Voiceover: This is Why We Write a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life.
Tim Finn: I'm Tim Finn, owner of Hub Comics of brick and mortar comic book store in Union Square, Somerville which is just a mile and a half from where we're chatting today at Lesley University and at Lesley art plus design, I also teach in the illustration and animation and art history departments including a class, Comics Process and Practice. My guest today, our interviewee is an alumna, Sheila Alexander. We're gonna be talking about Sheila's new book IVF, A Memoir of Infertility. Hi Sheila, thanks for joining us.
Sheila Alexander: Thanks for having me.
Tim: When did you start writing comics?
Sheila: Actually, pretty recently, I just started writing comics as I was going through IVF which was just a little over two years ago. I've always read graphic novels, but I've been getting into them more recently in my work I do as a teacher. I’m a reading specialist in a town outside of Boston. I had a comic book writing and reading club and I would make little comics with the kids to teach them how to write and understand comics better. From there I started, I realized I could write comics and then I started journaling in comic form after work.
Tim: What age group do you teach?
Sheila: Elementary, so kindergarten through fifth grade in two different elementary schools.
Tim: Have you always drawn?
Sheila: Yes. When I was at Lesley, I was studying to become an elementary school teacher and then I went on to become a reading specialist but in the undergraduate program, I double majored and then I minored in fine arts. I took several at the time it was called AIB, artists tutor Boston and then they merged with Lesley. I was there quite often doing my foundations' classes and I focused on oil painting.
Tim: So what was it about this format, the format of comics, that you felt matched to this story?
Sheila: I think just I could tell a story through the art. When I was in college, I originally was attracted to Lesley actually for the art therapy program because I really felt like art was a really powerful medium just to unburden some of your emotions and try to like heal through the visual process. In this book, I wanted to start telling a story or in my case, I wasn't actually planning on publishing this at all. It was just for me, but I would write what was happening with me every few days, whenever there's something big happening in my treatment or I was getting anxious about something, I would write it down.
I think the comics allowed me to give a little bit more about what was happening. I could add the captions, I could capture the dialogue so I could tell the story through the art and I don't think you can get that so much at least as accurately if you're doing paintings.
Tim: Was there an idea at all to not have any artwork to just journal, to just type or write, to have a blog?
Sheila: Yes, I didn't even think about that. I was really engrossed in my comic. My club for the students really because I'd be drawing these little skits about my dog or my parrot because my-- I have a talking parrot and oh no, he's my brother in law, he's my husband’s. When we first started dating he was like oh, by the way, I have a talking parrot. I was like you've got to be kidding me, but he wasn't. I have some strange pets and they do silly things. I was writing comics for my students about what my life is like and they thought it was hilarious. I was like alright, this is cool so I really got into it.
Then once I started doing something, I would translate it over to a more private part of my life which was my IVF and infertility treatment and coping with the emotions.
Tim: This was decidedly therapeutic.
Sheila: Yes, yes. I would literally be sobbing to my husband and he'd be like go to your office, go to your studio. Go write a comic or do you need to go in your office? I'm like yes, I need to go right. I just can't deal with whatever the nurse's phone call was. Quite often I'd be sobbing and writing my comic.
Tim: If you're referring to nurse's phone calls and sobbing perhaps we should take a moment. Can you in a sentence tell us-- Can you explain that this was a long and difficult process because we haven't actually gotten to the plot of the book yet?
Sheila: Yes. My book actually takes-- I started writing this comic about a year and some change into my overall infertility treatment. The book focuses specifically on IVF. I had to go through a bunch of other treatment before I was finally given the green light for IVF. Most people are like oh, you can't have a baby. Good thing you have IVF. It's like yes, if you can get clearance to get the IVF and in Massachusetts, it's really wonderful that insurance will cover IVF but getting insurance to cover IVF is a very long process and especially for me being in my late 20's. If you're 30 you get a little bit of an expediated process.
When you're in your 20's they're like we're just going to make sure something's actually wrong with you so they make you wait and go through all these other procedures, medications. By the time you finally get the green light for IVF you feel like you've already been through hell and now and you're like all right, now my treatment actually begins.
Tim: There are several struggles here. One is insurance and paperwork, another is health and doctors, and another is perhaps emotional, family and family planning.
Sheila: It's just the time and then the medicine makes you feel horrible and you're on it for such a long time and you're constantly getting blood work. I'm going to the doctors every morning at 6:00 AM before I go to work and I was again really fortunate that my clinic was maybe 15 minutes away from my place of work because I could swing in there at like 5:36 and then head on to my job but it's a huge time commitment.
