The New York Stories: An Interview with Ben Tanzer and Laura Szumowski

Artifice loves it when our friends get up to interesting projects, and we especially love projects that include non-traditional book tours, fantastic illustrations, and a weird, dark sense of humor. This post concludes a month of virtual book tours for The New York Stories, which is a collection by Ben Tanzer, illustrated by Laura Szumowski. The New York Stories was recently published by the Chicago Center for Literature & Photography (CCLaP) as a hand-bound, special edition (vellum illustration pages, faux-suede covers, and external Coptic stitching, oh my!), available now for $50.

The type for The New York Stories is creatively laid out in a condensed square format, with the text running like a magazine: two justified columns set close together. Szumowski’s illustrations leading into the stories are apt, tone-setting introductions to Tanzer’s acerbic, dark texts. Kids watch Mermaids and get into trouble, while adults ignore their problems at Thirsty’s bar. The New York Stories hits you with a never-ending series of gut-dropping moments; when you think that something awful might have happened but you try and hope for the best, Tanzer shows that it’s probably better to expect the worst. It’s a dark world where parents can’t be trusted with their friends’ children, and the children can’t be trusted with each other.

We hope you check out a few more of the interesting book tour stops (e.g. you can hear Ben reading a story over at Curbside Splendor, or listen to Ben and Laura chatting with Another Chicago Magazine). Here at Artifice, though, we give you a conversation about book production, comics, illustration challenges, the paranormal, and inanimate objects with personality.

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N.B. This interview is compiled from separate email correspondences, and was conducted between Chicago and London.

Artifice: Ben and Laura, can you describe the process of working with each other to develop the illustrations? How did you get in touch? How much contact did the two of you have before getting started?

Ben Tanzer: I would really like this answer to be so much cooler than it is. But, I sort of knew Laura personally from different readings and other events, had compulsively zipped around her website, though not in any stalkerish kind of way, really, and was a fan of her and her work and style. That said, it was CCLaPs idea to bring our work together and I think it was a terrific one. For me anyway. Laura may find herself increasingly dismayed by the whole thing and is merely keeping-up a happy face for our public appearances.

Laura Szumowski: I was originally approached by Jason Pettus, the publisher, about an illustration project he had in mind. He sent me one of Ben’s stories, The Babysitter, and I loved it.

Originally, Jason wanted me to do something along the lines of Jay Ryan, style wise, but when I talked with Ben, he mentioned Deer Hunter and First Blood as visual inspiration. My instincts from reading the stories agreed with Ben, so I did a few drawings to see what he thought. He said great, keep going– it was as simple as that. Not a whole lot of interaction, nothing too specific. He was comfortable with me taking artistic license, and I think was interested to see what I would draw from his writing.

Artifice: How many illustrations were done for each story, and/or how did you both narrow the choices down to just one or two?

Ben: This may be less than cool as well. Wow I suck. That said, I felt like this was less of a collaborative effort than an interpretive one. Meaning, this wasn’t a project where I worked with someone from the start to create something together. Instead, the stories were done and I treated it like Laura was being asked to respond to them. I really trust Jason’s artistic vision and design sense, and so I decided to mostly stay out of the process and see where Laura went with it. What is so exciting for me, was what she picked to highlight and how she did that all of which is very kick-ass.

Laura: I did two illustrations for each of the 17 stories; one chapter head plus a second drawing. I also did six full-color illustrations that appear throughout the book. It was difficult to narrow it down to two or three images per story, sometimes there were so many things I wanted to illustrate! My process involved reading through the stories several times: first to get an overall feel for the story, second to highlight key words or characters and make notes, third to narrow down and select the specific imagery to present. I think people might be surprised how thorough I am with this process, and how much thought and attention goes into it. At the same time, it is admittedly up to my own discretion and whims what ultimately becomes an illustration.

Laura Szumowski’s studio in Chicago.

Artifice: Laura, you recently made a great short video on the basics of the illustration process for The New York Stories. Can you share a little bit more about how are the illustrations were printed? Offset or screenprint? Did you have a hand in the book production / printing / binding process? Where was that done?

Laura: I’m pretty sure they’re printed using inkjet, the small print run champion. Offset or screenprint (or a combination with letterpress) would have been amazing, but for an edition of 100, these weren’t feasible options. I had nothing to do with the production of the book, though, that was all handled by Jason.

Ben: The illustrations are printed onto photo paper at a commercial printing service, then glued onto vellum sheets that are bound within the manuscript. I had no hand in any of that and while I am thrilled by the whole project and whatever role I played in it, I am starting to think that I may not have done so much and am now riding the coattails of my shockingly creative counterparts.

