Tillie Walden has lived a lot in her 21 years, enough for a 400-page graphic memoir, Spinning. The book recounts her 12 years as a competitive figure skater, and then her decision to come out as gay. Following her retirement from skating, she attended the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, and she’s swiftly become a prolific and award-winning cartoonist. She spoke with PW about how she made the transition. (In a separate interview Walden also spoke to PW’s More to Come Podcast in San Diego.)
There’s so much fascination with figure skating and how skaters give their life over completely to practice and skating. How did you develop your other interests and art while you were skating?
It was tricky. In my early skating years, I didn’t develop many other aspects of my life, because skating really wasn’t a sport—it was like a lifestyle. It was so intense. But in high school all the disillusionment with skating started, and I really started pushing back and started making time to work on my art, and to develop it. Because I think I knew deep down that that was where my future was. After I quit skating, I had an entire year that I spent doing nothing but drawing. I was able to take that focus I had learned from skating, but apply it to my drawing.
You started skating when you were five. What made you go onto the ice for the first time?
It’s a good story, but it didn’t actually make it into the book. My older brother was a figure skater very briefly. He’s two years older than me, and so I would often go to the rink with him. I really don’t have a specific memory of how I managed to get on the ice. He stopped skating very soon after I started. For some reason, I was the one that kept going.
You’ve said that your own mother didn’t realize how much you hated skating until she read the book.
There’s a lot of common truths between you and your family when you’re growing up that you don’t realize at the time. And now my family and I have really reflected after this book. And yeah, my mom wasn’t happy in the rink—just like I wasn’t happy in the rink. And now I wonder if some of the friends, or some of the people in the book, were having similar experiences and just didn’t talk about it.
After you gave up skating, what made you want to pursue comics specifically?
Around junior or senior year in high school, my dad signed me up for a two-day workshop with Scott McCloud [Understanding Comics] about making comics. It was literally that class that did it. For two days, I did nothing but make comics. And it was like, “Oh OK, this is what I wanted. I get it now.” I started making them voraciously.
How does the discipline of skating manifest itself in making comics?
I’m very comfortable spending long hours working on something. Just in the way that I was comfortable spending long hours practicing for what felt like not a useful goal. So I can really just sit down and pound out work if I need to. I used to wake up early for skating practice, and now I wake up early and I draw.
Do you have any advice for kids who are struggling with coming out?
Just that there is no hurry, and that there is no timeline. I think what people are realizing more and more—especially with a lot of conversations about gender, as well as sexuality—is that sometimes things aren’t so clear-cut. And that’s completely acceptable. And everyone around you doesn’t need to understand who you are. You just need to understand who you are.
You’ve come very far in just four years. What’s next?
Obviously more comics, but I’m also beginning to dip my toes in some different mediums. But the comics will always be there. Because they are my first and one true love.