Transcript from an interview with Jules & Kate Feiffer

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Kate and Jules Feiffer. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Kate and Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer: I'm Jules Feiffer. I'm a cartoonist. I'm an author. I'm an illustrator. And more than anything else, I'm a father to Kate Feiffer over here.

Kate Feiffer: And I'm Kate Feiffer, daughter of Jules Feiffer and author of picture books and chapter books for children.

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Life's work

Jules Feiffer: The least pleasure I've had in my work was when I was starting out and actually making money for clients and doing advertising and making corrections and doing this and doing that. And every time I'd take a piece of work in, they'd change it completely. And after about a year or so of this, I found my waking up with a stomachache every day with the notion that I had to do some cartooning today. And I said, "This is insane." All my life I've wanted to be a cartoonist because it was what I loved and now I hate it because of what I'm assigned to do.

And then I began to think I have to reclaim my image or credentials. I can't be a professional in this business. I just have to have a good time. And if I can't have a good time, I just won't do it. So the answer to what I like most is what I'm playing at at the moment and it's all become over the years increasingly childlike as a form of play to me. I just play at... I mean it's hard play and it's difficult play and it's play of failure often. But I know it's going to work out when I fail.

Because it's the game I'm doing. And it's a game I'm having with myself and hopefully with readers and viewers and whoever the end result will be aimed at. But all of it I love. And all of it I love as I'm doing it.

Jules Feiffer: I think what has to be stated and overstated is it's quite lucky when you end up doing work that you love and that is also challenging. And that has more than its share of frustration and failure and yet it feeds you. And then there's the feedback, the appreciation of the people who respond to it, which is incalculable and, you know, and life-sustaining.

I mean it's wonderful to do work which turns out by the evidence of all this and testimony of others to be appreciated and valuable and to be remembered. It doesn't get better than that.

Kate Feiffer: It's also pretty great to be in a room reading to a group of kids and hearing uproarious laughter. I mean that's not bad. That type of appreciation goes pretty far. So that's...

Jules Feiffer: There are worse ways to almost make a living.

Jules Feiffer: And one of the great joys is, you know, having done this on my own or with, you know, a few others who were friends or who turned out to be friends afterwards, to collaborating with my daughter, Kate, has turned out to be such a joy and such a surprise.

Kate Feiffer: It's been a great gift.

Jules Feiffer: Because who expected it? And as she said, it's a special relationship because we are so geared toward each other and very little has to be said and very little has to be consulted about except we're always consulting with each other in, you know, whether we're talking directly or not because my job is to service her machine. I mean that this is her book and I am there to supplement it and make it work to the best way I know how.

And that means to get inside the characters and get inside the ideas and to make the reader see that all of this is one rather than pictures and text as I've said before.

Kate Feiffer: And it's a great gift for me to see the words come to life drawn by him. So you know they're going to be beautiful. As I said, I visualize my books, even the ones that he does, while I'm writing them. Yet what he comes up with is different and even better than I self-visualized. And it's been... I feel very lucky. It's been extraordinary to be able to do these.

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Jules Feiffer: Well, I'm truly, in terms of my work, a creature of the times I live in, the culture I live in, the politics I live in. A child of the Depression. A child of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and fervent anti-Semitism in the United States at the same time.

And the first generation Jewish boys through it all wanting not really to be Jewish so much as to be like them; the very people who didn't like them. You know, wanting to be big and blonde and muscular and out of that the Superman fantasy came written by two nerdy Jewish boys. And wanting to assimilate, wanting to be part of that game and part of that show. And the American comic strip was very much culturally a big deal and part of that show in the 1930s and 1940s. And, of course, that was what I was passionate about and wanted to throw myself into.

This was a form at the time that a lot of young Jewish kids fell in love with and saw as their way into the deal, into the American collective where you would go from nowhere. From rags to riches and be celebrated and be loved and make a lot of money. And most importantly for young nerdy Jewish boys, meet girls who would otherwise never look at you.

Jules Feiffer: I don't think comics... The genre of comic strip barely exists any more. And God knows that 82 going on 83 I can hardly speak for a younger generation. But if comics at all have a reality for any young people, it's the alternative comics that come out as graphic novels in some cases, which expands the imagination and expands the use of the confessional sometimes to a sorry extent and other times quite beautifully.

