Q&A with Baltimore cartoonist turned literati, Tim Kreider

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In Baltimore, Tim Kreider is known primarily for two things: his comic strip in the City Paper, The Pain: When Will It End?, which ran for fifteen years, and an essay called “My Own Private Baltimore” that he published in The New York Times. For the former, he is beloved. For the latter, the reaction was more complicated. (Sample sentence: “Ernest Hemingway famously described Paris as a moveable feast; Baltimore is more like a permanent hangover. Once you have lived there, you will never be entirely sober again.”)

At a book signing for his second collection, “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You,” a large group of mostly older Baltimoreans jammed into Atomic Books. The author described his latest as a group of short pieces he had written for a blog in The New York Times combined with longer pieces generally focused on romantic relationships–the most enduring of these being with his cat.

As an example of the blog pieces, he read “On Smushing,” which is about killing ants. To exemplify the romantic excursions, he read the beginning of “Our War on Terror,” which is partly about his emotional affair with a married cartoonist and partly about the effect of 9/11 on America and the long run of “George,” a character based on the president, in his comic strip. The readings were quite well received, and some of the questions asked in the session following are included below.

The collection begins charmingly enough with a Dramatis Personae, listing the characters one meets in the twelve essays ahead: “Zoey, A Harlot.” “Katie Jo, A Libertine.” “T.J., a Polyamorist.” “Diana, a Clergywoman.” “Friedrich, a Philosopher.” And, of course, “Tim, our Narrator,” who, as in any personal essay collection, is himself the through-line, the reason that the essays go together as part of a larger story. The first essay, “Death-Defying Acts,” easily wins the reader’s allegiance to the cause, telling the story of the author’s travels on the circus train to Mexico with his lady friend who worked for the company as a tutor.

Other unexpected situations follow. For example, it turns out Kreider’s adoptive mother volunteered him at Hopkins for a psychological study as an infant. In “The Strange Situation,” he explores his own apparent attachment issues (i.e., an inability to commit to a long-term relationship) by getting access to this data–helped, of course, by an ex-girlfriend.

We caught up with The Talented Mr. Kreider toward the tail end of his cross-country book tour.

Note from Kreider: The demographic of the “mostly older” crowd at Atomic was somewhat skewed by my mother, who brought a literal busload of her friends from the retirement community where she lives to see me. Moms—what are you gonna do?

BFB: Why is the book called “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You”? Combined with the cover image, it’s clearly meant ironically, but I still don’t get it. Was this the only title you considered?

Does the title really require explication?

BFB: I’m sure everyone gets it but me.

It started out as a joke. I was heavily crushed out on a woman at the time I began writing it, and my friend Boyd told me that I should write a mammoth thousand-page tome and plop it all down at her feet when I was finished, and the title of it should be “I LOVE YOU ___ _____ [her name].” And then, I guess, she would fall in love with me, or else I would drop dead like John Henry laying down his hammer.

BFB: Oh, okay. I would ask you if one of the stories, in particular, was addressed to that crush, but now I am afraid of your scorn. Moving on! At your event at Atomic, you were asked to name your inspirations as an essayist. You mentioned David Foster Wallace. Having read the book, I see the parallels — a particular kind of cleverness that derives from a self-conscious prose style and idiosyncratic word choices (translation: very funny sentences), a dilatory tendency (translation: lingering over details, interrogating small matters at length), and finally, a somewhat persnickety and very much not-Everyman persona. That curmudgeonly lineage in my mind goes back to the 19th-century writer, William Hazlitt, whose most famous essay is “On the Pleasure of Hating.” Do you know Hazlitt? In your book, you credit Montaigne for beating you to the punch on explaining pet obsession, so I’m betting you do.

I actually haven’t read Hazlitt, one of many embarrassing gaps in my education. What little I know about him comes from Poe. My embrace of elitism and misanthropy is much more influenced by H.L. Mencken, who in turn influenced a whole tradition of American writers I also admire, including Hunter Thompson, Matt Taibbi, Molly Ivins, etc. (Though I imagine Mencken was probably influenced by Hazlitt, so perhaps in fact I am, too, without knowing it, sort of like young cartoonists who think they’re influenced by Gary Larson, when they’re are actually influenced, in a second-hand, cut-with-baking-soda way, by B. Kliban.)

BFB: I love that you mention Molly Ivins! I lived in Austin during the period when she was a columnist in the paper, as well as speechwriter to Governor Ann Richards. Speaking of feminists, though, I was a little taken aback by “Orientation,” an essay about your having an affair with a young woman 20 years younger than you were, and learning that she felt taken advantage of. In the table of contents, it’s marked with an asterisk: “Note to Mom: do not read.” (So is the one about your groupie who is a prostitute, and the one about your being kind of slut yourself. I mean that nicely, of course.) Then, in the acknowledgments, you credit an editor friend with having proofed the essay “against professional ruin.” Well. Do you think you would have dropped, or possibly revised, “Orientation” if you had been deciding after #MeToo got going? 

