When Kristen Radtke started writing about loneliness in 2016, she had no idea of what was to come. Writers are famously prescient, but who could have imagined the global pandemic of Covid-19 and the isolation it would generate? Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness (Pantheon, July), Radtke’s latest graphic nonfiction book, is a marvelous deep dive into that universal emotion, blending science, memoir, journalism, research, philosophy, and pop culture to explore isolation and our desire to be close to one another.
“I was walking around New York City,” Radtke says, “looking at people on cell phones, people alone in public settings. It was the time of the presidential election, and loneliness spikes during political seasons; people separate because of differing views and ideas.” She became fascinated reading about the science of loneliness. “Lonely people die sooner, and I wondered at cause and effect. What comes first? Illness or loneliness? The research took me down the rabbit hole.”
While the text is mesmerizing, Radtke’s drawings are singularly moving. “This book was not done in panels,” she says. “It’s more like illustrated essays, not so much a narrative but a collage. I was thinking, how do I represent something? It morphed over time.”
Seek You explores ways that loneliness is assuaged, even without our knowledge, like through the laugh track of sitcoms, created to make the viewer feel that others are there. Radtke considers her father, a man she describes as severe, and his amateur radio hobby that connected him to people thousands of miles away. She also examines the myth of the American cowboy, the quintessential outsider. She cites brain studies and animal behavior, and provides a window into the way we experience loneliness, something in the forefront of our lives in the pandemic.
Jin Auh at the Wylie Agency, who has represented Radtke since early 2015, notes that “to read Seek You now is even more heartrending and heart enlarging, as Kristen gives us stories about longing and connection.” The two met in 2014, when Radtke was marketing and publicity director at Sarabande Books. “I admired her jacket designs for Sarabande,” Auh says, “and it turned out she was working on her own books.”
Radtke, currently the art director and deputy publisher of the literary magazine The Believer, published her first book, Imagine Wanting Only This, a graphic memoir about loss and abandoned places around the world, with Pantheon in 2017.
Auh submitted Seek You as well as a graphic novel, Terrible Men, to Tim O’Connell, senior editor at Knopf, as partial manuscripts in March 2018. The two-book deal for North American and audio rights was made on May 1, and the manuscript for Seek You was finished in July 2019.
O’Connell calls Radtke “a guide,” adding, “She stays with something and filters it for the public.” He remembers seeing Radtke give a reading about 10 years ago at AWP in Chicago: “She had projections and these images were unfurling behind her and I was so impressed. Afterward we traveled to other readings in Kristen’s car, a hatchback crammed with I think every Iowa [Writers’ Workshop] nonfiction fellow.”
O’Connell was also involved with the production of Imagine and says, “That book was looking inward; this book looks outward. It’s real journalism with Kristen’s natural sense of empathy. She has such dedication and range. And her drawings are incredible: where her eye decides to land and linger makes the images so special; she has such patience.” He adds that Seek You “is the perfect alignment of author, subject and time. It’s a unique reading experience that I think only Pantheon and Kristen could do and I feel lucky to be along for the ride.”
Radtke, who grew up in rural Wisconsin, started drawing in her last semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She always drew but had no formal art training and didn’t read comics. “It’s an arduous form,” she says. “You create a narrative and draw people on every page who have to look the same. I taught myself over time while doing the first book.”
In Seek You, Radtke observes that loneliness has nothing to do with having a partner or a best friend or an active social life. “Loneliness,” she writes, “is a variance that rests in the space between the relationships you have and the relationships you want. Loneliness lives in the gap.”
Radtke tells me, “I’m excited about this book. It’s my heart. I put my whole self into it. This year was devastating and I felt really alone. You have to learn to admit your loneliness. Our bodies are trying to tell us to reach out.”