Interview with a Creative Person: Mari Naomi
It's the first installment in an occasional interview series!
One of the things that helps me do my own creative work is to investigate how others do theirs. I decided to commence an occasional interview series with cool people I find to be interesting and/or neat. For the first installment, I talked to my friend Mari Naomi, who fucking rules.
Born in Texas and raised in the Bay Area, Mari is the founder and administrator of the Cartoonists of Color, Queer Cartoonists, and Disabled Cartoonists databases. They are the author/illustrator of Kiss & Tell, A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22; Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories; Turning Japanese; I Thought YOU Hated ME; Life on Earth (a trilogy); Dirty Produce; and I Thought You Loved Me. Check their stuff out at MariNaomi.com.
Mari, I've been a fan of yours for a few years now. When in your comix creation career did you first realize you had fans - or, if you prefer, enthusiastic readers? (Do we have a fandom name? Is it MARITOPIANS?)
It was 2003, after I'd just done a chilly outdoor live painting event where the hosts kept handing me free shots of whiskey. They felt sorry for me because I was painting in a sleeveless vest, shivering. (July in SF! What was I thinking?) I was crammed with a bunch of people into the back of a station wagon of a slightly less-drunk friend when the random woman on my lap turned around and said, “Wait, are YOU Mari Schaal?? You’re who I came here to see!”
This was the first time I met a fan in the wild, and it was also the moment I decided to adopt a pen name. I felt so exposed!
(Now my birth name Schaal is on Wikipedia for all to see. Thanks a lot, whoever did that! So I guess it’s not so secret anymore.)
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When you begin a new project, do the words or the images arrive first? Or do they show up intertwined?
It depends on the project. Each one is different! The one I’m working now is coming to me in vapors. I’m not sure how to translate it to art, but I’m working on it.
Publishers like to start with words, though, so when I’m doing a professional gig, I try to write a script first.
At which time of day are you likely to feel most creative? Does that coincide with when you're actually able to create?
I get most inspired when there’s no physical ability for me to act on said inspiration, such as while I’m swimming or driving long distances alone. I’ve been known to schedule road trips when I’m hoping for an epiphany. When I lived in LA, I went to Korean spas when I needed a boost. It almost always worked.
What does a typical day in the life of MariNaomi look like?
1. My partner (Gary) wakes up and showers, and the animals start stirring. I try to hunker down as long as possible, but often at this point a cat will step on my bladder, sending me to the toilet before I crawl back into bed.
2. Gary lures me up with coffee and breakfast. Then he feeds our eight animals as I begin cleaning dishes and litter boxes.
3. Dog walk(s) while listening to music or podcasts or audiobooks, depending on where I am in my creative process. Lately, I've been taking photos on my walks, much to my pup's dismay. I use these photos in collages. Sometimes I end up taking these walks with friendly neighbors, if I happen to run into them.
4. Non-creative work, such as interviews, publicity, bills, Zoom calls, emails. My creative brain doesn’t really rev up until after noon.
5. Lunch time. We eat standing up in the kitchen, hiding from the cats. The dogs lurk expectantly below Gary, who has been known to drop things.
6. Creative work. Right now I’m doing a lot of collage, diary comics for my Patreon, and writing out autobio stories that may or may not go anywhere.
7. Snack o’clock!
8. We head to the health club, hopefully early enough to catch our friends and gossip in the hot tub.
9. Swimming and epiphanies for 30-60 minutes! The pool is outdoors next to the bay, so I enjoy doing backstrokes and watching pelicans fly over me, only slightly worried they’ll poop on me. (This happened with some egrets once.) In the spring, sometimes there are ducks in the pool. Today I shared a lane with a pool friend and we gossiped about what seems to be a serial murderer in the area. I didn't get any epiphany time, but my imagination is certainly going bonkers!
10. Gary starts making dinner while I clean up or finish what I’ve been working on or read a few pages of the dozen books I’m reading at any given moment. Right now I’m really enjoying THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen and NEW SCHOOL by Dash Shaw.
11. Dinner and 20 minutes of TV. At the moment we’re cycling through Reservation Dogs, What We Do In the Shadows, The Other Two, Succession, and The Bear (thanks to your Substack post, Sara!)
12. Gary feeds the critters as I do chores, such as dishes and brushing the dogs’ teeth. All but one of the dogs loves it. I don’t know why Winston doesn’t. The toothpaste supposedly tastes like peanut butter!
13. Couch o’clock for snuggling animals, playing Wordle and Key Word, and consuming herbal tea and a spoonful of honey. This is when my tabby cat Wobbly Pete takes over my lap, which is very cute, but sad for all the other lap-lovers.
14. 10:15 bedtime. Six of our eight critters usually join us in our queen-size bed. More or less.
How do you set up your workspace?
My setup sucks right now. For the past couple years I’ve been working in the kitchen, which means that I must clean every dish and sticky surface before getting to work, and that I’m interrupted every time Gary comes in for a snack. I will soon have a studio (it is mid-construction), and I CAN’T WAIT to have my books out of storage, all my paints, pens, papers, light box, cork boards, crayons, and other tools spread around me gloriously!
For now, it’s just some pens, my iPad, a Ring light. I’m typing this (and all my words lately) on a clickety old-fashioned-looking Bluetooth keyboard. The tactile pleasure it gives me has boosted my productivity and creative flow, actually!
Do you regard yourself as a confident person? Has your self-confidence changed as you've gotten older?
As a younger person, I was way more confident than I probably should’ve been. I had the confidence of a mediocre white man, as they say, artistically. But I’ve been humbled by far superior artists for fifty years, so that put me in my place!
