Roz Chast: "I’m aware that a lot of people probably hate my stuff. But I hate a lot of people’s work, too”

The powers that be hated Roz Chast's quirky style at first. Now she's iconic and helps defines its style and voice

By Richard Gehr
November 2, 2014 1:30AM (UTC)
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Roz Chast (Bill Franzen/Salon)

Excerpted from “I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker's Most Brilliant Twisted Artists”

Where most of the cartoonists profiled in this book had at least one educator for a parent, Roz Chast had a pair of them: Her father, George Chast, was a French and Spanish teacher at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, while her mother, Elizabeth, was an assistant principal at various public grade schools in the borough. Her parents’ professional interests extended to family life in their Midwood neighborhood. This made Roz, their only child, the beneficiary, willing or not, of her parents’ pedagogical expertise. She recalls being tested by them — often — while attending grade school, simply because “they thought it was fun.” And the fledgling artist enjoyed sharing the experience with her classmates.

“I would make up math tests for my fellow students on a little Rexograph copying machine we had at home that used purple ink, and give them out to kids in class for fun,” Chast recalls with some distress as we chat in her cozy Connecticut home. “They must have thought I was a fucking wacko.” Her father would quiz her in French, just to set her on the right path. “Sometimes my friend Gail would say, ‘I don’t like it! It’s too educational,’ about stuff I wanted us to do. But everything in my life was educational!”

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Once she got to Midwood High School, however, Roz only wanted to draw. She was a diligent student even if school didn’t particularly engage her. She describes herself as being “shy, hostile, and paranoid” during that period, i.e., a teenager. Her real rebellion would come later, in the pages of The New Yorker, when even doubters and skeptics came to recognize her insurgent talent. She realized early on that the magazine’s cartoons were no less powerful than its writing. “I used to think of the cartoons as a magazine within a magazine. First you go through and read all the cartoons, and then you go back and read the articles. It’s like I’m reading The New Yorker Magazine of Cartoons first.”

In a two-page color spread titled “Charles Addams,” Chast depicts a primal scene from her childhood. Every summer, her parents, along with other Brooklyn schoolteachers, would spend time near Cornell University, where they would take classes, attend lectures, and acquire what her mother called “a certain degree of intellectualism.” Left to fend for herself, Chast discovered a campus library that lacked a children’s section but contained numerous cartoon collections by Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, George Price, Otto Soglow, and other New Yorker artists. What really blew Chast’s pliant mind, though, were Monster Rally, Black Maria, Homebodies, Nightcrawlers, Drawn and Quartered, and other cartoon collections by Charles Addams. In her tribute, she quotes Wolcott Gibbs’s introduction to Addams and Evil, in which he argues that Addams’s work “is essentially a denial of all spiritual and physical evolution in the human race.” Addams’s work, though, “was the first grown-up humor I really loved,” Chast says. “It was dark, and it made fun of stuff you weren’t supposed to make fun of. I loved ‘sick’ jokes when I was a kid.” A lightbulb may come on as you gaze upon Chast’s depictions of her family at Cornell amid the company of a befuddled academic, a goateed “compulsive punster” of a math teacher, and other aspiring Brooklyn intellectuals. Addams’s sly nihilism informs many of Chast’s own characters, camouflaged (or not) by her anxiety-sharpened niceness.

* * *

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Roz Chast was the first truly subversive New Yorker cartoonist. Her 1978 arrival gave the magazine its first real taste of punk sensibility, although she herself was anything but. Young, female, and a less orthodox draftsperson compared with the magazine’s older artists, Chast drew a scratchy line more akin to Lynda Barry, Gary Panter, and other mainstays of the era’s alternative press. She was part of a new generation of cartoonists inspired by sixties underground comics/comix.

Chast became one of The New Yorker’s more versatile artists, at least in terms of formal variation, as well as one of its finer writers. She draws single-panel cartoons, multipage nonfiction narratives, lists, typologies, archaeologies, fake publications, and real children’s books. Her work blends urban and suburban sensibilities, with the former point of view usually subtly undermining the latter. Her viewpoint reflects both the Brooklyn Jewish community in which she was raised as well as that of upwardly mobile liberal cosmopolitans who, like Chast, fled to the suburbs (Ridgefield, Connecticut, in her case) during the nineties to nest with their offspring.