Tim: In journaling, this experience as comics and in writing words and drawing pictures, if it was therapeutic and not necessarily for to be shared or with an eye to publishing so presumably your husband saw it and was reading it, did you show it to other people as you were going?
Sheila: I would show them bits and pieces and even my husband saw bits and pieces I'd be like what do you think? He's like yes, that's good. I don't know how deep anyone was reading it. They were all like oh, that's cute. It was actually interesting when it was published as a whole book obviously, my mom was like I'll get a copy, I'll buy your first copy. I'm like great mom. She read it and she was like oh my God. Honey, this is what you're going through? Yes, mom, you were on the phone with me, you were at the hospital with me, you were driving me to these appointments. Yeah. It wasn't until it was all in one place as a cohesive story where even my mother was like oh my God, I understand.
I understand what it was like, I understand what your journey was like. That was an interesting moment for me because I was like but you were with me. I was talking to you, you were there quite literally at the office. It was different because you could see how I was thinking and feeling maybe.
Tim: I looked at the Amazon reviews of this book and there are only five-star reviews and all of the reviewers write that this gave them a window into this, the emotional ups and downs of this experience. I think one of the reviewers said I have experienced this too, it's good to know that someone else did and other reviewers said I haven't experienced this and I wouldn't know if not for reading this story. Perhaps the big takeaway is and I think you say this in the book at the very beginning or at the very end that you want other people to know what this is like. If they're going through it that they're not alone.
Sheila: Right because everyone's journey if you've gone through infertility or even if you're just trying to conceive naturally and it's taking a little longer than you anticipated, everyone's feeling these emotions and frustrations to a degree. If you're going through some sort of fertility treatment, it might not be what I went through. Very often everyone has slight variations because we're all different people and we respond differently to the various treatment options. But I think everyone can understand the universal frustrations, feelings and just the waiting and the anxiety and not knowing what's going to happen or what if something happens?
That's kind of how I came up with the title too. It's just if what if I get pregnant? What if I don't? What if this doesn't work? What if it does? How long am I going to be doing this, how many more months?
Tim: The cover shows what appears to be a double title because there's the word if and there's also the letter V in a different font between them. It's IF and it's also IVF.
Sheila: The publisher was like that's confusing with the V in between. Just call it if and I'm like okay, so then I stuck to the v on top of it because I really wanted it to be called IVF. I was playing with it and it wasn't until later that the guy I was working at the publisher was like oh know I get it. It's like If and IVF, whatever. Maybe if I redo it, I'll have to play with the title a little bit more. I guess it's called If: A Memoir of infertility, thinking about all those what-if questions and all those anxieties.
Tim: Speaking of your publisher, what was the process of publishing this book for you? How did you find or how did Archway Publishing find you?
Sheila: I found them. It's a self-publishing route and I'm pretty sure I'm the only graphic novel that they've ever published. They have these lovely supports for getting your book out there and they support writers trying to publish their material. You have to buy certain services, but they have different packages. I don't think they had anything quite set up for graphic novels. They're walking me through the process. They're like, "All right. We're going to go through your manuscript. Send us a Microsoft doc of your manuscript." I'm like, "I have a graphic novel." They're like, "Well, don't you have the text for it?" I'm like, "I have JPEG files." They're like, "We'll just send us just the text." I literally typed the entire text of the graphic novel and then I was like, "This doesn't make sense. I need to show what characters and what they're doing." Then I typed the whole book, like a play, and I sent it over to the publisher. They're like, "No, this isn't what we mean. Just send us the texts literally in the book." I'm like, "I'm the author, and I don't think I'd be able to understand this. Are you sure the editor wants just the text that appears in the book?" I have the dialogue with no characters. I don't have any panels. All of the grammar of the comic was removed. I was like, "Okay," and I'm just sitting there waiting. I can't even imagine what their edits like suggestions are going to be like. Then they put it into a more traditional format and I'm like, "Thank you for your suggestions, but I don't think this is going to work." Then I ended up basically going back to what I had.
Tim: You sent them a PDF or you sent them JPEGs?
Sheila: Yes. I did all the editing and formatting on my end. I had a friend from college actually helping me do some of the formatting. I paid her for some help because it was a huge process because I wrote the whole book in pencil in a notebook because I didn't think it would ever get published. I scanned in my entire writer’s notebook and then she helped me to clean up all the pages and get them somewhat white and formatted the same size. Then she helped me initially color about 10 pages. Then I decided later on that, "No, the whole thing has to be colored. It looks so good in color." Then that's when I got an iPad Pro and finished coloring the whole rest of the book. I did all the text insert myself and then I reformatted all the pages and so essentially, I sent it back to the publisher. They just sent me the proof and I was like, "That's what I sent you. It looks good."