I occasionally get impostor syndrome, but then someone starts listing my accomplishments as they introduce me onstage somewhere, and I’m like, damn! I sure worked hard to get where I’m at. So I think I’m the proper amount or confident? I’m not the best at anything, but I generally know what I’m doing, which is a far cry from my youth, when I pretended to know what I was doing. That’s got to count for something, right?
Non-artistically, I am a much more confident speaker, friend, partner, and general human-in-the-world than I used to be. Like, I don’t give a fig about other people’s beauty standards anymore. Just my own impossible ones HAHAHA. *sob*
To what extent do you struggle with self-doubt about your artistry?
It only really comes up when I start comparing myself to others, so I try not to do that. But sometimes I can’t help it. Like, my friend Lauren Weinstein drew a portrait of me, so I decided to return the favor. But I was so intimidated by her drawing skills and how charming her portraits are that I couldn’t just draw one like a normal person. So I made a collage portrait of her instead of a drawing. It was so much fun that it launched me into making a bunch of them!
To what extent do you struggle with self-doubt about your ability to make money from your art?
Before I knew anything about anything, I assumed I could make art (writing, visual art, whatever) and do that and nothing else as a living. Ha! I make some money from book royalties, and Patreon, but the work that goes into maintaining all that is hardly creative. My income also comes from speaking engagements, commissions, and lots of little gigs here and there.
So in some ways, I make all my money off art. But the reality of making money off art involves paperwork, rearranging files, fussing with my website, and tons of self-promotion. It’s not what I signed up for, but it’s part of the job.
Do you consider yourself to be good with financial planning?
Until my thirties I was in horrible debt. I had the idea I’d become a best-selling author and be able to pay off all the credit card debt I was racking up. I literally banked on it. Stupid! I ended up going into credit counseling, closing all my credit cards, and changing my spending habits. Now I’m a pro at living off nothing if I have to.
Are there any resources around finance that you think artists should check out?
When I was in fiduciary distress, my accountant friend sat me down and taught me how to put a budget together. It’s simple but tedious: Write down every single purchase you make for a few months, put it all into a spreadsheet, and you’ll have a good idea of where you can save.
I went from being terrible with money to knowing all these hacks for keeping up my lifestyle without hemorrhaging money. I stopped getting chai lattes and started making my own morning drinks at home. I stopped drinking at bars, and attended a lot more art receptions—where I could not only engage with artists and their work, but also enjoy a glass of wine. I stopped buying clothes and started hosting clothing swaps. I started offering trades when I wanted something I couldn’t afford.
It got to be kind of a game, figuring out how to live as a working artist in an expensive city like San Francisco.
How about time management or productivity? Are there resources that have helped you?
The tricky thing about making art is that it’s difficult to measure productivity, as quantity and quality do not go hand in hand. Lately, I’ve found that I’m my most productive if I stop imposing rules on myself, such as word counts or hours seated in front of a desk. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m working on, outside the work area. If I’m feeling stuck, going out and learning about other people’s art can help, or just clearing my mind. Or allowing my mind to be messy! There’s no wrong way to process.
That said, setting work boundaries has been important. Friends with day jobs can often forget that having a “flexible work schedule" does not mean I don’t have to work. If I deviate from the work schedule I’ve given myself, I always make up for it later.
Who are the artists to whom you return when you need inspiration?
Recently I went on a trip with some lady artists to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, where we visited the Tudor exhibit. The art was inspiring, but even more so was the company—talking about art, seeing art through their eyes. Knowing other creative folks is important for me, especially ones that are at different points in their career than I am. It helps to gain perspective.
It also helps, when I’m feeling stuck, to see what young artists are doing nowadays. Zine fests and gallery shows can be super inspiring, as well as revisiting old favorites to study their methods. Most recently I’ve been thinking about Melissa Banks’ book The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, studying what makes their storytelling so addictive.
Looking at great art always enchants me, but sometimes that can have a negative effect, so I have to be careful. Like, if I look at work by Emil Ferris or Brecht Evens, I need to remember to study, not compare!
Does physical activity play a part in your creativity?
I’ve many times offered to do interpretive dance when tech stuff has gone wrong at my events. Someday, someone will take me up on the offer, and boy will they be sorry! But no, I have to remember to get up and move when I’m working long hours. It’s easy to get sucked into it, and is probably the reason I’ve suffered so much back pain over the years. I find it helps to throw a dance song or three in my playlist, so that I take dance breaks.
Are there habits you've put in place to help enhance your mental health, and do they ever require you to put aside your creative work?
I’ve been wanting to write about something traumatic that happened to me a couple years ago, but my therapist and friends have advised me to go slow. I know they’re right, and that memoir only gets better with the passage of time, but it’s hard, because I’m excited to do it NOW!
But yeah. Therapy, friends, common sense, and Lexapro have all helped me keep my marbles through this. And taking lots of breaks, often to make less emotionally taxing art.
If you decided to retire from your current career tomorrow and start a totally new one, what would you pick? Imagine you've got enough money to live comfortably no matter what.
If I had a bunch of money and free time, I’d buy a skyscraper or a lighthouse or an ISLAND and, with the help of a bevy of artists, turn it into a giant narrative mixed-media art installation.
Other things I’d love to do when I retire from comics: fix the publishing industry (I HAVE IDEAS), open up a queer punk museum, open an antiquarian bookstore with a crotchety cat and very limited hours, own (but not operate) an animal sanctuary that doubles as a guerrilla rescue team… Or maybe I'll just finally have time to READ.
Where can SARATONIN readers learn more about you and your work?
Thank you Mari for your time, and thank you readers for checking this out! I hope you enjoyed it, and perhaps gleaned some inspiration for your own work. Feel free to answer one or two of my questions to Mari in the comments yourselves!