Leslie Stein is a Brooklyn, New York-based cartoonist whose work has been published in the New Yorker, Vice, and the Best American Comics anthology. Stein’s upcoming book, I Know You Rider, is an illustrated memoir centered on the topics of abortion and reproductive freedom.
I Know You Rider, which comes out May 5 through Drawn & Quarterly, chronicles a year in which the author has an abortion and explores themes of friendships, art, nature, and love. Stein’s approach to her story is thoughtful and nuanced, nimbly weaving narrative threads into a philosophical tapestry of what it means to be alive and make choices. The book is not only about the right to choose an abortion, but also about the choices every person makes about how to exist in a body in the world—ethical choices around climate change, career decisions, and creating and maintaining relationships of all kinds.
I Know You Rider is also a book on societal expectations and stigmas surrounding womanhood, and more importantly, about possibility and joy. In that way, the book is about coming of age—a process not confined to adolescence. Rewire.News spoke with Stein about her latest book, choice, agency, friendship, love, and more.
Rewire.News: I Know You Rider is partially about an abortion, but there’s a broader story about what it means to be a childless, unmarried woman in our society. There is all kinds of stigma around that identity, but also lots of agency. How did you approach rendering the importance of that agency and happiness on the page?
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Leslie Stein: Usually when I come up with an idea for a book, I just kind of hop to it and see where it takes me. This book was different—I spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not to approach this subject matter [of abortion], what I had to offer it. Being single and child-free in New York City doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but like in so many other ways, we are living in our own big bubble here.
I’m the middle child between two brothers, and as it happened, both got married a year apart, bookending the year of experiences I wrote about in the book. That was eye-opening. I’m of course very happy for them, but I think it really drove home that in some ways I do have a different viewpoint and approach to life. I wanted to make something for other folks who are forging a path adjacent to the status quo. That’s been reflected in most of my work I think, coming from my teenage years as a punk rummaging through old boxes of comics and records and discovering individual viewpoints that reflected my own on the page.
My work is bright and colorful and friendly-looking, and I think that it makes reading about difficult experiences a bit easier, perhaps providing a comfort there.
Rewire.News: This book is about choices around one’s body, and choices about how a body exists in the world—including environmental choices, career choices, relationship choices, and more. Can you talk about the theme of choice in the book?
LS: One of the things I think about a lot is how we develop a personal value structure over time, by taking in so much different information and embracing some of it while rejecting other bits. I have the character here doing just that in regards to all you mentioned, and instead of just sharing her viewpoint I wanted to constantly challenge her, showing that these things can coexist, and contradict, and that is OK.
For instance, she talks to a cab driver about how diapers take 200 years to disintegrate in the ocean, and in the next chapter she talks to a couple with newborn twins about how they handwash their diapers. They think even that would be unethical if they lived in California in the midst of a drought for instance.
With all the information we are bombarded with every day, it takes a lot of effort to figure out where you stand and what decisions to make based on your value structure. I hope in time we can respect each other’s choices and priorities, even if they are different from our own.
Rewire.News: In what ways was creating this book an act of love for you?
LS: When I started making autobiographical comics, I was lucky to get feedback from people who said they related to the work and it gave them some comfort and happiness. Sharing difficult experiences is an act of love; listening is an act of love. My No. 1 priority is always to reward the reader for taking the time to look and continue to turn the pages.
Rewire.News: I Know You Rider is full of complex friendships. What do you see missing from friendship narratives when it comes to women’s stories? How do you see friendship as a pillar in women’s lives?
LS: Yes, I think it is a pillar in all lives! When I was 12 years old, a couple moved into the duplex I lived in with my mother and brother. The woman was a minister who had married her high school sweetheart. One thing she said that stuck with me was that if she relied solely on her husband for her happiness, she would be miserable. She was always forging new friendships that gave her different perspectives and provided different levels of intellectual and emotional support. I was so lucky to hear that and be able to take it in at such an early age. I have friends that I love to talk about philosophy with, others art, and ones I relate to in more emotional ways—all are important and add a richness to my life.
Rewire.News: The title of the book comes from an old blues song that the protagonist hears at a show one night. What was the importance of the song to you in making this book?
LS: One of the lyrics goes, “Gonna miss your baby, from rolling in your arms”… in this instance the baby is a metaphor for [the protagonist’s] relationship to music, since she’s been an inactive musician for quite some time. By the end of the book, she is investigating music again. Another lyric in the Grateful Dead version goes, “Wish I was a headlight on a north-bound train/ I’d shine my light through the cool Colorado rain.” To me, this is about freedom, and moving forward, and forging one’s own path. My favorite version is by a singer named Judy Roderick, who changes the lyrics to be about being under the thumb of her lover. I love how each artist takes it and makes it their own, so that is what I tried to do, too!
Rewire.News: There’s a major thread of the protagonist’s love of the outdoors and nature. How does the natural world tie into the narrative of freedom or happiness for you?
LS: Our roots are in nature, and now we see it ourselves and separate from it, which bothers me a great deal. It has led to a lot of destruction. If we can embrace it, love it again, we will do more to protect it. It’s in our nature to protect the things we love.
Selfishly, I just always find myself happier outdoors, looking at plants and animals, hopefully without bothering them. I like to feel connected with them, I love the calmness and warmth it provides me. It brought me the greatest joy to draw those outdoor sequences, in essence, it was my reward for drawing the more difficult parts of the book.
Rewire.News: What fuels your curiosity?
LS: Don’t we all think about how things could be different? In our own lives, and in more universal ways? Embracing curiosity seems to be the only way not to become complacent and stagnant in life.
Rewire.News: Lastly, what are some other books or art about abortion and bodily autonomy that you’ve found inspiration in? Who are some other graphic creators you think are making exciting work?
LS: The last media I found uplifting about the subject matter was an episode of the podcast Criminal called “The Procedure.” It’s about an underground network of ministers and rabbis in 1967 who developed the Clergy Consultation Service, who quietly helped women obtain safe procedures before abortion was legal since they were witnessing so many women dying from trying to obtain them on their own. It’s very inspiring.
The cartoonist Debbie Drechsler was a huge inspiration to me in making this book. She actually illustrated a short story about her own abortion experience as a teenager. My friend Gary Panter makes beautiful hippie comics that come from a place of love. Tom Gauld, Pascal Girard, and Lisa Hanawalt are all making beautiful comics right now.