Tim: The whole book you penciled in a notebook. Drawn characters and writing and then you traced or redrew with pen on the paper?
Sheila: Yes. Well, I actually took drawing pens and I traced the pencil initially. It was just pencil and pen. Then from there I added color, which I had to retrace some of the characters and then I would just whited-out all the bubbles. Sometimes they changed the original text if I didn't like what I wrote, but most of them I kept it pretty much the same. I just changed up what was in all the caption boxes and text boxes.
Tim: Autobiographical comics can be sensitive and revealing but autobio authors can change names or merge characters or leave things out or change things. Was there any concern on your part that you were revealing too much of yourself or someone else? Or was there any thinking that you would change things or soften things or sharpen things?
Sheila: Yes. I don't think I changed a whole lot. In hindsight, I was like, "I probably should change my friend's name," but she's my best friend. She doesn't really care that she's featured in the book. I don't think I mentioned any doctor's name specifically. I didn't call out my clinic that I was going to. I left those details out. My animals, my husband were all featured in there as we were and the things that were said were pretty accurately like what I remember actually happening. I know there was one scene where I was away from my drawing materials for a while because I was sent to the hospital. I just remember as soon as I was well enough to sit in a chair and draw again, I was like, "I have to write this down. I have six or seven pages. I need to write down before I forget what was said or what happened." I remember that was pretty difficult to get it all in there but I was pretty much writing every page in the moment. In the original book I dated every page, it was more like a journal. The publisher wanted me to get rid of the dates. Just so it seemed more timeless. It wouldn't be stuck in 2017 which was the year it was happening to me. We removed the dates and I went back to when the doctor saw me first for my infertility treatment. Then I counted the days which it was ironically it's my birthday. That's when I first started seeing the doctor. It was 2016 on my birthday. I just counted out with the days away from that. That's why there's 300 and something. That's how many days I was under their care.
Tim: The first panel, the first page is day one and at the end of the book it's day 300 and something.
Sheila: I don't know if it starts on day one. Actually, what does it start with? It starts with maybe day-- Because I was counted through the IUI. We're in the two hundreds I think. We had to do this lovely thing called timed intercourse, where they give you a bunch of drugs and they tell you when to have sex. That's super fun. Then after that, we had to do IUI and then from there they gave me the green light to start IVF because nothing was working.
Tim: I'll correct myself here. There are a couple of pages as a prologue, there was the title page and then the first page of the story proper is day 246. Do you have in your head comics to tell of days one through 245? Is there a story before this?
Sheila: Let me repeat the other procedures. Right now I didn't take notes really of exactly what medications I was taking, what the nurses instructions were. I wasn't keeping a good journal of this. I could probably make comics about generally what it was like, but it would be more general. My comic's very specific of really what it's like to go through IVF
Tim: The meat of the story is IVF
Sheila: Right. That's a part of if I was focusing on- [crosstalk]
Tim: 246 to 407
Sheila: Right. Ironically, when I had a meeting with the doctor about IVF, they're like, "IVF is an eight-week process." I'm like, "Eight weeks. I'll have a positive pregnancy status in eight weeks." They're saying here, "It goes up to 400." They like, "You said it was eight weeks. What is going on?" I think what he meant was it's eight weeks after retrieve your fall goals, and then we have the embryos and then we implant them. That little part might be eight weeks, but a bunch of stuff can happen. Either to delay or we'd have to cycle back to an earlier part if something went wrong.
Tim: This somewhat takes over your life. There's a scene where you realize you really need a break and you suggest a quick trip or vacation. Then you realize-
Sheila: Yeah, I can’t. There's all these monitoring appointments and they were furious at me. It was right before they were going to do my embryo transfer. I was like, "I need a vacation," because at that point, they canceled one of my transfer cycles because my body wasn't responding the way they anticipated. They were like, "We were not going to transfer an embryo." I was like, "Great." I was like, "I need to get away from all this," and but then I couldn't because they were like, "Well, we need to get your baselines. We need to get your blood work and you need to take these medications." I'm like, "Oh God." We did end up going away.
Tim: What comics have made an impact on you?
Sheila: I've been following a few other comics. I really like Sarah Scribbles a whole lot. I feel like she has a strong influence on me because it's just like little blips about daily life or coping with anxiety. I feel like her style really spoke to me in how I portrayed IVF and how my life was just like little daily snippets. It wasn't a whole graphic novel story. It's like just every day is its own little comic, its own little episode. I felt her work was really like helped me. I don't know. Now that the books published, I’m actually on social media because I wasn't really there before. I'm finding other graphic medicine and other different comics just to follow online. Before I was just into reading-- I don't know young adult graphic novels and for work, basically. Then I took a course on teaching with comics. I was looking at comics more from the teacher's perspective, more than a consumer perspective or the comics that were consuming were for the purpose of teaching and sharing with students. I guess the only one for me would probably be like Sarah's Scribble was a huge influence probably for this comic.
