Nicole J. Georges has been writing and self-publishing comic memoirs about her life since she was in her teens. These zines called Invincible Summer have been collected – along with diary entries and an array of animal drawings – in two anthologies. Her graphic memoir, Calling Dr. Laura, about discovering that her father was still alive after growing up thinking he was dead and coming out to her mother was released in 2013. It was named one of the best comics by USA Today and one of Salon’s 10 Unforgettable Graphic Novels for that year.
Outside her work in comics, Nicole just finished up her annual calendar for 2016, writes an advice column, is working on a podcast and video series, and teaches. She is also working on a new memoir that is slated to be published in 2017 by Houghton Mifflin called Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home.
Nicole was nice enough to take time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about why we love painful stories, the creative process, and some of the causes she is passionate about.
First, tell us something random about yourself.
I just tried to make a grain-free pizza crust out of cauliflower and failed miserably. It was so bad, I thought the recipe must be a prank.
You are very public about being a Vegan. Could tell me about when and why you decided to become one?
I was a sloppy vegetarian from middle school on, but my New Year’s resolution in 1997 was to become vegan, and I stuck with it. I had a lot of straight edge friends at the time who were vegan, so I had a community. We lived in suburban Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, and we ate french fries almost exclusively. I eat much more healthily now, almost 19 years later.
To me, a particular flavor or food texture isn’t worth causing pain to another creature.
I have always loved animals, I have always wanted to be Jane Goodall or to help them in any way I could, and this is my small, everyday way.
Why do you think we love reading painful stories? What do you think we gain from them?
I know when I was a young person, I liked reading honest zines from the riot grrl movement. I think that being honest and vulnerable is a way to build a bridge between yourself as a writer and your readers. Fostering connection can help people identify with you, sure, but it can also speak to the emotional truths in their lives, and hopefully make people feel less alone.
In an interview with Popzara, you discussed vulnerability too, stating that in writing “Calling Dr. Laura,” you wanted to be vulnerable because “if you make yourself vulnerable and go there with people, they will follow and connect with you.” When I read Dr. Laura, I felt tremendously connected to your story, despite our many differences. Did you struggle with learning how to be vulnerable in your writing?
I have been publishing autobiographical work since I was a teenager. I was inspired, then, by what I would call “trauma zines” by teenage girls, often affiliated with riot grrl movement (as I mentioned above). Zines I read in the 90s talked about mental illness and abuse very candidly, and I was inspired to do the same. So I did a zine that talked about getting taken advantage of at a young age, and when I published it, my guy friends said it was “TMI”, but adults commended me for my honesty, and I could see pretty quickly that it was a normal thing to do within young feminist circles. So it never seemed weird.
I probably disassociate from my work at some point. You can’t keep yourself up at night wondering what people are thinking of you. Life is too short. I’m very happy when my book or story can help people, though. That is nice.
Anyway, when I got the contract to do Calling Dr. Laura, I figured I had better take it to the wall and be as vulnerable as possible so I wouldn’t squander this opportunity. I sat down with myself and said “what is THE MOST embarrassing thing you can think of?” and I wrote about that. And it ended up in the book. And it didn’t kill me, because nothing like that does.
Could you describe your creative process?
If I’m writing a book, I start reading and listening to as many books as I can, just to get language and story structure in my head. I write a million outlines. I over-write. I throw as many anecdotes as I can into the outline, ones that seem to relate, and then edit later. Even if I have a prose version somewhere, I thumbnail all of my stories for a comic. This would be called “storyboarding” to you. It’s a very loose form of visual writing.
Then I re-draw these images in pencil, more detailed, on 14×17” Bristol board, and get edits, edit things, then finally I ink.
When I’m drawing and writing, I need to pay attention, so I don’t listen to anything. Maybe Erik Satie or Nina Simone. When I get to the point of inking in backgrounds and things that don’t require much thought, I listen to books, podcasts, and tv shows.
What is your least favorite part of the creative process?
The thing I don’t like about writing a story is that I need precious space for it, and I despise having to be precious about my art. I like the Chuck Close quote “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just get to work”, but with writing a story initially, I need that. I need quiet and serenity and no drama and a lot of mental space.
It’s the pits. EXCEPT, I often do an art residency at a place called the Sou’Wester on the Washington coast, and get my own vintage travel trailer by the ocean to draw inside of. So that’s not so bad. I love that place.
I like singing and playing the air organ. I like karaoke and cooking. I am okay at sewing, but it hurts my hands, so I have to reserve those for drawing.
Who are some are your favorite musicians?
I think Jackie Wilson has the most beautiful male vocals of all time. I like the Jackson 5, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte and The Need. The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack, Annie, and Little Shop of Horrors.
