Although I religiously read the New Yorker, I have to say that I wasn’t familiar with cartoonist Roz Chast until the publication of her graphic memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction). I had recently experienced the loss of three family members and a friend, within the span of less than two years, and her book was the perfect mix of gallows humor, self-deprecation, and bittersweet sadness that I needed.
Her drawings and writing are wry, honest observations about life, broken down into humorous, easy-to-digest (or easier, anyway) pieces that add up to a hard-hitting whole. Her newest book, Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York, is exactly that: a love letter. As someone who fled the city two years ago, after multiple stints living there, her book did what I thought was impossible: it made me nostalgic for Manhattan. The book manages to capture the spirit of the city; the grittiness and quirkiness that gets under your skin, and separates the natives from the tourists.
In August, Chast and I corresponded via email about her latest book.
The Rumpus: The book started off as a little booklet for your daughter, right? Can you talk about the evolution of the project from booklet to book?
Roz Chast: Initially, the book was going to be a lot shorter—just a slight expansion of the “how-to” booklet. But as I started to put it together, I realized I wanted the book to include more of my own thoughts about Manhattan: its delights, its irritations, and how much gratitude I felt towards it. When I moved to Manhattan when I was twenty-three, it was the first time in my life I felt not-depressed. That Manhattan offered a sense of possibility that I had never encountered up till then. So I wanted to acknowledge that a little, too.
Rumpus: From where do you draw inspiration? What books do you return to, again and again?
Chast: Walking around NYC inspires me. I love looking at the people, at the architecture, at the merchandise in store windows. The different ethnicities and languages of its people, the subway, the yellow of the taxis, the hot dog and pashmina stands, the bits of conversations I overhear, the fashion choices, standpipes and water towers, the sheer energy, the mystery, the overlapping of eras… Everything.
There are definitely books I read again and again: The Great Gatsby, Bleak House, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Magic Mountain, Madame Bovary, almost everything by J.D. Salinger, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin… I love how you can reread certain books at different times of your life and it’s like a whole different book.
Rumpus: That’s how I feel about the city—I’ve lived there at different times in my life, and it’s like a whole new city. I lived there most recently, for four years in my early thirties. I was ecstatic to leave, but as I mentioned, your book made me miss it. You captured the minutiae of living there so well.
Chast: I think when you really love something, you notice the minutiae. It’s partly how you make something your own. I think I’m also very detail-oriented.
Rumpus: What did you edit *out* of the book?
Chast: I edited out stuff that I thought was redundant or boring. I also took out some “history” pages because there are tons of books about Manhattan history, and this is not really one of them, although I definitely wanted to include a bit of historical background about places like Central Park and how Grand Central almost got demolished.
Rumpus: What is your favorite and least favorite thing about New York? Do you have a favorite neighborhood or place? (For me, the UWS/Morningside Heights is my favorite ‘hood). Are there any shows/movies that you feel really get it?
Chast: My favorite thing in NYC is that there are always people on the street. And also its walkability. I loathe cars and I loathe driving. I love to walk, and New York is a walking city. My least favorite thing is when those huge, idiotic, light-blocking buildings go up, where no one I know can afford to live, and where you never see people going in or out, and you just look at them and think: WTF?
And my fave neighborhood is the Upper West Side.
Movies: Manhattan, Annie Hall, Tales of Manhattan, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, All About Eve, The Sweet Smell of Success, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Metropolitan, West Side Story, The Panic in Needle Park, Saturday Night Fever (which is about Brooklyn and Manhattan…).
Rumpus: What’s it like being in a field where a majority of fellow cartoonists are male? Do you see this changing?
Chast: It’s definitely changing. There are many more female cartoonists at the New Yorker now than there were in 1978, when I started. Back then, it was me and Nurit Karlin. So it’s gotten better. And the new cartoon editor is a woman.
Rumpus: This book has a very different tone (obviously) than your last book; was one easier, or more enjoyable, to create?
Chast: They were both interesting, in different ways. This one was definitely more light-hearted, less confessional, if you will. But every project has its own complexities.
Rumpus: What are you working on next?
Chast: A book about Brooklyn, my hometown.
Author photograph © Bill Hayes.