Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic novel “Fun Home,” muses on her groundbreaking body of work, her father’s secret life and how it fueled the “Fun” multiple-Tony-winning musical.
To be perfectly honest, Alison Bechdel misses the old days, when being a lesbian felt like being “a freak and an outlaw.”
Her “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip was — much as she hates the term — groundbreaking. And her “Bechdel Test,” which monitored gender bias in fiction and film, made Hollywood squirm a little. She was happy in the margins, with her short hair and men’s brogues and art that spoke for a subculture.
“It does give you a certain freedom,” Bechdel said. “And I see some of that freedom, to create a new way of being in the world, diminishing a little.”
Indeed, same-sex marriage is legal. There are gay people on TV shows, in Congress, and in commercials for everything from Teddy Grahams to Tylenol.
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And in June, the musical based on Bechdel’s graphic novel, “Fun Home,” won five Tonys, including best musical.
The radical lesbian has gone mainstream.
“I am a little wistful,” Bechdel said of her early days. “But when I talk about that, I am fully cognizant of not really wanting to go back to those times. Although I talk about how easy it was to come out, it was still really different and people were hostile.”
Bechdel, 55, was on the phone from the Oregon coast and was on her way to Seattle, where she will speak at Town Hall on Oct. 22. The event, which is being sponsored by Seattle Arts & Lectures, is sold out.
She is still trying to figure out a topic, but will probably speak about her creative process over the years.
“How I have tried to manage it and navigate it,” Bechdel said. “Hopefully, it will be entertaining.”
How could it not be? Just months before the success of “Fun Home,” Bechdel was awarded a 2014 MacArthur Genius grant, which gave her $650,000 to do with whatever she wants.
“I haven’t gone crazy with it,” Bechdel said of the award money. “It was just that feeling of being certified. I have always been an outsider in the margins. But it was wonderful and strange and it was amazing to feel myself being stamped with this seal of approval.”
The same thing happened with the Tonys.
“Fun Home” (the Bechdel kids’ nickname for the funeral home where they grew up amid caskets and mourners) chronicles the tension and love between Bechdel and her father, Bruce, as she discovered her budding homosexuality and he tamped his own down with a laser focus on his daughter’s education, home-restoration projects and clandestine encounters with men.
Bruce Bechdel died when he was hit by a truck on the road in front of their home. His daughter believes it was suicide.
“I came out as a lesbian and told my parents my big news before I knew about my dad,” Bechdel said. “And it was in that telling, my blithe, naive coming out to my family, when I learned about my father’s secret life.”
It’s why she went on to become “this professional lesbian,” who wrote and illustrated “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1983.
“I was an aimless liberal-arts graduate casting about for something to do,” Bechdel said. “And I was very caught up in ‘the movement,’ as we used to call it. I was living in this queer subculture and that was my life, so I wrote about it.
“I was a young kid coming out when it was safe to come out. Different from my father’s generation.”
Not long after, she helped come up with the “Bechdel Test,” which tracks whether a film has two named women talking about something other than a man. Only half of all films surveyed passed the test.
“It was a bit of a reaction,” she said of her body of work. “I wanted to do the opposite of keeping a secret.”
With that in mind, what might her father have thought of “Fun Home”?
“That’s a difficult hypothetical for me to entertain,” Bechdel said. “There would be no ‘Fun Home’ if he hadn’t killed himself.”
The musical “was a public declaration of something he spent his life trying to keep secret,” she continued. “If it would be possible for him to separate the story from the execution, the work of art, I think he would be really proud.”
Bechdel’s only role in the show was to talk with producers about her family and her writing process. Then Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the score, took over.
“I ceded all my power,” Bechdel said. “And how lucky. It’s almost like I was walking on the edge of a cliff and didn’t even realize it. I knew (Kron) and I trusted her and I was right.”
Bechdel is working on another book and adjusting to a life no longer in the margins.
Her friends are getting married and having children “in a way that is so strangely conventional,” she said. “But they’re happy and that’s the important thing.”
Is she happy? Bechdel married her wife, artist Holly Rae Taylor, last July. “Fun Home” is the toast of Broadway. And that MacArthur grant money comes in every quarter.
“I struggle with happiness,” Bechdel said after a long pause. “I don’t know. I grew up in a family where happiness was not really happening, and I got ingrained with these feelings of … I don’t know. Anxiety. Dissatisfaction.
“It’s very hard to shake these things and I have been in therapy for years trying to feel like everything is OK.”
It helps to meet with fans who thank her, tell her that her work gave them the courage to come out.
“People tell me that (“Dykes”) was a companion or a guide for them,” Bechdel said. “That they were teenagers reading it in a bookstore, surreptitiously. And that is so gratifying.”
When she was a teenager, Bechdel was stuck reading the 1928 British novel “The Well of Loneliness,” about a lesbian for whom life and love is a struggle.
“That was a bummer of a book,” Bechdel said. “So if I can give people comics to read, that’s a good contribution.”