Why 'Stepping Stones' Creator Lucy Knisley Moved Into Fiction

The cartoonist behind 'Relish' talks comics, parenting, quarantine and more.
Lucy Knisley/Random House Graphic
The cartoonist behind 'Relish' talks comics, parenting, quarantine and more.

The latest book from acclaimed cartoonist Lucy Knisley is a break from the norm. After the critical success of autobiographical work — such as Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, An Age of License, and Something New — Stepping Stones is a work of fiction, as well as Knisley’s first book aimed at a middle grade audience.

Loosely based on Knisley’s own adolescence, the book centers around Jen, a young girl forced to leave the city when her mother moves to the country with a new boyfriend to start life on a farm. As if dealing with the loss of her home and friends wasn’t hard enough — especially when they’re replaced by “yard work” like she could never have imagined — Jen also has to come to terms with the arrival of two new sisters that she barely knows, and never wanted.

Released last month to critical plaudits, Stepping Stone marks another first for the cartoonist: her first title for Random House Graphic, the comic book imprint for Penguin Random House. Knisley spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the origins of the book, and the echoes between art and real life.

How did you go from autobiographical projects things like Relish and Kid Gloves to this? What was the thought process in thinking, "I’m leaving behind stories about me and doing something that, while autobiographical in parts, is essentially fiction?"

I suppose one of the first things that happened was, I had a kid almost four years ago, and realized that mining my life for that for my books was going to become problematic because my kid is obviously such a big part of my life, and I don't want to take his agency away in telling his own story. So, I knew, once I became a parent, I kind of wanted to pivot a little bit, and start doing a little bit more fictionalized stuff.

I've always wanted to do fiction. For a long time, when I started out, I intended always to do fiction, but then people really liked the autobio stuff, they really wanted more of it — my publishers wanted more of it, my readers want more of it, so I said, "oh, okay, I can could do more of it." (Laughs.) But when I became a parent, I was really like, okay, this seems like a good time to sort of change my direction a little bit and move to fiction.

So this was sort of my fiction with training wheels, it's based on my experience of growing up, but it's getting me to the point where I can do totally original fiction.

Why were you nervous about moving into fiction? Your autobiography work has, obviously been very popular and meant a lot to a lot of people. Was that the problem, or was it more of a sense of just, ‘I’m moving into fiction, but how do you actually do that?’

Definitely! There was a funny thing that I was talking about with a friend of mine recently, where she was [asking] "Aren't you kind of embarrassed? You're so open and vulnerable when you share work about yourself!" I'm like, well, that's all very curated, whereas telling a story that's fictional is a lot more embarrassing to me, because it's something that I came up with the inside of my brain, rather than the events that happened. I think that work that is fictional is so personal, and it's just as personal about autobiographical work.

So for me, it was a little bit scary to write a story that was out of the inner workings of my mind, more than these autobiographical things which are much more dependent on reality. So that was my main concern with shifting to fiction. Also, because this is a story that sort of straddles the line between fiction and history, there's people that are involved in the story that I wanted to be sensitive about basing characters off of them. So that was also part of it. I was like, "alright, if it's fiction, it's my character, but it's based off of this real person." How am I going to make that clear?

Something that really deals with that, I think, is Jen’s relationship with her stepfather, Walter. Reading the book, I found myself really strongly identifying with her sense that he’s, well, being a jerk towards her all the time…

Well, everybody's experienced that kind of impotent rage of being a child in a situation where you can't control what is happening to your life. It's such a universal feeling that everyone's had that, it was really obvious that I wanted the book to have those feelings about the frustration of being a kid, and just being like, "Why is this adult such an asshole? Adults are not supposed to be jerks, but this one is a jerk! I don't understand!"

You know, for me, it's this thing where you learn resilience, when you encounter an adult that's not behaving like you think an adult should. Everybody has that, whether there was a bad teacher, bad parents, or bad aunt or uncle or whatever. I really wanted that to be part of the book — it was such a big part of my childhood, having those feelings of frustration and rage. It's such a universal feeling, but it's something that I think adults don't often feel. We feel angry at politicians, and people in charge of our lives and stuff like that, but we don't have that, "Oh my gosh, my whole life is different, and I have to listen to this person because they're an adult, and I hate them."

As an adult, if you're in a bad relationship, you know: "See ya. I'm gonna leave." You can protect yourself in that way, but as a kid, you don't have that option always. I really, really want to get that rage in there, and it was tough because my stepfather was actually dying at the time that I was working on this book, and he was such a problematic figure for me when I was younger, but as an adult, we had such a great relationship because I could be like, "Oh, you're getting annoying, I'm gonna leave now, bye." So we had a much better relationship, and then I wanted to write the story about how he made this period of my life so miserable in a lot of ways.

It wasn't just him — it was the situation, it was my mom's decision, it was this change of scenery and stuff — but he became kind of the vehicle for that inexpressible childhood rage.

And in the book, so do, in many ways, Jen's step-sisters, who arrive and again, as a reader, you get really annoyed at the older sister because she is such a know-it-all, and she does seem to just continually say the wrong thing. You do in such a way that, as an adult reader — and hopefully any reader — you see that she's not doing it to be mean, she's doing it through her own insecurity as well. It's such a lovely, subtle line you have, where you both get frustrated at her and also find yourself thinking, 'if only you'd just said it differently! You were so close!'

(Laughs.) If only she'd had, like, the slightest bit more self-awareness, which my step-sister has kind of got...? The person that she's based on, she kind of got that self-awareness later on in life, but she's sort of still like that. (Laughs.) Some of those inspirations came from the source.

This is, in part, based on your own life and on and on your own relationships. How much did your relationships with these people as adults play into how you created the story or recreated the story for us and for younger readers as younger characters? Do you think you're more sympathetic as a creator?

