On this bonus episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, we get to listen in as Kara interviews Alison Bechdel onstage at the Curran Theater after a performance of the musical based on Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, “Fun Home.”
“It’s this real index of how the culture has changed,” Bechdel said of the eponymous test, coined in one of her comic strips, of a movie’s likely appeal to women. “It was a very fringe, marginal thing in the ’80s, and now it has become this more mainstream discussion, which is amazing.”
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Alison Bechdel, the award-winning cartoonist behind “Dykes to Watch Out For” and the graphic novel “Fun Home.” I interviewed Alison onstage at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, which recently underwent a big renovation. We spoke in front of a live audience immediately after the performance of “Fun Home,” which was adapted into a Tony Award winning musical. Let’s take a listen.
Hey everybody. I kind of look like Alison Bechdel, too. All lesbians look like this. There’s a little Rachel Maddow going on, and stuff like that.
If everybody could sit down, we’re going to start. My name’s Kara Swisher. I’m a journalist. I typically write about tech, I do tons and tons of interviews with all the big tech titans. But this afternoon, I am so thrilled to be interviewing Alison Bechdel, who saved my life with “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
This is a bucket-list interview, as far as I’m concerned. Even better than Kim Kardashian, which was quite enjoyable, I will tell you. She’s very smart, very sly. Anyway, without further ado, I’m gonna bring Alison out here, and then I’m gonna interview her a little bit, and then we’re gonna take questions from the audience, which is great.
Alison Bechdel. Let’s give her another round of applause. What an astonishing piece of art that you created. And by the way, the cast, I know they’re back there, let’s give them [a round of applause]. That was a astonishing. So, Alison. That was intense, okay?
Alison Bechdel: It is, isn’t it? I know.
So talk a little bit about the play now. ’Cause it’s been going on, you wrote the book 10 years ago, almost, is that correct?
Yeah, that book came out, actually, 11 years ago.
This was the illustrated novel, right.
Which hit huge, got all kind of accolades. Talk about the journey about this play, and then we’re gonna get into things like politics, and other, and art. We have to, I’m sorry. #MuslimBan, we cannot not discuss it.
So, let’s start with [the play]. How do you feel about the journey of this? ’Cause it still feels fresh and pertinent and meaningful, on lots of levels.
Yeah, it was a very long journey from ... well, the book itself was a long journey. Took me like seven years to write it. And I didn’t even begin it until I was almost 40, as you saw, in the story. It took a long time. It was sort of torturous watching the character who plays me going through her creative suffering, ’cause that’s just how I work. I still go through that every day.
So then, after the book came out, very early on, there was this offer to turn it into a musical. Lisa Kron was attached to this project of wanting to turn my book into a musical, which I thought was really ...
Did you say that [at the time]? Because someone, who, as a friend, I brought with me — I brought all straight people and a gay — and she said when they read the book, the gay didn’t believe it was gonna be a musical.
No, I thought it was just nuts. I couldn’t imagine how it would become a musical. But I didn’t know much about musicals then. You know, I was just thinking of, like, “Guys and Dolls” or something. Couldn’t quite picture that.
Can you imagine a “Guys and Dolls” version of this? It would be tasteless. It would be tasteless.
But I said yes to it, because I knew Lisa, and trusted her. Also, it felt so alien, like such a different form, that I could let go of it. I didn’t have any involvement. I turned over all my creative rights to this team. And then, time went by. Years went by. And I didn’t hear anything about it, and I started to wonder, is this really happening?
But, maybe four years later, they did a workshop, and I got a tape — well, a CD — of the actors performing these songs. And it was ... It just staggered me. I didn’t know what I had been expecting, you know? I knew they were doing this. But, when I actually heard it, it was so powerful.
Did you have any hand in writing any of the lyrics?
Zero. So they just took your work, which was an illustrated novel, and then made it into this.
Was it hard letting go of the artistic pride that you created this? Did you have suggestions or differences?
I got to see these early workshops and things, and give them feedback, which they were very kind about listening to. And [they] took some of it, I think. The thing is, the whole team — Lisa Kron, the writer, Jeanine Tesori, the composer, and Sam Gold, who directed it — were kind of amazing in the way that they respected the fact that this was about my real family.
