Matthew Parker has a story and he knows how to tell it. He first tried pot at age 13 when he was living in Bridgeport, CT; soon after, he began to help his mom deal out of their house. He spent the next 27 years in and out of jail, using harder and harder drugs—eventually, he landed on heroin. Parker survived prison by making and consuming art. Once he got clean and was released, he applied to Columbia’s MFA program in nonfiction, from which he graduated in 2012. His first book, the graphic memoir “Larceny in My Blood,” will be released by Gotham Books later this month. In it, Parker makes some insightful and surprising parallels between the American prison system and Columbia’s bureaucracy. To find out more, Bwog’s Resident Reader Diana Clarke gave him a call. Read on to find out what Parker had to say about memory, the ethics of
nonfiction, storytelling, and the limits of the literary.
Bwog: How did you decide to tell your story in graphic form? Did that come about alongside the initial narrative, or afterwards?
Parker: It came afterwards. I was writing a prose memoir while at Columbia, and only got an agent my last semester. I was doing a little cross-genre—a little drawing. I got breakfast with my agent one morning , and showed him my drawings, and by the time I got back uptown, he’d called six times. He told me “Drop everything, this is what we’re doing.” I knew nothing about art, and I had to teach myself as I went along. I don’t know if you noticed, but the drawings get better later in the book.
Bwog: Were you at all influenced by naïve art? I kept connecting your drawings to Paul Klee’s work—the urgency, shaky lines, childlike overwhelming swirls of color, and figures reduced to their simplest forms. Do you think there’s something childlike about the limited scope of an addict, and were you trying to convey that?
Parker: I’ve never heard of him, but a lot of addiction counselors will tell you you stop maturing when you start taking drugs, and I started taking drugs when I was 13, so… I’m a pretty good artist but I’m more of a copier. I didn’t figure out how to do it right until about halfway through, when I started taking pictures of myself in the poses I wanted. I just found out that’s how Alison Bechdel does it!
Bwog: Interspersed with the comics, you include more delicate drawings—often landscapes, or portraits of rock gods. They look so different from the cartoon world you depict, almost ethereal; it’s almost as if you elevate art/artists/naturalism to a holy status. Is art a secular kind of faith? I’m thinking in regards to the “higher power” of the twelve steps. In typical Columbia student fashion, I could be massively over-reading this.
Parker: That’s a lot of over-reading. There are lots of talented people in prison. You have a lot of time on your hands, and you need the money, so you sell your art. Guys would make little houses out of popsicle sticks, all kinds of things. Art was a big release for me. To kill time, I would go through entire albums in my head. So that would kill an hour. Any outlet like that is a big deal. So there’s a healing aspect to it. I took the rockstar images from YouTube—from actual events. I didn’t use a stylus, just scanned hand drawings, and I did all the coloring with photoshop.
NA, AA never worked for me; you’re basically trading one addiction for for another.
Bwog: I really appreciated that you mentioned not just classic addiction, but eating disorders, desperation for intimacy, and a host of other nihilistic drives, all together.
Parker: There’s good addictions and there’s bad addiction. As a kid I always wondered if I’d rather go blind or deaf. I couldn’t live without music… With the heroin it was just a bad thing, I thought I was being very rebellious, very cool. Once I figured that out it was pretty easy to quit. But when you’re in prison, you don’t get to touch anybody. When I got out, I was craving intimacy more than sex. I mean, you want sex too, but intimacy is very difficult to find for a guy like me with a prison record, [and] when I found it I kept onto it. I’m still with the girl in the book, Natalya. I changed her name. We have a lot of intimacy, a lot of love, a lot of trust. We have all three. I needed to find something that was real, and when I did I hung onto it. I think [intimacy] is a good addiction, but in a bad relationship people get strung out on intimacy and stay. The thing is to be able to walk away.