Roz Chast: From Free Fall to Full-Time Cartoonist
Roz Chast is one of the lions of old school New York. She grew up in Brooklyn and began publishing cartoons for The New Yorker in the late ‘70s. Years and thousands of cartoons later, her loose line work, handwritten quips, and the frenetic, sometimes anxious, energy of her drawn world have become emblematic of the magazine’s cartoons, and the entire experience of New York.
Lately, she’s joined the legions of creatives who work remotely. She sends her The New Yorker pitches in as PDFs from her home in Connecticut. In the initial transition of moving out of the city, Chast worried that her family would become mall, lawn, and Republican politics obsessed. Instead, she happily reports that she still hates driving and that one of her children is a Socialist.
Days in Connecticut involve errands, drawing cartoons, and playing with her two parrots—who serenade her from the kitchen countertop with demands for waffles, toast, and apples. With her latest book, Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York, Chast has joined a fellowship of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.B. White and Walt Whitman who capture the experience of arriving in New York City.
Chast sat down with 99U to talk about navigating a successful career as a working artist, her thoughts on the best ways to experience New York, and how to spot—and write about—the delightful in every hydrant and pigeon.
What’s a ritual you have when you’re in New York?
I love to walk. There’s something about walking around in New York. It’s inspiring for my work and as a person. I get distracted by what I see and get so many impressions. So walking is almost effortless; it doesn’t take any physical effort at all. Whereas, if I'm on a hike—not that I take many hikes—I’m very aware of walking in this boring way. I think, “Oh roots. Oh snakes. Oh bears. I hope I don’t get lost.” I don't feel that way in the city. I’m a sedentary person, so it’s a surprise and delight how much pleasure it is to walk around New York.
The above and following images are from Chast's new book, Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York.
You’ve successfully navigated making a living as a working artist. Were there times when you weren’t sure if it would all work out?
Yes. I was twenty-three and I had my own apartment on the Upper West Side, on 73rd Street. I had gone to art school at RISD and I did not have much positive feedback for my cartoons there at all. Even I thought, “I don’t know where these are going fit in. Because they don’t look like anyone else's cartoons.” I really did feel like my life was probably going to be a disaster. I thought, “I know this little rowboat is going over the falls. I just know it.” And the only thing I could do was draw cartoons.
Then you started to sell cartoons to the New Yorker and this career seemed possible.
I started selling my cartoons and it was around then that I started to get this idea that maybe I would be able to do what I wanted to do for a living. It was the first time that I felt like maybe things were not going to be a complete disaster. A lot of it had to do with Manhattan and living in that apartment, and making friends with other people like me who had put all their little pathetic eggs into one little pathetic basket.
When you’re pitching cartoons how do you prep your submissions?
I sit at my desk and I sift through the ideas I’ve written down. I wish I had a notebook, but I’m too disorganized. So, I have these scraps of paper that I write stuff down on and put in my back pocket. I have a box to keep all these scraps of paper in and I pull them out, and I look at them, and I see if anything inspires me.
How does pitching The New Yorker editors work?
I’ve had three cartoon editors. I had Lee Lorenz for many years, and then Bob Mankoff, and now we have Emma Allen. There are about forty cartoonists on staff at The New Yorker. We each submit a group of cartoons, which from the beginning has always been ‘the batch’. This can range from five or six to ten or twelve. In the early days people would come and bring them in person. Then they have an art meeting. And then they tell you a few days later.
You’ve been publishing in The New Yorker since 1978. Does that mean you usually get a ‘yes’?
The odds are stacked against you. Let’s say there are forty people under contract. Each person submits ten cartoons: that’s four hundred. And then about another four hundred come in from non-staff people. So you have eight hundred cartoons. The New Yorker buys twenty a week. So, the rejection rate is at least 90%. I do as well as anybody, but most of what I do is rejected.
How do you feel when your pitches aren’t accepted?
It’s kind of horrible. You don't get used to the rejection. If I don't sell one week, I'm sad and unsettled, but also philosophical: “I can't sell every week, life goes on, etc.” At two weeks, I'm more unsettled, somewhat less philosophical. After that, it's a slide to "They know how terrible I am, they've realized their mistake, I stick.” I seriously don't recommend this to anyone unless they can't do anything else.