But it's a whole different form. But it's no way any longer from rags to riches because nobody makes money at it. You know, the amount of work put into these graphic novels. And I'm working on one right now. It takes forever to get it all done and the financial results are, you know, barely enough to keep you above the poverty level. But it's still a work of love and that's what these people are in it for.

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Sleight of hand

Jules Feiffer: It's storytelling, it's all storytelling. And though it's pictures and the pictures are, you know, essential, without a story being behind the pictures, which meaning relationships and what people say that they mean and what people say that they don't mean and how to get both across. That's what makes it all interesting. And that's what makes it all exciting to try to figure out ways of getting across to an audience, to readers subtly what is going on to a point where they may not even be aware of what you're doing.

I've always thought of what I do as a form, a magic act, sleight of hand. You know, I'm busy doing my work over here in the corner, doing this over there, and if I'm lucky, you will never be aware of it. You will just be aware of the effect.

Kate Feiffer: Also in terms of growing up with a visual background, I mean that was my professional life, but just growing up the daughter of a cartoonist and having that as my foundation and having my father always at the drawing table drawing and me often on his lap as a young child drawing, I think that probably lent a lot to the fact that I think very visually. I mean how could I not?

Jules Feiffer: Going back to that, when she was young, she would sit on my lap and we would do a comic strip together where I would do a panel and write the dialogue and then she would draw a panel and dictate the dialogue to me and I would write her dialogue and we'd go, you know, alternate panels.

Kate Feiffer: And that was fun.

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Writing for children

Jules Feiffer: I initially found the idea of ever doing children's books ridiculous. After illustrating The Phantom Toll Booth, which was 50 years ago, I never thought I would do another one. It's not what I did. Norton Juster happened to be my roommate. We were friends. It was a logical outgrowth of that relationship. This was the 1950s. It was the middle, the early '60s, the middle of the Cold War years. And my passionate aim was overthrowing the government through satire, which is not easy to do, but I thought I was up to it.

And I didn't want... The notion of writing for children didn't seem to make any sense to me. I didn't have children. I didn't particularly like children. And then what happened is that I fell in love with her mother and she came along and then two other children came along. And what happens is that your lack of interest and lack of caring about children switches like that.

And suddenly it was as much fun as anything I could imagine. And thinking about kids and why they were different from us and how they were the same and what they liked and what they didn't like and trying to figure out their thought process, which is impossible. All of it became of interest to me when 20 years earlier it seemed deadly dull.

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Opening lines

Jules Feiffer: The books for children like the cartoons seem to start out as most of what I do with an opening sentence the way improvisational actors do. There's an opening like and often you don't know where that line comes from. And you probably do it the same way. Where something comes out of your mouth except it's not out of your mouth because it's written down. But it's the same thing.

And it's down there and then you have to follow it up with something. And just as on stage one actor follows with another and they go back and forth, here you are — both actors — and you go back and forth with yourself. And if you're lucky, it develops into something and you get on a role and you're going.

Kate Feiffer: That's the best part, the opening line. I mean that's the most fun when you have the great opening line and then what comes after it, and then what comes after it. And that's usually then when I get stuck.

Jules Feiffer: But in a sense it gets best when you stop writing it, when it's writing you. When it takes over whatever this process is.

Kate Feiffer: But don't you find that it usually comes to you, that it starts without you and then somewhere along the line you interject yourself and that's when it gets challenging before the story takes over again if it does.

Jules Feiffer: And when it's in your head, it's least likely to work. It's when it's simply telling — challenging you and moving you and in the sense you're taking dictation from whatever it is that is making you do this. And then there's the process where you do use this, which is the editing, the cleaning it up, and the making it work.

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An insatiable devotion to pink, and other real-life stories

Kate Feiffer: I don't seem to leave home for my ideas. I mean honestly, my first book, which was called Double Pink, was inspired by my daughter and her insatiable devotion to this color pink, which came seemingly out of nowhere 'cause I was one of those gender neutral parents who if anything erred on the side of blue and green. And she had no pink in her life until she self-discovered it and then became quite passionate about it. So my ideas stem from...

Jules Feiffer: To this day.

Kate Feiffer: To this day at the age of 13 she still loves this color, you know.

Jules Feiffer: At 50 you can... It might seem a little cute by then, but...

