From the TELEPHONE Interview Series.
Tommi Parrish is my conspiratorial work-husband and one of my best friends, and we have been swapping advice and critiques on each other’s work for some eight years now. We moved to Montreal together in 2016, but this conversation happened at the kitchen table of my old share-house in Melbourne during a period of visiting home for the both of us, while sharing carrots and a flat beer.
Lee Lai: So the thing that I wanted to bring up initially was that I totally stole a bit of our conversation that we had together ages ago for the last chat I had with Nina.
Tommi Parrish: Was it the whole “art doesn’t have to be misery” thing?
No, but I love that conversation too, we’ll come back to it. It was the idea of framing whatever you’re working on now as the enabler of the next thing: the step that’ll eventually mean you’re good enough to take the next step after that. I’ve always known you as being very frustrated with your work, or hating your work, but also loving it. I’ve also seen you get so much more solid in your process and your voice, particularly in the last couple of years. As you’ve gotten better, has that love-hate attitude shifted at all?
No, not at all (laughs). What I’m working on at the moment I feel unbelievably frustrated with. And I feel like it’s working in some parts but it’s not working in a lot of parts and it’s really, really upsetting. So it’s the same, just like being hyper hyper critical. There’ll be moments of wins, and then there’ll be… I don’t know.
How do you go through and figure it out, in terms of the things that aren’t working? Like you know enough to identify them, so do you feel like you know enough to feel like you can take steps to resolve them?
Yeah? Mostly the way that I’ve tried to get around it is to plan out the overarching story and try and plan out most of the beats, and to keep myself engaged I’ll paint little vignettes leading up to those beats… so I’m sort of being rewarded at the same time as doing the part that I find really hard and upsetting.
Yeah, you tell me this all the time, because I’m a screaming baby about taking on large projects—that you need to give yourself these little gratification points of doing what you know you love doing.
Marc was the one that told me that (Marc Pearson, Melbourne-based cartoonist). He said you need rewards. Like a million years ago he said that.
What are the rewards for you?
The rewards are painting, and when I get sick of painting, the rewards are drawing. And very rarely writing, which makes me afraid about the trajectory of my career.
But when you showed me the first 30 pages or so of The Lie and How We Told It, I remember you had this look in your eye, like “I’m onto something with this one.” Even if you still didn’t know where you were going.
I think I have that with this one too (an upcoming book with Fantagraphics), but I guess things have just been so chaotic for the past four months or so that there hasn’t been a whole lot of internal quiet, and I think that is represented in the kind of stuff that I’ve been making. But, yeah, it’s definitely onto something. It’s just very slow… and that’s ok.
Do you think that can strengthen the story for you at all? Do you think there’s a merit in the mystery or something, a potency in the fact that you’re putting all of your presence into the part where you’re at?
I mean that’s certainly a romantic way of putting it. I’ve really been trying not to do that, but in reality I think that’s just how my brain works. Maybe it will eventually, and I’m just slowly chugging towards it, but I don’t know. It’s that every time, I’m like “wow, this is really hard.” (laugh)
Do you think it’s ever not going to be hard?
I think if it stops being hard I’d start getting bored. I think I like that it’s hard.
Even though you’re screaming the whole time.
I love suffering, you know that I love suffering. It’s my jam.
Do you ever think about what people are going to be reading into your work while you’re writing?
Only in the sense that I’m trying really hard to not accidentally create something really hateful, or accidentally create something really damaging that perpetuates tired stereotypes or whatever. But that’s kind of the main way. I think about that a lot, and I think I still do it sometimes by accident, because I’m still learning. Sometimes there are characters that fall into tropes that I don’t feel super proud of, but it could also be that I’m hyper-vigilant about that. Sometimes I’ll notice a piece of writing afterwards and be like “eugh, coulda done better.”
That’s the challenge though, right? When you’re writing fiction, when you’re literally inventing bodies, and stories, and contexts.
Yeah, it’s a lot of responsibility to not be a monster. Well, not to not be a monster but it’s just a lot of responsibility in general. Like you’re creating content; just don’t be another person in the world creating hateful content.
Do you think that kind of thinking for you has changed since your work has become more public?
No. I think about it the same amount. I think I’m smarter now than I was a few years ago, because I think I’d be doing something very wrong about the way I live my life if I didn’t learn every year (laughs). But yeah, no, I don’t think it’s changed.
When you’re in the stage of a project like you are now, how do you not get tripped up by overthinking the end product?
Well, it’s pretty representative of how I live my life—everything beyond where the light touches is a tomorrow problem.
It seems to check out pretty good.
I mean, extraordinarily, yes, it does seem to work out.
But at the same time you’re one of the most controlling people I’ve ever known when it comes to your aesthetic.
Yeah. It, like, hurts when something’s not right. It’s physically uncomfortable. It makes me sick when I keep trying to draw something and it’s not working. Like it either feels good or it feels horrible. Every now and then it feels neutral and that’s ok for panels that are just to get through, but the way that I can tell if it’s good is definitely dictated by how it feels in my body when I’m making it.
Before we have to wrap up, I want to talk about the idea of having all your eggs in one basket—the basket being, you know, your art.
There are no other baskets (laugh).
But that’s definitely changed. I see you care so much more now about the idea of community, the idea of chosen family, love, friends, mutuality, generosity—things that have come into your life now that never took front seat like this before. I used to see you viewing art as the most important thing, and needing to put all your attention into it otherwise it wouldn’t grow… but I think your art has gotten significantly better since you started distributing your energy towards other things as well.
Yeah, I’m so much less miserable. I think that’s why.
There was a panel at TCAF this year on comics and mental health—Eli Howey and Tara Booth were talking the myth of the productive depressed artist…
Yeah, ugh, I hate that.
Because actually when you’re depressed you can’t make anything good.
When you’re depressed all you can do is make art about being depressed.
Do you think that relates to what we were just saying about the fact that you’ve filled your life with much more abundance in general, and how it’s affected your work?
I think it’s like a chicken-or-the-egg thing… Like, I think I’m doing better, and so my work is better, and because my work is better, I’m doing better. I’m living a way more fulfilled life, and have way more close friendships. I’m way less afraid of intimacy and vulnerability, and I think while sacrificing everything in order to make stuff meant that I got pretty good, it’s also no kind of life, no way to live. I think I spent almost the entirety of my twenties living like that. I’m going to do pretty much everything in my power to never live like that again.
Tommi Parrish is an Australian cartoonist living in between Western Massachusetts and Montreal. Their most recent books we're Published by Fantagraphics and 2DCloud and have been translated into Russian, polish, Spanish and French. Parrish was nominated in 4 Ignaz categories in 2018, was a feature artist in Granta magazine and was the year's cover artist for The Best American Non Required Reading.