Old-fashioned existential anxiety simmers at the core of Chast’s art. It’s evident in the single-panel “A Note on the Author,” in which a nine-year-old Chast is depicted reading The Big Book of Horrible Rare Diseases and Lockjaw Monthly, among others, in bed. It’s very much there in “Millie’s Gear Slips,” a nine-panel strip in which a woman descends into mild dread over “losing” the four minutes it took her to go back in the house and find a sweater at the beginning of a car trip (“As they were driving, she thought, This is exactly the place I would have been four minutes and eleven seconds ago, but now it’s slightly different, and I’ll never see what I was supposed to see”). It’s the anxiety of a man sitting in a chair and realizing that if he doesn’t learn how to play golf by age forty-three, he never will. It’s “The Party, After You Left,” when the hosts break out the good champagne, Benicio Del Toro makes an appearance, and someone shares a “very, very safe” yet “extremely fantastic” new drug. It’s yet another balding man adrift in his oversized armchair contemplating “Birth, bed, bath, beer, bankruptcy, bunions, bifocals, balding, and beyond.”

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Whether it’s the neighborhood of her childhood, the Manhattan of her young adulthood, the Park Slope, Brooklyn, of her young parenthood, or the Connecticut of her prime, Roz Chast’s cartoons come out of a specific sense of place. “I have an odd little book Helen Hokinson did about going out to buy a mop,” she says, while showing me shelves of New Yorker cartoonist collections. “I like that she has this whole world, and I feel like I can go into that world. It’s not generic; it’s very specific. I don’t like cartoons that take place in Nowhereville. I like cartoons where I know where they’re happening.” One of the enduring pleasures of New Yorker cartoons is that they not only take place in New York, but readers can often identify the specific neighborhood in which they’re set. “I can’t even look at daily comic strips. And I hate sitcoms because they don’t seem like real people to me, they’re props that often say horrible things to each other, which I don’t find funny. I have to feel like they’re real people.”

What she does find funny are cartoonists as diverse as William Steig and Saul Steinberg, her major influences alongside Addams. Her surprisingly serious introduction to Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies & Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig observes how even the darker tones of his later years capture a “gleeful darkness, the darkness children feel when they know their most trusted adult is going to tell them a spooky story.” It’s an effect one might compare to Chast’s equally gleeful representation of all the world’s anxieties. Other influences include bookish mandarin Edward Gorey, Jules Feiffer, the “kind of creepy” Mary Petty, and working-class autobiographer Harvey Pekar.

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The autobiographical spectrum of Chast’s work ranges from a sense of place grounded in her experience to stories taken directly from her life. Many street scenes evoke her childhood during the fifties and sixties, when her world was delimited by safe and unsafe blocks. “My father didn’t drive but my mother did, and she was a nut. If I asked her, ‘Mom, how come we shop on Eighteenth Avenue? Why don’t we ever shop on Sixteenth Avenue?,’ she’d go, ‘You can shop on Sixteenth Avenue when you’re grown up!’ You’d get screamed at if you left our safe little area.” Chast recounts her overbearing mother and fretful father’s difficult sunset years in her 2014 memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

New Yorker cartoonists rarely indulged in autobiography. But Chast’s love of the underground work of R. Crumb and Justin Green led her to put more of herself in her work. A semiregular cast of unnamed characters age at a rate more or less concurrent with her family. (She is married to humor writer Bill Franzen, with whom she has a son, Ian, and daughter, Nina.) It’s not exactly Frank King’s Gasoline Alley or Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, whose characters have been born, matured, and sometimes died in real time over the decades. Chast traffics in stereotypes that satirize her version of domesticity.

The son — often depicted wearing a striped T-shirt, sporting a baseball cap, and exhibiting a chronic acne condition — is usually captured in a state of awkward confusion. His older sister barely tolerates her family with a permanent expression of acute embarrassment. A loving yet diminished father, very much of the James Thurber variety, watches his life pass by. And the concerned, anxious, eternally overbooked mother binds them together through food, guilt, and good intentions. The epitome of this scenario is probably the title cartoon of her collection Theories of Everything, in which her ur-family sits on a sofa, each person lost in his or her own thoughts. Father: “Everything’s gone downhill since 1964.” Mother: “Everything is my fault.” Sister: “Everything is your fault.” And brother: “Everything would be perfect if I had a dirt bike.”