Obviously, they took lots of liberties. They made stuff up. My family didn’t really dance around like the Partridge family.
That is a great disappointment to me, ’cause … Wait, one question. The “Fun Home” ad? You had to have, please, for the love of God, done that?
I mean, we did make commercials for stuff, with our cassette recorder.
Cassette tape, yeah.
But no, Lisa wrote that.
It’s so perfect.
Yeah. So you wish you had.
I wish I had, yeah.
So, when you see it now ... Like, you were in the audience. I don’t know if you realized, she was sitting in the audience. How does it feel to watch this? Because it is, you know, it’s completely about you, and your life, and a very difficult relationship with your father, a complicated relationship.
Well, I dissociate a little bit. You know? The first time I saw it, it was so powerful. And, I don’t know, it’s like seeing an amazing view: The first time you see it, you can’t believe it, and you just have this physical, visceral reaction. But after, then you get used to it. So, it’s very sad, but I’ve kind of gotten used to it. It’s like listening to an amazing song over and over until you can’t really hear it. So, that’s not a very exciting answer, I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.
She was completely sleeping, I think is what she just said, during this. No.
Now, you have another book, “Are You My Mother?”, which was another illustrated novel. Just sort of a sequel to this, or … ?
It is, kinda. It was not intended to be. But it turned out that way. It’s a memoir about my mother, and also, in an odd way, a memoir about the process of writing “Fun Home” and navigating that with my mother, who was none too keen on it.
How does she feel now? Because by the way, that song of hers in this musical, I think, is probably my favorite.
Yeah, that song’s amazing.
It’s a heart-wrenching song.
And that’s something that ... My mother hardly appears at all in the book “Fun Home,” because I was so terrified, I knew she was gonna be reading it, so I tried to keep her out of it as much as I could.
Yeah, I know that feeling. My mom is here.
All the time.
We won’t go into the coming-out story because she doesn’t come out well in that one.
The original one. She’s great now, she’s great now. It’s a redemption story.
Anyway, so how does your mother react now, how does she feel about this?
Well, this is the sort of sad, but in some ways not, thing. My mother did not ever see the play. She died the year that it opened off-Broadway. And she knew it was happening. She would say things to me like, “Well, I can’t wait to see the reviews.”
Just that tone, right?
Yeah, yeah. But it was ... She ... You know, I feel like if she had not died, seeing this play would’ve surely killed her, I think it would have.
I mean, I think it would have been very painful. Obviously, in some ways, but also, in another way, she didn’t like being turned into a character in a book and she certainly ... Well, she might’ve had mixed feelings about being turned into a character on the stage, because she was actually an actress. She did summer stock theater when I was growing up. So I think there was a way she might’ve actually been delighted by all of this.
Sort of like, “I hate this, and yet, I look really good.”
“The actress plays me really well.”
So, tell me what you’re doing now. Because you brought “Dykes to Watch Out For” back, for a brief second. We were all hoping for another series of books. We just want you to write ... If I had made a billion dollars in the tech industry, as I should have, I would have just paid you just to write “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
That would’ve been amazing.
I know. I just ... I would do that with a lot of people.
Yeah. Why did you stop doing that, and then you started ... You just did one panel, essentially.
Well I stopped, just coincidentally, at the end of the Bush administration. Just before the primaries, when it was Hillary and Obama.
That’s known as “good times” now, but go ahead.
Oh, God. I know. “The good old days.”
Those lovable scamps.
The Bush boys.
But I was ... A) I was really ground down to a pulp by writing about the Bush administration. And B) I just couldn’t keep doing it and do the other things I wanted to do. I’d been doing it, at that point, for 25 years, and I felt like it was — now I could — it was a good stopping point. I didn’t intend to stop. I was gonna take a break. But then I just realized, yeah, I was done.
And people, over the years, would talk to me and say, “Oh, I miss your comic strip. What are the characters up to? What do they think of Obama?” And I would have this, again, another disappointing response, which was, “I don’t know. I have no idea.” ’Cause I wasn’t really thinking about them. I was very relieved to just be done.
