Don’t Go Without Her: A Chat With Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

A person rides a bus or train looking out the window at a pattern of reflections

It’s been a big year Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Following the release of last year’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (written by Mariko Tamaki, published by First Second), her work has won three Ignatz awards, a Harvey award, has been nominated for a GLAAD award, and was most recently awarded a Printz Honor by the YALSA. Following the success of Laura Dean, Valero-O’Connell also collaborated with Shortbox in September to launch a wildly successful Kickstarter for a collection of her short stories titled Don’t Go Without Me.

As a Rosemary super-fan, enthusiast, and friend, I wanted to sit down with her to discuss this gorgeous collection, and also to delve deeper into some of the history that has made her both a darling and a powerhouse of the comics world. She was lovely enough to grant me an interview to talk about her work making comics.

A portrait of Rosemary Valerie-O’Connell, illustrator for the graphic novel, “Laura Dean is Breaking Up with Me” in her home in Minneapolis, Minn., on Thurs. Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo by Jenn Ackerman/For The Washington Post)
A portrait of Rosemary Valerie-O’Connell, illustrator for the graphic novel, “Laura Dean is Breaking Up with Me” in her home in Minneapolis, Minn., on Thurs. Aug. 1, 2019.
(Photo by Jenn Ackerman/For The Washington Post)

Hernando: Good morning, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell!

Valero-O’Connell: Hello Paloma Hernando, love of my life, angel of the morning.

Hernando: (laughs) Disclaimer that me being the love of your life and the angel of your morning will in no way exaggerate or influence this interview.

Valero-O’Connell: Oh yes, just the facts here. No Bias—

Hernando: No nothing—

Valero-O’Connell: We are scientists. No funny business, no emotion—

Hernando: Yes, because if there’s anything we can learn from your work, it’s that emotion just gets in the way.

Valero-O’Connell: (laughing)

Hernando: So, we are sitting here in a lovely cafe in… technically Bushwick?

Valero-O’Connell: Your guess is as good as mine. We’re somewhere baby.

Hernando: We’re somewhere in the fog of Brooklyn. You have now been living here, officially, for a month now?

Valero-O’Connell: Yes, it’s been a month! I keep saying this to everyone, friends, straight up strangers on the street, but I am delighted to be here. I’m almost nervous at how much I’m enjoying myself. I thought for a very long time about this decision, so perhaps I’m reaping the rewards of being careful and cautious. This little worm’s loving the big apple!

Hernando: Yeah, just making his way through! Flying around in a little apple helicopter!

Valero-O’Connell: Just feeling my own little Richard Scarry fantasy.

Hernando: In a Busytown of one’s own… So before this you were living in Minneapolis, where you were born, correct?

Valero-O’Connell: Yeah, I was born in Minneapolis, but I spent a pretty significant chunk of my childhood living In Spain, where my dad is from, and going to school there. I was going back and forth between those two, basically until high school when I decided to go to college in Minneapolis.

Hernando: What would you say was the biggest difference between the two?

Valero-O’Connell: Oh god, I cannot think of two more diametrically opposed places… There’s a no-bullshit, no-nonsense bluntness to all Spaniards, and the midwest does not have that. So when I was little I would have to acclimate between the different personalities of each place, especially among my peers.

In Spain there’s so much history that’s just present in your everyday life. I grew up minutes away from a cathedral that’s like, three city blocks large, and going there with family was a regular thing. You spend so much time around intricate and decorative stylings everywhere.

Hernando: In your work as well, there is a big spread of different experiences being shown, and your environments are bursting with… stuff. You always decide to fill the panel any way you can. There’s this feeling that you’re leaving it all on the dance floor.

Valero-O’Connell: I have a very big soft spot in my heart for all of the trappings of Spanish Roman Catholicism, this very gilded and florid world. I think being around that visual density all the time and appreciating it outside of a religious context was influential to my work for sure.

A person rides a bus or train looking out the window at a pattern of reflections
Don’t Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (Shortbox, 2020)

Hernando: There’s this very reverent impression that we get, as readers, from your comics. It’s this feeling of seeing something important and not knowing why or how, and many times the characters don’t know either, but we just have to trust it. How much do you think your style draws on those religious aesthetics?

Valero-O’Connell: When I was younger a lot of my work felt like it was leaning very heavily on the aesthetic, especially because I was submerged in all the visual markers, but I was not religious in any kind of deep way. I was always so fascinated by the ways we visually denote something as important, or worth elevating. The way I adorn my work and myself is very reflective of that. I especially love the Virgin Mary, and the way she was the patron of every town, always dressed up in pearls-

Hernando: Oh, with that embroidered veil?

