I first met Peter Steiner in 1984 at an impromptu party thrown the night of The New Yorker’s annual anniversary bash (at the Pierre on the corner of 5th Avenue at 59th Street). Following the festivities in the hotel’s grand ballroom, a bunch of cartoonists made their way west to the other side of Central Park to a much smaller space: Liza Donnelly’s apartment on 79th Street. Roz Chast and her husband, New Yorker writer, Bill Franzen were there as was Richard Cline — I believe Mick Stevens was there as well. Jack Ziegler was certainly there (he and I left the apartment at some point on a beer run, walking up to a bodega on Columbus Avenue). And Peter Steiner was there. His incisive wit was immediately evident as was his ability to stray from cartoon-talk. Less than a decade later he would go on to make New Yorker cartoon history by authoring “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” — the most reprinted drawing in the magazine’s history. And about a decade after that he began to carve out another career, as a novelist. This was a rare pursuit for a New Yorker cartoonist. We’ve had just a few outside-of-the-box colleagues (James Thurber of course, and the late William Hamilton was a playwright as well as a novelist. Lou Myers did a fair share of non-cartoon writing as well).
I spoke with Peter this past week, thinking it was a perfect time to catch up with him as he ventures afield again, this time as a graphic novelist, with the publication of An Atheist in Heaven.
Michael Maslin: Let’s begin with the present. We’ll eventually work our way around to the past. Your fifth novel, The Capitalist was published this past February, and you’ve followed it three months later with An Atheist in Heaven. Is this an unusually productive period for you, or is this your norm?
Peter Steiner: Well, it actually seems like a more productive period than it was. I finished writing The Capitalist a couple of years ago, then there was the final editing process, then it sat for a good year and half at the publisher (St. Martin’s Press) before it finally came out. So, a while after I was finished with the book, I came on the idea of an Atheist in Heaven and started drawing. That was in the spring of 2014. It took me about a year to do. It’s pretty much a coincidence that they came out so close together.
Q: It’s not easy — nor necessary really — to pigeonhole you as a writer, a cartoonist, a painter, an editorial cartoonist, a graphic novelist (now with An Atheist in Heaven). Are any of those callings greater to you than the others or are they all relatively equal. Do you wake up each morning and think, today I’m painting? Or today I’m writing? Or today I’m working on a drawing? Where does the day’s direction come from?
A: I tend to work in one medium or another—painting, writing—for long periods. So when I’m working on a novel, I’m not painting. And usually I won’t paint until I’ve finished the novel. And likewise when I’m painting, I keep painting until I feel the urge to move back to writing. That can last a year or longer. When I’ve tried to write in the middle of painting it throws me off, and visa versa. Cartoons, being a smaller medium (in time, not in importance), get sprinkled about as the spirit moves me. The year I was working on An Atheist in Heaven came after the writing of The Capitalist. And now I’m looking forward to starting to paint again.
Q: Looking at the self-portrait series of paintings on your website I see seeds of the kind of drawing that fill An Atheist in Heaven. By that I mean the work seems to be cinematic. The question is: are you finding that your recent cartoons are at all influenced by the drawings in the book, i.e., are you drawing differently?
A: I hadn’t thought of the interplay of painting and cartoons. I’ve always tried to make my cartoons cinematic, if you want to call it that. I like interesting settings with particular details, odd angles and dramatic lighting. Since doing cartoons on my blog I’ve started using pencil for both shading and color, and that continued into my drawing of Atheist. Pencil is more painterly than water color washes; you get more texture sort of like brush strokes in a painting. And doing color, you can mix color or lay down layers of color on top of one another with exciting effect.
Q: Without going into the Atheist story line too much, I have to say it pulled me in right away and then felt carried along quickly on a great ride. Is that was it was like writing it? Was it an express train kind of experience for you?
A: I wrote the text for Atheist very quickly, over the course of a couple of days, without doing any drawings at all or knowing what the drawings were going to be like. Then I set to work on the drawings, page by page without having any plan or sense how it would develop. I drew entire pages, rather than individual panels that would need fitting together. I had no plan, not even from one page to the next. I drew with ink and, at the beginning, on various kinds of paper. I also tried out different color methods. The drawings were rough and a little crude; so was the script. I wanted it to look handmade and unrefined. I decided to leave some corrections visible. The main character evolved as I went along, developing more specific facial and body features. And the various settings evolved too, becoming more and more involved. And, yes, it was an express train kind of experience that carried me along. I tried to keep struggle out of it and just enjoy the experience. And in that regard, at least, I succeeded.