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Her real family comes off slightly better in autobiographical pieces such as “Dog Day Afternoon,” in which an overexuberant canine specimen takes its toll on the family unit. “People think that story was an exaggeration,” she says. “But it was actually toned down. It was worse. At one point the dog twisted a bone in her hip. We took her to the vet, who had to muzzle her because she was going so crazy. All these horrible things happened over a six-day period. I hardly even mentioned her breeders because I didn’t want to get into trouble with them.”

* * *

Born in Brooklyn in 1954, Rosalind Chast was always younger than her fellow students, particularly after skipping a year of middle school under the auspices of New York’s SP (“special progress”) program. “I don’t know why my parents opted to have me do it in two years, since I was so young anyway,” she says, speculating that “in their day it was considered sort of a plus to go through school as fast as you could. And maybe they just really wanted me out of the house. They were a lot older and might have had it with having a kid around.”

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The Kiwanis Club unwittingly provided Chast’s first artistic affirmation when she won its competition for best poster on the theme of “honor America.” Entered as a prank, her submission consisted of “a bunch of people standing on a street with ‘honor America’ written above them. I don’t think very many people entered.” The award ceremony she attended with her “total out-there hippie” friend Claire took place at an Italian restaurant she suspects was a Mafia hangout.

She was “not a mature sixteen” when she entered Kirkland College, an all-girls school across the road from the all-boys Hamilton College. “I had a boyfriend, which was a very good thing because otherwise I probably would have left after one year instead of two. I just did not have the strength of character to stand up to my parents and say, ‘I don’t want to take any more academic classes. I just want to go to art school.’ ” Fortunately, the art department’s new facilities were going underutilized simply because it wasn’t an art school, and Chast took good advantage of them. She learned lithography, silkscreening, etching, developing, and printing.

After transferring to the highly competitive Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Chast felt out of her league. It was the first time she’d been around so many capable young artists, and she was intimidated. “I didn’t feel like I was in the middle of the pack; I felt like I was at the bottom. Everybody there was good, some were extraordinary, and some were extraordinary and knew it. They already knew who they were and how they wanted to dress. I didn’t even know how to pick out my own clothes. And, yeah, maybe they were just as lost as I was, but I don’t think so.”

Neatness counted in graphic design, which Chast studied first at RISD. Her teacher was Malcolm Grear, a legendary designer known for his clean lines and minimalist aesthetic. “That didn’t sound like fun to me,” Chast says. “I like things to be more interesting to look at.” She then switched to illustration, which “was kind of all right,” and then to painting, “because I was living with painters and really wanted to be one.” She continued to draw cartoons for her own amusement. She showed them to a single teacher, who asked her, “Are you really as bored and angry as all that?” She had no response.

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Cartooning turned out to be Chast’s main hurdle at RISD. “One of the more terrible things about cartooning is that you’re trying to make people laugh, and that was very bad in art school during the mid-seventies,” she says. With minimalism and performance art in ascendance, Chast found herself in a downward spiral of frustration and depression when her teachers’ attention was not forthcoming. “The quintessential work of that time would be a video monitor with static on it being watched by another video monitor, which would then go static,” she says. “Doing stories or anything ‘jokey’ made me feel like I was speaking an entirely different language.”

There were other cartoonists amid RISD’s student body. But when Chast attempted to join them, the experience foreshadowed what would happen when she sold her first work to The New Yorker. “This R. Crumb–influenced sketchbook page from early seventies is going to sound horribly bitter,” she warns, “but some boys actually started a comics magazine at RISD called Fred. And when I submitted some stuff, they rejected me. I cried and cried. I cried like a little girl,” she says with a laugh, “which I was! I felt very bad. I was heartbroken. But it makes me very happy now to think that while they may have become good artists, not one of those boys went on to become a cartoonist.”

New York City has long been cartoonists’ company town. After graduating from RISD in June 1977, Chast moved back to New York. “It’s where the work is!” says Chast, quoting friend and colleague Sam Gross. (“I remember what he said about San Francisco, too: ‘San Francisco is nice, but there’s one job!’ ”) Chast’s romance with New York is reflected in a style that overlays a modern sense of humor on top of vintage cityscapes sometimes reminiscent of Ben Katchor’s pointedly nostalgic comics. Chast took her portfolio from publication to publication, as one did before the advent of digital imagery, and continued to cartoon while marketing herself as an illustrator — until the day she decided to devote herself to professional cartooning.

