Fence Jumping: An Interview with Frank Santoro




IT’S HARD FOR ME not to tell about Frank Santoro’s latest book, Pittsburgh, through my own experiences of the city. I want to write about how Santoro’s grandmother seems a lot like mine, how a youth of gray days made me appreciate color more, how I also understand that a river is an opportunity but also a barrier. But I won’t say these things — at least not in much detail — lest you think that Pittsburgh is only a book about and for Pittsburghers. Unlike New York or Chicago, Pittsburgh does not get to be a place that is for everyone — a place that everyone else is asked to see themselves through. Santoro’s book defies that limitation. Read Pittsburgh because it has something to say about the city, yes, but also because it has larger resonances. 

Pittsburgh is primarily about family. Family stories are very familiar in American popular culture, but this particular narrative has a different focus than we usually see. The book looks at Santoro’s relationship as an adult with his divorced parents. His parents work at the same hospital but never speak to each other, and the book traces how they got to this position from the beginning of their relationship in the late 1960s. The story is told from Santoro’s perspective. Adult child/parent relationships are often depicted with annoyed, “Why won’t they listen to me in their old age?” sentiments from the child, but Santoro avoids this dynamic and instead portrays the pain produced by his inability to connect the different parts of his family. He also explores the threads of how people get from one place to another in their lives — how circumstances both dramatic and minor affect our trajectories and our relationships with each other.

Beyond its compelling narrative, I was intrigued by the varied hues and mixed methods that characterize Pittsburgh’s images. The book is a kaleidoscope of color, but not just color that pops. Reading it is like looking through a stained-glass window: the color illuminates, but also, well, colors. It shows the brightness of life but also the tension, rifts, and turmoil. I asked Santoro about his use of color and the other intriguing ways he constructs his images in the exchange below. We also discussed Pittsburgh’s thematic elements, and one of the city’s most famous literary figures, August Wilson.

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BRIANNE JAQUETTE: There’s a lot of color in Pittsburgh: pinks, reds, yellows, blues. The color is bright but also saturated. Could you talk us through a page or image from the text and explain the color choices that you made?

FRANK SANTORO: My ideas are fairly intuitive. However, I do feel that I am connecting colors with music. Or hearing colors, so to speak. Synaesthesia. One page, for instance, features a spread about my dad’s “Motown moods” that is a G minor scale to me. The blues and purples and yellows. The red is A. The correlation is slightly different for everyone. But I hear those colors. I wish I had more of a language for it. I’m not musical, like I can’t play piano or read music. But I can hear it. I think that what’s wonderful about music is that it is difficult to describe with words. So, what I’m doing in the Motown moods spread with the houses is using words to describe an event while using shapes and color to play a melody on a G minor scale. I like to think of it as playing with rhymes also.

Sounds and tastes are represented in the book in text — “trains going by,” or “taste of butterscotch candy,” for example. Why did you want to invoke for the reader experiences of these other senses?

That comes out of observational drawing. I would use words in landscape drawings to describe the train going by or a particular bird’s song. It just seemed natural. To put that in the comics, I mean. Same when doing portraits. My dad’s mom would eat butterscotch candy and so when I drew her from memory that was present in my mind. I guess I feel like these descriptive tags that I can easily jot down in a drawing are part of the power of the form, and I want to use all of those tools. Comics can do so many different things. This form is so different from other forms. It’s fun to work around the restriction of not having sound or smell or taste. I want to have those sensations as the author. I’m thinking about the reader, sure, but on another level it just feels natural.

In the book, there are pages taped together and images taped onto other images. Thematically, a lot of the tape can be read as showing connection, transitioning from one image to the next. But I think it also shows disconnection. As an example, two characters might be on the same page in the book but not share the same piece of paper. Do you see the tape as bringing out these tensions, or if not, what was your inspiration for using the tape?

Sure, one could read the use of tape that way. I’ve heard a lot of different thoughts on the tape, and I like that the reader can bring these ideas to how the pages are read. It’s also about calling attention to itself, and that the book is a narrative record of the process of writing with images. It’s all a first take. Or a second take. The reader is there with me in the room, cutting the record. The tape also calls attention to the book being a collage. That it is handmade. I’m also trying to play in that space of mapping memory with drawing. That’s an additive process. I’m affixing new memories to my old memories — literally taping it all together. And yes, like you say there is an element of disconnection. (You’d be surprised how many cartoonist friends insisted that I digitally remove the tape!)

A lot of the images are, to use a film analogy, medium shots, depicting for instance the exterior of houses or the interior of houses and stores. There are very few wide shots until you move to California and speak with your parents. Can you say more about the scope of the images in the book?

Good eye! Yes, when I moved to California and then came back to Pittsburgh it looked like a movie set frozen in time. I saw the width and breadth of it all finally. And I opened up as a person after moving to California. I saw beyond my brick streets and rowhouses. So when the book depicts the more recent past I try to show a wider perspective of Pittsburgh. Structurally, this occurs just about at the center of the book. This wasn’t overly calculated, but something I wanted to show in order to let the middle breathe. The beginning is tighter with more verticals. So much of composing comics is, to me, about scale jumping. Because we can’t do slow zooms like in film or animation, we have to jump cut. And that means you play around with things changing scale often on the same spread or page. How those transitions are visible or invisible to the reader is interesting to me.

