Elisha Wagman sits down at the Think Coffee on 4th Avenue with Amy Kurzweil, her good friend and fellow alumni of the MFA program at The New School, to discuss Flying Couch, Kurzweil’s graphic memoir, which was published by Catapult in October 2016.
Flying Couch weaves Kurzweil’s coming-of-age as a young Jewish artist into the narrative of her mother, a psychologist, and Bubbe, her grandmother, a World War II survivor who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto by disguising herself as a gentile. Captivated by Bubbe’s story, Amy turns to her sketchbooks, teaching herself to draw as a way to cope with what she discovers. Entwining the voices and histories of these three wise, hilarious, and very different women, Amy creates a portrait not only of what it means to be part of a family, but also of how each generation bears the imprint of the past.
Elisha Wagman: The Kirkus Review calls Flying Couch “ambitious…a debut that enriches and extends the potential of graphic narrative.” How do you perceive that your memoir altered graphic storytelling?
Amy Kurzweil: My aim with Flying Couch was to understand something about myself and my family, and perhaps: my culture, the human race. Being a student and teacher of comics, I planned to unabashedly pilfer the techniques of cartoonists before me. I would use the jarring juxtaposition of past and present narratives I’d so admired in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I would use a reflective, psychologically-aware voice so well modeled in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; and, because the transformative journey of storytelling was so central to my narrative, I would use the meta-textual/textural elements I’d always loved in Lynda Barry’s work. But I think what happens when you write a true story about things you know well is that your attempts to “use” the techniques of others inevitably become your own. So to the extent that I’ve “enriched and extended,” I have simply carried what previously “enriched and extended” into a new work, in my own style, and the future “potential” of the form lives on.
EW: In a recent interview with Largehearted Boy you said that, “Our stories aren’t ours exactly, but they are inherited like DNA.” What does that mean, and how is the story you tell in Flying Couch an inherited history?
AK: A psychologist like my mother might be able to cite the studies that theorize how traumatic histories linger in families for generations but this is not my field of expertise. What I do know is that my grandmother was literally running from Poland to Germany, the memory of Nazis fresh, when my mother was a fetus. My mother was raised by two parents who had lost everyone in their respective families. On the other hand, their journey to America marked the epitome of triumph and survival. My grandmother’s fragmented memories of hunger and loss echo in my early childhood memories, peppering an otherwise lovely walk through the suburbs of Michigan. I was born and thrived in the setting to their salvation.
We all grow up either hearing the stories of our parents, or at least feeling their effects. Nobody can unlive their experiences, and even if my grandmother didn’t tell her stories, her past influenced who she became: how fearful, how grateful. We learn certain dispositions from those who raise us. I did, at least. But it’s true that the experiences of my mother and my grandmother are not mine, and that’s part of the message of my book. I say these stories are inherited like DNA, because the emotions of these stories live in our bodies.
EW: In Flying Couch you ask, “Why am I not the protagonist of my own life?” And yet knowing you for almost six years, it is difficult for me to perceive you as anything but self determined. How is it possible for someone to appear not only confident, but self-directed, while that very person simultaneously fails to see themselves as the hero of their own story?
AK: Perhaps the answer to this question has something to do with what constitutes “story.” I have always been taught that a good story has clear conflict. My conflicts most often are with myself. My grandmother’s trials were grander, her triumph more resounding. She lived the epitome of the hero’s journey, survived hunger and homelessness and lost everyone in her family, then to meet my grandfather and start anew. Now she is 90 years old and has four great grandchildren; My mother and I have always lived in the shadow of that dramatic arc.
But I don’t earnestly believe that I’m not the protagonist of this book. I now know great stories where nothing “happens” or where the conflicts are entirely cerebral. (Thanks especially to Shelly Jackson’s class on The Unnameable!) This juxtaposition of the grand story with the banal story, the external conflict with the internal, is the story I’m telling here.
EW: Your father, Ray Kurzweil, the well known futurist and inventor, once wrote, “Amy is interested in the future of expression and in how unreal environments, like virtual reality become visceral, where story crafts reality.” Where do you see the future of graphic storytelling going?
AK: I think graphic storytelling is becoming increasingly digital, and there's exciting opportunity to use what's unique about the space of the web: we click and scroll and move a little cursor around instead of turning pages. Web platforms currently have a lot of limitations, but this will evolve and change. (And hopefully we can avoid advertisements cropping up between the chapters of digital books. That would be very terrible!)
