This is a good time for cartoonists and graphic memoirists—Alison Bechdel receives a MacArthur Fellowship and Roz Chast is nominated for this year’s National book Award in non fiction for Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury). Roz Chast should need no introduction for people who still read but in case she has escaped your notice, Chast grew up in Brooklyn, attended the Rhode Island School of Design and has been publishing cartoons in the New Yorker for over three decades. As well a broad spectrum of other publications— Scientific American, the Harvard Business Review, Redbook, and Mother Jones. She also has a number of books under her belt including my favorite Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006 and What I Hate A to Z.
Roz and I sat down in post modern coffee place in May and chatted about this and that, mostly her new opus,Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. Or more specifically the ordeal she presents in that book—the burdens and responsibilities of taking of aging and declining parents. Its a harrowing subject and in what is her inimitable manner Roz Chast handles with appropriate humor and alacrity. We talk about other stuff also as you will discover if you continue to read.
RB: When you meet people for the first time and they ask you what you do what do you say?
RC: I am a cartoonist.
RB: You’re a cartoonist?
RB: Do you accept other names for what you do?
RC: Um, I am Queen of all the Romanians.
RB: (laughs) Cartoonist seems to be an oversimplification of what you do.
RC: (Make high pitched sound)
RB: How about picture story teller?
RZ: I think that’s what a cartoonist is.
RB: Right. But I think most people think of ‘cartoons’ as in Sunday funnies.
RC: Huh. Well I don’t know—it seems like there are so many different types of cartooning now. With graphic novels and Sunday funnies and animations ,that there is no reason to assume, unless somebody asks you to clarify what type of cartoonist you are,Z that somebody would just be talking about comic strips.
RB: What kind of cartoonist are you?
RC: Um, I draw cartoons for the New Yorker magazine.
RB: That’s where much of your work appears—is that what defines you as a cartoonist? Are you a funny cartoonist?
RC: I hope so.
RB: An intricate and detailed cartoonist?
RC: I like detail a lot. I hope I am funny. I try.
RB: Was the New Yorker the first place you were published?
RC: No, (you mean professionally) the first place was in Christopher Street Magazine in New York. And then I sold cartoons for a while to the Village Voice and the National Lampoon.
RB: Who chose the art for the Village Voice?
RC: I worked with a man named Guy Trebay.
RB: You were in the same publication as Jules Feiffer.
RB: Did you feel good about that?
RC: Oh, God yes.
RB: Was that your aspiration to be a cartoonist?
RC: Yeah, yeah. (chuckles).
RB: Is your work looked upon differently then when you first began?
RC: Uh, I don’t know. I mean I think— (pause) I don’t know. I really am not tuned into that.
RB:Are you interviewed often?
RC: When I have a book come out.
RB: What kind of media interview you?
RC: I just did an interview with Terri Gross. And I talked to someone from the a relatively local paper called the Hartford Courant.
RB: It still exists?
RC: Yeah, it still exists—on paper. Its amazing. And I did a big interview in the NY Times—
RB: —In the Styles section.
RC: Actually it was the Home and Garden section. Now you know what my house looks like.
RB: Do you use modern technology to make your drawings?
RC: I draw with pen and ink on paper. I use a scanner to send the drawings hither and dither. I love Photoshop. But the first drawings are always on paper. I like the quiet of it and it’s what I am used to.
RB: Are there electronic versions of your books?
RC: Apparently there are. I have not seen them (both laugh).
RB: You are not concerned about those?
RC: I have an Ipad and I sometimes read books on it. But there’s pluses and minuses. The pluses are that you can look up a word you don’t know in a second. But I have actually heard that the electronic version of this book has a couple of glitches.
RB: I have become friendly with Ben Katchor—
RC: —oh yeah, he’s the best—
RB: I expected him to be adverse to digitizing his book and he is not. He gets into it and he oversees the e book presentation. He begins his work in a digital application.
RC: One of those Wacomb tablets or something. Yeah. I like paper, I guess.
RB: There is that obnoxious banality, “old school”. Reading books instead of screens. I ind myself being a bit defensive when publishers send me to Net Galley or want to send me a PDF. I feel like it lowers the status of something denigrates it on screen
RC: It depends on the device. I had a Kindle for a while and I didn’t like it. I wound up giving it to a friend. When I got an Ipad, reading on the Ipad was such an analog of a book, a couple of times I actually tried to turn the page. My hand went to the corner of the screen and I thought, “Ah, they’ve got me.” They got, me you know?
RB: If have been told that with a Kindle there is a monotony of presentation—people had difficulty distinguishing what books they had read.