Kate Feiffer: So I'm really inspired by what seems to be around me. And my second book, Henry, the Dog with No Tail, I have a dog. His name's Henry. He has no tail. It's thinking about what's going on around me and what's... It grows from that and from my thoughts around... Is this color going to consume our lives? What will happen when pink takes over our lives? So that tends to be where my starting point...

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Bark, George

Jules Feiffer: It was the same thing that was true of the most successful of the books that I've written, Bark, George. That Bark, George was a bedtime story for my daughter, Julie, when she was about two years old. And as I lay on the bottom cot or on the bottom part of the bed, the loft bed.

Kate Feiffer: The bunk bed.

Jules Feiffer: Bunk. Thank you. You're a writer.

Kate Feiffer: What can I say?

Jules Feiffer: I just improvised the story. I didn't know where it was going. And as it came to me, I realized this was a kids' book and a good one and so I made notes on it. But once I had the notes, I realized that there was no pictures here. It was just about a dog saying meow and a dog saying quack and a dog saying oink. But there was no visual interest anywhere. It was really a radio show. So the challenge was how do I make this work? How do I play this? And I remember going back to the great comic strip, Pogo. And Walt Kelly had a character called Hound Dog in it.

And Hound Dog was wonderful because of his overacting and his emoting and all that. And then I thought, well, the book is really the mother's book. That it's a book of reaction. That we have to see, for the reader we have to see how the mother responds to George's going meow and doing all of these things, which on his part are very passive. So she has to be the drama here. And her overacting gets us through the earlier stages of the book until we get to the second part, which is the vet, who does his own overacting. And then we're on our way.

So you have to figure out what the problems are and after you oy vey a while, you have to figure out a solution. And it's always there somewhere.

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Family stories

Jules Feiffer: I did a book about Maddie, my granddaughter.

Kate Feiffer: My daughter.

Jules Feiffer: They happen to have a relationship as mother and... And it was based on an incident I saw when we were on a family vacation where Maddie was in the swimming pool. She was a baby. She was about two. — with her father, who's a big, muscular guy. I mean he's immense and she was nothing. And she was ordering him around in the pool telling him where to stand in order to climb him, you know. And he put out his hand. And she's spending this time climbing him but giving him instructions all the time.

And I thought as I sat there watching them grinning from ear to ear that this is a book. And it became a book called The Daddy Mountain, which is a how-to-climb-your-father book. And with Maddie as the character and Chris, her husband, comes in at the end and you see him. But when I went home and showed the color proof, the first color proofs to my family, there was Julie, who looked at the book very grimly, and she said...

Kate Feiffer: His youngest daughter.

Jules Feiffer: Julie is my adopted daughter and what is she? How many years older is she?

Kate Feiffer: Than Maddie? She's three and a half years older than my daughter.

Jules Feiffer: And she was just very quiet through the whole thing and she said finally, "You did a book about her before you did a book about me." So after the knife was taken out, I said to her... Well, really immediately, "Julie, I apologize and the next book I do will be about you." And I had begun work on the memoir, which I stopped. And the next day I said, "I don't have any ideas for a book. Do you have any ideas?" And she said...

Julie loved animals and she had some pets and she was after me to get a dog, which I refused to do because I knew who would take care of that dog. And she said, "How about a girl with a zoo in her room?" Now, if she had said, "How about a girl who loves pets?" it would have gone nowhere. But a zoo in her room. There was the whole book. And the book from the beginning was going to be called A Room with a Zoo. And I thought of it as a picture book and I'd write it in two or three days.

And it would be fun to draw. And as I started writing it, I decided it should be written in Julie's voice. So I started it in the first person. And Julie's voice said to me after the first hour saying, "I'm sorry, but this is going to be a novel because I talk too much."

Kate Feiffer: Goes on as an idea that could have been a picture book. It could have been a very cute picture book.

Jules Feiffer: But once I put it in the first person in her voice, that dictated what the book had to be and that's what it was. And I had as much fun working on it as I ever did on anything trying to sound like her and bring our family into it, including Kate and Maddie and Chris.

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Kate Feiffer: I think we have very similar sensibilities. So it's been a very easy working relationship. It's been... We've never had a fight over any of the — over anything we've done in any of the books. There's never been a disagreement about... I mean he's given me suggestions on the text, which I either take or don't. And don't tell him if I don't.

