Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Kerri Arsenault, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Roz Chast about her book Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury USA), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Autobiography, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Arsenault visited Chast at her home in Connecticut for this interview.
Roz Chast’s house is filled with sunlight, cheerful artwork, and her African Gray continuously chattering in the background: talking, scolding, or making a sound like a truck backing up. The warmth of her home and her easy smile contrasts with the frazzled, frowning, squiggly lined portraits she draws of herself. “Don’t pluck!” I hear the bird say as Chast and I sit down to discuss her book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? She explains that the bird has a lot of anxieties and plucks its stomach until it’s bare.
Kerri Arsenault: In your book, you said you had one anxiety after another as kid.
Roz Chast: A lot were physical things. My knee would hurt and I would think, leukemia. A stomachache was immediately appendicitis. An earache was immediately mastoiditis.
KA: This was before you could Google WebMD.
RC: Yes, I was eight or nine years old. I worried all the time about losing my permanent teeth. I worried about going blind. I worried about going cross-eyed. I worried about death. I worried about diphtheria. My mother had diphtheria, it’s in the book, where she told me more than once about her mother ripping the web out of her throat, so yes, diphtheria. And even though I had the shots, I didn’t quite trust them. Oh, lockjaw. I worried about lockjaw.
KA: Do you still worry about these things?
RC: I worry about other things. I don’t worry about lockjaw as much. But I worry about many, many things. Illness related things. It’s ridiculous.
KA: So still physical things?
RC: Yeah, I don’t like it at all. I mean I don’t like the worrying about it. It seems like a total waste of mental space and time.
KA: Are you a physical person?
RC: No. NO! Oh my god. I shoveled the walk this morning and I thought I would die. I don’t like going outside. I like sitting and I like project and I like my hobbies and I like reading. I like being inside with my projects and hobbies and reading. That’s what I really like.
KA: After your memoir was published, it seems people keep asking your advice on elder care, like you’ve become this de facto “expert.”
RC: I don’t know anything! I’m far from an expert on elder care. I knew NOTHING when I started this and plus, I’m an avoider. I try to squirm out of anything that is just boring or anxiety provoking. I guess like everybody, you want to do what you want to do and hopefully not step on too many toes. Suddenly I had to do all this stuff I didn’t want to do. Anybody becomes an expert once they go through it.
KA: What do you mean you are an “avoider”?
RC: Human nature. I avoid things I think are going to be boring or anxiety producing or don’t seem fun. [Chast’s voice changes to a fake whine]. Oh I guess I’ll really have to do it…I guess I’ll have to do the laundry. Only one burner on the stove works. I guess it’s time to get a new stove. I don’t want to do that! I don’t want to go to Sears. I don’t want to look at stoves. It’s so boring.
KA: It seems like you write a lot about that kind of stuff, the mundane…
RC: Maybe it’s like my carrot at the end of a stick. Like, I will go to Sears and look at washing machines if I can maybe find something about the situation that is funny. Maybe I’ll have a weird conversation with the salesman or something. It’s my motivation. You just feel like the minute you walk into the store or a mall, why was I born?
KA: I worked for a man once who used to be the President of Goebel, the maker of those collectible German Hummel figurines. Despite recessions and wars and inflation, business in the porcelain statuette world remains unshakeable.
RC: [Gasps]. So weird!
KA: He said Americans were the biggest collectors in the world and tied inextricably to “things” even if the things they save represent nothing specific except nostalgia.
RC: I think for my parents it had to do with growing up in the Depression. You never knew when something would come in handy and I think my mother really took that to heart. There was that poem, ‘use it up wear it out make it do or do without.’ She used to save soap slivers and put them all in this washcloth and make a soap washer thing; she made a bathrobe out of some old towels. Her night table was a set of drawers so old and chipped and disgusting and it never occurred to her to buy a new one. Things were always falling off the edge of it, she took an old metal Chinese checkerboard that was sort of squarish, a little smaller a sofa cushion, and she covered it with tinfoil and that was the top of the table.
