Smash Pages Q&A: Erin Williams

The creator of ‘Commute’ discusses her latest project for “The Believer,” her nontraditional approach to page design, the long-lasting effects of trauma and more.

In the February/March issue of The Believer magazine, Erin Williams has a new short comic “Dust and Doubt” which builds on the ideas and concerns of her acclaimed debut book Commute. One of the best books published last year, Commute was a look at Williams’ day but also at her life, at the male gaze, at taking up space in the world, about alcoholism and trauma, and how we dissociate in order to survive. It’s about what it means to live in a culture that tries to monetize this trauma, promising a “cure” for the trauma the society causes.

Reading Williams’ work, one sees echoes of other creators who have used the medium in nontraditional ways to try to convey these physical  understandings of how being in our bodies, the complicated interactions of mental and physical pain of the aftermath of trauma and finding not just new ways to consider this but depict and convey that experience. In both this short comic and her book, it’s clear that Williams doesn’t think in terms of a comics page or that formatted structure of paneled designs, instead using the openness of the page to explore how the words and the images can interact. We spoke recently over email about her work.

Erin, as a a first question I always ask people, “How did you come to comics?”

Completely by accident. I wrote Commute on my phone on my actual commute from Westchester to Manhattan, based on experiences (or memories of them) that I was having in real time. I never thought anyone would want to read it. I thought I’d go to Kinkos and print 20 copies and staple it together and hand it out to a couple of friends. The first iterations had some grainy iPhone photos, but no drawings. When I showed it to my writer friend Emily Gould, she suggested I turn it into a graphic memoir. I’d never read one. I started with [Alison] Bechdel and went from there. I fell in love with them.

Did you pitch this idea to The Believer or did they approach you?

Kristen Radtke at The Believer read Commute and ended up writing about it in The Guardian. I had a major fangirl moment with that one. I’d read her book, Imagine Wanting Only This, and it’s a study in how to make beautiful comics about loss. She reached out about doing something for The Believer and of course, I said yes. 

Where did Dust and Doubt begin?

I was doing research for a book I’m working on about pain, chronic illness and trauma. I came across a really brilliant article by philosopher Peg O’Connor about Cartesian dualism in the abused body. I wanted to make something to show how those abstract ideas play out. Feeling like two distinct pieces, body and brain, is hard to describe with words alone. Comics are great for that.

Commute was really a brilliant work and Dust and Doubt felt very much in a similar vein – an Erin Williams approach? – and part of that centers around the ways you depict dissociation and what it means.

Thank you for saying that about Commute. And yeah, I’m interested in how trauma, pain and shame manifest in the body, how they tunnel through us and create new places and pathways.

I think about Dust and Doubt as almost a sequel to Commute. They both address in different ways that dissociation isn’t an accident. I still remember this line from Commute, “l learned that you can dissociate in order to survive.”

I think Dust and Doubt better explains a feeling I was trying to convey in Commute about what it feels like to live in a disconnected body. There are a lot of #metoo dialogues happening out there about sexual assault but fewer about the effects of trauma years later. I’m interested in the long-term effects. That’s some of what I’m exploring in the book I’m working on now. There’s a proven link between girls who’ve been sexually abused and women who have chronic pain and illness, years or decades later. Trauma is as much physical as it is mental and emotional. We carry it around for a really long time.

I also just think about the way that women are always seen to take up too much space, and are never “right” somehow – always either too fat or too thin, too loud, men want a “natural” look but they don’t want to see women without makeup, and I feel like I could keep listing things along these lines.

Yeah. There isn’t any right way to be a woman – particularly a woman of color. We live in a white supremacist, ageist, homophobic, ableist culture. Women are fundamentally broken, born wrong. This feeds nicely into capitalism! There’s always something we can buy to improve ourselves. We spend our whole lives trying to get enough money and enough power to fix ourselves whole. It’s an expensive, life-long pursuit. It costs us everything. But wholeness is an illusion. There’s no solid gold dildo or culturally appropriated herbal spray or customized vitamin pack that can transform a woman into something other than what she is. We just become better products in the eyes of those who do the shopping.

To what degree does making this work, in creating an object outside of yourself, help to dissociate from some of these experiences and give some distance on it?

That’s a great question. I thought it would be cathartic to make this book, but it ended up retraumatizing me. I had to relive many of my worst moments and turn them around in head and figure out how to draw and narrate them. It was a slow, painful process.

I think I’ve let go of the mental and emotional shame, but the shame that lives in my body is still hiding out, making trouble. I’m trying to acknowledge it and just let it live there, maybe turn the lights on and see it a little better. Meditation helps. 

How has your work, or the way you work, changed since finishing Commute?

My technical process is basically the same, but I’m doing a lot more research and interviews. I’m trying to figure out how to tell stories besides my own. I’ve worked in healthcare and clinical research for a long time, and I’m writing more about medicine now. The disparities between how men and women are treated for “subjective” medical problems like pain are alarming. It’s exponentially worse for women of color and transgender people. To whatever extent I have a platform, I want to use it to talk about that. 

One reason I ask about how you work is simply that you don’t make comics that look like a lot of people’s, and I’m curious how you think about and work out how you want these pages and these images to look and feel

I think that’s because when I started making comics, I didn’t know anything about them. I’ve read a lot of comics since then, and a lot more about them (hi, Hillary Chute!), but I still don’t know how to make classic comics. I don’t understand gutters and panels. I write a really lean story in a document, and then I just start drawing it. Something about illustrating makes the language come alive for me, and I edit as I go. I don’t know how else to do it. I’m not a particularly good artist or writer, but I’m good at feelings. 

In both your book and this comic, they’re very carefully crafted narratives and there is an arc, but I don’t feel like there is a conclusion. They’re stories about concerns that don’t have conclusions. Which can be hard to write.

The conclusions are writing themselves in real-time. There was no other honest way for me to finish Commute. After the trauma I experienced, and my particular sensitivity to it, I’m not “normal.” I still don’t feel safe in my own body. Therapy helps. I’m still working through it.

Sexual trauma is not just being raped and having your day in court and justice being served and moving on. Trauma lives in the body. It stays. I don’t know how to get it to leave. 

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