Comedian Merrill Markoe on her new diary-inspired graphic novel and the unreliability of memory

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney

Merrill Markoe co-created “Late Night with David Letterman” and was its first head writer. She wrote for “Sex and the City,” “It's Garry Shandling's Show,” and other programs. She’s also penned several novels and essay collections.

Before all that, she wrote diaries from fourth grade all the way through college. She stumbled across those diaries a few years ago.

In a new graphic novel, she recreates some of the entries — painful as they are to revisit. The book explores how she became who she is, and why people choose to remember or forget certain things. The book is “We Saw Scenery: The Early Diaries of Merrill Markoe.”

Markoe tells KCRW that these diaries had mini locks and keys, keeping her stories hidden from the rest of the world. She found many of them in an old box she kept. 

“What in the world was I ever writing when I was 10 or 11 years old that needed to be locked up and kept from the light of day? I'm not writing anything nearly that important now,” Markoe says.

The diaries provide a window into an era — and version of herself — that doesn’t exist anymore, she says. “I watched her turn into me as I read this stuff because I was writing so much that little by little by little, she was getting a clue.” 

One story that stands out to her: When she fell in love with a boy at 12 years old. She reveals that he turned out to be a Nazi, and he did the Nazi salute when he saw her. 

“All I remembered was how cute I thought he was,” she says. “I thought he was paying attention to me because he kind of liked me, because I was sort of accustomed [to the way] boys paid attention to girls — to do something horrible to you to show they like you.” 

Merrill Markoe’s latest book uncovers both her mundane childhood memories and experiences she forgot about. Image courtesy of Merill Markoe. 

As Markoe sifted through more entries, she began to find a narrative arc for her own life story. 

“I realized that I was always headed into media,” she says. “I was obsessed with television and radio and movies like most kids, but I was interacting with them. I was entering contests to get a monkey to come to your house for your birthday. And I was entering radio contests, and I was calling in new stations to give an opinion.” 

Can you trust memory? 

After uncovering lost experiences, Markoe says she started to see memory as unreliable. 

She had no recollection of a certain doctor’s appointment before she uncovered the July 14, 1960 entry about it. She was 10 years old, and during this visit, she was told she should lose weight. 

“It really was the moment, the beginning of calorie charts and carrying books around that said ‘cookie: 4 million calories; egg: 80 calories,’ like you're not supposed to ever eat another cookie.”

She says now she doesn’t know what’s a memory and what’s a mental recreation. 

When it comes to her mother, Markoe remembers her as angry and never explaining why. But after re-reading diaries, Markoe says there was more to her mom than an angry woman.  

“Those were the ones where I wondered, ‘So what was going on there?’ She left a legacy I'm not sure she wanted to leave. I don't think she knew she was leaving a legacy of just rage.” 

Later in life, Markoe says she heard about her mother complimenting her work — but was never told directly. 

Encouragement for teenagers 

Markoe says she hopes her experiences provide inspiration for teenage girls who don’t feel accomplished.

“Maybe this will be a point of encouragement for some 15-year-old girl if she happened to read it, where she would go, ‘Well, she thought she was a reject, and I don't know who she is or what she did, but she at least wrote a book.”