Frankie Barnet is a Montreal-based writer. Her debut graphic novel, Kim: A Novel Idea, is an auto-fictional blend of real-world pain and celebrity fantasy that tells the story of a grad student trying to make sense of an online world and her own stubborn sadness. Protagonist Frankie spends her days scrolling Kardashian Instagrams, reading about sexual violence on social media, trying to help her boyfriend process the loss of his father, and talking to her vicious but infinitely wise cat Catman. Through dry humour, playful visuals and immense vulnerability, Barnet lays bare the inextricable nature of grief, love, and loneliness. She grapples with the many critical selves inside her, who refuse to believe she was raped and refuse to leave her alone. In the end there is no neat conclusion, no obvious revelation that will lead to a sense of purpose or bliss. Only a story worth sharing. – Rosie Long Decter
RLD: This is your first graphic novel. What drew you to this form, having published short stories in the past?
FB: I’ve always enjoyed graphic novels. I used to read a lot of graphic novels and it actually got to a point where every time I read a graphic novel I would be inspired to write one. But I had an idea in my head that I didn’t really know how to draw. I went to school for writing so I felt like that gave me some confidence or legitimacy to try writing something, but I’ve never even really taken a drawing class, so I told myself, “I can’t think about drawing seriously.” I would almost limit my consumption of graphic novels, because I was like, “it inspires me to do it but I can’t.”
Fast forward a few years. I was taking a memoir class during my MFA. I feel like everything I write is about me, but with fiction it’s so heavily veiled. I’d never written just me, and I had to write something for this memoir class and everything I did felt so flat. It just kind of [occurred to me]: maybe I’ll try adding a couple drawings. That’s how the book started.
RLD: Those drawings and sketches, is that something you’ve always done, even if you didn’t think of it as a serious practice of yours?
FB: Definitely, it was something that I did not think of as a serious thing at all. I still don’t know how seriously I think of it.
RLD: Even though they’re in a serious book.
FB: I’ve always told myself that I’m not visual, [that] I don’t understand visuals.
RLD: That’s interesting because your visuals feel like a very cohesive style in the book. I especially liked how most of the visuals are in a more sketched, comic book style and then there are these moments where they become abstract, almost like watercolours?
FB: Yeah, 95 per cent of it is all done on the computer but there are pages that are black and white. That was actually a watercolour I did on paper that I took a photograph of. That’s what I really love and where I felt like I hit a stride, where it didn’t feel like I was using technical drawing skills but I was using my creative mind to work with the limited skills that I had to put something together.
RLD: Did you find that process very different from how you would normally sit down to write a story?
FB: Yes, it’s occupying a different part of my brain. But I think there’s always a certain point when I’m writing a story or working with prose that I reach that same point where I’m at the limit of my skills. I’m working through the revision of a prose novel right now and I’m definitely at the point where I’m like, “I’m at the limit of what I know my skills are.” I know I have these materials in front of me and this is it so I have to make the most of what I have.
RLD: Kind of like a constraint on the process.
FB: I guess the constraint felt much more present working with the drawings and with the computer program that I really didn’t know how to use. But I think those constraints are always with you anyways. Maybe some people feel limitless. Maybe at the beginning of something you feel limitless. But it’s kind of a nice feeling, to know what the constraints are. You feel like you’re on more solid ground to work with.
RLD: The full title of the book is Kim: A Novel Idea, not a novel. What is that distinction for you between the novel idea and the novel?
FB: I don’t know that I would call the book a novel. I’m comfortable calling it a graphic novel. Maybe because it’s formally so different from what I think of as a novel. I came to that title [because] the character, who I guess is me, is grappling with these ideas and is in the process of writing a novel, but she wouldn’t say that it’s a novel. [There’s a line] where she says, “it’s not a novel, it’s just a few notes.”
I was also thinking about Kim Kardashian as this uber-celebrity and that’s sort of a novel idea. Not in the sense of a book, but a weird idea that this person exists in our universe.
RLD: That’s funny, I didn’t even get that double entendre. Who is Kim for you in this book and how do you currently feel about her?
FB: In the book, there’s things that are very specific to her and there’s aspects of her specific celebrity I do find interesting. But I would hope that at least on some level it comes across not as some sort of fan fiction about being obsessed with Kim Kardashian—even though it is—but on a deeper level it’s more the idea of celebrity. I chose Kim in some ways at random because she is the epitome of celebrity and especially at that time of what everyone hated about celebrity.
It’s funny, when you asked what I think about Kim now—I really do not care about her. I had to start a new Instagram account and I realized the other day I don’t follow her. I think people don’t hate her as much since she divorced Kanye. That gave her a lot more mainstream sympathy.
RLD: So in a way she was more interesting when she was at the height of her cultural hatred?