It’s unclear to me whether this is a really opportune or really unfortunate time to release a book about male-female relationships. Obviously, I started writing that essay a couple of years ago, before #MeToo was a thing. I would certainly be more apprehensive about publishing it now, but I was pretty apprehensive anyway—it’s not as if sexual politics weren’t a touchy subject before #MeToo. A couple of years ago my then-editor read the first draft of that essay and told me it just didn’t work and recommended taking it out of the book. I ignored that advice. If you’re not going to write about risky subjects and venture heterodox thoughts, what’s even the point?

That essay, I should say, isn’t about the kinds of crimes or ethical violations #MeToo has mostly targeted—it was a consensual relationship, and the woman involved wasn’t a student or employee. She just came to feel differently about the relationship years later. In other words, it’s about one of those uncomfortable gray zones of sexual ethics that’s hard to regulate with rules or manners. I don’t think it’s helpful to conflate ordinary cluelessness, clumsiness, and bad behavior with actual felonies, but if #MeToo causes more men to reflect on their own attitudes and behavior, it’s a good thing. Exploring those gray zones is what my book is about, and I’d think the kind of honest introspection it attempts is what #MeToo would hope to inspire.

BFB: At the book signing, people were curious about how you made the transition from comics to essays. I’d say you’ve made it in a big way, with the fans of your prose reading like a “who’s who?” of modern fiction. Are you still drawing? How about a graphic memoir? I think you could be the straight, male Alison Bechdel.

Tim Kreider

I did get some nice blurbs on this book. Though bear in mind that, in the literary world, having “made it” can still mean having $4.10 in checking. During my triumphant book tour, I was living off room service, airplane snacks and the charity of friends.

I don’t really draw anymore, no. I honestly felt like a failure as a cartoonist, in that I never got a lot of recognition or made any money at it, plus I just got burned out on the weekly deadlines and the anger required as fuel for political cartoons. I think when you give up something you once devoted yourself to it’s hard to go back to being a dilettante. It’s like breaking up with someone you loved: There’s some deep hurt and bitterness there, and you don’t want to see each other for a while. Once in a while, I’ll be inspired by rage to draw Trump sodomizing Paul Ryan, or I’ll draw something as a gift for a friend, like a map of Zembla from Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” but for the most part, I just doodle when I’m bored like anyone else, which is sad, because drawing is way more fun than writing.

If I were a better artist I guess I would figure out how to integrate the visual and verbal parts of my brain and draw graphic novels, but for me, cartoon ideas come in cartoon form and essay ideas in essay form, and there’s never been much overlap between the two. (Sometimes the same idea can be expressed as both cartoon and essay, but they take completely different forms.) Plus the thought of drawing an entire book’s worth of people standing around and talking sounds just too stupefyingly laborious and boring to draw. I thought “Fun Home” was a good memoir, but frankly, it never looked to me as though Alison Bechdel enjoyed drawing all that much: Her art was always just competent illustrations for the word balloons.

BFB: Which are your favorite essays in the book, and why?

I’d say “The Strange Situation,” and “Orientation.” I had to work extremely hard on both of them—“Strange Situation” for its structure, intertwining several different narrative and thematic strands together, and “Orientation” for tone. There are still things I’d like to change in both of them, but they both came out pretty close to the way I originally envisioned them. Which is about the best you can hope for as an artist. 

BFB: Why do you think the Baltimore essay in the Times caused such a ruckus?

I think people are so sensitive and defensive about the places they’ve chosen to live that neither Baltimoreans nor New Yorkers were able to see that that essay wasn’t really about either place; it was about the conflict between pursuing ambition and enjoying your life. But, maybe because it appeared under the snooty imprimatur of The New York Times, and too soon after Baltimore had made national news in a not-ideal-for-civic-PR way, people took it as an insult.

Also, although I love Baltimore, I don’t love it in the way that it wants to be loved. I didn’t know anyone personally who was offended by the Baltimore essay; they were all like, “Well sure.” But I think there’s also an element of booster-ish, upscale citizens who want to be seen as living in a city with a great, business-friendly environment, first-class restaurants, a hip nightlife, etc.—you know, normal people. The Baltimore I love is almost completely mutually exclusive of the one they inhabit. They’d like Baltimore to be like a little New York, which it isn’t and, God willing, never will be. Right before my reading at Atomic, I was having a beer in Frazier’s, and I overheard a woman at the bar explain that whenever people told her to “calm [her] tits,” she could not—she could only ever calm one, because the other tit was the party tit, and no one can tell Party Tit to calm down. You do not ever overhear things like that in New York.

Tim Kreider has an op-ed in the New York Times today. Read it here.

Marion Winik

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "First Comes Love," and, forthcoming in fall 2018, "The Baltimore Book of the Dead." She is the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik

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