Probably Nothing: not-your-average comic about cancer

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Matilda Tristram sent me her book, Probably Nothing: A Diary of not-your-average Nine Months, and it’s one of those books that begs to be finished in one sitting (I did it in two, but only because I had to tear myself away for something urgent – otherwise I could have chugged along without caring about the time!) It’s a graphic memoir that recounts her journey – from finding out she had cancer while she was pregnant at 17 weeks, to giving birth to James, and to the end of her chemotherapy. I loved it. It was honest, open, and incredibly real – I could imagine the things Matilda said in her head (you know, the things you wouldn’t say out loud!) I appreciated her humour and openess in expressing her thoughts, especially when she recounts her experience with people who mean well but could do better.

I had a chance to email her about the book, and I hope you enjoy reading the interview below!

Her book Probably Nothing is available on Amazon, and you can see the rest of her work on her website.

I love your book – your frankness and matter-of-factness of dealing with cancer AND being pregnant for the first time is just wow. Can you tell us why you decided to pen all your experience down, and how did it all begin?

Hello and thanks! I’m glad you liked it. There were several reasons; I’ve been writing stories and comics for years, for my job as a children’s author and for fun, writing about life is what I do and love.

I’d never made a diary comic because my day-to-day existence didn’t seem interesting enough, but suddenly it was. It was peculiar and morbidly fascinating (what my body was doing / the procedures I had to undergo), hilarious (how people reacted to my illness) and terrifying (the possibility that my son and I might not survive). That type of fear made ordinary things seem worth writing about. I wanted to record as much as possible in case I died and had to stop experiencing anything. My memories from the time are very clear, I can ‘see’ the wards and consulting rooms in perfect detail and remember exactly how people spoke and what they said. Scenes play over and over in my mind like frames from a storyboard so it was easy to draw.

1 month oldIt was also good to have something to do to at hospital, I was there three days a week for most of my treatment, which lasted for six months. It took my mind off the situation, while I was thinking about how to draw or word something I wasn’t thinking about how scared I was.

Penguin offered to publish the comic when I was about six months pregnant, almost halfway through the book. Until then I’d been putting it all online as I wrote it, to let friends and family know how we were doing without my having to have the same upsetting conversations again and again. Talking about it was difficult, but writing and drawing wasn’t at all.

Writing also meant I could gently criticise the way people talk about to ill people without having to confront anyone directly. I know people’s intentions are good, no one wants to do or say the wrong thing, but until you’ve had cancer or know someone who has, you might not realise that, for instance, talking about someone else you know who’s had cancer isn’t very helpful.

I found all the language of cancer, the ‘fighting talk’, hard to deal with too, and used the comic to question that. For example, people want to hear that you’re “thinking positive” when really you’re terrified. A popular belief is that if you think positive, you’re more likely to recover, which is complete nonsense and makes cancer patients feel guilty for worrying.

My diagnosis came quite late; the tumour was large and had started to spread. It was very difficult to get any doctors to take my symptoms seriously and my son and I very nearly died as a result. I wanted the comic to raise awareness so that the same mistakes could be avoided with other patients.

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Did you approach a publisher for the book, or did they come to you after you put your webcomics online?

After I put the comic online and then the Guardian newspaper approached me and asked to feature some pages in their magazine. I got a great response from that so approached a few publishers.

How has the response to your book been? Was it what you had expected it to be?

The response has been wonderful. The online comics and cancer communities were so encouraging while I was writing and having treatment, it was great to already have their support when the book came out.

When I read it now, I can’t believe how open I was about some things. I think at the time I felt like if everyone knew about what we were going through I wouldn’t feel so isolated in the experience. I always get emotional when people tell me that reading those really raw bits helped them through treatment or with caring for someone else.

Another response has been relief on finding that there are funny bits in the book. I suppose devastating things can also be very funny. The book is also about the rest of life as well as cancer; friendship, love, family and living in London so it’s not all heavy stuff.

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Now that your book is out and people have identified you as the lady who survived cancer while being pregnant – has this affected you in any way? Do you feel as though you’d like to move on, or are you keen to explore the topic of cancer further in your work?

I’m glad to be back at my old job teaching new students who don’t know anything about it, and working on new things that aren’t related to cancer at all.

