Interview with Roz Chast, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?
Interviewed by Matt McCann
Matt McCann: Before we begin in earnest, are there any disparaging remarks you’d like to make about the other finalists?
Roz Chast: Oh, god. I’ll have to think up something.
MM: How does it feel to be up against something with the title The Meaning of Human Existence?”
RC: [Laughs] I have to say that is quite a title. In my dreams, the subtitle is, “What I Learned While Tripping With My Older Cousins in 1974” or “One Night In Matamoras, Pennsylvania.” It is quite a title.
MM: All due respect to Edward O. Wilson, of course.
MM: Was that the title you had for your own book, originally?
RC: Of course—that was my subtitle.
MM: In all seriousness, congratulations. It’s an honor, and your memoir is wonderful. I imagine that even if it had hobbled along in obscurity forever, it’s so profoundly personal and baldly expressive that—at least—it must have been satisfying to do.
RC: I think it’s an interesting story, but I don’t guess that it’s terribly unusual. I think that this is something that—at least from the mail that I’ve gotten—people are going through or have gone through similar things, taking care of extremely elderly parents. As I said to my editor, they should really shelve this in the travel section, because this is definitely like going to another country. It’s a part of life that I knew nothing about, and that we don’t really talk about.
MM: I feel like the word catharsis comes up a lot when you’re talking about the process of writing your book. Was any part of it cathartic?
RC: For me, it was a way of remembering—not really catharsis. To me, catharsis is—you kind of get rid of it. And I wanted to remember it. I wanted to remember my parents, remember what they sounded like and what the experience was like.
MM: We’re used to your cartoons, to your one-panel narratives contained within a single frame. How did you contend with creating a structure on which to hang a whole narrative with a beginning, middle and end? Was the long form a difficult thing to deal with?
RC: Yeah, it was very different. It took me a long time to figure that out and untangle that. Frankly, one of the things that helped was that I talked about it with my shrink. I said, “I have all this material but I have no idea how to put it all together.” And he said, “Well, how about chapters?”
MM: That does seem like an eminently reasonable thing to say.
RC: Once I understood that I was allowed to put it into chapters, then I started to be able to figure out how I wanted to structure it. But before that, because I had never done anything like this, I completely blanked out that there was such a thing.
MM: Was it always clear to you that it would begin right before September 11?
RC: That was really the beginning for me, that day: two days before the towers came down, where suddenly I had this intense, out-of-the-blue need to go into Brooklyn and see them.
MM: What was the editing process like? Or did Bloomsbury simply publish your first draft?
RC: I have a wonderful editor at Bloomsbury, Kathy Belden. We did a lot of back-and-forth; she gave suggestions when I would repeat myself or when this part of the narrative needed to be moved up or over there. She wasn’t heavy handed or anything. She was a great, like, line editor, I think it’s called.
MM: Would she advise you on how you drew pictures? Would she say, “I think he should be more bug-eyed there” or anything like that?
RC: She pretty much left me alone there.
MM: Structurally, too—would you have to redraw certain parts of it?
RC: Oh yeah. There was a lot of drawing and redrawing. A lot of it had to be redrawn for the excerpt in The New Yorker because the way that was edited—again, that was some fantastic editing—they took this whole book and boiled it down to 12 pages. And sometimes, the editor would take a third of one page, and a third of another page and a third of another page, and then do this mock-up. And of course you couldn’t just cut the pages and paste them together. There was a lot of redrawing with The New Yorker but—well, I like to draw, so, you know.
MM: I can’t imagine what a nightmarish travail that would have been if you hated drawing.
RC: That would have been a very bad thing. “Oh no! Now I have to choose some colors! Oh, how dreary!”
MM: Your work’s effectiveness hangs not just on diction, structure, etc —the stuff that normal writers use as tools—but the quality of the lines that you render with your own hand; your cartoons (to me) are hilarious not only because of the funny jokes or clever concepts, but because your lines are, in and of themselves, funny. So the experience of reading your memoir is so much more immediate, so personal—like reading someone’s diary.
RC: I think I’ve always liked…I don’t know if liked is the right word…for me, pictures and words together have always been the way I need to tell a story. That’s why I hesitate to use the word “like.” I think one thing I liked about this book was that sometimes there are multi-panel cartoons, sometimes there’s some writing with illustrations, and sometimes there’s just text. I felt I could toggle back and forth between those, and just choose the best way to tell something.
MM: Was it difficult drawing your parents, over and over again?
RC: No. Difficult to me would be working as a waitress someplace, or working a cash register. That is difficult. This is what I do.
MM: But emotionally? Reanimating your parents?
RC: No, I wasn’t weeping while I was doing it. I don’t know what that says about me. Drawing and writing for me is a way of remembering. I hate sometimes the way things just seem to disappear—how two days later you can’t remember what you had for lunch. Not that it matters, really, but sometimes I hate that feeling. I liked feeling, when I was writing, that I could sort of hear my parents’ voices in my head and remember them and remember their gestures or the way they stood or their facial expressions. A lot of it was trying to remember, not trying to forget.
Searching my email was helpful. I don’t keep a diary. But I have friends that I write to, and that was very helpful. Like that last conversation with my mother that was just so awful—I had written that all out to a friend of mine. There was stuff that I had written down or things I had done as cartoons. The Ouija Board thing, I had actually done that as a cartoon after it happened and submitted to The New Yorker, and they had turned that down. But of course, the perfect place for it was in the book. And that was exactly what happened. I don’t believe in Ouija Board, but that was what had happened.