Q: Let’s rewind a good deal to the period just before you began trying to get your drawings into the New Yorker. When was that and what were you doing at that point in your life?
[Left: a page from An Atheist in Heaven]
A: I sold my first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1979. (I know that because I looked it up; I’m not good at remembering dates.) I was living in Watkinsville, Georgia at the time and had moved there from Pennsylvania the year before. I had just given up my professorship at Dickinson College in order to be an artist full time. We had bought our first home, a big rambling farm house with a wonderful if delapidated barn and a lovely grove of huge pecan trees. I was painting seriously and was submitting cartoons every week to the New Yorker. I had been since leaving teaching, maybe even before leaving teaching. (Again, I can’t remember exactly.) I was drawing cartoons for the local paper, a weekly called the Oconee Enterprise for $25 each. I had sold some cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post and the Saturday Review, but the New Yorker was the big prize I was aiming for, and when I hit the bulls eye I was elated.
Q: Can you describe your entry into the New Yorker, both the first cartoon published, and the first time (or first few times) you traveled to Manhattan and visited the offices. Did you meet with Lee Lorenz [the magazine’s Art Editor at the time] right away; did you meet other cartoonists at the office?
[left: Peter Steiner’s first New Yorker drawing, in the issue of July 9, 1979]
A: When I was 25 or so (about 1965), headed for grad school and about to be married, I was in New York on my way to Maine, and I stopped at the New Yorker with about 75 or eighty roughs. I had been getting cartoons in various small publications, but didn’t think of cartooning as a career or even a job. Of course there was a woman guarding the door who told me I couldn’t see the editor—was that still Geraghty? [James Geraghty was Lorenz’s predecessor as Art Editor, in that position from 1939 through 1974], but I could leave them for him to look at and pick them up the next week. I was only there for a day, so, for whatever reason I decided not to leave them. Who knows how it could have changed my life if I had left them. The next time I was there was fifteen years later–1979 or 80 with at least one sale under my belt—A Swiss guy with an Alpenhorn, and some cows saying to him, “For heaven’s sake, we’re right here.” I did meet Lee Lorenz then. I was very reverent and awed by the whole New Yorker thing, and being let in was like arriving at Mecca. I would come back every few months—I was living in Georgia, and over those first few times met lots of cartoonists. I mostly remember those older cartoonists who were nice to me–Arthur Getz, Joe Mirachi, Sam Gross. Of course I met Jack Ziegler, Mick Stevens, Bob Mankoff, Roz Chast, and then we all went for lunch at the worst restaurants in the neighborhood. I don’t remember whether you and I met there or not [see the introduction above].
Q: I believe I’ve heard you mention (in interviews, or perhaps in earlier conversations with me) that there are certain New Yorker cartoonists that you consider (my word) exceptional. Can you mention a few, and briefly tell us why they stand out so for you?
A: When I think of “exceptional” cartoonists, I mean my favorites, those whose work would lift my spirits. And most of my favorites are the beautiful drawers—Gluyas Williams; Helen Hokinson; Arno, of course; Steinberg; Addams; Charles Saxon; Bob Weber; Booth. I’m sure there are some I’ve forgotten to mention. Their drawings are lovely to look at, each in its own way.
Q: Before I let you return to your painting, writing, and drawing, do you foresee more written work in the Atheist in Heaven vein (i.e., text and graphics)? I’m hoping you say ‘yes’.
A: I don’t have another drawn book in mind, but it was so interesting and amusing doing an Atheist in Heaven that I can’t imagine not doing it again. I’ll let you know when I start something.
To see more of Peter Steiner’s drawings and paintings, including more self-portraits like the one at the top of this piece, visit his website: plsteiner.com
To read more about his latest book, An Atheist in Heaven, go here.
Besides An Atheist in Heaven, Mr. Steiner has published five novels of a series, the latest being The Capitalist. In 1994 he published a collection of cartoons, I Didn’t Bite the Man, I Bit the Office.