FB: That’s when I found her interesting. Maybe it’s just cause I’m not paying attention. But I’m not as interested in her anymore.
RLD: The obsession with her, at least for the Frankie in the book, also seemed like a way of not living in the narrator’s own skin.
FB: Definitely. And that’s what I was really trying to capture. Following celebrity culture as this distraction and this way to check out with mindless activity. I don’t like to be judgmental, I still follow stuff, but I do think that’s the point we’re at with celebrity, as a way to check out from our real lives. It feels good but it’s ultimately kind of meaningless.
RLD: I think the book captures that ambivalence really well, suggesting that this practice is just kind of escapist and numbing, but also there is some kind of real sway here. Something is genuinely interesting about these people or we would all just look away.
FB: Right! And you can’t fault people for needing to check out from time to time. Sometimes life is really hard and really scary. It says more about society at large that people need to do that than about anyone individually.
RLD: Yeah I wanted to ask about that personal pain that you’ve put into this story. You mentioned that it came out of a memoir class you were taking.
FB: I misspoke, it came out of a creative non-fiction class.
RLD: That’s interesting because you know the age-old rule in literary analysis is not to conflate the writer with the narrator, so I wanted to ask if you had trouble separating yourself from the story. But if you consider it non-fiction that’s a whole other ballgame. How did you conceptualise that while writing?
FB: I think that with this book, and with the character being me, the process of writing it didn’t necessarily feel any different than if I were writing a fictional story. I feel like I put just as much vulnerability into my fiction, but then the process of sharing it was a lot different. I think because the process felt so similar I was like oh whatever, it’s not a big deal, but the reality of having it out there has felt very different.
RLD: I know a lot of people don’t engage with this term at all, but do you consider the book as autofiction?
FB: I know that autofiction was so popular and then people started turning away from it because it was so popular. I like autofiction, I think that I consider it much more autofiction than memoir but I don’t know.
RLD: In the book there’s sort of a self-consciousness about the writing being about herself. There’s a line where she’s talking about fantasy stories that she’s written and she’s like “See? My art is not so literal.”
FB: This is pretty much the first outwardly autofictional thing I’ve ever written. I kind of have a chip on my shoulder about realism, which is another story, but I think I did have a haughty stance like, “oh I have an imagination I’m not going to write about myself.”
RLD: Even though the book draws a lot from real life, I found it still very imaginative. Especially with the character of Catman, who provides so much wisdom. How did he take on that space in the book?
FB: I can remember the moment I was writing this piece for my creative non-fiction class and he was there from the first moment the idea came to me. He’s my actual cat, obviously, and we really do have this kind of contentious relationship.
He’s six years old now, but especially when we first got him he had this weird thing where he always attacked me. It was a problem, we didn’t really know what to do, so I would rationalise it. I would tell myself he’s teaching me that love is isn’t easy, and you can’t love something if it doesn’t bite you. So I think I had done a lot of that rationalising that primed me to characterise him and give him those insights in the book.
RLD: I was struck by how many different strands you weave together in the book. You have the story about Jacob’s father’s death, and thinking through sexual violence, and depression, and Kim Kardashian. How did you balance all these things while you were writing? Did you have an endpoint in mind?
FB: I think the biggest thing is I went through so many drafts of the book. I really struggle when I’m trying to be too thoughtful. Things work better for me when I can really take my time, let something sink in and work on more of an intuitive level.
RLD: I also appreciated the balancing of the personal and broader world events, especially the way that the unfolding of #metoo is making you feel disoriented in your own life.
FB: One of the things I told myself was, if I’m going to do this and write about myself as a character I really have to be a character. I really wanted to be as complex of a character as I could be and I really didn’t want to ever seem like I was propping myself up or making myself sound a certain way—unless it was a bad thing. I probably come off as really whiny, but I really told myself if you’re doing this, part of the deal is you have to make yourself look bad sometimes. That’s the price of writing about yourself.
RLD: I read it twice for this interview and what really came through the second time was just how much of the messy, not very charming human aspects of her character are on display. She comes across both as self-involved and self-aware which is a hard balance to strike.
You mentioned you’re working on a prose novel now. Where has your practice gone since this book? Do you think you’ll keep working with the graphic novel form?
FB: I’m usually working on a few things at once. Right now I am tunnel vision on revising a prose novel. I was doing something else with drawing, but I was conscious of not wanting to do the same thing or the same kind of drawings, maybe because I was tired of it, which led me to do these drawings that are so ugly. It looks terrible. So I don’t know where that’s going to go. I’m open to doing a graphic thing again. I’ve heard everyone say this: even if you’re working in the same medium, you really are starting again at zero.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rosie Long Decter is a writer and musician based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in The New Quarterly, Peach Mag, periodicities, Maisonneuve, THIS, and elsewhere.