Questions for Roz Chast
The New Yorker cartoonist talks about missing Manhattan and why she hates superheroes, elevators, carnivals, hammerheads …
Slate: When you were growing up you drew a lot. Was this something that you ever thought would be a career? Or was this something you thought was just a joy?
Chast: I still almost don’t think it’s a career. I never really thought I’d be able to make career out of it. I never thought I’d be at The New Yorker. I thought if I were to be incredibly lucky maybe I’d get a gig at the Village Voice. And I did get some things published in there. I think I was just very very fortunate.
Slate: Why didn’t you think that you’d be in The New Yorker? Was it your sensibility?
Chast: My sensibility. My style. My works were not—and they still aren’t—single panel gags with a punch line underneath them. I like a lot of those cartoons, I just don’t draw them. I just don’t think like that. And that was—especially back then—pretty much what they had. There were exceptions, like Charles Addams, but the general sensibility seemed to be these upper middle class people saying these witty things to one another in Connecticut. And I didn’t know anything about that world. That was not the world I felt I could make jokes about because it was not my world.
Slate: Because you grew up in Brooklyn?
Chast: Yes—I grew up in Brooklyn.
Slate: Do you go back ever? Are you surprised by how it’s changed since you grew up there?
Chast: I don’t resent people who want to make a home there. I think it’s great. They’re improving what was there—which was pretty crappy, pretty lousy, and I have no nostalgia for it. For me it was a place I wanted to leave.
Slate: It seems like the New Yorker’s cartoon sensibility has become more your sensibility since the days of Connecticut cocktail humor. Do you think it’s changed because of the editors changing, or do you’ve influenced the culture over there?
Chast: It’s like a chicken or the egg thing. We’re all part of the culture. We’re reflecting it; we’re changing it. So, yeah, I think culture is always changing. The jokes that people made—a lot of that world still exists—but you know they’re not quite a part of the New Yorker as they were.
Slate: You manage to articulate neuroses really brilliantly. When you’re thinking of a one panel cartoon, what’s the process you go through? Is it always from personal experience?
Chast: I think there’s so many different things that feed into it. Sometimes it can be something personal that happened to me that can spark an idea for a cartoon. Sometimes it will be something somebody said. Sometimes it’s just really—like a genre cartoon. Like gravestone cartoons. Like the end-of-the-world guys. Who has seen one of those in a thousand million years? They don’t wear the white robes anymore except in cartoons, but I do see them. I see them in the subway, preaching hellfire.
Slate: What happened to cults in New York? There seemed to be so many cults.
Chast: There used to be all kinds of weird characters in the city. Giuliani started clearing them out and Bloomberg is getting rid of the hangers on.
Slate: Do you ever miss living in Manhattan?
Chast: I miss it terribly. And that is a grudge I have. I resent that this is more and more of a place where the very, very rich, or the lucky and deeply entrenched—like they inherited a rent-controled apartment and pay $20 or $200 for some seven-room apartment, and then they’ll pass that on to their children. And foreign people with gazillions of dollars, and they don’t even live here. Or maybe they live in some high-rise and they come down every once in a while to buy some La Mer cream to fill their bathtub, and then they rinse it all off with Evian water, and then they go back to their apartment.
Slate: Do you identify with Occupy Wall Street?
Chast: I do have great, I don’t know what the word is, empathy I guess, for the protestors. I don’t know. I feel like I’m too old and too cynical. I was very pro-Obama, and I’m so disappointed. I would vote for him again, but I just thought that, you know, it would be different. So stupid of me, right? That’s how I feel now about Wall Street. Is this really going to change anything?
Slate: Your work is mostly seems to deal with smaller, personal maladies and concerns. Are politics ever something you’d want to address in your cartoons?
Chast: There’s people who do that so well. I think after a while you get a feeling for what’s your territory, what you could really do something with. I could just go splutter splutter, pearl clutching, spluttering. You know it’s not particularly funny. Maybe that’s what it is. It’s just so upsetting—so many of these things—I don’t find it as funny as some other things.
Slate: What do you find the most funny?
Chast: I think getting very very wound up about a neurotic thing in retrospect seems funny but not at the time. Later you can find them sort of funny in a kind of odd way. That’s one thing for me I think is funny. [A loud, rumbling cart rolls by behind Chast’s head and she pauses.] I was just feeling for a second like I knew it was the cart but I found the ground sort of moving.
Slate: You mean another earthquake?
Chast: Yeah. I had to process that. I did feel that. Could you feel that?
Slate: I did, but I could see the cart.
This interview has been condensed and edited.