MM: I have my own Quija Board experience, one not nearly so beautiful or poignant so much as downright scary, but it felt completely real.
RC: That’s how I felt about this “Heaven beckons.” I was like, “What the hell?” Teenagers don’t talk like that. I was only doing it partly as a goof. I was doing it more to find out what the subconscious of these kids was going to do. I didn’t even know what it was spelling. And then it stopped after that. I couldn’t figure it out. When it said, “Beck,” I was like, “What? Heaven Beck?” I was thinking of the singer.
MM: But it’s such an evocative scene. And that phrase—heaven beckons—is a little too beautiful to be conjured so easily, where you’re basically told that it’s okay, that it’s time.
RC: It was. And my father’s death was very peaceful. And it was very sad, and it was very intense, but when he died, I felt like, we were good. I felt like, all of the ways that he drove me bats — and there were many—they became very unimportant.
MM: Whereas, in contrast to your mother, you have that scene with her where you ask if anything about your past bothers her, and she says no.
RC: I felt on some level, I thought she was maybe trying to protect me. “Does it still bother you?” “No, doesn’t bother me! I’m past this. I’m in a different part of life now, where these kinds of issues aren’t anything I think about anymore. “
MM: Like, “This isn’t open-a-can-of-worms time. It’s too late for that.”
RC: She’s saying, “The past is the past, and this is your problem, and it’s not something that I think about, and I’m sorry if it’s something you think about…”
MM: Do you think things would have been different if you had said, “Well, but yeah, this does worry me…”?
RC: I think I was so taken aback, and it was probably a babyish thing for me to say. “No, it doesn’t bother me. Doesn’t bother you? Doesn’t bother me. Forget I mentioned it.”
MM: Did you have tension with your parents, ever, in pursuing a life of making drawings?
RC: I think they had hoped that I would go into the family business, which was teaching. And that’s what they probably expected for me. But they were very good about letting me at least see whether this was possible. They had very little knowledge about what this world was. Not that I had much more knowledge.
But they were surprised, and happy that they wouldn’t have to support me. But they were very, very proud. I don’t think that they always necessarily got my jokes. I just heard a story from somebody who knew my parents, and my mother was very proud—“Oh, Roz Chast is my daughter!”—but at one point she said, “Tell me something: do you think her work is funny?”
And my father used to carry around a cartoon from the Saturday Review of some guy on his psychiatrist’s couch, telling his shrink that the reason he felt inferior was because he didn’t get the cartoons in The New Yorker.
And my father looooved this cartoon. He would just take it out and show to people at the drop of a hat.
MM: He had it in his wallet?
RC: Yeah, he kept it in his wallet!
MM: How do you think they would have reacted to your memoir about their relationship to death and then actual dying? Especially given that the whole premise is their aversion to talking about it?
RC: I don’t know. I hope that if there is some sort of consciousness that survives, and if it’s a kind of consciousness where they would be aware of something like this, that they would find it really funny. I don’t mean just the book, but the whole circumstance of it. But sometimes I think, well, maybe my dad would find it funny but that my mom would be angry?
MM: How might they react to some of your own feelings that are poured into the memoir, for example, your anxiety about the money their care cost, and the guilt you felt about that anxiety?
RC: I hope that they would understand that to be less honest about it would be disrespectful. I would much rather work on a different sort of project. I knew once I was going to write a book like this, I wanted to be as truthful as possible. It would have been sort of pointless to do it otherwise. And I hope that they would understand that. That for me to be dishonest about it, to have left out big chunks or to write that I had this wonderful, idyllic childhood where I was happy all the livelong day would be so untrue that it would be very disrespectful to everyone. Including the reader.
MM: What about the recognition that the book is getting?
RC: That’s where I hope that they would think it’s sort of funny. That people are responding to it. There is something sort of funny about it—one of my first reactions was totally nonsensical. “Oh, I want to call my parents!” And then, “Oh, right.”
I think I write about it in the book, that when something good happens, you sort of go into child mode. You can be in child mode when you’re, you know, 50, or even after, evidently, your parents are dead. There’s this little part of your brain that hasn’t gotten the message yet. “Look, Mom! My book is on the…Oh, right.”
MM: Being a parent yourself, in baring all in this memoir and being so honest, have you horribly embarrassed your own children?
RC: Well, my kids are 27 and almost 24…
MM: Oh, they’re still capable of embarrassment at that age.
RC: Oh, very much so, but they both read it, and they both liked it. I’ve told both of them, Feel free, it’s material for your own memoirs…
MM: How come you never called one of your cartoon collections, “Chast-isements”? [Coughs. Sputters.] But your memoir’s title is so wonderfully, painfully apt. The word “pleasant,” in the title, rendered in these such anxious, squiggly lines—it’s just so fitting that you make the word “pleasant” appear so opposite.
RC: Pleasant. It’s not just like, “Oh, this temperature is so pleasant!” No, no. This is definitely one of those words where you’re pressing down—whatever it is that’s in that box—you’re pressing that lid down. “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” “KEEP THAT LID. ON. TIGHT.”
MM: I might imagine, given what we know about your sensibility and your humor, that this kind of recognition might stir up more anxiety and discomfort than pride. If you made a cartoon of yourself as a National Book Award finalist, what would that cartoon look like?
RC: I think it would be a person trying to put this out of their mind. I try not to think about it too much.
MM: I might venture to guess a squiggly-lined monster bearing down on a woman sitting on the couch, watching TV.
RC: Well, maybe the monster and I are both watching TV. They’re saying, “Look, this is kind of nice—let’s not bring up that other topic.”