Kristen Radtke on Why She Won’t Read the Classics
This is Rough Draft, in which our favorite writers get to the bottom of their own craft. From preferred writing drinks to whether or not you really need to carry a notebook, we find out all the ways they beat writer’s block and do the work. This week, we speak with Kristen Radtke in honor of her latest release Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. The graphic novel blends psychology, pop culture, and personal anecdotes in a timely exploration of solitude and the interior world. Below, discover all the elements that helped her get it done.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: Describe your ideal writing atmosphere. What gets you in the mood?
KRISTEN RADTKE: I need to be in a place with no distractions. I get my best writing done when I’m away from home at a residency — but due to my day job, residencies are few and far between, unfortunately. I’m very lucky to have an office in my apartment, and a cozy pink chair I like to write in in my bedroom. But ideally, I’d prefer to take a short, quiet walk to a peaceful space away from home to write.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you eat or drink while you write? If so, what do you like to have?
RADTKE: I have a glass of water (or better, seltzer) next to me at all times, no matter what I’m doing. I hate being thirsty; if there’s not a cup of water in the room I can’t stop thinking about it until I get one. I’ll sometimes snack on wasabi peas or gummy bears, but if I eat anything more involved I get distracted from my work.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you ever smoke or drink while you write?
RADTKE: When I was in my early 20s I’d sometimes drink a whiskey or something because I lived in Iowa City and was performing my writer-ness all the time, even when I was alone. Now I have to be totally clear-headed or I can’t get anything done.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you keep a notebook and/or journal?
RADTKE: I’ve always wanted to be someone who kept a journal, but I just don’t have the dedication. I do have a notebook of sorts — I make notes constantly throughout the day or when I’m falling asleep in the notes app on my phone or my laptop; that’s where I do the vast majority of my writing (including this!). Whenever I have a thought for something I’m working on, like when I’m in bed or trying to fall asleep, I force myself to make a note there, or it’s gone forever.
UKIOMOGBE: What’s your favorite quote?
RADTKE: It’s a tie between: “I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful.” That’s David Carr. The other one is, “The better you get, the worse you realize you are,” and that one’s from Kelly Tsai. (Are you sensing a theme?).
UKIOMOGBE: Whose writing do you always return to?
RADTKE: I re-read books all the time, especially when I’m stuck. I re-read graphic novels sometimes continuously when I’m drawing — some favorites are books by Adrian Tomine, Alison Bechdel, Nick Drnaso, and Jillian Tamaki. I fall into ruts sometimes with panel structures, and looking at work by other artists almost always helps pull me out when drawings start to look drab or too similar.
UKIOMOGBE: What books did you read as a kid/teen? Have your thoughts about the writers changed?
RADTKE: I spent massive swaths of time at my small-town library; I read everything in the tiny YA section but was intimidated by any book with an adult protagonist. I don’t know if I had thoughts about writers; I know I wanted to be one, but I never gave much thought to what that meant. Whenever I wrote stories, I’d copy the persona of the protagonist in the book I’d finished most recently, which means I wrote a lot of horrible stories about teenage witches.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you read while you’re in the process of writing? Which writers inform your current work the most?
RADTKE: Yes; if I’m not reading, my writing is worse. I like to read things that are investigating similar ideas, and I like to read around subjects—so science, art theory, history, biographies, whatever helps me circle in something I’m thinking about. Questions about which writers have influenced me tend to make me feel like I’m answering wrong, like when the waiter comes around and you have to order but you haven’t thought through the menu. I just re-read some of Larissa Pham’s essays and have been thinking about them a lot; she’s a beautiful writer, and I love how she marries art and art criticism with personal reflection. I also find myself returning to Olivia Laing and Leslie Jamison a lot. I can’t wait for Julie Buntin and Megha Majumdar to write their second books; I gobbled up Marlena and A Burning.
UKIOMOGBE: How many drafts of one piece do you typically write?
RADTKE: If it’s something short for a magazine, anywhere between one and five; for a book, I don’t even know how to begin to count them. Infinite drafts, but they’re almost never complete drafts—I just revise what I have into oblivion, and save the file under a million different names as I go in case I’m making a horrible mistake.
UKIOMOGBE: What would the title of your memoir be?
RADTKE: All My Friends Broke Their Promise to Me and Let Me Write Another Memoir.
UKIOMOGBE: Who’s your favorite screenwriter? Can a movie ever be as good as the book?
RADTKE: I have no idea who my favorite screenwriter is, but of course a movie can be as good as a book. Half the time I’d rather watch TV than read. (Maybe more than half.)
UKIOMOGBE: Do you consider writing to be a spiritual practice?
RADTKE: Hell no!
UKIOMOGBE: Which writers would you choose to have dinner with, living or dead?
RADTKE: Most of my friends are writers; I’d like to have dinner with them every night until I die. Right now, I want to have dinner with Zaina Arafat, Kerry Howley, Rachel Yoder, and Ariel Lewiton. A secret about me is that I am hideously underread with dead writers; my high school was next to a barn, the only book I had to read was To Kill A Mockingbird. Then I went to an art school for college. So any reading of the classics is self-directed, and I know I’m wrong, but I still generally find those personal assignments to mostly be a bore. I love Virginia Woolf but don’t know if she’d make good dinnertime company.
UKIOMOGBE: What advice do you have for people who want to be better writers?
RADTKE: You just have to do the work. So much of writing is being totally lost and confused; you just have to keep going. When I was younger I thought you had to enjoy writing in order to be a writer, but I think that’s just a mean lie, like people who brag about runner’s highs. Mostly it’s just labor, but when it’s done, you’ll have written, which is a spectacular feeling.
UKIOMOGBE: What are some unconventional techniques you stand by?
RADTKE: I usually write with earplugs in, it makes me feel like my body is its own little room. Doctors are always very shocked when they look in my ears; I’ve probably done something terrible to them.
UKIOMOGBE: Can great writing save the world?
RADTKE: Change it, sure; save it, no.