Where The Cracks And Doubt Appear: An Interview with Conor Stechschulte

Conor Stechschulte began drawing Part One of Generous Bosom in June of 2012. It was subsequently published by Breakdown Press in mid-2014. Generous Bosom Part Four, the final installment of the series, has just recently been published by Breakdown Press. While simultaneously finishing this series, Stechschulte also adapted Generous Bosom into a screenplay. The movie, titled Ultrasound and directed by Rob Schroder, debuted at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

Conor was recently kind enough to take time out of his schedule to talk to SOLRAD’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniel Elkin, about the concept of identity, Generous Bosom, Ultrasound, and the process of working on a comic and screenplay simultaneously.

Daniel Elkin: Generous Bosom is a, for lack of a better term, “challenging” work. My first question is kind of a basic one, but I think it will set the baseline for our conversation. What do you say when people ask you, “What is it about”?

Conor Stechschulte: Before I was about 60% finished with the book, this question was really hard for me to answer. Now I say something like, “It’s about an audio-based hypnosis technique and how it’s used on a small group of people after a strange sexual encounter.” I may leave off the bit about the sexual encounter depending on who I’m talking to, haha. 

DE: Of course, haha. Kinda ponying off that, I’m wondering, as it took a pretty significant period of time to complete the story, did you have it all plotted out prior to completion, or did it develop over the course of the six or so years you were creating it? 

CS: Working on the first two volumes, there were places I knew I was heading: I knew there was hypnosis involved, I knew I wanted the characters to end up in a research facility, etc. For those books, it was a matter of navigating to those narrative markers while also dropping in a bunch of details for which I didn’t have a solid explanation yet. I started writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation as I was in between working on part two and part three. The latter two volumes were worked out in the screenplay first and so they’re more plotted/planned. I tried, especially in the fourth part, to only use the screenplay as a loose guide and to listen for what the book needed to feel complete. 

DE: I want to talk about the movie adaptation in a bit, but before we get there, I’d like to talk a little about the theme of Generous Bosom. I’ve enjoyed your work over the years, and one of the things that I’ve noticed in much of it is that you use your comics to explore ideas about identity and memory. Why are you attracted to these ideas and how does Generous Bosom fit in with not only your larger body of work but as an exploration of these themes?

CS: That’s a really good question, thank you. I think those ideas/questions are fundamental to being human and any question of identity can’t help but be a question about one’s memory. These are also the fundamental seats of narrative in our lives — probably the first story one tells oneself when they wake up is who they are, and, as soon as you start to prod at that story, much of one’s life reveals itself to be indefinite vapor. This is a really exciting place for me to start making narratives, where the cracks and doubt appear.

As for Generous Bosom, looking at it through the frame of identity and memory, I think the other idea/question in the equation would be desire: Why do we want certain things? How do we decide to do what we do? How do we explain what we’ve done once we’ve done it? I think a lot about how the narratives that define our identities are formed retroactively and so what happens when someone else starts making you do things you didn’t necessarily want to do? What happens to one’s identity?

Also, all of these ideas are self-conscious ways of talking about making stories generally: What constitutes a ‘character?’ How much or how little information is needed for them to be convincing? How do you explain why someone has done something? 

DE: Those are certainly fundamental questions and ones that I find equally intriguing. Up until last year, I was a high school English teacher, and one of my favorite short stories to teach was “The Dual Personality of Slick Dick Nickerson” by Frank Norris, because, at its heart, it is asking many of these same questions. 

I’m wondering how you feel your work answers some of these questions? I’m thinking about your book The Amateurs and, of course, the work you’ve done with Generous Bosom… Do you feel you are answering these questions differently now than you did in 2014? And, if so, what do you think accounts for that?

CS: In The Amateurs, Jim and Winston act out of trying to conceal the empty spot where their identities should be — they know they have a job and they intend to perform it even though they don’t know how. In Generous Bosom, I think I’ve been going after the same question of “How do we know who we are?” and trying to describe the way in which power structures make an already impossible question worse. 

As for what accounts for the difference in the books and how they answer these same questions, in making The Amateurs, I was sort of testing my own abilities of being able to put a book together at all, so it felt really necessary to narrow the focus of the story to ensure I could handle it all. When I started Generous Bosom, I was really trying to throw everything I was thinking about at the time into the work and then see how I sorted it all out which naturally led to it being sort of ‘About’ a lot more things.

DE: Do you feel you were successful in doing what you wanted with Generous Bosom? Do you feel that it helped you answer some of the questions about identity you’ve been asking and, if so, what answers did it lead you to? And then, I guess — sorry to be asking so many questions in a single question — do you feel you are able to answer questions about your own identity now in ways that you hadn’t been able to prior?

CS: I’ll be able to better answer the first question in a couple of years but…yeah, I think so. Working on the book taught me a lot and was the vector, via discussions about it I’ve had with teachers, friends, collaborators, and strangers to learn a lot more, so that must be counted a success, I think. 

