Tillie Walden on Her Process, Coming Out, and Yuri on Ice
Unless you’ve just stumbled across The Geekiary, you’ll know that we love ourselves a little Yuri on Ice. That’s why, when I read over the list of ARCs that would be available at this year’s BookExpo America, I paused on the description of Spinning by Tillie Walden, a graphic memoir about ice skating with a queer narrative. When I was offered the chance to interview Tillie, I knew I couldn’t pass that up.
I picked up a copy of Spinning at Tillie Walden’s signing and pored over it that night in anticipation for our interview the next day. It’s a powerful book, full of body image issues, the struggles of living a closeted life, and suffering through something that makes you so unhappy. I may have picked it up for shallow reasons, but Spinning deserves a whole heap of praise all on its own. I know that this book is going to be a hit. For starters, it’s an LGBTQ+ storyline at a time when the clamor for diverse narratives is louder than ever. Second, it was chosen as a BEA Buzz Book from hundreds of other titles. Third, I’m pretty sure ice skating has never been more popular thanks to a certain anime.
I was fortunate enough to speak to Tillie about her debut graphic novel, which publishes this September. Check out our interview below!
THE GEEKIARY: What made you decide to write a memoir?
TILLIE WALDEN: Well, I never really went into it planning – you know, I didn’t have this thought like, “I need to write a memoir. This is gonna be how I enter the publishing world.” It was more that I was struggling to draw myself ice skating, and I found that very odd. I realize there was a lot going on with how I felt about ice skating and how I felt about my childhood in general. I figured now was as good a time as any to try and learn about what happened and heal. So I just sort of went for it. There’s all sorts of things people think about a young person doing a memoir, but I think in a way I’m glad, because my memories are very fresh, especially with how everything looked and how everything felt. So I’m glad I did it.
THE GEEKIARY: It’s a really interesting story, and I think it’s an important one for young kids that are struggling to find their identity. It’s not that “you’re young so you shouldn’t write one [a memoir]”, it’s just that it’s odd.
TILLIE WALDEN: It’s a different sort of perspective. I mean memoirs – you think of a person who’s reflecting back on their sixty years of life, and I do not have that many years in my belt.
THE GEEKIARY: Can you tell me a little bit about the process? You said you were struggling to draw yourself, so did you more kind of write it out and then draw it, or did you start with the drawing?
TILLIE WALDEN: Initially I was doing this for my thesis at the Center for Cartoon Studies, where I went to school, and my adviser was James Sturm. I told him I was having trouble drawing myself skating and I didn’t really know what to do. I knew I wanted to tell this story. His advice was to just every day think of a memory and just draw it as a little scene. No pressure, doesn’t even have to be in the final book, just draw little scenes, little memories. One page, ten pages, an illustration, whatever works for you that day. So that’s what I did for a few months, where all I did was I would just sit down and have a memory and draw it. If I started to get overwhelmed, I’d stop. Eventually I ended up with this collection of stories that were starting to work together as a graphic novel but weren’t cohesive yet, because I hadn’t really been trying to make them cohesive. With that sort of collection, we connected with First Second, and my agent and I got a deal. Connie Hsu, who works for Roaring Brook, is my editor. She was the one who got on the phone with me every day and would talk to me and we just worked through it all. We took these sort of base memories and built them together to form a book, built transitions in and just added. At that point, it was much easier to work on the book, because it felt like I was sort of in the middle of the process. Starting was the hard part, but once I got past that hump, I felt like I knew what I was doing. I was really tapping into all my memories, and I felt like I was ready to finish it.
THE GEEKIARY: Do you have any artists that you are inspired by – well, obviously, I’m sure you have some, but were there any who you looked to to get the graphic novel format or to get into the mindset of a graphic novel?
TILLIE WALDEN: Not too much… I’d been making comics for a little while before then, and I almost didn’t want to have this book too influenced by anything else because I wanted it to be kind of distinct for myself. As far as influences go, I read a lot of graphic memoirs as a kid. I read Stitches by David Small, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and of course the follow-up Are You My Mother, and Blankets (Craig Thompson), Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi)… These are all huge, classic graphic memoirs. I do think that, sort of subconsciously, all of those books kind of worked their way into this book, and I think you can see the influences on the page.
THE GEEKIARY: Are you working on anything now?
TILLIE WALDEN: Oh yeah. Never stop, never stop. I’m working on two books with First Second. I can’t really talk about them yet, but there will be news soon. Basically, my future is just gonna be a lot more graphic novels.
THE GEEKIARY: This is a random question, sorry, but some of us at the blog just became obsessed with Yuri on Ice. I don’t know if you know –
TILLIE WALDEN: Oh, of course! I do, I do.
THE GEEKIARY: I mentioned this and they were like, “You have to interview her,” because now we’re all kind of into figure skating. So is it something that you, considering your past with it, is it something that you still follow? Or do you want to separate from it?
