‘My Model for Writing Fiction Is to Replicate the Feeling of a Dream’

An interview with graphic novelist Daniel Clowes about his new book, ‘Patience,’ and several decades of comics craft.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2016 | 20 minutes (5,074 words)


In 1989, Daniel Clowes started a comic-book series called Eightball. Instead of lauded superheroes following traditional plotlines, his comics often featured oddballs, meandering or dreamlike sequences, and an acerbic wit. At the time, it felt like he was writing into the abyss.

Since then, Clowes has become one of the most famous cartoonists in the world. Eightball was the original home to what became the standalone graphic novels The Death-Ray, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and Ghost World, among others. Ghost World was adapted into a feature film in 2001 (Clowes collaborated on the screenplay); his graphic novel Wilson will have the same fate. Eightball itself was republished in a slipcase edition last year. This is a wildly abridged history, and I haven’t even mentioned the awards.

Clowes’s new work is his most ambitious to date: the graphic novel Patience, a huge gorgeous slab of a book with drawings so sumptuous and vibrant I wanted to plaster them all over my walls. The book opens on Jack and his wife Patience learning they’re going to have a kid, shortly after which a wrenching turn sends Jack on a tumultuous trip back and forth in time. We spoke by phone about Patience, dreams, teen-speak, and when Clowes gets his best ideas: when he’s really bored.

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You didn’t show Patience to anybody while you were working on it, or really discuss it at all. I have heard you talk about your sensitivity to criticism while you’re working on something, so I wondered if that was the reason?

[Laughs] That’s a good way to begin. “You’re kind of a crybaby.”

Now, let’s see, where does that come from? That’s a very real thing. When my wife and I first were living together, she would sometimes look at a panel and say something like, “Oh, I thought that was the guy’s leg in the background, but it’s actually a building”—something really innocuous like that. But immediately, my entire perception would be shifted. I found it was really debilitating. So I found it was better to avoid that altogether and try to do it in my own little hermetic room. It’s not like people don’t see the artwork, but they sort of know better than to say anything. And they don’t read it. I don’t let anybody sit down and read it out of context. After I’m all done, and I feel like this is it, I do let people read it. They may have comments, and I have changed a few things at that point. But that’s not in the middle of the process. If I’m halfway through, I have to really just trust my own instincts.

Is there a way in which explaining a complicated idea for a story makes it sound—


—dumb? [Laughter]

That’s a big part of it. For years, people would say, “What are you working on?” “Oh, I’m working on this kind of longer book.” And then they would say, “Well, what it’s about?” And I would try to think, how could I say it without making it sound so ridiculous that I would just go home and throw it in the garbage? [Laughter]

There’s also something about saying the names of your own characters that is really embarrassing, I’ve found. I was talking to another cartoonist about this and we realized we never say the names of our characters unless we have to. You just say, “the guy in the story.” There’s something deeply embarrassing about thinking, I just made up this character and now we’re talking about him.

It reminds me of how it feels a little obnoxious when an actor refers to the character they’ve played in the third person, as if it’s a real person.

[Laughs] Right! I think it is like that. It does seem really immodest somehow, and like you should sort of keep to yourself that you’ve made up these characters.

So what was the very first bit of Patience that came to you—an image, the character, a line of dialogue?

It was a character and a title, which was not Patience, that I came up with probably in about 1994. I wanted to do a short story about a guy from the future who looked pretty much like this character does when he’s older—kind of a white-haired, sunburned James Coburn/Lee Marvin-type guy who in comes from the future and then wreaks destruction on the present. That was all I had. I think I had a dream about something like that. The guy’s sort of an archetypal version of my dad when I was a kid. My dad had white hair and a crew cut and kind of a tough-guy persona.

So I wanted to do something that was short and poetic and had this futuristic imagery to it. But I could never quite make it work. I did drawings of the character and had it in mind for years and years, and nothing ever came of it. And then I started to think, “What if I did that story, but really gave it a lot of room and made it something big?” And that’s when it all started to come into place.

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Is it strange for your own face to have grown closer to the character’s older face in the intervening years?

Well, I’m guessing that’s a big part of it. At the time, he was very much an other: a figure of mockery, an old, kind of out-of-it guy. And then, all of a sudden, I became the old, out-of-it guy. Much of the story is about the older character in unspoken dialogue with the younger version of himself, and kind of evaluating that character, and what circumstances would lead this guy to become very different as he gets older.

