another, and it has the ability to be a renaissance freeform, and enter all the arenas at once! If people are arguing about where they belong, comics are on the radar, and that’s what I like to hear.

dp Do you have mentors? Is there anyone’s career path you wish to emulate?

Lucy I’ve had wonderful teachers and advisors– perhaps one of the most influential being the amazing Lynda Barry, who has helped me so much in how I think about making comics and about my practice. Her body of work is so beautiful and her writing so perfectly captures elusive ideas! I’m so full of love for so many different artists and writers, that it would be impossible to pick one that I wanted to emulate. I’d rather make them proud that I had to find my own way.

But I when I fuck up, I like to think about the wonderful artists who were also fuckups but made it through to be geniuses anyway. Like the brilliant writer, David Sedaris, an alumni of my college, who was essentially kicked out of the school, but was, years later, asked to return as a graduation speaker. It makes fucking up much easier to bear when I think of it in the grand scheme of a life.


dp What was the publishing process like for you? Did you set out to illustrate and write a travel journal? What was the intention? How did it happen?

Lucy I’d had this beautiful notebook (Miquelrious, graph-lined 7×9 inches) sitting on my bookshelf for about two years before I took it to Paris. Something about a really nice notebook makes it too precious and intimidating to fill with just anything. The Paris trip, though, came at such a perfect time of change and impact that I thought it might finally get some use as my journal for the trip. Every day after we’d come home to our little rented apartment in Paris, my mom and I would sit down and she would write about the day in her journal, and I would draw and write in mine. I took it with me to cafes and museums, where I drew and jotted notes whenever I could. I was also taking pictures, which I would later include in the final book. I was keeping the journal for myself, to remember this strange and tumultuous time in my life, and this important trip.

But when I got home and flipped through about two-hundred pages of journaling, I realized that there was more to it than I’d thought, and that people might want to read about this event and find something through my experiences. It was too long to take to the photocopier, so my mother proposed that I self-publish, which resulted in the first, self-published edition. I took it to the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts Festival in New York City, where it was picked up by a savvy editor from Touchstone Fireside (Amanda Patten), who later contacted me about a publishing deal. After re-editing and refining it, it became the book it is today. I love when readers connect to me and my story, and I’m so glad I can share it with people.

dp You have a fantastic website– what are some sites or blogs you like to read?

Lucy Thank you! I need to update it more often. I find I usually update my blog regularly, but do a big dump of stuff onto my website only once in a while.

My friend, Erika Moen, does a great comic that I read every week, about her life and adventures (Darcomic). I love the work of Jess Fink, another pal I know through comic-making. Her blog is always full of (often deliciously dirty) beautiful art. I watch Sarah Haskin’s “Target Women,” every week it’s on, on Current TV’s Infomania. I love Serious Eats, and David Lebovitz’s blog for foodie stuff. I always read anything that Maria Kalman does on the New York Times blog (This one being a recent favorite). And recently I’ve been reading through the archives of “Emails from Crazy People.” I like the one about soap, best.


dp If you could travel with anyone now, whom would you pick?  Where would you go?

Lucy My mom is always great fun. I would travel anywhere with her! If she got the choice, I know she’d choose to return to Paris. My mom, being a former chef, always knows the good places to eat, somehow, and the dishes to order off the most indecipherable menus!

One of my favorite writers (and actors and personalities) is Stephen Fry. Last year he made a documentary where he traveled across the United States in his London taxi and interviewed locals, saw sights and visited landmarks. I’d love to have been on that trip, getting to chat to Stephen Fry during the drive, and listening to him sweetly interviewing Alabama hunters and Alaskan mountaineers! I think he’s brilliant, but I’m likely too shy and in awe of him to be able to form a proper sentence, if we were ever to meet.

I’d love to travel across the country, though. There are a lot of states west of Chicago to which I’ve never been, and would love to see. John and I took a road trip up and down the East Coast about a year ago, and it was wonderful. We made it all the way up to Nova Scotia, where we “rock-hounded” in the Bay of Fundy. Gorgeous and a lovely adventure!


dp What’s your dream job?

Lucy Well, it was making comics. Now that doing that is my everyday, I have to dream about other stuff. I love to think about being a food writer (which is basically what I do anyway). Sometimes my mom and I talk about opening a cheese dairy (an idea we’ve talked about since I was about twelve). Mainly, I’d like to get paid to read books and eat delicious food. If you hear anything about a job like that, please let me know.

dp Where do you find inspiration in the process when you’re not feeling particularly creative?

Lucy I’m a big fan of watching TV or movies while I work. The junkier, romantic comedy slapstick nonsense, the better, usually. If it’s too good, I get all bent out of shape that I’ll never make anything to live up to it. If things get really dire and nothing is working, I usually read an old book that I love and take a break for a day or two while my batteries recharge.

dp What’s the last book you read, movie you saw, thing you ate?

Lucy For my recent return trip to Paris, I read David Lebovitz’s “The Sweet Life in Paris,” which I loved. It was recommended by my mother, and contains stories and anecdotes about Leibovitz’s life as an expat glaciere. Great stuff. I see a lot of movies at the dingy little three-dollar theater down the street from my apartment in Chicago. I think the last thing I saw there was “Public Enemies,” last week, which confused me because everybody’s face seemed really pore-y. Do you know what I mean? Like the cameras were too close and too focused, and Johnny Depp should never look anything less than glorious. I’m very much looking forward to seeing “Julie and Julia,” but I have to wait and see that with my mother, or she’ll never forgive me, and besides, there’s nobody else I know who will appreciate it more! The last thing I ate was a bowl of cereal (I only eat one kind that I’m very partial to, but it’s too embarrassing, so I’m not telling), but the last GREAT thing I ate was cheap fish tacos from the Mexican spot around the corner from my place, El Cid. They do great tamales, too, and serve excellent Palomas! This afternoon I’ll probably have a picnic with friends at a nearby park, where we’ll try to re-create being in Paris with good cheese and dark red wine in the late-summer sunshine.