So, the creator has gone away.
Kind of, yeah.
Essentially, God has left the building. Wasn’t interested anymore.
But, after this election, I suddenly could hear and see them, and felt this tremendous need, for my own sanity, to bring them back, and try and write about what was happening in the moment. Because that’s what I would use the comic strip for, myself, is to make sense of the chaotic world, and I never needed it more than last November.
And I wish I could keep doing it. I hope to keep doing a few more episodes, but it’s incredibly time-consuming.
One of the things I wanted to talk about just a tiny bit, then we’ll get to questions, is how you feel as an artist and being political. Because right now, it kind of demands it. And when you were doing it during the Bush administration, it demanded it. How do you look at your role, as an artist, now? Do you feel like you have to weigh in? Or do you want to do something else?
Oh no, I want to weigh in. And I’ve gone off into these weirdly personal things since doing the comic strip, doing these family memoirs, and I’m working on another kind of memoir now. It does all start to seem a little ...
Your brothers? What?
No. I used to say I was gonna write about my brothers, but think that’s sort of not happening now.
Why’d you just make a face?
Oh, ’cause my family got kinda burned out on all of this, frankly.
Yeah, it was a little hard on them.
Yeah, my son is always like, “Stop writing about me, Mom. That’s enough.” But then I say, “Too bad. You were born into the wrong place.” But, so what are you working on, right now?
I’m working on a memoir about physical fitness and mortality. And it feels so frivolous, given what’s happening around us.
Explain that. Physical fitness and mortality? Like, “Don’t exercise, what’s the point?”
Kind of. Yeah. I mean, I do exercise. It’s something I’ve always loved. But I also feel like ...
Well, you’re very fit.
Thank you. Okay. But yeah, it’s like, it’s not gonna save me. I’m still gonna die. That’s sort of just hitting me.
Yeah. Although, you know, a lot of Silicon Valley billionaires are working on life-extension and death-avoidance schemes.
Peter Thiel has this thing called “parabiosis,” where you take the blood of young people. Not that he’s doing it, allegedly. But there’s all kinds of schemes going on now, in Silicon Valley, on those issues.
Oh my God. It’s a crazy time.
Yeah. So it’s a book, fitness and mortality, meaning you working out, and ...
I haven’t quite figured it out yet, I’m still working on it.
Do you have a title?
Yes, it’s called “The Secret to Superhuman Strength.”
Oh, nice. Okay.
That was a comic book ad I saw as a kid that sucked me in and I sent away for it. I really, really wanted “The Secret to Superhuman Strength.” And it was this crazy manual for a weird martial art that I couldn’t possibly understand.
It was very disappointing.
All right. So you live in Vermont, correct?
And what is your ... I always ask this to everybody. I know it sounds crazy, whether you’re Steve Jobs or Oprah, like, what do you do all day? What is your day in Vermont like? You’re in Burlington?
I live in the woods outside of Burlington.
I get up. I do some yoga. Try to do some seven-minute workout. And then I go sit in my office, on my computer. Writing this crazy book.
Writing the book.
Writing the book. And, sometimes, drawing the book.
And it will be illustrated?
Yeah, it’s gonna be a cartoon. A comic.
Yeah. And, ’cause we’re in San Francisco, are you particularly technical? You and I emailed back and forth and you said you’re a bit of a geek, or — do you feel you are?
I’m a bit of a geek. Certainly not as big of a geek as you.
That is fair.
But no, I started doing comics in the ’80s. Like before there was anything digital. And I adopted stuff as it came along. I got a graphic tablet, and I got Photoshop, and I got a digital camera. The camera really transformed my work a lot. I used to make little, quick reference sketches for my drawings, or I’d look at myself in the mirror, or, if it was a really complicated scene, I’d take a Polaroid, which was really expensive, it was like a dollar for every Polaroid you took. But once you could take digital photos, it was endless. You could take as many free pictures as you wanted. And I did that. For all the scenes in “Fun Home,” I posed for all the characters.
Yeah. It’s a little obsessive.
That’s okay. I know a lot of people like that. So, do you use a lot of social media? I want to get into politics very briefly, and then we’ll get questions from the audience. Do you use social media?
