canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Sonja Ahlers

Sonja Ahlers is quite something. Her nostalgia is personal and inviting to all, her artistic concoctions realize a crucial celebration to create and find deeper meaning from the drab confines of our symbolic world. The author of two graphic novels Temper, Temper and Fatal Distraction (Insomniac Press). One time, in 1998, well, Sonja, she was on the cover of Broken Pencil magazine for their death of literature special. Her work is a blend of the artist book and zine. Her goal is to continue to refine her style, falling somewhere between Beatrix Potter tales, Gary Larson’s Far Side and public service announcements. She lives in Vancouver, B.C., where she has access to the internet. Her website:

Nathaniel G. Moore conducted this interview in June 2005.


TDR: As a mighty mild seventies child, did you eat TV dinners? What did you think of them? Did you find them oppressive?

I wasn’t allowed to eat junk food at my parents’ house but we (me and my brother Cubby) would go to our grandparents and do whatever we wanted. I remember having a TV dinner and settling in for an episode of CHiPs on a Saturday night..pre-remote control - I went to turn up the volume and in some ChiPs-induced trance went back to my footstool perch – forgetting that I had placed my hot TV dinner there. I ended up sitting on it. For some reason, this is a memory I think of OFTEN. As for taste, they were definitely gross. Aluminum. But I liked the compartments. The peach cobbler was especially gross. I have a memory sense of all of the tastes. Like the mashed potatoe taste. All weird. Everything in my life is compartmentalized. (pls note: I hardly ate any TV dinners – I just have a good memory)

TDR: Tell us how it all started. Where did you kindergarten, school, summer, what is your background, etc.?

I grew up between Victoria, B.C. and a place called Lake Cowichan… Victoria is a beautiful little paradise…Lake Cowichan was this fucked up weird logging town. I grew to hate both places. I have since made some kind of peace with Victoria. LC is a total ghost town now. I have really bad memories of being there. As for school in general - I had certain learning disabilities but was also considered ‘gifted’. My whole life has been a mass of contradiction.

I am a self-taught artist…(whatever that means). I have also had good mentors.

TDR: How would you describe your work? Do you find it therapeutic?

I don’t know how to describe my work -- but YES it is totally therapeutic... in fact, that is what it mostly is. But as I (ahem) mature – I am more interested in skilled craft -- rather than emotionally-based rantings and such -- but we shall see what happens.

I think I am turning into one of those people who need to live on a small island. I think you have to be independently wealthy to afford that luxury. So I guess one of my main inspirations if music. A friend was saying my work is pretty rock ‘ n’ roll. I guess it conjures up or references that energy. That is the spirit that is there. I think that is a cool thing to be making book stuff and poetry and images and having it be rock n roll. I miss making music. I keep saying I don’t but I think I do. I think it might help out with anger management. 

When I had that old band forever (Kiki Bridges), I think I funneled all my Temper, Temper anger and disappointment and all the shit that came up with that book into music. It was really hard for me to stand behind that book because it was so so personal and I had no clue of how to handle such a situation so I basically mostly turned my back on it and pretended like it wasn’t really out there. It made it easier to ‘deal’ with negative criticism or ANY feedback.

TDR: What are some of your inspirations? It could be anything.

I’m listening to the new Mary Timony ‘Ex Hex’ I am a lil’ obsessed with her music. Anyone feel free to send me a mix CD – I’ll send something back as thank you). I like the new S-K… Corin Tucker’s voice is an inspiration… and uh I really like Queens Of The Stone Age which disgusts my boyfriend who is a total musician. I can’t even sing around him without going out of tune because I am so self-conscious around his musical genius. And I used to have a band for seven years! We opened for Modest Mouse who was one of my favourites back then in the late-90s... their Lonesome Crowded West album had an impact. His lyrics on all that earlier material blew my mind. Anyways, my boyfriend is playing with Black Mountain who totally rule. I am happy to be living in Vancouver with one of my favourite bands.

It makes it even more okay to be here. (I had a gruelling decision to make about moving to Vancouver or Toronto a few years ago).

My life is pretty boring. I kind of like it that way. I don’t like loud noises and sirens and most people in cars. They drive like maniacs in this city. One thing that made me happy today was watching this Rad Dude zooming down Commercial Drive on his bike and naturally a driver pulls out in Rad Dude’s way to make HIS left turn and Rad Dude is going straight for the truck with this awesome flipped-up bird. I started laughing out loud I almost applauded. That was a big inspiration.

Further inspiration: movies like Robert Altman’s Three Women starring Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. I love that movie – it’s even better w/ the director’s commentary. I like haunted movies too, like Picnic At Hanging Rock. And I love Over the Edge and Foxes. I like a lot of stuff from the seventies. Music from then. I like some boogie rock and earnest early 80s power ballad rock like Streeheart or Harlequin..but then I usually only like one song on an album. My tastes span a few decades and they are definitely weird all together. I just went to Niagara Falls for the first time. That was magical. I like nature. I went with Ian/Pas de chance. Pas de Chance is very influential.

He just made me a copy of Christiane F. the soundtrack. It is David Bowie. I was obsessed with the ad in the paper for that movie as a 9-year old kid. I would stare at the picture of the girl but I wasn’t allowed to see it b/c of the rating. I find it unusual that a kid that age would be obsessed w/ a junkie movie. But I don’t do things like that. I am currently a goody goody.

