In September, Freehand Books published writer and cartoonist Sarah Leavitt’s latest book Tangles, a poignant account of the author’s mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. To mark the book’s release in the UK – it’s published by Jonathan Cape, no less – we talked to Leavitt about why she began to produce cartoons, why she decided to tell her mother’s story, and why it’s important to reveal humour in tragic circumstances…
Why did you become a cartoonist?
I was a late bloomer – I started making mini-comics and publishing small comics in magazines in my mid-30s, about six years ago. I had always drawn small pictures, sometimes with text, but rarely showed them to anyone other than family and friends. Working on Tangles was really what made me fall in love with doing comics. As for the why – because the more I did it, the more it felt like the best way to communicate in the way I wanted to: condensed, intense pieces.
I can do these better with image and text combined than I can with just text. Also, I keep discovering more and more incredible cartoonists, from hundreds of years ago and right now, and I want to be part of that world. Cartooning is one of the things I am most passionate about and engaged with. I wish I could spend all my time on it.
Tangles is an account of your mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. Why did you choose to tell the story?
I just always knew I had to. First I thought I’d use prose, but after she died, and I started sorting through my collection of notes and sketches, I realised I needed to do a comic book. I wanted to make a record of her and of the illness. Sort of a report from the front lines. As time goes by, I feel more and more strongly that we as a society need to respond to Alzheimer’s disease not only with research, medicine, social support, etc, but also with art, as people have done with AIDS, because it affects so many people, so many families, and it is such a cruel and destructive disease.
You managed to find humour in the situations you recorded. How important was it for you to make people laugh?
It was a big part of the story. Our family laughed a lot through the whole thing. We always had a weird sense of humour, and so many things happened that were funny in a dark sort of way, like Mum bumping into furniture and apologising, and then there were other times when you could either laugh or cry, and there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two, if you know what I mean; sort of an hysterical response to a crazy situation. And my mum laughed too, especially as she got more ill, sometimes for no apparent reason, sometimes because we sang or danced to make her laugh.
What do the rest of your family think of the book?
My dad loves it, and has been extremely supportive of the book since it was published. My sister has also been really positive about it. That was great, because I was nervous. My dad’s side of the family, who are not in the book, love it. Even my 93-year-old grandmother: “The little people! They’re so human!” My mum’s sisters – I’m not sure. They have never mentioned it to me since I sent them each a copy.
What have you got planned next?
Historical fiction! A tale of death and destruction from 19th century British Columbia, in the years just after our gold rush. That’s my next book – still in the research stage, which has been lots of fun, a great shift from Tangles. I also have shorter autobiographical comics in the works.