When Roz Chast agreed to do an interview, I was beyond delighted. My first act of business was to mosey over to The Shelf, the one that contains every New Yorker magazine that has been delivered to my doorstep in the past five years, probably longer, and pull them out. Rarely does one New Yorker Hoarder get such an excuse (why do I keep them, you ask? It's one of the great riddles of our time) but here I was, with real research to do.
Roz Chast sold her first sketch to the New Yorker when she was 23 and has been a staff writer for them ever since. She's published over a dozen books, illustrated Steve Martin's picture book The Alphabet From A To Y With Bonus Letter Z! and recently wrote and illustrated her first picture book, Too Busy Marco based on a real-life family member -- her twelve year old bird.
I asked her about her career, how things have changed in the thirty-plus years she's been an artist in New York, and why she chose this moment to begin writing for children. With her signature sharp wit and humor, here is what she said:
I read an interview with you from 1980. You were 25 and already an accomplished New Yorker cartoonist with a wicked sense of humor. Do you have the same eye you did back then?
In a lot of ways I think the core remains the same. I mean the outside world changes. There have been changes in my life, but the core is the same. Who you are is who you are.
Let's talk about humor writing for children. How is it writing for children as opposed to your adult New Yorker audience? What do you taper/ focus on?
It's definitely different. In picture books you literally have to use fewer words. I tried to focus on the pictures as much as the words because to me they're equally important. And that's a challenge, of course, but there are also ways it's similar. I mean this bird is a really funny bird. He just is. I think adults find him funny, too.*
*I am an adult, I find him very funny.
I knew when writing it that his personality would be funny to adults and children. He does crazy things all the time. For instance I like to buy those individual applesauce containers. You know the flavored ones? And I'm always buying different flavors. Raspberry, strawberry...
Right. I'm panicked he's going to get sick of them. So I buy all these crazy flavors and the other day I gave him the empty container to play with and he kept saying "peek a boo." He was playing with me. There's a lot of material there.
But to get back to it I think the hardest part for me was getting into the psyche of the child, keeping in mind that this book was for them. They're not always going to find the same jokes funny. It's important to remember that.
Your style is zany, alternative. And that's actually what I love about picture books now. The classic ones are still around but authors and illustrators are starting to embrace the quirky. I think about Mo Willems and Jan Thomas who both have a very strong sense of humor. Was this a draw for you to children's?
I didn't think too much about that. I really just thought about Marco. But you're right, it is an interesting moment. There's a lot more going on right now, which I think is particularly enjoyable for adults.
It's not all Goodnight Moon.
No, it's not, which is fun. I hope adults enjoy Marco as much as their children do.
Can you tell us a little about your experience working with Steve Martin?
It was really fun. He had the idea to come up with all these rhymes and I remember we were looking for extra material to put in the book, after he had finished, and we were sitting there with the dictionary when we came across "ukulele." We looked at each other like how could we have missed ukulele? I mean, ukulele is a funny word!
It was a dream project. He's wonderful to work with and so generous and talented.
What's next for you?
I'm actually working on a second Marco book!
Personally, I'm thrilled.
Well, we've had him for twelve years. It looks like he's sticking around.
From The New Yorker to picture books, it would seem Chast is, as well.