Author pho­to by Amy Kurzweil

Megan Reynolds speaks with Amy Kurzweil on graph­ic mem­oir Arti­fi­cial: A Love Sto­ry, dis­cussing fam­i­ly, felines, and documentation.

Megan Reynolds: Amy, this is anoth­er impres­sive graph­ic mem­oir and what a treat to see your rela­tion­ship with your father and Jacob after Fly­ing Couch fol­lowed the inter­gen­er­a­tional intri­ca­cies of your mater­nal grand­moth­er and moth­er. Why did you want to focus on the pater­nal side of your fam­i­ly for this graph­ic memoir?

Amy Kurzweil: A writ­ing teacher in col­lege once told me some­thing like, each writer has two sto­ries to tell: one about their moth­er and one about their father. And appar­ent­ly I’d be telling some ver­sion of these two sto­ries for the rest of my writ­ing life. (So far, so true.) With Fly­ing Couch, peo­ple often asked me about the rel­a­tive absence of men in the book, and I respond­ed by not­ing that Fly­ing Couch is a mem­oir about moth­er-daugh­ter rela­tion­ships, home and domes­tic spaces (his­tor­i­cal­ly the domain of women), and that my grandmother’s loss­es in the Holo­caust were pre­dom­i­nant­ly female fam­i­ly mem­bers. Men felt periph­er­al to the fraught famil­ial bonds of women in this context. 

So when some read­ers asked: where is your father, the futur­ist and inven­tor Ray Kurzweil, in your debut mem­oir? I could only respond: don’t wor­ry, he’s next. 

I think read­ers were curi­ous about my father’s absence because he is an espe­cial­ly com­pelling per­son. He’s a pub­lic per­son, already the sub­ject of films and oth­er books, a writer of his own books, and a name asso­ci­at­ed with dra­mat­ic ideas about the future of human­i­ty. A ques­tion I grew up hear­ing often was: what’s it like to be the daugh­ter of Ray Kurzweil? Are there half-built robots hid­ing under your bed and fly­ing-machines idling in your garage? This ques­tion tick­led me philo­soph­i­cal­ly because I couldn’t know what it was like to be the daugh­ter of any­one else — or could I? Can we know what it’s like to be any­thing oth­er than our­selves? These kinds of ques­tions were start­ing to appeal to me in my twen­ties, and it’s lucky that I hap­pened upon a philoso­pher (enter my part­ner, Jacob) to help me engage with them. 

My home wasn’t full of half-built machines grow­ing up, but it was full of ideas. While my father is known for think­ing about the future, I’ve always known him as some­one who is steeped in the past. I learned about my father’s stor­age unit, full of the archives of my grand­fa­ther Fred, a musi­cian who dra­mat­i­cal­ly escaped the Nazis because of his musi­cal tal­ents. My father believed he could res­ur­rect” his father through tech­nol­o­gy, and he was start­ing to act upon this belief by build­ing a chat­bot from Fred’s writ­ing! This was not a project a philo­soph­i­cal­ly-mind­ed mem­oirist like me could turn away from, espe­cial­ly as my own life (all of our lives) was increas­ing­ly medi­at­ed by the dig­i­tal world. I also saw this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to try to get to know the one grand­par­ent I nev­er got to meet. 

MR: So much of this book is focused on how to love some­one in the face of loss. How do you

think your family’s con­nec­tion to the Holo­caust impacts your philoso­phies on that? You men­tion in the book that you and your father are both doc­u­men­tors. What do you doc­u­ment? How does mem­o­ry fac­tor into both your work and your father’s, which, in my mind, both seek to accom­plish sim­i­lar goals: to remem­ber and exist beyond the body?

AK: My family’s his­to­ry of los­ing peo­ple and homes has incul­cat­ed me and my father with a com­pul­sion to save and to doc­u­ment. I doc­u­ment through writ­ing and draw­ing. In addi­tion to my books, I keep sketch­books and hand­writ­ten jour­nals. For me, draw­ing pre­serves and relays emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence, and mak­ing marks by hand helps solid­i­fy liv­ing mem­o­ry (when I write some­thing down by hand, for exam­ple, I tend to remem­ber it bet­ter). My father doc­u­ments by sav­ing infor­ma­tion. He would nev­er delete an email, for exam­ple. The stor­age unit fea­tured in my book is full not only of Fred’s arti­facts, but of father’s archives as well: poems he wrote when he was a child, type­writ­ten let­ters to his fam­i­ly mem­bers when he was in col­lege. He has kept orga­nized jour­nals of his dai­ly life in excel spread sheets ever since I’ve known him. 

