"Financial relief has inspired a kind of existential relief"

Edition 2: An interview with writer-illustrator Forsyth Harmon

Being married to a writer, I have the pleasure being a co-recipient of a constant flow of new books delivered to our house. A while ago, a debut novel on our counter caught my eye: the name ‘Justine’ in bright pink letters is printed onto black cloth-over-board, and resting on the letters with a skinny leg bent into her chest is a teenage girl, exquisitely line drawn into the corner of the cover. 

Lo and behold, it turns out the author of this beautiful book — Forsyth Harmon — is practically my neighbor, living with her husband and young son in a house with Soho warehouse windows, tucked into a steep hill outside Stone Ridge, NY. More importantly, Forsyth is a rare creature: someone who can express themselves equally brilliantly through words and visuals. As well as writing and illustrating her debut novel Justine, she has had stories published in The Believer, Tin House and other prestigious literary magazines, and she collaborates with other authors — including Catherine Lacey and Melissa Febos — to bring their work alive through illustration. Plus, she is also an experienced creative director in graphic design. No mean feat juggling all those endeavors in any year, but particularly impressive during a pandemic.

Justine is the story of a teenage girl, Ali, and her awkward path to self discovery alongside the titular Justine: an aspirational, provocative new friend. As a women who also came of age in the 90s, the book resonated with me on many levels: comparing yourself to magazine images of Kate Moss and Britney Spears, hotboxing in borrowed cars, trying to keep tamagotchis alive… these are all familiar experiences, albeit I was having them in Oxfordshire, not Long Island.

The book also captures with head-on honesty the everyday adolescent humiliation of trying to mould your identity to please others, and constantly berating your own body for its apparent failings (thigh size, leg length, hair removal) — something that is deeply woven into the female experience, especially if you grew up when “lads mags” and Wonderbras were omnipresent, yet it feels sort of heartbreaking to see it so plainly exposed on the page. Justine has won many plaudits, including from Oprah’s Magazine, O, that describes it as “Crackling with the swift and satisfying fizz of Pop Rocks and Diet Coke, Harmon’s first novel. . . . acutely captures that time in one’s life when imitation feels like the sincerest form of freedom.”

After some years going back and forth between the city and a former weekend home in Phoenicia, Forsyth, her family and her cats moved full time to the Hudson Valley in 2020. I am thrilled to have such a talent living so close by and excited to share this interview with you all.

AJL: Huge congratulations, your novel is so beautiful. As someone who has illustrated other people’s books before, how does it feel to see your own writing come to fruition in the form of a lasting, physical object?
FH: Thank you! It’s both terrifying and gratifying to have my own writing out in the world. Because these are my words, the book feels more vulnerable than my collaborations have, so there was more anxiety around publication. At the same time, I’ve wanted to publish an illustrated novel since I was a girl, so there’s a part of me that feels like she can finally kick back and relax a little. I did it! And then, I’ll never forget something my The Art of the Affair collaborator Catherine Lacey once said at a reading, to the effect of: “You publish a book, and then you’re still the same shitty person.” This also resonates.

Justine really resonated with me in its capture of the complexity of being a teenage girl with a strong personality yet malleable sense of identity, and somewhat destructive approach to their own body.  Was it challenging to tackle those issues, or cathartic?
A bit of both. I began the project during what I look back on as a kind of second adolescence. I’d recently quit my job, left a long-term relationship, moved across the country, and begun an MFA program — re-experiencing some of the excitingly unmoored feelings I’d had as a teenager. It felt natural — urgent, even, then — to reflect on my coming-of-age and, through doing so, hopefully gain some clarity on where I’d come from as I moved into my thirties. I’ve struggled with so many of the same issues my narrator does — eating disorders, unhealthy interpersonal boundaries, the predisposition to obsess — beyond my teenage years, into my adult life. Writing about them has been a thorn to remove the thorn.