RC: The device I have is smaller and the Ipad is a little closer to the size of a book. For an oldie kind of person it resembles a book more, in some way. That being said, there is something about a book that is great because when I am reading the Ipad it’s partly my problem of having a flea-like attention span. So I am reading and suddenly they talk about some action taking place in Bolivia and its like, ”I should look up Bolivia. I should look it up.” And then I find myself of just going down the rabbit hole —like salt flats in Bolivia and then I have to look up ‘gauchos’, and suddenly I am thinking about covered wagons. And I am like a million miles away.
RB: When one publishes on the Web, there is a great temptation to embed lots of hot links in the text.
RC: So your reading experience can become more fragmented—kind of a collage or something.
RB: The drawings toward the end of the book were really moving—the death studies. A big departure from the rest of the art in the book. Were they hard to do?
RC: Do you mean were the drawings hard to do. Or was it hard to include them in the book?
RB: Creating images of your dead parents?
RC: There were aspects of it that were very emotional —the drawings at the end are of my mother and my father’s decline was steeper. And also my mother was still there. When he went it was pretty quick. My mother’s passing was very lingering and there were months where she was just lying in bed —we didn’t talk. We barely talked—
RB; That’s a very emotionally exhausting—I am not sure what the right word is. I went through the same experience. I remember reading this harrowing article by Michael Wolff in New York Magazine about his own experience with declining parents.
RC: I didn’t read that.
RB: It was pretty grim —he talked about so-called assisted living and associated issues.
RC: Oh, I would love to read that. I’ll look it up.
RB: It presents a huge problem for people and I think that’s when if you haven’t already, you become an adult.
RC: Yeah, yeah. You certainly learn more about what this all entails. I knew nothing about it. And my parents knew nothing about it. I would really like to read that article because I thought assisted living would help more.
RB: We tried that with my parents and they hated it. And part of it was they felt it was a waste of their hard earned money.
RC: They were more aware then my parents then. I handled all of the money and all of the bills. So they just didn’t know.
RB: That was only one of many things that bothered my parents.
RC: It was really weird. They were really just out of their element. But at least at the beginning they had each other. Then after my father died it was juts my mother .And it wasn’t always great. Some of the people weren’t so nice. My mother didn’t really want to make new friends—it must get really hard. I mean, what the point. I don’t know. Meals on wheels was great. That really helped a lot. But it was really hard. Its not easy in this—maybe there is no place where it is really good to grow old.
RB: Oh yeah, Central America or Italy. Where extended families care for their elders—there is a respect for the family
RC: Not here.
RB: I wonder how successful ‘assisted living ‘ is in other places? It’s an idea that’s a product of a dehumanized society.
RZ:Z:I am kind of with you but at that point what was I going to do? My parents were in Brooklyn, in this 4 room apartment. My father had senile dementia. My mother was falling. I was living up in Connecticut. I had no other siblings or relatives that lived close by. I had neighbors that checked in on them but it was getting very scary. And at the end there was really not an alternative. Even if they had had somebody come to live with them, which would have been really hard. A major adjustment. I didn’t feel comfortable with that because I lived so far away. What of that person were, like a jerk? Who didn’t really take care of them. What if they sat there and yakked on the phone all day t their friends and now my parents have a stranger in the apartment yakking all day?
RB: It certainly takes a special kind of person to take care of needy elderly people.
RB: So, is this a cartoon book?
RC: It’s a cartoon story book, kind of. It’s a graphic memoir. It has text, it has photographs and cartoons. It has some cartoons that I did well before all of this started. That I did at the time—because I submit weekly groups of cartoons to the New Yorker and there’s several cartoons in there that I had submitted as cartoons that were turned down—
RB: Mankoff turned your stuff down?
RC: Oh sure. Every cartoonist—you’re being facetious—you know how it works. Well, like there are two cartoons in the book that —one is 9/11/2001 and one is 9/12 /2001, those were both done after the trade centers were destroyed and they were really conversations I had with my parents and that was what I really wanted to do—
RB: Did you see [New Yorker cartoon editor]Robert Mankoff on 60 Minutes?
RC: Yes, yes, yes.
RB: That process doesn’t seem to me to be satisfying? He doesn’t really say much. You have been doing it since 1978. How many cartoons have you submitted to them?
RC: I haven’t really done the complete math but a lot.
RB: What do you do with the originals?
RC: I have file cabinets.
RB: How many?
RC: I have two big ones and then there are boxes of really, really old stuff. Its part of what we all do.
RB: You must have had shows—where?
RC: A gallery—the Danese Corey Gallery in New York
RB: And museums?
RC: I am going to have a show at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. This summer, actually.
RB What’s that like?
