Sonoma artist mines jokes out of jilts

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Hilary Campbell Book Launch Party

What? A celebration of the release of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do – But You Could’ve Done Better.”

When? Tuesday, Dec. 27, 5 p.m.

Where? The Roche Winery Tasting Room, 122 W. Spain St.

“Everyone has a breakup story, and most breakups are awful,” says Hilary Campbell, cartoonist, filmmaker and chronicler of emotional pain.

“What side of the breakup you are on has a lot to do with how bad it is,” she adds. “There’s no way around it, it’s better to break up with someone than to be broken up with. But when it’s you getting dumped, sometimes those are the best stories.”

Originally from Sonoma, now based in New York City, Campbell is the author of the new book, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do – But You Could’ve Done Better,” subtitled, “Real Life Breakups & The Art They Inspired.” She’ll be back in her home town of Sonoma this Tuesday, Dec. 27, to officially kick off the book’s release, before launching a national tour that will take her to San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and back to New York.

At each appearance, she’ll be doing much more than signing books. She’ll host open mic performances where visitors will be invited to tell their own real-life break-up stories, as Campbell spontaneously draws a cartoon to accompany the tale. She says she expects the usual combination of humor and heartbreak that defines the book, a remarkably funny and frequently outrageous collection of stories, some only a sentence long, which Campbell collected via her website.

“When people break up with someone,” she says, “it’s usually not very well thought out, and the things people say, the choices they make in that moment, can be pretty bizarre, or cruel, or amazing, or just awful. It really speaks to the human condition. The best comedy is about deep tragedy, so when it comes to breaking up, it can actually be pretty hilarious – unless, obviously, you’re the one it’s happening to.”

Campbell, daughter of local doctor Douglas Campbell, is a 2009 graduate of Sonoma Valley High School. After graduating, she went on to study filmmaking at UC Santa Barbara. Campbell says that she’s always been torn between her love of art and drawing, and her fondness for all kinds of movies.

“I’ve drawn since forever,” she says. “I’ve always loved drawing cartoons and funny pictures. In school, I was always in art class thinking about movies, or watching movies with my mom, who’s a crazy movie fanatic, thinking about how I could maybe someday make art. Or movies. Or both.”

Ultimately, Campbell chose both. But it took a while to figure out how.

“My senior project was an internship with the Sonoma International Film Festival,” she says. At UC Santa Barbara, she eventually became the director of the Reel Loud Silent Film Festival, an annual event combining silent short films with live music. After earning her degree, Campbell worked for a number of small film festivals, eventually ending up at the celebrated Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, a kind of indie alternative to the better-known Sundance Film Festival taking place there in Park City, too,

“I basically rose in the ranks at Slamdance,” she explains of her evolution from intern to managing coordinator. “I learned so much about the film world there. I loved it, till I realized it was time to leave and do my own thing.”

It was, Campbell insists, an amicable breakup.

“Becoming a festival director was just not my lifelong dream,” she says. “I wanted to be an artist more than I wanted to just be the one supporting other artists. I finally decided I was ready to do that.”

Hilary Campbell Book Launch Party

What? A celebration of the release of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do – But You Could’ve Done Better.”

When? Tuesday, Dec. 27, 5 p.m.

Where? The Roche Winery Tasting Room, 122 W. Spain St.

In 2015, on a whim, she moved to New York City to become a cartoonist.

“It felt like that’s where I should be working on becoming a better cartoonist,” she says. After posting countless cartoons online, and regularly seeing them published in the Huffington Post and other outlets, Campbell was asked to illustrate Jessica Bennett’s “Feminist Fight Club – An Office Survival Manual (for a sexist workplace),” published this September by Harper Collins.

“That’s changed my life in many ways,” says Campbell, acknowledging that the book’s popularity has pushed her own star to a much higher level, helping pave the way for her own book – itself inspired by the pain of a break up.

“When I first moved to New York, someone broke up with me,” she says. “I felt really terrible, then I drew a cartoon about it, and it made me feel a little better. So I started asking people to post their own stories on my website. I got some pretty funny things, and that was cool, but I wasn’t sure what to do beyond that.”

All the time she’s been working in New York, Campbell has continued pursuing her other dream career as a filmmaker. A number of her films, including two filmed in Sonoma, have received positive attention at film festivals all over the country. It was while attending a film festival in Alabama, accompanying one of her films, that Campbell told some other attendees about her break-up project. One of them suggested that she turn those stories into a book.

“My initial reaction was to go, ‘Yeah. Right. Ha Ha. Like I’m ever going to have a book,’” she says. “But now, I have a book.”

The book, published by Animal Media group, inspired Campbell to think outside the box, envisioning a singing tour combined with a story-collecting opportunity. She raised money via a Kickstarter campaign, and now hopes that the tour will result in yet another movie – and possibly even a volume 2 of the breakup book. Presuming people don’t stop breaking up with each other anytime soon.

“People will always be having a relationship problems,” she laughs. “People will always be broken up with at a party on a Friday night, or on their birthday, or on their anniversaries. Putting this book together has enhanced my cynical view of relationships.”

And as it so happens, Campbell’s book, inspired by the painful ending of one relationship, was capped off by the dissolution of yet another.

“It’s true,” she says. “I was conveniently broken up with just as my book was being finished. At first, I was devastated. Then I thought, ‘Actually, this is kind of funny.’”

And that, she acknowledges, is pretty much the point of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

“Yes,” says Campbell, “If you find humor in the pain, you will feel better.”

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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