“I’ve Turned Depression and Anger Into Vaudeville”: An Interview With Leanne Grabel

In an interview with Brontosaurus Illustrated author Leanne Grabel, The Opiate probes the mind of this Portland-based luminary to get her thoughts on everything from the creative process that went into the book to her advice on how to cope with sexual assault, itself the subject of her new graphic novel released on The Opiate Books imprint. 

And it can’t be ignored.

The Opiate: When did you first know that you needed to make a book about what happened to you? Was it something that developed over a long period of time, in terms of knowing you needed to put it down to paper in some way?

Leanne Grabel: I think I knew instantly that I had to keep telling what happened on that beach over and over—mostly by writing—I was already writing essays and poetry and performing poetry. I had to write about it—to get it off me. I wrote an essay that was published in the Clinton Street Quarterly, a great paper in the 80s and 90s (recently digitized) that had wonderful illustrations. 

Then sometime in the 90s, I just started writing the whole story down, working on it daily—the before, the rape, the after. Tell, tell, tell. I cried. And I felt sorry for myself. And I remembered details I didn’t think I remembered. I can’t even imagine keeping it a secret. There was no way I could keep something that horrible inside. Are you kidding? 

In 2011, Brontosaurus: Memoir of a Sex Life was published (Quiet Lion Press)—a short, stretched memoir. I wanted to rewrite it almost instantly. And then about five years ago, I read Ellen Forney’s Marbles, which is a graphic memoir about her bipolar diagnosis—the before, the during and the after. And I decided I wanted to draw Brontosaurus—turn it into a graphic novel-based-on-truth. And clean up the text, edit it, cut it, make it a little bit kinder. So, one summer I just drew hundreds of drawings. And something about drawing and really showing the scenes felt so satisfying…like this time it was finally off me.

The title, explained.

The Opiate:  Can you tell us about the process behind reworking Brontosaurus Illustrated from this first version? 

Leanne Grabel: I cut a lot. Can’t have lots of text AND drawings. It’s too much. I cut some people out, some specifics. Changed a few details to make some people more anonymous. And went through it with a try-to-be-kinder goal.

I do think I’m done writing about the so-called brontosaurus for a while, but every time I talk about it, it gets further and further away. It gets off me.

The Opiate: Because this is such a difficult and sensitive subject to tackle, did you at any point have misgivings or fears about addressing it? Concerns that people wouldn’t “get it”? 

Leanne Grabel: Not really. I’ve always been without too many filters. Doesn’t bother me. It’s more for me. There is a great Elie Wiesel quote about an old man who is always standing on a corner protesting injustice, day after day. No one is listening. Then one day, a little boy asks him why he keeps doing it since nobody is listening. And the old man says, “I used to go on and on because I thought I could change people, but now I just go on and on so people don’t change me.” 

I sort of feel like that. Spewing helps me, so I try to make it entertaining for readers. Over the years, I have developed some craft, I hope. And I’ve turned depression and anger into vaudeville. Yes. Artful spewing helps me. Oh, and jokes help.

Laughing instead of crying.

The Opiate: What advice would you give to those who are afraid to talk openly about their sexual assault? 

Leanne Grabel: My theory remains that every time a person/victim expresses out loud something traumatic, the intensity of the trauma dissipates a little bit. Eventually rape becomes a story to be told instead of non-stop horror. And to use imagination and craft to express a horror turns it into art….not just horror.

The Opiate: Can you tell us about the collaborative marriage of design and illustration in the book? Had you worked with Robin Chilstrom before on any projects?

Leanne Grabel: For me, the writing is always first and pretty much done. Then I break it up into short blocks of text and do the drawings for each block. I am not an artist. I choose details that are easy to draw. I avoid faces—instead I might draw a part of the face, an ear, an earring, the hair. I look at other people’s work by Googling drawings of whatever it is I’m drawing—from 1963 Cadillac DeVilles to IBM fax machines. I start with a small drawing book, maybe 5×5—a size I can easily hold. I draw a rough box and pencil sketch. Then go over the sketch in black marker. I do some pencil shading. I usually scan at this point so I have a black and white copy. Then I print the drawings on good paper that will work well with the color I choose. 