Well, my mom has always figured prominently in my work, and this is in large part about Jen and her mother, and working out how to be a daughter and understanding that your parent is, I guess, a human person. (Laughs.) I was also working on this book pretty shortly after I became a parent myself, and so it was interesting because, I think if I had written this book before I became a parent, I would have been like 100 percent sympathetic to Jen and just like, "All the adults are monsters!" But because I'm a parent myself now, it was much more easy for me to realize that, you know, adults are fallible, they're doing the best they can. Not everyone is a perfect parent.

I'm trying to be sensitive to all of the characters in the book, even after her stepfather character, who's kind of a jerk — he's a good boyfriend. He's not necessarily the greatest stepdad, but he's loved by his daughters and by the mom in the situation. I just really wanted to show that everybody's kind of fighting their own battles in these situations.

It's so interesting that the book is coming out now in the middle of quarantine, because my family is staying with my mom right now, we're staying in a barn that she's converted into a little guest house. It's so interested because I moved my whole family, and here we are in the country and I forced my child to be here and live on a farm! (Laughs.) So now, when I talk about this book, I find myself thinking that all the characters are sympathetic. The mom was just trying to help!

You mentioned quarantine, and I think that this book reads differently now, I think, than it would have six months ago or so, or even six months from now. What's it like for you, looking back at this book? It's a very different world than it was when you were making it.

It really is, and it's so interesting because — we live in Chicago, and my partner and I really love Chicago. We love our kid's preschool, and my partner walks to work, and we go to the museums and stuff, and it's all great, and then this happened and we were just trapped, trapped in a condo. We started to panic. We were in quarantine for two weeks, and then we put everything, including the cat, into the car and drove for 14 hours to get out here, to be able to go outside. And now I'm like, I don't ever want to go back to the city.

I don't miss it. I want to be in the country now. I want my kid to be able to go out and be in the country. I just remember so vividly as a kid being like, "I'm never going to do this to my kid." (Laughs.) This story that I wrote, where it's so frustrating for Jen to be in the country, and she misses the city — I felt that way for so long, and now I'm a parent and we're living in this time when, you know, the whole economy can shut down, and we can be trapped in our houses, and... I sort of finally get it the appeal of living on a farm.

It sounds to me like you understand what happened, you're now seeing the story from two perspectives. You've seen it from Jen's, but now you're seeing it from her mother's — your mother’s, too. Do you think that's going to impact your work moving forward, that you're going to be more aware of? Trying to portray the multiple outlooks of the various characters?

I do! The second book of the Stepping Stones series is what I'm working on right now, and I shifted the focus a little bit away from sort of navigating a new family situation — because, you know, it happens afterwards and everyone took a little bit more settled in that regard — but one of the other things that I felt very frustrated about when I was growing up was that a lot of other kids seemed much more interested in romance and dating than I was. I was sort of a kid-kid for a long time — I wanted to read comic books and play with dolls. And so this next book explores more of the different stages of development in adolescence, which I find really interesting.

That's another thing where I'm like, I'm an adult now and I am interested in romance. (Laughs.) So I'm trying to look at it from all these perspectives when writing these various kids, some of which are like, "Yay, dragons!" and some of which are like, "Let's go on a date!" It's very interesting to try to inhabit both of those worlds at the same time, getting back into the head of being an adolescent and being frustrated by the things that I was frustrated by, but also trying to write, you know, every kid is so different and develops at their own rate.

I'm curious, this is your first book for kids — or the first book that's explicitly for kids —what made you think that you wanted to move in to a middle grade space?

Well, the story I wanted to tell was about a time in my life when I was in middle school. (Laughs.) So, that was kind of obvious for me. I've never felt like I've made work specifically for any age group in particular; I'm always really excited when I hear about people reading my work, that aren't necessarily know the same as I am, or as I was when I wrote it. I have a book about childbirth and I wrote that book for basically for me, it's the book that I wish I had when I was trying to get pregnant and becoming a parent, and what I really love is hearing stories about people who are like, "oh, I'm not a parent, I'm a 15 year old boy. I don't intend to ever get pregnant, but I really enjoyed this book and I learned a lot that I thought was really interesting and it made me feel closer to my mom," and stuff like that. So that's something that I really love.

I made a book about food and my experiences with food because I loved it and I wanted to tell stories about food, and everyone was kind of like, "huh, all right," when I would tell them what I was working on, and the surprising thing about it is that people who were not necessarily comics readers, like people who were into food, would read the book and then say, "oh, my God, this is such a cool medium," and people who are not necessarily into food would read it and be like, "oh, I love comics, but I've never read anything about food. I'm getting really into cooking and food."

I try to just make work that I would find interesting, and I feel that that applies to work for younger audiences. I wanted to make a book, basically, for myself when I was going through my parents' divorce and I was becoming a step-sister. I wanted a book like this back then, and I thought, this is the book that I want to make for myself back then, and then, hopefully, other people will have a connection to it.

You said that, you’re making comics that you wish you'd had a chance to read at that early point in your life. Are you also writing for your own kid? Is there some element of being aware, as a parent, that these sorts of stories are important for him, as well?

I make up stories for him at bedtime, and I'm like, "Do you want me to write a story for you?" and he's all, "Yeah!" but by the time I draw the first image, he's like,"I'm sick of that story, I want something else." (Laughs.) He just sort of doesn't have the attention span yet for it. I keep saying, "Do you want to write a book, and I'll draw it?" and he's like, "No." "Do you want to do something together, do you want to draw something?" "No. I want you to do it for me." I'm not sure he's quite at the collaborative level yet.

Stepping Stones is available in bookstores now.