Although I’m not making more work about cancer, I am enjoying going to conferences and visiting medical schools, to see how comics could be used to improve diagnostic techniques and communication with patients.

What have you learned from this whole experience? Of having cancer, to beating it, to having James, and then this book?

I should have some righteous platitudes ready for this bit, but I can’t think of any! I loved life before I got ill and didn’t need to get cancer to ‘appreciate the small things’ etc… I’ve had a crash course in oncology and been amazed by what my body has endured, how it has healed, and by it’s ability to produce a healthy and happy son on top of everything else. Bodies are amazing.

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Can you give us a bit of advice on what’s the best thing we can do (or say) to people who have cancer, or are undergoing treatments for it? What’s the best thing someone has said to you or has done for you?

What I loved was when people did things without asking ‘is there anything I can do?’, like bringing dinner, tidying the flat, or dropping off something nice (and non-cancer-related). All the flowers got a bit overwhelming but one friend gave me a rubber peanut and a pencil case with my favourite type of pen in, which was lovely.

Probably Nothing

You’re a teacher, animator, and writer – what advice do you have for artists who are trying to make their mark on the world?

Put it all online!

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Thanks so much Matilda!

Probably Nothing is available on Amazon, and I highly recommend getting a copy for yourself and/or loved ones who are going through health issues (minor or major) – it’s funny, touching, real (yes, I mentioned this several times already, I know) and best of all, uplifting.

Artist interview: Mel Stringer

Artist interview: Mel Stringer

Mel Stringer

I had the joy of conducting an email interview with the lovely artist Mel Stringer recently – you might already be a fan of her work on Frankie Magazine, or her well-stocked and extremely popular Etsy shop; but if you aren’t, you might just change your mind.

Hi Mel! Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? Are you a full time artist?

I am a full time artist, yes. It was a tad scary making the leap from part time to full time but every day is rewarding when you work for yourself. There are definitely days when I need to force myself to dig my feet into the sand on the beach or watch movies in bed though, a charging of batteries so to speak. There’s always so many possibilities!

Where do you live? What stands out about living where you are, and what is your daily schedule like?

I’m currently based in Brisbane, Australia. It’s a sub-tropical city with a healthy list of artists and musicians. I work from my home-based studio and I love it.

A typical day would be waking early, feeding my pug Grover, checking emails and clicking around on the internet. Checking my calendar and making a to-do list for the day. At the moment I’m really inspired to work when listening to 70’s R&B, so I’ll crank up some tunes and start working on packing orders, commissioned portraits or just scribbling and dabbling about – dreaming up new ideas in my sketchbook.

Then I’ll head out to the stationery shop to get supplies or the post office to mail stuff off. Most days I’ll bring Grover in with me but he won’t sit still.

Do you keep a journal/sketchbook, and would you mind if we had a sneak peek?

Of course! Here are a few snapshots taken from my Instagram.

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I love your style – how did it come about?

I was brought up with such inspirational sources as my Dad who is a cartoonist himself, Disney, Looney Tunes, The Simpsons, Astro Boy, MAD Magazine, Sailor Moon, Don Bluth and those sorts of cartoons that most kids my age grew up watching.

As I got older my influences started to include artists like Robert Crumb, Yoshitomo Nara, Dan Clowes, Ross Campbell, Plump Oyster. A running thread throughout these artists was the way they depicted girls and women in their work. I really connected with it and identified with the shapes and figures they were putting down.

I started drawing my own body and face more and more after I left highschool. It’s a form of self love when I can be proud of what I see on paper and in my reflection.

You have a new book out – Cute Yum, published by Belly Books. Can you tell us a bit more about it? What was the inspiration behind the book, and how did it all come together?

Mel Stringer for Cute Yum

Mel Stringer for Cute Yum

I was approached by Belly Kids late last year about the possibility of working with them on a publication. I had a long think about what I would most like to make and what’s been bubbling up inside me for some time that I just needed to express. I decided on creating a huge collection of female fashionistas (both minimalist and ott) modeling their clothing combinations. That way I could draw my girls, my most favorite types of clothing and have it all in a big collection.

I was inspired by the Japanese street fashion book FRUITS when I found it in late highschool. Since then I’ve been so impressed by street fashion blogs and Japanese fashion. Cute Yum is my own version of street fashion photography.