It was the antithesis of the consumerism of where we are at right now. We throw something away the minute it has a scratch on it. If you are middle class or upper middle class you are expected to curate every fucking object in your house, so like your toothbrush can’t be a NORMAL toothbrush from CVS, like you use your toothbrush everyday so why use a mediocre plastic one when you could be using [Chast’s voice takes on a vaguely European accent] This handcrafted wooden toothbrush with bristles that have been curated from hand-raised pigs from the island of Borneo and it is only $65, which is a real bargain when you consider the joy you’ll get from using this toothbrush and people will come to your house and notice this gorgeous toothbrush. And with every object in your house, this is just repeated. Like your cutting board can’t be a normal fucking cutting board. It has to be this rare wood from blah. So you throw out your old stupid cutting board because now that cutting board’s just not good enough for you anymore. Every object just has to be…like that box of Kleenex over there, you are supposed to take it out of the box. You know what I mean? My parents were the opposite of that. They barely even noticed. They just barely noticed their environment. It was very utilitarian. I mean, they liked things on the walls. They had some things they liked to look at. They really loved their books. I remember starting out with my own apartment. It was so foreign to me, like fussing about your light fixtures. When we moved into a house and we had to choose stuff for our kitchen; that almost undid me. I was used to apartments. There, you didn’t have to choose what height backsplash you wanted. I didn’t even know what a backsplash was. I’m probably somewhere halfway between where my parents were at and where I’m sort of expected to be at with curating my house.
I don’t know how to make those choices. I don’t get pleasure out of doing it and it makes me feel anxious. But I do go into people’s houses where I feel like they love it…it’s very important it’s how they express themselves. And it doesn’t make them anxious. I would see those pieces of furniture in some houses that have the dishes arranged in them…have you ever seen that? I guess it’s called a breakfront or something?
KA: You mean a cupboard where dishes are on display…?
RC: YES, YES, YES! YES exactly. I just don’t know that. I didn’t grow up with it. That’s when I feel like, why don’t I just put the babushka on and be done with it.
KA: What would be a more dignified way to care for the elderly?
RC: I don’t know if there is a more dignified way. I guess I wish my parents had dealt with some of the stuff in their apartment; that’s something I think about a lot for my children. I don’t hold onto stuff like my parents did. As you can see, we are hardly minimalists, but my parents never threw anything away, ever. I hope I don’t leave my kids piles of crap.
KA: Did what you find in your parents’ house after they died change your perception of them? Or confirm your suspicions?
RC: The letters. It didn't really change what I thought; it was physical proof of something I already knew, that they were intensely connected and committed to each other. It’s weird because my mother shared so little of herself with me. Nina [Chasts’s daughter] and I have looked at my wedding album and talked about the guests there and I’ve told her about this weird guy or that weird guy or, hey there’s the guy that was always going to the bathroom and doing coke. You know, whatever. My parents never wanted to talk about any of that. My kids and I don’t overlap completely but I want to share who I am with them and I want them to share who they are with me.
KA: Your relationship with your mother seems complicated.
RC: My relationship with her was a combination of a lot of factors; it was her personality; it was a certain amount of biochemical mismatch My mother was born in 1912, in a different generation, which was a large part of it. If you a mother from that generation, you had to be strong, you had to be this certain sort of “take no shit from anybody” kind of person. That any kind of compromise was weakness.
My mother was first generation. She was born here, but her parents were born in Russia and my father’s parents were born in Russia and they all grew up poor. It was just a lot easier for me than it was for them. My grandparents parents barely spoke English. They mostly spoke Yiddish. I didn’t speak Yiddish but heard it a lot, like when my father talked to his mother on the phone, they spoke Yiddish. When my parents wanted to talk and have me not understand, they spoke Yiddish. My father also spoke French, Spanish. and Italian. He picked up languages easily. He was a linguist. [Her voice is lighter when she speaks of her father].
KA: How did you go about writing Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
RC: It took awhile to figure out how I was going to put it together. I actually asked my shrink and he said, well how about chapters?
KA: Like the sundowning chapter…?
RC: Yes, there were definitely different stages that we went through as we approached the end. And of course I knew how it was going to end. Where it always ends. No surprise there. And I knew where it began. It was two days before the World Trade Center was hit. I’m not saying there was any connection other than it helped me remember it. And it was so odd, because I remember very distinctly looking out and looking at the Towers and I guess at some other level, this is going to sound so corny, just like with parents, like the Towers, you never think they won’t be there and one day they’re not.
That’s pretty fucking corny, but oh well. I remember looking out the window and it was less than 48 hours later that they [the Towers] were gone. I have no idea why I suddenly needed to get out there that Sunday and see my parents in their apartment. It had been 11 years.