And with the illustrations, for the first two books we did together, he was on Martha's Vineyard where I live when he did them and I would come over and see them pretty much every day. And it was great to see the book evolve day by day. And for this book, My Side of the Car and our new book, which comes out in March, he... I did not see those. I did not see those illustrations as they — as he did them. And it was a thrill to see them. But it's been a very easy working relationship. We haven't had any disagreements at all until now.

Jules Feiffer: I found My Side of the Car a difficult book to do in the style I drew it in. I'd never done a book quite like that with pencil and colored washes. Halfway through I thought it was the wrong style and I thought the book was not going to work. I thought I was quite scared that the illustrations were going to be neither this way or that way and thought they'd be acceptable I knew, but would they really be good? And I had no idea how well the book worked until I got the first color proofs and I was astonished.

It looked like the work of someone else. I mean, that it was so different from my fears and my apprehensions that I couldn't imagine what had happened to these drawings since I had screwed them up.

Kate Feiffer: But they were very much your drawings.

Jules Feiffer: Yes.

Kate Feiffer: Very clearly yours. But it's been great. We did a book called Which Puppy together, which had — the illustrations had to be done in less than three weeks. And he came up to Martha's Vineyard to do those illustrations.

Jules Feiffer: In January.

Kate Feiffer: In January and stayed in his summer house, which is not really heated.

Jules Feiffer: Barely heated.

Kate Feiffer: And bundled up in sweaters and blankets and hats he cranked out this gorgeous book.

Jules Feiffer: While I had the oven on the way that we used to live during the Depression to heat up the house. So it brought back the good old days.

Kate Feiffer: Yes. And I would come over on the pretense to see the illustrations but really just making sure that...

Jules Feiffer: That I was alive.

Kate Feiffer: ...he didn't have carbon monoxide poisoning. Yes.

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Visualizing the story

Jules Feiffer: It's stage but may even be more movies because in a way, these picture books are storyboards. And before you do the book, you take the text whether it's by me or by Kate or someone else I'm working with. And it's words on paper. And it's my job to break it down into pages where on each page there's some text and an illustration and decide what tells the best story.

What, you know, what pushes the story forward? What creates the most momentum? Where does it have to pause? Where are the stops? Where are the... Where does it build up again? Where do you want the reader to go fast? When do you want the reader to go slow? So this immense... As I say, like a film director. You spend a lot of time before you even worry about what the drawing is going to look like finished. You've got a little rough scribble of what it should be as a layout. But after that you try to think what helps the story. And something can be really a great drawing, if it doesn't help the story, it has to go out.

Kate Feiffer: And for me as a writer, I have a background as a television news producer where you write to the picture. And I think that influenced my style a lot because when I write children's books, I am writing to the picture. I'm visualizing the book as I write it. Obviously it's in my style of drawing, which is different than it will look, but I'm writing as I'm seeing it. And in a certain way, the pictures that I'm visualizing are leading the story and I think that comes from this television background.

Jules Feiffer: And in My Side of the Car when Kate first showed me the book, the text, I thought it was wonderful. I loved it. It was clear that I had to do it. But the question was how do you do a book that takes place inside a car? You know, where... Where are the pictures going to be? And there's always... There were two things that happen with that sort of challenge. It's both daunting and frightening and it's also something that quite excites you because you know that there's got to be an answer here and you just have to figure it out and it will lead to something very exciting.

Kate Feiffer: I'm always surprised when you say this, when you tell the story because I totally visualized it while I was writing it.

Jules Feiffer: So why didn't you illustrate your own book?

Kate Feiffer: 'Cause I have you around.

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Counterpoint and collaboration

Jules Feiffer: I'm not sure I think ever in terms of dissidence, but I do think in terms of subtext. After all, almost everything I learned about writing a play came out of reading Chekhov over and over and over again where the things on the surface or the things that are there hide something that else is going on. And the fun, the great fun, is in the counterpoint between what the text has to say and the illustration which comments on it or elucidates.

If it just literally executes the words, it's less fun. It doesn't mean that it can't work. But it lacks the kind of life... For a page to have energy, there has to be a dance between the text and the art.

Kate Feiffer: They need to be woven together. You can't imagine... A successful children's book, picture book, is when you can't imagine different — a set of different pictures with these words. When the art is so integral to the words that they seem like there were, you know, born together. And I think that's the sign of a truly successful children's book when they just blend as one.

