Washougal Art & Music Festival

Portland Book Festival: Roz Chast, chronicler of neuroses, says ‘It’s a scary world’ for her characters

The New Yorker cartoonist will open the festival at 10 a.m. Saturday, talking with OBP's Dave Miller about her new book, “I Must Be Dreaming.”

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“You work with ideas, Roz Chast says of cartooning. “Some work out and some are incredibly stupid. You don’t know which until you realize you’ve wasted two hours on one.” Photo by: Bill Hayes, Courtesy of Roz Chast
“You work with ideas,” Roz Chast says of cartooning. “Some work out and some are incredibly stupid. You don’t know which until you realize you’ve wasted two hours on one.” Photo by: Bill Hayes, Courtesy of Roz Chast

The people who inhabit Roz Chast’s cartoons are very alarmed. In her regular drawings for The New Yorker, mouths gape wide in fear, frizzy hairdos shoot in all directions, and it seems the world is just too much to be confined in straight lines. The nervous woman taking a walk who encounters a New Yorker’s ultimate fear – a cockroach the size of a German shepherd – understands the message of her world.

So, are the characters depicted by the cartoon chronicler of urban angst actually terrified, or just very – and very appropriately – worried?

Over the phone, explaining her characters’ state of mind, Chast says, “I think it runs from ‘I’m fine now but I know something really bad is going to happen’ to actually being somewhat panicked.

“lt’s a scary world.”

Has it gotten more scary over the 40 years she has published more than 1,000 cartoons and 18 covers in The New Yorker and, lately, best-selling books?

“I thought you were going to ask,” she muses, “if it’s gotten more scary in the last week.”

Just the question the people in her cartoons might ask.

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Chast might explore the subject in her appearance Saturday at the Portland Book Festival to talk about her just-out book, I Must Be Dreaming, a cartoony investigation of what happens at night behind closed eyelids. The book isn’t, she says quickly, a 600-page tome about Freud and Jung, but a survey of thinking about dreams, including her own, which even makes a case for dreams: “It’s free entertainment” for which “you don’t need special clothes or equipment.”

The New York Journal of Books called the book “Your ticket to the dream-land of a genius. Go willingly.”

In her new book, Ros Chast notes that dreaming is “free entertainment” for which “you don’t need special clothes or equipment.”

In a New Yorker cartoon this fall, Chast depicted herself in a dream completely bowled over by another artist’s comic book, and waking up either too soon or just in time. She recently told The New York Times that she often dreams of her old apartment in New York, and in one recent dream walked through the apartment into a goat farm.

Hmmm.

Chast will open the book festival at 10 a.m. in the Newmark Theatre, interviewed by Dave Miller of OPB. At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, she’ll be among the authors featured on a live broadcast of Live Wire at the Alberta Rose Theatre.

Nine years ago, Chast exploded as an author with her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? chronicling the decline and deaths of her parents. The book sent her shooting to the top of bestseller lists, although the last days of parents might not be the first subject you’d think of in terms of cartooning.

It drew responses also not typical for a cartoonist. “For me, it was really nice to hear from people that I’d helped them through an impossible time,” she says about the reaction to the book. “It was not like writing some romance best-seller.”

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Since then, more cheerfully, Chast has published Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York, a graphic memoir tribute to the city whose neuroses she chronicles. If it sounds different from family realities, or from dreams as undressed entertainment, she explains, “Every book is different from the last book.”

Chast has also been a frequent cartoon contributor to Scientific American and the Harvard Business Review, not normally considered a rollicking cartoon market.

Still, she remains most prominently The New Yorker’s cartoon commenter on people nervously facing social hurdles that they fear might be too high for them. If they’re not publicly panicked, they’re at least deeply unsettled, like the young woman sitting on a couch between her parents, under a sign reading, “You Are Here. Suck It Up.”

Those characters have made Chast, according to the magazine’s cartoon editor Robert Mankoff, “the preeminent New Yorker cartoonist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

And still, just as when Chast sold her first cartoon to the magazine as a 23-year-old in 1978, that means submitting a range of cartoons each Wednesday and hoping one will be taken. There have been some changes in the procedure: In 1978, cartoonists personally came into The New Yorker offices to drop off their submissions, then they were faxing drawings in, and now Chast submits her cartoons in a PDF file.

A Roz Chast cartoon shows a typical anxiety-ridden character -- herself.
A Roz Chast cartoon shows a typical anxiety-ridden character — herself.

But surely, after four decades, Chast must have some idea of what the magazine is likely to buy?

“I am almost always surprised,” she says. “That has stayed consistent. Sometimes you think, this is such a perfect New Yorker cartoon, and they don’t take it. I think if you tilt it toward what you think they want, you might just as well get out of the business.”

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That’s after each submission has gone through Chast’s own process.

“You work with ideas. Some work out and some are incredibly stupid. You don’t know which until you realize you’ve wasted two hours on one.”

Some other aspects of the profession have changed. “When I started,” recalls Chast, “there were no graphic novels, no graphic storytelling,” the medium that has brought her to the book world and the book festival. There are also now multiplying opportunities for merchandising; Chast has done designs for sets of plates, and some of her New Yorker covers have blossomed as jigsaw puzzles, sending her deeply alarmed characters into atmospheres they must find even more unsettling.

And prominence now sends Chast all around the country, on book tours and speaking engagements, far from the place she has inhabited for most of her life and often in her dreams.

What has a broader experience of the rest of the country shown Chast?

She’s learned, she says, “how much I really appreciate New York.”

Still, there are advantages to getting out.

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“Cartooning is a very solitary profession,” says Chast, sounding just a bit like one of her characters. “When people laugh, it’s wonderful.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Sarasohn, a longtime columnist for The Oregonian, is a Portland writer.

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