KA: Not even stepping foot there?
RC: No. They came up here a few times a year. When we first moved here my mother drove. And then at some point, it was not safe for her to drive and they would take car service up. As somebody once said to me once elderly parents, everything’s OK until it’s not. And that’s what it was like with them. Everything was Ok until it wasn’t.
KA: So that part was condensed in the book?
RC: Between 2001 and 2004 or something like that. That was a period when I was going to see them more. I would bring groceries. I would check up on them. That’s when I started seeing the grime and wondering, do I clean it up do I leave it alone?
KA: Could you have published this if your parents were alive and “had all their marbles”?
RC: No. No absolutely not.
KA: Can we talk about death?
RC: Sure. Let’s talk about death.
KA: Have you made any plans?
RC: I have not. We need to get a will. We have not done that.
KA: Elder care plans?
RC: No, we’re still talking about it. I like the idea of some sort of multi-generational thing. Those places. They’re so horrible. They’re awful. They’re like warehouses for old people. It’s so sad. And we know it’s sort of coming. Your body starts to fail.
KA: And then what happens?
RC: Nothing good. Sometimes when I read about where people trying to extend their lifespan, I wonder, do they really know what it’s like. Are these people aware of what it’s like to be 100? I have a friend whose mother is almost 102 and it’s not good. And she’s healthy, but she can barely see. She sleeps most of the time, She used to be really into the news, but now she can’t really hear it anymore.
At the end, when my father was in such terrible pain from the bedsores and everything was just failing , the hospice gave him morphine to deal with the pain and that slowed everything up. And my mother was very upset because she thought the hospice people had killed him. I had to remind her my father was screaming in pain from the bedsores and she was like, no he wasn’t. And I’m like, I was there. I would go with him to the doctors to have his bedsores debrided and I’d never seen anything like that. You don’t know how someone could bear it without ripping their eyeballs out of their head; the only thing that would make it bearable would be massive amounts of morphine.
At that point, maybe we just…I don’t know. Maybe if we had a different attitude toward death in this country. If we felt that maybe it was a passage to another consciousness, that it could be, if we were more interested in that. I mean I would kind of like to at the end of my life under the right circumstances, experiment more with opium or psychedelics, to understand a little bit more about....I feel like my understanding of this is so limited anyway. I don’t know. There seems like there’s a greater understanding to all of this—I don’t even know how to articulate this—than we seem to want to acknowledge. Bigger questions. And if you ask any of these questions or think about it, you’re like what are you the loser? You are in la la land…why don’t you just go to the gym and blah. It’s very materialistic. Unless you are a physicist you are not even allowed to…you’re put into a box about it unless you’re Stephen Hawking talking about wormholes or something.
It’s not even that there’s no place, there’s no word for it. There’s no framework for it. If you’re not religious, if you don’t belong to a church or a temple, if you’re not a physicist or a New Ager or a yoga person or something, what do you do with these questions. I just feel like for regular people who are not physicists or New Agers, there’s no place to have that conversation. I feel like other countries, like India they have a very different idea about all this. I don’t know what it is but it’s probably very different. I can’t say I’m doing anything about it, but I think about it a lot.
KA: Will you be attending the NBCC awards this year?
RC: Yes, I’m kind of excited. It’s March 19th, is it? Oh wait, it’s the 12th. I must be thinking of something else. Oh, that’s coming right up. The 19th is my show at Danese/Corey Gallery in New York.
I swear, there’s like three marble and an old candy wrapper in here [Chast points to her head]. That’s it. Three marbles, an old candy wrapper, and a crumpled up tissue rattling around.
Roz Chast has loved to draw cartoons since she was a child growing up in Brooklyn. She attended Rhode Island School of Design, majoring in Painting because it seemed more artistic. However, soon after graduating, she reverted to type and began drawing cartoons once again. Her cartoons have also been published in many other magazines besides The New Yorker, including Scientific American, the Harvard Business Review, Redbook, and Mother Jones. Her most recent book is a comprehensive compilation of her favorite cartoons called Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006. She also illustrated The Alphabet from A to Y, with Bonus Letter, Z, the best-selling children's book by Steve Martin.
Kerri Arsenault is a writer and an NBCC book critic and her reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, American Book Review, and Bookslut. She is working toward her MFA in The New School’s Creative Writing program with a concentration in nonfiction.