By Nivea Serrao
July 17, 2017 at 10:30 AM EDT
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Credit: First Second Books

Author-illustrator Tillie Walden has produced some stunning (and critically acclaimed) graphic novels since her debut just a few short years ago. From the enchanting The End of Summer, which tells the story of a young boy named Lars, his giant cat Nemo, and the many familial issues they face together, to the more contemporary and grounded (but no less lush) I Love This Part, which revolves around two young girls who spend time together and slowly fall for one another, Walden is able to just as easily spin an enchanting web of stories as she is to evoke a range of emotions from just a few sparsely illustrated panels. It’s no surprise her webcomic On a Sunbeam has been nominated for an Eisner for Best Digital Comic.

With Spinning, her latest graphic novel and first graphic memoir, the 21-year-old’s latest subject is none other than herself as she turns her focus inward and shares memories and feelings from the 10 years of her life she spent practicing figure skating and synchronized skating.

Ahead of San Diego Comic-Con (where the Eisner Awards will be announced), EW caught up with Walden to discuss the upcoming Spinning (one of EW’s Pride-themed reading recommendations, available later this year in September), what it was like to work on a graphic memoir based on her life, and just how she manages to capture so much emotion in her work.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your work has always been quite personal, but this is the first time where you’ve really tackled stories from your own life. How did that impact your approach?
TILLIE WALDEN: It meant my approach had to be almost entirely different from how I would normally make a comic. I generally just tackle stories by jumping right into the thick of it and letting myself work it out as I draw. But for Spinning, I really had to put the brakes on. I had to slow down, I had to get a lot of help from a lot of different people, and I had to do a lot of editing. The book went through many stages before it hit its final form.

In Spinning, you talk about not wanting to return to ice skating. Was there anything about it, in particular, that drew you to it as the possible subject matter for your next book?
Ice skating was never particularly what inspired this book. And honestly, I never thought I would do this. This wasn’t a story I’ve always wanted to tell. Basically what happened is that for a school project, I thought I’d make a short comic about skating because I couldn’t come up with any other ideas, and it seemed like an easy pass through the project. But when I tried to make it, I completely froze. I couldn’t draw myself skating. It may sound silly, but I honestly didn’t realize I had so much baggage with ice skating until then. And that was when I decided to take this subject further into a book; to try and understand why I couldn’t draw myself skating.

Throughout the memoir, you’re specifically looking at a period of your life through not only your figure skating experiences but also your emotional state at the time. What were some of the things you had to consider as you were choosing to share these memories?
Your emotions are very connected to you when you ice skate. I think that’s true in many sports but it’s especially true in skating. If you’re off, feeling sad, feeling angry, those will almost always affect your skating, because the movement of it is so completely based on how much power and control you have over your blades and your body. So I tried to specifically find memories that I remember having a direct effect on me on the ice. Experiences that I remember clouding my head when I showed up to practice, experiences that weighed me down when I tried to jump. I wanted to keep it all connected to skating, ultimately.

Each chapter opens with the explanation of a different figure skating move and your experiences with it. Was that tied to the emotion you wanted to evoke?
Definitely! The moves at the beginning of each chapter are very specifically tied to how I’m feeling at that point in the narrative. And with each chapter, the moves get more complex and I get older and taller. I would create the chapter headings as I was drawing the book in order to keep them in tune with the story.

At the end of the graphic novel, you talk about wanting to share feelings as opposed to specifics or particular stories. How do you navigate that aspect of the creative process? Do you know just know when you’re getting it right?
It was tricky to navigate at times. As you said, I was more focused on sharing a feeling instead of simply sharing an event. But feelings are elusive, especially when you go looking for them. So there was a lot of reworking scenes, over and over, in hopes of finding the right images to convey what I wanted. And I do know when I get it right, I know instantly. It’s like a smooth bolt of lightning. I can look at a scene and suddenly I think, “That’s what it felt like.” And if I can stare at the image for a long time and continue to feel the emotion, ignoring the other panels, then I know I’ve really hit on something.

Was there anything you feel like you learned as you were working on this project?
It’s hard to put into words what I learned. I think I learned about myself, I learned how to take a giant warped mass in my memory and stretch it out and tame it. I learned how to be vulnerable and strong at the same time.

Spinning hits bookstores Sept. 12. Preorder it here. You can see pages from the graphic memoir below.

Credit: First Second Books
Credit: First Second Books
Credit: First Second Books
Credit: First Second Books