TILLIE WALDEN: It’s interesting. I don’t really follow it, but at the same time, anything ice skating related I feel an immediate closeness to because I know it so well. I did actually try and watch Yuri on Ice, because the comics community, a lot of people have watched it and talked about it a lot. I do think it’s an interesting time for my book to come out after Yuri has sort of swept the nation, but I watched the first episode and they start poking fun about Yuri’s weight and his coach is like, “You’re pudgy”, and I had to stop. Because it’s too real for me. It’s funny for people who haven’t had a coach poke about your weight, so I’ve never actually seen all of it. I’ve only seen that little bit, but I’m excited that there are people who care about ice skating. But I do sort of think that a lot of people who like Yuri maybe won’t love this book. It’s not a romantic version of ice skating, and Yuri I think is romantic. But I love that it’s a queer narrative, and mine’s a queer narrative, too, so who knows. Maybe there will be crossover.
THE GEEKIARY: I think that’s important. A lot of people at The Geekiary are somewhere in the LGBT community, so that was something else that they were like, “You have to get that book!” and I’m like, “Okay!”
TILLIE WALDEN: Yes, the lesbian ice skating book. That’s what I’m telling people.
THE GEEKIARY: Were you always drawing? When did you start?
TILLIE WALDEN: I’ve always been kind of a doodler. Hilariously enough I didn’t have a lot of time to draw because I was always ice skating. But, you know, I took art classes in school, and I was always that kid that people were like, “Wow, she’s so good, she’s gonna be something”. I never really listened to that because I never… I don’t know. Art never seemed like a career to me, or something I could do in the long run. What I realized eventually is that’s how I feel about fine art. It wasn’t until I discovered comics that I realized that was the kind of art that I needed to do. So I had this background in drawing and I had some technical skill, but when I was 17, I took a two-day workshop with Scott McCloud about comics. He just talked to us about comics all day for two days, and we drew together, and it blew my mind, because I was like, “Oh. This is what I’ve been searching for.” I’d been doing art for so long and never really connected with it until finally I found comics. And then at that point it was like, this is what I need to do for the rest of my life.
THE GEEKIARY: What, if anything, do you hope people get out of the book?
TILLIE WALDEN: Well, it depends on who the person is. I hope a lot of young LGBTQ people read it, because I just think it’s healthy to read narratives of people who are like you and who go through similar struggles… You know, when you’re a teenager especially, you feel a lot of things and often can’t really differentiate the feelings or understand where they come from. I never realized, as an ice skater, that when I was on the ice my skating was being affected by things that were going on outside the rink. I would love for kids to realize that, even if you’re committed to a passion or you’re doing something that takes over your whole world, the other things that go on in your life will affect that. You bring everything that you are to the table in everything that you do, and just being aware of that, I think, would be huge. I had no idea that coming out would affect my skating, but now as an adult, I get it. I totally understand it. But I don’t think a lot of kids see that. So I would love for that to happen. I would also love for ice skaters to read it. That’s the real goal. I really want ice skaters to read it, especially female ice skaters, because most of the narratives of female ice skaters are really like, “Dream it, believe it, achieve it”, you know, “sparkle shine forever” kind of stories, and they’re not true or realistic. And I would love for ice skaters to get a story that feels authentic.
THE GEEKIARY: One last question. You kind of touched on this a little bit in your last answer, but do you have any advice for young girls, or even young boys or whoever, who are in the same situation that you were for how they can press through?
TILLIE WALDEN: I guess I didn’t realize that, when you’re a kid, you do have power. You do have control over your life, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, and that if you’re doing something that makes you unhappy, then you shouldn’t do it. It took me a long time to realize that, because so much of what we’re taught is about working hard and sticking through it. And while that’s very significant, you need to be careful with yourself. If you want to live a long and happy life, you need to be around to do it, and you need to take care of yourself. For all that, any queer kid who would read this book, I’d want them to know – you know, there was that whole “it gets better campaign” when I was a kid, which I remember – but just know that, yeah. It kind of does. After you come out, you don’t really have to do that again. You can be yourself, you can surround yourself with people who care about you. I’m not in touch with the people who I skated with because I don’t think they care about me in the way that they need to. They’re kind of homophobic, and I don’t need that in my life. And you’ll have that choice someday, to be able to choose who’s in your life, and you can surround yourself with people who love you. That would be my advice.
Thanks again, Tillie, for taking the time to speak to us!
Spinning by Tillie Walden is published by First Second Books and will be available September 12, 2017, wherever books are sold (but if you have a Kindle you can check out a sample now!). You can learn more about Tillie on her official site, or check out her webcomic, On a Sunbeam!
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from THE Ohio State University. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, and conventions in the NYC area.
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