The Think Piece Interview: Ellen Forney

Ellen Forney is a brilliant cartoonist. Her work appears in The Stranger in Seattle and many other publications and books. She’s also a sharp writer. And here’s one more thing: she’s hilarious. You can see all of this on display in her graphic memoir Marbles, which is about her life with bipolar disorder. In the book she invites the reader to observe her as she manages the illness, from manic highs to debilitating lows to eventual stabilization. She frames the book around the timeline it took to find the right treatment. Four years of therapy and medication managements. You see her stumble along the way. You also see her win important emotional victories. And you laugh.

Forney also takes on the question of the linkage between mental illness and creativity. Would her ability to draw and write be impaired if she were medicated? Would the stability flatten her moods? Would she lose productivity?  She examines these questions rigorously and comes up with logical, hopeful conclusions.

It’s a marvelous read. We were sad when it ended. We were elated when she agreed to speak with us.

TP: Your book made quite an impact when it came out in 2012. How do you feel about it today?

EF: It’s the thing I’m most proud of in my professional life.

TP: Did it convey what you wanted it to about mental illness?

EF: It did. I got the book to the point where I felt like it said what I wanted it to say. It reflected how I felt and what my experience was. That’s all you can do because with a memoir it’s difficult to know what’s going to resonate with other people. You ask yourself what will seem like narcissism and what’s going to resonate in a personable and approachable way. The fact that it resonated with people has been a total, incredible, deeply satisfying experience, and such an honor.

TP: You write in a such a conversational, lively way. I laughed out loud a lot.

EF: Someone once told me the book is like getting a letter from a friend. I think part of that is due to my sense of humor. Some of it is about the medium. It’s the way we receive the hand-drawn quality of comics. With any difficult story, if it can be told with a dark sense of humor, that can help to break that tension and give some sense of relief. If helps me as the author to get through the process of writing the story. And for the reader it can help to absorb the material and to get in there and feel it. There’s a lot of stress involved in taking in that kind of story. Humor can be disarming. It’s a way to get your message across that allows people to drop their defenses a bit. It’s also just who I am. I certainly didn’t force the humor into the book because I think it’s a useful tool. It’s how I am. I think it’s one of my most important coping tools. It’s valuable to be able to look at something painful and see the absurdity of it.

TP: You do what great artists do, which is include scenes and let people fill in their own blanks about their importance. I think of the moment in the book when you brought your two friends to a friend’s house to try on clothes and that came off as kind of strange.

EF: I included that scene in part because of a conversation I had with my friend Meg, who is also a cartoonist and is that scene. I took her to lunch and asked her, and this way early on in the writing, if she would be a reader for me. My editor at Penguin was awesome but she had never edited a graphic novel before. She wasn’t super familiar with comics. I really wanted a cartoonist to look at it and give me feedback, specifically on the language of comics, which is words and pictures. It’s different than just going through the story arc. I took her out to lunch and asked her if she would help me with the comics editing part. This was when I told her I was bipolar. I had been very private about my disorder for years. Marbles was my big coming out. I talk so candidly about it now but people don’t realize that it was huge and terrifying and exciting for me to be public about this. So when the book was released in 2012 it was a big adjustment. It wasn’t like I was out before then. That was the first time we talked about me being bipolar. For her, that was something she brought up. It made sense to her then that whole experience where I took her to the house for dress-up in the basement. That had made her apprehensive about hanging out with me. I was just too much. It was something that we talked about that I realized I would have to put in the book. That was the beginning of my trying to figure out how to depict mania.

TP: Was it hard to write about periods in your life where you weren’t at your most stable?

EF: It was difficult for me to figure out how to do those scenes in a way that was true to my memories and didn’t overly chastise himself. In early drafts I was very judgmental. I had other characters rolling their eyes or being annoyed. In the narration I would suggest that I had terribly poor judgment. I was being disrespectful to myself, certainly not compassionate. I interviewed all of my friends when I was putting the book together to get their memories of me around that time and to align what it was that I remembered with what they remembered. I wanted to get their impressions as well as come out to them.

