Paula Knight’s new graphic memoir The Facts of Life is about just that. It’s an exploration about being a woman, about the desire for children. But it’s also about miscarriages and the medicalisation of reproduction. Knight tells her own story of trying and failing to have children while also suffering from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME).

As such, it’s a brave, raw book full of pain and grief and, yes, now and again joy. Oh and the Specials front man Terry Hall also turns up at one point.

Paula talked to Graphic Content about the book’s origins, the changing place of women in modern culture and why comics are the perfect form for memoir.

The Facts of Life is an intensely personal memoir. Why did you want to put all of this down on the page?

I wanted to write from personal experience in the hope that it might help break down the shroud of silence and stigma around miscarriage and childlessness. I also wanted to raise awareness about the illness ME, which is still poorly understood by both the medical profession and the public. I hoped it would foster some empathy and understanding, or at least express some things that others feel unable to. I don’t want to pressure people into talking about miscarriage, rather I hope my book, along with others who open up, will help pave the way for people to feel more comfortable doing so should they wish to.

The same goes for talking about ME to an extent, which is sometimes met by a wall of silence, misunderstanding, and, at worst, ignorant comments. This is possibly due to years of stigma induced by irresponsible media reporting of the patient group, and a lack of biomedical research (in the UK).

I think people who work in the arts are well placed to express human experience in a way that others can relate to and understand. If this raises awareness then it can result in action somewhere down the line, such as support for related charities, perhaps.

Was the process upsetting or consoling?

Both! Having a long creative project on which to focus was motivating and exciting after a tricky period of my life. However, it did keep events that would have otherwise been filed away sooner, in the present for longer than might have been emotionally healthy. Although, being materially absorbed in the craft of writing and drawing a huge comic did somewhat override the subject matter much of the time. I was more likely to gnaw my knuckles to the quick while negotiating the rollercoaster of making my own hand-drawn font than anything else!

The Herald:

Which was the most difficult experience to retell? And which was the most rewarding?

The hardest parts were the pages where we decide to cease our pursuit of parenthood, but I absolutely revelled in drawing the 1970s childhood parts about myself and my best friend discovering the facts of life. I enjoyed the research connected to that era, too - listening to music, and watching old TV programmes. It led to a good few months of rewatching spooky supernatural 1970s children’s programmes such as The Changes and The Owl Service – what was that all about, eh? Talking to my friend about our childhood memories is always fun and helped a great deal in corroborating the memories I chose to write about. I’m planning more work about this in future.

Who would you like to read The Facts of Life?

Everyone, of course, but especially those who could not have children for whatever reason, or those who might be negotiating the path of infertility or the decision whether or not to try for children at all. I’d like younger people to read it, too, because I want them to be able to untangle their authentic wishes from society’s expectations. The youngest person to read it so far (13) enjoyed it, but considered it: “Too much information about Aunty Paula!”

What is it about the graphic form that seems to lend itself so well to this kind of deeply personal memoir?

Pictures are very immediate, and I find that I can write with pictures far more succinctly than words alone. They can say something difficult easily, without explicitly spelling it out, so I think this lends itself to introducing gnarly or stigmatised subject matter which is historically unexpressed in words. Human communication is a symbiotic dance between the visual and the verbal, and so is comics.

Pictures are also revealing, perhaps appealing to the voyeur in us – we all love to look into those houses with the curtains open when it’s dark: Comics panels are windows into the lived human experience of others, only where the artist curates which bits to reveal. In this respect, perhaps it feels a safe way in which to share a personal story that might have a positive impact on others.

How did you find your way to drawing comic strips? Were you always a fan or is it a form you came to later?

I read comics in my childhood, like most people – Bunty, Viz, photo stories in Jackie etc. But comics as a medium was never addressed in my art education, unfortunately. However, in my work as an illustrator I’d always had trouble using only one image per page/ idea. The first work I had published in the 1990s was for greetings cards, and I designed them in vertical triptychs – and other cards I designed used a panel-type layout. I was using sequential art before I knew it as comics.

In my early 30s I started reading graphic novels that a friend had lent to my husband, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Persepolis was the first I read, and once I realised there were other women of my age using this medium to tell their personal stories, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, too. This coincided with a time in my life when I was trying for children and having problems with that.

After starting and stalling on my book for a few years, I eventually discovered Laydeez do Comics and Graphic Medicine –and then I was off! I’d found my people, and knew that there might be an audience for what I was writing. In short, I’d always been drawn to panels, but it wasn’t until later that I did it on purpose.

Do you feel things are better or worse for young women in the 21st century compared to when you were growing up?

I think it depends on where in the world and within which cultures young women live. I wish I could say ‘better’. There has always been sexism, bullying and body-shaming in schools, but the medium through which it is done has simply changed and facilitated it.

The pressures on young women around sex do seem a lot worse due to the invention of the internet meaning ready availability of porn with its misrepresentation of sexual relationship. I’m also shocked at the stories I hear about university life for young women now, too. That seems a worse state of affairs than when I was at college in the late 1980s. Although, I hope women are no longer asked if they have a boyfriend when applying to university!

I think opportunities have widened in terms of gender parity in school subjects studied. Girls play football now, for example, which was not allowed in my school even when we begged the boys’ PE teacher to join in. He asked on our behalf but it was not allowed.

I’m happy to see that Fourth Wave Feminism is fuelled by strong clued-up young women who are consistently questioning the status quo – groups such as Everyday Sexism, for example, and also Malala Yousafzai’s brave pioneering activity for rights to education. There is hope for continued progress as long as feminism thrives. The fight against long-held practices such as FGM is a huge step forward, too.

One thing that is so much worse for young people in this country, is university tuition fees: For years, the media have been browbeating women for “leaving it too late” to start families. I think it’s so much more complicated than decisions around career etc. Tuition fee debt is just one more economic deterrent, along with extortionate rents, to people feeling ready to start families within the ideal fertility window – unless you have a highly-paid job or are very privileged.

The Herald:

Terry Hall. Was he better in The Specials or the Fun Boy Three?

Sorry to be obtuse, but, The Colourfield! Thinking of You is one of my all-time favourite songs. I loved FBT, too, especially Our Lips Are Sealed. I was scared of him in The Specials – he looked very imposing to me when I was nine.

The Facts of Life, by Paula Knight, is published by Myriad Editions, £16.99.