Valero-O’Connell: Yesss, I was obsessed, OBSESSED, with her as a kid. Still obsessed. That’s my girl.

Hernando: Oh yeah?

Valero-O’Connell: Yes, my close personal friend.

Hernando: (laughs) it’s also very interesting because a lot of your aesthetic also borders on camp? With the way you use the mundane and put attention into objects. You like plastic as much as you like gold.

Valero-O’Connell: (laughs) Wow, thank you for saying that!

Hernando: So when you were younger, what were the other big creative markers?

Valero-O’Connell: I mean, for me it always starts and ends with stories. I wanted to be a writer before I was an artist, and it took an embarrassingly long amount of time to realize I could do both.
I think that storytelling is the absolute pinnacle of human achievement. There is nothing more special about us than the fact that we are able to share this with each other. I read so much when I was younger, and I read so many comics, particularly manga. There were years where I just like, dropped off reading prose books because there weren’t enough hours in the day to read both.

Hernando: Yeah, if you are going to read every shojo in the mangafox archives, you need an athlete’s schedule.You need to do Michael Phelps training to get there.

Valero-O’Connell: You need a game-plan, you need to meal-prep, you need a calendar! (laughing) Listen, all fun and games, all jokes and jests, but I used to wake up an hour earlier all throughout middle school to fit in reading several chapters of Naruto and watching an episode before getting ready for school. Got the ole one-two punch.

Hernando: Ah, a nice apple cider drink of anime to get your system started. Which mangas stick out?

Valero-O’Connell: Obviously we all have very different influence, but for me one of the main reasons I went into comics was because of some of the pieces of art that just hit that spot deep within me. There was a Tezuka short that became Pluto by Urasawa, The Strongest Robot in the World, and I remember reading that and just, quivering, because it was so in tune with the current of energy in the world that I wanted to tap into. I think I also look to the work my peers are making and feel that same feeling still. Whenever I find it I just kind of sit there and let it soak into me.

Hernando: Like a sponge?

Valero-O’Connell: Basically! Like you know that vacuum in the Teletubbies that goes around slurping up all the custard spilled on the floor? That’s me, baby.

Hernando: The art that we make and share with each other… what is it, but custard on the floor.

Valero-O’Connell: Tubby custard-Oh no, I spit on your glasses! I’m so sorry!

Hernando: What? I didn’t even notice. (laughing)

Valero-O’Connell: (Rosemary taking off my glasses and cleaning them on her shirt) You can’t cut that out! People have to know!

Hernando: (laughing) Okay, so, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, famous sprinkler system—

Valero-O’Connell: I’m trying to keep you fresh, like the produce aisle at the supermarket—!

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (First Second, 2019)

Hernando: (laughing) Any other benchmark media?

Valero-O’Connell: I have to cite His Face All Red every time this question comes up, because it was this snapping of a last puzzle piece into place. I could see that there was something that could happen, there was something within the comics formula that I had never seen in anything else, and I needed to make it. I knew that if I could make anything close to igniting that kind of spark in another person, like, what else could I possibly do? What is worth doing more than this? And when I read it in her collection again I could feel the same kinetic energy, an energy that just transfers to me every time I read it.

I read that in my freshman or sophomore year of high school, and at the same time I read Skim by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, and it was my first time encountering either of their work. It truly changed my life. It was another realization that if this can come from someone dedicating their time and energy to hone this craft into the best possible thing it could be, it felt like I needed to be part of it. I was on one side of the glass, pressing my nose against it, and I wanted to be on the other side.

Those two were definitely my goals I was reaching toward, but it would be disingenuous of me to not cite Mia Schwartz as one of my idols of art-making. I have been following her work since I was in middle school and she was posting these short little comics and sketches on her Livejournal and then her Tumblr. I hadn’t seen that before. Seeing work that looked like hers and was coming from a place that I understood so deeply was the first time I felt not only a connection with the work but with the author. Seeing her apply to art school was also so big because it taught me about deciding to do comics for a living, and learning about the work that went into it.
So yeah, if I had to pick a father-son-and-holy spirit of my inspiration, it would be them.

Hernando: I think you can also see the roots of all three of them in your work.

Valero-O’Connell: Yeah, it always felt like their work was very natural to me. I knew that we were speaking the same language.

Hernando: I love that feeling, the feeling of reading something and knowing that both you and the author are not having to make any compromises.

Valero-O’Connell: Very much, we are standing on the same island and looking out at the same ocean

Hernando: Waving to the same boats driving by (laughing) “yoo-hoo boys!”

Valero-O’Connell: (laughing) Yes! I think it’s really significant to find a story that shares a heart with me. These are stories and artists that for me were truer to the parts of myself that I liked and the parts that I didn’t like.

