“Things Have Shifted”: An Interview with Liza Donnelly

Liza Donnelly has been a contributor to the New Yorker magazine for more than four decades. Many people likely know her for the other work she’s done in various media ranging from children’s books to live drawing to her TED Talk ("Drawing on Humor for Change") to her appearances on CBS where she’s the resident cartoonist for CBS News. Donnelly has been a cultural envoy for the US State Department, written for the New York Times, and currently posts comics and essays on Medium. She’s written or edited sixteen books including When Do They Serve the Wine? and Women on Men.

Donnelly also curated the exhibit up right now at the Society of Illustrators,Funny Ladies at The New Yorker: Cartoonists Then and Now. The show grew out of her 2005 book Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons. We spoke about the exhibit, her career at the magazine, and her recent experience of learning to draw with her left hand.

Author Photo by Eric Korenman

Alex Dueben: I’ve read in other interviews about how you were always drawing from when you were a kid and how you discovered James Thurber when you were young, but how did you start at The New Yorker?

Liza Donnelly: My parents had it around the house so I was aware of it. When I was in college I was drawing cartoons and discovered that a friend of my grandmother’s was Andy Logan who was a columnist there. I wrote her and asked, would you mind showing my drawings to the art editor. She said, I’d be happy to; I’ve been talking to Lee Lorenz about why there aren’t more women cartoonists in the business and why did he think that was. I know he’s always looking for new talent. She took my work to him but of course I didn’t sell anything. That was the first time I ever thought about that concept – that I was a cartoonist and a woman at the same time. It didn’t affect my drawing at all. I kept doing what I wanted to do. But I think it piqued my interest a little bit more. That there weren’t many of us doing it.

When I was out of college I got a job in New York at the American Museum of Natural History in the art department. I don’t remember how I found out the routine but you dropped your work off on a Wednesday and came back the next Wednesday and pick up your rejects. During that time Lee would put a note in your batch saying “Holding One” and that meant that they were considering one for purchase. Sometimes you’d then get the drawing back, but it was encouragement. After about two years of submitting almost every week I went to pick up my drawings and the woman behind the glass window said, Mr. Lorenz wants to see you. That’s when I sold my first cartoon. It was terrifying. [laughs]

And during this time you were submitting cartoons to other magazines and selling there?

By then I had met a bunch of other cartoonists. There was a cartoonists association. I met Sam Gross and Roz Chast and George Booth around that time. Particularly from Sam you learned about the other publications. The first cartoon I sold was to National Lampoon to Ted Mann, who was the editor there at the time. I sold a lot to Cosmopolitan and Working Women and Audubon. There were more publications then, of course.

In 2005 you published Funny Ladies: The New Yorker's Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons and I assume that was where the exhibit began. Where did the idea for the book come from?

I think it was 1999 I got invited by Signe Wilkinson to be on a panel at the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists convention. I wasn’t a member of the organization even though I had done some political cartoons for The New Yorker. I didn’t think I was part of the editorial cartoonist crowd. They invited me to be on a panel about women cartoonists for their annual convention, so I agreed and in preparing for that I asked people. I thought more about why there aren’t more women. I sat on the panel with four or five other women – that was the extent of the female editorial cartoonist population – and it was a packed house and a sea of male cartoonists. It was a visual knock on the head. From then I started thinking more about this. I also read a book about the same time by a woman named Judith Lee called Defining New Yorker Humor. She has one chapter about the women cartoonists in the magazine. It dawned on me that I should start looking into this. I went to The New Yorker archives at the public library. I went to the library at The New Yorker and looked through those catalogs. I don’t think they do it anymore but they used to clip out all the cartoons in the magazines and each artist would have their own scrapbook. Or if people don’t have their own scrapbook, they’re grouped together by a letter. I started researching that and that’s how the book came to be. I sold it to Prometheus at some point during that year.

I’ve heard this story and I’m sure many others have as well, that there were no female New Yorker cartoonists and then in the 1970s Lee Lorenz hired three – of which you were one. Were you aware of this but that also in the early years of the magazine there were a number of female cartoonists?

You did hear about Helen Hokinson and Mary Petty and Alice Harvey. Those are the names that I knew from the thirties and forties. When I first started out, like I said, I thought that was great that there were women previous to us but I didn’t think much about it. I just wanted to do my work. My work was cartoons, it wasn’t anything to do with women or women’s rights in the early days. I remember looking at Nurit Karlin’s work. Nurit was brought in in 1974, I think. She’s from Israel originally and she’d been living in New York studying animation and she heard about the New Yorker,  started submitting and Lee bought her work. I remember when I first saw her work I didn’t know that she was a woman, but I remember seeing her stuff and going, if this person can publish in The New Yorker maybe I have a chance. Because her work is very minimal lines and caption-less. At the time I really loved caption-less cartoons. That’s what I wanted to do.

You were saying that you weren’t making cartoons about women or women’s rights and when did that change? Why?