Tim: What are some comics that you use in the classroom?
Sheila: Okay. My favorite one I found for my comic book club is Monster on a hill. I love that comic so much. It's about a monster who wasn't being a really great monster because he wasn't scaring the people in the town because it was like a tourist attraction. There's a group of adventurers and they get the monster back into doing his job and he saves the day. The kids and I really enjoy that comic. I really also enjoyed Cardboard. It's another fantasy adventure comic. I have a lot of fourth and fifth-grade boys who show up to my comic book clubs. I'm trying to pull books for them. I taught some non-fiction books. There's a book called XOC. It's X-O-C and it's great white sharks and their journey across the Pacific. Then I tied that together with another book called I'm not a plastic bag, and it's a wordless graphic novel about the Pacific Ocean, how it's being polluted. Those two books tied together quite nicely. I don't know. I try to teach different kind of genres. I also taught one dead spy, which is like a historical fiction piece about the American Revolution. I try to pull in different genres even just to show my co-workers that comic books are real literature and you can teach any content and make it more accessible to the students.
Tim: What's the format? You describe it as a comic book club or graphic novel club. Is everyone reading their own copy or are you reading to them?
Sheila: We read it together and then we'll talk about different pieces. I start off with not having them read the graphic novel. I start with wordless comics because I feel like when they jump into it, they're all like, "I read comic books all the time. I read graphic novels all the time." I'm like, "That's great but are you reading the pictures," and I slow them down. I teach them some visual vocabulary. I have them look at colors to try to infer what kind of mood the author is trying to convey and looking at the figures and the spatial positions. Then teaching them about the different text features of the graphic novel. I always start with wordless books. We use Sean Hand’s The arrival. We read a chapter of that. Just getting them first to be visual readers before we throw in the text because I know they can read the text boxes. We do that. Then one time, the kids were like, "This is fun. I like reading comic books, but can we write them?" We ended up having a Writers Workshop, essentially. The entire comic book club was just writing so the kids came in with their own ideas for comics and I would just run around the classroom giving them some feedback. One student who always had super creative ideas, but his text boxes were tiny and I'm like, "Can you just put the text in and then circle it later because you put the bubbles in first, and then squeeze all this dialogue into it." It was so cool because it was all coming from the kids. Another student was having a lot of anxiety about MCAS testing. He had an entire skit about how it was the first day of school and the teachers like, "Welcome to school. We're going to start doing MCAS and it was all like, dramatize." It was great because it was real stories coming from the kids and they're all so creative.
Tim: I have taught, not in a while, but I have taught comics as an after school class to both first and second graders, and also fifth and sixth graders. It's interesting to see the differences because developmentally the sixth graders are worried about getting it right. The lines have to be straight. Do you have a ruler? It doesn't matter. The line doesn't have to be straight or a kid is furthering his or her brow and hunched over the desk and twisting pencil in his or her hand and not drawing and saying, "I'm thinking of my idea." They're trying to get it right. They're trying to make it the best idea. It's the fear of the blank page and the fear of judgment. Meanwhile the first and second graders are just drawing straight ahead and their tongues hanging out and they're hunched over the paper and millimeters away from the paper and finish one panel and hop on to the next. You had mentioned that you weren't much on social media before this. How has it been? You must be the primary marketer of your book. How is that? How is social media?
Sheila: When I was going through IVF, I was actually afraid to find a community online. One of the people I did talk to frequently through the process that I would just vent to was my acupuncturist, and she was like, "Just be careful about forums. It might bring you into a dark place. Some people out there are in worse situations than you. You might just be depressed even more so if you go on there." I'm like, "Okay, all right." I'm already googling every symptom under the sun. I was like, "Maybe you're right. Maybe googling stuff I'm going to go crazy." I backed off and I didn't actually have an Instagram account until few months ago. This is all really new to me. When the book launched, I opened up my Instagram account and I was looking for other people in the community to talk to and just share my comics with. The community I found on Instagram I'm like, so mad at myself for not finding them sooner because they're wonderful. Everyone's so supportive and everyone's at different stages of the process. There's just nothing but love and support on there. I was so shocked like, just that this existed and I wasn't part of it. I was essentially doing my own little art therapy on my own and blogging about it but there were all these other women who were essentially me and I'm looking at their posts, and I'm like, "That was me. I've been there. I had that exact feeling or I had that procedure." Everyone was giving them love and support and cheering them on. People, they're like, "Sensitive post”. I’m like “Oops. Someone got pregnant." People share their highlights, their struggles, and it's just like, "My story is not actually that different. After all, I'm realizing I'm just one of thousands of women who are living this every day." It's nice.
