To say the last year or so has been tricky for Matilda Tristram would be a bit of an understatement; the comics artist, animator and illustrator was pregnant with her first baby when she was diagnosed with cancer, and what followed was terrifying, strange and at times funny too. Matilda recorded the nine months from gruelling start to the relief-inducing finish (at the risk of ruining the ending, she’s well! She has a lovely baby! He’s well too!) and now the whole shebang has been made into a beautiful book called Probably Nothing, published by Penguin.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Probably Nothing is hilarious as often as it is heartbreaking, recounted with an honesty that comes from fear and hope and a scant selection of words-per-frame. It’s raw and generous, and where you might expect self-pity you instead find yourself treading delicately on a metaphorical tightrope between earth-shattering fear and sidesplittingly funny characters. Keen to find out more about the process of making the book, we spoke to Matilda herself about the 90 year-old lady she shared her ward with, and the trouble with trying to say the right thing.
What made you decide to start drawing your experiences?
I love making comics and had been doing it for years. I used to include things from life but I had never made anything completely autobiographical. What happened from day-to-day never seemed interesting enough, but suddenly it was. It was terrifying (the possibility I’d die of cancer, or that my baby would be harmed), peculiar (what my body was doing) and hilarious (how people reacted to my illness). There’s about a 60% chance I’ll be alive in ten years – fear makes everyday, ordinary things seem worth writing about. I want to record it all in case I die and have to stop experiencing anything. My memories from last year are very sharp, I can clearly recall all the wards and consulting rooms, and remember exactly how people spoke and what they said so it’s easy to draw. And chemo is really boring; I spent a long time in hospital waiting around, it was great to have something to do.
There were also ideas about illness that I wanted to challenge without having to confront anyone directly. I know people want to say the right thing and might not realise that, for instance, an anecdote about a time they thought they had cancer but didn’t isn’t very helpful. The language used to describe cancer is problematic too; people want to hear that you’re “thinking positive” when really you’re terrified. There’s also the idea that if you’re positive, you’re more likely to recover, which is complete rubbish and makes you feel guilty for worrying. So I hope people can learn about that kind of thing from the comic.
Trendy east London life seemed particularly funny in light all the other stuff that was going on. We lived very near Broadway Market in east London, and when I wasn’t in hospital I spent a lot of time in cafes, enjoying listening to people’s conversations about augmented reality apps for Vaseline and things like that. I also noticed how much people complain, the cafes were full of gorgeous, young, healthy, people writing blogs about how empty and pointless they felt (I looked over their shoulders). I wanted to wear a sign that said “Stop complaining, your life is great!” All that seemed worth drawing and writing about too.
How did you find the process of recording them?
During those moments when I was concentrating on how to draw or word something I stopped thinking about how scared I was, so it helped enormously. Making the comic wasn’t exactly cathartic, which many people expect it to be. I got all my emotions out by crying all over Tom and my family a lot. It was almost the opposite of cathartic; I could turn my emotions off for a bit while I worked. I love watching people so hospital was an inspiring place to be, as well as horrible sometimes, and as a patient I could pretty much say what I liked. The doctors and nurses who looked after me were incredible (mostly), working so hard to care for others. I hope that comes across in the book.
Were there days when the last thing you ever wanted to do was draw? How did you make yourself keep going with it?
I felt quite compulsive about making the comic and drew whenever I could. There were days after each fortnightly dose of chemo when I felt too tired to do it – the drugs made my hands really hurt so it was hard to hold a pen. But I kept writing notes in my phone so I’d remember what to include, and would start again as soon as I felt well enough (you kind of recover before each dose, in time to have another one). Now life has calmed down a bit and I’m in remission (clear scans) I don’t feel so compulsive about recording everything, which is a good thing!
Did you find that drawing your experiences saved you from having to recount them over and over again?
Absolutely, if friends and family had the comic to read it meant they knew what we were going through without my having to talk about it all the time.
Were there any frames you really struggled to draw?
No, but there were some things that I left out completely that were too gross or embarrassing. Suddenly my body didn’t feel like the body I knew, it was doing things I had no control over and didn’t understand (e.g. growing a tumour and a baby at the same time). It would have been difficult to draw it in any detail. I enjoyed drawing myself and my body in such a simple way, reducing those complications to a few lines.
Your portrayals of some of the characters you met while having treatment are so funny. Which was your favourite?
My oncologist. She moves around a lot and does emphatic facial expressions. She wears great outfits, I remember some shiny boots she had that I could have made more of. Mum remembers her wearing ball-gowns, but I think that’s an exaggeration. I loved drawing Tom, his expressions are very understated by comparison but just as clear. We managed to make jokes with each other when everything seemed unbearable; it’s nice to be able to look back on those bits and feel impressed by how we dealt with it together. The ancient ladies I shared a ward with were great characters, too. They had the best conversations; one was 90 and had lived in Homerton all her life, I could have included much more of them.
How do you feel now looking back through the book?
I get upset when I read it and can’t really believe it’s about me. I also feel quite proud of myself for managing to do it. It’s the only piece of art I’ve ever made where I didn’t worry about what it looked like; I had to draw so quickly to get everything down, it just came out how it came out, which felt great.
What have you got coming up next?
Tom and I are working on some children’s books together (our first one, Santa’s Beard, is published by Walker this October). I’m going back to work soon, teaching animation and drawing at Kingston, I’ve really missed it. I’ve also been asked to do some workshops with medical students about how to communicate with and understand patients, which is fantastic, I would love to do more of that. Joel Stewart and I may be collaborating on a couple of exciting things (he’s the director of The Adventures of Abney and Teal, an animated children’s TV show I wrote with him and Steve Roberts a few years ago)… and doing more comics of course!
Probably Nothing is out now, published by Penguin.