by pelly & sherm
You either know Gabrielle Bell as a poignant story teller of present day Brooklyn living or you’ve never heard of her before. If the latter is true, let us acquaint you. The Greenpoint resident is best known for her graphic short stories and comic diaries, Lucky and Cecil and Jordan in New York. The title story in Cecil and Jordan, was adapted into the film Tokyo! by Michel Gondry which Bell co-wrote. She is a wise soul who has learned to combat her self consciousness by developing the art of observation. We sat down for a couple drinks with Gabrielle at t.b.d. in Brooklyn where we gained a deeper understanding of her ability to recount past experiences, both real and fictitious.
|Quiet Color: Let me first thank you for accepting our interview request. When I saw that you you were living in Brooklyn I figured “how fortuitous” so thank you for sitting down with us..
I was battling to figure out how to properly ask you this, but I feel like you have the ability to recount your personal memories in a seemingly objective way. I often wonder while reading your stories, how much of it is directly from your past and/or an uncanny ability to objectively view and remember everything OR are you just good at writing it that way?
Gabrielle Bell: Helpless for example.. I would say that like 90 percent of it happened but not all in the same night.. like all different times, and different contexts, with different people.
QC: Wow that’s amazing actually. I almost find that more impressive that you can tell a story in that way, yet have it come off so seamless as if it’s recounting one actual event.
|GB: Thank You
QC: Yeah that blows my mind. I feel like I always know your angle or if you were judging a moment, what side you’d be on, but I feel like you trick me into thinking I’m still deciding for myself.
GB: I didn’t really know I was doing that. Thank you.
QC: Yeah from a story telling perspective, it’s pretty insane. I went over to the Comic Book store [Desert Island] on Metropolitan and he mentioned you did a reading and had someone playing guitar?
GB: Oh yeah.. that was Helpless. When I went to San Francisco to the town where I’m from, my uncle is a folk singer and just happened to know the song “Helpless” [by Neil Young]. It was just a whim. My friend Ariel Schwag and I were doing a reading and we decided three hours before. It was very serendipitous. I guess it worked. It was all Ariel Schwag’s family members and my family members..
Do you guys know Ariel Schwag’s stuff? She does a lot of autobiographical comics and she really inspired me. She did chronicles of her entire high school years. Very detailed, like she kept journals and did stuff from the whole year. Very explicit stuff too. Each year had a different name. The first one was called Awkward, the second one was called Definition, Potential was her third year and Likewise just recently came out in April and we did a tour together.
QC: It’s cool that you have Comic tours. Who comes out to those?
GB: Mostly just fans. Sometimes nobody comes. I mean not nobody but there will be like five people, five friends, and it gets sort of embarrassing. Just like bands I guess..
QC: Yeah don’t worry that happens every night.. in Brooklyn.
Do you find that you have kind of a cult fan following?
GB: It’s hard to say. I don’t have much of an internet presence. My work has been around for like ten years so I think I probably do have a lot of people who are like “Ah I remember her when she was first starting out like ten years ago..” But I’m starting a blog soon!
QC: Cool.. our blog should plug your blog.
GB: Thank you. Likewise.
QC: I see a lot of your stories as sound with panels. Like if it were a film, there’d be a soundtrack there. Do you see that at all?
GB: I definitely see it. I just sort of fell out of music appreciation. I tend to listen to audio books and podcasts and NPR. I don’t listen to music so much anymore. I don’t know, It’s weird, you listen to something and it’s like some kind of political choice. It’s like people are so opinionated about what’s good music.
But I also think the more you participate or pay attention to any kind of art form, the more sensitive you get to it and your tastes become more and more refined. My tastes are not very refined.
QC: Do you feel like you pay attention to what’s going on in the comics world?
GB: Well I’ve gotten in trouble having been asked that before because that’s another thing.. I don’t really read a lot of comics. I tend to be more interested in literary comics and less comics and more like short stories. I think there are narrative comics and there are a lot of art comics, but I think those come from not having a deep background in comics. It’s more like writing and drawing, and comics just kind of marry the two.
QC: Speaking of limited comic backgrounds, I would personally fit into that category. I literally just happened to spot your book on a friend’s coffee table. I was intrigued, took it home, and read it immediately. Our other friends who are musicians and all around, smart, interesting people, experienced a similar draw to your work when left in the same room with Cecil and Jordan in New York. It’s really special the way you communicate these experiences because they are so true to how many of us feel on a day in, day out basis. I just wanted you to know, despite having written for 10 years, people are still picking up your stories for the first time and feeling such a deep and instantaneous connection it it.
