New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast talks Steve Martin and alien abductions tonight

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The New Yorker might be just as well known for its cartoons as it is for its 10,000-word stories, and one of its illustrators, Roz Chast, who's been cartooning for the magazine since 1978, will speak tonight at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, with a book signing to follow.

Aside from drawing for that venerated volume of opacity, Chast has also written three books -- including a children's book called The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! co-authored by Steve Martin -- and has her name on two anthologies of work.

The Pen and Podium show is sold out, but we spoke with Chast in advance of the program. Herewith some of her quirky sparkle:

Westword: How was working with Steve Martin?

Roz Chast: Steve Martin had this very funny idea for a children's book, and it was a dream job for me. A -- was just all the things that start with the letter A: alligators, atoms and anchovy sandwiches. He did 98 percent of the writing, but we did get together to brainstorm about certain letters. For some reason, we hadn't thought about unicycles, and we were like "How did we forget about unicycles!"

What's the difference between writing for children and writing for adults?

Some sort of humor, some references, maybe irony -- they get some degree of it, but it's different. One of the reasons Charles Addams cartoons appealed to me as a child was that a lot of the things they referenced were not so far outside my own experiences. It wasn't like the subject matter was boardrooms, which I still don't know much about. He had children in his cartoons, and those I understood.

Is there anything off-limits for kids or adults?

I was pretty surprised at the film ratings, especially when my children were little. When my kids were little, we watched everything -- South Park -- and laughed like crazy. It was just the grotesquely violent stuff.

Your new book is called What I Hate From A to Z, and a lot of your other projects involve the alphabet. What is so appealing about the alphabet to you?

It's a fun structure. Everybody knows it.

Are you really afraid of alien abductions, or did you just need a letter "A"?

I went to an alien-abduction conference once. I was there on a job, to cover it for a magazine, and I walked away really creeped out. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with UFO abductions and sort of thought they were inevitable and was sort of looking forward to it, even though I was terrified. But I thought for sure they'd find me, and I'd read every book about UFOs and I totally believed in them. I really wanted there to be UFOs.

But I didn't really believe in them as an adult. I hadn't seen one that was a little suspicious to me. But then, I knew a few people -- reasonable people -- who said they had. When people you trust not to be a liar or an insane person tells you they've seen a UFO, what do you say? What do you think?

It's not so much the fear, but that blurry edge of reality. That's what I was looking at for this book. They aren't out-and-out phobias; they're things that'll give you a feeling of creepiness. There's probably a long German compound word for it -- that even as an adult, you don't know everything.

You recently drew a comic about your trip to the West. How was it?

The Bellagio was hilarious. It was like Las Vegas on stilts. I went into the wedding chapel, and I had that jacket in the New Yorker and it was quite bedazzled. I wish I could have bedazzled the magazine.

What is your work process like? I start with an idea and hopefully not stare at a blank piece of paper until the gum falls out of my mouth, which once happened. That was a sad moment. It was humbling.

How would you describe your comic persona? What makes you funny?

I don't know; nobody has ever given me a list of that.

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