You’ve also had a son since the first iteration of the idea, and he’s grown up in the process of writing. Your son is how old now?

He’s 11.

So he’s gone from 6 to 11 as you’re writing it. Pregnancy, and having a child, is one of the fulcrums around which this whole book turns. So how did his growth during this pivotal period of his life affect your thinking about the story, if it did?

Well, certainly, just having a son had a huge effect on the story. The notion that you would go to the ends of the earth to save your child, or you would risk everything for your child, is something I never quite believed before I had a kid. You always want to think, I would put my life on the line for my loved ones. And then you think, Man, I bet I would really chicken out at the last minute and be like, “Uh, uh, okay, I can’t take the barrage of bullets.” I always wondered, would I really step in front of the sniper to save my mom, or whatever? I was always quite dubious about whether that would happen.

But once I had my son, I realized that, without hesitation, I would fight armed bandits or whatever to the last breath to protect him. It’s just something you know you would do. There was not even a thought in my mind that I wouldn’t go through with that. That makes you feel very differently both about yourself and about people’s relationships in that way.

It’s also interesting to see a noble application of a superpower maybe for the first time in one of your works. Although, do you think that’s a noble application of a superpower, saving your own kin?

I don’t know that it is in the scheme of a larger society. But it feels like a biological imperative, and it doesn’t feel like something that you should argue your way out of. It feels like something that just is.

Patience struck me as more traditionally plotted than other works of yours I’ve read.

I knew, going in, that I had to really figure out the plot and get every little aspect to work or it would be dissatisfying. I wanted it to work on many levels, but I wanted it to absolutely work on the primary level of being an enjoyable story where the plot goes in a certain direction and everything comes together. That’s not something that’s really easy for me. I feel like I get how to do it, but to make my kind of stories work with a plot that actually works out is—it required a lot of back-and-forth during the process.

That was the beauty of the thing taking as long as it did, because I wound up completely changing it from about page twenty on. Everything after that has been rethought and honed and moved around and rejiggered as I was working on it, as I was drawing it. That’s one of the good things about comics: there are certain parts where you’re drawing, you’re inking, you’re doing your lettering or whatever, and your brain is open in a way that you can solve those problems.

It’s almost like dreaming. Or, I remember I used to get my best work done when I was sitting in a class, really bored, not able to listen to what the teacher said, and my mind would be wandering into other things. That was always when I came up with my best ideas. So it’s kind of like that.

When you were drawing or doodling in class, what form would those drawings take?

Mostly naked drawings of my teacher. [Laughter] No. I would just think of stupid ideas for superheroes and dumb comics I was going to draw when I got home. I would mostly do science fiction-y, Star Wars-like comics, or Mad magazine parodies—things like that. But they felt like they had a real depth to me at the time, at fourteen or fifteen years old.

What would they look like on the page?

It would be little drawings of a character, a little note that would say, “a guy has superpower to blow himself up,” or whatever [laughter] — handy notes for when I got home to my latchkey existence.

Is that what it’s like now, still?

Kind of, yeah. [Laughter] I’ve actually thought of taking a really boring class at a community college or something, like accounting, just to have that space where I’d be able to think in that way. I always take my sketchpad if I have to go to a meeting at my son’s school where it’s just an endless amount of parents talking about the lacrosse team, and I often come up with something at those times. It’s much easier, somehow, than sitting home alone with a perfect environment.

Ghost World is often noted for its perfect encapsulation of teen-speak, which appears in Patience, too. There’s a panel in which Krista, Patience’s sister, is babbling about all these friends of hers—“T.T.’s being a total butt-plug,” and on and on—and Patience says, “I don’t even know or care who or what the fuck you’re talking about.” How do you write such excellent adolescent dialogue? Do you ever take notes on what you overhear, or does it just come to you as you’re writing it?

I have a good memory for stuff like that. In that case, I was literally remembering a girlfriend I had in college who had a younger sister. I was at her house once, and the sister was just babbling about all these kids from school to the dad. And the dad just said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” [Laughter] I remember thinking that was quite amusing. So I almost verbatim remembered what the teenage sister said at the time. I was equally a blatherer when I was her age, but to be a few years older than her and look back on it, I remember being kind of struck by what a weird hormonal outburst it was.