Subconsciously I think it started changing in the '90s when Tina Brown was editor [at The New Yorker]. She began buying cartoons from me that were women speaking and women being sarcastic. I didn’t even realize I was doing that but she was buying them and I think that encouraged me to do more like that. Women poking at men and making fun of men. Then after 9/11 I decided I wanted to do more political cartoons. Also the internet started becoming more of an outlet for me and I began to see it as a place where I could draw the cartoons that I wanted to draw about women’s rights. At that time I was becoming more activist in my thinking.

Men can draw about feminism, and they do and they’re great. But at some point I decided that as a woman I bring a different perspective and I should try to do more. But as a woman I bring a different perspective and I should try to do more. Also international women rights became more of a subject for me.

So how did this exhibit, “Funny Ladies at the New Yorker: Cartoonists Then and Now” happen?

We have a new cartoon editor named Emma Allen, and I’ve sold to her. I’ve met with her a couple times and I really like her. She’s only been there a year but there have been noticeably more women cartoonists. She was previously  the editor of Shouts & Murmurs online and continues to do that, and is bringing in a lot of graphic narratives. Many are by women artists. But now as editor of the cartoons in the magazine, she has brought in more women into the pages of the magazine. On December 4, 2017 there were more women than men cartoonists in that week’s  issue. Cartoonist Michael Maslin – my husband – is the one who alerted me to this. He keeps track for his blog Inkspill, all about New Yorker cartoonists. The following winter I was meeting with Anelle Miller – the director of the Society of Illustrators – and I suggested that we do an exhibit about women cartoonists of The New Yorker. She immediately said yes. No hesitation. That’s how that happened. It’s more of a celebration, that there are more of us doing this now and it’s great. I always try to make a point of telling people that I’m not saying women cartoonists are alike, because we’re not. We don’t draw alike, we don’t think alike, we just happen to be there now. It’s a celebration of the fact that we’re drawing more and being published more.

You did a panel a few weeks ago at the Society of Illustrators and it was you and Roz Chast and Emma Allen and Liana Finck and Carolita Johnson, and you have different styles and approaches, but you’re also from different generations. What was that conversation like?

The other thing about the exhibit that speaks to that a little bit was that when I wrote the book it was received well and it’s still in print, but I didn’t get any real attention. That’s fine, it happens. When I started putting out a call for cartoons from new cartoonists, I half expected a blasé response and some people not wanting to be in the show because it was feminism and maybe a tired subject or they didn’t want to be only with other women. But I got a very positive enthusiastic responses from pretty much everybody. That was great. I felt that there was a new sense with this younger generation that yes we want to talk about it, yes we want to write about it, yes we want to draw about it. It’s important to us and it’s something we want to do. That was great.

For the panel I chose people who had some experience at the magazine so I didn’t bring in any of the brand new people. Although we’re going to do another panel October 11th, and I might select some newer voices. I like to pick people that I know, that I’ve done panels with before, because I know how they operate and it’s more comfortable. Roz and I have known each other since the late seventies. Carolita I’ve known a long time too and she’s sort of a middle generation cartoonist. She started in 2003 or so. Liana is new, but not that new. I know Liana very well. We’ve become friends and I interviewed her when her book came out at a book event. They all had great stories and are good at telling stories. Liana is very funny but she can get deep quickly. Carolita I know can be an angry and vocal feminist so I thought she could bring a great perspective. Emma was great. The whole thing is on Facebook Live. It went really well. The cartoons I selected for the exhibit were a nice representation of the cartoonists and I actually asked the cartoonists what they would like to be in the show. There were some feminist cartoons in the show but not even close to all of them. But for the panel I thought I would pick cartoons about women’s rights or the woman’s perspective on a relationship or equal rights or work quality. That made for a very funny and interesting panel.

One thing that has struck me is that you have really taken advantage not just of the internet but you go on CBS and you live draw events and you give TED Talks. Is doing all of these things something separate from you drawing cartoons? When you’re live drawing for example is that how you’ve been drawing cartoons all these years?

Not at all. But I’ve thought about this and I do think that having been a New Yorker cartoonist for almost forty years definitely informs the live drawing. I’m not sure quite how but I like to think it does. My days are much different and more complicated now. I like it that way. I try to do a batch for The New Yorker every week and then everything else on top of it. I try to respond to news events. When I do a political cartoon, I show it to The New Yorker and if they don’t take it, I’ll post it on my Medium site, which gets a lot of nice traffic. And I can do it quickly; there’s no editor involved, I just post it. I have a big following there and Medium is a paying platform. Also over the last ten years I’ve gotten much more comfortable with writing and I write a lot. In the last ten years I’ve been combining cartoons that I draw with a mini essay. It’s a nice format that I do on my Medium site. I also write illustrated essays for The New York Times, and CNN. Just recently, CNN invited me to do a cartoon about Air Force One and how Trump is going to remodel it and that morphed into me doing a gif for them and writing short pieces about the concept. I wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times about the deaths of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists a few years ago. Writing is becoming more and more a part of what I do.

Are you always working on a tablet now?

Pretty much.

Do you think that changed how you work?