What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

Girl Glue #2 is coming out soon, it’s a zine that’s focused on creative females that I put together. A few other projects being brewed too! I’m hopefully setting up a new studio in the near future soon, somewhere to spread out and get into my musical project Sparkle Gang as well.

In the next few years I can only hope to be happy and doing cool stuff that I love.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself when you were just starting out as an artist/illustrator?

Stay strong, be brave. Everything else just happens naturally if you are truly passionate about your work. In saying that, I feel I’m still only just starting out so this advice is for me in this present moment as well.

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Thanks so much Mel! You can pre-order Mel’s latest book Cute Yum, published by Belly Books over here.

2015: The year of taking charge

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I had taken two weeks off from everything: teaching, family, this blog, everything.

And what did I do? What did I spend my 14 days doing prior to ringing in the new year? Was it something productive like sorting out my receipts and re-arranging the mess of a corner that I call my workstation (I work just fine, thankyouverymuch, and things are where they’re meant to be.)

Nope.

Here’s what I did instead: I was binge-watching The Mindy Project because I had just discovered the show, oh only after it ran for 3 seasons. I was laughing and giggling over the chemistry between Dr Mindy Lahiri and her colleague Dr Danny Castellano while nodding my head whenever she was talking about how other things can wait when it comes to food. Or that you’re crazy not to have seconds of anything. Oh yes. That’s what I watched. For some her voice might be grating enough to turn them off, but for me, I had to control myself from snorting out food through my nose whenever the punchline kicked in (did I also mention I didn’t stop watching even when it was lunchtime?)

So yes I binged watched for the entire 2 weeks while I was off. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I enjoyed it. That and oh, chocolates.

I deserved it.

That, for me, was the act of taking charge of my time.

And I want to do more of that in 2015. Not the binge-watching TV show bit, but the taking control bit.

But wait, doesn’t taking charge mean doing something proactive? Something useful? Yes, it can be that too. But that’s not the point. The whole point of taking control is to be able to exercise your choice – irregardless of what other people might think. You need to know what you’re doing and what you’re doing has to be purposeful. And that is totally different from merely slacking off.

I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt while I was reclining on my sofa, cradling my laptop to the tune of crazy nurse Morgan as he deadpans about his dogs. I emptied my mind and let myself do nothing for a change. And while I do watch my favourite TV shows from time to time – having 2 weeks of pure uninterrupted bliss time to call my own is just what I needed to recharge my exhausted batteries. Your methods may vary, and so will your mileage.

Because society and life in general puts too much pressure on people to do things all the time. Sure, there are times when you can’t afford to take a break. Or maybe you’re not into The Mindy Project like I am. The point isn’t about reclining on sofas and watching comedies while popping Picnic bars. It’s about taking charge of what you want, and ultimately what you need to do to move forward.

I knew that I had been through a bit of an emotional roller coaster in 2014. One of my first dogs ever died. I ran another fun, successful second session of Work/Art/Play. There was also the 2014 Artists and Illustrator survey. I did a redesign of my blog. I participated in a local zine fair where I peddled my zines and gave a talk among other great designers. I took on a part-time stint as an art director at a regional PR firm. I was at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content as a moderator for several keynotes and a one-day workshop. And a few other wins and losses that I can’t seem to remember right now, but that’s okay.

2014 was a relatively slow year, truth be told. And I didn’t mind it one bit. There are times when we surge and forge ahead, and there are times where we back down a little – not out of defeat, but to prepare for whatever life throws at us next. We lick our wounds and treat our pain – physical or emotional – and get ourself ready for what’s to come.

And 2015 is going to be one exciting year, I can guarantee you that.

Just make sure you get off the sofa like I did.

So here’s my question for you:

What will you take charge of this year?

Maybe it’s taking charge of your time so that you can finally spend that time on learning that new technique you’ve been meaning to try out; or it means taking charge of your art and business so you can do what you love and be rewarded for it.

I’d love it if you would share with me (and I read every comment):

  1. What does taking charge mean to you?
  2. What’s your focus for 2015? What do you want to change?
[Illustration by Tyler Feder of Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project. Available as a print in her Etsy shop.]
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