Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jules Feiffer on His Groundbreaking Cartoons and Eclectic Career

In 1956, a young cartoonist named Jules Feiffer started publishing a nine-panel cartoon in the Village Voice, a new alternative weekly in Manhattan. The strip was like a bomb thrown into the world of dating angst and the perpetual conflict between men and women, and quickly took off, being published nationally in 100 newspapers, including the Star-Ledger. In his original cartoons, Feiffer attacked the U.S. government on nuclear testing and was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War when most Americans didn’t know where Vietnam was.

In his witty and quick-moving memoir “Backing into Forward”(Doubleday, $30), Feiffer covers his unhappy childhood in the Bronx with an overbearing mother and a weak father, his four-year apprenticeship with cartoon legend Will Eisner and his two horrible years in the Army. Arriving in New York’s bohemian Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, Feiffer hit the pulse of neurotic dating and with the Voice wrote searing cartoons about racism and the civil right movement, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon and the buffoonish ticks of Ronald Reagan. Along the way, Feiffer became a storied playwright, screenwriter and children's book author.

Feiffer, 81, won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon work, wrote the screenplay for “Carnal Knowledge” and illustrated such classics as “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Feiffer met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at his home in Manhattan.

Q. After six decades of acclaim as a cartoonist, why did you decide to write your memoir?

A. My friend Howard Kaminsky and I would get together every few months. He kept saying to me, “That’s a good story. You should write a memoir.” He and my wife finally ganged up on me. It was a formidable task, taking four or five years. I usually don’t like to talk about myself unless it is 2 a.m. and I’ve had too much to drink. I thought I could use my own failures as a hook. Will Eisner told me I had no drawing talent, but then he let me write the stories, which I could do. There is so much advice being given to children all the time. Three-quarters of it is well-intentioned bull. I used myself as an example, how you can work through conflicting advice and make a life for yourself.

Q. Why do you think your cartoons on sex, nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War had such an explosive effect on American society?

A. When I looked at “The Explainers,” my collection of the first 10 years of cartoons, I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about. What made this such a breakthrough? It was undeniable that there so much excitement about the boy-girl cartoons about sex and the later material about politics. People would stop me on the street and say, “How do you get away with this?” On the other hand, I look at my civil rights cartoons from the 1960s, and they seem to be as dangerous as they ever were. We still haven’t solved the problem of race in America. Race is still the hot-button issue.

Q. Your 1971 movie “Carnal Knowledge,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring Candace Bergen and Jack Nicholson, was a devastating look at American relationships and male misogyny. How did it evolve?

A. I was working at Playboy and saw the behavior of men there who were jerks around women. I heard and observed things. I formed this theory that many heterosexual men don’t like women. Women want companionship with men and exchanges with them, while men only want sex and bragging rights.

Q. In your memoir, you say you were assaulting “the state” one strip at a time. What did mean by this?

A. I saw myself as a radical, and I saw my responsibility in expressing a radical point of view, but not from any organizational point of view. There was no organization that I identified myself with for more than 15 minutes.

(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2010)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Helen Weaver on Her Affair with Jack Kerouac

In her new book “The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties”(City Lights, $17), the translator and writer Helen Weaver provides a lush picture of her short, turbulent affair with the Beat writer that changed her life. In Weaver’s swirling memoir, readers will get a fresh perspective on Jack Kerouac and his magnetism as a man and writer.

Weaver was 25 in the fall of 1956 when she met Kerouac. The product of a sheltered childhood, Weaver’s world was shaken by Kerouac while he was on the cusp of publishing “On the Road,” the novel that would make both his career and the Beat Generation. Kerouac was passionate, kind and irresponsible, as well as prone to drunken depressions. The book is an exploration of the bohemian counterculture in New York’s Greenwich Village and the coming of radical changes in American society. Weaver was also involved both politically and sexually with the martyred comic Lenny Bruce in the 1960s, and later became both a noted translator of the French philosopher Antonin Artaud and an astrologer. “The Awakener” is a vivid look at the 1950s Beat era and Weaver’s winding path to personal enlightenment.

Weaver, 78, lives in Woodstock, N.Y., where she spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone.

Q. Where does your title “The Awakener” come from?

A. When Jack lived with me, I couldn’t get enough sleep. That was the silly meaning of the title. Later, I had a feeling that Jack woke a whole lot of people up with his writing, for the 1950s had been such a sleepy time. There was also the Buddhist connection. The word “buddha” literally means “the awakened one.” Jack was very important in creating interest in Buddhism in the United States.

Q. Could you describe the chaotic nature of your three-month relationship with Kerouac?

A. Jack was a mass of contradictions. He really was a sweet, sensitive person, but he was an alcoholic. I wouldn’t say he was an angry drunk…he’d got really depressed when he drank. My roommate was not working, so she and Jack could stay up late, and I had to get up to go to my nine-to-five job. It was very stressful.

Q. Could you describe the hair-pulling incident?

A. Jack came over very late with his friend Lucien Carr. I don’t do well when people interrupt my sleep. I just completely lost it. Apparently, I pulled out a chunk of Jack’s hair. He said that was the beginning of the end of his looks. He said he had to wear a hat after that. I was quite flattered, though, that Lucien started calling me slugger.

Helen Weaver in 1955

Q. You were involved in the campaign to fight the censorship of the comedian Lenny Bruce, then you had a sexual encounter with him. What happened afterwards?

A. The most important thing that happened after I had sex with Lenny Bruce was when I walked into my analyst’s office the next day. I told this father-figure analyst that I had had sex with Lenny, and he asked, “How was it?” It doesn’t sound like much, but it was an amazing event in my life. I was pretty uptight, but that was the beginning of my sexual revolution.

(Helen Weaver's memoir from City Lights Books)

Q. After working in publishing for years, you went on to have a brilliant career as a translator. How do look back at the 25-year-old Helen Weaver?

A. I wouldn’t want to be her again. If nostalgia means you’d rather be back in the past, then I don’t have nostalgia. I salute her and I thank her for taking all those great notes of the 1950s. She was braver than I am today. I admire her for being open to new experiences, but I don’t envy her at all. I’d rather be where I am today as a 78-year-old woman. I am much happier today.

(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in June 2010)