Comics, unlike most prose, use space and time as part of their technical lexicon, so it's natural for graphic storytelling to explore and expand into the tunnels of the web, which they already do, and these platforms do change those stories. While I'm hopefully we don't totally lose print books, or some facsimile, as we expand, I’m also accepting of technology as it becomes more complex and immersive. Comics have to be careful not to lose what makes them comics, which is that they are not life and they are not film. So I'm really not sure if a comic is still a comic if it's, for example, a story told in a fully immersive virtual reality environment. A comic needs blank space to function but surely there’s a way to protect the art form while simultaneously using technology to enhance it. I can imagine some VR environment that's just a huge Imax dome of still images and text and you have to wander around in it to piece together the story for yourself.
EW: During a recent chat with your dad, you and he spoke about creating transcendence effects, such as meditation, as a means to solve problems. While reading Flying Couch, I often felt the book was an extended meditation on family, and mother-daughter relationships. How, if it at all, did writing this book impact your relationship with your mother and Bubbe?
AK: Just as writing this story was explicitly a part of Flying Couch, Flying Couch is now a part of the story of my relationship with my mother and my grandmother. When you write memoir, writing is a plot point in your life. This plot point has been sometimes awkward and difficult, but in the end, extremely positive – therapeutic, you might say. For my grandmother, this is not the first time her story has been told publicly (she did a recorded interview with a holocaust historian in the 90s, which I relied on heavily for information). But I imagine knowing that I personally wanted to understand her story has made her feel closer to me, and to others in my generation (my brother, my cousins). Although I don't think Bubbe really understands what it means to, for example, have her story talked about on the Internet, this project certainly hasn't hurt her penchant to see herself as an admirable heroic person. I'm really quite lucky that she trusted me whole-heartedly with this information. I haven't heard her wonder about whether or not I "got things right." She's more concerned with my well being. And whether or not I'm getting married!
My mother is also concerned with my well-being, as well as her own depiction. She is a professional, after all. Suffice it to say, the book's veracity, precision, and now, it's reception, is a huge deal for her. For my mother, Flying Couch is an “outing” of sorts, and yet regardless of her fears, she has valiantly supported me because that's what we do in my family. She has also told me exactly how everything I've done or do makes her feel, because that's also what we do in this family. Recently, she revealed that the public reception of the book (and specifically the warmth expressed by friends who've read it) has been “healing.” Perhaps she suspected all along that it would be.
EW: In my opinion, one of the strengths of Flying Couch is how clearly you present the contradictions that exist in us all. Bubbe is the cultural hero of your story, but she is also the woman dedicated to collecting cans from the side of the road, and your mother is a renown psychologist and yet she yearns for perfection, and you, unabashedly present yourself in the book as both anxious, and a risk-taker. Can you speak to this apposition, and why it was important for you to explore thematically?
AK: What an insightful question. The juxtaposition of the heroic with the banal is the heart of Flying Couch. This isn’t strictly a Holocaust narrative, but a story of how we live on after. Those dualities in all of our character speak to what happens to identity when context shifts, revealing, I think, that identity is context specific. My grandmother’s thriftiness, the bending to pluck quarters from the ground, the saving of cake in her freezer for years, might serve her well in times of scarcity but are laughable in the comfort of the present. My mother’s perfectionism and perseverance helped her achieve a status as a professional, but it doesn’t always turn off when she enters the quiet of her home.
What you say about my character is interesting. A risk taker, hmm. It’s been interesting to see how the “self” in my book has been characterized, knowing that this is just one slice of myself. I think perhaps because I’ve always had a lot of anxiety, experiences that seem risky don’t resonate with me as more or less risky than just everyday life. I mean, literally everything is scary! You might as well have interesting experiences. Don’t they say that anxiety is just misplaced adrenaline, a leftover affect from when tigers lurked outside our caves? A certain amount of emotional intensity is hardwired into our bodies; why not allow your life to live up it?
EW: You’ve published three cartoons in the New Yorker, a magazine considered to be one of the most prestigious publications in the country. Can you share with us what steps you undertook to publish with this magazine?
AK: My New Yorker cartoon story began when I met Liana Finck (a fabulous cartoonist in the issue almost ever week) at the MOCCAfest in Chelsea. She told me that anybody can submit cartoons, and you can actually sit down with Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor, for a few minutes, and you can do this weekly as long as you bring between eight and ten cartoons each visit. So I wrote about 100 cartoons over the summer of 2015, chose the best ten, and went to my first meeting. I was …uh… shamed in various ways, but encouraged to come back, so I did. I tried to take the meetings in stride, understanding that there was likely a kind initiation process at play. The feedback got more helpful and specific and my work got better and eventually some of my cartoons were bought. And I really enjoy going into that beautiful office at 1 World Trade, seeing the regular submitters who have become friends. The odds are extremely small – there are so many cartoonists vying for so few spots and The New Yorker is one of the only places that really pays adequately for our work , but I admire the model Bob Mankoff has set up. The system motivates all of us in the right direction: to keep making work. Liana told me that writing short cartoons – gag cartoons, as we call them – is like “playing scales.” It keeps your skills sharp. So it’s been valuable even given the low proportion of “oks” as Bob calls them to “rejected” cartoons.
