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Afterward, when she looked at the two journals, she realized the trips were mirror images of each other: one about freedom and exploration and possibility, the other about responsibility and confinement and mortality. Now they've been published as companion travelogues: An Age of License, about the Europe trip, came out last September, while Displacement, about the cruise, appeared last month. Together, the books recreate a very particular stage of life. "You're at loose ends," Knisley summarizes. "You're flailing. You feel like, 'I am on Mars right now.'"
Knisley's also conscious of her role as storyteller. In An Age of License, her Swedish lover Henrik tells her he can't believe she shows so much of her private life in her work and admits he's a little nervous about showing up in it. And in Displacement, she's conscious that, although she's the narrator of this particular story, she wants the focus to be on her grandparents.
"Not to be a main character in your own story seems like a metaphor for that stage of development," Knisley observes. "I found it sad."
Throughout the trip, Knisley reads her grandfather's memoir of World War II. It's actually a pretty thrilling tale, full of narrow escapes and brushes with death, which contrasts with the isolation and tedium of a cruise. (Knisley and her grandparents discover almost from the very beginning that they are not cruise people. "It's the least authentic form of travel," Knisley says. "There's no connection to where you are.") "I wanted to draw a parallel between myself as storyteller and my grandfather as storyteller," she says. She also tries to use the memoir as a way to jog her grandparents' memories and start conversations about their lives.
Even though her comics are about herself and her life, Knisley has always used her work to connect with other people.
It's because she felt her experiences would resonate with others that she decided to publish An Age of License and Displacement. "I took a trip to Africa that year to write about food for Saveur," she says. "I was amazed by the beauty of Africa. But when I came home, I saw that there wasn't much more to it than 'Oh, my God, elephants!' A story needs to have a broader meaning."
Knisley's glad, though, that she's been able to chronicle that phase of her life, which has since ended. The book she's currently working on, Something New, is about how, in the span of two years, she went from being a single New Yorker to a married Chicago homeowner. Like Relish, it's a formal book, paneled out and scripted. The final draft is due in a month in a half.
"After that," she says, "maybe I'll go on another travelogging spree. But not a cruise!"
Lucy Knisley will be reading this Friday 3/20 at 7:30 PM at Women and Children First.