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23 October 2009, 1:00 pm 11 Comments

David Small: The New Gay Interview

TNG contributor Paul Morton brings us an interview with David Small, whose latest work, Stitches, was recently nominated for a National Book Award.

david_small_largeDavid Small, a children’s book writer and illustrator, has at 64 written a graphic memoir of his own traumatic childhood in the Detroit suburbs of the 1950s. Drawn in evocative blacks, whites, and many shades of gray, and narrated in a grim, stripped-to-the-bone prose, Stitches recounts Small’s life as the son of a mentally ill closeted lesbian and a detached doctor. One day, his parents’ friends discover a growth on his neck. After an operation, Small loses his voice, forcing his life in his household that much more lonely and desperate. By the end of the book’s 300-some pages, a few major secrets are revealed, but there remains an underlying, unexplained menace.

Small lives in southwestern rural Michigan where Kalamazoo is the closest town, with his wife Sarah Stewart, with whom he has collaborated on several children’s books. He spoke to me by phone on October 7 – he can talk now – from Denver, Colorado where he was on a book tour. Our hour-long conversation, a little over half of which is reproduced below, filled in many of the book’s ambiguities. For those who have read Stitches, this interview will either offer vague comfort or a still disturbingly incomplete resolution.

Paul Morton: Memoirs are mostly about what you leave out. Life is long and art is short. The art of the memoir is mostly about looking back, figuring out which are the important parts, and figuring out what narrative you want to make of the life you have lived. When I got to the photographs of you, your mother and your father on the last page, I was curious to know if there were no photographs or memories of you, your mother or your father ever smiling?

David Small: There is a happy photograph, the sort of photograph one always takes of one’s infants in a bathtub, where I’m smiling. There’s a photograph that the Grand Rapids Press published, a picture of me clowning around in my dad’s hat and pipe. I considered putting that in as my photograph in the back. But…the book is not about David the Adorable Kid. It’s more [about], from my point of view, what went on. And you’re absolutely right about selectivity. I just liked the one of me grimacing at the sun. It just seemed right for the story I was telling…

PM: The style of the book felt like a ’50s sci-fi film. Everything’s in the dark. Everything is sinister and is suggested in the shadows that you can’t see fully. And I kept thinking of David Lynch who bases a lot of his work on ’50s arcana. And your characters, except for yourself, are always wearing these soul-erasing glasses where you don’t get to see the eyes, like ’50s aliens. So where did you get the style and look of the book?

Not from David Lynch, because I’m not a big fan of his, except for Eraserhead. Certainly from black-and-white film though, the kind that Polanski makes. I suppose the kind of lighting that I use so frequently is more out of European films that I’ve admired, like Polanski’s, or Buñuel[’s]…Bergman and Antonioni. But it’s also from my work in charcoal when I was in college. That was my chosen medium back then. Ever since I became an artist [I’ve used light effects to tell a story]. I wouldn’t say in college that [those light effects were inspired by] film. It probably came more from Rembrandt. Yeah, Rembrandt. I like him. I use kind of a loopy drawing style the way he did. I draw with a brush. Those loose ink washes, too. I never would have made that comparison, but an ex-student of mine who is now an art teacher came up with that and said it was strong for him. And I can see it.

PM: But there was no science fiction that informed it?

DS: Well, yeah, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (laughs). [The effect with] the glasses was certainly consciously chosen to mask the people’s faces… But it also made those areas where you can see their eyes much more effective. What I was trying to convey visually was the guessing game that we played in our family, all the time, about what somebody was angry about. Or what somebody was feeling or why somebody wasn’t talking to you. And if I had shown the eyes constantly I think you wouldn’t have had that feeling that I used to have as a kid. I wouldn’t have been able to convey it. I thought since people are talking [about] a film for this book how that would be done…

[Small and I discuss some of the issues with adapting memoirs to film.]

It all has to do with the rule of truthfulness which constantly gets broken. And that’s one of the things that bothered me when doing a memoir…This was actually an act of biblio-therapy, more than anything else…And until I realized that this thing was actually going to be a book, and actually going to be read by people, my allegiance was to the truth of what happened to me because that’s what I needed to see. When you start, you realize that you’re writing a memoir and everything that ever happened to you, of course, is the most important thing that ever happened to anybody. And then somebody reminds you, as my agent did, that books have themes, books have chapters. They’re organized so that other people can understand what’s going on. That’s when you realize, “Well, maybe my beloved Uncle Joe isn’t as important to the story I’m telling.” So Uncle Joe gets jettisoned.

