Excuse Me with Liana Finck
How do you make space for yourself in the world when you’re shy and a little bit weird? If you’re cartoonist Liana Finck, you channel the stuff stuck in your brain into your art—and find out a lot of people actually feel like you, too.
Liana is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and a wildly popular cartoonist on Instagram. Her newest book, Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self, is a collection of drawings about dating, love, sexism, anxiety, and all the absurdities of city life. We talk with her about getting comfortable with a public persona, processing feelings through drawing, and…crying at job interviews. She’s a delight, and you are gonna love this episode.
There’s a real good feeling in sharing something with strangers… I’m saying, “this is no longer my private shame, this is something we all share.”—Liana Finck, cartoonist and author of Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self | Photo of Liana by: Jorge Colombo
On the agenda:
- Drawing as a form of understanding yourself. “I’m trying to explain something to myself that I didn’t have words or pictures for before.”
- Being a shy person. “I think I was shy because I knew I was strange in a way that I couldn’t quite define and I was very afraid of being found out. And the sadness I think arose from the shyness… I was afraid of showing myself and I felt trapped and helpless and out of control. And I think that has a lot to do with something that society didn’t find me exactly what they ordered.”
- Putting yourself out there. “If I only did what was comfortable to me, I wouldn’t be able to make a life at all. I’m so used to stretching myself that I’m always doing it.”
- Breaking into the New Yorker. “I would come into the New Yorker once a year for many, many years… I would be the only newbie, and also the only woman, and also the only young person. And also of the young people—if there were any young people—the only one who didn’t go to Harvard.”
Plus: Handling professional rejection, rejecting others, and what to do when you wake up and realize…you’re a gatekeeper in your field.
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher Thanks to Harvest for sponsoring this episode of Strong Feelings. Harvest is simple, easy-to-use software for tracking your time, managing invoices, and so much more. You can even see how busy your team is and make sure people aren’t getting overworked, burnt out, and plain old frustrated. I use Harvest, I love Harvest, and you might too! Try it for free at GetHarvest.com/StrongFeelings and you can get 50% off your first paid month. That’s Get.Harvest.com/StrongFeelings, so check it out and get that 50% off. [theme music for 11 seconds and fades out]
Katel LeDu Hey, everyone, I’m Katel.
SWB And I’m Sara!
KL And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together. Today we’re talking to Liana Finck, who is a cartoonist and illustrator whose work can regularly be seen in the New Yorker. It was so fun talking to her because not everyone winds up with a job drawing cartoons in a major magazine as a career!
SWB I know! And not just any magazine, the New Yorker—
SWB of New Yorker cartoons. Legendary.
KL [laughing] Yes!
SWB So, Liana…is pretty successful now, but she also talked about something that really stuck with me, which is handling professional rejection.
KL Oh, yeah…
SWB Because you’ve got to get rejected a lot before you are publishing in the New Yorker. [laughs]
KL Yeah. It’s like there’s some level of rejection we all face in our careers, but there are some jobs where that’s a typical and even ongoing part of it. And it seems like even if you’re a person who can handle it—however that looks—I imagine it wears on you! [SWB sighs]
SWB As a writer, you have got to get used to rejection and that is definitely something everyone says. And you would think that I would maybe have a decent relationship with rejection by now. [KL laughs] I’ve published multiple books [KL laughs] and I’ve published articles in lots of different places, but I find it tough! I’ve never been a full-time freelancer who is pitching all the time, so maybe that’s part of it. I don’t have as much experience with it as obviously some writers do, but for me it always feels so personal. I always want to kind of shrivel up and disappear. [KL laughs] I think it’s a common reaction! [laughs]
SWB And even though I know intellectually it’s not that big of a deal—it might not even be about me, it might not be about my work at all, it might be timing, it might be a million different factors! I would rather shoot myself into the sun [KL laughs] than have to run into someone who rejected me five years ago at a cocktail party.
KL Oh my god, yeah. I think you really hit on something there though. It may not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it feels like such a huge deal in the moment. And like you said, it feels so personal! Even if you’re used to handling rejection, like you said, you still spent a ton of time putting yourself into something—like writing or creating or making something that is wholly you—and it just seems impossible for it to not feel personal.
SWB Right. It’s like the more of yourself you put into it, the harder it is. And I think also the more of yourself that’s in it, the more ashamed I feel.
