Roz Chast, 60, is a Brooklyn native who has been drawing her famously subversive, angst-ridden cartoons for The New Yorker since 1978.

Because she was an only child, Chast found herself solely responsible for making huge decisions — including finally moving her parents to “the Place,” an assisted-living facility near her own home in Connecticut. As first her father and then her mother faded away with senile dementia, Chast struggled with conflicting emotions of love, guilt, fear and sorrow.

She turned her experiences into a best-selling graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, $28), perhaps the most affecting cartoonist’s tale of a parent-child relationship since Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus.  The memoir was a finalist for a National Book Award, won a $50,000 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction and was just named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography.

She’ll be discussing the book Wednesday night at the Dallas Museum of Art. Ahead of that, she answered questions by email.

Your fans know there is personal anxiety in almost everything you do. But this book, being a memoir, is quite different. How surprised have you been by its positive critical and popular reception? Did you suspect, when you began the project, that no one would be even remotely interested in such a personal story?

I think I expected something in between those two. That some people would be interested in the topic, only because I had friends who were going through similar things — taking care of a parent or an in-law that was starting to become more dependent.

Did you have it in mind eventually to write something, even as all of this was happening over the eight-year period that you documented? Or did the thought of publishing only come later as you reviewed your journals, drawings, photographs and the poems and memorabilia that you had saved?

I didn’t have it in mind during the entire time at all. A lot of the very specific details came from emails I’d written to friends. When I decided to write this book, I would type certain words into my email search boxes, like “the Place,” or “my mother,” or the name of my mother’s aide, or “Ensure,” etc. And emails detailing a specific conversation I’d had on that topic would come up.

In addition to emails, I had my weekly batches of cartoons I did for The New Yorker. The batch is a group of rough sketches, and then they select one (or none, on a bad week) from that group of seven or so cartoons.

So some of the cartoons in the book (the one about the olives, the Ouija board one, the one about the oven mitt, the cheese danish, several others) were ones I had submitted to, and were rejected by, The New Yorker. And I had the journal — the yellow notebook I refer to in the book — that had all the conversations about logistics: Meals on Wheels, care agencies, visits to Maimonides [a hospital in Brooklyn], and so forth.

Your affection for your father, George, was made clear, and I got a little teary reading your account of his death. Your relationship with your mother, Elizabeth, was more complicated and ambivalent. It wasn’t her death scene that made me ache for her; it was your description of when you brought her to spend the night at your home after your father’s death, and “she suffered one of the worst, if not the worst, indignities of old age: loss of bowel control. … My poor, poor mother!” That’s the scene that choked me up. How hard was that to write?

That was kind of hard, because it was so awful, so humiliating for her. But I hate how the topic of getting really old is not really talked about — the loss of body control, etc. It’s totally glossed over.

If I believed TV commercials, we’re all going to be playing tennis and eating tasty, healthy gourmet meals until we’re 115. Then we’ll die quietly and non-messily in our sleep, at exactly the same moment as our partner, if we have one.

A new children’s book that you wrote and drew, Around the Clock, was just published on Jan. 13. Have you ever been inspired by special things you drew or wrote for your own two kids, or by things your kids have said to you?

I do get inspired by things my kids have done or said. Usually it’s tangential, but occasionally it’s very direct.

When my daughter was around 16, she was doing homework in the living room while listening to some hip-hop music. I came into the room and did a little lame Mom dance, just to tease her. You know, when you sort of shuffle and wave your arms a little, and slightly move your hips in a Mom way? She looked up and said quite seriously: “Mom. Stop. You’re hurting me.” Which cracked me up. I used that line as-is.

How often are you able to rework a rejected cartoon and get it accepted? And: Is cartoon editor Bob Mankoff an easier or a tougher sell than his predecessor, Lee Lorenz?

I rework maybe one out of 10 cartoons. Sometimes I have to rework them three or four times, which I don’t mind if I really love the idea. After that point, I give up. As to who’s a tougher sell: both about the same.

What is your favorite Charles Addams cartoon?

There are SO MANY great Addams cartoons. The one where the Addams family is on the roof, dumping a cauldron of boiling oil on the carolers below, is pretty sweet.

Your dad is quoted in Can’t We Talk as saying: “No one could deny that religion caused a lot of problems in the world. Fanatics want to kill people who aren’t on their team!” How do you feel about the fact that cartoonists have taken center stage in the conversation on global terrorism?

My dad was right.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


Plan your life

Roz Chast will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 28, at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., as part of Arts & Letters Live. Reception at 6:30 with the author for Annual Series Supporters. Tickets $35 for public, $30 for DMA Partners and $15 for students. DMA.org/tickets or 214-922-1818.

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