July 1724, 1997
Tomato Rodriguez, the heroine of Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing (Simon & Schuster), rides from Philadelphia to San Francisco on a cheap motorcycle in search of adventure, nice post offices and a "half-Puerto Rican Quaker bisexual role model." Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Rodriguez could have saved herself a trip by looking in her own backyard, or by looking up the pen to the woman who created her: Erika Lopez. The work of this "almost-30" cartoonist and writer has been featured in the City Paper and the San Francisco Bay Times. But she has finally Hit The Big Time with, not one, but two new books this summer. In addition to the lush Flaming Iguanas, Lopez is also the author of Lap Dancing for Mommy: Tender Stories of Disgust, Blame, and Inspiration. The author paused on her cross-country road-trip book-tour thing while staying in Flagstaff, AZ, to talk about sudden success, inertia, Philly, and, of course, The Road. A graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Lopez moved to San Francisco three years ago on a whim, and traveled solo from California to Philadelphia (the reverse of Tomato's route) on a motorcycle two years ago.
I'm interested in your family, and specifically, your Quakerism.
My folks met in New York City doing the whole [hippie] "signs-in-the-street" thing. They became Quakers and moved to Philadelphia, where they did a lot of peace work and activism. Then they got divorced and my father had [tried to] kidnap us, so my mother was on the run [with Erika and her sister] like every two years. We moved around a whole lot: I've lived in West Virginia, Chicago, New York, Massachusetts. He finally caught up with us, and, you know, she was tired of running. She had changed her name but he found us anyway, and so we would go back and stay with him at different times. All that time we had been going to Friends meetings, and I'm noticing now how being brought up Quaker is coming through in a lot of the decisions I'm making. The thing about Quakers is there's no hierarchy, so you're brought up to call 85-year-old people Joe if that is their name; you don't say "Mister" or any of that. It's not like I would go and say "I'm Quaker," but I'm now noticing where a lot of this stuff is coming from, since I've been going back to meetings a lot since I've been living in San Francisco. I've gotten fired from a lot of jobs because I'm not very good at being subservient. I couldn't keep a job, and I was really bummed.
Why did you move to San Francisco from Philadelphia?
I figured, "Jeez, I really have to get out of this town," because I was really depressed in Philadelphia. It was like Sweden in the dead of winter for me a vast wasteland. The editor of this anthology I was going to be in, Girlfriend Number One, was having a big party in San Francisco and there was going to be a reading. I had never read before and thought, "Boy, I need to be a part of something." So I just gave my sister my apartment and left for San Francisco. I didn't know what was going to happen. A friend of mine, John, also from Philadelphia, moved there and I stayed with his girlfriend who was a speed freak, and her roommate who was a prostitute. So the prostitute and I ended up getting into really weird adventures together. It was two and half or three months of hell.
But you stayed...
[At first I wasn't having much success and figured], "Oh, I'm just going to do one more mailing of cartoons to papers in the area." Then I got a call from a woman at the San Francisco Bay Times and she wanted to run them regularly. For me, that was like, "I MADE IT!" Because there's nothing worse than trying to be funny and not having anyone see it except your cat and your neighbors.
What made you decide to do the cross-country road trip?
Back in Philadelphia I had been involved with a married guy who rode a Harley. And I loved that he rode a Harley. I realized I was dating a lot of people because they were doing cool things that I wanted to do. When I break up with somebody, the best revenge for me is to do the dream things that you talked about together. It just came out as a screenplay about this character Tomato Rodriguez who wants to go off on a motorcycle trip. She's been living a kind of a depressing life in Philadelphia with a bunch of people who think they know everything, but no one's going anywhere. So at the end of this story, she decides to go cross country on the motorcycle and that's the triumph part. What I didn't expect was that I would get inspired by my own story.
What's it like on the road?
Someone made a comment about Flaming Iguanas delving into the past all of the time. I said, "When you're on the road, you just let your head go. You start thinking about your life, and it's just kind of inevitable." You also lighten up on yourself, because you're not next to other people, so you don't really have anyone to gauge yourself by. You feel quite normal and very much OK about your thinking and who you are. You are just yourself, and whatever you do is fine: you're not pissing anybody off, you're not offending anybody, you're not hurting anyone's feelings. You're just there, thinking.
Tell me about the book tour.
We were going to do it traveling on a motorcycle, but we got too many dates booked up to do [that] realistically. So we're doing it in a convertible.
I'm picturing you in a big, Aretha Franklin pink Cadillac convertible.
It's a tiny, white yuppie thing. A little Pontiac Sunfire. This is the first time I've ever put air conditioning on in a car. I was driving across the desert without the air conditioner on because I didn't want to waste gas. I was willing to sweat and nearly fell asleep on the road because I wanted to save gas. But then I put the top up and turned the air conditioning on high so I would stay awake. I feel like an absolute diva. I mean, to have someone else pay for my road trip!
Erika Lopez will be reading on Wednesday, July 23, at Tower Books, 425 South St., 925-9909.