Jules Feiffer: There are two narratives going on in the story, but the narratives cannot be in combat with each other. There are too many gorgeously illustrated children's books, which when you look at them, you see that the art is its own excuse for being. That the illustrator really had no particular interest in the text except in showing off how good I am. And 'look at this! Doesn't this wow you?' And as good as that art is, it's boring.

And it's essentially a failure. There has to be a collaboration between what you read and what you see and the two of them. And I know this in particular because my background is comic strips. It's words and pictures. The words and pictures. The dialogue in the comic strips or the text in a children's book and the drawing that accompanies it make one thing so that as a reader, whether you're a kid or a grownup, your mind doesn't separate one from the other. They blend together and you can't think of them separately.

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Imagining Milo

Jules Feiffer: I think in Milo's case the drawing of Milo in The Phantom Toll Booth, I think because Milo was the lead character and around everything it all revolves, I think he was the easiest to do. He was the centerpiece and he was in a sense the middleman, the emcee for all of the insanity that takes place in the book. So that every other character was more complicated and demanded more thought.

But Milo in a sense was a little more than Ed Sullivan pointing to all of the people. You know, while the book was happening around him and about him and about his thought processes, what was really interesting was the results of his imagining all of these things going on. And so the Humbug was a lot more difficult to come up with, and Tock the dog, and the various witches and the various this or that.

But when I recently was on a panel with Norton about the book and I looked at the drawings and began to wonder for the first time in years why I decided to put Milo in a black t-shirt, you know, or a sweater instead of just an ordinary shirt. I think I just wanted to spice up the page with black and have an excuse for it.

But I don't... I mean it seemed an unlikely form of dress for him, for a kid who's that uncertain about everything. And I didn't know why I did that. And I'm not sure I would do that again, but it worked.

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Playing favorites

Jules Feiffer: I have a particular love for The Man in the Ceiling as a novel. I also love A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears, which was another, a novel. And I think maybe my secret favorite, not so secret, is among the picture books because it didn't sell a lot well and I thought it was one of the most profound is By the Side of the Road about a father who throws his kid out of the car because he's making a fuss.

And he says if you don't learn your lesson, you're going to have to stay by the side of the road. And he never learns his lesson and spends the rest of his life by the side of the road. How can you not love a book like that? How can that not be a favorite?

Kate Feiffer: And it's kind of got a cult following.

Jules Feiffer: Yes.

Kate Feiffer: People who have it and know it really, really love it. Like I've seen people come up to him at book signings with like, "Would you sign By the Side of the Road please?" And so it has a cult following.

Jules Feiffer: It's a noir children's book.

Kate Feiffer: But I imagine parents probably had some issues with it. I can imagine some...

Jules Feiffer: Parents?

Kate Feiffer: But was that sort of your memoir before your memoir? Was that sort of what you...

Jules Feiffer: Well, you know, it's about the upending authority in the home. You know, where the...

Kate Feiffer: Or just wishful thinking? If only they had left me on the side of the road.

Jules Feiffer: And authority and who's got control. Of course, the underground message in so much of my work and maybe all of my work.

Jules Feiffer: I have a favorite of hers that I've illustrated. Because I was the wrong illustrator for it and it turned out... And I was very worried because I so loved the text, which she did not, that I didn't want to screw it up. When I was looking through some old work of mine, I found a typed manuscript, which... And I don't type so I knew it had to be Kate or no one else. And it was an early story she wrote before she was writing children's books.

And it was about a baby who would refuse to go to sleep. And I didn't remember reading it. I vaguely remembered something about it. But I thought it was absolutely charming and workable and I didn't say a word to Kate about it, but I worked it into a 32-page dummy, you know, rough book. I mailed it to her with her manuscript, and she was astonished. She had forgotten it too. On the basis of that we sent it to her editor at Simon and Schuster, Paula Wiseman, who loved it.

And I said to Paula, "This is not... This is too sweet and innocent a book for someone as mean and nasty for me to do. So if you really think somebody else should do it, I'm not going to feel bad about it." But she asked me to do it and I did it and because it's so counter to my normal approach, I think it's my favorite of all the books I've done with you.

And I love the way it turned out because it's so... I try to put myself in a Goodnight Moon state of mind because her text reminded me so

"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." — Walt Disney