Smash Pages Q&A: Mariko Tamaki

The award-winning author discusses her latest graphic novel from First Second, ‘Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me.’

Mariko Tamaki is the award-winning author of the graphic novels This One Summer and Skim, both of which she made with her cousin, the artist and writer Jillian Tamaki. Mariko has written a number of comics series including Tomb Raider, She Hulk, Supergirland X-23. She’s written graphic novels like Emiko Superstar and the upcoming Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, in addition to writing a trilogy of Lumberjanes novels and various other works of fiction and nonfiction.

Her new book, with artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, is Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, which is just out from First Second Books. Frederica Riley is dating Laura Dean, the most popular girl in school, who is amazing — and a horrible girlfriend. While Freddy is writing to an advice columnist about what she should do, her friends are dealing with their own problems and trying to be delicate, and inanimate objects around Freddy are offering their own ignored Greek chorus in the background. It is a brilliant work that manages to balance comedy and drama, and capture something truly essential about relationships and teenage life.

Tamaki is a featured guest at this weekend’s Queers and Comics Conference in New York, and we spoke recently about the book.

How do you describe Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me?

It’s a story about being in love that’s not a love story. It’s my version of a classic 80s high school romance. Which is kind of a warped version.Where did the idea for the book start?

I’ve always wanted to write a girl meets girl story. All the stories like that that I’ve read are about finding that perfect love, that first love. But I’m such a realist, it turned into an anti-Cinderella story. Writing this, I thought about the course of relationships, what happens AFTER the glass slipper (so to speak) and that just seemed like an interesting story, the story of things that aren’t “meant to be” or don’t work out, and how a relationship NOT working is something that can go on for a very long time. Like that can be a relationship, a not-working, not-healthy situation. Hopefully that’s not the only story you get, but it’s A story a lot of people have experienced.

It may be a warped version of a classic 80s high school romance, but it also felt a little like a critique of those movies where the whole point is dating this popular person.

I don’t think of it as a critique per se. I suppose I see it more as a different perspective. I think those movies were about trying to see the “losers” POV, of humanizing and getting into that experience. Which now feels like a cliche, because it still centers on this idea of the popular person as the ideal, as the center.

You have stuffed animals or patterns on fabric talking a different points. Why?

I liked the idea of the book having a kind of fantastical element to it (which Rosemary did such an incredible job illustrating). And I liked the idea of Freddie being surrounded by all these unconscious dissenting voices that she’s always ignoring. I love chopped up crafty creatures. I had some creative amazing people in my life introduced me to that as a way to spend an evening (with pizza). Highly recommend.

The book takes a darker, more dramatic turn in the third act. How do you make the narrative solid enough that it can take this darker turn without feeling out of left field or completely throwing off the tone of the book and overwhelming the narrative?

It’s the bigger picture of the story that’s always there, the other people in Freddie’s life who are going through things too. Who need her to see them as much as she feels the need to be seen.

What is it about teenage stories and this period of life that fascinates you, and that you find such a fertile territory for storytelling?

People are always asking me why I write about teenagers. I wonder if it’s because people are trying to tell me that I should move on. I think it’s just that that specific part of life, when you are in the process of figuring things out, of putting together the pieces of who you are, is fascinating to me.

It’s a romantic story, but it’s really a story about friendship. And more than writing about teenagers, exploring friendship is the theme running through your work.

Friendship is definitely a key theme in my work. I think it’s contrast to the interior moments, these other people witnessing what’s going on with these characters.

You’re collaborating with Rosemary Valero-O’Connell on the book. What was your working relationship like, but more broadly, what was important for you in searching for an artist for this book? Because you’ve worked with a number of artists by this point, what did you think an artist needed that Valero-O’Connell’s work had?

I am SO lucky that Rosemary wanted to work on this book. When I first saw her artwork, I was so inspired. She is an incredibly sensitive, intuitive, smart collaborator. She came to Berkeley, and we drove around and I could see she was noticing all these things that are now alive on the page.

What else are you working on now? You’re always in the middle of a few different projects.

I’m wrapping up an X-23 series for Marvel. I’ve got a Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass graphic novel with Steve Pugh coming out in September. I’m working on a murder mystery novel I hope to have done this year. And a few other things.

You’re a featured guest at the Queers and Comics Conference. What this means to you? What are you looking forward to about it?

I mean, who doesn’t love queers who love comics who enjoy attending conferences? They’re the best! It’s like the university I always wanted to attend.

Why should people pick up Laura Dean? Why is this the next great teenage story that they need in their lives?

Oh I have no idea why people pick up books. Chose your own adventure. Pick it up if you’re into something beautiful and kind of intense, I guess?

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