How do you deal with rejection?
I just keep on moving. I can’t be all things to all people. If a project of mine can’t find a home with someone else, I’ll self publish it. I have a million stories. I don’t have time to dwell on the people for whom my art is not a fit. It’s really none of my business, anyway.
In a fight between red and black, who would win and why?
Black. Red is more dynamic, but black could suck it up like a black hole.
Do you have a go-to doodle?
Probably dogs. And myself having whatever feeling I’m having at the time of drawing. And a simplified version of myself as a blonde man. Trip on that.
Have you ever regretted publishing anything?
I regret using my real name. I wish I’d had the foresight to use a pen-name.
I don’t regret publishing anything that I can think of. There are things I wrote or published when I was a teenager (like the early issues of Invincible Summer) that are embarrassing, but it’s where I was at the time, so I don’t regret it.
That’s interesting that you regret not using a pen name. Why is that?
When you use your real name, you are more vulnerable. More recognizable, and so are the people around you. Having a pen name would have been a nice way to have more anonymity and to protect the people closest to me, like family members I have written about or would like to.
What are you currently obsessed with?
I am about to make a homemade Slimer Costume for Halloween, and it feels daunting, but I am obsessed with figuring it out.
Periodic Table, A City Map, or Color Wheel?
A hand-drawn map to the coffee shop from where you’re staying.
You live in Portland – tell me what you love about where you live.
I used to like acting as an ambassador and telling people to move here, but now they are here and they all built condos that block out the trees, so if I had a visitor, I would ask them to please not live here permanently, or if they did, not to do that.
I love the grocery stores and restaurants. I would tell you to go to Forest Park and then to eat vegan pizza at Sizzle Pie or Ethiopian food at Queen of Sheba and to drink as much coffee as your body could handle all day.
I love walking to the grocery store and I love walking to the post office and library by my house with my dog, Ponyo. It’s walkable and fine, and if you live here long enough you can get a small-town Sesame Street feel, where you know everyone and they know you too.
If you could design a t-shirt, what would you have on it?
“I’m with Ponyo”
Do you have a contemporary issue or cause that is particularly important to you?
I believe in women. In feminist voices and women supporting each other. Saying nice things to each other. If everyone stopped criticizing women for ONE SINGLE DAY, it would have a huge impact.
I believe in raising other people up. Helping each other. I mean that artistically, and I would like to help empower people by encouraging them to amplify their voices through self publishing, art and music. This is why I’ve taught zine and self-publishing workshops for the past 15 years, and why I have been volunteering with senior citizens for almost 10 years. I publish a zine for them called Tell It Like It Tiz.
You have an advice column on Tumblr. Why did you decide to start it and what types of questions do you answer?
I have had an advice column called Ask Nicole: America’s Smartest Girl since 2006. I have given advice live at readings and events, briefly had a video series, and wrote advice for Bitch Magazine for a year.
I do it because I love advice, and I don’t see my own uptight opinions, from queer feminist perspective, reflected in the media that I consume. So I do it myself. I specifically like to give advice about relationships and manners, pets and the things I know a lot about, like vegan cooking and writing.
Please send me your questions!!!
I hope people do! How and where should they send them?
People can write to nicolejgeorges at gmail. And use the subject ADVICE.
You just finished up a calendar for 2016 called “Invincible Summer,” which shares the name with your comic series that now has two anthologies. Can you tell me a little about “Invincible Summer” and why you decided to design a calendar?
I have been doing a yearly Invincible Summer animal calendar since 2005.
I have always liked a calendar version of a zine, and decided if I did my own I could give it as a gift to people, give it to art directors at places I wanted to illustrate for, and also that I could charge more for a calendar than for a zine, simply because it is oriented up and down instead of side to side. It’s a booklet on its side. So it would give me a seasonal boost when I was first going on my own, job-wise, as an artist.
But now I use it as an outlet for all the stand-alone animal illustrations I do during the year. A repository for the Georges bestiary.
Is there anything else you are currently working on that you would like to tell us about?
I’m working on a comic about being a Syrian American in this current cultural climate. Stay tuned.
If you could give advice to a young/aspiring writer or artist, what would you tell them?
Keep doing it. Whatever the thing is. If you are a writer or an artist, you just are. It’s like an affliction. It’s like you’re a vampire. It’s a calling. With that said, it doesn’t matter if you get money for your craft, or if you get a million readers versus five. You just have to do it and keep going.
Every artist you see out in the public spotlight, who seems to be having success, has worked long and hard behind the scenes, putting out things that you didn’t see, to build that success.
Build it! Photocopy your work. Share it. Show up in the life you want to live.