According to the National Institute Of Mental Health, postpartum depression afflicts about 15% of new mothers. Yet despite these numbers, it’s still something that people look upon with shame, even those who suffer from it. In the following email interview, writer and artist Teresa Wong discusses her new graphic novel memoir Dear Scarlet: The Story Of My Postpartum Depression (paperback), in which she reflects on the bout with postpartum depression she suffered after the birth of her daughter Scarlet.
Photo Credit: Ken Hurd
Let’s start with the story. What is Dear Scarlet about?
Dear Scarlet is a letter to my daughter, explaining everything that happened to us in her first two months of life. It’s an open and honest look at new motherhood and postpartum depression.
As it’s a memoir, it’s obvious where you got the idea for Dear Scarlet. But why did you decide this subject was a good one to write about and, more importantly, that you were the best person to write it?
I was actually pregnant with my third child when I started having flashbacks to Scarlet’s delivery and newborn months. The memories were so vivid and the images in my mind were so strong that I knew I wasn’t “done” with it yet. I thought that maybe writing about my postpartum depression would help me work through those lingering feelings, so I started drafting some scenes. Once I finished my first draft, I knew I had a good story, but I never set out to be any sort of authority on the subject. These are just my experiences, and I’m no expert on postpartum depression, but I do hope other mothers find it relatable.
In writing Dear Scarlet, did you talk to anyone else about postpartum depression, either a fellow sufferer or a medical professional?
This book is a pretty straightforward telling of my own story in my own voice, so I didn’t have many opportunities to add other people’s experiences or opinions, although I do mention some friends who’d been through postpartum depression and how they inspired me.
How about other memoirs, graphic or otherwise; did you look at anyone else’s life stories to see what to do? Or maybe what not to do?
The first graphic memoir I ever read was Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and I was totally blown away by her story, both verbally and visually. That was when my interest in graphic narratives began, and I started reading a bunch of graphic novels and memoirs. Later on, I discovered Please God, Find Me A Husband! by Simone Lia, and found it so delightful that it made me want to do something like it. I think it was extra inspiring to read an autobiographical story about something very small; there aren’t any big events in it, no real drama. I loved the ordinariness of the topic, as well as her simple drawing style.
Is that why you decided to write this as a graphic novel as opposed to a prose novel? Or, for that matter, a poem or a play?
I think it goes back to those image-based flashbacks I kept having: I saw key scenes as pictures, and I felt like the story would be better told visually. I mean, when you’re taking care of a little baby alone, there isn’t much talking. Things are super quiet, and a lot of the time, you’re just doing things in silence, like rocking the baby to sleep, so I felt like a graphic narrative would be the best way to handle the story.
As for the visual aspects, who do you feel were the biggest influences on how you drew Dear Scarlet?
As I mentioned before, I was really inspired by Marjane Satrapi and Simone Lia, but I don’t know if I can call them influences because I’m pretty sure I don’t come even close to drawing like them. I’m still just a beginner illustrator.
Dear Scarlet‘s art is black & white, and rather minimalist. Why did you feel this was the best approach for this story?
I am a writer at heart, and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to draw Dear Scarlet. So I did a draft with my own drawings and showed it to some friends, asking specifically if they thought my lack of skill took away from the story. Most people said that it wasn’t too distracting, and they thought my style matched the vulnerability of the story. I was relieved.
I asked earlier about other graphical memoirs that may have influenced what you wrote in Dear Scarlet. But are there any other kinds of comics that were a big influence on the writing or drawing? I’m talking about stuff like Wonder Woman or The Walking Dead or something else fictional.
I have to ask: Will you let your kids read Dear Scarlet when they’re older?
Actually, Scarlet read my manuscript before I even submitted it to publishers. She was seven years old then and, while she says she liked it, I don’t think she completely understood it. I hope she and her siblings will read it and find it helpful when they’re adults, though. I wrote it as a letter because these are things about my life that I genuinely want them to know.
So, has there been any interest in adapting Dear Scarlet into a movie?
My agent retained our film rights just in case someone comes calling, but I joked to my husband that Dear Scarlet is the least cinematic story ever. Who knows, though? If it were to become a movie, I think an animated short would be awesome. I don’t really know if live action would suit the story.
Finally, if someone enjoys Dear Scarlet, what graphic memoir of someone else’s would you recommend they check out next and why that?
Lucy Knisley’s latest graphic memoir Kid Gloves would be great because it covers topics around fertility and pregnancy, which I don’t really get into with my book.