It’s something I never really noticed in teenagers before I read that one panel. And then I thought, “Why do teenagers do this?” And I wondered if it was just because as a teenager you’re so self-absorbed—necessarily so—that it just seems obvious to you that everyone would know everything that’s going on in your world.

Yeah, just that your problems are so, so vital that of course the world is waiting for their resolution. My son, at eleven, is already a little bit like that: He’ll talk about really obscure stuff that’s happening on a video game that he’s playing or something, as though we’re sort of doing our own research while he’s at school every day, trying to understand the arcane rules of Minecraft.

It also assumes that you share a mind with other people.

Yeah, it does have that. And I like it. I enjoy that kind of insider talk from an eleven-year-old. It’s charming.

In the opening pages of the book, when Patience discovers she’s pregnant, you show her and Jack in silhouette. How did you choose to draw it that way, as opposed to showing their facial features?

I wanted it to feel like an overture, to feel sort of separate from the rest of the book, and to start in a place that was not so literal yet. It’s almost like you’re seeing them through the eyes of the fertilized egg. It’s from a weird vantage, and I thought that seemed like a right choice. But again, it’s all very intuitive. I didn’t sit out and figure that out. It just felt right, and part of the process of going by what feels right is you have to then make sure it actually works once you’re in the flow of the story.

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I wonder how you feel about doing press like this, and if there is a weird aspect in which some of it is so intuitive and then you have to parse out where it came from.

I feel like it’s incredibly difficult to do this, because I really don’t want to explain anything. I think that’s harmful to the book and to the reader’s experience. And so I feel like I have to dance around a lot of things that I could talk about at length just because I think it’s detrimental to the book.

I also just think it’s weird to talk about fiction somehow. A few years ago I did some interviews for a monograph that was just about my career. That was so easy to talk about, because it was I was talking about things I had done early in my career, the way the comic business was, things that were factual. But to talk about fictional characters is such an odd thing to do.

Early on, in interviews, I used explain myself or why I did something. I’ve learned not to do that, because it’s often not even true. It’s much more complicated than an answer you could give. And certainly, any work that can be described cleanly like that, I think, was probably not worth doing in the first place.

You said describing or explaining fiction is particularly uncomfortable or hard. I wonder if there’s a way in which it’s more direct access to the unconscious, so that then explaining it is like being asked to publicly psychoanalyze yourself in a weird way.

Yes, and it feels like it’s not my job. I feel like I did my job, and now it’s someone else’s job to take it apart and make of it what they will. My model for writing fiction is to replicate the feeling of a dream in some way—I want it to have the emotional intensity you feel in a dream. And dreams, at least my dreams, are always really dramatic. Sometimes I wake up really haunted by them all day. And they have this emotional purity. I want the stories to kind of aspire to that. But I don’t want to analyze my own dreams, really.

Do you find that you mostly remember what your dreams are?

No, no, I wish. Actually, I don’t wish [laughs] because they’re often horrible—I had a dream the other night where somebody was trying to attack me with a power drill. So I don’t want to relive that one. But the ones I do remember I try to write down in real detail. And they often come back into play. I remember them for years sometimes.

Do you have a special dream notebook or something?

No, I have a random sketchbook that I just put everything in. That would be a good idea, though. About 18 years ago, The New Yorker started sending me their desk diary, and I decided I was going to write down what I do every single day. Just a little brief thing, mainly of what I was working on, if I saw a movie or whatever. I’m still doing it, 18 years later, and it’s such an annoying chore. I hate doing it so much. [Laughter] But I sort of feel like I can’t stop now.

That’s a long time, 18 years!

I know. And I’ve literally never reopened one. It’s just all there.

So what’s compelling you to continue?

I feel like someday I’ll be glad I did it. I feel like as my memory goes when I get older, it’ll be helpful to look up and go, “Oh, yeah, that was the day I was mad at the neighbor.” It’ll be interesting, I hope. If not, it was a huge waste of time.

It’s also reminding me—you’ve said that 10 years is the amount of time it takes before you stop cringing at your old work and can see it from a distance. So maybe, when you read your diary as an old man, it’ll be like eavesdropping on a totally different person.