PM: Where was Joe in your life then?

DS: I just made him up. It was actually my Aunt Peg that got jettisoned…But I would be happy to tell you about my Aunt Peg because this is for a gay magazine.

PM: Go ahead.

DS: She wasn’t my aunt. She was just a woman who came to our house every year like clockwork in the fall and stayed one night. And then left. We called her Aunt Peg. She was tall. She was a Vassar graduate. She was from New England. She was big-boned. She had a faint wisp of a moustache on her upper lip that she never tried to do anything about to remove. She was very masculine-looking, and she knew it and she was totally cool with it. She used to wear Black Watch plaid skirts and a little Tyrolean hat with a feather in it. She was absolutely the person in my life that I adored. And the only one in the “family” who seemed to like me the way I was, the way I am. And I remember I would say to her all the time when I was a kid, “Why do we call you ‘Aunt Peg’?”

She would say, “Well, because I’m a good friend of your mother’s.”

I would say, “Why do you come to visit us?”

“Well, I come to check up on your mother.”

She was a doctor. [Her name was] Margaret Barnes. And [she] was doing a check-up. That’s what doctors did. By the way, she had also introduced my parents when she was in med school with my dad in Chicago. My mother was the secretary [to the president of the] medical school. Peg had introduced my parents. After my parents were dead, and when Peg was dying of leukemia herself, and I had been married for a few years to my wife Sarah, she invited us to come up to Carmel where she had lived for 35 years with another woman doctor in a kind of open gay relationship. That generation called it a “Boston marriage.” Things were not spoken of openly at all. And so we went out and we had Thanksgiving dinner with her.

After dinner she said, “David, I brought you out here because I wanted to meet Sarah, of course. But I wanted to tell you something that I don’t think you know.”

And I said, “What?”

“Well, you know that I introduced your parents.”


“And that I was best man at their wedding.” (Chuckle. Chuckle.) And she said, “What you probably don’t know is that a year after your mother married your father she left him and came to live with me. And we were together for two years and then she went back to him.”

And I said, “Why did she go back to him?”

“I’m not sure. I think it was the money. She always wanted to marry a doctor and be secure and I hadn’t made enough money by then.” And [then] she said, “Maybe there was something else.” She never talked about homosexuality openly.

I said, “It was you she should have lived with because you were the one who could have loved her.”

Then she looked at me and smiled. “Yeah, that’s probably true but then where would you have come from, my dear boy?” And we laughed.

At one point that was the ending of my book. But I couldn’t make it that story because I don’t know a damn thing about my mother except these little scraps of information that I got very early on on those car trips we used to take down to [my grandmother’s] house. And I could put two and two together as well as any other writer, but this [book] was something that I needed to make to understand the way I grew up. I needed [to do this] because I needed to figure out myself more than I needed to figure [my mother] out at that point.

PM: You do reveal your mom’s lesbianism in the book and I found that to be one of the happiest moments of the book. It’s the one moment where I had a sense of your mother enjoying something, or anyone enjoying anything. It’s the moment when we hear the tittering of lovemaking between your mom and her lover, who is not Aunt Peg, but someone else. And then you walk in. I thought that was a relief from a lot of the unrelenting bleakness in the story.

DS: I’m glad you took it like that. In fact, I’m absolutely sure that there was a lot of relief for her in having it out in the open at last. But she was not a happy woman. I don’t recall ever seeing her happy except with a new purchase of something. Because that’s where she thought her true happiness was going to lie. Having all the things that she never had as a child. She was worried about money constantly. That was her main concern.

I remember when I moved out of the home when I was 16, I came back one evening for some reason. And she was upset about my continuing to see this analyst. I had been seeing him about six months at that time. She said, “When is this going to end?”

I said, “When is what going to end?”

“The expense. This doctor.”

“I don’t know when it’s going to end. I guess when I get well.”

“Well, we have no money.”

I said, “What do we need more money for?”

She said, “Luxuries.”

