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11 questions with Allie Brosh

From the Winter 2014 Issue

Q&A with "Hyperbole and a Half" author Allie Brosh

With the publication of her new book this fall, 2004 Sandpoint High graduate Allie Brosh has added to her amazing career as a “draw-writer” – her description for the popular, illustrated stories she tells. This question and answer interview was conducted by email on September 5, 2013.

At last report, you were an unassuming Sandpoint homegirl, studying at University of Montana for a degree in biology. Now we discover you’re a blogger, with a 300,000-plus fans on Facebook and a new book that made Amazon’s best-seller list before it was even published. What happened?

I’m still a little unclear on this myself. Magic, maybe? I know that it involved a lot of writing and drawing, then things spiraled and here I am. There’s nothing I can really point at and say “that’s what did it. That is the thing that made this happen.” It was a lucky intersection of something I like to do and something other people like to see. I worked really hard at improving at what I do, and everything else fell into place.

So if you’re not pursuing biology nowadays – how would you describe your vocation now, if someone asked you? Blogger? Author? Humorist?

I was actually quite relieved to finally be able to refer to myself as an “author.” Before that, I never knew what to call myself. I usually just went with “draw-writer” followed by a five-minute explanation of what that means (“well, it’s got too many words to be a comic, and it would need more opinions or travel photos or possibly just a vague sense of chronology to be a blog…”).

Where does the name, “Hyperbole and a Half” come from?

When I first created my blog, I was very impatient to get to the writing part. I remember feeling annoyed at all the “please think of a title for your blog” nonsense. I’m just lucky I didn’t end up calling it “No” or “Shut Up and Let Me Write Things!!”

Going back to your growing-up days in Sandpoint: You attended the Sandpoint Waldorf School prior to high school. Waldorf is big on art and storytelling. How big of an influence was the Waldorf experience on you?

I’m sure that the emphasis on storytelling helped me develop a better grasp of the art. The biggest influence, however, has been the way I was taught to learn. We were often asked to try to figure things out on our own. For example, while learning physics, our teacher might do a demonstration involving magnets.

Teacher: Hey, look at what this magnet is doing. Isn’t it weird?

Us: Why is it doing that?

Teacher: Why do you think it’s doing it?

Us: Because it’s a magnet and that’s what magnets do?

Teacher: But why do magnets do what they do?

We would then have to come up with various theories as to why magnets do what they do. Sometimes we were correct, sometimes we weren’t, but the process of using what little we did know to figure out what we didn’t know was still useful. It taught us how to look at something that we didn’t understand and piece together a rough understanding of it all on our own.

I had always wanted to be funny, but I didn’t know how. So I watched a lot of funny people be funny and gradually pieced together an understanding of how humor works. It isn’t a formula you can memorize, but there are patterns and rhythms to it that you can internalize and experiment with. Rather than being overwhelmed by the scope of the task or simply assuming that it couldn’t be learned, I was willing to give it a shot and see how much I could figure out. The willingness to try was very important, and I was fortunate to have lots of early practice with it.

So, your artwork with your stories is kind of … different. One writer described it as “simple, crude art.” Another calls it “naïve”. How did you develop your style – and how would YOU describe it?

In a way, my drawings are the distillation of what I find funny about things. For example, I take what I see as the funniest aspects of a facial expression or body posture and then isolate those parts and exaggerate them. I could draw detailed, true-to-life pictures, but that would be like recounting every detailed fact of a funny story (“Well, the linoleum was brown and yellow and the walls were white. There was a slight breeze outside, probably because it was October and the nights were getting colder. Anyway, Carol walked in and — have you seen Carol’s new haircut yet? It’s about an inch shorter than before. It looks almost exactly the same, but I’m sure if you measured it….”). A good storyteller knows what parts to emphasize and what parts can be omitted. My art is an attempt to do that with pictures.

You’re also a distance runner – aside from state cross-country championships at Sandpoint High in 2002 and 2003, you pulled down a scholarship to run at UM. What, if anything, do you bring from running into your writing? (Do you still run?)

I don’t run as much as I used to, but I do still run. It’s a great way to get myself thinking, and some of my best ideas have happened on runs. I’ve taken to carrying a pencil stub and a folded up piece of paper in the waistband of my shorts so that I can write ideas down (I’ve forgotten a lot of good ideas because I was too far from a writing surface).