TDR: Please tell me what is the highbrow zine?

SA: To be totally honest with you I have never felt comfortable with the word ‘zine’….. but in answer to your question… I’d say something that employs art.

TDR: Tell me about your mother.

Her name is Louise Bernadette Frances Jordens. She is very quiet like a mouse. She was one of those ‘babe moms’… she had me when she was young. When I was a teenager we fought like vicious cats… usually about clothes. She has an amazing collection of clothes that I would help myself to… we get along fine now. She’s changed over time. We both have. She used to take ballet. As did I. We lived in an old-fashioned house.

TDR: Tell us how Insomniac Press came to publish your first book Temper, Temper...

Back in 1994, I started making little books. The first one was called A Wandering Eye (because I was born with one - as well as other birth defects). I couldn’t stop making them. I poured thru all my journals and made notes – typing them onto index cards. I had a tall stack of cards. I started to reduce those and incorporate images. I was doing some crazy poetry at that time - with interesting wordplay. I was in love with beautiful words. I do not write like that anymore so it is easy for me to step way back and see how it was…a lot of it hasn’t been shown. So I made those little books for free on the photocopier at my friend’s work which was the Parliament buildings in Victoria, BC…Susan Farmer helped me out a lot. She would help w/ the production because I have semi-dyslexia. She also helped edit Fatal Distraction and we had that band. I would send out these little books far away to people I admired and wanted to connect with… writers, musicians, artists other people making (ahem) zines.

TDR: But how did Temper, Temper come to be realized. It was your first book. Remember? 1998? Hello.

I am an introvert/extrovert. I lived most of those years through my post office box. I had a million pen pals and had a hard time socializing in person. So the books - I barely showed them to people around me…it was too close. I didn’t want them knowing such personal information. It was easier far away. I had a lot of walls built up for protection…so one of those people I sent books to was Lynn Crosbie. She was great. She put me in a feminist anthology she was editing called Click and I got paid really well. Shortly after that Insomniac Press came along. Lynn edited Temper, Temper. I sent them a massive shirt box full of material. She pieced it together. It all happened very fast.

TDR: Can we talk about the term "spoken word" and not get into a fist fight. How do you feel about the classification of art? is it good for the economy? anyone?

Spoken word. I am a big fan of this new ‘alternative’ stand-up comedy. I admire people who work that way. I’m fascinated by people who can stand ALONE on a stage and entertain…monologue. It is so very brave. I’ve been super influenced by comedians – Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Amy Sedaris… SCTV… comedy and tragedy. My specialties. These questions are quite broad… uh... as for art – some of it is good for the economy. GOOD ART helps people survive. But of course there is a lot of bad art out there and I try to be discerning. There is this amazing quote by Kathleen Hanna from a Punk Planet interview she did just after bikini kill broke up... I don’t have it handy but to paraphrase—she’s talking about how making art is a job—just not a ‘sucky job’ and that artists should be honoured and supported because what they are doing is totally valid and necessary for our society. She also speaks about how most artists are considered to be slackers… and how lame that is. I work really hard but my grandfather’s generation considers me to be a deadbeat... or at least that is my projection. I know he thought I was a degenerate ten years ago. I wasn’t working a Real Job at all. All I did was make art. I was possessed. I had no money but I was so happy making art. I treated it like my job.

TDR: How do you tour a book like Fatal Distraction ?

SA: I’ve haven’t done a lot of hardcore touring & a lot of that has to do with being busy. I usually have a few projects on the go like visual art gallery obligation stuff and I make bunnies to support myself…I sell a few different wares to support myself. I do freelance graphic work sometimes…a lot of this kind of stuff I just mentioned is seasonal. My goal is to narrow my focus. For FD, I did an installation for the book launch. That proved quite successful/rewarding…a lot of people saw the show because it was at this popular space called Antisocial in Vancouver. Their openings are total parties. There is a famous story for me of attending my own art opening for 15 minutes…I don’t like art openings very much. So yes, I also did a slideshow reading at Canzine. That was hilarious and I did a little mini leg of Jim Munroe’s Perpetual Motion Roadshow for FD….last spring I toured w/ Emily Pohl-Weary and Tamara Faith-Berger…imagine two writers and an artist-type person going down the west coast in a nice rental car…it was very punk rock. I think we did 10 shows in nine days…readings. I have stories.


I think of creative spaces to put my book in – I find my book gets lost in bookstores so I try to think of places they can be showcased. I also do window displays or get friends who work in bookstores to make shelf-talkers and stuff like that…so yeah. The slideshow readings. I would like to do more of a multi-media thing w/ my books. I hear music and I see visuals. I’d like to present my work more like that. It’s more entertaining for people and less taxing on me…so if there is anyone out there who wants to help me do that - bring it on! Anyways, I'd like to hit a few more major cities by doing some installations. We’ll see. Fatal Distraction took me five years to make so I am willing to promote it for awhile longer…these things are about Life’s Work… hee hee…. however, I am getting anxious to start the new book.

Nathaniel G. Moore is Nathaniel G. Moore.







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