April 13, 2015

Q&A Coming to the Festival of Books: Bruce Eric Kaplan

Bruce Eric Kaplan, the author and illustrator of a new memoir, “I Was a Child” (Blue Rider: 193 pp., $25.95), simultaneously holds two of the most coveted day jobs on the planet. He’s a TV writer (he has worked on “Seinfeld,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Girls,” for which he currently serves as executive producer), and he’s a cartoonist (under the moniker BEK, his cartoons have been appearing in the New Yorker for 24 years). He has also published several cartoon collections, as well as three children’s books.

“I Was a Child,” which Kaplan wrote after the death of his father (his mother had died a decade earlier), is a collection of aphoristic reminiscences about his childhood in New Jersey in the 1970s. Nothing particularly dramatic happens — the young Kaplan watches TV and studies his parents’ behavior with the bemusement of a budding sociologist — but the simply illustrated anecdotes, at once specific and universal, funny and sad, are suffused with nostalgia.

Kaplan discussed his childhood and his multiple careers at a West L.A. coffee shop. He will be appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 18 at 4:30 p.m. as a member of the “Graphic Novels and Memoir” panel with Roz Chast and Mimi Pond.

Did you always want to be a cartoonist?

I always enjoyed drawing, but casually. Then I was out here trying to be a writer and not succeeding, and thinking, “What else could I do?” I’d always loved New Yorker cartoons. I knew that James Thurber didn’t have much formal training; he was kind of primitive. I thought, “I could do that kind of cartoon.” So I went to the Beverly Hills Library and got out an old book called “How to Be a Cartoonist,” by Mort Gerberg, a New Yorker cartoonist. He said there was an art meeting once a week, and you sent them 10 drawings in a self-addressed stamped envelope. So I started doing that.

When did you sell your first cartoon?

Not for years. I did it every week. There was something much more satisfying about doing a cartoon than writing a spec “Blossom” script. I used cartoons as diaries. I still do. They’re my way of figuring out the world, what’s happening to me or what I’m thinking about. And I was so sure that it was right for me. I felt like, “Well, they’re going to catch on.” So I sent [The New Yorker] a cover letter every week, got the same form rejection letter every week, and then, finally, after a few years, I got a real letter.

And how did the TV writing career begin?

When I was first out here, in the ’80s, I got a temp job, like where you take the typing test? I was temping at a studio. They said to bring something down to the stage. So I brought something down to the stage and saw Mary Tyler Moore — a big thing for me — and I watched the scene, and I thought, “I could write that.” I felt like I’d been preparing my whole life. But I thought I could long before anyone else thought I could.

What inspired you to write this memoir?

I started doing a Twitter feed when my father was dying. I was very distracted, preoccupied. It was upsetting. So if I was sitting by myself somewhere, like waiting for the subway, it was very hard to be there. And if I could think of something to tweet — a cartoon of a person sitting there, or some garbage — it was a way of getting out of that anxiety and into the moment.

I started to wonder if these drawings could ever have a life. So my agent set up a meeting with the people who eventually published this book. They weren’t interested in the Twitter feed. But I was talking about my life, and my father dying, and the shock, and how I couldn’t believe it was all over. At the end of the meeting, it seemed I had sold them a book about my childhood with drawings. It was completely not what I had intended to do, although now that I think about it, I think I did want to write about my childhood.

Was the book difficult to write, or was it therapeutic?

It was both. When I started, it was the most soothing thing to go into the time when my parents were both alive. As an adult, it’s hard for me to remember my mother before her sickness. But if I go back into childhood, I can access that. While writing, I was in a dream state. Even now I’m very confused: Was it a healthy thing? It was necessary in some way. At the end of the day, I would come out of it, and my parents wouldn’t be there, and I would relive the loss.

What did you want to accomplish in “I Was a Child”?

I wanted to document a time that doesn’t exist anymore. I go through my day remembering things like telephone cords. I didn’t put this in the book, but in my twenties, I used to walk around with the phone in the apartment, and the cord would become crazy, and then I’d have this box of crazy cords. It’s something that you would never have now: a box of crazy cords. And things like waiting for “The Wizard of Oz” once a year, and how that’s so foreign to the way of life of children now.

You have such detailed memories of your childhood, down to the television schedule. Did you have to do a lot of research?

I didn’t have to do any research. I still know every show. “Cannon” was on Wednesdays at CBS at 10 o’clock. I didn’t even like “Cannon.” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” 8 o’clock, ABC, Wednesdays. “Barnaby Jones,” 10 o’clock, CBS, Thursdays. You can test me. It’s like a weird neurological … I don’t know what it is.

What do you think your parents would think if they could read this book?

They would die. I feel terrible about that. I really, really wanted to write a book that they wouldn’t die about. I tried very hard to make it a loving portrait. And I’ve heard from people that it is, but I don’t know that they would feel that.