Tim: Does having this larger support structure, this community, affect the work that you're making now?
Sheila: Yes. Well, I don't know. My Instagram account's kind of specific to my book. I want to do other comics about daily life but then, at the same time, I get a different reaction if I post something off-topic like I've posted silly things, a little joke about my love of eating chips and salsa. I made a little spoof about George R Martin and Game of Thrones and my frustrations with the last season. Some people are like, "Haha, we like the same things," outside of my comic. The stuff that gets the most response is connected to my graphic novel, is connected to infertility. The stuff that I'm posting on my Instagram is all connected to the book. I don't know. I'm trying to work on some other stuff too, in my spare time, but it's hard to find the time to do all this.
Tim: Your website, sheilaalexanderart.com has, besides some info about this book, there's also one or two other comics. There's a comic about breastfeeding?
Sheila: Yes. That's a project that I thought I was going to be working on this summer but then I got commissioned to do some illustrations for another person's novel that's coming out this fall. I got really excited about that because she's making a series of books about infertility. I was like, "Yes, I'll help you with these books." Originally, she wanted my art to be featured in it because she doesn't have a lot of artists but she's asking a bunch of different people from the Trying to Conceive community to share their stories. A few of my comics are going to be in there. Then she was like, "Want to help me with the cover?" I was like, "Yes, I want to help you with your cover." I'm actually doing more paintings for her book covers. They're not comics at all. It's a different style, but I'm happy with how they're coming out. That turned into my current job. I had to table my breastfeeding comic and I have that one in a notebook though. I'd kept a journal about that. I have like over 60 comics planned. I have the dialogue. I have a short description of it, but I have to actually draw it because while chasing around a baby, I just didn't have time to get to the studio.
Tim: This novel, can you tell us the title of the first one?
Sheila: It's going to be a series called This is. The first one's going to be This is trying to conceive. The author is Sheila Lamb. She's from Great Britain. They're coming up this fall. I'm excited about it though. It seems like a cool series.
Tim: When the summer arrives, do you continue to teach? Do you teach different things or that's family time and personal projects time?
Sheila: Yes. This is after bedtime. This is my after-bedtime job. All other art and comicing because when September rolls around I'm back to teaching full-time and then after school, I have-- He's 15 months old now, so he'll be about 18 months old in September. Being a mom and getting him to bed, then once he's finally asleep, then I can get to my art. [chuckles] It's a full day.
Tim: Is there anything else that you want listeners to know about your experience or this book? I've mentioned your website. Maybe you can tell us your other social media platforms, how people can find you.
Sheila: I'm pretty active on Instagram. My Instagram is @sheilaalexanderart. I'll post little comics here and there. I just wanted this whole project, If: A Memoir of Infertility, the purpose of it is just to let other people know, if you're going through infertility, you're not alone. We've been there, it sucks. I've tried to make light of it. My whole book is not just misery and sadness. It's laughing at some of the side effects and the situations that you find yourself in. I'm just trying to have a sense of humor. It got me through some of the tough times. Obviously, art really helped to process and cope with things. I just really want the readers to know, you're not alone. If you haven't gotten through infertility, if you were fortunate enough to have a family naturally, just know that one in eight couples have to deal with this. You just might want to pause before asking a young couple, "When are you going to have a baby?" It's just to be able to be a bit more mindful that some people want children, but it's just not that easy.
Tim: Thank you, Sheila. The book is called If: A Memoir of Infertility. It's written and illustrated by Sheila Alexander, who is an alumna of Lesley University. I'm Tim, a professor at Lesley University. Thanks for listening.
Voiceover: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. For more information on Sheila Alexander, her graphic memoir, our illustration department, and today's interviewer Tim Finn, check out our episode page. The link is in the show notes. If you've enjoyed today's podcast, we'd appreciate a positive review on Apple Podcast. It helps other people to find the show. Please share it with bookish writerly friends. Next week, we've got an interview with Rose Bingham, who's first children's book looks at the life of African American ice-skater Mable Fairbanks. Here is a clip from that interview.
Rose: She would pass every test. They would take her paper and rip them off in front of her and say, "Because you are black, you don't need these papers anyway. You are not allowed to compete anyway. The tests don't matter."