Returning home on the subway, she noticed a copy of Christopher Street, a gay-oriented magazine that had been left on the seat opposite her. She picked it up and had “one of those weird moments” when her path became clear. After some hesitation regarding the magazine’s contents (What if people think I’m gay? What if it’s porn?), she discovered that “it’s not porn at all. It’s got short stories and articles and things like that. And cartoons! It looked like three different people were doing the cartoons.” She called the magazine, and it turned out that all three artists were actually one guy drawing under different names. Christopher Street’s cartoonist was Rick Fiala, who also drew as “ Lublin” and “Bertram Dusk.” Chast began selling the magazine her own cartoons for ten dollars each, which was “crap pay” even for 1977. The Village Voice soon followed.

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In April 1978, Chast was still living at home with her parents, “which was not good.” She decided to submit her work to The New Yorker “even though I didn’t think my stuff was right for them.” She knew that drop-off day was Tuesday, but the protocol was unclear. “I didn’t know how to do it. I had one of those brown envelopes with the rubber band. I left like sixty drawings in this thing. When I went back the next week to pick them up, there was a note inside that said, ‘Please see me. — Lee.’ At first I couldn’t read it because it had this very loopy handwriting.” She was buzzed into a small anteroom, where “a very intimidating woman” with red hair named Natasha sat guarding the gates. “She read the note and said, ‘You can go in and see him.’ It was a really scary feeling. I still didn’t think I was going to sell a cartoon. I thought Lee [Lorenz] was going to give me some bullshit talk like ‘This is very interesting work, little lady.’ But they ended up buying a drawing. I was pretty shocked, but he said to come back every week with stuff.”

Her first New Yorker cartoon, labeled “Little Things,” was a surrealist miniature championing the “chent,” “spak,” “kellat,” and other homely imaginary objects of everyday life. It was an apt introduction for an artist-alchemist who would specialize in transforming ontological absurdity and anxiety into comedy gold. She was paid $250 for the drawing — “real money, grown-up money” — an amount that just happened to be the rent for her first apartment. Chast’s acceptance into The New Yorker, however, was not as triumphant as one might think. Not only was Chast a woman in what was at the time somewhat of a men’s club, but she also had a distinctly different sensibility from the much older and more realistically inclined artists. “I was a lot younger, and I probably didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be there, but for me it was just very . . . fraught.” She was shy, but she was in.

“I love Roz,” says her New Yorker colleague Ed Koren. “But I hated her at first, like everybody else; I hated those drawings.” Koren is the first artist I’ve spoken to who admits his initial problems with Chast’s art. “Like a lot of people, I thought she couldn’t draw, couldn’t think, and that she was too simplistic, not developed enough. What you would feel about somebody who was inept.” According to Koren, Roz Chast “grew into someone with a complete world vision and a brilliant ability to make it palpable, tangible, and understandable to everybody — and to be funny about it! It’s a question of our acculturating ourselves to her, instead of the other way around. It took a while to just understand what a rare talent she was. Ever since then, I’ve marveled at what she can do. How she can just take so many cultural moments and personal moments and blend them into this great confection of her own mind and imagination. I’m a big fan. She’s probably the biggest draw at The New Yorker at this point.”

Lorenz and William Shawn knew they were taking a chance with the young artist, who displayed less drafting skill than other relatively new cartoonists such as Jack Ziegler and Charles Barsotti. “Lee told me that when my cartoons first started running, one of the older cartoonists asked him if he owed my family money,” Chast says. “And at my first New Yorker party, Charles Saxon came up to me and had things to say about my drawing style. He even asked me, ‘Why do you draw the way you do?’ And I said, ‘Why do you draw the way you do?’ Why do you talk the way you do? Why do you dress the way you do? Why is your handwriting the way it is? I don’t know. I’m aware that a lot of people probably hate my stuff. But I hate a lot of people’s work, too.”

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Cartoonist Lynda Barry, another fan, identifies deeply with Chast’s cool welcome at the magazine. “When Roz started in The New Yorker, I noticed it immediately for a couple of reasons. One, because her drawing was so badass. I would imagine there were people who thought she couldn’t draw. She’s as good as Arno, Hokinson, or Addams, only they couldn’t see it. I think it’s about being a girl, about being female and having a whole different kind of line. I always wondered what people were talking about when they’d tell me I couldn’t draw — or talk about my ‘faux-naiÅNf ’ style, because there’s nothing ‘faux’ about it. And I love the people she drew: these bewildered, flummoxed, pudgy, potato-head people. She’s always been inclusive, particularly of middle-aged women. She drew middle-aged women without it having to be: Look, a middle-aged woman! They were just characters.”