It’s more immediate. I like the line quality. I used to —and I still sometimes draw with —a crow quill pen on paper. When I work on a tablet, it’s immediate. I used to use a lightbox. I would draw a sketch and then redraw it on good paper and ink. It was a long process. Now it can be very immediate. I do sketch on the tablet, but sometimes it’s just straight drawing. Recently I broke my right arm so I was drawing with my left hand and it was really fun to play around and draw with my non-dominant hand. You realize how much looser it is.

You wrote about this in The New York Times and included a few drawings.

Actually I told Emma Allen about this and asked, can I submit some left hand cartoons? And they bought and published one that I drew with my left hand!

You can definitely see the differences in the quality of the line in those drawings. I can only imagine it was a strange experience to break your arm and then go, wait, I can’t draw?

I know! You realize how much you take for granted.

Did you just think, I haven’t gone this long without putting pen to paper in forever, why don’t I just try using my other hand?

[laughs] Yeah. I don’t know how it dawned on me. I guess I was bored and looking for something to do. It is actually easier to draw with your non-dominant hand on a tablet because you make a mark and then you can hit a button and it disappears. You can keep making attempts until it looks right where as on paper you only get one shot.

You made a few picture books back in the eighties and then recently you made two more, The End of the Rainbow and A Hippo in Our Yard. What made you interested in doing more of those?

In the beginning someone said, you should do picture books. That’s how the first one started. Then about four or five years ago an editor I didn’t know who was at Holiday House said, I would love to meet with you and see if you have any books. I went to her office and we talked. I said, I have some dummies that I wrote ten years ago. After the dinosaur books I tried to sell more picture books and was not successful. It’s such a hard business to break into. Like The New Yorker. [laughs] I gave up and put the dummies on the shelf. I showed Grace these two dummies and she bought both of them. Those are the two most recent books. They’re older stories but they’re timeless ideas. I’d like to do more but there’s only so much time in the day. [laughs] A lot of cartoonists go that route and perhaps I will later but right now I’m really excited about political cartooning, editorial cartooning and live drawing. I’m trying to get more traction on that and get more people to hire me to do that.

How have you found getting into editorial cartooning?

I’ve never felt any sexism or overt barrier to being published because I’m a woman. It’s funny I think I haven’t experienced anything directly. I think there’s been times in the past where I’ve thought, why is The New Yorker mostly buying cartoons about children from me? You wonder about that. You’ll never know why. Is it because nobody else is drawing cartoons about children and they want to have some and I happen to do them on occasion? Do I do it better than anybody else does? [laughs] Or at least better than some. Or is it, she’s a female cartoonist so we should buy this from her? I don’t think anybody consciously thinks that ever, but there is unconscious bias. I did a book about this and an exhibit about this, but there isn’t “women’s humor.” I don’t like separating the genders that way. It’s artificial.

More than that I meant that it’s always been a tough field to get into.

That’s changing with the advent of the internet, and with newspapers dying. The model of the staff cartoonist on the newspaper is a thing of the past. There’s just a few people who have those positions now. I do political cartoons that are a little bit different. I do them New Yorker style with a caption underneath or caption less. They’re often quiet. My political cartoons are not really angry. Not that I’m not angry – I am. The old model was that you can only be a good editorial cartoonist if you’re rough and tough and angry and loud. I’ve pushed back against that for years, trying to say, there’s room for all of us. There’s room for everybody and all points of view. I think that’s why I didn’t become a member of AAEC when I first started. I thought, I don’t do those kinds of cartoons so they wouldn’t want me. I wouldn’t fit in. Now I’m VP of the organization. Things have shifted. I know that the AAEC is open to different forms. Ann Telnaes and Mark Fiore doing animation and Jen Sorenson does political cartoons in comic book like panels. There’s been an opening up of what can be considered “good.”

I said in my book about women at The New Yorker that this is what Lee Lorenz did. I interviewed him and he was not looking for women cartoonists, he was looking for different ways to express humor. That’s when he found Roz and Nurit and me. When you expand what can be considered good, when you open the door to new ideas, you get more diversity.

You mentioned you were going to do another panel before the exhibit closes in October. Is there anything else happening you want to mention – besides of course that we should read the magazine every week and look for you?

We haven’t really decided what the panel is going to be yet so I have nothing to share. I just proposed a talk for SXSW that is loosely based on a talk I gave in Ireland at a tech conference called InspireFest. Over the last few years I’ve been interviewed by different tech publications. I think they find my use of the iPad interesting. In this Ireland talk,  I drew on stage with my tablet and live drew and it was projected behind me on this huge screen. It was an interesting moment where nobody was talking, complete silence onstage and in the audience as I drew. I’m going to try to develop more talks like that. Communicating with an audience about ideas through drawing.

And because we had such a great show with standing-room-only for this panel, with people out the door and around the block people trying to get in, The Society of Illustrators just invited me to curate another exhibit. I did a show a couple years ago about Cartooning for Peace, an organization I’ve been a member of since it started. The director Anelle Miller wants to do another exhibit about Cartooning For Peace at the MoCCA Festival in April. I’m going to curate a huge international exhibit of cartoons next April involving Cartooning for Peace and we’re hoping to work with various embassies and bring a couple cartoonists over from abroad.