Lucy Knisley’s forthcoming book, Go to Sleep (I Miss You), is about her experiences as a new mom, but for her next outing, she turns her life into fiction.
Comics artist Lucy Knisley’s life has been an open book, so to speak, but as she approaches her 35th birthday, and her child moves from baby to toddler, she is shifting gears.
Knisley is the creator of six graphic novels, starting with 2008’s French Milk, which chronicled a trip she took to Paris with her mother just before she graduated from art school. In February of this year, she published Kid Gloves (First Second), about her experiences with pregnancy and childbirth, including nearly dying in the delivery room due to undiagnosed preeclampsia.
Knisley’s new work has a lighter tone. She wrote and illustrated the picture book You Are New, which was published by Chronicle in March. Her next book, Go to Sleep (I Miss You), due out from First Second in February 2020, is a collection of short comics about being a new mom.
“It’s such an incredibly intense time, and an incredibly lonely time,” Knisley says of new motherhood. “I started making these little sketchbook comics, and I put them online, and this huge collection of new moms found me. It’s an incredibly supportive community: parents supporting other parents.”
When her son turned two, Knisley switched from memoir to fiction. “I have mined my life for much of my career, and now that I’m a parent, I have somebody in my life who can’t really give consent to be part of my comics,” she says.
In addition to Go to Sleep, Knisley has middle grade graphic novel, Stepping Stones, the first volume of a planned trilogy, set to be published by Random House Graphic in May 2020. Stepping Stones is based on Knisley’s own experiences, though she fictionalized them to make a more cohesive story. “It’s about a kid whose parents are divorced and who moves from the city to the country, so she learns all about farm life,” she says. “And she’s also navigating a new family situation when her mom starts dating a man who has daughters.”
Readers of Knisley’s work will recognize the bones of this story from her 2013 graphic novel Relish, but, she says, “I wanted Stepping Stones to be fiction, not pure autobiography, so people could see themselves in the characters and not just see the author telling her story.”
Knisley spent her early years in New York City and then moved with her mother to the Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck when her parents divorced. Her father was an English professor and her mother was an artist and caterer. “My mom is based in the visual arts, and my dad is based in the written word,” she says. “I think part of why I gravitated to comics is it combined the passions of my mother and my father. When they divorced, I really got into comics—in an escapist way and also as a way of trying to remarry these two parts of my personality.”
Knisley’s high school years were rough. She went to four different schools because, she recalls, her teachers thought she had a learning disability. Finally, she landed at a high school that specialized in the arts. “It turns out I didn’t have a learning disability,” she says. “I was just an artist.” She got good grades there and went on to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There she met fellow comics creator Hope Larson, who not only encouraged her but collaborated with her on a minicomic. “Hope was doing such interesting, beautiful work, and it was really influential over my own,” Knisley says.
Just as Knisley was finishing her studies, big publishers were getting more interested in graphic novels. In her last year of art school, she traveled to Paris with her mother to celebrate her mother’s 50th birthday and her own graduation. “I challenged myself to draw every day,” she says. “At the end of it, I had this story that wasn’t just about what we saw and ate and did but about my changing relationship with my mother, as we were both on the precipice of these big changes in our lives.”
An editor from Simon & Schuster spotted Knisley’s minicomic about the trip at a comics festival and asked her to do a graphic novel for the publisher’s Touchstone imprint. That book was French Milk; Knisley was just 21 when she signed the contract.
Relish, Knisley’s second book, grew from a set of short comics about food that her agent, Holly Bemiss, sent to First Second. “I don’t think of Relish as a memoir,” Knisley says. “I think of it as a collection of essays about growing up in the food industry. I’ve heard myself referred to as a graphic essayist, which I think is a much better term than memoirist.”
Knisley’s next two books were 2014’s An Age of License, about a trip through Europe that included a whirlwind love affair, and 2015’s Displacement, an account of a cruise she went on with her aging grandparents—both published by Fantagraphics. “The travelogues are done very immediately, as I’m experiencing something,” Knisley says. “So I don’t have a lot of time to put it into a broader context. It’s much more of a time capsule, less essay and more journal.” Nonetheless, both books had broader themes: An Age of License celebrated the freedom of being young, while in Displacement, Knisley compared her grandfather’s World War II diary and her own memories of her grandparents’ younger days with the realities of their aging minds and bodies.
Then Knisley’s life took a dramatic turn. In An Age of License, she mentions her former longtime boyfriend John, for whom she still had feelings; they had broken up because she wanted to have children someday and he didn’t. He’s a distant presence in that book but a major player in Something New: after a change of heart about having children, he surprised her with a proposal.
Knisley told the story of her relationship with John, their engagement, and their wedding in Something New, and she wrapped the history and traditions of weddings, as well as details of her many DIY projects, into the narrative. Kid Gloves picked up the story with her pregnancy (preceded by a miscarriage) and the birth of their child, followed by her near-death experience, again bringing in the history and science of female reproductive health as well as her own story.
Though Relish was a collection of reminiscences, Knisley’s more recent graphic novels deal with more immediate matters. “With Kid Gloves and Something New, I was conscious when I was experiencing the events that I would be writing about them later,” she says. “I kept sketchbooks and kept notes and kept track of things.” Nonetheless, she says, Kid Gloves was a tough book to make. “I don’t recommend experiencing the most traumatic event of your life and then spending every day of your work life rehashing it,” she notes, adding she feels that doing so helped her work out her anger and frustration at what had happened.
Knisley is not self-conscious about sharing so much of her life with strangers. “I often get readers approaching me to say, ‘Oh, I know all about your cat—is that weird?’ ” she says. “And I say ‘No, I put that in my comics. I’m flattered.’ Most of the time, readers understand that these things are edited and shared purposely.”
Indeed, the sharing is the point. “The entirety of my work and career comes from this part of myself that believes that people are good and that they want to understand their fellow humans,” Knisley says. “My instinct is to tell my own story and make it relatable, to make myself feel less alone and make other people feel less alone. So far, coming up on 35, that belief hasn’t been destroyed, and a lot of that comes from people coming and saying ‘Thank you for making this book, I really related to it, it helped me get through my own experience.’ That bolsters my belief, and hopefully I will never have that crushed out of me.”