EW: I don’t know if you remember, but at our first orientation session at The New School, while you and I pursued MFAs in fiction, the director of the program told us that only one out of every six students would succeed in publishing a book. What fueled your perseverance during and post the MFA program, and what advice can you give aspiring memoirists today?
AK: Ha, I don’t remember that, but I believe it. Something I’ve come to realize is that when people decide not to publish a book, not to become a writer, when they decide to, I don’t know, take a stable, good paying job, maybe have a family, it’s not always a tragedy. Writing is hard. The artist’s life is hard – financially, emotionally – and even publishing a book brings stress and uncomfortable exposure. It’s not for everyone.
Writing this story legitimately helped me grow up, helped me understand things I needed to understand in order to be a person. I told myself if it were never published at least I could one day show it to my nephews, maybe my future children. That idea was not very comforting, but I do think I would have accepted it, if that had been the story.
I think if you need to write you do it, and whether or not you publish a book really isn’t so important as it feels. I know this may sound callous coming from someone who is currently enjoying that coveted privilege. I just think it’s important to remember that institutional recognition actually does not pay your bills or measure your worth. There are many ways to define success and there are many ways to share your work these days.
The reason Flying Couch was published is because I worked on it a lot for a very long time (eight years) and then I got lucky. I think that’s the only true story that you can tell about a published book. I started the book as an undergrad, and I shopped it around with an agent right after college. It was widely rejected. So, I wrote it and drew it again. I’m sure I would have moved on to a different project if I hadn’t needed to keep thinking about and working on this story. Four years later, I met the right agent – at The New School CLMP conference, no less! – and then Catapult luckily wanted to buy it.
EW: During our time at The New School, you forged strong relationships with a group of female writers who you lovingly refer to as “The Crazy Table” in the acknowledgement section of Flying Couch. How did your bond with these women impact you as a writer and a person?
AK: I would die without close friendships, specifically close friendships with other women (men are cool too, but there’s something about that female dynamic). To make close friendships with other writers who are engaged not only with the practical aspects of the writing life (how to find an agent, which fellowships to apply to, how to write things off your taxes), other writers who may teach or have taught writing and don’t mind listening to you complain about how much grading you have to do, other writers who write because they need to, because it’s what makes them feel connected to things that matter in life, I really can’t put into words how important that has been for me. Writing is so lonely. If you’re like me, you became a writer because you think so much about things, and feel so many things. Not everyone relates. I’m happy to have met people in my adult life who struggle with/enjoy sensitive dispositions and who celebrate thinking and feeling. My life feels embarrassingly full of these kinds of celebrations now. I feel so connected. It’s maybe the thing I’m happiest about.
EW: What’s the one lesson you learned from the MFA at The New School? And how does it factor into your daily life as a writer?
AK: One lesson is hard. Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned is that workshops are for your direct benefit as a reader, and only for your indirect benefit as a writer. As soon as I learned this – perhaps Helen Schulman said something like this on the first day of workshop but it took a little while for it to sink it – once I really internalized this, I think I understood my trajectory as a writer more, and my mission simplified a bit. The New School MFA sharpened my eyes, like I emerged with a pair of glasses I didn’t know I needed, and this was the product of being gently guided to look closely at different stories and books.
I don’t think there’s any way to strong-arm a story or a piece of writing into “working.” You just soldier on, keep looking closely at everything you read, asking yourself if it works and why, remembering subjectivity is real but still relevant (you don’t want to write stories you wouldn’t want to read) and then what you’ve learned settles into your body and comes out in your work, if you keep working. The lesson is: keep working.
Elisha Wagman possesses an MFA in Fiction from The New School and an MA in Fiction from the Humber School for Writers. Her stories and essays have appeared in Gargoyle, Fiction Fix, Sheepshead Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Graze, Poetica, Jewish Quarterly, The Toronto Star, Bartleby Snopes, The Toronto Sun, and Straylight. Her story “Mixed Tape” won a Reader’s Choice Award in 2011, and her story “The Key” won an Editor’s Choice Award in 2010. In 2016 her essay “Sundays with BJ” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a professor of writing at Parsons The New School of Design and a professor of writing in the Graduate and Professional Studies Department of St. Josephs College in Brooklyn.