Interview with Theresa Williams, by Ludmila Polyakova

Published: Vol. III, Issue I
Date of Interview: October 14th, 2016

You’re known to some as a teacher and to others as fiction-writer, poet, and graphic-novelist. How do you consider your own work and writer’s identity? Do these labels matter to you?

All I can say is that I’ve worked to lessen the difference between who I am on paper and who I am as a teacher, mother, marriage partner, and so on. In the beginning of my teaching career, I was fragmented and all of these identities were separate from one another. I decided that was no way to live.

“An early sketch. I ended up using the idea for my final panels for Tales from the Great Black Swamp, although I changed the goblet to a teacup.”

How has your creative practice helped bridge these fragmented parts of self?

By showing me what I think. By showing the way to what is essentially true about who I am, what I know, and what I want.

How did illustration make its way into your writing?

One day I was searching the Internet and ran across an article by the comics artist, Seth: “Seth on Peanuts: Comics = Poetry + Graphic Design.” In the article, Seth likens Comics to haiku in terms of its rhythm. I’d been studying and writing haiku on my own for several years. Haiku centers me and connects me to the physical world. Drawing does, too.

My first wish was to be an artist. I double majored in art and English as an undergraduate. So art has always been important to me. Collage and assemblage art come closest to illustrating the way my mind works. My thought process is associative, not logical. I like the tension that arises from unlike things suddenly being put alongside each other.

What exactly is it that makes the combination of writing and drawing so appealing?

My most comfortable state of being is a dream state. Writing helps me to bring some logic to the chaos within. Writing gives shape to dreams and experience. Drawing is primal. It takes me away from logic and back into the dream world. The graphic novel allows me to combine writing and drawing, which is what I’ve wanted to do since my undergraduate days. Another reason I’m drawn to comics is that it’s a relatively new genre. So there’s a sense for me that anything is possible. That there are no constraints. That I have a contribution to make.

“From a composition sketchbook that I kept the first time I taught the graphic novel workshop at Bowling Green State University. A sketch about daily life.”

In addition to moments from dream-like or liminal spaces, your work often taps into vulnerability, pain, and sorrow. How has illustration played a role in expressing these tender moments in your writing?

I’ve always thought that vulnerability, pain, and sorrow are at the heart of what makes us human. In my comics work, I create characters who are conflicted and who are trying to make sense of experience. As I draw these characters, I become very attached to them. I grow attached to characters in my written stories, too, but this is different. There’s a special intimacy that happens when you draw a character on paper.

“This drawing illustrates nurturing kindness. The drawing is sweet, but it makes me sad, because I can only remember sharing one moment like that with my own mother, and that’s when my grandmother died. I feel sad for what I never had.”

Is that internal struggle a part of your current work? Can you describe your current project?

Right now I’m working on a graphic novel called Tales from the Great Black Swamp. The swamp is the brain, consciousness, not an actual swamp. The project is part memoir, part fairy tale, and part gothic tale. The main character is “Teacup” who explains what life has taught her. She is based on a rag doll who has no mouth, but the graphic novel gives her a voice. Coming in and out of the story are a number of writers and artists who have inspired me.

“This is a sketch that helped me to find my alter ego for Tales from the Great Black Swamp. She’s a sort of rag doll without a mouth, living in a dark fairytale. This will be the image I will use at the end of Book One.”

“The finished first panel for Tales from the Great Black Swamp.

Who are some of these influences and artist?

I’m typically drawn to troubled artists and odd ducks. I’ll spare you and mention just a few. For art I would list Joseph Cornell and Henry Darger. For writing, at this time, I will mention just one: Fernando Pessoa. What they all have in common is that they were quiet and unassuming in real life but explosive in their creative output. Cornell worked in the family basement and received very little acclaim during his lifetime. Darger worked in a cramped apartment, and his work was undiscovered until his death. When Pessoa died, he left behind a trunk of unpublished writings. Today, there’s so much going on in terms of self-promotion. I’m less inspired by that than I am by these quiet beings who created because it was a natural human expression.

“A Paper Doll I made of Rilke. A gift to Suzanna Anderson. On loan from her. I will be using the doll to create images of Rilke for my graphic novel.”

These days, it often feels like self-promotion is a requirement of the job; how do you reconcile that while remaining true to yourself as an artist?

It’s awful, really. I don’t like doing it at all. However, when I share a writing success, say on Facebook or on a blog, I prefer to think of it as a form of inspiration. Maybe it will make some people pursue their writing dreams, you know? And maybe something I said in a poem, or story, or comic is what someone needs to see. That, to me, is what creating is all about.

Leave us with one parting remark. What’s the question I haven’t asked that you feel needs answering?

The question would be, “How do we stop being fearful creatures?” At the end of his life, the artist Joseph Cornell said he wished he hadn’t been so restrained. So I ask myself every day, Why am I holding back? Why am I afraid? I still find it intimidating some days to just sit down and start something, a new thought, a new page. Creating is a natural human act, after all. I want to always be curious and brave. I’m not always, but that’s my goal. Some people climb mountains. I dive into the unconscious. I dig for roots, monsters, and worms. That’s my idea of adventure.