Questions for Roz Chast

The New Yorker cartoonist talks about missing Manhattan and why she hates superheroes, elevators, carnivals, hammerheads …

Roz Chast at the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas
Roz Chast at the 2007 Texas Book Festival

Photograph © 2007 Larry D. Moore.

The cartoonist Roz Chast hates a lot of things, including but not limited to: carnivals (dangerous rides manned by drunken half-wits); elevators (“The perfect storm of claustrophobia, acrophobia, and agoraphobia”); and Ouija Boards (“Why tempt fate?”). She outlines these aversions in her new book What I Hate: From A to Z.

Slate spoke to the longtime New Yorker cartoonist at a crowded cafe, where the diminutive and engaging Chast discussed the lack of respect toward cartooning in the ’70s, why she thinks comic books about superheroes are stupid, and how she misses Manhattan.

Slate: How did you decide to write What I Hate?

Chast: It’s a combination of two things. One is that I do play a lot of alphabet games. And then I just had a little bit of time. I had other titles at first. Like “Musts To Avoid,” or “Aversions.” I never realized the one umbrella they fell under. They were phobias, aversions, things that frighten me in an inexplicable way. The shape of a hammerhead’s head. Revulsions. What I hate. This is what I hate. I hate sliminess, I hate certain shapes. So I thought let’s see if I can fill up the alphabet.

Slate: I read an interview in the Comics Journal where you talked about how you felt cartooning wasn’t getting a lot of respect when you were at the Rhode Island School of Design. What was the attitude toward your work back then?

Chast: It was really different. When I was doing cartoons at RISD it was kind of a hard time in a way—you know the ’70s. What got respect—and you know my vision’s probably skewed—was not humor. Definitely not humor. If you did anything that was funny: death. Art was serious. It was like being ominous in this way. I just had a lot of objections even philosophically to what they were talking about. If you think of Donald Judd or people who did video installations where it was just like two video screens and they’re each showing static and the static would go on this monitor. I remember going to some play that somebody had written, and people were just bored. They were sitting in a living room sort of saying bored things to each other. So I think drawing cartoons violated a lot of things. First of all it’s a way of trying to communicate with other people—definitely out. Also, jokes. You know, tacky. Bad. Very earnest, very experimental—that was pretty much the scene. God forbid you should find any of this funny or stupid or say anything [questioning it]. Why would anybody want to shoot themselves with a gun? Just come to my neighborhood, and someone will do it for you. So that was what RISD was like. And this is very “world’s saddest song played on the world’s smallest violin territory” there was also a cartoon magazine at RISD that these boys started. It was called Fred. I submitted cartoons to it and they rejected it. And I was so upset. I should’ve been angry but I wasn’t. I was just sad, sad, sad.

Slate: I’m still angry about not getting into certain writing workshops in college. That kind of thing still rankles!

Chast: It absolutely still rankles. Those young rejections—I still remember. I like thinking about how I don’t really know any of those RISD people. I don’t know their work. Maybe they are working, but I don’t know any of it. So [their lack of notoriety] gives me great pleasure. It does. It does.

Slate: What do you think is the cultural attitude towards cartoonists and cartooning now as opposed to in the ’70s? Do you think it has evolved a lot?

Chast: I think it’s really different from the way it was 30 years ago. For one thing, there’s the rise of the graphic novel—which was there before—but now it has its own section in the book store. I think people take it a little bit more seriously. Not in a bad way, not like some academic analyzing every panel or text. I just mean it’s more viable. And it is such a great art form. You can be a newspaper cartoonist if that’s what you want to be, or you can be a magazine cartoonist. Still. Sort of. You can do comic books. You can do superheroes. I cannot stand superheroes. I do not understand any of its appeal. It has just bored me to death since I was a little kid. I remember buying a couple of superhero comic books and trying to get into them. And I just remember thinking, “Who gives a shit?” This is some of the most boring stuff I’ve ever read. I mean it’s not funny, it’s tedious. I don’t even like looking at these drawings. I just don’t even care. I just really love the cartoon form. I love the plasticity of it. I just think of Ben Katchor and Jules Feiffer and Clay Wilson, Alison Bechdel. She’s amazing. She’s really great. Daniel Clowes. There’s just so many amazing great people.

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.