Interview: Kristen Radtke

Kristen Radtke author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Kristen Radtke about her book Imagine Wanting Only This, visiting ruins around the globe, the unique genre of graphic memoir, and more.


Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Kristen Radtke: I grew up in Wisconsin, went to college in Chicago, and went to grad school in Iowa. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Midwest.

MC: Imagine Wanting Only This tells the story of your travels to visit the ruins of places around the world from the killing fields of Cambodia to the empty streets of Burma. Along the way, you stopped by Gary, Indiana — a boom-bust city that is nearly abandoned. What did you hope to convey about the lives of the Midwesterners near Gary, Indiana, and what sort of lessons did you learn from exploring those ruins?

KR: This is a tough question. I didn’t set out to convey much—or anything—about the lives of Midwesterners near Gary. My experience there was so limited—I went there as a college student and had no understanding of the city’s past or present economy or challenges. I wandered through the town like a tourist looking for experiences I could grab for myself. I was 19, and I didn’t understand yet how flawed and wrong that was. I can’t honestly say I learned anything from exploring the ruins or the town. That learning came years later, in retrospect.

Imagine Wanting Only This book cover by Kristen Radtke

MC: What was your motivation for going on this worldly adventure? What were you searching for?

KR: Restlessness? Boredom? Being young? I’m not sure. The world is big, I want to see it.

MC: You researched and wrote Imagine Wanting Only This after the death of your uncle. Over the course of your travels and creating the book, how did your understanding of why we are here, and what we leave behind change?

KR: If it did change, it just became more complicated.

MC: Imagine Wanting Only This falls in the unique genre of graphic memoir. How do drawings enhance and add another dimension to the story?

KR: Images are just another entrance point into the work. I think the book could have been written in straight prose, too, but this is just the medium and form that made the most sense to me.

MC: The artwork in Imagine Wanting Only This is entirely black and white. Why did you choose to use only black and white illustrations throughout rather than color? Was this a metaphor for grief?

KR: It wasn’t. Can I claim that it was? Black and white just made sense to me for this project—I can’t say that it was a conscious choice at all.

MC: When creating this graphic memoir, in what order did you formulate the many elements such as the plot, dialogue, and drawings?

KR: I often start with a script, but I try to move back-and-forth between text and image as fluidly as possible. Once I’m deep into a project, they start working in tandem, and the ideas start coming to me in both mediums at once.

MC: What’s next for you?

KR: I’m working on an essay collection about loneliness and a graphic novel. I like working on more than one thing at once. When you’re stuck with one you can move to the other.


Kristen Radtke is the author of the graphic nonfiction book Imagine Wanting Only This (Pantheon, 2017). She is the art director and New York editor of The Believer magazine. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.

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