SWB And I can tell you the way my brain works. Usually, it goes something like this: “oh my gosh, who am I to even think that I could have possibly been accepted? Oh wow, I was a silly, stupid person. I should feel ashamed. I should feel ashamed that I ever thought I was worthy of even trying to do that thing because, obviously, I’m not. And I should feel humiliated in front of them because they know I was never worthy in the first place and I was just an idiot who thought I might possibly be able to do that. And then let your brain keep doing that—
KL Oh yeah.
SWB —75 thousand more times.
KL Perfect. [laughs]
SWB It goes really well for me!
KL [laughing] It’s awesome.
SWB [laughing] I highly recommend it! [both laugh] Oh, gosh. So, I remember actually, I submitted an article to A List Apart in the fall of 2011. And I waited and I waited for some kind of acknowledgment, and I didn’t get anything. And at the time, A List Apart was where the designers and developers and content strategists that I looked up to were publishing their work. It was really important to me and I wanted really badly to be taken seriously. So, of course, what did I assume? Well, I assumed it wasn’t even worth them replying to me, that they were thinking this was so shitty that I didn’t even deserve a response.
KL Oh gosh. I didn’t even realize that’s how you got started with A List Apart. And, of course, it truly is worse not hearing anything at all and to just be left wondering. Rejection is what it is, but it’s definitive. Did you just never hear back from them?
SWB A couple of months later, a friend of mine convinced me that I should follow up with them, which I was like, how could I possibly?
KL You were like, what? [laughs]
SWB I know! So, I was very sheepish about it and I did. And they’d never even seen my first email! [laughs] So, they ended up publishing that article at the beginning of 2012. It’s the end of 2011, beginning of 2012 they published the article, and then literally in the summer of 2012, they got in touch with me and asked me to become the Editor in Chief of the magazine. [KL laughs]
KL Like…yeah. 180! [laughs]
SWB So, I was just going to let it die. I was like, “they clearly don’t think I’m worth anything, I should just throw this away.” [laughs] And only because I went back around to them and was like, hey, did it go somewhere. And if I had never done that, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. I would have done other things, for sure, but I ran A List Apart for four years, and during that time, I ended up getting involved with A Book Apart and writing Design for Real Life. And I don’t think that that would have happened or it definitely wouldn’t have happened in the same way. And I don’t even know if we would have ended up being friends!
KL I know! I’m so glad you didn’t let it die, that they got back to you and ran the piece and that it just all worked out the way it did, you know? It’s definitely wild sometimes to think back to how long the process can feel like too, and how long it takes to get back up on the horse.
KL And, of course, it’s different for everyone.
SWB Yeah. I think I am more confident about stuff than I used to be, and I feel a little less attached to things now usually, but I do think it takes a long time and I don’t necessarily get over it easily. [laughs] But I think some of the best advice is to just try and force yourself to keep doing things until it gets easier—to keep putting stuff out until you get a little more comfortable with whatever happens next.
SWB But that’s hard!
KL It is. And I do think that’s true. I feel like it can maybe hopefully turn into something that feels a little bit more like a practice, and then it feels a little bit—it does feel a little easier. I also think for me, when I’m doing something that requires handling rejection and particularly rejection that might happen over and over, I also have to make sure to balance that by doing something that doesn’t take from me in the form of rejection. I can’t only do the thing that I have to force myself to do.
SWB Mmmm, mhmm. Like you also do need reminders in your day that you don’t suck.
KL [laughing] Exactly! [both laugh]
SWB And I don’t think it’s just a matter of, oh, keep torturing yourself with rejection until it doesn’t sting anymore. I think it’s also learning how you’re going to process the feelings in the moment. You’ve got to be able to face those feelings and look at where they’re coming from. I think most of us tend to have a strong attachment to feelings of success and feeling wanted, and a strong aversion to feeling like failures or feeling like we’re not wanted. You feel a little bit shunned. And that’s really natural! That’s normal. But if you can kind of zoom out on that and be like, okay, yes. This is a feeling that I’m having. I’m having this feeling because I’m attached to feeling successful and this did not make me feel successful, you can kind of look at that feeling, you can kind of turn it around in your head. And I think when you’ve done that, it’s a lot easier to then let it go. It doesn’t have to mean anything about you, it’s just like, oh, yes. Ah! There is a feeling I am having! [both laugh]
KL There it is! [both laugh]
SWB And you have it, and you experience it, and it sucks to experience it, but then it’s not something that has to define you. And then I think about me at the cocktail party [KL laughs] running from the person who rejected me five years ago—[both laugh] I should go up and talk to that person, right? Because I think most of the time, that rejection looms really large in your mind, but it’s not looming large in other people’s minds and actually getting over that fear and going and talking to them would make it all normalized. It would stop feeling weird to you because they probably wouldn’t be weird. Most of the time, some people maybe would be, but most of the time, they reject a lot of people and it’s just a small thing and it happens. They reject people they love, and they reject people they later publish, and that is the way of things. They’re not holding it against you, they’re not judging you for it, you’re holding it against you—
KL [laughing] Right!