TP: You do such a great job of owning the illness and having acceptance of it, although I know it took work to get to that place, which you share in the book.

EF: I was talking in the book to a friend and I made some mention of how annoying I was. She kind of cocked her head at me and said, But you were a great storyteller and you commanded a room and I thought you were a lot of fun. It made me realize that my perceptions of what other people might have thought of me weren’t necessarily accurate. It made me switch gears a bit. I ended up taking out some of the eye-rolling, which I realized was largely me eye-rolling at myself. To have just a little more perspective on just what that was like. To let me be really honest about what that was like. That allowed me to turn things a little bit, and to still have my judgment be kind of off, but to remember that my intentions were good. I wasn’t trying to steamroll other people. I just thought that what I was doing was for their own good. For that scene where I took Casey and Megan to that basement for dress-up, I thought they would enjoy it. I thought I was giving them a big surprise present. But if they’re not enjoying it maybe they’re learning something. I felt like I was giving them something. To include that part of my story that were aspects of mania. I don’t need to judge myself for it. My intent was to be honest in the book. It was difficult to look straight on at things that made me cringe.

TP: How long did you work on the book?

EF: I worked on the book for four years, although in ways it was longer than that because I thought about it for a long time, although I didn’t feel ready to do it for years. I wanted to wait until I was stable enough to handle doing it and handle it being out. I spent two years writing the proposal, which was a long time, but I had a lot of things I needed to process and history to go through and research to do. Then a year to do the thumbnails. Then a very dense year to do the pencils and ink.

TP How has the reaction been to it?

EF: I’ve been continually amazed at how forthcoming people are about their own experiences. It started happening before the book came out. Marbles came out in November 2012 but I turned in the manuscript in the beginning of that year. That’s when I realized that I was going to have to start talking about the book and essentially coming out about my disorder. During that year I learned something important. People will talk about their experience with mental disorders, whether it’s their own or it’s in their family or in their partner or ex. There aren’t that many places where people can talk about it where someone is going to be understanding or receptive. A lot of the time I ended up not talking about my book so much. I would say it’s a memoir about my bipolar disorder. I’d have some kind of quick exchange about it. Then they would tell me about the meds that they were on. This happened over and over. Given I’m a friendly person, so that may be part of it. People I met or interviewers would talk to me about their experiences. The topic is usually so closed to people, even though 10 percent of the country is dealing with a mood disorder. That’s not even counting anxiety disorders and other kinds of mental health challenges. It’s close to everyone. People are more willing to talk about it than you might think. I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of emails and letters. It was really overwhelming at first to read a lot of people’s stories that are very difficult. I know the intention is to thank me for putting my story out there. I think a big reason is the book gave them company.

TP: I liked how you described the books you read about mental illness as company.

EF: One of the things that gets said a lot is you are not alone, which is very important. But I really prefer to say you have company.

TP: You’re very strong on wanting to help eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness.

EF: We don’t have that many opportunities to know that we have someone receptive to talk to about this stuff. One of the things on my agenda is to help end the stigma and spread awareness. But it’s hidden, it’s invisible, so it’s difficult. Unless we have T-shirts that say, “No One Knows I’m Bipolar” or “Bipolar Proud” or buttons or something, what would be appropriate to announce that, Look, I’m a functioning person with bipolar disorder, which you wouldn’t have known, now you are aware. Most of the time it’s invisible. So that spreading awareness in place where we can tell our stories are uncommon and infrequent.

TP: It just still isn’t natural to casually bring it up in conversations.

EF: I have the interesting advantage of people coming out to me, if they ask the common question, What is it that you do? Oh I’m a cartoonist. Oh really? What have you done? So I have this opportunity to say a memoir about my bipolar disorder, and that opens that discussion. But that opening is not very common. That’s why I think we need to embrace a branded awareness color.

