Roz Chast: Graphic novelist's dream come true

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday October 24, 2023
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comic artist and graphic novelist Roz Chast (photo: Bill Hayes)
comic artist and graphic novelist Roz Chast (photo: Bill Hayes)

Award-winning cartoonist and graphic novelist Roz Chast has a knack for putting a smile on people's faces in record time. Her cartoons in The New Yorker, which have been delighting readers of the magazine for 45 years, are as distinctive as they are memorable.

Her numerous books, including 2014's National Book Critics Circle Award and Kirkus Prize-winning "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" should be on everyone's bookshelves, if they aren't already.

Chast's new book, the wonderful "I Must Be Dreaming" (Bloomsbury, 2023), is as dreamy as the title suggests. Dedicated "to the Dream District of our brains," Chast shares her own dreams — recurring, lucid, cartoon-idea, and body horror, among others — giving us plenty to ponder, and often, laugh about. Roz generously made time for an interview about the book. Roz Chast will be at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco on Nov. 2.

A comic panel from Roz Chast's "I Must Be Dreaming" (courtesy: Bloomsbury)  

Gregg Shapiro: In the introduction to your new book, "I Must Be Dreaming," you write, "According to many people, dreams as a conversational topic should be avoided, along with aches and pains. Only shrinks are interested, and maybe not even them."
Roz Chast: I've never felt that way. I think dreams are interesting. Telling people your dreams, as it is with any kind of thing that people talk about endlessly as if somebody's monologuing, then it's very boring. But dreams, as a topic, I think are very interesting and I always have felt that way.

How much did the pandemic affect your dreams, if at all?
I think there are certain aspects of the pandemic, especially the pre-vaccination part, that are a little bit blurry. Maybe it's because it creeps me out so much to think about it. I had pandemic dreams, for sure, where I would be walking into a store and I would be the only person not wearing a mask or I would be wearing a mask, but nobody else would be wearing one. Stuff like that. Things that had never really come up in my life before.

How much, if any, of "I Must Be Dreaming," was written during the pandemic?
I started making cartoons about the dreams before the pandemic. Then I just continued to do it. I kept a dream journal, and I picked out my favorite ones. Some of it was during the pandemic and some of it... I mean, the end of the pandemic... when did it actually end? Did it end when we got vaccinated? Did it end in 2022? I got COVID in 2022, but it was very mild. It was the omicron variant, I think. But there are still people who are getting it. There was an uptick recently. We know when it started, but when did it really end? It hasn't really ended.

As opposed to just becoming something like the flu that we're going to have to live with every year and get vaccinated.

With all the quotes in the book, as well as the "recommended reading" list at the end of the book, would you say that this is one of your most researched projects?
Yeah! I mean I don't tend to do that kind of writing, but this was something I was interested in and I wanted to see what other people, other cultures, other eras, made of dreams. Dreaming has been part of human life since the beginning. Maybe our predecessors, maybe apes and gorillas, maybe they dream, too. I have no idea. I don't know if anybody does. But I know people who say their dogs dream.

Oh, yes, my dog definitely dreams. She's vocal and she runs in her dreams.
I've heard that! That dogs will vocalize, and their little legs do this running thing. [Laughs] It's really weird. I got curious about what different people made of this very strange and yet very extremely common everyday experience. I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I'm gonna write a whole book about Freud or something like that. But a kind of overview; that's what I wanted to do.

A comic panel from Roz Chast's "I Must Be Dreaming" (courtesy: Bloomsbury)  

Have you told any of the famous people, including Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Chris Rock, or Wallace Shawn, that you dreamed about them and that they're in your book?
No [big laugh]! I don't know why! And that's the other thing that's so weird. The Danny DeVito dream! I think he's really funny, but I don't think about him during my waking hours. It's so funny to me, the people who pop up in your dreams. Freud talks about something that I think I mentioned in the book, called "day residue," where it's possible that maybe I was watching TV and somebody mentioned Danny DeVito and that came up in a dream. But, as far as I know, consciously I have no idea why. Or (the dream about) Elizabeth Taylor and her stove. To me, that's part of the charm of dreams.