No, I kind of got into blogging at the time that “Fun Home” came out and I suddenly had this big audience, it was really fun to make blog posts and have people reply. But then Facebook kind of put the kibosh on that.
Is that the second time I’ve said, “Put the kibosh on”?
No, just once, and it’s fantastic. If you say “skedaddle,” I’ll be thrilled. “Jeepers” would work, too.
But, you don’t use ... you don’t use it as an artist, or for talking to your fans?
No, I did. But I got really burned out on it.
Just because ... You know, as the juggernaut of “Fun Home” kept going, I started to feel, finally, at last, overexposed, you know?
It took awhile. I had to ... But I reached my threshold. I was like, “I don’t really need to be online talking to people all day about what I’m doing.”
It was seductive for a while, though. I can see why people do it.
It is. It’s addictive. It’s an addictive hellscape. All right, so before we finish, talk a little bit about politics, now.
Because one of the things that you like about coming to San Francisco, these are “alternative facts,” here in San Francisco, to what’s happening. How do you look at the current political scene, and also the resistance to it?
Well, I’m trying not to succumb to despair, and the resistance is really helping me to do that. I went to the March on Washington last week, and it was really ... It was transformative. I’ve been to a lot of big marches and demonstrations, but I’ve never been in a crowd like that.
It was like ...
It was. I was there, too. It was astonishing.
It’s just being a particle on this giant organism that you didn’t even know where it was going or what was happening. And there’s something about just being there, with my body, with all these other bodies in that place, that felt like, this might really happen. We might be really getting our shit together, at long last.
And how do you look at ... But, at the same time, there’s constant ...
Oh my God. Every day. It’s like a kick in the stomach. I know. Yesterday morning was just abysmal. But then, by the end of the day, all these demonstrations at the airports.
All those lawyers coming out.
Did you see, there was this really funny sign yesterday? It was, “First they came for the Muslims, and we said, ’Not today, motherfuckers’”?
Did you like the signs at the Women’s March? They were so good. You know, “We Shall Overcomb” was my favorite. And then, my very favorite was “Heil Twitler.”
I didn’t see that.
But yours is better.
My favorite one from D.C. was this long quote from Hannah Arendt. It was like 500 words on a placard and I can’t tell you what it said, but it was really good.
But I do feel like part of my political responsibility right now is not to give into despair.
It’s really hard. But, here we all are together. There’s so many people who are the good guys. And I feel very heartened by that. And I think — it’s going to be, obviously, a long slog, but I think we’re gonna do it.
Does it remind you of ... It just was reminding me the other day, because for some reason “Philadelphia” was on TV last night, and I watched. I hadn’t seen it since it came out, really. And it reminds me a little bit of that time. You remember that? I remember being on the Mall and doing the AIDS quilt, and stuff like that.
And I do remember the feeling of great despair, when that was all happening. People were dying.
It felt like that, and then, fast-forward, today.
This feels like another order of magnitude.
But, certainly, the same thing.
Last question: What are you doing, besides despair? Is there any action, as an artist or a person, [that] you think people should take? You don’t have to give advice to people, or anything like that, but I’m asking ...
I think for me ... We have to do the things that we’re best at and the things that we love doing. I think just finding joy in the world is really politically important, if people are doing what they’re happy doing. I don’t mean slacking off and getting drunk, but really doing the thing that makes you feel alive and engaged. Like, that’s what you should be doing, whatever it is.
And also plotting to Free Melania.
So let’s have questions from the audience. We have time for a just a few. Don’t be shy. You have Alison Bechdel here, so ask a question of her.
Audience 1: Hello.
Hello. It’s me.
Audience 1: That was amazing, thank you for writing that. Do you know how they went about finding the actors and actresses?
Do I know how they went about finding them? I don’t. Would’ve been fun to sit in on the casting, though. I do know the story of Kate Shindle — who you didn’t see today, because her understudy played my character today. But Kate Shindle, who was a former Miss America, she normally plays Alison in this production. And she got the part ’cause she came to see the show on Broadway and just really was excited by it, and said, “I want to do this.” And then she tried out, and she’s doing it.