And there was a kitchen knife lying by my hand. And I picked it up and I aimed it at her throat. And we both looked at each other and looked at the knife. And I remember we both kind of gave a little laugh. It was like an embarrassing sudden moment of naked truth. She had come out with the word that was uppermost in her mind: “luxuries.” I couldn’t believe it. And I wanted to kill her for it. She kind of seemed like she thought I was justified. But it was all sort of comical at the same time. And there was never any apology for it. I just put the knife down and left the house. Silly.

She was a difficult woman. Before I left home I remember begging her once to hit me just so I would know what she was feeling…

PM: The final page of the book suggests you forgive your mother for her horribleness.

DS: I guess I do. I don’t consider forgiveness a very useful emotion unless it has something to do with understanding who that person was as a human being…I don’t understand her better because I don’t know much about her. I can see her now from a different viewpoint. It’s one of the best things about making this book. I’m able to confront these people as a grown-up. And I can understand their drives better. And their motivations. And not just see it from the viewpoint of a six-year-old or a 14-year-old. I felt that the Soviet bloc state that I used to live in would come down upon me and take my voice away. They had been trying to tell me to shut up for years. Yeah, I forgive her in the sense that I understand her now. But she wasn’t a very lovable woman. I don’t miss her at all. I didn’t cry at her funeral. And neither did my brother.

PM: You leave your brother out of this for the most part.

DS: Yeah, it’s because he’s still alive. I have no business writing about his life. He really likes the book. He’s going to be at the book event tonight. I haven’t seen much of him in 50 years, but I’ve seen him since the book came out. He really loves it. He says it’s a snapshot of his youth.

PM: Your father is an interesting part of the story. He comes across as an inactive bystander. And then you have the part at the end where he admits to giving you cancer through using a medical process that no one today would ever think to explore.

DS: Except he was not any kind of mad scientist experimenting on his children with dangerous things. He was doing something that was totally standard practice back when he was in school. And they continued it right on up until the mid ’50s. And some doctors I think continued it up until the early ’60s…They were on a trail for a cure for SIDS. It was a worry back in the ’20s [when someone in Ann Arbor began the treatment] just as it’s a worry today. So any kid that had asthma, any kid that had, like I had, very minor sinus problems, whose parents could afford it – and of course my parents got it free because my dad was a radiologist – got bombarded with four to five hundred rads of treatment. I don’t know if you know what a rad is. I didn’t before I researched this. But when you go to the dentist and get your teeth x-rayed, you get a fraction of a fraction of a rad. And it’s very very focused.

But in those days the rays just went everywhere. And the thyroid gland, being very susceptible, [was] where I had the cancer. That’s where it originated and it grew up into my neck and through my vocal chords. And everybody thought I was going to die. And my dad had probably had heard enough and knew enough [that] by the time I got that first operation when they opened it up and found cancer [that] he probably knew, immediately, that he had caused it. But he didn’t admit it to me then. I read that letter [NOTE: his mother wrote a letter about Small’s cancer and put it in a desk] and kept [it] a secret [from them] that I knew anything about [the cancer]. And [I] started to really act out in crazy ways, running away from school and so on, flunking my classes and skipping other classes. Starting to see an analyst. You know when it became clear that I needed help, that’s when he confessed to me.

PM: Did that help you at all, knowing the truth?

DS: It just seemed like a confirmation to me at that time of what I already knew about him. That he was careless. I didn’t like the bravado of any of those doctors, really…I admired them when I was kid, but I came to see all those radiologists after the cancer as these young astronauts who were just hot-dogging it and putting a tin can up in outer space. They had this weapon they thought was going to cure everything. I was born in 1945, man. That’s the year they killed so many people overseas. They knew what x-rays were doing. I’m sure not every radiologist in the country gave that kind of massive dose of radiation to kids born with breathing problems. Some of them had to be more thoughtful than that.

When I was 16, I was just amazed by my dad’s blithe insouciance which I had come to despise because it was so remote from me and so removed from the family. And I think [he was] really complicit with what was going on with my mother and her lovers, actually.

It was a different time. And I have nothing against my mother’s lesbianism. Nothing whatsoever. I wished she had gone off to live with Margaret Barnes. She should have. I was mad at her [for] suppressing her true self. I have nothing against that at all. Never have. Because I could have gone either way myself when I was a certain age. Maybe not by natural inclination but just because the women in my life were so fucked-up in general [and] so threatening. I still prefer the company of men, for the most part, except for my wife who’s a very whole person.