Some­thing the research for this book taught me that I didn’t ful­ly appre­ci­ate before is that doc­u­men­ta­tion, for Jews escap­ing Europe, was life. So much of the sto­ry of my family’s escape from Vien­na was the sto­ry of stand­ing in lines to show the author­i­ties pieces of paper that doc­u­ment­ed cer­tain things that need­ed to be true in order for them to leave Europe and not die. I came to see my father’s com­mit­ment to the immor­tal­i­ty of infor­ma­tion in rela­tion to this his­to­ry: pre­served doc­u­ments are the basis for future dig­i­tal life just as doc­u­ments were my grandfather’s escape from death. 

Anoth­er inher­i­tance from my grandfather’s escape sto­ry, which lives in my father, and, in dif­fer­ent ways, in me, is the com­mit­ment to ambi­tion and excel­lence as a way to live and live on. You could trace my father’s ambi­tions, his com­mit­ment to what I refer to in Arti­fi­cial as Kleos, the Greek con­cept of liv­ing on through noto­ri­ety, to my grandfather’s escape sto­ry. If he had not attract­ed the atten­tion of the Amer­i­can bene­fac­tor who spon­sored him to Amer­i­ca after hear­ing him play a choral con­cert in Vien­na, he might not have lived past twen­ty-six. Being an excel­lent musi­cian saved his life. 

Love is a nego­ti­a­tion between self and oth­er. For those of us who come from these his­to­ries, or his­to­ries like it, how do we nego­ti­ate our own com­pul­sion for self-preser­va­tion with the time and atten­tion it takes to love oth­er peo­ple? This is, as I see it, the great­est (and most impor­tant) bal­anc­ing act of adult life. 

Some­thing the research for this book taught me that I didn’t ful­ly appre­ci­ate before is that doc­u­men­ta­tion, for Jews escap­ing Europe, was life.

MR: Much of Arti­fi­cial ques­tions where the soul is in arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and robotic

rean­i­ma­tion.” Accord­ing to the graph­ic mem­oir, the soul seems to lie in art (and espe­cial­ly for Fred, in music). Can you elab­o­rate on this a bit? What is the soul and where do you find it in your own work?

AK: For me, the slip­pery con­cept of soul” lives in the things that are not instru­men­tal. Usu­al­ly we talk about some­thing hav­ing soul when it is an end in itself, like love, or sad­ness, or artis­tic expres­sion. These things exist because they are cen­tral to human expe­ri­ence. They aren’t serv­ing some pur­pose. They just are. We expe­ri­ence things as soul­less” when, for exam­ple, they serve a bot­tom line. Insta­gram feels soul­less to the extent that it serves ad-dri­ven rev­enue streams. (Although there’s still plen­ty of soul to be found in the very real yearn­ing for atten­tion and con­nec­tion.) Tech­nol­o­gy and art are both exten­sions of human cre­ativ­i­ty, and both can feel soul­less when they lose direct con­nec­tion to authen­tic human emo­tion and yearning. 

Soul is also con­nect­ed to mys­tery. Because we can’t explain why we love some­one, the phe­nom­e­non is expe­ri­enced as auto­mat­ic and there­fore essen­tial. As a high­ly cere­bral per­son, I find a lot of soul in draw­ing because it’s con­nect­ed to those non-expla­na­tion-seek­ing parts of me: my hand, my arm, my breath. I have a past life as a dancer, and dance is prob­a­bly the place I access the most soul,” part­ly because it’s not my career. Increas­ing­ly, I enjoy impro­vi­sa­tion­al dance forms and in these realms, expres­sive move­ments hap­pen for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son oth­er than feel­ing right; I end up feel­ing con­nect­ed to oth­er bod­ies in space just because that’s a nat­ur­al thing to feel. I try to access this intu­ition in my draw­ing, because I think it’s the key to the soul. 

The extent to which AI has a soul” is the extent to which it helps human beings access things like won­der and con­nec­tion to oth­ers. AI doesn’t need to become some emer­gent con­scious­ness (what­ev­er that is — for me, con­scious­ness is a rab­bit-hole con­cept) in order to facil­i­tate soul­ful expe­ri­ences for the humans who engage with it. AI, like art, just needs to be a true facil­i­ta­tor for mean­ing­ful human val­ues and yearnings. 