But I don’t really know how the theater stuff works. In high school, I was on the stage crew. I didn’t hang out with the actor kids. They were too cool.
Yeah, yeah. What did you do in high school?
I took my dad’s English class.
Yeah. Yeah. We saw that. But did you have any ... Did you join any clubs?
Yeah, I joined all the clubs. I was just a sad, lost person.
My favorite part of this was you going to the Gay Union and going “Danke.” I did that, I think. Another question?
Audience 2: Hi, I’m here. My friend’s daughter played you and was nominated for a Tony. Emily Skeggs.
Audience 2: So I just sent her a text to ask her how Emily got the role, ’cause I don’t know, so when I find out, I’ll let you know.
KS: All right, next?
Emily was great.
Audience 3: Hi. I was wondering what your updated views are, kind of how The Bechdel Test has changed, especially with the push for intersectionality?
KS: All right. Can you explain The Bechdel Test, which is the finest thing ever happening?
This is so funny. The Bechdel Test is the thing I’m really most well-known for.
And it’s not even my thing. It’s just gotten attached to my name. It’s actually from a very, very old “Dykes to Watch Out For” episode from the ’80s, about two women trying to figure out what movie to go to. And one of them says, “I can only see a movie if it has more than two women characters in it who talk to each other about something besides a man.” And I stole that from a friend of mine. She had just told me this story, and I didn’t have an idea for my strip, so I just put in my comic strip.
And it was just a lesbian feminist joke of the ’80s, the kind of stuff we were all saying to each other. And it, you know, it just disappeared. But then, 20 years later, these young feminists resurrected it. I think it started with women in film school who were being told the exact opposite. “If you want to sell a movie to Hollywood, don’t put more than two women in it.” Etc.
So, it’s just taken on this weird life of its own. There’s, like, a website [where] you can go see if a movie passes it or not. You can discuss the finer points of why, or why not, it passes.
But it’s really cool, because it’s this real index of how the culture has changed. It was a very fringe, marginal thing in the ’80s, and now it has become this more mainstream discussion, which is amazing.
And continues to be true, which is astonishing, right?
Not as true as it was, but yeah.
It’s gotten a little better, but.
Slightly, yeah. I don’t know. I’m not too ... I don’t know.
You’re more jaded than I am.
I am. Well, you know. It’s interesting when you have kids. I have two kids.
When you start to look at those movies, and ... Like, you look at a movie like “Finding Nemo.” How many women are in the ocean? One, and she’s crazy. It’s Ellen. It’s always Ellen, right? It’s always a crazy lesbian.
Lee Marrs: It’s Lee Marrs.
Oh, hi, Lee.
LM: Hey, Alison. Hi. I really enjoyed this different version of “Fun Home.”
Well, I just have to say, Lee Marrs is a pioneering women’s cartoonist. That’s of the “Women’s Comics” days, the old, real underground days. So, thank you. I’m glad you’re here.
LM: Yes. We had to carve the rocks and all that good stuff. It was real trouble.
You do a really good job, I think, of being a creative person in our society, because you work, you really work, and you have for years. And now that fame has come to you, you actually have retreated in order to remain creative, and that’s very hard to do.
It is hard to do. It’s surprisingly hard to do. Like, I shouldn’t be sitting here, talking in San Francisco. I should be home, working.
LM: Yeah, get to work.
KS: You know, the food is super good here, so.
Have just a little good time.
Don’t feel guilty. So, address what she said. What do you think about that? Because you are ... Do you think of yourself as well known? I mean, you must.
Well, yeah. It’s very strange. I mean ... Oh my God, I was waiting outside for an Uber today, and ...
Audience 4: No Uber.
Oh, oh. Really? Because of what they did about people going to the airports yesterday?
Okay. Okay, I gotta get the other one. Sorry. Thank you. No, this is really cool. That’s a kind of activism, right? I mean, it’s making your values known.
Audience 5: Lyft donated a million dollars to the ACLU today.
KS: Who did? That’s Lyft.
Wow, okay. I’m totally deleting that app. Anyhow. I was waiting for this car, and this dyke pulled up in a car, and I thought, “Oh, that must be my driver.” No, she was just some random lesbian who identified me on the street and jumped out of her car, screaming. I mean, it’s really weird. It’s really weird.
