Cartoonist Roz Chast's work has appeared in the New Yorker since 1978. She stopped by Boston Public Radio to talk with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. Her new book is Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? which details the aging and death of her parents, and the dreaded “talk” about the end of their lives.
You can listen to the full interview above. We excerpted some nuggets from their interview below:
Margery Eagan: How you became a cartoonist? Because that’s what I’m dying to know! People know you from the New Yorker, Roz. How did you become what you are?
Roz Chast: Well, I drew. I always drew and I always liked to write, and I liked making pictures that made me laugh, and I thought—I found things funny and sometimes if I was drawing something seriously, it would come out kind of funny.
ME: And then you sent cartoons in? I mean, you’ve earned a living as a cartoonist, so you sent them to where? To The New Yorker or other places first?
RC: I went to art school, I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, and first I never thought I’d be able to make my living as a cartoonist. Actually, I never really did. The first place that I thought I’d maybe wind up working was the Village Voice.
Both my parents subscribed to the New Yorker, and I knew the New Yorker used cartoons, but I didn’t see my stuff as fitting in with them, and my dream was to work for the Village Voice. And I was selling them some cartoons, but I was also starting out. I was 23, and I was selling some to the National Lampoon (…) there weren’t tons and tons of markets, and I thought I should try the New Yorker because there was the New Yorker and there was Playboy, and that was even less relatable.
I did try at one point to do Playboy cartoons at the behest of the woman who was the cartoon editor, whose name was Michelle Urrey, and they came out like parodies of Playboy cartoons because (…) I had no idea. It was like Boss Chasing Secretary Around Desk and “Euggha! Look at your bosoms!” and “Yes, I do have bosoms!”
I really had no idea like what kind of humor to find in this, so I thought okay, I’ll get together. I’ll find out when the New Yorker has their drop off day, so I put everything I had—like 60 cartoons, I had no idea how to do this at all. I just sort of thought, okay, I’ll put the cartoons in this envelope, and I’ll put my card in it, and I’m sure they won’t take anything, and I’ll pick it up next week, and I will have tried.” I wasn’t even nervous because I was so sure they weren’t going to take anything.
Jim Braude: How many before they took the first one?
RC: They actually bought something from that group.
JB: What did that feel like?
RC: I was flabbergasted. I was just flabbergasted, and Lee Lorenz, who was the art director at the time, told me to start coming back to not just drop stuff of, but to actually come in to the actual part of the magazine.
JB: We had Bob Mankoff on here a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about a whole bunch of people, including you. You have—we only have a minute left—like roughly 90 percent of your cartoons have been rejected by the New Yorker?
RC: Yeah, I mean probably something like that. It’s not me, I probably do as well as anybody there. I’m sure there’s people who have even…
ME: [Your book] is all told with these great cartoons, and great pictures of you and your parents, with the great facial expressions looking horrified or aghast, but dealing with something that is so universal. I mean you talk about when your mother fell and refused to go to the hospital…
RC: Yeah, my mother hated hospitals, you know, with somewhat good reason, a lot of old people do go the hospital, and then worse things happen. You know, not everybody, but she was afraid of that. She didn’t want doctors… her fall—she fell off of a small step stool and that was sort of the beginning of the sort of more precipitous decline, but what really was going of the wall was not so much the fall of the ladder—which was bad enough, but that she also had diverticulitis which had flared up into diverticulitis and she would have attacks of it, but in the past she was always able to sort of wait them out, but at that point, after the fall she want into an attack that she wasn’t able to fight off.
JB: So, you only get them in a retirement home, and ultimately—and I don’t mean this to be cavalier or quick—your parents die. Where are you parents?
RC: Well, for the time being I have no idea where my parents are. I mean that is a whole other question, but their cremains—which is a really horrible word, are in my closet at home. I got them. I picked them up from the funeral home… it’s a very strange thing. I mean we don’t have like a little spot on Cape Cod that we always called our own where mother always said to m
“When I die, scatter my ashes on granny’s place.” No, you know? We never had that in my family. We didn’t talk about death. I did not know what to do with the cremains.
Listen to the full interview above, or watch the Greater Boston interview with Roz Chast below:
As Baby Boomers age, their finding it difficult to cope with losing a parent. Check out WGBH's series You're Not Alone here.