RC: I have been in group shows but this is the first time I have had my own. I am kind of excited.I mean we show cartoons. I also do these Psanka eggs
RC: They are like Ukranian Easter eggs. You have probably seen them. They are very elaborately detailed . They are not painted. They are dyed. So yiu draw with wax. Its like a batique. I do the traditional technique with my designs—people and stuff.
RB: Have you done bed clothing or a tea kettle?
RC: (laughs) Bed clothing, no but have done dishes and cups.
RB: One-offs , you don’t have a line?
RC: I did . I had this dream to do plates. I hd this vision—
RB: You could be like Mara Kalman and her late husband Tibor. They had a lot of design products.
RC: Oh yeah. Oh sure. Oh my god.
RB: Are you friendly with other cartoonists?
RZ: Yeah, I am probably closest to the people who came in to the New Yorker around the same time I did. Those are the people I know the best—Jack Ziegler. Michael Crawford, uh—
RB: Do you all meet every week?
RC: We used to. But then people moved or had children, like me. Now we email a lot.
RB: It strikes me that there are so many Jewish cartoonists. [When anti Semites complain about the word being controlled by Jewish bankers and brokers, they never mention cartoonists]
RC: Yeah, I guess.
RB: In fact historian Paul Buhle has published a book , Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form. Have you noted any reason why so many of the chosen people are cartoonists?
RC: I can’t think of anything. (laughs)
RB: Did that even ever cross your mind?
RC: I ‘ve noticed that there are a lot of left handed cartoonists.
RB: Are you?
RB: Does this book take a weight off of your shoulders?
RC: This is going sound really awful but when my mother died, I felt like that was a great weight off my shoulders. And the book ,uh,(long pause) what I mainly was emotionally involved in with the book was that I wanted it to be a good book. And so it’s a great weight off my soldiers that I feel like I told it the best way that I could and I that I worked hard on it. And that it resonates with people. But the experiences —I didn’t write the book to bitch about my childhood or something. I feel like either save it for the shrink or use it whatever. It’s a weight off my shoulders in that I feel like this is the book that I wanted to write.
RB: In what section do bookstores place your books.
RC: With cartoons.
RB: I have seen them located in ‘Humor’.
RC: I don’t know where this one—this is funny but its not. It’s a story and writing. Its not even like a typical graphic memoir or novel.
RB: Well, that’s good. I imagine you done thousands of cartoons and a dozen books. How do you decide to do a book?
RC: I guess I —(pauses) I start to get this sort of idea of a book. (giggles) That was really complicated and articulate, wasn’t it? I don’t know—with this book I can’t remember exactly the day or moment when I thought, ”I am going to make a book about this.” It started to fall together in a certain way —
RB: Did you mentally scan images that yiu have done and maybe think if I add this and this I have a narrative?
RC: With this book I definitely felt a narrative thing.I did one book about parents and children Childproof: Cartoons About Parents and Children when my kids were little and I was so involved in that whole world—like from when they are born, what kind of stupid mobile you are going to put over their crib that is going to increase their intelligence. This was definitely a first kid toy. After the second kid , its like, “Here look at this, whatever.’
RC: You see these very complicate mobile and its like $55 and you think, “First time parent, they really believe in these things Yeah, uh huh.”
RB: I am impressed with how sharp your humor is without it being mean or harsh. Its brilliant stuff. I hope that doesn’t embarrass you.
RC: Yeah, like suddenly she is looking over there (laughs). Yeah, I guess I am not a big fan of humor that—some mean humor I am totally for but I don’t like it when it makes fun go people who already have a burden. You can make fun f the beautiful rich movie star_ I know they have feelings but hey, they are on top of the pyramid.
RB: What’s next for you?
RC: This is sort of finished and I have other projects that I am working on—
RB: But you’re touring to support this book—
RZ: Its great and I am excite and I want to talk about it also enormously distracting and there is a part of me that just wants to crawl bacl in to my hole and think about my next project. You know its not a timely thing but in some of this hub bub —
RB: How’s flying these days?
RC: I used to be really afraid to fly.
RB: Besides that.
RC: I am kind of almost used to it, plus my son lives on the WestCoast so I get to see him. Which is kind of like the carrot. A big carrot for me.
RB: In the olden days a child wouldn’t have moved so far away from their parents.
RC: I know. But I am excited for him too.
RB: What does he do?
RC: He doing website stuff. He’s a web host and designs websites. He was a philosophy major.
RB: I was too.
RC: You know then— when people hear that you have to beat people away from your door with a stick.
RB: (laughs) Right.
RC: The job offers just come. And all the philosophy shops, its like the latest thing.
RB: Its hard to turn the big money down.
RC: It is —people are just throwing it at you.
RB: What kind of philosophy—did he smoke Gaulloise and wear a beret?
Currently reading How I Stopped Being a Jew by Shlomo Sand (Verso Books)