Q&A: Andrea Tsurumi on First Book and Surrealism

I recently had the chance to review Andrea Tsurumi’s first solo book, Why Would You Do That, from Hic+Hoc and Alternative Comics. I loved it so much I reached out to pick her brain on her creative process, favorite summer reads, and advice for up-and-comers.

How was working on WWYDT, your first book, different from contributing to anthologies or providing illustrations for publications? Was it more or less challenging?

Although I’ve been making self-published minis for years, they’ve occupied a kind of informal mental space. With WWYDT, I was pushing my thoughts out there in a bigger way than before. Initially, it was a little daunting to conceptualize, especially because the stories I wanted to make were going to be all over the board. I needed to unify all these different topics and styles, so I designed WWYDT to be explicitly about my absurd way of observing reality. Matt Moses (of Hic and Hoc) was excellent to work with–he gave me free rein with the content but also enough feedback and structure to stay grounded. As it progressed, I was interested to see how the earlier stories related to each other and pushed forward the development of the later ones, which is how I got from “Ghost Bra” to “Hmtown” (the last story I made for the book and something that came out of making everything that came before it).

I hate to be cliché, but you’ve got a really unique style so I gotta ask–who would you say are some of your biggest influences?

Oof, I’m bad at this question. I grew up reading a ton of Edward Gorey, Gary Larson, Jules Feiffer, Tintin, Usborne nonfiction, Cricket magazine, and Ellen Raskin. More recently, it’s Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, Eleanor Davis, Oyvind Torseter, Isabelle Arsenault, Tove Jansson, MFK Fisher, Marc Boutavant, Ruppert & Mulot, news and street photography, parody comedy tv & documentaries like What We Do in the Shadows, and Yasmeen Ismail.

why2What are you reading this summer?

My boyfriend and I just moved, and one of the first things we did was get cards at the Free Library of Philadelphia, so I’m reading a lot this summer. Comics-wise, I just finished the incredible Patience by Daniel Clowes, Something New by Lucy Knisley, Bird in a Cage by Rebecca Roher, and Notes #1, the first collected volume of Boulet’s awesome webcomic. Non-comics-wise, it’s all over the place: Uprooted (Naomi Novik), Gulp (Mary Roach), Thing Explainer (Randall Munroe), The Bear’s Surprise (Benjamin Chaud), Hold Still: a Memoir with Photographs (Sally Mann) and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Sarah Vowell).

WWYDT has some off-the-wall concepts–pastries fighting each other, poodles that hide things in their fur. Can you talk a little bit about where you pull ideas from?

I like to observe as much as possible and then my brain processes that information with whatever I’m meditating on at the same time and ends up taking those observations to a ludicrous conclusion. For instance, Cake vs. Pie started as a sketchbook doodle of the internet meme. Then I started developing the fight between these desserts and all my reading about war and my interest in the Civil War and how it changed American death culture got involved and this was the final result. Also in the mix: lots of glee.

Hmtown came out of growing up in a small village and not being sure how to connect to it. Originally, Kuš! collective put out a call for village stories and while I didn’t submit to it, I thought about doing one on Sleepy Hollow, a historical Hudson Valley town close to the village where I grew up. On the one hand, Sleepy Hollow’s a place famous for its colonial history and the headless horseman, and on the other, anyone who grows up there has the ghosts of their own experiences hanging around. In my village (and isn’t this the common suburban thing?), most people’s families haven’t lived there for a long time (couples move there to have kids) and then the kids grow up, don’t return, and their families move away too. So while you’re there you’re not sure what connection you have to the place and what will last after you leave. Also, I just love dumb local pranks like the horse balls tradition (from Poughkeepsie) or like Woodway, a gated community in Tennessee with big wooden letters spelling out its name (kids constantly steal the second “w” and “a” so it’s “Woody”). People are hilarious.

It seems like there’s a lot of really exciting things happening in the comics industry right now. Is there anything you’re the most hyped about–books, movies, shows coming out that you’re particularly looking forward to?

Did you hear that Raina Telgemeier’s new book, Ghosts, has a 500,000 first print order? I love what she’s done for children’s books and children’s comics and that she’s getting this enormous reception from young readers. Always looking forward to SPX and MICE in the fall, and I can’t wait for Eleanor Davis’s new mini, Libby’s Dad (Retrofit), which looks gorgeous and interesting. She just took a cross-country solo bike trip and posted these incredible travel diary comics on her Instagram. Just got into the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and loving every bit of it. I’m really excited that Luke Pearson’s Hilda is going to be an animated show and that Ghostbusters is coming out soon. Oh, and that this amazing and lyrical Studio Ghibli movie, Only Yesterday, is finally out in the U.S. It’s from Isao Takahata, the same director as Grave of the Fireflies and Pom Poko. It came out in the early 90’s, but was the only Ghibli movie not released in the U.S. supposedly because Disney refused to distribute a movie with an extended reference to menstruation. Which. Is. Nuts.

whyDo you have any advice for frustrated illustrators/comics creators?

You’ve doubtless heard this before, but you’re not alone. I don’t know any other illustrators or cartoonists, no matter what level they’re at or how old they are, who aren’t always questioning their work and their art on some level. When I’m creatively frustrated, I need to get out and keep my mind fed – read a lot, see a lot of art, talk to other creators and see how they work because that was what would inspire me to make new work or try new things. Finding some sort of community or a trusted group of people to give you useful, honest feedback is key. Also, this is common advice, but keeping a regular sketchbook got me out of being stuck over and over again.

On a business side, making indie comics is barely sustainable, if it’s that. While the medium and the work and the community themselves are rewarding, you have to frequently assess how you’re structuring your life and what will be the best matrix to make you productive and healthy. I’m still figuring this out myself, but my best advice is to be mindful and check in with yourself about where you’re putting your energy and time, how that’s working in your life, and then make decisions about what will help you focus on your priorities. Make a business plan and revise it. Also, it’s hard to keep your concerns about the business practice from crowding into your thinking about your creative practice, but as Amy Poehler said, (paraphrasing here) you have to focus on both, but remember that while one side will pay you, only the other will love you back. Not sure if that helps. It’s hard!

Is there anything about WWYDT, or your work that I haven’t touched on that you’re dying to talk about?

I’m working on a picture book! Children’s books and comics are my two loves, so I’m incredibly grateful to be working on both. It’ll be out sometime around Fall 2017 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

There’s more on Why Would You Do That here and you should follow Andrea Tsurumi on Twitter.

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