You are what some call a professional multihyphenate: writer-illustrator-creative director. In what role do you feel most yourself?
The writer and illustrator have always gotten along. For me, writing tends to be both an intellectual and an emotional exertion, while illustration balances it as a more relaxing, automatic exercise — a time to integrate what comes up in the writing. But, for most of my adult life, the creative director has existed sort of separately. I’ve felt as though I’ve had two selves, and, to be honest, they haven’t always cohabited peaceably. The writer/illustrator has mocked the creative director’s desire for financial security, while the creative director has found the writer/illustrator’s dreams rather indulgent. It’s only recently that I’ve begun the earnest work of mediating a reconciliation. We’ll see how it goes.

Your illustrations are so precise yet evocative. How did your style develop and were you inspired by any particular people or experiences?
The first draft of Justine was illustrated in looser, full-color watercolors. As I edited the text, it became more economical, until it found its final, spare styling. I felt the image aesthetic should align, so I recreated the illustrations as careful, black-and-white line drawings.

I read a lot of Beverly Cleary as a kid — I loved her Ramona Quimby books in particular. Alan Tiegreen illustrated these books in the late 70s and early 80s, and his line clearly influenced mine. I also looked at a lot of Wayne Thiebaud as a young person — I must’ve taken some inspiration from his etchings.

Illustration from Forsyth’s novel Justine

Like me, you moved out of the city in the last year. What has surprised you about moving upstate?
I was more ready to leave the city than I’d imagined. It was something my husband, the writer and critic Paul Stephens, and I had been talking about for years — especially since the birth of our son in 2017. The primary factors of consideration for us had been the cost of living, plus how much stimulation and socialization we really required. Let’s be honest: city living — especially with a kid — is so expensive. The financial relief of leaving Brooklyn has inspired a kind of existential relief I couldn’t have predicted. And we’ve found that — beyond beginning to make a few friends here — taking frequent-enough trips to visit friends in Manhattan and Brooklyn has, so far, offered adequate socialization. Though it will be interesting, of course, to see how we feel as the city reopens.

As a storyteller — observing life and turning it into art — has moving to the Hudson Valley begun to influence your work?
This year, between quarantine and the move, we’ve transitioned to a slower, quieter way of life. This has opened up both time and mental space. I’m keeping a journal for the first time since I was a teenager, and meditating for the first time since my twenties. I’ve grown more contemplative. I’m asking big questions. I’m writing personal essays as a way of clarifying, if not answering, those questions.

You grew up on Long Island, near the beach. Now, you live in a house on a hillside with a floor to ceiling view of the Catskill Mountains. Do different landscapes have a different impact on your creativity?
I miss water. Even in the city I always lived close to either the Hudson or the East River. I do struggle with a bit of claustrophobia, even as I gaze out onto the gorgeous Shawangunk Ridge. But the alternating mountains and rolling hills of this region have their own magic. And beyond the geography, the Hudson Valley offers lower population density, lower cost of living, and more democratic politics than Long Island. I could never live in a county that votes Trump.

Forsyth with her son Will in the woods upstate

2020 was intense, for so many reasons. As a working mom with many strands to their career, is there a place that you like to go to find peace and recharge your creativity? 
I read every night before bed. I get in my pajamas, put on my hydrating moisturizer, turn out the lights, and read from a device in order to dilate the radius of my attention completely to the words before me. Lately I’ve been rereading the Philip Marlowe novels. They’re a great escape, and I love Chandler’s spare prose, which I’m sure influenced my own.

Creating and publishing a novel is such a milestone. What comes next — are you ready to dive back into another book, or do you have other projects brewing?
I’m wondering what these little essays I’m writing might amount to. I’m taking on topics as they inspire me, but perhaps they’ll cohere into a book. I have more patience than I used to, and a greater tolerance for uncertainty. So rather than trying to drag it behind, I’ll let the muse lead me.

Thank you, Forsyth, I’m intrigued to see where it leads you too! And feel free to send me recommendations on bedtime books and hydrating moisturizers in the meantime.

Justine is available from your local book store via Bookshop and all other online bookstores.

In the next edition of the ‘Catskill Culture Club’ I will be speaking to one of my favorite people in the world: music supervisor savant and magical friend Jessica Dierauer Patrick, who splits her time between Brooklyn and Palenville, NY.