KS: Do you like that?
No, I really don’t like it.
I mean, it’s novel at first, for a while. But it’s quite draining and odd.
KS: Really? Huh. Did she give you a ride?
No, but she almost got hit by the car that was coming to pick me up.
KS: So how did you react? What did you do?
I was very friendly and talked to her, and took a selfie with her.
KS: Okay, all right.
But it’s weird. It’s like, all of a sudden, your life is interrupted by this bizarre force.
I’m not really complaining. Of course it’s a really good thing, but it’s just odd.
KS: Yeah. I always get approached by Indian geeks, so it’s not quite as fun. I wish I was you.
Do they want selfies?
KS: Yes, yes. “Oh, it’s Kara Swisher, I cannot believe it.” I wish I had your life.
Okay. Two more quick questions.
Audience 6: Hi. So, “Fun Home” the book has a very non-linear structure, and I love that they kept that kind of jumping back and forth through time, and I was wondering, when you were writing it, did it come naturally to you? How did you come up with that kind of ...
Oh, no. It was really, really hard. It took ... You know, I said, “It took me seven years to write that book,” mostly because I was just moving stuff around all the time and I didn’t know how to write a book. I knew how to write a comic strip, but that was a very small, contained thing.
It was just an organic process. I realized I didn’t want to just tell the story of what happened to me. That’s not really that interesting. But it was my ideas and feelings about what happened to me. And to do that, I had to break it apart chronologically and talk about it more thematically. So that meant the time got all screwed up.
KS: All right. Last question?
Audience 7: Hi. I was just wondering how you would have written things differently had your mother not been alive when you wrote ’em.
Oh, that’s an excellent question. You know, because I was very aware of her presence. Not just what she was gonna think of the book, but her editorial presence. ’Cause she was a writer, a thwarted writer, and a lot of my struggle was just being able to get her out of my head, as an oppressive editorial voice.
You know, the interesting thing, as I was writing the second book, the memoir about her, she actually was ... very weirdly, she was diagnosed with cancer right when “Fun Home” was published. Like the week I was off on my book tour. And she lived for seven more years and saw the book about her. But I never knew if she was going to live to see it. Which was very strange, too. ’Cause there were different books that I could’ve written. But you’re asking, what would have been different.
I like to think I would have been more honest. I tried to be as honest as I could, but I feel like I still was soft-pedaling things, at least in the book about my mother. I don’t know. Sorry. I’m not sure if ... It might not have been any different, you know? It’s weird, too, because my parents’ friends, many of them are still alive, and I often hear from them. They have their own versions of things.
KS: What do they say?
Well, some of them are mad at me. Some of them don’t think my dad was really gay. Many of them are actually kind of amazing, and they’ve come to see the play, and they talk to me about it, and they come out of the play sobbing.
Yeah. It’s very moving to see that.
KS: Well, everybody has their own reaction to everything. It’s often not factual … even when it’s not factual.
I’m sorry we can’t take more questions, because Alison’s gotta go. But I always ask this [of] everyone. If you could do anything next, what would you want to do? If you weren’t doing this, if you could pick something — or do you really like the life you have, and the way you’ve built it? If there was one thing that you haven’t done, that you’ve wanted to do?
I do really love my life. Even if you gave me a billion dollars to do something else, I don’t think I would. But, you’re saying, I have to pick something.
I think it would be ... I just had this image of ... Can I just, like, take trapeze classes?
You know, Alison, you can do that now.
I did. I took one, and it was so fun.
Why not two?
Well, I mean, I don’t have that much time.
Well, you are gonna die someday, so what’s the difference?
I would just want to do fun things like that. Fun, physical things. Just, like, playing. If I could do that.
All right. All right. Everybody, Alison Bechdel.
Thank you, Kara.
I want to thank Alison Bechdel, again, for joining me onstage, and the staff of the Curran Theater in San Francisco for hosting us. The national tour of “Fun Home” is there until Feb. 19, and you can find out what cities it is headed to next on funhomebroadway.com.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.