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Teeth Marks: An Interview with Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier’s childhood was painful, mostly because of a horrific accident that damaged her teeth. But just like the rest of us, she experienced the ups and downs of middle and school: friends who turn out not to be so friendly, crushes received and given (and sometimes returned), family dynamics, and deciding what to do with the rest of her life. Smile encompasses all of that, and we discussed it with her.

Your dental journey, detailed in Smile, begins with an accident that caused severe damage to your teeth. Do you ever think back on it now and wonder, What if? What if I never fell?
Of course! If I never fell, I would have had a totally normal mouth. I could have (potentially) avoided years of insecurity, and maybe not have spent so many agonizing hours at so many different dentists. But the experience helped shape me into the person I became, so who knows if I would’ve been different somehow if I hadn’t fallen? I also think I would have found some other weird aspect of myself to focus my attention on. All teenagers find some part of themselves to agonize over.

Looking back now, especially on how that period of your life changed you, are you grateful for the experience, or would you change it if you could?
I try not to have too many regrets. I’m certainly grateful for all the people who helped me through the awkward years. And grateful for the deep connections I’ve made with other people who have had similar injuries.
Was it painful at all to relive this period of your life?
Of course, but it was also enjoyable! I have plenty of reasons to laugh at my teenage self, and I tried to poke fun at the fact that I took everything very seriously. Sure, there was pain and heartbreak, but I’m looking at it from the point of view of a storyteller. If you’re not making your readers squirm a little, you’re not getting to the core of being a young person.
It also doesn’t hurt that I was a teenager in the early ’90s. That part of that decade still hasn’t redeemed itself, in terms of coolness, and my friends and I still lament our hairstyle and fashion choices. It was great fun trying to capture the aesthetic horror of that time period in comics.
This must have been a traumatic experience for you, and one that really resonates with your life. Do you still feel it affects you, even now?
It still affects me, mostly in the sense that every time I walk into a new dentist’s office, I have to explain my entire dental history to them. It’s part of why I wrote Smile—I want to be able to hand them a copy of the book, and say, “This will tell you everything you need to know about my teeth. Please be gentle!”
There's a lot of talk in the book about “looking normal.” Did this experience forever change the way you perceive what is “normal,” both in yourself and in others?
Well, of course there is no such thing as “normal,” but I think at age 12, normal simply means not having anything distinctively unusual about the way you look. You want to look like your friends and your idols. But…12-year-olds are all dealing with acne, braces, awkwardly sized hands and feet, glasses, bad hair and makeup, or all of the above. It’s hard to feel really good about yourself at that age, and that’s totally a reflection of feeling insecure on the inside. I realize now, looking back, that I actually was pretty normal looking, as these things go. I still am. I’ve learned to appreciate people with unique features and distinct appearances! They’re easier and more fun to draw!
Smile was first done as a serialized comic for a website. Did anything about the story change in bringing it to this full-length book?
I’d posted about 120 pages of Smile online, on a page-a-week basis, before Scholastic picked up the publishing rights. The pages were drawn over a four-year period and were written as I went along. So there were things I wanted to fix, a few continuities that needed to be straightened out…and I was suddenly working with editors! What I did was sit down and write out the entire rest of the book, and then we figured out what, if anything, from the first half needed revising. In the end, I redrew eight of the original pages and added two new ones. I only scrapped one or two of the pages I’d already drawn. I also changed a few names, consolidated a few characters, and reworded some of the dialogue so everything flowed better as a whole. It was an interesting way to make a book. I do think the colors helped tie the whole thing together, so the older stuff meshes pretty well with the newer stuff.
Do you find that a lot of people relate to your experiences here? Both boys and girls?
I’d say my feedback has been split pretty evenly between boys and girls. With girls, it’s more automatic—just by the nature of the protagonist being a girl—but I’ve talked with plenty of boys, and plenty of grownups, who have been through something similar. Everyone likes being able to share their experiences, and luckily, I love hearing dental horror stories!
A running subplot of the book is the importance of friendship, real friendship, in adolescence. Does that hit home with a lot of readers?
I hope so! When you’re young, you long for good friends. In movies, comics, books, and TV, characters always seem to have wonderful friends, even if they’re imaginary. I needed a tiger like Hobbes in my life. Instead, it seemed like I had a lot of friends who took advantage of my naïveté. I got picked on a lot. It was nice to finally break that cycle in high school, when I met a group of really awesome people (who I’m still friends with to this day!).
What was your favorite part of the story to recall and tell here? Were there parts that really brought back pleasant memories?
The most uncomfortable parts of the story (the fumbling-at-romance storylines) were actually the most fun to draw! But I wouldn’t call those pleasant memories. If anything, I’d like to go back and apologize to those boys, because I think I hurt some feelings. Maybe this book is my way of making amends with the past. I’m sorry, boys!
What was pleasant was revisiting the San Francisco of my youth. Things have changed quite a bit since I left home for New York 10 years ago, but between the internet and my family photos, I stitched together something that feels right to me. I miss the days of eating a pound of French fries at the mall, but I can relive it through my comics.
When did you first start illustrating? How did you get involved in doing it professionally for comics?
I started drawing before I can remember. My mom kept crayon drawings I did when I was one-year-old—they were just scribbles, but I guess I always liked doing it and never stopped. By elementary school, I was considered the class artist, and even now when I reconnect with old friends, they give me very detailed accounts of all the stuff I used to draw for them.
I started making mini-comics in 1997. In 2004, two things happened: I got a contract to draw Babysitters Club graphic novel adaptations for Scholastic, and, I started drawing Smile for the web. And here I am today.
What's next up for you after Smile?
Later this year (sometime in the fall, but I don’t know exactly when yet), X-Men: Misfits Volume 2 will be in stores. I’m currently developing a couple of new projects. One is a story about high-school stage crew, which I’m in the middle of writing; the other is an action/fantasy series that will be a collaboration between my husband, Dave Roman, and myself. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk more about these projects soon!
I’m also gearing up for a busy convention and tour season! I can’t wait to do some traveling and meet readers, because they are what make being a creator worthwhile.

-- John Hogan