Author Interviews
6:55 am
Sun August 24, 2014

Feiffer Draws On 1930s Noir In 'Kill My Mother'

Originally published on Sun August 24, 2014 11:02 am

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Jules Feiffer, who's won most of the awards a writer and cartoonist can win, including a Pulitzer Prize, likes new projects. He started working as a cartoonist in his teens. And he's 85 now. He drew cartoons for the Village Voice for more than 40 years. He's written children's books. He 's written plays and screenplays. But never a full-length graphic novel until now. His new book is called "Kill My Mother." Almost 150 pages of gorgeous drawings and salty, noirish dialogue. It takes place in the same period that produced those dark movies and novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Jules Feiffer joins us from WPPB in South Hampton, New York. Welcome to our program.

JULES FEIFFER: Thank you, Linda. Thanks a lot.

WERTHEIMER: This book is intricately plotted as well as beautifully drawn. I'd like to ask you about the drawings first. You include dancers. Now we're all familiar with your dancers, but these drawings are different. I guess maybe you wanted a bit of a change for a full-length book.

FEIFFER: Well, it's all about storytelling. When I did the comic strip in the Voice, it had to be minimalistic because I was saying so much in such a short period of time. And if you do noir, you need to do atmosphere. You need to do rainy streets. You need to do cars. You need to do reflected light. You need to do all of that. And I had never drawn in that style before. This is all foreign to me. So I had to learn how to do it, and I didn't know that I could. It was terrifying.

WERTHEIMER: The drawings are dark. They appear to be line drawings in black then shaded in in gray. But our mutual friend in Chicago told me to take it outside and look at it in the sunlight. And I see that there are colors. You've washed it with yellows and greens and shaded with purple.

FEIFFER: And blues and all of that. Mainly, that was an accident. And when I stumbled on that accident, I loved the results of it. And it's really trying to re-create a period that those of us of a certain age remember well from films of the '30s and '40s where that black and white seemed to have infinite varieties of shading and color and quality. And I tried to show it.

WERTHEIMER: Tell me about the title. Where does that title come from?

FEIFFER: I have no idea. I had the title before I had the book. I thought "Kill My Mother" was a great title. And then I had to figure out a story line that went with the title. And slowly, I, you know, I came to a mother and daughter who are - teenage girls are always wanting to kill their mothers. They're always in rebellion. You know, and I said what if the mother is working for a private eye because her father - her husband was a cop. And he's killed, and she needs a job. And she's trying to solve the murder. And then I was launched.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things you did that is not especially common in the world of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, you're leading characters are women.

FEIFFER: Yes. I love that idea. You know, there's something in me, as you may know from my earlier work, that goes against the grain. And the thing about noir is it's all about the guys. And the women are walkons or they're sex objects. And I wanted to do just the opposite of that. And so as it turned out, the men are the minor characters in this book or subsidiary characters. And it was taken over by the women. And again, while I thought about that, it's just something that happened, in a sense out of my control, and I went along with it.

WERTHEIMER: Now you do write some great dialogue for men in a few places in the book, even though they are playing mostly supporting roles. And that dialogue really does echo, you know, another time. I wonder if maybe you could read to us. This is the private eye, Neil Hammond, who is almost always drunk. This is sort of a drunken rant from him.

FEIFFER: Yes. He has been on the trail of a woman that a client was looking for who was 6-foot 3'. He finally finds her. He finds that she is absolutely, stunningly beautiful and tries, desperately, to make contact with her as something other than a quarry. And she won't have anything to do with him. He says (reading) something was going on between us. I felt it. On the surface, you could miss it. That she sees I'm not like the others. I'm different, dangerous. She makes fools of the others, but not to me. She's big, but I'm plenty enough man for her. Looking down on me. Who does she think she is? Where does she get the nerve? Here's how goes down. OK? I don't show up for that drink at the Flora. That'll put a crimp in her style. Who am I kidding? She won't show up either. She won't show. She was never going to show. So he goes full circle, which is...

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter). What took you so long to get to a graphic novel?

FEIFFER: I went in the wrong direction for 50 years or so and got into politics. And I (laughter) - but after a time when I said everything I had to say, I decided that there was - well, the Village Voice decided by firing me that it was time for me to find some other kind of work. And eventually, I stumbled on what I'd loved from the time I was 5 or 6, but I didn't know how to draw in that style at 5 or 6 or 10 or 15 or 20. So I learned at 80. I've got a slow learning curve.

WERTHEIMER: Jules Fifer's graphic novel is called "Kill My Mother." He also has a new children's book about a cat. It's called "Rupert Can Dance." Jules Feiffer, thank you very much for spending this time with us.

FEIFFER: Thank you. It was a great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.