Bookmakers: Tyler Feder’s DANCING AT THE PITY PARTY

Tyler Feder’s graphic memoir, Dancing at the Pity Partyis a candid and moving reflection on the loss of her mother to cancer during Feder’s sophomore year of college. It’s also the first book she has both written and illustrated. Here we discuss her process, her hopes, and the many ways in which her mother shaped—and continues to shape—her life and her art.

BKL: How did your mom’s artistic talents influence your own?

Feder: When I would go shopping with my mom as a kid, she would often point to whatever cute knickknack I was admiring and go, “We could make that ourselves!” It was her artistic nature but also her stubbornness and confidence in her skills and mine that helped me feel like I could make anything if I set my mind to it.

BKL: How important was it to you that this story be your first solo book project?

Feder: My mom died in 2009, and I spent the next decade feeling like I had to express my feelings somehow, like I couldn’t really make art about anything else until I got it out of my system. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to take the story out of my brain and put it on the page.

BKL: What was your artistic process as the writer and illustrator of this book?

Feder: I found that it was easiest for me to do the writing and the drawing more or less at the same time. I kept a Google Doc where I’d word vomit everything I could remember from the events that inspired a particular chapter (like the funeral, for example). Then, I’d open my sketchbook and methodically transfer those details into it through illustration and speech bubbles (with slightly less word-vomit-y language).

BKL: Your book has an enormous amount of heart, yet it steers clear of sentimentality. Was this difficult to pull this off?

Feder: It’s so easy to slip into sentimentality when writing about death, and I really tried to keep the tone conversational and honest. I wanted the book to feel like I was telling a friend what happened in my life, not like I was giving a flowery speech. I’m glad it came through!

BKL: On a similar note, you seem to actively want to fill a gap in literature on dealing with the death of a loved one where honesty trumps platitudes. Can you speak a little about this?

Feder: Oh, yes! As someone who experienced loss at a young age, I have heard every platitude in the book, and I found that they quickly started to get on my nerves. When my mom died, I felt raw and hurt and angry, and hearing people say, “My deepest condolences,” or, “Heaven gained another angel,” did absolutely nothing to soothe the ache. It felt like trying to heal a stab wound with a tiny Band-Aid. I remember one day one of my cousins said to me, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through,” and my brain went “BINGO!!” It felt so good to hear that! Being able to acknowledge how devastating everything was, without sugarcoating it, was what helped me heal more than anything else. It validated my feelings and allowed me to have real conversations. That’s the angle I hoped to bring to the book.

BKL: How long were you working on this project? Would you say it was a part of your grieving process?

Feder: The book took a little over a year to write and draw, and almost another year to promote before publication. It was absolutely part of my grieving process. It feels so good to be able to hold the finished book and know all of these thoughts have a home now, and it feels even better that people all over get to know more about my mom.

This interview, which appears in a supplement to our July issue, is sponsored by Penguin.

About the Author:

Julia Smith is a senior editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also an aspiring aerialist. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

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