Graphic Memoir by Berkeley's Marissa Moss
Berkeley author Marissa Moss chronicles her husband’s battle with ALS in a new graphic memoir.
By Cali Godley
For years, Berkeley children’s author and illustrator Marissa Moss has delighted young audiences and critics alike with her upbeat stories and creative drawing style. Her most popular series, Amelia’s Notebook, follows young Amelia’s adventures across nearly 30 books—from life as a nine-year-old, to moving to a new town, to starting (shriek!) middle school. And in 2014, Barbed Wire Baseball: How One Man Brought Hope to the Japanese Internment Camps of WWII, her illustrated true story about a Japanese American baseball player who was imprisoned in a WWII internment camp, netted Moss a California Book Award Gold Medal. Moss has also established an indie children’s book publishing house, Creston Books.
So it comes as a surprise to see Moss’s latest project, Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love. Taking a dramatically darker turn, Last Things tells the heartbreaking story of her husband, Harvey, a gentle medieval art historian and professor, and his deterioration and death from ALS, a progressive neurological disease that destroys the neurons that control muscles. Moss chronicles the impact of the illness on her husband, their three children, and herself in a profound tale of a family’s struggle to survive.
Diablo talked to Moss about her decision to explore this personal tragedy and what she wanted to say to adults and young readers.
Q: What compelled you to tell this story?
A: This book was 15 years in the making. I started it two weeks after Harvey died, when a friend invited me to a personal writing class. While Harvey was sick, we were always in survival mode, and there was never time to figure out what was going on. Then, everything would shift again; there was no new normal, just always something else. This class gave me a chance to think about what the truck that hit us had done.
We’re human beings, and we use stories to figure out what happened to us. The book started as a traditional prose story, but it didn’t quite work. Every few years, I’d take it out, and an agent would say the same thing—it was too sad. They wanted a happy ending. But there’s a powerful resilience in the story. I survived, and we didn’t completely fall apart as a family after he died. I was conscious at the time of how to get my boys through this as undamaged as possible. I knew friends who’d had something happen as a kid, and they were just marked.
Q: Why a graphic memoir?
A: I thought about writing a book, and I realized: Wait, I draw. Why have I been fighting my own natural instincts? I should turn it into a graphic memoir. That’s when it became possible to work on the book, to put more air in the story so it’s not so claustrophobic and painful. The art makes the big difference. It shows the personality of the kids and the setting. ... I think once this was in a graphic format, it felt like this is an important story, and it could be accessible.
Q: Was the book intended to be for adults only?
A: This book is also a crossover for young adults. My sons were kids [when Harvey died]. More kids than we want to think about have parents who die. It is incredibly isolating. My kids didn’t want to feel like they were the ones [in school] with the dying dad. I felt it was time for something that addressed this for young adult readers—that addressed the stigma they feel.
Q: Tell me about sitting down to draw the pages in this book, putting the journey into scenes. What came back to you?
A: These things are etched into my bones. Nearly all of it is verbatim: the words Harvey said, the words his doctor said, the words his brother said. When I showed the book to my siblings and to Harvey’s brother, they were surprised at how vivid it all was and how well I captured [Harvey]. And the same for my boys.
In writing, you connect with your subject, but you really connect when you’re drawing. There’s a more visceral connection. It was a way of recapturing what had happened. The most painful part to write and draw was the episode when [our then six-year-old son] Asa went back to his dad’s office [after the disease had attacked Harvey’s brain and made him distant]—that one was like the knife in my stomach. Even as I was drawing it, it felt so unlike Harvey to be so cold, and Asa’s excitement that he was going to have a chance to reconnect with his dad was deflated.
I was also very conscious of pacing. Some events are one single page, like when Harvey gets his tracheotomy. I tried to pick pages where you could sit and rest and be with that moment. That’s harder to do with words.
Q: Were you conscious of how honest you were being in the book?
A: One of the key reasons to write this book was I was fighting against the cultural expectation—it’s bad enough you’re dealing with a dying husband, but society is telling you this is supposed to be an ennobling epiphany for you, and your husband is supposed to be incredibly gentle. That wasn’t at all what happened. It’s not Tuesdays With Morrie or Love Story. Disease is divisive and ugly. In doing events with this book and talking to people, it’s validating to them, as that’s how they felt [in similar circumstances].
I think it’s also important to have a conversation about dying well. We were so focused on making Harvey live as long as possible. We should have had a conversation about whether to have a tracheotomy or not. Nobody asked us that question—it was just live or die. And it should have been: Now you can live, but you’ll be tethered to a machine. ... Last Things is about: What do you want to do? I hope the book will open up discussions [about] the appropriate medical care when the urge to fix gets in the way of a peaceful death.
People have been very touched by the book and have told me it was important to them—even people who haven’t been in this situation. That it has resonated with people is really good to hear.
Q: You mentioned the book was 15 years in the making. How do you feel moving forward from the book as well as this chapter in your life?
A: I’m not sure I’m moving forward at all. In many ways, this book puts me deeply back into a very intense time, but now I have the perspective to forgive myself for all the mistakes I made. It’s also given me the chance to talk to my sons about what we went through, to share a greater understanding of what they felt then and now. Each of us has incorporated aspects of Harvey’s personality and values into ourselves. It’s how we keep alive those who matter most to us.
Q: Now that you’ve revisited these times in your memoir, what will you work on next?
A: What I’m working on right now is a big departure. Amazon Studios is developing an animated series based on [Amelia’s Notebook]. It’s different enough that it’s a good break. I’m working on background development, so I’ll be immersed in Amelia for a while. It’s nice because it’s a homecoming in a way but playing with it in a new format. marissamoss.com.