Smash Pages Q&A: Sophie Yanow on ‘The Contradictions’

The creator of ‘War of Streets and Houses’ and ‘What is a Glacier?’ talks about her latest book, her process and more.

Sophie Yanow made a splash with War of Streets and Houses and in the years since has continued to make comics for outlets like The Nib, where she covered the Standing Rock protests and the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.

Her new book The Contradictions is her longest work to date. It’s a more personal story, this time detailing Yanow’s time in college in France, a road trip with another student that explores politics, relationships and being young in moving and powerful ways.

When Yanow and I spoke in 2017 after the release of her collection What is a Glacier?, she mentioned working on a longer book and trying to dedicate herself to the project, and we had the chance to talk over email about developing a new process to make the book, the rhythm of her artwork, and finding the right way to dramatize one’s youth.

Fair or not, this felt like a book and idea that have been on your mind for a while. Is that the case? 

Yes, I’ve been thinking about this book in some form or another since I was a college student and studied abroad. Although when I was first concocting it, I think the takeaway or thesis was pretty different. It evolved in many different ways over the years.

I keep thinking of it in some ways as the prequel and sequel to What is a Glacier? Because it’s the story of how you came to that point, but narratively and artistically, it’s you making something more complex. How do you think of the two books as connected?

I had worked through some kind of draft of it before I started What is a Glacier? but I do think more ideas about it crystallized as I was working on that book. I think they deal with some similar themes, there are scenes in Glacier where I’m wrestling with ideas about being “good” in a similar way that the Sophie character in The Contradictions wrestles. But I’m not sure how one defines a prequel or a sequel. I do think this book has a relationship with both that book and War of Streets and Houses.

From the start of your career, you’ve tried to find a way to make comics about ideas. Can you talk about finding ways in comics to dramatize and document ideas and the process of synthesizing new information?

That’s an interesting observation, and I do think my most successful work happens when I’m trying to share some kind of synthesis of ideas through a dramatization or story. I’ve done explainer pieces about ideas and I often don’t feel very happy with them afterwards. They might be helpful when I’m learning about a concept but I don’t think that information from explainers really stick with readers (at least, they often don’t stick with me). Even when I’m trying to learn something new, I do it best when I hear a story about someone doing the thing and try to emulate that. Dramatization has that stickiness! But often the ideas come from my lived experience, and I want to ground them in that. And it makes it easy to share them as a story!

When we spoke a few years back, you mentioned this longer piece you were working on which you described as “an origin story about becoming politicized.” Is that how you’ve always thought of the book?

I think that’s how I thought about this book for a period of time, but at a certain point I began to reconsider. Now I think it’s only superficially about that.

In the acknowledgements you mentioned Jason Lutes, who pushed you to “stop rewriting and go for it.” Were you writing and scripting this for a long time? What was that initial struggle as far as the writing?

This was my first truly long-form piece. War of Streets and Houses was under 60 pages. My earliest drafts of what would become this project took place while I was still a college student. Around 2013 I began work on the drafts that more closely resemble what ended up as the final story, and I studied with Jason in 2015/2016. I became a student at CCS partly because I wanted help breaking through with my existing draft.

To what degree is that similar to how you’ve worked on other comics? Do you typically spend a lot of time writing and that initial stage?

This is quite dissimilar to almost all of my other published work. In a lot of ways I think it’s a holdover from my earliest desires when it came to making comics. It’s more patterned after what I thought I wanted to make than what I discovered I enjoyed making, which has tended to be more spontaneous. But I guess that has more to do with the final drawing style than the writing. The writing process was fairly similar, although much longer. I tend to sketch lots of pages (which is what my writing process usually looks like) and then cut back from there, adding scenes here or there. That is what I did with the writing here too.

I think of your work as so defined by the rhythm of the art and the language, and so I imagine you a little like a poet trying to work out the rhythm and feel. Do you read or write poetry? Can you tell me about some of your inspirations? 

I do think a lot about rhythm. I appreciate that observation. I do read some poetry, though I’d like to make time to read more. I enjoy the poetry of Eileen Myles and Roberto Bolano. I also like a lot of songwriters who write great poetry like Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell.

The Contradictions is a book about ideas and politics, but it’s also a book about youth and being young and the emotional truth of that. What was the struggle as far as trying to capture what that meant without being sentimental or too harsh and judgmental?

It was a struggle in some ways to balance those things, and I’m not sure I pulled it off. Sometimes I worry that the book does a disservice to serious conversations about the left, because it doesn’t portray the breadth of anarchist or communist thought, rather, it shows the interpretations of a handful of twenty year olds. I hope that people recognize that. As for the sentimentality and the judgement, I think it’s really good that I took so long on this book, because the more time passed, the more distance I had, and the less judgemental I was about my younger self. And also less sentimental, definitely. When I was young and thought about writing about some of my escapades, it was really sentimental, I wanted to write about and glorify young women hitchhiking. But I was also in pain about certain things, and I would have glossed that over, out of shame. I think I was finally able to put the drafts to bed when I could laugh at my young self while also feeling nostalgic and empathetic.

Did this book require a new process and a different way to work for you?

It was my first time working on something without narration, which is also part of what led to it becoming a work of autofiction. And because the drawings took a lot more time than most of my previous work, I had to come up with ways of staying at the drawing table for longer. I managed to do this by having virtual studio mates. We would work alongside each other on video calls, with the sound turned off. It was a huge help.

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