Artifice: Laura’s style for The New York Stories is a little bit like that of the Hernandez brothers, and these illustrations all have their own really distinct personalities, like characters in Love & Rockets. It can always be a difficult balance ‘showing’ faces and characters that an author has taken pains to describe in the text. Art book publishers since the mid nineteenth century have struggled with this (Stéphane Mallarmé, Ambroise Vollard, etc). Did you both discuss this—the depiction of people/characters to illustrate your stories, rather than personality-less inanimate objects—before the project started? 

Ben: We really didn’t. And one of the funny things, is that with certain drawings, there is a weird sort of kismet in her work on this project, which is not something I generally subscribe to. For example there is an image from “The Neighborhood” [also titled "The Babysitter"] where Laura drew a series of teenagers from the story and it was shocking to me how well she captured not just how I described them in the piece, but the actual teenagers I based them on from the neighborhood I grew-up in. I don’t think every artist that I ever work with will quite see the images in my head like she has, than again I don’t know how she did so and I am beginning to wonder if her gifts extend to the paranormal.

Laura: I’m a fan of the Hernandez brothers, so I appreciate the comparison, but I had another comics artist in mind. As I read Ben’s stories, my mind kept finding connections to Daniel Clowes. His drawings are often commonplace, almost boring (no pun intended) characters and places that simultaneously have a haunted, dark, twisted or grotesque quality that I both love and thought would do well to emulate the mood of The New York Stories.

I’m not familiar with the history, but you make an interesting point about showing faces. To be honest, it never occurred to me not to do it. In fact, because Ben was so specific in some of his physical descriptions, I saw it as an exciting challenge to illustrate the characters in the stories. Much of my [other] work involves internal anatomy and inanimate objects, so I don’t often get the opportunity to draw people and faces.

To me, even the inanimate objects I chose to illustrate have a great deal of personality to them. The cigarette burning in the ashtray, the IV bag, they’re all remnants of the lives they inhabit. I don’t think Ben and I ever discussed faces or character depiction, but I would love to hear his perspective.

Artifice: Laura, how does this project fit in with your larger body of work? I know you mainly focus on educational texts and illustration for ZMK Press, so what prompted you to pursue illustration for a work of fiction? The narratives in New York Stories are quite dark, and I think you matched that tone with your illustrations, but it is quite different from your books like Cycling or Tip of the Iceberg, which feature drawings that are more lighthearted and irreverent. Do you think the drawings you made for The New York Stories are related to your other book work, or are they a separate entity? 

Laura: While I consider this project separate from my larger body of work, illustrating The New York Stories took me down a new path, artistically. It’s odd, but before Jason approached me about this project, I didn’t think of myself as an illustrator. I write and illustrate nonfiction books about women’s health, but for me writing and illustrating were always locked together. Don’t ask me why, it was just a weird mental glitch. I absolutely loved having the sole duty of illustrator– this is like the sweet treat at the end of a meal in my own work (the meal being extensive research and composition). I also really enjoyed the challenge. What I like most of all is getting to know material and then problem solving the best way of framing it with illustration. Whether that’s lighthearted or dark, I find both equally gratifying.

Artifice: Do you think either of you will pursue other similar book illustration projects? And/or what projects are you working on right now? What’s next?

Ben: I would love to. One of my long-time fantasies is working on a graphic novel with someone, and it developing it from scratch. This conversation has come up with a couple of different publishers, but it hasn’t happened yet. I would also like to do a short story collection as the writer Joe Meno did where a different artist illustrates each of the different stories, and I have had this discussion with a publisher as well, but there has been no action on this project as of yet either. I am hopeful though. Just as I am hopeful that my next novel, Orphans, which was a conscious effort to do something in the science fiction genre is really coming out next spring. All of which makes me sound like a fairly big loser though I in no way intended for that happen when I began to answer the question.

Laura: Yes, I would love to do more illustration projects! I’ve just finished updating Tip of the Iceberg: A Book About the Clitoris, the first title in my series of women’s health guidebooks. It’s now in its third printing, and has been expanded by 16 pages including a historical timeline of the vibrator, which I am particularly fond of.

I have a few different projects in the works. To start, I’ll be adding to the women’s health series with a book about fertility awareness. I’m also excited to be working on my first graphic novel, a story I’m collaborating with my dad to create. It’s about his experiences growing up in Delray, a Polish-Hungarian neighborhood in Detroit.

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2 responses to “The New York Stories: An Interview with Ben Tanzer and Laura Szumowski

  1. Reblogged this on zoomousekey and commented:
    Julia V. Hendrickson does a great interview. Here are some questions she asked about my recent project illustrating The New York Stories by Ben Tanzer.

  2. Pingback: The New York Stories « zoomousekey

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