I met artist and writer Molly Crabapple in late 2011, during Occupy Wall Street’s headiest and busiest days in downtown Manhattan. I was stringing for the New York Times before wholeheartedly joining the protests myself. Crabapple was a participant and observer, sketchbook unfailingly at the ready. I learned a few things fast about Crabapple: she can jump over a police barricade in a pencil skirt and heels. And she’ll take whisky, champagne or coffee, thank you.
Our meeting, and her increasing politicization through Occupy, occurs more than three-quarters of the way though her ferociously written and richly illustrated first book, her newly-released memoir Drawing Blood. The story of Molly Crabapple did not begin with protest posters in 2011. Drawing Blood tells of how the restless girl from Long Island journeyed through waifdom in Paris, to posing naked and go-go dancing in New York, to drawing the glittering debauchery at Manhattan’s The Box nightclub, to becoming Occupy’s in-house artist. Then follow her travails as a reporter and illustrator covering the uprisings in Greece, the 9/11 trial in Guantanamo Bay, the plight of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi, and more. A blurb in the New York Times’ T Magazine about Drawing Blood ran the headline “From Nude Model to War Reporter.” Which captures precisely none of the multitudes contained in my curious, snarky, vulnerable, auto-didactic, tangle-haired, glamorous friend and her dizzying book.
Four years and lakes of whisky since our first encounter, Crabapple and I discussed the problems of recounting one’s life, protest, and putting art and words out into the world.
Natasha Lennard: Drawing Blood is a memoir, and you are only 32 years old. How do you feel about writing a memoir while so young?
Molly Crabapple: There are two conceptions of the memoir. The first is the traditional one: looking back after the end of a long and eminent life. But the second, the second I find more interesting. That’s taking a period of your life, and staring into it. Dissecting it. Taking out its guts and arranging them on the operating table in bloody but aesthetically pleasing patterns. I feel, when writing this memoir, that I’ve taken my twenties, locked them in a box, and sent them gently drifting out to sea.
For me, it’s just an ink-stained monkey that has detached itself from my back and is out gamboling in the world. But for other people? I suppose I hope people embrace the muchness of existence, the intense maximalism possible in our one brief, single life on Earth. That they do as they please now. That they realize the world may be bigger and more porous, crueler and more beautiful than they thought.
NL: I remember we spoke a few years ago about your feelings on art-qua-object—that it can be something to hold in our hands, and pass to each other. This was one of the reasons you loved applying your drawings to protest posters. Drawing Blood has that quality, but is a much more personal object. An objectification of you, I suppose. One of the things I loved, personally, was that I learned so much about one of my best friends—your time in Paris, living in the famed Shakespeare & Co. book shop; that sting in your chest of early rejection from the glittering wankers at The Box nightclub; your first boyfriends, and more. But the entire time I felt I was reading your very distinctive voice. When you read back passages to yourself, what does that feel like? Recognition? Dissonance?
MC: God, making something into art is always a sort of objectification and distancing because when these things were inside me, they were not formed, or clear. To sharpen them, to search them out and clarify them, is to make them separate from me. They can’t give me the same pain (or joy) that they once did, because they are not solely mine anymore.
In terms of an individual voice: the view from nowhere is a lie. Even if you just put up a camera and had it livestream, how you position it always affects how the footage is seen. A drone views things differently than a camgirl’s webcam. I think the best you can do is to know your own subjectivity, and challenge it, poke against it and have people from worlds other than your own read it, challenge it, and you. Then, you would do best to listen.
NL: Let’s talk a little bit about how the hell to write a book. Especially a memoir. As you said, the contents of Drawing Blood, before they were “the contents” were a swirling constellation of memories and evidence. How did you begin and proceed? I imagine it must be very different to touching a canvas with a picture in mind, or beginning a reported essay, knowing what you want to write?
MC: I started in the Plaza Hotel [in Manhattan] with a bottle of whisky and a bottle of caffeine and I just wrote 20,000 words. Bullshit words mostly, but I needed to murder the blank page. Then over the next two years I shaped those words, hacked them away, cut, butchered, filled in everything. There were no sections just a sort of mental vomit, but I needed that. I wrote about seven drafts. There are over a hundred pages of cut material. [Writer] Chelsea G. Summers edited the fuck out of me and taught me to write in so many ways, as did my wonderful editor Cal [Morgan, at Harper Collins]. While I was waiting for edits I made a master list of drawings. Drawing is as easy as breathing to me and I did about a hundred new ones for this book. Writing though—that is a massacre.
NL: You also did some interesting fact- and memory-checking. Once the book was nearing completion you sent a number of sections to some people mentioned within those pages—myself included—asking whether our memories and understanding of the times mentioned aligned with yours. We spoke about it. You weren’t so much seeking anything so mythical as “objective truth,” but, as you say, poking and prodding at your subjective experience and our various intersecting subject positions. Like ethically crowd-sourcing memory.
We met during Occupy’s hey day in late 2011, and you write of that time in your book, “it was our golden time… we thought we might win.” We did feel that. And I still don’t know what to make of that myself. It feels like it was well-founded delirium, or groundless sense. The book ends before the crucial and historic Black Lives Matter movement gained ground. But you have made art and been in the streets regularly, and written, too, to assert—what shouldn’t need asserting—that Black Lives Matter. Have your feelings about the Occupy moment shifted at all in light of the current (and hopefully ongoing) protest moment? Or, also, in light the struggles you have found yourself covering and supporting elsewhere in the world since finishing the book?
MC: God, sometimes Black Lives Matter makes Occupy feel like a middle school play. Because the stakes, they are so much higher. Black Lives Matter is fighting for lives, and not in a theoretical sense. I have the most profound admiration for them.
I feel like many of the 2011 movements have been subsumed beneath geopolitics—Greece, Syria, Egypt certainly. The protests in the squares have been crushed by the machinations of states and super-state institutions. I don’t know if I’m hopeful or hopeless. I just know we need our defiance, our solidarity, our places of generosity and love. We need them with such desperate aching need.
NL: You have always defended the necessity of beauty, too, as a bulwark of sorts against the world’s ugliness and cruelty. How often do you worry about whether your work has the resonance you intend? Especially your explicitly political words and pictures?
MC: I don’t care any more. I can’t care. Once you put something out on the Earth people take what they want from it. Intent and context are dead. I just try and do work as best I can.
NL: People are very excited about the book. And there has been some high praise in the form of comparisons—Punk Didion! Our Bukowski (but not an asshole)! Patti Smith. How does that feel? I see what each of these comparisons is pointing towards, but I do also wish we didn’t need comparisons in order to call you unique (which is i believe the intent of those reviews).
MC: I mean, I’m totally honored. We have to look at the intent, which is to take an unfamiliar quantity (me) and put it in terms that a reader might know. In that context how can I not be totally honored to be compared to people I admire. We all wish we could be loved for exactly who we are, but no one will be in the context of a 500-word review.
NL: So to speak to criticism, what’s the piece of negative or challenging criticism of your work you’ve most valued in recent years?
MC: When someone who is from a culture, or part of the world, that is not my own says that I’m talking bullshit, I listen. I don’t always agree. But I listen. This is minor, but I once was very rightly mocked for an embarrassing spelling mistake in a tweet where I myself was trying to mock [the New York Times’ Nick] Kristof for cultural ignorance. I looked at the woman mocking me, and she was this amazing Dalit activist in Delhi. And I thought—yes, mock away! I deserved this. And I started following her and learned so fucking much about a world I knew nil about. So I try to always realize that I have vast epic reservoirs of mock-worthy ignorance.
This discussion was edited for brevity and clarity.