SWB —and you’re judging you for it! [laughs]
KL Oh my gosh, yes. I love that and honestly, I feel like even if I can’t hold that in my head at all times and use it to process, I’m so glad you brought it up because I think we all need to hear that.
SWB Yeah! The stuff that feels so big for us is often much smaller for others.
SWB And that doesn’t mean it can’t be big for you and your feelings, but when you put it into perspective, it’s easier to let go of.
KL Oh gosh. I mean, when I was living in New York City—those first couple of years I spent temping at different companies while going on job interviews for full-time work—and I got rejected left and right! It felt awful.
KL I was like, “but I’m doing this other temporary work over here, I have the skills, why am I not good enough for this job?” And actually, when I decided to move back to DC, my plan was to get a job there first because I just could not afford to be without a job. And I wound up interviewing for the exact same position I’d had at National Geographic, but five years earlier. I went through two rounds of this interviewing process and then I got rejected.
SWB Oh my gosh.
KL I got rejected for the job I’d already had.
SWB Oh my god, I did not know that! [KL laughs] I did not know that I had been friends with a ghost [KL laughs] this whole time. You definitely obviously died! [laughs]
KL I did, I was mortified. And I thought, well, I’m never getting a job in DC, I’m never going to get to move back, and I should just go back to my small apartment in Brooklyn that I couldn’t afford anyway and wither away there. [laughs]
SWB But wait, you did end up back at National Geographic [laughs] and you ended up in a big job there. How did that happen? Did you just dust yourself off and…apply to more positions? Because I would have been like, you’ve got to throw the whole company away.
KL [laughing] Yeah!
SWB They don’t exist anymore. National what? [KL laughs]
KL I know, Well, I decided—I just kind of thought, wait, maybe there’s a different route in and maybe I haven’t looked at all the options. So, I reached out to a friend I had at National Geographic who I’d worked with before, and was kind of like, look, I just applied for this other role, I feel awful. Do you think there are other similar positions I should try for?And she was actually really helpful because she wound up validating that the rejection had less to do with me personally, [laughing] as we’re finding is the case—
KL —and more to do with the fact that they ended up hiring from within. And, of course, I would never have known that. Anyway, it was great that I reached out to her because three months later, she called me and she was like, hey, I have a position open. It’s perfect for you and it’s new and the rest was history. I went and I moved up.
SWB That’s so great!
SWB But I also would have struggled to even tell my friend who worked there [KL laughs] that I was rejected from a job there.
SWB That would have been really hard for me.
SWB I think now I could do it, but when I was younger, I would have buried that shit.
SWB And then never have gotten the job and nothing would have ever happened, you know?
SWB Rejection is hard. Okay, but! You and me both have a lot of experience being on the other side now too. Rejecting people!
SWB Which is also hard, or at least it is for me. Even when I am 100% sure that something isn’t a good fit, it’s still really difficult. And I’m curious—at A Book Apart, you do have to reject people. What is that like and what do you think about when you need to write a rejection?
KL God, yeah. It is really tough, no matter how much you do it. For me, it’s really important to put myself back in those shoes of being on the receiving end and think about, “okay, if I got this email, how would it make me feel?”
SWB Yes! I don’t think enough editors do that.
KL Yeah. Unfortunately, I do a lot of rejecting as a publisher because we don’t publish every book proposal we receive. It’s an inherent part of the job and I am definitely better at it now than I was 6 years ago, which is [laughs] a weird statement. [SWB laughs] But I think it’s also because I have an approach for it. When I can clearly tell it’s not some mass pitch—like sometimes we get book proposals for fine art books or even cookbooks. And if I know the pitch is in earnest, I do like to provide some amount of feedback.
SWB Mmm, mhmm. Yeah, I had to reject a lot of people at A List Apart too. We also got a lot of submissions, and I had kind of the same approach. If you spam me a press release, I am not investing my time in that because that’s not something you spent time thinking about, right?