* * *

Despite the criticism (or envy), it didn’t take Chast long to get into the New Yorker groove. She began delivering her batch of drawings to Lorenz each week, and would wait outside his office until summoned inside after whoever had arrived earlier. “You would hand over your batch to Lee and he would flip through it right in front of you. Horrible! And you’d wonder, ‘Is he smiling? Does he find that funny? Do all these cartoons suck? Why isn’t he laughing? They suck. I know they suck. Worst batch ever!’ ” She pauses. “And I still feel that way.” Chast dreads passing her sell-by date. “At some point they’re just going to say, ‘You know what? You’re horrible. You’re not funny anymore. Just go! This was a big mistake. Out!’ ” If the magazine had bought anything during the previous weekly art meeting, Lorenz would wordlessly hand it over with any notes, and her audience would conclude.

Amid other projects, Chast tends to concentrate on New Yorker cartoons on Mondays and Tuesdays, when she can clear her schedule and “lock myself up with my little ideas and just stay in here and work.” She no longer needs to go into the office while current cartoon editor Bob Mankoff appraises her submissions. “I don’t put myself through that nauseating experience of looking at someone’s face while they go through your stuff. Ugh! It’s just horrible! It gives me the cringes to even think about it. I find it disgusting and embarrassing for all concerned. And some of my stuff takes a little while to read. So I feel better that they should look at it in private when they have time, when I’m not sitting there.” She faxes her roughs to the office Tuesday evening and works on books and other projects the rest of the week.

Chast used to submit up to a dozen ideas each week but now only sends in about half that number. “It went down when I had kids,” she explains. Regarding her whiffs, she notes that “you can find me in the second volume of the Rejection Collection,” cartoonist Matthew Diffee’s compendia of the best cartoons The New Yorker has rejected for reasons of prurience, taste, or downright weirdness. Chast, like most New Yorker cartoonists, often resubmits her rejected drawings, sometimes after reworking them. “If I really like a cartoon, I’ll just resubmit it and resubmit it until there are like six rejections on the back. At that point it’s like forget it.”

Rapidograph pens — along with mechanical pencils, brushes, and other pens — are Chast’s main instrument. She has always used Bristol paper because of how well it accepts an ink wash. This reminds her of Sam Gross, who prefers inexpensive typing paper. “I remember him looking at me like I was nuts and saying, ‘What are you, an heiress?’” Although she works mainly in black, white, and grays, she also uses watercolor and gouache. “I love watercolor because you can really build up the tones.”

When accepted, her work is rarely edited. “I remember when I sold this cartoon of a mailbox in the middle of a midwestern landscape. The punch line was something like ‘1,297,000 West Seventy-Ninth Street.’ But I never had a mailbox because I grew up in an apartment house, so I can’t draw one. Lee said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘That’s the handle, to flop open the door.’ He said, ‘No,’ and drew the flag on the rough and said, ‘That’s what you put up when you have mail in your mailbox.’ But I still got it wrong because in the finished version the flag is very tiny, as if it’s glued to the side of the box. Another time, I had a guy holding a cane and Lee said, ‘It looks like he’s holding a bunch of spaghetti.’ No, I would not say my drafting skills are in the top ten percent of all cartoonists. But that’s not what cartoons are about.”

Chast’s biggest issue concerns the size of her cartoons. “The New Yorker currently prints cartoons in two columns, but they used to occasionally go into the third column. So I’ve tried to fight the battle of having cartoons sized correctly rather than making them snap to a grid. It’s not a battle I’m going to win, but I’m fighting it.” Other artists voice the same complaint, and Chast’s cartoons, which joyfully display a variety of styles and dimensions, make a better case for a return to the diverse sizes and shapes of the pre–CondeÅL Nast New Yorker than most.

Charles Addams once defined a cartoon as “mauling the cliché.” Chast also does violence to complacency, but her violence is psychological rather than unheimlich (such as Addams’s famous ski tracks straddling a tree), creepy, or gory. The headlines in her version of an obituary page, for example, compare the ages of the recently deceased with the reader’s; “Assisted Living” on the Upper West Side means giving in guiltily to your child’s demands for money and a delivered beverage; and the “Schmoozy Reaper” makes small talk before getting down to business. Chast’s style of humor blends innocence and anxiety exquisitely. Indeed, she may actually, if sneakily, be the magazine’s most aggressive cartooning voice.

