Festival of Books: Roz Chast, cartoonists talk about drawing from life

What does Roz Chast think of the New Yorker's caption contest? 'It demeans cartooning' #bookfest

Cartoonists Roz Chast, Bruce Eric Kaplan and Mimi Pond discussed their illustrated memoirs in Saturday's L.A. Times Festival of Books panel called "Drawing on Life: Graphic Memoirs and Novels," moderated by comedy writer Ben Schwartz.

Anyone who attended expecting a riot of wisecracks and one-liners would have been disappointed. These three humorists weren't jockeying for big laughs. They are serious and low-key in demeanor, and they share a dry, bittersweet wit that sometimes takes awhile to sneak up on you, even on the page.

Their highly personal books are about heavy subjects. Kaplan and Chast were inspired by the deaths of their parents, and their stories are comic only in the sense that they provoke the helpless laughter of recognition.

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Chast's account of her aging parents' final years in "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir" is occasionally hilarious but often painful.

In "I Was a Child: A Memoir," Kaplan recollects details from his childhood in New Jersey with a kind of puzzled, melancholy nostalgia.

Pond's "Over Easy," an autobiographical graphic novel based on her experiences as a waitress in an Oakland diner in the 1970s, is the cheeriest of the bunch, finding humor in a young woman's coming-of-age in a drug-stoked, out-there community.

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Chast and Kaplan are cartoonists for the New Yorker and have known each other for years, so behind-the-scenes gossip from that magazine filled a good bit of the discussion. Kaplan, who like Pond is also a TV writer, wrote the famous episode of "Seinfeld" about the New Yorker cartoon.

Did the New Yorker mind? Schwartz wondered. Kaplan said they were happy. "Everybody was always happy to be on 'Seinfeld.' "

Chast said she turns in six to seven first-draft drawings, or "roughs," to the New Yorker each week, then modifies the ones that are accepted into "finishes." Kaplan interrupted: "I read that you turned in six finishes a week!"

"That's a lie!" Chast retorted. "Where did you hear that?"

"Probably TMZ," Pond put in.

"Right," Kaplan said. "Another TMZ story about New Yorker cartoonists."

Tempers seemed about to flare only at one point: When Schwartz asked how the artists felt about the New Yorker's caption contest, which draws millions of responses each week.

Chast and Kaplan are two of the only cartoonists at the magazine who don't participate, and Chast admitted that she thinks "it demeans cartooning."

"Would they ask Alice Munro to write 7/8ths of a story and then have the readers compete to finish it?" she demanded, rhetorically.

"I'm not interested in seeing what other people would put in the mouths of my people," Kaplan admitted. "Once a poet wanted me to do the cover of her book. I couldn't believe it. My people would never say those things."

An ambitious cartoonist in the audience asked how the three artists had developed a consistent style.

Kaplan said he doesn't enjoy having to draw the same character multiple times in a story. "I like drawing characters once," he said. "I think all my cartoons are about different people. But other people have said they're all about the same two people."

"You have to draw a lot," Chast counseled the audience member. "And eventually, I don't know what happens."

"You die," Kaplan put in, as the panel ended in cheerful applause.

Check out the Festival of Books schedule for this weekend.

MORE FROM THE FESTIVAL OF BOOKS:

Can social media solve the social justice problem?

T.C. Boyle, on his newest novel about gun violence

Is it rude to ask women humor writers how they differ?

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