On Monday, May 1, Kristen Radke, author of the newly released graphic memoir-inquiry-novel Imagine Wanting Only This, spoke to Houston’s own beloved, award-winning poet and writer Nick Flynn at Brazos Bookstore.
Radke began the event by expressing her “admiration for booksellers.” She is the managing editor of the popular indie press Sarabande, so is familiar with both sides of the book industry. She also explained that Imagine Wanting Only This is “about ruins and abandoned places.” She decided to read an excerpt from the very end and “give it all away.” The section, a monologue, read like poetry in its pacing and probing of abstract ideas. A slideshow of the accompanying illustrations was also played.
Radke then sat with Flynn, who asked about her role as an illustrator and a writer. She admitted that while she studied commercial art as an undergrad and creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa in graduate school, she essentially taught herself how to combine her two passions. As her project continued, she did her research. When Flynn asked which women comics she liked, she answered straightforwardly “every woman who’s ever been a comic” and touched the pop cultural history of comics as a boys’ club with women typically portrayed as “anatomically incorrect.”
Flynn noted that in his own collaborative class at UH, there seems to be a strong difference between the artists and the writers, for whom “word is their medium. “As he read aloud several of Radke’s reflective, “wildly lyrical” moments. He also noted his fondness for a memoir that “finds an obsession and follows it through.”
Radke also commented on the research she did for her book, traveling to famous sites of ruins as well as post-industrial towns dotted across the Midwest. Radke shared her wealth of knowledge about Chernobyl, the Parthenon, and Hashima Island in Japan, as well as Detroit, MI and Gary, IN. She noted that “there are plenty of places in the Midwest that show evidence of decay,” which she was especially passionate about.
Radke told the riveting story of Peshtigo, a booming log town in Wisconsin, obliterated by “a conflation of wind and weather and drought” that transformed a controlled fire into the first recorded firestorm in history. She described a sky on fire with burning tornadoes. “It was more catastrophic than the fire in Chicago” that occurred on the very same night. “Millions of acres of land” were lost, not to mention lives. In fact, the Allied forces studied this site in developing firebombs for Tokyo and Dresden.
This, and other fascinating tidbits—such as Icelanders waiting two years after a volcanic eruption to return to their home island, Radke’s youthful transgression of a boy’s memorial in an abandoned church, “dead malls,” and “the rise and fall of communities in North Dakota”—are woven throughout her book, making it truly a hybrid. She predicted that America is so young and so big that we are only now coming to terms with “seeing out first ruins and reflecting on them.”
The event ended with a Q & A. There was much to mull over, including urban renaissance, the closure of mines, factories, and plants, and “romanticizing ruins.” I look forward to diving into the book—these issues will stay and determine the fate of the American city and beyond.