“The most wonderful thing about New Yorker cartoonists is their different voices, which is what the magazine’s known for. Think about the greats: George Booth, Charles Addams, Helen Hokinson, Mary Petty, Gahan Wilson, Sam Gross, Jack Ziegler, and Charles Saxon all have different comic and aesthetic voices. I could name dozens more. Maybe the way they’re surrounded by all that type unifies New Yorker cartoonists in a funny way. New Yorker cartoons can be very timely but also not; yet somehow they reflect their time even if they’re not addressing the week’s events. Maybe it’s because cartoonists can do what they want; they aren’t told what to do by an editor who wants all of an issue’s cartoons to be on a specific topic. The New Yorker has let me explore different formats, whether it’s a page or a single panel, and that’s very important to me. If I had to do a newspaper strip where it’s boom, boom, punch line, I would kill myself. I’m amazed people can do that without feeling like they’ve just gone to sleep.”

Artistic realism is secondary to Chast’s genius for mining the big and little unspoken worries and status concerns shared unconsciously by cosmopolitans and suburbanites. And no other cartoonist exploits as many different formats to do so. She blames her constantly changing forms on ADD. Thus Chast creates greeting cards for “underthe-weather appliances,” offers a recipe for “low-risk chicken” to “the nervous gourmet,” and explores the “archaeology of a sink” from “today’s dishes” all the way down to the “Precambrian dishes” awaiting discovery far below.

Imaginary magazines are a favorite medium for her malaise: Middle Age is “the magazine for you — yeah, you!”; Bad Mom reveals “presents you can make in five minutes or so from stuff around the house”; and her cover for the 1999 cartoon issue of The New Yorker delivered an entire newsstand’s worth of fantasy periodicals, including Rubber Band Enthusiast, Elderly Abductee, Loser, Winner, and Fussy Little Man. From the “Admissions Test for the Danbury Institute of Philosophy” (“How many minutes a day do you spend thinking?”) to the “Required Seventh Grade Reading List” (which includes The Red Badge of Boredom), Chast can reduce profound issues to a questionnaire, contract, form letter, quiz, pie chart, greeting card, internal memo, and the countless other ways we visualize information.

Her art is sometimes wordy, but it never wears you down or sends you looking for something easier on the eyes. “Her lettering doesn’t make sense to the top of my mind,” notes Lynda Barry, “but it’s so satisfying to the back of my mind. Her lettering’s a little unstable, thin, and she uses a mixture of lowercase and caps. It looks like the kind of writing you’d find on a grocery list.” And it probably is exactly that, on certain days.

Chast fishes for ideas the old-fashioned way. “I jot things down on pieces of paper,” she says, “and I have a little box of ideas. I’m not organized enough to have a notebook, so it has to be little pieces of paper, evidently. I pull them out when I sit down to do my weekly batch. Sometimes I do cartoons from those ideas, and sometimes they lead to other ideas. I get ideas from all kinds of places, like something my kid said, an advertisement, or a phrase I’ve heard. It really varies. It might be something someone did that really annoyed me but actually made me laugh after I thought about it.”

The New Yorker intermittently puts artists on hiatus when it overbuys their work. When this happened to Chast in fall 2010, she used the break to stretch other comedy muscles. She wrote and illustrated a Shouts & Murmurs piece about eating bananas in public, noting how “disgusting” the fruit’s browning, smelly peel is. She wrote a piece for the magazine’s online News Desk about a friend’s father, who for the last fifteen years of his life typed out the details of every meal he prepared on alphabetized three-by-five cards. And she began her own alphabetical project, a book about her personal phobias called What I Hate: From A to Z.

A book of adult fears disguised, almost, as a children’s book, What I Hate mines Chast’s most effective material: the personal. More than a list of wacky phobias such as fear of air (anemophobia) or music (melophobia), these are all hers. Among fears Freud would probably categorize more as “reality anxieties” — such as alien abduction, rabies, and water bugs — the greatest, she says, involves balloons. “I’ve hated them since I was a kid but I don’t think it’s a common phobia. I’m afraid of someone popping them. I hate that. I don’t worry about Mylar balloons at all, but if I see latex balloons I don’t want to be in the room with them. So now people are going to send me balloons!

