An Interview with Amy Kurzweil of "Flying Couch"
Amy Kurzweil's graphic memoir, Flying Couch, takes an unflinching look at her grandmother's memories of the Holocaust.
I found it on the new book shelf last month and became intrigued. I took Flying Couch home and read it in a single sitting. I love how Kurzweil interweaves her own coming of age--and her search for identity--with stories of her mother and her grandmother's past.
Wanting to know more, I reached out to Kurzweil with some questions. She generously gave me a peek into her writing process, sources of inspiration, and her thoughts about memoir.
My questions are in bold below; Kurzweil's responses are in italics.
When did you first realize you wanted to create the book?
I started this book in college. I was about 20, and I’d just read Maus for the first time, and other books about the Holocaust, and other graphic memoirs, and I was slowly reading my grandmother’s transcribed oral history.
I drew my first comic for a literature class at Stanford, about the death of my grandmother’s boyfriend, whom I’d considered a kind of grandfather. They’d been together for 13 years, and my grandmother seemed rather blasé about his passing. This got me reflecting on my grandmother, how different we were. I realized she had lost so many people; her life had transitioned so many times. I found those experiences inconceivable, as my relatively insignificant losses and life transitions had completely rattled me. So the next year I went to Israel for the first (and only) time, and I finished reading my grandmother’s oral history, and then I started writing what would become Flying Couch. Many of the scenes in the now finished book were conceived back then, although getting my drawing skills to a passable professional level took many years of work.
Were you inspired by other graphic memoirs?
Yes, more than anything. I was inspired by Maus of course, and Persepolis and Fun Home. Those were my (and many people’s) gateway books into graphic memoir. I was compelled especially by the voice of Vladek in Maus. He sounded so real, so much like my grandmother. Fun Home’s use of literary references and its sophisticated structure convinced me graphic memoir could be “literary” in a way my Creative Writing professors might be impressed by. The naïve drawing style of Persepolis made me feel like I, an untrained artist, could draw a graphic memoir, which was a naïve assumption, I know this now, but the simplicity of her aesthetic appealed to and encouraged me.
There were also lots of serialized comics I’d grown up obsessed with, most notably, Life in Hell by Matt Groening. I also loved Craig Thompson’s Blankets, and all of Lynda Barry’s work, and later Chris Ware and Charles Burns and Ariel Schrag and Adrian Tomine and I could go on.
Do you suspect your childhood anxiety stemmed partially from your grandmother's past?
I think anxiety is a strange beast. It’s a word that might label a lot of different experiences in a person’s mental and physical life. The extent to which my personal anxiety is somatic--like I feel it quite viscerally in my body in particular ways--is likely a genetic inheritance from both or either of my parents. But the extent to which I, as a younger person, was curious and afraid of very particular things, most notably, leaving home and leaving family, in particular my mother, and the way I sometimes feared, often irrationally, for my physical health and safety, yes, I think this is the remnant of grief and fear related to the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, all four of my grandparents experienced profound losses during this time, so in truth, I can’t isolate my inheritances to my grandmother, but she is an emblematic example of that trauma and grief. She is also an example of someone who has healed, to a certain extent, from that grief through storytelling, which is a habit I believe I’ve also inherited, to my great fortune.
What do you feel is a memoirist's responsibility to other people's stories? To truth?
I think a memoirist has a responsibility to be precise and thorough about whatever she decides to write about. And I don’t know if we have a responsibility to other people’s stories so much as to our own stories. Not because we memoirists think we are more interesting than other people, but that our own inner life is the thing we know best and the thing we can be most precise about.
A memoirist isn’t a journalist, and I think we have to be critical of when and why we want to tell other people’s stories. I say this, of course, as someone who did tell someone else’s story, and in the case of my grandmother, I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t feel there was a genuine connection to my own experience, and also that I was in the best position of anyone to deliver her story to the world, and that she would want me to. That doesn’t mean memoirists can’t tell stories other people don’t want them to tell--you just need a good reason.
Maybe the biggest responsibility we have to truth is to be plain about what we don’t know, which doesn’t mean we can’t use imagination, but we can tell our readers: this part is my imagination. Imagination can be revelatory, but the readers should know when they are getting what.
Was it a challenge to combine your story with your grandmother's, or did you find that it happened organically?
This came naturally, or as naturally as anything in writing a book comes, I guess. It always felt necessary to intertwine our stories because that juxtaposition is the story of this book. My grandmother’s story on its own is important to our family, but in terms of a contribution to a wider understanding of the Holocaust, there are a lot of war stories out there already. I’m glad for this, but I didn’t think that the literary world necessarily needed another one. However, a testimony about this history from my generation’s perspective, an illustration of the gap between past and present, a description of this history’s inheritances, these were what interested me, and what pulled me through this project, more than anything.
How has writing this book and researching your family history changed your perception of yourself?
I’ve come to see myself as more resilient than I’d considered myself before. Perhaps it’s reflecting on my mother and my grandmother’s strength throughout their lives, or perhaps it’s just the pride of getting through a difficult and meaningful thing I’d set my mind to.
Did you worry what your family would think when they saw themselves depicted in your book?
I really didn’t worry about this when I was younger as much as I do now. Perhaps because I didn’t really consider that the book would be a real book until it was. But I was also, for better or worse, pretty forthright with my family throughout the process. They could see what I was writing. They read drafts throughout the years. My mother weighed in with her thoughts about her character’s depiction many times.
I determined that the best way to be plain about her ideas about her character’s depiction was to, in meta-fashion, depict her, in the actual book, weighing in with her thoughts about her character’s depiction in the book. You can read about that in Chapter 6.
What's been the most meaningful reaction you experienced to your book, since its publication?
Someone told me, someone who didn’t know me very well and declared himself “not a big reader,” that for him reading the book was like being in my mind, reading my memories. The thing I hear often now is that reading the book makes people feel close to me, and to my mother and my grandmother. I feel really moved by that reaction. I think writing is about creating intimacy.
My most convicted reason for being a writer (and I have to remind myself of this reason a lot! There are a lot of reasons to give up) is to facilitate more interpersonal closeness in the world. And I think graphic memoir has a special contribution to this goal, because we are telling stories of our lives with marks made by our actual hands.