Yeah, I don’t know. I have this vision of myself retired with nothing to do. [Laughter] But I feel like if I read through the diary now, I would see the mind-numbing repetitiveness of my life and I would start skydiving or something. I have this vision that one day I’ll organize all my artwork and do all this stuff. I imagine puttering around like my dad puttered around in the garden when he was 75. But a certain part of me prays that I never am like that.

To go back to that 10 years thing, Richard Brody, a film critic for The New Yorker, recently tweeted, “If you think that someone’s first or second film in a long career is their best, you don’t really like their work. Artists grow.” I just wanted to throw that quote at you and see what you thought.

That’s a very lovely quote to come from a critic, because they’re usually the ones who say that the first film is the best. Certainly with a lot of rock bands, everybody says, “Their first album was their best, because they spent their whole lifetime making that one, and then they spent six months making all the rest of them.” I think in comics, especially, it’s so difficult to have even the basic skills early on that chances are your first book is not going to be your best. I certainly feel like I’m a much more complicated person at my age, and that I have much greater command over what I want to do and a larger sense of purpose.

I always feel like what I’m doing is the best thing. But I feel like everything I’ve done is so different from each other that each of them has its own group of fans that almost don’t even interact with each other. Very few people like everything I’ve done. And I’m fine with that.

Was there something more relaxing about being unknown?

No, it was very tense and filled with anger and resentment. It was not fun. Because it felt hopeless. Nowadays, you could do work and put it on Tumblr and have followers and feel like you’re not alone in the world. But man, back then, you could do a comic and have it printed and it would be in the stores and you would just hear nothing. It felt really dispiriting and hopeless. Which was sort of good, creatively, in some ways. But it certainly wasn’t relaxing.

I wanted to talk about perfectionism versus the value of making mistakes or not quite hitting it. In an interview with Tavi Gevinson for Rookie, you talked about how you used to have to listen to an entire album and you’d maybe love a couple songs, whereas now you can just get the ten greatest hits and don’t experience the rest.

You don’t earn the love of those songs, somehow.

Right. But I was considering that alongside something else you said, that you regret the times you rushed to get things out by a deadline and cut corners. So my question is, more broadly, about the value of imperfection versus a drive toward perfectionism and control.

I’m all for imperfection if it comes out of your best effort and it just comes out imperfect. But the times I’m thinking of in Eightball that I really regret were the times where I knew that I should be redrawing a face or rewriting a word balloon, but I let some outside authority—in that case, my publisher—tell me to turn it in and not worry about that. Any time I haven’t trusted or acted on my own instincts, I’ve regretted it.

But if I did what I could and it’s just imperfect, which is especially the case with the early stuff, I’m okay with that. There is a certain beauty to it that I see. Looking back at some of my early comics, I can feel the tenseness in my drawing. I was so desperate to get a certain look and just not able to do it. And so there’s this tension there between the goal and the actual result that has a poignancy to it, I think.

Right before Wilson, you plotted out and spent maybe half a year working on a story that you said was really boring to you. And you decided to just throw it away, to put it into a drawer and never return to it. What about it was so boring?

Well, I wanted to do this big story about Hollywood and living in Los Angeles, and I felt like I had a really strong outsider’s take on the city. I had lived there a few times and had sort of an entree into the film world, but I was always very much an outsider in that world, so I felt like I had a lot to say.

But as I was drawing it, I realized this is a book where I have to actually draw a specific place. I have to draw L.A. and get it exactly right, or the book isn’t going to work. And I realized there’s a very strong reason why I don’t live in L.A., which is I really hate it. I have no connection to it and I find it deeply alienating and it’s not at all a place I want to be. And I thought, “Do I really want to spend 10 hours a day living in L.A. even more extremely than I would if I actually lived there?” I think the book would have been really strong, but I just couldn’t do it.

Random question, but when you’re talking to someone, do you ever superimpose your own comic representation of them onto their actual human face?

Photo: Caroline Smith

Clowes. Photo: Caroline Smith

No, I don’t. [Laughter] Because when I’m drawing the comics, I’m not really thinking, “I’m translating this to comic form.” I’m trying to draw the way they actually look to me. I’m trying to draw the way I see reality. It’s certainly simplified a bit and altered, obviously, but I’m not thinking, “This is the cartoon version of that.” I’m just thinking, “This is that thing.”