SWB But as soon as somebody sends something where they had clearly worked on it, they’d read our submission guidelines, they knew who they were submitting to and why, then I was considering that a good faith submission. And if you’re submitting something in good faith, then my sense was that you deserve a good faith response. So, that means even if it’s not a good fit, trying to give them some sense of why it’s not a good fit, and making sure we’re kind, and giving them some kind of closure on it. So, I would often do things like communicate why it wasn’t something that would work for us right now. So, maybe we had recently covered a similar topic and it didn’t feel like it had enough newness to it or maybe it wasn’t very fresh. Maybe it was just sort of off for us, it was kind of tangential to our core areas. Or sometimes it would be, I ran this by the tech editors and they have some concerns about it. These are the concerns that they have, and this is the perspective they’re coming from, and they’re not comfortable with this.
SWB And we might have differing opinions. The person on the receiving end of that may disagree—
SWB —and think that it’s a fine approach, but these are the editorial standards that we have and this is just not something we’re going to do. And I would really try hard also to be timely about things and not let things sit too long.
SWB Especially sometimes people were submitting things that were technical stuff that was kind of new and fresh. They don’t want to wait six months, they’ll just put it on their freaking blog! [laughs]
KL Right, totally.
SWB But I also feel that I definitely screwed it up a lot. There were times when we got bogged down, we weren’t as fast as I wanted to be, which means letting people sit in silence. And then there were also times when I was sure I was unnecessarily harsh when what I was aiming to do was be critical but constructive. And I definitely didn’t always hit that.
KL Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. Timeliness is extremely helpful in the case of rejection because it goes back to what you talked about earlier. You were left wondering and that can just feel like agony. The other two components I also like to keep in mind are clarity—so, this is not a thing that we are going to do together or it’s not a good fit, and just being very upfront about that—and kindness.
SWB Mmm, mhmm. So, how do you do that? What does kind and clear rejection look like?
KL Yeah. So, with kindness, there are a couple of ways. One, I like to try to find something positive to comment on, like if the proposal is really well organized or there’s obviously been a lot of thought put into it, or even a concept I think is super strong and the author should hone in on. That sometimes becomes part of the feedback. But even before that, I thank the submitter for thinking of us for their book idea. There are a lot of publishers out there. And as far as rejection, I try to do that as early on in the response as possible. So, not the first thing like, sorry, nope, but I try not to wait until the end. And it usually sounds something like, “this book is not a fit for us, so we’re going to pass.” And often I’ll explain why it’s not a fit and, again, that very frequently that becomes part of the feedback.
SWB Mhmm, yeah. Yeah, I’ve definitely screwed that up too.
KL It’s hard!
SWB I know. It’s a little different with a book—a book is such a big thing—but I feel like in the submission process for an article, there were definitely times where I was like, “I don’t think this is going to end up working, but it could, it might.”
SWB I would feel like I wanted to be nice and I wanted to encourage them and I wanted them to grow, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But what would end up happening is that I would keep giving feedback when I should have cut the cord on it.
SWB And maybe it felt nice to be giving feedback and be trying to encourage them, but ultimately it would have been a lot kinder to just say, “look, I don’t think this is going to be a good fit.” Or not even, “I don’t think this is going to be a good fit,”—
KL It’s not.
SWB “Look, this isn’t working, we’re going to pass on this.”
SWB And being more direct about a rejection doesn’t feel easy for the rejector—and I’m sure it doesn’t feel right for the rejectee either on the other end of that—but it’s better than being vague and keeping people’s hopes up!
KL Yeah. I’ve certainly gone down that path and you’re right, it can actually wind up being tough on both parties!
SWB Mhmm. I just think it speaks to the importance of really thinking about power dynamics in these conversations. When you have the power to say yes or say no, that is a big responsibility. That is literally being a gatekeeper!
KL Yeah! That totally comes with responsibilities!
SWB Yeah! And sometimes I think that even when you’re in that position of power as a gatekeeper, it’s still easy to identify with the scared little person who is being rejected. You don’t think of yourself as a gatekeeper. I think many of us think of ourselves as just some little person, even when we wield considerable power. So, it’s so important to acknowledge that power and to acknowledge there’s a bit power difference when people are submitting things to you and you have the ability to say, yes, no, in, out. You have to think about your own biases and assumptions, you have to think about the groups that are systematically kept out, you have to think about who you have been saying yes to and what does that say about what your priorities are. And those are really, really, really crucial conversations to keep having.