I'm glad you mentioned watching TV, because additional aspects of pop culture pop up in the dreams in the book, including mentions of the "Flintstones," "Ted Lasso," and Morticia Adams.
I think part of it, as a cartoonist, and for whatever reason, just personally I'm interested in pop culture. I've always been interested in it. Sometimes I think about the way that Mad Magazine was interested in it. Pop culture was so funny and so pitch for writing about or drawing about. Sometimes I'm shocked and dismayed at how much of my memory is taken up with theme songs from "Green Acres" or something. [Laughs] I don't remember a conversation I had with somebody two weeks ago, but I can sing the "Green Acres" theme song. It's sort of disturbing.

In the "Recurring Dreams" section, there is a dream about a Manhattan neighborhood with a beach. Later, in the "Everyday Dreams" section, there is a dream about a Manhattan Sahara Desert with conch shells. What do you think is the significance of the sand dreams?
That I don't know. But I do know there's something about New York where, aside from the beaches in Brooklyn, you almost never get down to the water. A couple of times, maybe a year ago, I was in this part of Queens, I think it was Socrates Park or something, it was near the Noguchi Museum.

There was this weird mini beach where you could actually get down to the water. There was something very dreamlike about it. It wasn't like an official beach. When you think about Manhattan, the idea of actually being able to — I'm not saying anybody would want to wade into the Hudson — but there's something, to me, very dreamy about just that in itself.

I'm originally from Chicago where there's this massive city and then you have beachfront running almost the entire length from north to south. There's the beach, with the city behind it, and the lake, which you can walk or swim in, right before you.
Yeah, it's very weird. I love it, but it's definitely a strange feeling.

The "Disaster Dream" section opens with the World Trade Center being bombed again, "this time by New York City-hating Trump fanatics." Did the events of 9/11 or January 6 become part of your dreams and nightmares after they happened?
Less the January 6, but I'm sure with the World Trade Centers, yes. I think because the plane flying into a building is a very dreamlike image. There are certain things that happened in life that are like, this can't be real, this is a dream image. I've definitely had plane-crashing dreams. I think a lot of people do. Usually, I'm on the ground and I see a plane in the sky just fall out of the sky and crash to the ground. I don't know what the equivalent was before air travel. Maybe because a plane in the sky is a very dreamlike thing to begin with.

In addition to the blurb from Alison Bechdel, "I Must Be Dreaming" features lesbian representation in the form of Nan Goldin and Fran Lebowitz. You also collaborated with queer musician Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields) on the 2014 book "101 Two-Letter Words." Because this interview is for the LGBTQ media, would you mind saying a few words about the role these people play in your life?
It actually plays a very large role in my life. I have a kid who is trans. I don't even have words for how grateful I am. I mean, I've always felt grateful for him. Born as my daughter, cisgender female, I guess, and he told me when he was about 19 that he was trans. I'd always had a lot of gay friends. I didn't know exactly what that meant or what it was.

He's now 32 and is just the most wonderful person, and always has been. I feel like I've learned so much from him. I can't generalize because I know that with everything it's so individual. What somebody feels about being trans might be very different from somebody else.

I'm wary of making any kind of generalizations, but I've always questioned a lot of ideas about gender, since I was a kid. I think, partly, because in my family, my mother was an assistant principal. She was like such a bossy boots and she ran the show and my father and I were kind of afraid of her [laughs] in a lot of ways.

Of course, my father worshipped the ground she walked on. He was a French teacher, and he was just a gentler sort of person. I bonded more with him as this non-confrontational sort of person. She chose a different way to be female. I didn't think it meant that she wanted to be a man. She wanted the freedom to be a person.

The idea of being this passive sort of person, who didn't want to do anything else except be a wife and mother — which is perfectly fine if that's what you want to do — never even crossed my mind. I wanted to be a cartoonist. I never thought, "I'm a woman. I can't possibly be a cartoonist." I never, not for a second, thought that way. It makes a lot of sense to me, and it always has, that people should be able to be who they want to be.

"I Must Be Dreaming" by Roz Chast, Bloomsbury Press, $25 hardback, $19.50 ebook

City Arts and Lectures hosts Roz Chast at the Sydney Goldstein Theater, Nov. 2, 7:30pm. 275 Hayes St. $49.

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