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NEW YORK — Cartoonist Chris Ware’s latest book, “Building Stories,” consists of 14 printed works — cloth-bound books, newspapers, broadsheets and flip books — neatly packaged in a boxed set, but his working life isn’t quite so contained.
Rather than curse the creative process, he and the novelist Zadie Smith spoke in detail about their circuitous and sometimes fitful attempts to voice their artistry. Ever quick with the one-liners throughout their discussion at the New York Public Library Tuesday night, Ware referred more than once to his “horrible fat head” and likened their day jobs to being “forced to the crucible of loneliness.” Smith matched his humility, showing all sorts of snapshots from her awkward teenage years, including a self-described Sylvia Plath ensemble, which the crowd greeted with laughter. She insisted she had only written a few stories — literally copying ones from Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse — before she published her breakout novel “White Teeth.” “But I was reading obsessively. The writing is an explosion of 18 years of reading,” Smith said.
Ware raved about the “fantastic” cartoonist Richard McGuire, whose “Here” comic strip “remains a focal point in my scenery and [I’ve been] stealing from him basically. Very few people know about him at the moment but everyone will know about him in a year and a half when he publishes a new book,” the Illinois-based Ware said.
Here are a few of the other highlights from their moderator-less talk, which Ware compared to “trying to put up a tent without poles.”
Zadie Smith: When I felt a communion with Chris, it was the idea that we are both moderns and that we live in a modern period and have an understanding of what that demands. Would it be possible to make some kind of art that is formally interesting but it makes you feel full instead of like some joke has been played on you? That was part of the feeling I had going to The Turner Prize — that idea that you’re a smart and confident person, and a lot of times you’re affected experience was shallow. You got the joke and then you walked on. That question of whether you could find some form that could both be innovative and interesting but still concerned with human beings and an entirety. When I first met Chris, I thought, “Well, there’s someone who is doing that.” And that was really exciting to me.
The Comic Life
Chris Ware: I am not a writer and I don’t really plan too much, but I realized there is something about comics that created this sort of — for lack of a better word — buoyancy. There isn’t a lot of buoyancy in the act of drawing comics. It’s a long kind of awkward carpentry, sort of like Gilligan making a bookshelf out of twine and sticks. It’s just not really a very satisfying medium to work in.
Smith’s Speaking at the 2001 Turner Prize Ceremony to Meet Madonna
Z.S.: I found myself immediately forced into this kind of argument I am sure you had in art school where you find yourself in this conservative position because you’re interested in craft. It’s annoying because you might actually have ideas that could shine but you are kind of backed into a corner, sitting around reading Tolstoy or whatever it is. But again the affected experience is the difference between thinness and fullness and wanting to have that feeling you had in front of great works of art. But they don’t have to resemble those great works of art. You don’t have to write “Anna Karenina” again or paint like Leonardo da Vinci, but you need to have some aspect of the feeling of what goes on between what’s being reproduced because that’s why you got into the game in the first place.
C.W.: The worst thing you could be called in art school was an illustrator. If you drew a picture that matched what it meant then you were illustrating something and that was wrong. It was almost worse than being called a pornographer or something. I mean that seriously. I felt this confusion about how to communicate with images directly because I wanted to communicate feelings. I was interested in ideas, but I wanted to try to re-create the sense of depth of feeling that I got from artwork that moved me profoundly. Most of the time I’ve only been moved by books and music anyway.
Z.S.: At a certain point, you have to leave childish things behind, like the sense wow-I-can-draw, or in my case, wow-I-can-read, until you have what is called a talent. But as you become an adult and if you have to make things, you have to kind of give up the idea of processing the talent otherwise you would have spent your life painting beautiful fruit bowls and I would have certainly written stories that sound exactly like Agatha Christie. You have to move from facility to something else.
Hearing from Art Spiegelman
C.W.: I thought it was a joke at first and that it was possibly one of my friends calling. It was actually Art and from that point on, we corresponded and he encouraged me. And he published my work in Raw magazine, which was a magazine I had been reading since I was in high school. I found it one day when I was searching for pornography in the back of a comic book shop that I had been going to for years. When I saw the word “raw,” I thought, “All right, this is it!” Instead it ended up being a very avant-garde literary and experimental comics, which I nonetheless took home. That is where Art was first serializing “Mouse.” And Françoise Mouly as the art editor of The New Yorker continues to be charitable to we cartoonists.
Creating Something to Make People Feel Alive
Z.S.: You have to jolt people in different ways, in different decades and different periods. You can’t keep doing the same things expecting the same reaction because it becomes formulaic and they become used to the very strategies or they are not being challenged in a way. You’d have to find some fresh way to approach them because people are ingenious about protecting themselves from reality. They find different ways not to deal with the real. Writers have to become ingenious how to get through it.
C.W.: When I was in sixth grade or something, I had been assigned “Out of Africa” to read and I was supposed to do a drawing based on it. I didn’t read it and I did some BS drawing and turned it in. I don’t know what I was thinking. I handed it to the teacher and she looked at me and said, “You didn’t read this, did you?” And I was like, “How did she see through me like this!” She handed me [John] Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and she said, “Take this home and I want you to read this.” I was thinking, “Man, I don’t want to do that.” And I took it home and sat up on my mother’s old-fashioned secretary, and thought, “OK, I’m going to do this and then I’m going to watch ‘Battlestar Galactica’ or something.” Then I read it and it was the first time I had been moved to tears by a book. I think in a lot of ways that teacher changed my life.
The Road Not Taken
C.W.: I still sometimes feel as though I gave up somehow, like maybe I should have tried to be a painter even though I was a really bad painter. There is something about painting, though, to me in the simplest sense of the word in just trying to see something. The fact of just trying to reproduce that and bring back that feeling of a kid just experiencing the world in all its richness. I know that sounds very overblown, but I think it’s true.…When I was in school, I felt as though every mark I made was one of self-accusation and literally I could hear the voices in my brain screaming, “You suck. You’re terrible. Look at that.”
The Full Picture
Z.S.: I know it pains you when I talk about your work, but in “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” you have moments where a scene will happen between Jimmy and his father, and the bacon on the plate says “Hi” and the #1 Dad T-shirt that the father is wearing [stands out]. These elements are abstracted in a way that stick with you through the eye or memory. Often when we’re writing prose, we disguise that fragmentariness and we make it fluid with everything mixed up in this beautiful, full narrative. We forget the way we actually remember, which is in pieces and subjectively. The Natalie section [in “NW”] can be kind of a narcissistic narrative where she is marching to the future and what doesn’t interest her is kind of left out. But I don’t think that’s an inaccurate representation of the way we remember. We look back in our past and see what concerns us.