'The Customer Is Always Wrong' Author Mimi Pond on Her Touching 1970s Memoir

The 1970s are drawing to a close, and Madge — cartoonist Mimi Pond’s alter ego from her semi-autobiographical graphic novel Over Easy — is thinking about her future, at the same time as Lazlo, her closest friend, is doing the same, for very different reasons.

The Customer Is Always Wrong sees Pond, the celebrated National Lampoon and Los Angeles Times cartoonist, return to the Imperial Cafe — her alternate version of Mama’s Royal Cafe, where she worked in her youth — for the second half of her fictionalized memoir, following on from the critically acclaimed 2014 Over Easy. With the book in stores this week, Heat Vision talked to Pond about revisiting the past, and turning it into art.

The Customer Is Always Wrong continues Madge’s story from 2014’s Over Easy, but it’s a book as much about Lazlo, and those in and around the Imperial Cafe, as it is Madge herself. Despite that, the book never feels like it’s losing focus. How did you pare down what made sense to include, and what was peripheral to the experience you’re trying to share?

I knew Lazlo was at the heart of the the story, so all roads had to lead to him or be driven by him. I collected many stories from my former co-workers over the years I spent researching this, and the point wasn’t to make a factual or literal report of the real place, but to try to make the reader understand what it was like to have been a part of that time and place. So, episodes given to me were sometimes gutted for parts and assigned to other characters to make the narrative flow better. 

Does the disclaimer at the start of the book, firmly identifying the story as a fictionalization of your experiences, grant you a sense of freedom when it comes to writing? Or responsibility? Somewhere between the two?

Fiction absolutely gives you much more freedom. The responsibility is in trying to make the characters three-dimensional and the story believable.

Customer really feels like a book filled with ghosts, to me: An Oakland that doesn’t exist anymore, a culture that doesn’t exist anymore, and people that don’t exist anymore, in more ways that one — everyone in the book seems aware of the transitory nature of their existence. I’m curious how much of that is your point of view as a writer today, and how much was present at the time? Madge seems to be aware of that, to some degree, to my eye.

This is a story I knew I had to tell from the first day I worked in that restaurant. For years, I didn’t even know what the story was, even though I was taking notes and making lists of potential characters. Then a certain inciting incident occurred — no spoilers here! — which made everything crystal clear to me.

Oakland had not even changed that much by the time I really knuckled down and began working on just writing it, around 2000. In fact, so little had changed that so many of the principal players were still kind of hanging out, slacker-style, still getting by with cheap rents and thinking it was going to stay that way. It’s really just in the last I want to say about seven years or so that things began dramatically changing in Oakland. Part of the charm for me was that nothing had changed since I lived there for so long, it was suspended in aspic and that made it easier to keep going back and studying it. Everything had changed for me, but it seemed like not much had changed there. The restaurant and the way it was run, of course, had changed, or it never would have survived, but the town itself stayed the same for a long time. How many people can go back to the place where they experienced their early 20s and kind of relive it whenever they want? If it’s elegiac at all, I think it’s because no one could go back to that time and place and relived it without a character like Lazlo. 

One of the ways that the book feels so evocative — and is as powerful as it is — is that you seem fearless when it comes to subject matter: There are moments in here that seem honest and authentic in a way that is surprising, somehow. Was there a line in your head that you know you wouldn’t cross, in terms of what you would and wouldn’t show on the page?

There were absolutely some lines I didn’t cross, and some secrets I didn’t tell. What was most important to me, since I was writing fiction, was always the question, “Is it plausible?” I certainly wasn’t about to let current political correctness get in the way of conveying the ways in which people expressed themselves back then. Part of the hipster vibe of the ’70s was a very specific white privilege where they gave themselves permission to use racist terms in what they thought was an ironic way, words like “spade,” for example. They thought they were being ironic. You can’t hop in the time machine and go back and chide them! I was trying to just express how people were. Not so ironic was the general sense of completely proprietary sexism, for the most part. That was a wall there was no going around either. 

On a more practical note, how was working on your second full-length graphic novel compared with creating Over Easy? I’m wondering how much the experience of the first book — not only making it, but promoting it and seeing the feedback to it — shaped the creation of the second, especially because they stand up so well as a double-act.

I initially wrote this book as a piece of conventional fiction, so it’s always been all one story, to begin with. The thought of it being a graphic novel was too overwhelming for me to wrap my mind around, so I wrote it as a novel. My agent couldn’t sell it and eventually I had to break down and admit to myself that, since I am a cartoonist, it really wanted to be a graphic novel. It wasn’t until after Drawn & Quarterly agreed to publish it that I became even more overwhelmed with managing the work on it, and that’s when they suggested we split it into two parts, which was a huge relief.

The big difference between the first half and the second was that my husband and I were raising two children and it was hard for me to find time to focus on it. By the time I had started on the second half, they were both out of the house so that I could make it my full-time job. The other thing was that with the first book, I was pretty much living under a rock while I was creating it — D&Q wanted me to separate the line art from the watercolor washes, so it was kind of impossible to show anyone the work in progress. After Over Easy came out and got some love, it gave me a lot more confidence. There was a momentum that built up with the second one that made me less inclined to rely on fancy visual tricks and splash pages and that kind of thing and simply drive that story home. I love Drawn & Quarterly for many reasons, but mostly because they simply trusted me. 

The end of the book feels both like a conclusion and a beginning. Obviously, Madge’s life isn’t done when she leaves the West Coast — she’s based on you, and that was just the beginning of your career in many ways! — but in your mind, is this story finished? Is Customer the second half of a now-completed story, or merely the second chapter in the larger story of Madge’s experiences, which reflect your own?

For me, the story seems finished. Everyone wants to know what happens when Madge goes to New York, even my husband! But he was there! Once I got to New York, I was happy, so there’s so much less drama there. Everyone imagines Madge in this hazy 80s NYC dream where she’s at Danceteria every night and hanging out with Jean-Michel Basquiat, but honestly, I was never a club kid. I’m terrible at staying out late. There may be something there but you have to give me some time to ruminate on it. It’s an entirely different story. 

Mimi Pond will be signing copies of The Customers Is Always Wrong at Skylight Books, 1818 N Vermont Ave in Los Angeles, from 5 p.m. A preview of the book is below.

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