I also think I learned discipline and some amount of introspection from running. During races, I had to get in my head and figure out how to push past the pain and run faster. It cultivates a good sense of self-honesty. There were lots of times where I was thinking, “This is the fastest I can go. I can’t go any faster than this….” And then I’d ask myself, “Really? This is the fastest you can go? Are you sure?” And it would turn out that no, it was not the fastest I could go — I was just saying that because I was tired and I didn’t want to push harder.

This type of self-honesty also helps me catch myself when I’m being illogical or lying to myself. I’m always catching myself thinking things like “If you picked up every shirt you saw on the floor, you’d do nothing but pick up shirts all the time!” And after I catch myself doing those things, I can make fun of myself for it.

Your dogs seem to provide a lot of material for your stories. Really, how much of this do you owe to your dogs? Are you cutting them in on the royalties?

I do owe a lot of my material to my dogs! Fortunately, dogs like treats and belly rubs much more than they like money, so I got off easy there.

It also makes me appreciate how abnormal my dogs are. I wouldn’t have many stories if my dogs were perfectly behaved and logical. But my dogs are horrible monsters who eat dirt on purpose and have weird phobias about balloons and horse statues. I’m very lucky.

Your mom and dad show up in a lot of stories, too. What kind of feedback do you get from them? (Has your mom offered to bake you any more cakes?)

Both of my parents have been very supportive (they had a surprising amount of faith in my ability to become a successful internet comedian, even though I’m sure they both worried that I would end up as a hobo instead).  They also help me remember details of particular stories (I was very young in many of my stories, so some of the details aren’t as clear to me as they probably were for them).

As for cake, the experience of eating an entire one sort of turned me off of the dessert as a whole. I’ve always thought it’s sort of poetic that my greed destroyed my ability to enjoy the very thing it had driven me to do.

You’ve also written about an episode with depression, and the fact that you address the topic with candor (and humor) has aroused a lot of commentary and kudos. Was it hard to write about that so openly, or did that just come naturally? (Everyone gets depressed at some point; any words of wisdom to pass on?)

I’ve always used humor as a coping mechanism, but I was a little nervous to explore the subject of depression and suicidal ideation with any amount of levity. There’s something reassuring about laughing at this Horrible Serious Thing that happened to me, though. It’s liberating to be able to look at the absolute worst thing that you have ever experienced and then laugh at it.

It’s hard to give advice about dealing with depression without making it sound like I know what I’m talking about (I don’t), but one thing that helped me was to learn how to ride it out. There’s not much you can do psychologically to claw your way out of a depressive episode, and it’s exhausting to fight against it and try to force it out of you, so there’s relief in relaxing into it like some sort of miserable blanket. It isn’t giving up — it’s more an attitude of acceptance and patience. You can suffer gently or you can flail around and panic. Either way, you’re going to suffer for the same amount of time. You can still do things to help yourself; accepting your situation just allows you to do them with less desperation, which makes them feel easier.

You’ve got a comparatively huge following now – I trust you can still go to the supermarket without any problems. Is having a lot of fans and recognition fun – or has it been hard to deal with? (Any anecdotes about fan encounters?)

People recognize me every now and then, but there aren’t a lot of pictures of me out there for people to recognize me from, so I’m relatively anonymous. People recognize my work much more readily than they recognize my face.

When someone does recognize me, it’s sort of fun, though. One woman arranged to meet up with me because her two daughters were big fans of mine. They didn’t know that I was going to show up for ice cream with them, so it was fun seeing the recognition slowly set in. We had ice cream then went for a walk with my dogs. It was great.

Finally: So, what’s next? Another book, more blogging, a film – digging in with what you have started? Or a new direction? Any guess as to where you’ll be in five years?

I’m loving doing what I’m doing now, so I’d like to do it for as long as I can. Writing a book was a great experience for me. It doesn’t seem like it should have been, but I do somehow have fond memories of stringing together 18-hour days of writing and drawing. Maybe it’s a Stockholm Syndrome type thing? I’d like to write another. I guess it’s sort of like wanting to run another race after the pain and misery of the race you just finished.

I’m always worried that I’m going to run out of ideas, so it feels like I can’t possibly do this for another five years. But then I remember that I’ve thought, “this is the last good idea I’ll ever have” after every story I’ve written for the last three years, and I feel better. So, five years from now, I’ll probably still be writing stories and thinking “this is the last good idea I’ll ever have” after each one.

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