GB: Thank you.. that’s really good to know.
|QC: While I’m on my new age love moment, I’d like to discuss what drew me to your story style. I’m very cognitive of the narrative arc and the narrative model. What impresses me most about you is how you accentuate the palpable tension in moments without shining a spotlight on it. In a way, I feel like you’re demonstrating how change takes place over long periods of time. Instead of laying out the entire progression of growth in your stories, I feel like you highlight the catalyst of a long term change.
GB: What comes to mind is that the stories take so long to do.
They’ll take like five months on average, and then it takes five minutes to read. But in a way, maybe the five months of effort goes into the five minutes, so you’re sort of experiencing all that time. It’s like if you watch grass grow for five minutes nothing happens. But if you watch grass grow for five months, you see something happen. So in a way, maybe it’s something that’s condensed.
QC: That was the greatest answer.
So how do you construct your stories? Now that you’ve told me they aren’t exact recounts of past events, how do you pick which memories to package together into one setting or one backdrop environment.
GB: (long pause) I guess whichever ones are most appropriate. I’ll be weeding through different memories and there are lots of interesting memories. There will be all these interesting things, things you remember as a child that are all very interesting. But then there’s the subject of your story. So if you can find a memory that matches with the subject of the story, then it makes more of an impact.
It’s like with a dream. You have a dream and it seems so significant but it doesn’t really mean anything to anyone beside yourself. But if you can juxtapose the images with something that means something else..
|QC: Then it starts to makes sense..
GB: Yeah cause often I’ll have some interesting memory and I’ll want to put it in a story but I’ll be like “I can’t put it in a story because it doesn’t quite fit with the subject matter.”
QC: But it is some sort of visible process that you go through? It doesn’t all just happen organically or magically come together? But I guess it comes to you easier than most.
GB: No it’s not easy (haha), It’s actually really hard. It’s getting harder and harder. I tend to just write a story over and over and over and over again.
Maybe like twenty times. With each writing I take stuff out and put stuff in. Usually the first draft will be very very fake sounding, very insincere, empty. But with each draft I’ll take out things that don’t sound true. And then with each draft I’ll have different memories or different ideas that make it sound more true. And then when I get to the twentieth draft, I still feel like it’s a fake but at some point I have to start drawing and hope that something else will come..”
[At this point we take a break for Gabrielle to pick up her mac and cheese (we're at t.b.d. in Greenpoint) plus we place a mac & cheese order for ourselves.. Sherm regales us with a story of a farmer who uses his Williamsburg land plot to score chicks, and I mention how the bartender tell us that he "went to a Britney Spears concert last night and it turned into a full on rave." Gabrielle shouts out a cool band she just saw at Market Hotel, Cryptacize. Minutes later, we press on]
|QC: Well I’m sure this is a topic you get asked about frequently but we at least need to touch on your collaboration with Michel Gondry for the film Tokyo!. What I’m most curious about is what the working relationship was, how was it?
GB: Well I had known him for a long time and I was teaching his son comics. But yes of course I was very intimidated to work with Michel but he was very encouraging. Especially when you’re working for him, he knows how to get the best performance out of a person and I think we had built up a sort of relationship where he trusted that I’d come up with good ideas. He trusted my judgment mostly.
QC: You say he knows how to get the most out of people. How did he achieve that with you?
GB: Well first he tried by insulting me and that didn’t work but then he tried complimenting me and that worked.
QC: OK, so you respond best to positive reinforcement.
GB: Yeah. So he would come up with twenty crazy ideas and some of them were just outrageous. Some of them were brilliant and some of them were incredibly stupid. And I think my role often tended to be [to select] which ideas worked the best.
And sometimes he would come up with some really dumb idea. And I would be like “no, that’s a dumb idea” but he’d persist with the idea and sometimes that idea would turn out to be a really great idea and other times that idea would turn out to be a really bad idea. He’s really really a very good collaborative artist. I think he really works well with other people and he kind of forced me to do that too. Because generally I would never ever work with other people, but you can’t say no to Michel Gondry.
|QC: So how do you know him for so long?