TP: An awareness color?

EF: There are awareness colors for everything. Do you know what the mental illness awareness color is? It’s lime green. Once you know that you see that in all the awareness websites. They tend to have a lime-green background. And maybe it has a ribbon on it. The Depression Bipolar Support Alliance has a campaign for people to put together safety pins with lime-green beads on them. But I think for most people if we saw a person with a lime-green safety pin or a lime-green ribbon we wouldn’t know what that meant. I think it’s actually a possible solution to have an awareness color so people don’t have to announce it all the time, just some indication that we have an awareness in mental illness, either that we’re mentally ill or our daughter is bipolar or you’re a psychiatrist. Any association. The whole idea of spreading awareness needs to have more ways where we can get it out there. Like pink ribbons for breast cancer research. We all know what that color means. I happen to think the icon that we’re familiar with is the ribbon. I think we all need to wear lime-green ribbons. When I’m on my next book tour I plan to do that. It’s about starting a conversation.

TP: I admire how you had the honesty to say that being manic isn’t always bad.

EF: One of the reasons it’s so difficult to retain stability for a lot of bipolars is because you miss the mania. By missing mania it’s not that we would miss being completely inappropriate and losing marriages. All of the destructive things that mania does. That’s not. It’s having incredible charisma. Or dancing all night. Things that are attributes that go with having a lot of energy. That’s on the milder end, or the early end of mania. It’s one of the things that I struggled with in my book. I don’t want to portray mania as a positive thing. I don’t want to romanticize it. But at the same time I want to be honest and make sure it comes across that it’s not altogether negative for the bipolar person or for the people around the person. It’s a tricky thing. It’s dangerous. You don’t want to be manic. But as far as the experience goes, it’s really complicated.

TP: People think all that energy must make you productive.

EF: There is that perception. I think that may be true with hypomania. But when you’re manic you can’t calm down enough to really put stuff together, or finish anything, or finish anything enough. I feel like I’m not missing out on any amazing projects that I would have done if I were still having manic episodes. I think that the ways that I think – the free associations, the way I brainstorm – was exaggerated in mania. I think the main thing is I thought they were intense and amazing more than being just my ideas.

TP: I really loved the end of the book where you give advice to your former self.

EF: It was so satisfying to write and draw that part. Just being able to put yourself back in a frame of mind where you didn’t know what was going to happen. You didn’t know how the way you were acting was going to influence your health. Even just to write out the dialogue. What would you say to yourself? How were you thinking then? It’s interesting to go back into your head. I found that so useful. I went back to my journals. It allows you to reflect on the way that you were thinking then and how you’re thinking now. That’s helpful because you still don’t know all the answers. But you know more then you know then.

TP: How have you felt about being a public mental health advocate?

EF: A friend of mine asked me way back before the book came out, Are you ready to be the bipolar cartoonist? I had to think about that. No one wants to get pigeon-holed. My answer was yes, I’d love to be the bipolar cartoonist. I feel like it’s part of who I am and I could do that. I feel like I can speak to being bipolar. I can do that. That has wound up being what happened. I’ve become a mental health advocate, which is awesome. I get to give talks about mental health and comics and medicine. It’s just been a big honor. It has made me feel that what I am doing is really worthwhile.

TP: What’s coming up next?

EF: When Marbles came out I realized that the book had taken so much that for the next book I didn’t want to do anything about me. I was sure I didn’t want to do anything more on bipolar disorder. But in the interim I was so touched by the reaction all the way around. The book I’m working on now is sort of a self-help memoir about maintaining stability within the disorder. I think I needed to put out Marbles to exhaust myself before realizing that I have more to say. I feel like have more of a grip on what it is I have to offer. I’m working on that now. It’s going to be out from Fantagraphics Books in 2018. It’s called Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing