New Yorker cartoonist offers a how-to guide to the city

Roz Chast has been a cartoonist with the New Yorker for four decades.
Roz Chast has been a cartoonist with the New Yorker for four decades.
Bill Hayes | Bloomsbury

Among the many big names appearing at the Twin Cities Book Festival this weekend is cartoonist Roz Chast. Her drawings, which often cast angst-ridden glances at modern life, have been a fixture in the New Yorker magazine for 40 years.

Now she has written a guidebook.

"Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York" was born out of need. Chast grew up in Brooklyn, but she and her husband moved to Connecticut early in their marriage. So their daughter Nina grew up a suburban kid.

After high school, Nina got a spot at a New York college. Chast wanted to prepare her for Manhattan, so she began running through what she considered the basics of a big city, like how the streets are laid out on a grid.

"And she said, 'What do you mean by a grid?' So I got out a piece of paper and I said, 'These are the avenues. They run north-south. The streets run east-west. And so if you want to walk from, like, 43rd Street to 47th Street, you walk uptown four blocks.' And she actually said to me, 'What's a block?'"

That put Chast into full angst-ridden cartoonist mother mode. She created a 16-page guide to Manhattan. Her daughter took it to school, and used it extensively.

"And at the end of four years she gave it back to me," said Chast.

Which got Chast thinking: If her daughter had found it useful, so might others. She pitched the idea to her agent, and got to work.

"I was just going to expand it as a guidebook," she said. "And then as I was writing it, I started to get into the more personal, 'Why I love New York so much,' and it sort of became a book."

'Going into Town,' by Roz Chast, gives basic advice for visitors to NYC.
Images from early in the book "Going into Town," by Roz Chast.
Courtesy Bloomsbury

"Going into Town" is not a cartoon book. It's a wryly funny guidebook-cum-memoir-cum-how-to advice column. It's liberally seeded with Chast's recognizable brightly colored ink and wash illustrations. In them, spindly people, wide-eyed and slightly terrified, experience the city.

Much of the information is pretty basic, but there's a comfort in that. It's the kind of stuff you might feel embarrassed not knowing, but often find you don't. Chast details how to hail a cab, or how to get on the right subway train. There's a lot about just navigating the city.

"I feel like if I can do it, anybody can do it, because I have such a poor sense of direction," said Chast.

Chast talks about the joys of just walking around, experiencing and learning about New York. Over the years, such walks have been an inspiration for her cartoon work.

"Yeah, I do get ideas," she said. "I mean, there's what you see, the people you see, the buildings you see. The things you overhear, the weird encounters, the weird conversations that you might even find yourself a part of. Because it's just so dense. It's not like walking alone in nature."

Chast is one of 40 staff cartoonists at the New Yorker.

"I love when people have this misunderstanding," she said. "They say, 'You have the best job in the world. You do one cartoon a week, and they buy it.' And it's like, 'Hmmm, not exactly.'"

Chast said she usually submits six to eight drawings every week, as do all the other staff cartoonists, as well as freelancers.

"If you added up all the cartoons they have to select from, it might be 700 or 800 a week," she said.

The magazine staff winnows those down and usually buys only 25 or 30.

Most images in the book are Chast’s readily-identifiable ink drawings.
An illustration from later in the book "Going into Town." Most of the images in the book are Chast's readily-identifiable ink and wash drawings, although she does include photos of places and things seen on her travels around New York City.
Courtesy Bloomsbury

"The advice I always give to someone who says, 'My kid wants to be a cartoonist for the New Yorker, what's your advice?' ... I always say, if you can do something else, that's the thing you should do," she said.

Chast will appear at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Twin Cities Book Festival on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. She promises a visual tour of "Going into Town." However, she's likely also to get questions about her 2014 memoir, "Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?" It's the powerful, unvarnished story of her aging parents' final years.

She said it would have been tougher to write if she'd tried to sugarcoat it.

"And I think, in some ways, disrespectful to my parents," she said. "And it would have been fiction, also."

Chast said she's looking forward to her visit, and grateful too, because many writers and other artists don't get the attention they deserve. The older she gets, she said, the more aware of that she becomes.

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