If I do have to draw likenesses, the best way for me to do it is to study what they look like. If I can see them in person, it’s the best, but if not, if I get a good couple of photos and I just look at them and think about them. Then, I draw it without looking at them. That comes out a million times better than if I study the photo. Once you start studying somebody’s photo, they become a totally different person. All of a sudden they look nothing like themselves and you get lost in this weird vortex. I was drawing Bill Murray once, and all of a sudden he started to look like Hugh Hefner, to the point that I was like, “I could just sell this as an illustration of Hugh Hefner.” It’s a very weird process.

Is that because you get lost in the details of the face?

Yeah, and you start to notice that the components that make up a recognizable face are odd components. A memorable face is not a sum of these parts, it really is its own holistic thing. That’s why those programs that they use for police sketches always look weird, where it’s just like, “Plug in nose thirty-seven and eyes twenty-two.” And then it’s always like, “No, that doesn’t look like any human I’ve ever seen.” Except for the Unabomber. To me, that was one of the greatest punch lines in news history. They had that photo of the Unabomber with the hood and the beard and everything for years and years. And then he actually looked like that. The easiest way to not look like your photo: shave your beard and don’t wear a hood. But he had to do it. I remember the day they showed his capture on the news and I couldn’t stop laughing.

It seems to me that artists are preternaturally drawn to whatever their medium is. There’s this way in which, when you see a really good example of the thing that you want to make, you think, “I want to make that,” as opposed to really appreciating other kinds of art, but not feeling that need to replicate it.

I completely agree with you.

So what’s that about, and why, out of everything, was that comics for you?

It’s a good question. As a young kid, I had an older brother who left me his stack of comics from the ’50s and ’60s in the room I inherited from him when he went off to be a hippie. That was all I really had for entertainment. I remember asking my brother, “What kind of machine did they use to draw these?” And he was like, “No, it’s a guy drawing.” And I was like, “How could it be, how could you make those lines, what kind of pen could you use?” I got obsessed with the idea that that is something that could be done. It was just such a formidable task to me that I wanted to make my own from a very, very young age.

Even now, when I’m working, my goal isn’t as much to create the story. That’s not what I’m envisioning, the sort of ethereal story that exists in the reader’s mind. I’m trying to create the object, and I have to have the object in mind from early on. Then, I’m working on the goal of that object existing. In this case, it was this big, thick book that had a certain feel and look and heft.

In a way, it’s almost like making a sculpture—a very odd sculpture with a bunch of pages to it. But I’m really picturing this 3D thing. That’s why, when people want to read this stuff online or want me to do it as a download, it doesn’t hold any interest for me. That doesn’t feel like the right way to read it, because that’s not what I was envisioning at all.

When you were younger and starting to try to do this yourself, was there any drawing tool that you discovered that was revelatory for you?

Well, that was part of the quest. Early on, I was convinced that the reason these guys could make these beautiful smooth lines was that they had this special pen. And so I would go every week down to the art store—Flax was a big art store in Chicago—and try a new pen. Finally, one day, I found out there was this photo-retouching pen that had really dark black ink that would mark shiny surfaces and had this really cool point. I thought, “This is it, this must be the pen.” I spent a lot of money, like eight bucks or something, and came home all excited. I tried it and I was like, “God damn it, it’s not the pen.” I was so frustrated.

When I was about fifteen, there was a book that came out called How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. And that was the first time I learned that the way these guys make those lines is with a watercolor brush. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more crushed than that day. [Laughter] Like, “That’s going to be hard, that’s going to be just impossible.” I went out and bought a watercolor brush and, yeah, it looked horrendous when I first started; it was just a blob. I was so bummed out that there wasn’t some secret tool. But, you know, you work at it for fifteen years and you start to get okay at it.

I’m struck by the number of your characters who are these men, wandering around, who are taken on journeys. Even Jack, in Patience, has a lot of power and control—and yet, he’s being thrust around to decades that he didn’t intend. So is that how you feel?

I think that’s the way life feels to me. You sort of blunder through day by day as best you can. And then you look back on it and it’s this odd, kind of random adventure that you’ve been on.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

All illustrations courtesy Daniel Clowes.