Readers relate to New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s personal book on aging parents

December 26, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
Known for her dry wit, cartoonist Roz Chast finds humor in caring for aging parents in her first graphic memoir, "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" Jeffrey Brown speaks with the New Yorker artist about taking on more personal subject matter and how cartooning became a tool in remembering her late parents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a brutally honest, but funny portrait of caring for elderly parents.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The absurdities, horrors, comedies, most of all perhaps the anxieties of everyday life, these “New Yorker” covers could only have been drawn by longtime staff cartoonist Roz Chast.

She grew up in Brooklyn in Flatbush. Her dad was an assistant school principal and her mom a high school teacher. Author of several books, this year, Chast tackled an uncomfortable subject, but one shared by many. “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir” is about the last few years of her parents’ lives.

It was a finalist for the National Book Awards, the first time a cartoonist has been nominated in the nonfiction category.

I talked with Chast recently at the Miami Book Fair and asked how this book came to be.

ROZ CHAST, Author, “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?”: I think I have a habit of, in my head, taking notes on whatever, you know, whether they’re verbal or pictorial or just making a note of things as they’re happening.

And, at some point, I think it started to dawn on me that there was actually a story here that I wanted to put on paper.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that the way you work normally? You’re taking notes? Like, what kind of notes? What would they look like? What would they say? Or would they be drawings?

ROZ CHAST: A lot of — well, there would be drawings and notes.

And the material for this book, a lot of it — some of it was cartoons that I had submitted as just part of my regular weekly submission. But the oven mitt story was something that I had visited my parents, and I picked up an oven mitt in my parents’ apartment and I said, you know, why do you have this? It’s disgusting. It’s grotty. It’s filthy. It’s burned. It has patches on it. Why are you patching an oven mitt, mom?

And then I looked at the patches and I realized that the material from the patches came from a skirt that I had sewn in, like, seventh grade home economics class. And I realized she probably had that skirt someplace as well. It was very typical of my parents.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I know. I was going to say, because we come to realize that that is very typical. Right? Right?

ROZ CHAST: Yes. Yes. Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re hoarders.


JEFFREY BROWN: They keep everything.

ROZ CHAST: They keep everything. They cannot throw anything away.

And I think this was a habit that came from their having grown up poor, both of them. They were children of Russian immigrants. And also they graduated from college into the Depression. And I think those sort of scrimpy habits continued all throughout their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your work is often very personal.


JEFFREY BROWN: But was this — did this take you into some deeper realm?

ROZ CHAST: Yes, this was probably the most personal thing I have ever done.

I think, with my cartoons, the parent-like figures are kind of my own archeypes of parents, and they’re taken a little bit from my parents and other people’s parents, and parents I have read about, and parents I dreamed about, and parents that I made up. And it’s like a mishmash. They’re not specifically — except in the case of things like the oven mitt story, which was actually true.


ROZ CHAST: But, in this case, the people I was writing about was actually — were actually them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that meant what for you?

ROZ CHAST: Well, let’s put it this way. I could have not written it until after they died.

JEFFREY BROWN: This, of course, happens to all of us.

ROZ CHAST: Yes, of course. Of course.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. And so many people connect with watching a parent, in some cases, live on too long, if that’s OK to say.

ROZ CHAST: Yes. But it’s not just that it happened to your parents. It also is going to happen to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes. Oh, really?

ROZ CHAST: That — yes. I know. I know. I forget that most of the time. Sorry. You know what? I was wrong. I just made that up.


JEFFREY BROWN: But did you have — you must have people coming up to you all the time and saying, oh, you told my story.

ROZ CHAST: Yes, much more so than I expected.


ROZ CHAST: I have gotten many, many letters from people who have said, you know, do you live in my house?


ROZ CHAST: You know, this is exactly my story.


ROZ CHAST: And I thought I was the only one who went through this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of living in your house, I can actually say — we have known each other a long time — I lived in your house.

ROZ CHAST: It’s true. It’s true.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. I moved into your apartment in Brooklyn when — and I only bring that up because it’s part of the story here. You moved to Connecticut.


JEFFREY BROWN: And that meant moving away from Brooklyn, where your parents were.


JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s one of the hinge points of this story, right?




It’s — they were still living in the apartment where I grew up. We had moved in there in 1959, and they never budged. It was really an accumulation of 50 years of stuff, and they never threw anything away, ever.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eventually, you had to deal with it?

ROZ CHAST: Yes. Yes, it was really sad. It’s kind of horrible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. You know what? Everything about this is sad, and yet funny, right?

ROZ CHAST: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, you’re exploring both sides of it in your cartoons and in this book.

ROZ CHAST: There are some very funny things about it, yes.



JEFFREY BROWN: Are you aware of the humor or the funny part of it as you’re doing it, or do you find the humor later?

ROZ CHAST: It really depends.

Sometimes, you know — I think, with a lot of things, at the time, everything is extremely upsetting, and then you look back on it, and it actually can be sort of funny.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where did this all leave you? Was it — I mean, the writing of it, was that cathartic? Did it do anything for you?

ROZ CHAST: It’s not cathartic. I didn’t write it for catharsis.

I think, especially with my parents, I wanted to remember who they were. I wanted to remember all of it. I didn’t want to purge myself of it. I wanted to remember it. I wanted to remember what they sounded like and weird stuff, like, you know, how they stood, their posture, the kinds of conversations they would have.

I didn’t want it to all become, you know, like all the edges sanded off, and then it’s just this kind of like, oh, yes, they got old, and now I can’t really remember anything about that time, you know?


ROZ CHAST: So, I feel like I did write down and keep track of all of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, it’s all in the book “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?”

Roz Chast, it’s a real pleasure to talk to you.

ROZ CHAST: You, too. Thank you.