Left in ruins, A fascination with abandoned places turns into graphic memoir for UI grad

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Kristen Radtke is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Non-fiction Writing Program. She began work on “Imagine Wanting Only This,” her new graphic memoir, while in the program. But as she reveals in this interview, the book didn’t start out as a comic. It also didn’t start out as a memoir. She discusses the ideas and influences that resulted in the finished book.

Radtke also discusses the importance of Iowa and its community of writers to her work, her interest in disaster, and her influences from the world of comics.

Q: “Imagine Wanting Only This” is much concerned with disaster and decay and your fascination with it. In the book, you suggest the origin of the fascination is your Uncle Dan and his health problems. Was the notion of disaster your intended organizing principle when you started work on the book, or did it arise organically as you crafted the memoir? What was the initial spark that started you working on the project?

A: The disaster came first and the memoir came later. I didn’t set out to write a memoir at all — I thought I was writing a collection of essays about abandoned places. Whenever anyone asked me what it was about, I’d recite: “A collection of graphic essays about a personal and cultural obsession with ruins and abandoned places.” That’s still what the book is, in some ways, but my editors encouraged me toward memoir. I was hesitant at first, but they were right — I think it’s helpful for the reader to have a visual guide (the illustrated “me” character) to lead them through these disparate places and themes. The book feels much more realized.

Q: You’re a graduate of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program, and your time in Iowa City is central to the book, but you don’t share with readers how — or if — the program shaped your writing. Are there particular ideas or memorable moments from your time in the program that strike you as particularly formative for your work? Did you work on “Imagine Wanting Only This” while in Iowa City?

A: I can’t really begin to express how formative my time in Iowa City and the Non-fiction Writing Program was to me as a writer. At least half of this book appeared in my graduate thesis in a dramatically (I can’t emphasize that enough) different form. I was mostly writing prose then, and had just begun drawing in this style during my last semester as a student. I didn’t understand what the project was yet. But I wouldn’t have been able to work and finish the book in the years after the program if it hadn’t been for the foundation I was allowed to build there. My classmates remain some of my closest friends and most trusted readers, and I feel like my Iowa community is just as strong in New York as it was in Iowa since so many of us have landed out east.

Q: You got to Iowa City in 2009, and so missed the flood of 2008 and you mention it only briefly in the book. I was struck that your story didn’t include any investigation of the ruined buildings on campus. Was that a conscious decision to hold Iowa City apart from the larger narrative of disaster and potential disaster? And if so, why was that important to you?

A: It wasn’t a conscious decision, no. The project was so much about abandoned places on the grand scale — towns, cities — rather than individual buildings. I felt like I had to identify a stopping point or I’d become overwhelmed by possibility — there are abandoned, decaying structures in every town. I know the Iowa flood did so much damage, and permanently altered so many lives, so I don’t mean to diminish it at all. To me Iowa City always just felt so whole.

Q: In the acknowledgments at the end of the book you write, “Every woman who has ever put a comic into the world has made it a little more possible for me to do so.” Tell me about your influences — female or male — in the comics world. Is there someone you think everyone should be reading?

A: This is always a hard question for me to answer, because I didn’t grow up reading comics the way so many artists did. In college and graduate school I started reading the famous graphic nonfictioners: Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman. I relied on their books so heavily, from bigger issues like structure and how to move from one scene to the next visually to really basic stuff — do I put a box around my text? Where do I put the text? How big should a drawing be? How many drawings go on a page?

Q: I’m always interested in how comics creators deal with the bookstore reading scenario. How will you approach your Prairie Lights reading?

A: I put the pages up on a projector with the text removed and read the prose aloud. This is my first book, so I’ve only done a couple of readings this way and am still getting it down. I like it when I can zoom in and pan and make the images come alive a little bit. Other than that, I will approach my Prairie Lights reading with glee, because there is no better place on earth.

Q: What are you working on now/next?

A: A collection of illustrations on urban loneliness and a graphic novel about terrible men.

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