MR: Can you explain how you think illus­trat­ing this sto­ry impacts how you tell it (and how we read it) rather than a tra­di­tion­al prose nar­ra­tive? You sneak in so many visu­al ele­ments (I was crack­ing up at includ­ing Soul­Cy­cle when you’re dis­cussing The Sym­po­sium). What were some of your favorite spreads to work on and which ones gave you some trouble?

AK: It’s fun that you asked me a ques­tion about visu­als and then the Soul­Cy­cle detail you men­tioned is actu­al­ly made of words. I love that you did that, because some­thing I love about comics is the way it blurs the line between text and image. This blur­ri­ness has inter­est­ing impli­ca­tions for how we think about the chat­bot of my grand­fa­ther; it speaks to a lim­i­ta­tion of dig­i­tal-text-based lan­guage as the only tool for pre­serv­ing infor­ma­tion. In this book, the visu­al ele­ment is so key because the read­er gets to expe­ri­ence my grandfather’s doc­u­ments as I first expe­ri­enced them, as paper in my hands. There’s also some­thing mean­ing­ful about the process of draw­ing not only images but words. Draw­ing — espe­cial­ly draw­ing ana­log by hand, as I did for every­thing in this book — slows you down, it requires a lot of time and atten­tion. I spent a lot of time trac­ing and pen­cil­ing and ink­ing and water­col­or­ing repro­duc­tions of my grandfather’s life: his words, his hand­writ­ing, his face and body. This time and atten­tion was an essen­tial ele­ment for the mis­sion of the book: to get to know him, and to get to love him. 

MR: I’d love to talk about the cats in Arti­fi­cial. You have them run­ning around through­out the book but don’t reveal why until lat­er on when you detail an impact­ful brush with death — your col­lege cat. Why did you feel it impor­tant to make them a run­ning (lit­er­al­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly) visu­al theme? And, do you still have the robocat?

AK: Why yes I still have my Joy For All robot cat, Saman­tha 2. She’s been through three moves, so she’s a lit­tle tat­tered, but I just replaced her bat­ter­ies and she’s doing great. I asso­ciate cats with my father because he has, for my whole life, boast­ed an epic col­lec­tion of cat fig­urines. I see a par­tic­u­lar­ly poet­ic instan­ti­a­tion of the arti­fi­cial stand­ing in for the real in the fact that my father loves cats, but he’s aller­gic to cats. Once my child­hood cats died, he noticed how much bet­ter he could breathe, and so I had to make do with the fig­urines. Many of these fig­urines are drawn direct­ly into my book, and they are print­ed on the book’s end­pa­pers. (This is my favorite ele­ment of the book. If any­thing should per­suade you to own a phys­i­cal copy of Arti­fi­cial, let it be those cat endpapers!) 

Ani­mals are often our first expe­ri­ence with death. For me, first it was my ham­sters (chron­i­cled in chap­ter one of Fly­ing Couch), lat­er my child­hood cats (I still have dreams where Fluffy is alive) and then my adult­hood cat died sud­den­ly and trag­i­cal­ly, in a way that man­i­fest­ed some of my deep­est fears about the peo­ple (and ani­mals) I love. For all these rea­sons, I asso­ciate cats both with mor­tal­i­ty and with immor­tal­i­ty through arti­fice. And they are absolute­ly the most won­der­ful thing in the world to draw. 

MR: Are you work­ing on any new projects right now? What’s the next great Kurzweil mas­ter­piece you have planned?

AK: I admit that after a project this dense, I’m in need of a good long rest, which is hard for some­one like me to take. But I’m try­ing! Unfor­tu­nate­ly for my dreams of rest, there are three projects I’d like to work on next. One is a more jour­nal­is­tic essay col­lec­tion about tech­nolo­gies of con­nec­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion (a con­tin­u­a­tion of the four Tech­nofeel­ia comics I’ve pub­lished with The Believ­er Mag­a­zine). Two is a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries about care and care­tak­ers (informed by research I’ve been doing on fem­i­nist care ethics). Last­ly, I’d like to com­pile the lessons from my graph­ic nar­ra­tive class­es into a craft book on comics and mem­o­ry. But first I think I bet­ter go take some more dance classes!

Dr. Megan Reynolds is the Devel­op­ment Man­ag­er for the Nation­al Book Foun­da­tion. Before join­ing the Nation­al Book Foun­da­tion, Megan Reynolds served as the Devel­op­ment Coor­di­na­tor at Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. Megan holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon and BA in Eng­lish with minors in Cre­ative Writ­ing and Span­ish from Trin­i­ty Uni­ver­si­ty. She is orig­i­nal­ly from New Mex­i­co and now lives in New York City.