I’m wondering about how you work your current perspective into the book — for example, when you reflect on your insistence that you don’t want to move back to Pittsburgh with comments that you always secretly did. Was it hard to navigate when to include the “now” version of yourself?

Yes, it was hard to figure that out. I left it open. I wanted to have an open structure so there is room for now. The voice is now of course describing an earlier self. So the question became when to comment on those then thoughts and when to let the scene play out with minimal commentary from the present. I wanted to have compassion for that earlier self who was so lost, but without too much indulgent navel gazing. I tried to stay more focused on the now and then on my parents’ story. It’s talk therapy on the page. The creative act of drawing it now, recalling older versions of what was “now,” then. It’s a wonderful feeling just to bring all those people and places close again. The now version tried to tell the story the way I tell it to friends in the present, in a conversational way. Which is really hard, I think. Telling family stories that seem simple on the inside can take so much set up for readers. Navigating that reality of just telling the story plainly, while setting up moments to highlight where it all overlaps, is interesting to me. It’s like a detective ghost story or something, especially where my family history intersects with Vietnam and the steel mills closing here in Pittsburgh.

As adults we have a lot of opportunities to grumblingly complain about our parents, but fewer conversations about what we still need from them as parents. I’m wondering how your audience has reacted to this part of the book. For example, have you had a lot of feedback about making sense of parent/adult child relationships?

Yes, and that’s been unexpectedly gratifying. Everyone has parents, whether we know them or not as people — or at all. That’s a riff I have used a lot while promoting this book. It’s fertile ground on which to talk about this book specifically, but then it also opens up the conversation to art in a wider sense. Life. Some people have told me that the book gave them permission to just talk about family stuff. Or even just think about it. Sometimes my story mirrors a reader’s story very closely. That’s been uncanny. Maybe the particular Rust Belt perspective hits home, or the divorce stuff. I try not to play Dr. Phil with people who are in line to get their book signed, but it often happens that I will have heavy conversations with strangers when promoting this book. But I listen. I get nice emails too. People who knew my parents or shared that world. That’s been really great — getting these new stories about my own family from people who were there whom I maybe didn’t know well at all growing up but who knew my family. That’s been really unexpected. Someone said I made all the people in the book immortal. That just knocked me out.

In the beginning of the book, you wish for a sibling, “someone to share in all of this fence jumping.” It is hard to read about fences in a book about Pittsburgh and not think about August Wilson. The ability to communicate well with your family or not is obviously a much larger theme in literature, but I’m wondering if there is also something particularly Pittsburgh about familial miscommunication?

It pleases me to no end that you would ask me this question. You are the first interviewer to ask me about that specific reference. I think some people get that reference but it helps if you are from Pittsburgh or are familiar with August Wilson. Before I really answer the question though, I have to tell the story of meeting August Wilson during one of my brief stays in Pittsburgh when I was still living in California. I took a job at the toy store in Station Square for the holidays. And one day a customer erupted at the cashier because he’d been given the incorrect change. I realized it was August Wilson bellowing. He said, “Do you think I’m stupid?” and marched off with his young daughter in tow. His wife was still in the store and I asked her if that was indeed August Wilson. She lit up and said, “Yes, please go say hello.” Meaning, “Hopefully it will cheer him up,” I believed. She was right. He went from gruff to ol’ softie once I poured on the “Mr. Wilson, I just have to say that Fences is one of the greatest works of art I have ever encountered” sentiment. And I meant it. His daughter was admiring a stuffed animal toy, and I got the store to let her have it gratis. He was very nice to me and his wife joined us and we talked for a minute. I think they appreciated being recognized. The city of Pittsburgh was actually dedicating a new arts center to him that weekend. He died soon after.

To your point about family miscommunication and Pittsburgh, I would have to say yes. It’s hard to define, however. Maybe because I am in it. August Wilson’s Fences really captures the sentiment. Beyond race and class, there is the simpler family space that is present. Keeping family in, yes, but also marking the emotionally resonant space around the family home. “What’d I say about jumping over that fence?” is a line I have my father yell at me when I do hop the fence. I am leaving the family symbolically. Which my dad can’t do, at that point in the story. All the family secrets are fenced in. I think there is a very specific type of family miscommunication in Pittsburgh. I want to say it’s just the older generation or it’s a working-class thing. But this area is so different from other parts of the country. People are very warm and very distant at the same time unless you are family or close like family. Generally speaking. People stay in their lane here. But flaunt the space in that lane. I think that goes back to the steel mills in the Gilded Age. Pittsburgh is a world apart. We aren’t the cold Midwest, we aren’t the aggressive East Coast, and we aren’t the slow-paced South. I mean, Mr. Rogers is real. There is a neighborliness here. So I don’t know. I’m writing from this place that may only exist in memory. Because all that is changing. The book is about that loss. And how we are still here. And yeah, what we need from each other now.

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Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Brianne Jaquette currently works and writes from Bergen, Norway, where she teaches English-language literature and culture.

 

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