Smash Pages Q&A: Aude White

The illustrator and cartoonist discusses her latest comic for The Believer, her day job (which she loves) and more.

Aude White may spend much of her time working in communications for New York Magazine, but the illustrator and cartoonist has a long list of credits she’s accumulated over the past few years, in addition to the work she posts on her own Instagram. From The Believer to Outside, The HotPod newsletter to The New York Times Book Review to The Cut to Vox, she’s managed to establish her own voice and style.

Her comics are especially personal works that manage to gain their poignancy by the ways that she draws connections between people and objects and places. Not by how they define us or describe us, but by the ways that we invest them with meaning, often at a cost.

White said that she fancied herself a poet in college, and though she laughed at that ambition today, the turns of phrase in her comics, the ways that she draws connections between people and places and objects, reframing and recontextualizing those relationships in different ways, show that poetic sensibility at work. In her new comic The Toothbrush Dilemma, which is in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of The Believer, on stands now, White tells the story of a relationship and a toothbrush. We spoke recently about that comic and her work.

I like to start by asking people, how did you come to comics?

I think I consider myself more of a graphic artist than a comics artist generally (if there even really is a difference), but my path to comics was a gradual merging of my two passions: writing and drawing. I was a writing major in college, and fancied myself a poet, [laughs] but writing caused me so much anxiety. I never felt like I was good enough, and I always felt stupid telling people I was a poet or taking myself seriously as a poet. When I graduated college and had to figure out what I was going to do with my life, what career I was going to pursue, and who I was going to be, I was so overwhelmed that I stopped writing altogether.

Meanwhile, drawing had always been this quiet, constant practice I completely overlooked. I never took my art seriously, because I figured the only people who were allowed to consider themselves artists were people who could draw lifelike humans, shade a ball correctly – basically anyone who excelled in high school artist. Which I did not. Somewhere around age 26, I realized that drawing had always been right in front of me – I drew when I was depressed, I drew when I was happy, I drew when I was overwhelmed. When I drew something poorly, it didn’t matter the same way it mattered when I wrote something I didn’t like. I’d just scrap it and start over again! It was sort of at that point I realized I could have my cake and eat it, too: I didn’t have to choose between writing and drawing, I could just do both of them at the same time! Writing feels so much more natural to me in the context of drawing. Drawing protects my writing from all the self-loathing I feel when I write. 

So how do you describe The Toothbrush Dilemma?

The Toothbrush Dilemma is something that’s been marinating in my head for a long time. I’d say it’s a comic about the way objects are unwitting bystanders in the swirl of human emotion. We give objects all this meaning they don’t have, because we so desperately need to be able to make sense of the world around us. 

Now had you pitched the comic to The Believer, or how did it happen?

I pitched Kristen Radtke, who is The Believer‘s art director and publisher, and a true dream editor!

As you were talking about how you often felt about art and never felt that you could call yourself an artist, I thought of the other comic you made for The Believer last year, Notes On a Relationship.

Drawing table tops is one of my great passions. I saw Notes On a Relationship as a personal challenge: could I tell a story about people without actually drawing any people? Whether or not I succeeded is up to you.

What was the process like of working with editors and how does it compare with the comics you’ve made for The Cut or Outside or elsewhere over the years? 

I have been so lucky to work with fantastic editors at every outlet I’ve drawn for. Comics are no different from stories in that they’re a collaboration. Whether you’re writing or drawing, you need a good editor to tell you what to cut, what to expand on, what holes to fill, what makes sense and what doesn’t. 

I know that you do a lot of illustration work, do you I don’t want to say “enjoy” but do you find that editorial back and forth valuable?

Yes, of course! I think it’s very hard to do good work if you’re not open to feedback. 

Editors are SO important in nearly every medium. I can’t thank the editors I’ve worked with enough for their feedback, insight, and dedication to helping me find my voice. I’m not going to bore everyone by going into the mundane details of receiving edits, but editors are the silent heroes behind great works. Every book you read, every published piece of writing, is, in some form, a collaboration between a writer and an editor. 

