On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with author-illustrator Maira Kalman, whose most recent publication is an illustrated edition of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. They discussed the art of collaboration, how she juggles projects, and why her perfect workday begins with reading the obituaries. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: What would your perfect day look like?
Maira Kalman: The perfect day of work is not working! The perfect day of work is waking up and not feeling exhausted from terrible dreams, having a cup of coffee, reading the obits, going for a walk, looking at trees …
Reading the obits?
Of course, everybody must read the obits. It sets you into a mode of, what am I really going to be doing with my life today? The stories in obits are very much about lives, not about death. So you’re looking at these heroic or interesting or absurd lives and saying, “Well, how would they write about my life if it was condensed into 10 paragraphs?”
Going for a walk is probably the most important part of my day, looking and not thinking and then coming back to work in my studio to paint things that I’ve seen or things that I’m working on. Then I have to go to sleep really early after watching a British murder mystery. That’s a perfect day.
You’ve spoken about having several different projects in varying stages of completion. Do you go right from one project to the next? Do they overlap? Do you require a kind of fallow period where you’re not engaged in an assignment?
Well, I keep saying that I’d like a year of just wandering around and going from garden to garden in Europe, primarily in England. I may do that. But I have a lot of projects. I don’t want to give anything lessened attention, so I don’t want to have that many things going on. But they’re also amazing projects, so I have a few going on at once and more on the horizon.
Do you find yourself able to switch between registers to say, “OK, at this moment I am working on this children’s book, but I’m also thinking about my project for a cookbook in the back of my mind, and the two won’t interfere with each other”?
The opposite of “interfere”—they contribute to each other and help each other. When I’m working on a book for adults, something is bubbling in my mind about children. Every project brings another energy to the next project. And I’m learning from them. I’m learning what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. I love it. They really contribute and feed each other in a very wonderful way.
Your work, despite the beauty that it can offer us, has never been afraid to look at life as it is. At this particular moment I thought of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, a couple of lesbians knocking around Europe during World War II.
Yeah. Jewish lesbians by the way, and coming through it unscathed, which is a very complicated conversation. I’m sitting in my studio now, and I have a suitcase on which I painted a man fleeing—it’s what I put my art supplies in to go upstate. And I was wondering, how long am I going to be here? My parents both left Belarus and went to Palestine. My father’s whole family was killed. I was fed on that from morning till night. How horrific things can happen. Horrific things will happen. And the question is, how do you deal with it?
We are at the edge of some kind of phenomenal world change, and we just have no idea what’s going to happen. So what do you do in those times? The only thing that I can think of is that you turn to your work, and you turn to the people who you love, and you say, “This is what I’m going to do to counteract the terror and the sorrow for all of humanity.” And maybe we’ll all come through it. I don’t know a better way. There’s no prediction to be made. But, well, we can hope.
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