PM: You draw out the scene where your father makes his confession for a long time. You looking at him, him looking away at the beach. Is everything you’re saying to me now what you were thinking then? Or was it just complete shock?

DS: It was a complete shock. I wasn’t even 16 yet. I was a 15-year-old kid. I guess even more shocking was the feeling that once he had told me, he had cleansed himself of all responsibility. If I had carried the book on to another hundred pages I would have told that he actually did pay for my analyst or at least his Blue Cross did. And he did support me in my analysis which was big of him and good of him. And he actually did pay my rent on my first apartment until I got the means to support myself. And he actually did finally perform one or two fatherly acts.

But he was never really able to confront the truth of things himself any better than my mother was. Or any better than my brother is. Or any better than I’ve been in periods in my life. I remember trying to talk with him about my mother when he was in his 80s and his eyes filled up with tears and he told me that we don’t talk about stuff like that. And that I was a little fool, that I had been a fool back when I was a kid. And I was still a fool…He just didn’t want to discuss anything. He left the room and watched tv. I felt very sorry for him then…

Does it bother you that all this explication is not in the book?

PM: It would be a very different book. It’s the kind of explication I would expect in a prose memoir.

DS: Yeah, but I’m not a writer. But I suppose a graphic memoir gives you something very different. I chose the graphic form not so much because I’m a fan of it as that I am an artist and this is a book about being voiceless. And growing up in a house where silence was the rule, where it was, as I say, a guessing game as to what anybody thought. I tried to give the hints that I found in my memory as to what maybe was going on in my parents’ life, but basically I think the purpose of the book was personally for me to re-experience what I went through, the way I went through it, with as much fidelity to that as I could muster. And if that allows other people to remember their childhoods the way they remember them, the way they experienced them, then that’s, I think, a good thing. That seems to be what’s happening.

PM: I’m hearing your voice now. I can’t tell if the hint of raspiness I hear in it is something that’s been left over from the operation or is actually emotion.

DS: That’s good. That’s a good observation. It’s both, because when I get very emotional I lose my voice. When I get tense I can lose it too…

PM: Well, David, I really appreciate you’re taking the time out to talk to me.

DS: I appreciate your interest. I get the feeling that you’re not satisfied though. You’re bothered by the way I did my book in some ways. Is that true?

PM: I’ve read it four times. It keeps on beguiling me.

DS: I like that word.

PM: I like it more every time I read it. It grows curiouser for me.

DS: You spoke rather eloquently at the beginning of our talk about memoir and about how things need to be edited. And I said there are certain things I wish I could have put in. One of them would have been the fact that I actually did have friends when I was a teenager. And I realized this was another instance where if I was going to talk about that the book was going to grow to 500, 600 pages. I did feel that I had to say something about it. And I felt I cleverly summed it up in that one page picture of a party scene. But if I were a reader I guess that would certainly leave all kinds of questions in my mind. Like, “What kind of friends did I have?”

PM: Your book felt like an unrelenting nightmare. You described it as a Soviet bloc of a childhood.

DS: And we all know art flourishes under those conditions.

PM: And people went to parties too.

DS: I did take the tone of my book from the memoirs I consider the most successful and most of them come from the experience of Europe in World War II. And most of those experiences were rather harrowing. But I found that the most successful of them have always taken a kind of detached tone, eliminat[ing] as many adjectives as possible. Because the facts just presented alone speak pretty clearly for themselves.

The more I read interviews with Polanski, for example, he talks about trying to keep a detached tone. He was talking about that in relation to making The Pianist, but it’s in the rest of his work, too. I guess there’s a numbness that sets in or an unwillingness to go back and really touch it, to touch that wound too closely. But I’m not claiming that I went through anything like a Holocaust. I was the victim of psychological abuse, but nobody broke my arms and legs. Nobody locked me in a cellar. I don’t have a sensational story like that. And maybe that’s what’s intriguing: It’s closer to a lot of people’s experiences than it is to those extremes.

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  • Rick Worley said:

    I met David Small briefly when he was in San Francsico and he seemed like a really nice guy. I’ve heard of people taking swipes at Stitches, but I liked it a lot when I read it.

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