“I Thought It Was A Choice”: An Interview with Liana Finck

Author Photo © Jorge Colombo

Liana Finck’s Passing for Human is a memoir, but it’s a memoir that feels like a fairy tale in many ways, a book that’s about rethinking and reconsidering one’s life, about the ways that we rethink our own lives over time. It is also a memoir that very overtly conceals as much as it reveals, also telling the stories of her parents with Biblical interludes. It’s a very different book from her first, A Bintel Brief, where she adapted letters from a turn of the century advice column in a New York Yiddish newspaper. Both are concerned with how to live, how to act, about nostalgia and feeling uncomfortable and out of place.

Finck is perhaps best known in some circles for her contributions to The New Yorker and she’s part of the exhibit, Funny Ladies at The New Yorker, currently up the Society of Illustrators. Finck is known in other circles for the near constant stream of comics and illustrations that she posts on Instagram and Twitter. We spoke recently about how she ended up making a book about her shadow, how we grew up, and the struggle to make a second book.

All art from the book PASSING FOR HUMAN by Liana Finck. Copyright © 2018 by Liana Finck. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Just as a first question, where did the book start?

It was very, very circuitous. I came to the end of another big project, A Bintel Brief, many many years ago not knowing how to start a new book. I came up with a bad idea, to adapt The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov. I didn’t even know how to pitch a book but I was trying to get my agent at the time excited about the idea. While I was making my first pages he asked Nabokov’s estate and they said, no. Then I very slowly and weirdly started changing it. The book was about two brothers and I thought, I’ll just base it on the novel and make it about two sisters. Then one of the sisters morphed into a shadow. Then I thought this would be a good thing to post regularly, like a comic strip rather than a book. I made this madcap adventure about a woman whose shadow has returned to her. That trailed off. And by the time that trailed off I had so many failed attempts that I went back into the attempts and started fiddling with them and they got more and more autobiographical and then finally it became this. I think the reason the book has so many chapter ones is that I never really figured out what I was doing. These were my different attempts. I think by the time I finished the book I realized what I was trying to do, but I still didn’t do it exactly.

So you had the idea of the shadow, and then the book became about interrogating what that meant.

It started out like a dual nature and then it became about a shadow and then it became about me. I didn’t know what the shadow represented until I’d been working on it for years.

At what point did you start to write about your parents because the book is about you, but it’s also about the context of your life, in a sense.

It started out about me. I think the first fully formed part that I wrote was about me being a weird kid. After that I wrote the part about my parents. I don’t remember why I brought them into it. I feel like a shadowy echo of my mom sometimes.

Honestly, I wrote the part about me being a weird kid before I had a feminist awakening and then I wrote the mom part while I was having the awakening. I didn’t see my story as being a feminist story until I realized how women’s lives are shaped by being female. Then I started to feel how my mom’s story was really similar to my story. My mom’s story was of quitting her career to not have a career and have her art in the context of being a wife and mother and what it meant to pour all her art into not professionally ambitious things. How it succeeded for a while, but then didn’t have enough roots to sustain her for a long time.

You said that you had a feminist awakening. Could you talk about that and what that meant for you?

I think it happened the moment I stopped having writers block, which at least in my case was extreme self-consciousness about making things that other people would see. I would draw the same thing over and over and over again so at the end of a year I would have one drawing done a million times instead of a million drawings, or a hundred drawings. I think all the anger and scrutiny I had been putting on myself I started putting on other people. [laughs] It coincided with a breakup that made me remember past breakups. It coincided with me finally realizing how much I hated being catcalled and things like that. All the unfairness that I’d been living with for so long but I was so busy feeling like I wasn’t good or human and that I couldn’t be angry at the world for anything suddenly left. It was very freeing.

Related to the idea of seeing our lives in a context, we’re both in our thirties and we had mothers who grew during the second wave of feminism and there were a few moments in the book where I felt that you were clearly raised as I had been, with the understanding that we grew up in a very different world.

Yeah, we do. My mom came up at the time where you could be a feminist or not be a feminist. There were two paths and being a feminist was strident and you’re throwing away all of history and not being a feminist in some ways was classier. My mom felt like she couldn’t be a feminist and also be an intellectual, and so she chose to be an intellectual. She says she didn’t see gender, she related as a person not as a woman. I think it did help her in some ways. I think she had a very rich aesthetic life. I also think a lot of doors were closed to her and she didn’t know how to fight back because she couldn’t admit that there was a fight.

I’m curious how other people read the book because I feel like I have a sense of who you are, but I don’t necessarily know much about your life.

My current life or my childhood?

I know more about the facts of your childhood, but I have a sense of who you are and your concerns more than an understanding of what your life is like now.

