Williams’s first graphic memoir, Commute (Abrams ComicArts, Oct.), is a searingly honest account of trauma, addiction, recovery, and living in public as a woman.
How did Commute get started?
I wrote Commute on my commute. It started as notes on my phone that I would take while I had experiences with men that triggered memories.
I wanted to create it as an object that was outside of me, and hold it: this is where these experiences live now. I was inspired by Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, which was poetry with photographs. The initial iteration of my book was just a 25-page zine with photos. My friend, Emily Gould, who’s also a writer, said, “Hey, you should turn it into a graphic memoir.” I’d never read one. I started with Alison Bechdel, and then I read 40 or 50 graphic memoirs by women.
You explore the concept of “female shame” first through outward interactions and self-presentation, then inward. Did you put a lot of planning into the structure?
It came out naturally. It felt like my real-time experiences. In the end I wanted to show how I healed, a bit, without wrapping it up in a bow. Because there’s still a lot of pain and trauma there.
You talk about finding strength in two main things: connecting with women and studying medicine. What links these two things for you?
In the summer of 2011, I was working full-time in a job that I hated. I decided, while I was smoking a pack a day and drinking myself sick every night, to go back to school and become a registered dietician. It didn’t occur to me that this made no sense. But in my first semester of school, I got sober. Two things happened: I learned that I could understand science and be good at it, and I made relationships with other sober women that changed my life. A huge part of unraveling the shame of the past is talking about it and having shared experiences.
Did that experience make it easier for you to be confessional in your work?
Absolutely. The only way out is through, and if you’re not really vulnerable and really honest, it’s hard to stay sober. I didn’t initially write this to share it, so I didn’t know that it would be out there, but I’m glad that it is. It’s a book that I wrote for other women, because it helps so much to feel seen and to know that an interaction doesn’t have to be what we think of as rape or sexual assault to feel terrible. There’s a whole world—there’s a whole planet—of gray area between yes and no in interactions with men. It’s okay to feel pain or shame or anger about the way things are. Women are not alone in these feelings.