You also more recently did a fabulous piece for Outside about running, which I really loved. Can you say a little about it?

The idea for that comic was born out of a Twitter exchange I had with Outside’s wonderful Molly Mirhashem (who is a runner herself). I’m not a runner, but my little sister Anne-Laure White has been a prolific runner since she was in high school, and this exchange with Molly planted a seed in my brain. Being a biker, I often find myself in these weird races with men I didn’t sign up for, so I saw this comic as an opportunity to talk about a specific type of gender dynamic I think a lot of people experience. I was thrilled to be able to work with Anne-Laure on this, who is a really thoughtful runner, and has a really interesting perspective on what running means to her, and how it helps her relate to other people. 

So many of the comics I’ve seen of yours tend to be very personal stories. I still remember the piece from The Cut about quitting smoking and loneliness. You draw a lot and make a lot of work, but you seem to only make these longer comics about very personal topics. Why is that?

I see my personal experiences as a way of accessing larger ideas. I plumb my own experiences to try and find some kernel of truth that will resonate with others as well. I don’t think any of my feelings or experiences are special or unique–if I feel something, someone else has probably felt it too, and the many ways in which our inner lives dictate our decisions is something that’s fascinating to me. 

As far as that very personal aspect, you wrote a piece a while back about graphic novels that make you cry, and you admitted that movies and books rarely make you cry, but comics do. What is it about comics that so clearly affects you and you find so affecting?

I think comics can be affecting in the same way movies can be: the right combination of words and images can pack a lot of power!

I mentioned before over e-mail that one of the reasons I know your name is because you show up in my inbox each week because you draw for the HotPod newsletter. I think a lot of the work I’ve seen of yours over the years has been illustrations or single panel comics. As you’ve been doing them for years now, I’m curious how has your process changed and how has the way you approach the work changed?

Oh my god so much has changed – in that sense I think doing is the best way of learning. When I look back at some of my earlier comics, I am absolutely horrified: a lot of them are badly digitized and poorly drawn! I’m much better at digitizing my drawings now – sometimes I use Photoshop, and other times I just draw things directly onto an iPad – and I think I’ve gotten better at marrying words and drawings than I was when I first started putting my stuff online. I mean honestly, I think a lot of it just comes down to practice: if you like writing, write a lot! If you like drawing, draw as much as you can! The more you do it, the better you get at it. 

What exactly is your day job and how does it intersect with all this? Or does it intersect with all this?

“Day job” feels kind of like an unfair categorization, because I actually love my job! I do communications for New York Magazine (which is now part of the Vox Media network). I feel like there’s this weird misconception that you can’t be an artist and still have a satisfying non-art career, like you have to choose–or, if you somehow do have both, there’s no way you could possibly like your day job. I find my career in communications and my career as an artist satisfying for really different reasons, and I feel blessed to work for a company that encourages and supports my creative passions outside of work. 

In terms of how it intersects – it doesn’t intersect all that much, but there are two key ways in which it does: 1. I spend all day pitching our writers’ stories out to TV and radio producers, and pushing our stories out across the web. When you spend all day writing pitches, pitching your own stuff gets – well, really easy. I basically get paid to write good emails, so that’s obviously a crucial skill to have if you want to pitch story ideas to editors. 2. I occasionally make comics for New York Magazine. The first comic I ever published was for The Cut, and I did something for the print magazine just last year. 

So what are you working on now or next? What do you want to do next?

I’m going to be honest on this one: I am actually a little dry on ideas right now! But being dry isn’t scary for me the way it used to be. I think dry spells are really important, because they give you the freedom to read other people’s work, to listen to what others have to say, to what’s going on in the world around you. I am actually quite looking forward to a period of quiet where I do my weekly Hot Pod illustrations, read a lot of books and a lot of comics, and think long and hard about what stories I’d like to tell next!

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