GB: I met him in a cafe once when I was just drawing comics and his son came up to me actually. He was really into comics and was 12 at the time. Then I started teaching him and his friend how to draw comics and I did that for some time, a couple years. Then I got to be in more of a relationship with Michel.
QC: Does that have any relation to the story Felix?
GB: Well Felix, I made that all up before Michel and I even had any type of relationship of any sort. I just wrote that out of my imagination and then later, Michel and I got more involved. I don’t really know what people think of that story but that was all my imagination.
That Felix thing was really embarrassing in a way because when I wrote it, I didn’t really think of it in the context of Michel Gondry. I just thought of it as this story that I made up. I mean if no one knew that I worked with him, it wouldn’t have been a big deal at all. But I was very very nervous of putting it out because I was worried about what people would think.
But I talked to Michel a lot about it. He didn’t like it. He said it was a good story but it made him uncomfortable too. Actually what bothered him most is that the guy was bald. I don’t know why. He has a full head of hair, he has nothing to worry about.
QC: Were you happy with how Tokyo! came out?
GB: Pretty happy, yeah. It’s hard to say. I think I felt about it the same way I felt about a lot of my comics. I think it’s hard for artists to say how they really feel about something once it’s out there. I think if I were to watch it without having been involved in it at all. I think I would’ve probably enjoyed it. I mean I would’ve had certain problems with certain details of it but I find that doing comics is more close to who I am.
I feel like my comics have lasted longer. Not that Tokyo! is all over. I guess basically I have more control with comics and it’s just my medium. It’s not really my movie. I mean I played a big part of it. But it’s not really my movie. With my comics, I feel like “those are my comics.” But that movie is ultimately Michel’s movie.
QC: You do such personal work but at times you write about situations that you’ve never had even second hand involvement in, like the affair in One Afternoon.
GB: That’s probably based on my paranoia. With the story Felix, I think that was very much based on paranoia. My biggest hopes and my biggest fears, in a way.
QC: Like in Lucky where you straightforwardly mentioned that it was your hopes and fears working together..
I didn’t expect to ask you what the stories meant specifically but in My Affliction which is very whimsical and you date these strange men before you end up in a cage inside a giant’s house.. Is that just your views on relationships and necessity coming to fruition?
GB: That story was very much stream of consciousness. I would just take bits and pieces from dreams and stuff like that. That was probably my most purely automatic writing. Like I didn’t really know what I was doing. I wish I could do more stuff like that.
QC: Yeah you pull it off very effectively..
GB: I’ve tried to write more like that. It doesn’t make sense at all logically but somehow it makes some kind of dream sense. I mean you can’t just really sit down and write something like that. I don’t know. I was very very very depressed at the time and I don’t really want to be depressed again but wish I could write like that more.
QC: When do you know when your stories are complete or when the drawing of comic panel is finished?
GB: I don’t know.. I think the formal answer is that you want to have just enough information so that the reader can know what’s going on without any extraneous stuff. But then you may want to have a bookshelf or something in the background because you don’t want it to feel too empty.
And then other people, like Julie Doucet for example, she packs her panels with all kinds of little details that are very pretty and full and deep and really intense. So you can approach it from a very spare place or from a very full and detailed one. But really I think you need to find your own rhythm. But personally, I try to keep it as simple as possible. But even ‘simple as possible’ can be really complicated.
QC: As we’ve already alluded to, your grasp on reality and the present is very strong and you’re an incredible story teller. I’m left to wonder if you consider yourself to be a pragmatic and practical person or do you view yourself as being more on the open ended side of the spectrum in terms of your everyday life?
GB: Wow.. I can’t even answer that. I would say I’m more open ended and very impractical and unpragmatic but I’m always trying to be more practical..
QC: I just feel like you’re an incredible observer..
GB: That’s kind of my job I think. If I am a good observer it’s probably because I’m working..
QC: But I bet you’ve been like that your whole life, no? Which is why you do what you do?
GB: I’ve always been so self-conscious and had a low self-esteem, so most of the time I just think about myself and what people think about me and what’s my reputation. Growing up as an awkward teenager, an awkward 20 year old.. an awkward 25 year old.. an awkward 33 year old..
I think probably, I’ve been able to transcend that through my work. It’s been a way to take my mind off of myself, even though some of it is autobiographical. I had to make an effort to make stories by observing life and using my own experiences..
QC: So all your self-consciousness was just practice?
GB: In a way, its been more like trying to get away from it. Like focusing on something else actually.