I guess it’s pretty metaphorical and fairy tale-ish. Although I didn’t mean it to be that way. I mean to tell it how it was. I grew up in a curved house that my mom designed in the country under a mountain. We had a dog named Pepper. I had a little brother. I went to a Jewish school in another county that was a 45 minute drive away and I didn’t fit in there but I had this great, beautiful life at home. As I got older I think I started wanting more from people so I cut out the stuff that I loved that didn’t involve people. I stopped loving nature and loving my dog and loving to draw. Gradually I did fit in with people better but I didn’t get any joy from it, because I lost myself. When I told you about stopping having writers block I think that’s what this book is about. Learning how to express yourself again and I guess learning that I can be myself and be in the world at the same time.

On one page you wrote, “if you intend to create a world – you need to leave the real world behind”

I think my mom believed that. I think both of us deep down have this feeling that either you can have your art or you can have your life. I don’t think that’s really true. I think you can have both.

That line is about halfway through the book and by the end you are arguing that one needs to be more involved with the world in order to create.

I think so. My mom had this dream when she was about to marry my dad and leave her job that she was looking at these beautiful crystals in a train window. She had this wrenching decision of whether to keep looking at the crystals, which would disappear if she turned away, or go into the next car and hang out with people. She thought really hard about it and she decided that if she kept looking at the crystals they would melt anyway and if she went to see the people she would broaden her horizons. There have been many times in my life when I’ve chosen art over people, but like my mom, I thought it was a choice. I think that’s a very romantic notion and it’s a good notion to put in books, but it’s not a good one to live by. I think seeing people does broaden your world a lot and art will come back when it’s ready. Even if you walk away from it for a minute.

Where did the title, Passing for Human, come from?

It was called Light and Shadow for the longest time. I had another book that I was working on called Passing for Human. I don’t remember how I came up with that, but it was about a humanoid robot and I still hope to work on it at some point, but my editor liked the title and took it.

It’s a very different book from your first book.

That’s true. I didn’t feel like I was making the first book until I did the autobiographical part at the very end. My first book was based on a Yiddish advice column and I adapted all these letters that had been written to this advice column over one hundred years ago. I drew each one in a different style. It looks like I worked quite hard on it but didn’t know what I was doing because I didn’t know how to make comics. I was very painstaking in my brushwork, but it looks clumsy and adorable. That’s not really my thing. In order to sell the book I was told that I had to link all the stories together so I linked them together with this ghost story about me meeting the newspaper’s founding editor’s ghost and he teaches me about A Bintel Brief and Yiddish culture and I fall in love with him and then he disappears. That part was a lot faster to make and it was really delightful and fun to make things up and not to have this terrible burden of being true to this incredible piece of history, which was scary. I don’t think having a hard time working on something means it was a bad project. I think it was a really meaningful project and I’m proud of it, but there’s a lot of it that was hard to make. It was not fun and free, but that autobiographical part was fun and free. This story really grows out of that. I think Passing for Human became a memoir at the moment when I started working on that autobiographical part [of A Bintel Brief]. I had started the book already when I made that autobiographical part and I think it morphed a lot as I finished A Bintel Brief.

I was going to say that both books are very different, but both are about this tension between the past and the present and the struggle to live in the present.

I have bouts of nostalgia in general. I’m not really a nostalgic person but it comes now and then and when it comes it’s intense. I think that’s the thing that happens in my life that is closest to art and so I tend to make art about it. I also really love nostalgic writers. Two of my favorite writers are Proust and Nabokov, who are all about lost childhoods and loves that could have been. It seems like the perfect thing to make a book about.

You’ve been contributing to The New Yorker for about five years and A Bintel Brief came out in 2014. Did you start pitching them around the same time you began working on the book?

It was pretty simultaneous. After college I lived abroad for a year and when I came back I redoubled my efforts to contribute to The New Yorker. I also started this book. I got a grant for young artists called The Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists to work on this book basically. I think I got the book deal around the time I sold my first cartoon and then the book came out and I started publishing somewhat regularly at the same time.

Had you been making comics and sending them out for a while before then?

For The New Yorker I would send cartoons maybe once every few years. I put so much work into them and would be just devastated when they got a no. Bob Mankoff was the editor at the time and he was tough love. He was so incredibly gracious to look at work by any person. I was a 20 year old and no one else would have even seen me and he always looked at my stuff and was nice. At the time, anything short of acceptance felt like terrible rejection, but I can see how kind he was being.

For a while now you’ve been posting comics on Instagram and Twitter constantly, it seems like.

Yeah, I’m a fast paced person. I think the speed of publishing is really not suited to me. [laughs] It’s been really nice to self publish those pictures.

