Earlier this month, I sat down with author and artist Tillie Walden at BookExpo America, to talk about her upcoming release, Spinning, and about homophobia in sports. Tillie is a cartoonist and illustrator, and she combines her art with her intimately personal story to create a memoir about being a lesbian and a figure skater.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Tillie or Spinning, please check out the end of the interview for links!
Hi Tillie, thank you so much for finding time to meet with me today! To start off, can you describe Spinning in your own words to our readers.
Spinning is a graphic memoir about my twelve years as a competitive figure skater. On the surface it’s about ice skating, but underneath it’s about being a gay kid, bullying, family relationships, the relationships between your teams and coaches, and what it’s like to grow up in a competitive sports environment.
The graphic novel is gorgeous, but the story itself is almost poetic at times. It flows and it transitions through points in your life, and it never lingers too long on anything. Was that a conscious decision when you were writing it, that you didn’t want it to feel too heavy?
It was a conscious decision. I didn’t want this book to feel like many separate stories coming together. If I’d lingered on the bullying, it would have become a book about bullying. I wanted to tell this story and show who I was, through every aspect I could. To do that, I had to touch on everything and let the reader connect the dots, to see who I was and how those experiences shaped me. And logistically: it’s a book that covers ten or so years of my life, and it’s four hundred pages, so I really had to be strict with myself about getting the point across in the scene.
Like you said, Spinning is four hundred pages. That sounds really lengthy, but for a graphic novel that’s really not long at all.
Right, and with my style there are a lot of images that take up a whole page, and a lot of silent passages. I take a lot of time to let the visuals work themselves out. So in a way there are moments that last a long time but don’t have a lot of content in them. They’re just there to convey feeling.
Sticking with the visuals for a moment, what was the process in deciding on a color scheme, and choosing the little bursts of yellow throughout? I love those!
I’m so pleased with how that turned out! There were moments in the story that stood out from the narrative as a whole. We all felt that there needed to be a way to make them distinct, so once we’d decided to apply the purple tone to it—originally the novel was black and white—I chose the yellow. I kept thinking about spotlights. When you’re on the ice, you look up and see this bright yellow light above you. So I applied the color to the moments that were really significant, the ones that really stood out.
One of the quotes that really stuck out to me is, Skating presented a strange debacle. I disliked the femininity of it all, yet was attracted to it nonetheless. Can you talk a little bit about that contrast where you have a strongly athletic sport that’s rooted in feminine-coded culture.
Ice skating is a sport that likes to pretend it’s not a sport. Coaches expect you to work hard and pull off these crazy movies, but when you get on the ice the judges and audience expect you to hide the fact that you’re working hard. They don’t want to see you panting; they want to see you smiling. No sweating, but makeup instead. You’re a performer almost. And that never worked for me; it felt like lying, because I worked hard to learn to do this and I couldn’t be honest about how ice skating felt to me.
That was emphasized in the book, how much work went into ice skating. Your dad taking you early in the morning to practice, and then heading immediately after school to the rink for another practice. Your social life revolved almost entirely around skating.
It’s a very insular community. The skaters, the coaches, the moms—that’s their whole world. It contributes to the unhealthy environment, that ice skating has to be your whole world… it is your whole world. You eat breakfast and dinner at the rink; your friends are there, your coaches. It takes over your life.
How did that insular community—that almost stifling atmosphere—how did that affect you coming to terms with your sexuality and eventually coming out?
Skating is all about being homogenous… especially synchronized skating, where every girl is supposed to look exactly the same. It completely ignores the fact that every girl is an individual! So it was very hard for me to even bring up the idea within the rink that I was gay, that I was different from these other girls. Being gay seemed like a far reach, because I couldn’t even admit that I didn’t like wearing the dresses, you know? And I never did come out to anyone at the rink. None of them know—they’ll read this book and find out. It was an environment where I couldn’t tell them without facing repercussions.
Sports culture on the whole, generally, is very homophobic.
Absolutely! People talk a lot about how boys ice skating is very homophobic, but no one talks about what it’s like for a girl that’s gay. When you say “gay” and “ice skating”, it conjures up an image of Johnny Weir, a gay man, but ice skating is predominantly female. Of course there are going to be lesbians there, but no one ever talks about that.
And the almost toxic atmosphere of being an athlete, and a lesbian, in Texas.
That was a double-whammy. Because I do think it would have been different if I’d stayed in New Jersey. Texas is so toxic at times, which is unfortunate. I love Texas, I have a lot of pride from having lived there, but the Texans I was in contact with in that ice rink didn’t like different kinds of people.
When you made the decision to come out, when you did come out—I know Spinning touches on it, but can you talk about the reactions from your family, friends, and how growing up in that culture helped make that decision to finally come out.
I hit a kind of breaking point… it was time. In my family, everyone took it differently, but I think across the board it was pretty positive. Now they’re completely accepting, and very accepting of this book! But looking back, school was weird, because it was a huge school, and I was the only lesbian—the only out lesbian!—and it was kind of mind-boggling.
Coming out was weird for me because I always knew I was gay. I never questioned that. But at the same time everyone around me had their own opinions about it. For me internally there was no struggle: I was gay, that’s all there was. But dealing with other people’s reactions was hard after having blended in for so long, especially in skating. I’d become a master at blending in.
I think a lot of coming out stories don’t include the part where everything is fine later on. It was fine later on. Everyone got used to it.
Can you talk a little about homophobia in other sports, what you’ve seen and the fact that it’s the twenty-first century and sports are finally starting to open up a little bit. It seems like things are starting to change.
What I see a lot of people talking about in sports is, “Why do we have to talk about these players being gay, and why is it necessary?” And that really upsets me, because whatever sport you’re in, who you are on and off the field contributes to your success. Especially in a team environment, a successful team has honesty and openness. Being able to be yourself can only make us better at sports, make us a better team. I think we’re on the edge of improvement.
Do you think that figure skating, having athletes like Johnny Weir being so out and proud, is helping the sport transition into that openness?
Absolutely. I think people who are openly themselves in any way is wonderful. I would love to see more lesbian ice skaters—and more ice skaters of color! There’s a long way for ice skating to go, but fingers crossed it gets there.
Before we go, do you have any other projects on the horizon?
I’m working on two more books with First Second, and information about those will come out soon. But other than that I’m just promoting Spinning and excited to be talking about that!
Awesome! Thank you so much for having time to meet with me today. Spinning is out on September 12.
Hey all, my name is Tillie. I’m a cartoonist and illustrator from Austin, TX born in 1996. I’m a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies.
I’ve been making comics seriously since high school. In the past few years I’ve published some books and I’m currently working on more. I do occasionally make appearances at cons or bookstores and info on that will be posted on my twitter. I am planning on making a fancy “events” page on my website but I have yet to have time to make that happen. Someday.