Hernando: And that’s not nothing with work that you find when you’re younger. I think, especially with Emily Carroll’s work, if you were to travel back in time and find me a week before I found her online comics and ask me “Do you like horror?” I would confidently say “No.” (laughing)

Valero-O’Connell: Right? It’s about trusting the perspective and the intention. I also have come to adore horror, but only a small fraction of it, because with horror it’s all on the surface. You know who and why someone made it.

Hernando: I think horror lives inside a lot of the comics that you make. You almost always have a bit of menace, and you like reminding us that the stakes are there, even if we don’t understand them. Why do you think you have such a pull towards them?

Valero-O’Connell: With all of the work I make I consider it autobiographical, even if it isn’t a straight one-to-one comparison. I find that a lot of my work is rooted in a thesis or a thing that comes first, and wondering what is at the front of my brain. A lot of time it’s something that I have fear or anxiety about. It’s usually, y’know, one of the deep ones, one of the things at the bottom of the Mariana trench, and you dredge it up and need to look at it through a comic.

I hardly think I’m the first person to use their comics to work shit out, but it’s a long conversation with myself and with other people. It’s helpful to name things for what they are, but also to have to externalize it. It’s like an exorcism.

When you do a comic it’s a lot of time, and it’s a lot of kneading of the bread. I’ve made a lot of comics about grief and loss of some sort, physical or emotional, and I’ve found that there’s plenty of catharsis to be found in that. Making something story-shaped makes it into something I can understand, weirdly enough.

I think taking myself out of the equation and putting that extra shroud over it, for me it allows it to become more universal, and less about the specificity of my own experience but rather asking ‘what about this can other people relate to?’ It also helps, as a creator, for being braver with showing parts of myself that in other situations would be unthinkable to share in casual conversation with strangers.

Hernando: You don’t want to stand up at the cocktail party clinking a glass going “Hi, everyone—”

Valero-O’Connell: “I have something to say!” (laughing) I think it’s also helped me with connecting to my peers and friends that I’ve found through comics. It’s so incredibly important to me, and it’s how I relate to the world. It’s how I express what’s true about me, and other people being able to hold it in their hands and see it and read this part of me that is precious and vulnerable. And people matching that and bringing the same vulnerability to me when they talk to me about my work is one of my most cherished experiences with comics. It really is giving a gift and getting an even bigger one back.

Hernando: I think especially because we are now working with people and inhabiting the same social circles with these former idols of ours— Heck, you made a book with one of yours— it’s interesting to see that transition from idols to peers.

Valero-O’Connell: It took me a really long time with Mariko specifically to be able to look her in the eyes and have a normal conversation with her. I think I faked it okay though (laughing) But it is a weird transition. I think an important part of growing up is learning to take people off their pedestals — No good ever comes from idolization.

It is helpful when they are all very friendly. So many of the inspirations that have been pivotal to me are also good fucking people! It’s made the shift a lot easier!

Hernando: Exactly. It’s so funny whenever someone talks about how rough and competitive the art world is when you’ve been in indie comics. It’s so nice and helpful, it doesn’t feel real. Even when you are at your most nervous and new, you never feel like “the loser.”

Valero-O’Connell: Yes! I am still friends with, and will be till the day I die, this small group of people I met at my first show, CAKE, when I was fully a seventeen year old, snot-nosed kid. This amazing group of established cartoonists were so kind without knowing who I was. The warmth and the encouragement that they met me with was one of the biggest helps to starting my comics career and thinking that there was a place for me there. I try to keep that in the front of my brain every time someone comes up to my table at a show.

Hernando: When you first started making comics in your teens, did you find that you were driven by wanting to make specific comics, or was it something that came organically?

Valero-O’Connell: Kind of a mix… To be completely honest, I have a story that I got into storytelling to make. I feel like a lot of writers have that, something that’s been sitting in the slow cooker of their heart for a very long time.

I’ve found that I come back to a lot of ideas, I come back to a lot of similar concepts over and over again. A lot of my comics are just me sharpening the same blade, getting closer to this… thing that I want to say. It’s a constant excavation, and I’m looking for it too.

Hernando: Even looking at your earlier comics, it’s really apparent that you like to stay within a certain set of themes and aesthetic. A lot of those match the tone of what you are making now, and it’s interesting to see the ideas evolve, and Don’t Go Without Me is a great symbol of how far they have come.
So, Don’t Go Without Me, published by Shortbox at the beginning of this year—

Valero-O’Connell: Shortbox forever! Whoo!

