Former City Paper contributor Tim Kreider has published three cartoon anthologies and has written essays regularly for The New York Times since 2009. Now comes his first book of both, We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons (Free Press, hardcover). Essay topics range from the bright side of being stabbed to the cognitive jolt he suffers when his male role model undergoes a sex change to what it’s like to be adopted and meet one’s siblings as an adult. (Companion cartoons accompanying each essay are topical, and include old favorites like “Babies Are Assholes” and “A Big Fag.” If you’re not familiar, visit thepaincomics.com.)
The man is clearly blessed with good material, and Mobtown readers will enjoy the many local references—the Midtown Yacht Club, the Mount Royal Tavern. But material and setting aside, Kreider is as compelling a writer as he is a visual satirist. His essays tend toward the “elegiac,” as he puts it—something that cannot be said of his cartoons—but the same delightfully brutal honesty underlies both. Kreider’s descriptions are often simultaneously surprising and resonant. In an essay about his early drinking habits, he writes, “Drunkenness and youth share in a certain reckless irresponsibility, and the illusion of timelessness. The young and the drunk are both temporarily exempt from that oppressive sense of obligation that ruins so much of our lives, the nagging worry that we really ought to be doing something productive instead.”
Kreider the writer is, like the cartoonist, self-effacing and funny. He muses about the fine line between the “bold romantic gesture” and stalking, for example, pointing out that when envisioning the former, a woman is more likely to picture John Cusack than, say, Steve Buscemi. But in the midst of a lighthearted paragraph like this one, Kreider often drops a casual phrase that rings so true you find yourself rereading it and wondering why you didn’t think of it yourself. “We mistakenly imagine we want ‘happiness,’ which we tend to picture in vague, soft-focus terms,” he writes in an essay about the allure of heartbreak, “when what we really crave is the harder-edged quality of intensity.”
Kreider kindly agreed to a last-minute phone interview a few days before I was due to have a baby, in advance of a Baltimore stop on his book tour.
Tim Kreider: Congratulations. I figured I better try and squeeze this interview in today.
City Paper : Yes, thank you for that! Your chapter titled “The Referendum” [about how judgmental people can be about their peers’ life choices, particularly having children] hit pretty close to home for me. I read it aloud to my husband yesterday.
TK: Good times. I’m glad to hear that. Don’t let me talk you out of it.
CP : Well, I think it may be too late.
TK: Yeah, true enough.
CP : This book seems to come from a kinder, gentler Tim Kreider than your longtime fans are familiar with. Does it feel that way to you?
TK: That may be true. I remember when I published one of the very first of those essays in The New York Times years ago, one of my readers—I don’t remember where it was, somewhere on the prestigious internet—one of my readers complained that it was “an ice pick of sappiness in the forehead.” Notice that I am still able to quote this verbatim. I mean, even though it’s hard to respect the opinion of someone who would use a simile like “ice pick of sappiness,” it still sticks with you. . . . I feel like some of it is just more or less aging. And also I was a political cartoonist for the whole grim decade of the Bush Administration, the War on Terror. And it was my job to be angry every week and I got a little burned out on it.
CP : When did you stop focusing on politics in your cartooning?
TK: You know, I never meant to be a political cartoonist in the first place. I’m much fonder of my very first book of cartoons, maybe the first decade’s worth of my best work, than I am of the two political collections. I don’t know if they’re funnier, but they’re purer. People a hundred years from now will still get them whereas nobody in the future would know what either of the political cartoon books were about. I just kinda got shanghaied into it because the times got so ghastly that I felt I couldn’t not address them. And I was determined not to give up before Bush did.
CP : Most of your essays are very personal—several are about losing old friends, whom you name. Are you scared of the response?
TK: Yeah, I am a little scared of that. I change everyone’s name in the book, but the people certainly know who they are. There’s already been some blowback from that from various quarters. I certainly didn’t write any of this with the intention of hurting anyone. Anyone I wrote about in this book I wrote about them because I loved them, because I missed them. The theme that emerged of lost friends surprised me. I did not expect the book to turn out to be as melancholic as it is.
CP : Are there any parts of your life that you hold back from writing or drawing about, that you keep for yourself?
TK: Yeah, of course. I think that this book will probably seem to be way more revealing than it really is. My cartoons were also semi autobiographical. I use myself and my friends in my work. That was never a conscious decision; that’s just apparently the kind of artist I am. . . . But those revelations are pretty calculated. If I am able to write about something, then I’m past that thing. Sometimes writing is a way of getting past it, but anything you can write about is always already dead. Not to sound really pretentious but Nietzsche writes about this in the very last passage in Beyond Good and Evil, about how all his ideas are just painted in autumn colors now, about how no one will know from this how you looked in your morning.
CP : Do the two mediums serve different functions for you, writing and drawing?
TK: Yeah, apparently they do. I think if I was a better artist, I would be able to figure out how to integrate those two media. I had some concerns about including cartoons in this book because the more I wrote, and the more elegiac the tone of the essays turned out to be, the more dissonant with that tone those cartoons seemed to be. It’s a whole other part of my brain. I kinda feel like my cartoons were drawn by this younger, drunker, unhappier, much more hilarious brother of mine. When I draw cartoons, it’s a much stupider, sillier, more joyful side of my personality that comes out. . . . There are some things so stupid and so true you can’t say them in print. You can only say them with cartoons.
CP : What’s next now that you’ve addressed the Big Questions: death, love, friendship, family?
TK: (laughs) I don’t feel like I’ve exhausted the big questions, and definitely not answered any of them. I’m working on a proposal for my next book right now, which is tentatively titled I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. I didn’t know what this book was going to be about before I wrote it and I shouldn’t pretend to know what this next one is going to be about either.
CP : So last year when Joe MacLeod interviewed you about [your 2011 cartoon collection] Twilight of the Assholes, you said you subscribed to Stanley Kubrick’s policy of not discussing your own work. . .
TK: Well, I approve of it. But like many things I approve of, I fail to follow it. It’s a bad idea. You will only end up sounding like a jackass when you talk about your own work. And you’re probably the least qualified person on Earth to discuss it.
Tim Kreider will give a reading at The Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road, on Thursday, June 28 at 6:30 p.m. and at Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road, on Friday, June 29 at 7 p.m.