NOTE: There are so many cool markers out there these days. I do like the paint markers that can be dipped in water or used dry. 

I try not to have the visuals dominate. I try to have them enhance the writing. But I also severely clip the writing so as not to dominate the visuals. It’s hard for me to be objective. Hopefully, it is balanced and works.

I hadn’t worked with Robin before, but met her through performer friends. Then she came to my classroom in a lockdown facility for teen girls and did some voice work with them. It really engaged my class. We worked pretty much through last summer at her house, which is within biking distance from mine. We manipulated my drawings and text to design the book. Robin had the technical and artistic expertise. There’s no denying that design is a major part of this book.  

Design style is just as integral to Brontosaurus Illustrated as the drawings.

The Opiate: How often do you illustrate? Is it a daily practice or do you need specific inspiration to inform your drawings? 

Leanne Grabel: I only do illustrations when I’m working on something specific. I have been picking and choosing older work—mostly prose poems—that I think cry out for drawings. 

I’m wanting to do something to help save America from this horrible backslide. Trying to figure out how to be effective. 

California remains one of America’s few non-backsliding environments, human rights-wise.

The Opiate: When would you say that you first developed your distinct illustrative style? Was there a certain moment when you identified a “stride” or was it sort of instantaneous once you began? 

Leanne Grabel: I think my style just created itself. A lot of my style is based on ability. The odd croppings is the best part. And the geometry. I have gotten better. But I still consider myself a writer.

The Opiate: In the book, Nina tries on many different jobs and men in her quest to find a sense of self, while also running from the trauma that occurred. Why do you think that women in particular are so prone to returning to the “trauma epicenters,” so to speak, that are men in order to find validation and/or a confirmation of the self? 

Such a good question. It is possible I just finished that phase recently—that lasted fifty years almost. For women my age, dare I say boomers, it was the philosophy of the 50s and early 60s to need men. We had to listen to men, heed men, blah blah blah. My father hogged all the space in my family. I didn’t like it…and fought him for years. And still I always went for men just like him. Luckily, after years of that, I married a man who was in many ways the opposite. In a good way.

The Opiate: How did you go about selecting the very unique and tailored quotes that set the tone for each new chapter? 

Leanne Grabel: It’s pretty random, though we have a lot of books around here. I just sort of madly go through my favorite books and find things. Poetry, in particular, is good like that. 

The Opiate: More than most novels, this one gives us a sense of different places in the world—from Mexico to Paris to, in a curveball, Stockton. Has your lust for travel and exploration dimmed, especially in the wake of so many contagion-oriented fears since the era when this all occurred? Or has it been renewed since the Great Quarantine? 

Leanne Grabel: I am not a great traveler to begin with. No. Traveling is not my jam. I am nervous about flying. And I know I would be nervous about the virus. I don’t know. I go to the coast a few times every year. My friend moved to Portugal and started an Airbnb. I’d like to go there. That’s probably first on the list. Or Hawaii. Warm beaches wildly appeal. 

The Opiate: How important do you think traveling is to the artist with regard to developing the worldviews that will influence their work? 

Leanne Grabel: I hardly ever travel, as I say. I’ve been to Mexico, Costa Rica and a few places in Europe. But I do not have wanderlust. I am quite internal…or is it cerebral? I’m happy to ride my bike along the river and walk through parks. A trip to the snow. And at least three annual beach trips. And I’m good.

The Opiate: What are you working on now? Is there another book in the pipeline? 

Leanne Grabel: This week, I’m preparing for a graphic flash memoir class I’m teaching at Menucha Arts Center in early August. And doing some research for a performance piece of some sort I’m writing for Ruth Ross’ art show about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at Gallery 114 in Portland. As far as books or projects go, I want to do something that will help reverse America’s downward spiral. Is writing something enough? I don’t know. But I can try. 

O. I’m writing letters for Beto.

Brontosaurus Illustrated is available for purchase on bookshop.org, as well all other major bookseller websites.

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