What has it been like moving between these longform book length narratives and one panel comics?

It’s taken me a really long time to figure out the right rhythm, but I think I have two needs in my work. One is to be quick. I think that’s what I’m talented at. The other need is to be immersed. Which isn’t a talent, it’s a need. It keeps me from going insane with anxiety to have this big thing that I can work on and put my days into. A book takes time to make and it’s very slow and you make it in layers. The cartoons take almost no time at all. I couldn’t do that forty hours a week. I couldn’t come up with ideas and draw them for the whole work week. I’m someone who needs to be working at least the whole work week.

I would think that by this point after making so many cartoons, you’re training your brain to think in those terms and to make more.

Exactly. You do think in those terms, but you have some burnout also. I can turn it on and pump them out if I’m feeling reasonable happy and not crazy busy, but I can’t keep doing that. It’s nice to have different audiences, too. At this point I feel like I know my audiences somewhat and I’m speaking to them in my different work. The Instagram cartoons I know I’m speaking to mostly young women and The New Yorker cartoons I know I’m speaking to mostly older people with tote bags who live on the Upper West Side. [laughs] I like them all.

You’re in the exhibit Funny Ladies at The New Yorker, and you did a panel with Liza Donnelly and Roz Chast and others. Similarly to how we were talking earlier about the book and seeing life within a larger context, how do you see your work in the context of the magazine and that exhibit and that panel?

I think I’m a very early part of the latest wave of mostly younger women cartoonists, and more generally just younger cartoonists. When I started submitting I was the only really young person who came into the office. There were a few people in their thirties and mostly older men who would come in and be social every week. There were other young people, they just didn’t come in. There were other women but many weeks I was the only woman who would come in. Now it really feels about half and half and I’m an older young person at this point. I’m in my thirties and there are a lot of people in their early and mid twenties now. I think when the documentary Very Semi-Serious came out more people started coming to the cartoon department. Emma Allan is the new editor and she’s a young woman and I think she’s been drawing a lot of younger people. I think of myself as very consciously following in the footsteps of Roz and Liza and more recently Carolita Johnson and Emily Flake. I do think of myself as a woman cartoonist in a historically men’s world. But very nice men.

You just finished your big autobiographical book and there’s a big tradition in comics of autobio comics.

I know. It took me a really long time to learn how to draw myself. I don’t like to. I realize I don’t like to draw any character and then I realized you don’t need to make them look like anything. They just need facial expressions. That’s how it feels to be a person. You don’t know what you look like, you just know what you’re feeling.

My characters’ bodies are pretty undefined and jelly-like. I was thinking about how Gabrielle Bell’s character’s bodies keep changing and that’s really what it feels like to be a person – and maybe especially a woman because your self worth is so wrapped up in what you look like, and yet what you look like in your own mind changes from moment to moment.

You mentioned working on something else. I’m guessing you’re working on something not about you.

Yes I am! I’m working on two books. I shelved that other project about the robot. One is a book based on my Instagram account and then another is based on the Torah.

Is it just a collection of the comics you post Instagram?

Yeah. I’m not doing any thinking for that. It’s a design project and it hurts my brain, but it’s a good hurt. [laughs] The Instagram posts are blown up iPhone photographs of tiny drawings, so I’m figuring out how to reproduce that in a book. Whether it should look like an art book with the exact photographs reproduced, should it be black and white, should it be neater, should I add a lot of detail?


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At what size typically draw?

The Instagram cartoons are like an inch and a half square. They’re really small. I draw with a really thin pen.

How big do you draw for The New Yorker?

Those are bigger. I draw with the same thin pen but lately when I sell one I redraw it in a nicer pen. I don’t know why. I work on normal 8 1/2” by 11” printer paper. When I do fancy paper it’s 8” by 10” because sometimes I mail it out and I need extra space in the envelope.

Is that the same size you drew the books?

The book was 8 1/2” by 11”. I just really love this printer paper and it’s such a shame cause I know it’s not fancy paper that I should ever have in a show or sell, but it’s just better.

I have to ask about the book about The Torah. Can you say anything about it?

I’m not sure. [laughs] The way this book comes out of the autobiographical part of A Bintel Brief, this book about The Torah comes out of the creation story in Passing for Human. There’s an interlude with this large childlike god making people out of clay and having a  fine time. It’s god as artist or god as mother. I’m doing the whole book of Genesis and a little bit of Moses in that way. I think it’s very different from R. Crumb and Gary Panter. I never would have proposed it because there are so many comics bibles. My editor – who I think hasn’t read a ton of comics bibles – suggested it and I didn’t tell him why I thought it was a bad idea. I’m just really really excited to do it. It’s been really fun to work on.