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Backing into Jules Feiffer: An Exclusive Q&A

[JF continued] And he called back immediately sputtering an apology and said, "You do the book, I'll give it to you, I don't care," and I said, "No, you write your book, I'll write mine. My book will be better than yours." So having made that boast/threat, I had to come up with an idea. His idea was a kid who loved movies. I loved old movies; what else did I love as a kid? Well there was old-time radio, but who's going to read a book about a kid listening to old-time radio? And then there was comics. Comic books, the idea I came to last. So I was going to do a book about a kid who loved comic books, which then, duh, turns into a book about a kid who wants to draw his own comic books. So it worked its way, but slowly, and not revealing itself until the final moment that it was a book about me writing comics and drawing comics in disguise; dark hair instead of blond hair; living in New Jersey instead of The Bronx, different parents, more or less, than my parents. The father is different; the mother has the same profession as mine, a fashion designer…. And once I started writing it and finding a voice to write it in, which took some time; at the beginning it was very coy, and cutesy, and I had to get rid of that. Once I learned how to do it, it was like becoming a playwright for the first time, or earlier, becoming a cartoonist. I never enjoyed myself as much. That's how I learned what these forms are that in a sense find me instead of me finding them, and they all come out of my childhood. … The dancer drawings I do, well, Fred Astaire was life and death to me when I was a kid.

[My 2003 play A Bad Friend is] all fictionalized, but it's a memoir of a time. It's based on my sister, the Communist, but she's somewhat different, and the protagonist in the play, the one she's fighting with over politics mostly, is me in drag. It's her 17-year-old, high-school-senior daughter, but it's based on those arguments we had back and forth and those political times. And it's also based on something else, which was that at the height of the Cold War in the '50s, I was living in Brooklyn Heights with other artists – [political caricaturist] David Levine, [painter] Burt[on] Silverman and others – and we got to know him because he started hanging out with us, this old man in his 50s who liked to hang out with kids. He seemed rather strange but was very pleasant and friendly and his name was Emil Goldfus [better known as Rudolph Abel, who was] later was arrested as the leading Russian [i.e. Soviet] spy in the United States, the biggest spy we ever caught. I knew that I had to tell that story someday so I put him in the play. And he's in the book too.

DF: In 2008, Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips (1956-1966) came out.

JF: Fantagraphics put out the first 10 years of the Voice strips chronologically. A beautifully designed and produced book; I'm very proud of it. And with a nice introduction by [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary Groth. They just forgot to market it; something they don't know a lot about. It was a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review and [Fantagraphics] didn't think that was a big deal.

Audience question:
How have you managed to keep the past with you all these years? In writing this memoir, in fact in writing all the things you've written about your past, are there any triggers you use to kind of sum it up?

JF: The trigger is the act of writing itself. I write in longhand – I never learned to type – and as I'm writing one thing, not thinking I remember very much at all about anything, suddenly something else having nothing to do with it pops up and I quickly make a note of it. But just one or two words, because I've got it; it comes back whole. And then I go on and other things pop up which I didn't know I remembered. I worried at the very beginning that this was going to be a very thin book and by the end of it I had to shut up because I remembered too much. As I say at the end, I left out the Lenny Bruce trial where I testified as an expert witness on humor, and I went to Cuba in the mid '60s at the height of the Cuban Revolution, and there were other things that I can't think of right now that didn't get into the book. I was telling a story and the story was about me but it was also more about a career that dealt with rejection and failure and me not paying attention to that and moving on. And these other things, while entertaining, and interesting, and fun, would take away from the momentum that I wanted to create.

Audience member: The Times reviewer characterized [Backing into Forward] as a prequel to Patti Smith's memoir about Robert Mapplethorpe. I was wondering how you feel about your role in the continuous culture of New York in the 20th century.

JF: I don't think about my role. I'm told about my role but I leave it to others to judge. Mainly I just wanted to do my work, and I know what's said about me, [but] it never connected viscerally.

I love that people think these things, I'm not going to deny it, but it doesn't have very much to do with how I get up in the morning and do my work and deal with my family life and teach. That's pretty much what it was for the last 50 years. That doesn't change; there's still nothing in the house and I have to go shopping today.

DF: There are stores that will deliver stuff.

JF: No, I don't like that. I like being in a store. On the Vineyard you go shopping and you see these cars with the motors running and the husbands are in the cars staring into space and they're listening to music. And they will stare for a half hour while the wife is inside doing the shopping. And I thought, what is this numbing existence, preferring to sit in the car staring into space because it's somehow unmanly to squeeze a piece of fruit?

Audience question: I'd love to hear you talk about the dancer [who frequently appeared in Feiffer], who was a role model for so many of us who were in our late teens.

JF: I talk about it in the book. The first dancer was based on a modern dancer living in [Greenwich] Village, of course, who I give a different name to, and she was beautiful and sexy. And I had my first apartment on 521 E. 5th Street, I still remember, five blocks from Tompkins Square, between Avenues A and B [in the East Village], and she came home with me shortly after I had an apartment and slept with me. The first 19-year-old, or any-year-old, to ever sleep with me overnight, and of course she had to be memorable. I mean, how could you forget that? And my early dancers were built like her and as I went on to other girlfriends the dancer's shape changed.

Audience question: If you were to do Tantrum now, how would it be different from the middle-aged man who turned into a two-year-old?

JF: I wouldn't do that [book] now. There was a screening at the Museum of Modern Art, they were honoring Mike Nichols, and they had a screening of [Carnal Knowledge] and of course I was there and I saw the movie, and I felt very distant from it. I mean it still worked, the audience loved it, but I said to Mike afterward, "I could never write that now; I'm not that guy," and he said, "I couldn't direct it." The work you do is determined by who and what you are at that particular time. I no longer am acquainted with the writer of Carnal Knowledge, and I'm maybe a little more acquainted with the writer of Tantrum because that's a child in us that's always trying to get out. But I would never dream of basing a full book on it. It wouldn't occur to me; I wouldn't see it as material today.

Interview transcription by Allie Finkel.

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