Chast Strikes a Moving Chord
With the 2014 release of her latest book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, cartoonist Roz Chast 77 PT hit a nerve with readers across the country. The memoir about the challenges of caring for her elderly parents quickly rose to the top of the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists for graphic novels, was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award in the nonfiction category and made it to the New York Times’ coveted list of The 10 Best Books of 2014.
“I think it’s an interesting story, but I don’t guess that it’s terribly unusual,” Chast noted in a National Book Award interview about creating a book centered on her parents’ end-of-life issues. “As I said to my editor, they should really shelve this in the travel section, because this is definitely like going to another country.” Dealing with elderly parents suffering from the frailties of aging and in need of assisted living and hospice care are “a part of life that I knew nothing about – and that we don’t really talk about.”
Chast got her first big break as a cartoonist in 1978 – just a year after graduation – when The New Yorker first published one of her cartoons. She had majored in Painting at RISD because it “seemed more artistic” than her real love and in the 1970s RISD wasn’t really much of “a cartoon kind of a place,” she says. But after graduation, she quickly amassed a portfolio of cartoons and illustrations and did what every aspiring young artist did at the time: carted her work around Manhattan to show it to magazine editors and anyone else who would look.
Having grown up “uneventfully” in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Chast moved only once as a child – across the street. The one highlight: her parents subscribed to The New Yorker and she found the morbid wit of Charles Addams (among her favorites) just what she needed to inspire her to begin drawing her own take on the world.
Unlike many aspiring cartoonists, Chast discovered that her lifelong tutelage actually paid off when she nervously dropped off her first stack of cartoons at the revered magazine. To her surprise, long-time art editor Lee Lorenz jumped at the opportunity, noting that her work was a breakthrough in the genre. Four decades later, she continues to submit weekly batches to the magazine, producing thousands of brilliant cartoons and seeing well over 1,200 of them published in (and on occasion on the cover of) the magazine so far.
Known for her neurotic view of day-to-day life, Chast uses just the right combination of words and quavery drawings to satirize the anxieties and absurdities of 21st-century America. Her quirky, often twisted cartoons are in a style that remains uniquely her own. “It’s true that I am very good at worrying,” she admits, adding that she’s “horribly, relentlessly serious” – a trait that is more fully illuminated through her new memoir explaining her relationship with her parents. That, she says, is “probably why the other stuff comes out.”
Chast’s cartoons have also been published in magazines such as Scientific American, the Harvard Business Review, Redbook and Mother Jones, among others. She has written and/or illustrated a dozen books including Childproof: Cartoons About Parents and Children, Meet My Staff, Mondo Boxo, Unscientific American, Parallel Universes and The Alphabet from A to Y, with Bonus Letter, Z, the bestselling children’s book by Steve Martin. Her book Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978–2006 (Bloomsbury) is a 400-page compendium of her favorite cartoons produced over three decades.
In 2013 Chast was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and earned the Reuben Award for Best Gag Cartoon, building on her 2012 win of the New York City Literary Award for Humor. She holds honorary doctorates from Dartmouth College, Lesley University/Art Institute of Boston and Pratt Institute, and is a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College.
As for the latest attention she has earned for Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast says she’s pleased that she was able to remember her parents vividly through the book and be “as truthful as possible” in telling their end-of-life story. “It would have been sort of pointless to do it otherwise,” she notes. “For me to be dishonest about it – to have left out big chunks or to write that I had this wonderful, idyllic childhood where I was happy all the livelong day – would be so untrue that it would be very disrespectful to everyone, including the reader.”
– Liisa Silander
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