I don’t want to dodge your question (actually, I do, I already tried above, haha) but the whole process of art making (for me, anyhow) is more about describing the questions in detail, not arriving at answers. Or maybe more accurately, describing an empty space where an answer can occur. Ideally (forgive me), that answer exists in a sort of quantum superposition where what it is changes according to what you try to know about it. This is why I love comics because it’s a language built on the empty air among pieces of given information.

I think that with regards to my own identity, working on the book and being steeped in these ideas has helped me to internalize ideas or truths about identity that I knew to be true but wasn’t fully convinced of: that our identities are more mutable than we think; that parts of our behavior are more mechanical than we’d like to think; and just how few things, even within ourselves, of which we can be certain.

DE: I agree. The mutability of identity is fascinating. Yet, while there are few things that are certain, there are some seeming unavoidable truths about identity. Some things that seem really hard-wired. I’m wondering if this is the “mechanical” aspect you’re talking about? Or if it’s like the brain’s comfort blanket — certain things must remain inviolable in the face of chaos or madness sets in?

CS: I think what’s mechanical in us is more of the latter, a kind of protective shield against uncertainty and glossing over the many gaps in our perceptions. 

DE: Anyway… Thinking about this duality brings me to my next question. Earlier you mentioned the screenplay. Tell me about the process here. How did that all come about? Did you conceive of Generous Bosom as a film originally or did that happen mid-stream? And while we’re talking about the film, could you talk a little about the difference between creating a comic and creating a screenplay? How did working on the two simultaneously influence each other?

CS: Rob Schroeder, the director of Ultrasound, reached out to me in 2016 to see if I’d be interested in optioning the books for a movie. The books had been recommended to him by the folks at Secret Headquarters in LA to whom I’m eternally grateful. Since I wasn’t done with the story, I didn’t feel comfortable handing over the material to someone else. He was open to me taking a crack at writing the screenplay which is something I’ve always wanted to do. We went back and forth about the script for the next four years or so, right through the shooting of the movie.

Generous Bosom was conceived as a comic. I was trying to make it a bigger and more ambitious comic than I’d done before but it was always a book in my mind. That said, I know my imagination is totally full of movies and television and I certainly had movies in my head that I wanted the book to be in conversation with. Getting to write a movie was also so dear a dream to me I wouldn’t have even admitted that it was a dream of mine until I had the opportunity to actually do it. 

The biggest difference I discovered between working on a comic and working on a screenplay was that I needed to give up a lot of the minute control that comics require and allow for (and which I relish, haha) and leave space for other people to collaborate on the story. When I started adapting the comic into the script, I included every time a character paused, scratched their face, etc. This was not only inflating my page count but it also left no room for an actor to craft a performance. It was also really fun to be able to just name something, someone, somewhere in the story and not have to decide every detail about its appearance, lighting, position in space, etc. it’s just there once you say it is. 

As for how they influenced each other, the stage of cartooning that’s most alive for me is when I’m planning and laying out pages and playing with timing and screenwriting is nothing but that. So, getting to work on the same story but in a different form afforded me the ability to put all parts of the story in play, not just the ones I hadn’t drawn yet. This was super fun and allowed me to imagine and try out a lot of different paths the story could take. This definitely had a huge impact on where the comic went in the end.

I got to be on set for a good portion of the shooting of the movie back in February of 2020 when I was not even halfway through the fourth book. Seeing all of those people taking this story so seriously and finding all these new details and nuances had a massive influence on me as I finished the book. 

Still image from Ultrasound (2021), written by Conor Stechschulte, directed by Rob Schroeder. Vincent Kartheiser plays Glen (left), and Bob Stephenson plays Art (right)

DE: Working on the screenplay, being on set during the filming, and working on the comic all at the same time must have been an enormously immersive experience for you. Would you like to do something like this again or was it, in a way, too much?

CS: It was completely psychedelic. I walked onto the set through the room they were using to store props and saw all these tangible, physical versions of things that I’d imagined and drawn for years and years and it only got more intense from there. There were weird confusing moments on set where I would forget whether a detail or scene was in the comic or the script and in what version of each. 

I would absolutely love to do something like this again although I don’t know if it’ll ever feel that intense or personal again since the originating material was conceived without any idea that it could be realized in such a way.

DE: That had to have been amazing. Thanks so much for your time here, Conor. It’s been fascinating talking to you about all this. To wrap up, I guess I gotta ask the question that I imagine all artists who have just spent six years or so on a project hate more than anything else, BUT… what’s next for Conor Stechschulte?

CS: Thank you so much Daniel, I really appreciate your patience and the attention and thought you’ve paid to my work over the years. 

Right now I’m working on edits for the collection of the books which will come out next year with Fantagraphics. Feels a bit like very banal time-travel to dive back into working on pages that are in some cases nearly a decade old. I have a watercolor comic about a drive-in movie theatre that I’m about halfway finished with that I’d love to return to once I’m done with all the GB stuff. Other than that, I’m taking notes on next projects and talking with Rob Schroeder about collaborating on another movie. 

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