Writers & Company

Cartoonist Lynda Barry on reclaiming the art of child's play

Eleanor Wachtel speaks to the artist and writer about the innate power of creative concentration, the power of loneliness and how emotion drives art.
Cartoonist Lynda Barry created Ernie Pook's Comeek, a strip that ran for nearly three decades in 70 newspapers in the U.S. Her graphic memoir is called One! Hundred! Demons!
Listen to the full episode52:18

American cartoonist Lynda Barry defies categorization. Best known for her long-running syndicated strip, Ernie Pook's Comeek, she is also an award-winning novelist and comic book artist. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons — who went to college with Barry and first published Ernie Pook in their student newspaper in the late '70s — has described her as "different from almost all cartoonists of the past... much harsher and much more experimental." English novelist Nick Hornby has called her "one of America's very best contemporary writers."

Barry was born in Wisconsin in 1956, the daughter of a Filipino-Irish mother and Norwegian-Irish father. Over her nearly 40-year career, she has published collections of cartoons, as well as novels, plays, and boundary-pushing books, such as One! Hundred! Demons! — her soulful graphic memoir — and What It Is, which has been described as part artbook, part self-help, part artistic autobiography and manifesto. Throughout it all, her work is funny, moving and brutally honest. 

Barry spoke with Eleanor Wachtel when she was in Toronto in 2009.

On rediscovering creativity through the eyes of a child

I think one of the things about childhood is that we are still able to do the thing that we call "play." When we think about the word as adults, we get it confused with having fun. My feeling is that there is something we are born with — a deep creative concentration — that is at use when we are at play. And as kids we do it innately and naturally, until we are shamed out of it as adults. The thing that we call art is really alive when we are a kid. That's why people go into the arts, for that feeling of aliveness. I am definitely interested in the psychological angle of it.

How feelings of loneliness turned her into a lover of insects (and fungi)

Bugs are really comforting. So is fungus — and you really need to feel lonely to fall in love with fungus. Lonely is an interesting kind of word because I don't define it as longing for others. It's this weird feeling of one-of-a-kind or just being an odd duck. Emily Dickinson writes about loneliness and she calls it the maker of the soul. It's about being alone, and where things feel incredibly alive. And I still feel that way about bugs.

On finding the emotional core of a story

There is something about words and images together that get to the emotional core of a story. I try to work one sentence at a time and be willing to wait a long time until the next sentence comes. I'm just willing to be very slow, and let the back of the mind come forward.

Lynda Barry's interview has been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Mr. Brown" by Zap Mama.