‘Hello, Roz. I know you like balloons sooooo much!’ ” If you suspect she probably wasn’t much fun at kids’ birthday parties, you’d be correct. “No, I wasn’t — for so many reasons.”

* * *

We spoke mostly in Chast’s studio, on the second floor of her family’s 1940s colonial home. A carpenter was repairing a leaky bathroom ceiling down the hall (the downstairs bathroom also serves as a gallery of original cartoon art by New Yorker colleagues and others), and Chast was preparing to depart that evening for a pair of West Coast lectures. A TV was on in the kitchen, which may be how Marco and Eli, the pair of African gray parrots in the adjacent room, learned to speak. The kusudama-style origami and pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs) on display reminded me of how much Chast’s own cartoons resemble handcrafted folk art that functions both as decoration, sociology, and, of course, old-fashioned comedy.

Chast has never felt completely at home in Connecticut and doesn’t pretend otherwise. “I don’t belong here!” she maintains. Yet she has mined her suburban milieu for hilarious accounts of learning to drive, the aforementioned family dog, and even a napkin-folding class she once took. “Oh, God, that was just fucking incredible,” she recalls. “And real. I’m glad I live here. I feel very lucky, and I’m not ungrateful for many things. I love Ridgefield. My kids got a great education here — I think — and seemed more or less happy. But, yeah, suburbia is . . . kind of weird.”

Her spouse used to celebrate that weirdness annually. Bill Franzen’s elaborate Halloween displays, which he would begin assembling months ahead of the holiday, drew up to a thousand spectators to the Chast-Franzen abode to enjoy tableaux with names like Death in the Desert or Alien Lunatic Asylum. Chast took it with resigned annoyance. “I don’t like holidays,” she told the New York Times. “And I don’t like crowds of people. I don’t like noise. There is a lot of noise. I don’t like amusement parks, and it’s sort of like an amusement park.”

Her own obsessions run more toward the sort of thing one might do late at night if one suffered from insomnia, as Chast sometimes does. Her pysanky — decorated with colorful cartoon images of fictional family members — are unmistakably Chast-ian. And like so much else in Chast’s world, the process includes the potential for high anxiety. “It’s a wax-resist kind of thing, like batik,” she explains. “You melt a little wax in something called a kistka and draw on the egg with the melted wax. Then you dip it into different dyes, which don’t color the part you’ve drawn on. You start with the lightest colors and build up to the darker, like batik. At the end, after you’ve worked on it for hours and hours, you sickeningly punch a hole in the egg and use the kistka to blow out the yolk and stuff. Then you carefully melt all the wax off the egg, so only the colors remain. I’ve had them break at every stage of the game.”

Chast also makes brilliantly colorful kusudama, a style of origami thought to have evolved from when real flowers and herbs were formed into “medicine balls.” Another recent craft obsession, which has been displayed at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York City, consists of beautiful, labor-intensive hooked rugs. One celebrates the four seasons with appropriate cartoonlike figures. Another features Eli and Marco, the latter of whom Chast has also cast as the protagonist in a pair of books for young children (Too Busy Marco and Marco Goes to School). Whether through a deficit of attention or simple curiosity, Roz Chast explores diverse forms of artistic expression both on and off the page.

There’s one type of gag she hasn’t gotten around to yet, however. “I’d love to do a desert-island gag, which I’ve never done. I love the end-of-the-world sign guys and tombstone gags. Anything to do with death is funny.”

Sam Gross was wrong. Roz Chast is indeed something of an heiress, if only to Charles Addams’s dark wit. But Addams never opened the door for as many unorthodox cartoonists as Chast has with her shaky, anxious lines. So if any one artist could be said to epitomize the current New Yorker cartoon aesthetic, she is it.

Excerpted from “I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker's Most Brilliant Twisted Artists” by Richard Gehr. ©2014 by Richard Gehr. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest October 2014. All Rights Reserved.


Richard Gehr

Richard Gehr has been writing about music, books, film, television, and other aspects of popular culture for more than two decades. He has contributed to several books and written for Rolling Stone, Vibe, O, the New York Times Book Review, and Spin.

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Books Excerpts Lynda Barry New Yorker New Yorker Cartoons Roz Chast