Dotty Winters chats to cartoonist Rachael Ball about anxiety, trauma, laughing and other cancer side-effects.
People react to the terrifying news that they have been diagnosed with cancer in lots of different ways. Rachael Ball’s response to her 2011 diagnosis of breast cancer was a dark and funny graphic novel about cancer, zoo-keepers, lighthouse-dwelling love interests and internet dating.
I’ve written about my experience of supporting my other half through his own diagnosis, and the unique form of madness that gripped us both, so I was fascinated to hear about Ball’s experiences and how they led to The Inflatable Woman being published.
Ball started out as a cartoonist in her 20s but moved into teaching in “an effort to be sensible” when she had kids. A mastectomy, chemo and radiotherapy meant nine months off and time to reflect, which led to a decision to get back into cartooning and illustration.
She quickly recognised that the trauma of this intense and anxious period wasn’t making her feel very creative: “I felt like I was being deconstructed,” she explains, “I decided to get through the experience and then develop my ideas later.”
Having returned to work, Ball was excited to get started on the “first ever graphic novel about cancer”, until she realised there were already a number available. But her approach was distinctive. “I didn’t want to write an information manual; I wanted to write a tale about anxiety. I was much more interested in the emotional bit and in the effects of trauma.”
Encouraged by fellow cartoonist Nick Abadzis, Ball initially started publishing the book on a Tumblr blog. She explains, with a sheepish laugh, that she’s “not very techy”, but it “felt right to put it out that way and share it every month. I enjoyed having my own audience and felt very creative to engage with people in that way.
“I’d check the analytics and see that people were reading it in Australia, or in Japan. It started to pick up a life of its own. Social media wasn’t about when I first started cartooning so this was a new experience for me. As a cartoonist you breathe life into these little characters, and this project was like that, I saw it come to life.”
“Hospitals are filled with experiences that are dark but make you laugh. I laughed a lot during that period.”
Despite warnings from fellow cartoonists that putting something out on social media would mean her ideas would be stolen, or a publisher wouldn’t be interested in it, the book was picked up by Bloomsbury.
There are clearly some autobiographical elements (as well as sharing the cancer diagnosis and treatment, Ball was also dating during this time), but she explains that at some point she decided to move the story away from her own.
“To start with I was basing it on me, and finding myself hung up on how I was drawing: was I making her too pretty, too young?” she says. “When I decided to not make it me, that made it easier, and more creative and opened loads more doors. When I made it a vehicle for conveying the emotional trauma, it became bigger and felt more special.”
Ball says she didn’t find the book hard to write. She just started with a long list of some of the weird things that had happened to her during her treatment. “Some of the process of diagnosis and treatment is really surreal and surprising. You are constantly given a list of side effects, you are always on the lookout for anything new and weird – it enhances the anxiety, I felt a bit like I was in Alice in Wonderland.
“One day I grew a new breast. I hadn’t been looking at my body; I couldn’t bring myself to look at where the scars were after the mastectomy. One day I was fully clothed and looked in a mirror: my breast had grown back. I had to go to the hospital – it was something called a seroma. Your body fills the void that is left by surgery with fluid. Hospitals are filled with experiences that are dark but make you laugh. I laughed a lot during that period.”
This absolutely chimes with my own (indirect) experience. I have a very strong, and bizarre, memory of being told, during Mr W’s treatment, that we would definitely never have children, by a man who looked exactly like Boris Johnson with egg on his tie. I’m not sure he understood why I was laughing so hard. Shock is a funny thing.
But Ball still wasn’t sure how to end the book, she tells me. “My editor was keen for it to be a happy ending, but for a long time that didn’t feel right to me. I went through a period of being quite depressed and wrote some quite sad endings where she finished her treatment and disappeared into a crowd.”
Ball started to worry that she might just keep building the story and never resolve anything, until she reflected on her time with breast cancer charity The Haven, where she worked with two therapists, Gosia Gorna and Eve Warren: “Both of them were really good at sorting my life out. It was a strange opportunity, a chance to fall apart and have people help me put my life back together.
“When the character’s relationship fell apart I sent her to somewhere like that, where she was surrounded by women. She recreated a future which wasn’t to do with being with a bloke, but making changes that were really about how she wanted to live.”
Talking to Ball, who is so honest and open about her experiences, and who so readily credits the support she was given by her friends, it’s hard not to wish this book had been around sooner. The concept that life goes on regardless, and that some of the things which happen will be so surreal and bizarre that they only make sense in a cartoon is one I think I would have clung to.
Ball is already getting on with her next project, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel called The Wolf Man, loosely based on her experiences of losing her father. It centres on a little boy who wants to build a time machine to get back in time and warn his father.
Mr W has had a recent family bereavement; I might have to get this one on pre-order.
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Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.