Hernando: All hail Shortbox! For this collection I think it’s amazing because, talking about sharpening that story knife, each of these stories really directly address the same idea of impatient connection. I don’t want to give too much away, people should read them and experience themselves, but we can talk about the middle story, which was previously published as a standalone by Shortbox in 2017, uh…

Valero-O’Connell: What is Left?

Cover of What Is Left by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell
What Is Left by by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (Shortbox, 2017)

Hernando: Yes, What is Left! I always get the title wrong for some reason. I always call it “What Was Left Behind” or something.

Valero-O’Connell: (laughing)  “Who’s Thing is This?!”

Hernando: “What Thing? It’s Left!”

Valero-O’Connell: “Come Get Your Thing, You Left It!”

Hernando: “Those Who Walk Away And Leave It!”

Valero-O’Connell: “This Stuff Over Here, What’s The Deal?” A comic by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell!

Hernando: (laughing) ANYWAYS, I love What Is Left because you take us on an emotional journey through a sci-fi story, and you only pepper in exposition when it’s mentioned in conversation. Traditionally sci-fi tends to be very hard and quantitative, but you are very hands-off about it. It’s about humans experiencing and reflecting on life, but it happens to be in space.

Valero-O’Connell: I’m also very into a sci-fi setting that doesn’t care too much about actually explaining itself, because that’s not the part of sci-fi that I find interesting.

Hernando: The form of technology you use is so fascinating, because it’s positing that there’s this big power held in a person’s memories; power that is resting on this unexplained importance of human experience. And even in this story where people have quantified it and put a value on it, it’s still unpredictable and unknown to them… It’s an amazing way to show how important memories are without outright saying it. It’s just very cool!

Valero-O’Connell: Thank you baby! I just think it’s neat!

Hernando: Each story in this collection, particularly the first and last, could act as prologues or first chapters to longer stories, but also… I don’t care to learn more? Like, as a reader, this jewel of a story is enough for me.

Valero-O’Connell: Yeah! I’ve had multiple people, about What Is Left specifically, ask me if I want to expand it and… there is NO desire, because it’s done. Everything that I needed to do, and everything that I needed to say was inside of those pages, and expanding on it would take away from what is there. It’s a bite-sized snack, and it’s all you need. I think with openness, and vagueness, and subjectivity and endings, there is a lot of power. I mean, the monster is scarier if you never see it’s face, and the implication of something can be much more emotional and effective.

Hernando: So my next question takes a little bit of explanation, so bear with me; Brad Leithauser is a literary analyst whom, in an essay for The New Yorker, proposed that you can see a book as either a box or a keyhole. If you see the story as a box, then everything that is given to you is the beginning and end of the story, and there is nothing extra to be found from theorizing and adding extra imagination to it. Seeing a book as a keyhole is imagining a world where what you are given as a reader is a limited view into a much larger, richer world, and the reality inside of it continues.
Do you think you know if you are more of a keyhole or a box person?

Valero-O’Connell: I think it changes… What Is Left is 200% a keyhole story. That’s true with a lot of my short stories, where I want this implication of a world that’s so much larger than what you are seeing. I want it to be a big bowl of water where you dip your cup in and only get that drink. There’s a lot of richness in a world that feels bigger than 32 pages, and that way it lives on.

I think for larger stories they tend to be more box-leaning? If I have the space to explore what I need to explore than I feel more comfortable thinking about it as shut with a lid.

I think with all of these stories, short or long, you need to be able to see and think about what happened before or what will happen afterward, in order for them to work.  They all end on open threads, and none of them have a proper “ending.” So… Keyhole. My answer is keyhole.

Hernando: Okay, so final question: We’ve talked a lot about making artwork, but what’s a kind of art that you engage with only as a viewer, and will never make it yourself?

Valero-O’Connell: Music. If we’re talking about a medium or an arena that I have never played in, don’t know how to play in, and never will, that’s it. I think that I am really fascinated by forms of storytelling that I just could never touch. It’s one of the things I consume the most and spend the most time with, but I only have ever listened to it, which is kind of wonderful. I don’t know how the sausage is made, but I put on my little headphones on and just listen!

Hernando: Well, with that, I think we are all wrapped up! Thank you so much for talking with me about your work today, it was an absolute pleasure!

Valero-O’Connell: Oh, completely mutual! Thanks for taking the time!


Be sure to go ahead and order Rosemary’s amazing collection of three short stories Don’t Go Without Me, available from Shortbox.

Also be sure to pick up the graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell at your local independent bookstore. To keep in the know about Rosemary’s work follow her on twitter at @hirosemaryhello and instagram at @hirosemaryhello. Find more of her work at hirosemary.com

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