Do you see things everywhere that inspire you for cartoons?
That’s one of the reasons I love the city so much. Not just for the sights. It’s the density of it. I was in the city yesterday and I was with an old friend, hanging out at Bethesda Fountain. The weather was perfect and we’d gotten these ice coffees. And there were these funny things happening all around. Somebody was taking photos of this couple and we didn’t know if they were photographing an advertisement or engagement photos. She was wearing a sheath sort of dress and these four-inch spike heels and he was very well groomed and in a suit. But the funny detail was that he was carrying a Barney’s bag in this sort of obvious way. I just kept looking at that Barney’s bag saying, Do they think this is a glamorous New York photo? They’re at Bethesda Fountain with a Barney’s bag. And I just watched them and there were some people singing opera in the background and it was just so heartbreakingly beautiful and funny too. The Barney’s bag just added that little funny thing.
How does an idea like that become a cartoon?
Mostly, I start with the words. I always do sketches before the final cartoon. My "roughs" often have patches and white-out on them. Once in a while, I get an idea, draw it, and it's done. Mostly, I have an idea and I have to play around with it until I get it—the drawing, the rhythm of the joke—as right as I can get it.
What’s the first cartoon you drew?
Golly, I drew cartoons when I was little little little, like four or five years old. I remember being a little kid and drawing a weird comic strip about two characters. I can’t remember if they were birds or cats. It had panels and everything. They were making cookies and the punch line was one of them dumped the whole thing of chocolate chips into the batter. At five or six, that seemed so funny to me.
I know you as a cartoonist, so I was surprised to turn a page of Going Into Town and see photographs you took. How do you pick which medium is right for an idea?
I like the variety. For instance, the stand pipes section—they’re so bananas. If I had drawn the one with a million arms, people might think I had exaggerated it and stuck in an extra four. So, there are certain things that I feel like “Look! It’s a photograph; I didn’t make it up!”
It is incredible how much character you brought to street stand pipes.
Once you notice them, you’ll never stop. They’re a little bit anthropomorphic. There’s one cartoon where one is looking away and says, “Shut up, I’m not talking to you.” And the other one is saying “What did I do?” And I can hear her voice. There’s a real Brooklyn kind of twang to it. It’s an old couple. Maybe they just came home from some party, and he made some joke and she’s offended. They just had a fight and she’s mad at him. And she’s turned away.
How do projects find you? Or do you find them?
All different ways. The main thing for me is my weekly batch of cartoons for The New Yorker. Everything else revolves around that. Some weeks, I might be working on a cover. The other projects usually contact me—sometimes through my website, or a literary agent. Sometimes it’s through friends. There certainly are fewer outlets for cartoons as far as magazines go. Also, cartoonists get paid less for cartoons that appear online, if they get paid at all. But even when I started, in pre-Internet days, it wasn't possible to make a living solely by selling cartoons to The New Yorker. One had to supplement with other jobs: illustration, selling cartoons elsewhere, doing book projects, etc. I know a lot of people who teach. Bruce Eric Kaplan writes scripts for TV and is a producer on various shows. Zach Kanin writes for SNL. I give talks and do books.
You’ve also collaborated with writers like Steven Martin and Calvin Trillin. What’s that process like?
Collaborating is a lot of fun. I like the sense of humor of the people that I’ve collaborated with, so we can make each other laugh. With Steve, after he wrote the alphabet poems, but before I did the drawings, we went through the alphabet trying to think of good, funny words for the drawings. I often collaborate with writer Patricia Marx. With Patty, there's more of a back and forth because we see each other frequently and we enjoy collaborating. For process: Patty, Steve, and Calvin Trillin’s manuscripts were done, and were then given to me to illustrate. I have the final say on artwork, but if something’s not working, we talk about it.
Looking back to the 23-year-old who thought her boat was going over the falls, are you surprised by how things worked out?
I’m still happy and amazed that I get to do what I love for a living. Going Into Town is not just a love letter; it’s a thank you letter. I feel deep gratitude and surprise by the fact that I was able to be a cartoonist. New York allowed me to do what I wanted to do.
More about Emily Ludolph
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.