KL Yes, oh my gosh. And in this interview, Liana talks about gatekeepers and how she navigated them, and it’s important to acknowledge that, yes, they exist. So, she did work through a lot of rejection, but what I love about this interview is that she also found new channels and ways to bypass those gatekeepers altogether, which just was really inspiring to me. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Liana Finck
KL Liana Finck is a cartoonist and illustrator who regularly contributes to the New Yorker, and Sara and I are huge fans of her work. So, we’re really excited to talk with her about her newest book, Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self. Liana, welcome to Strong Feelings!
Liana Finck Thank you so much for having me.
SWB So, Katel and I got a copy of Excuse Me, and as we were going through it, we just kept stopping each other and being like, “oh my gosh, look at this one, [KL laughs] oh my gosh, look at this one.” And we were laughing quite a lot, so I’m wondering if we can start there. Can you tell our listeners who don’t have a copy of the book yet how you would describe it? What is Excuse Me?
LF Excuse Me is a collection of drawings that I originally posted on Instagram. I started posting on Instagram just after I sold my first New Yorker cartoon. Maybe actually a while after because I was frustrated for not selling more New Yorker cartoons and I was having a very late feminist awakening and realizing that maybe the cartoons that I felt expressed me the most weren’t the ones most likely to be chosen. And I thought, “I want to make those cartoons anyway,” and I posted those ones on Instagram. They’re not necessarily funny—they’re not supposed to be funny—but I found that directness and humor are kind of siblings, so I go for directness rather than funniness [SWB & KL laugh] in these cartoons. I’m trying to explain something to myself that I didn’t have words or pictures for before.
SWB You know, I’m really interested in this idea that you went through what you call a “late feminist awakening.” What was that like for you?
LF It happened around the time I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and I don’t think it was a coincidence. I think I was such a latecomer to feminism because I was a very shy person and it’s hard to know you’re right when you feel like you’re not really a human and any attention that is given to you is welcome. So, I feel very lucky not to have been picked off earlier by predators, but I didn’t really know how to protect myself until maybe my mid-twenties. I would date anyone who would ask me to, I was always very pleased if someone would catcall me because I was so starved for attention. I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was younger and I thought something was wrong with me. And I think it was kind of cumulative; I finally got enough attention that I was able to look back and see, “oh, this was not actually welcome attention, and this was scary, and I feel taken advantage of here, both by people who I actually dated and strangers on the street and on the internet.” And it finally just all hit me at once when I was about 28.
SWB Wow. That sounds so intense!
SWB And like a good awakening!
SWB But also tough. And to sort of recognize that you did deserve attention as a human and you didn’t deserve unwanted attention—that just sounds like a really big thing to wake up and realize. Did you feel like it really affected the work that you were creating?
LF Yes, it did. I’ve always been very self-conscious and I feel like the self-consciousness kind of moves from one area to another. When I was a kid, I was very shy, but I could draw and I wasn’t very self-conscious about drawing and that was my one outlet for expressing myself. But as I got older and as I started thinking of making art professionally, the self-consciousness moved over to art and it got easier for me to talk, but drawing got harder and harder and I was always so worried that I wasn’t drawing perfectly and I wasn’t drawing well enough to deserve to be a professional artist. It became almost impossible for me to draw. Also, I went to art school. I had wanted to be a cartoonist, but I found out that I couldn’t go to the art school of my choice, which was Cooper Union, if I still called myself a cartoonist. So, I kind of morphed into a painter and from there, various kinds of fine artists. And I wasn’t comfortable in any of those modes, so the self-consciousness kind of built from there. I would just redo and redo things and try to make this version of perfection that didn’t come from inside of me. But I think the anger is what pulled me back to being able to draw, and I finally had a feeling of, “I’m drawing this for me, I’m not drawing this to pass some kind of a test, and it is what it is.” And that’s a very healthy way to look at drawing I think.
KL Yeah, I would agree with that. And I think it really comes through. When I look at your drawings, they’re funny, but also really vulnerable and poignant. Like the ones that communicate things like anxiety and self-doubt. And I have a lot of favorites, but one that has stuck out to me and kind of stuck with me is [laughs] it shows a woman reading a book titled” How to Sabotage Anything.” [SWB laughs] And [laughs] it’s so wonderful; I think it says so much so simply. How do you get to that simplicity while communicating a complex emotion?
LF One way is physically. I draw very very small, so I kind of don’t give myself room to add detail. If there’s no room to add detail, there’s a lot less room to mess up. I feel like I catch the edges of ideas, I don’t try to draw them fully, and there’s freedom in that. I try to only draw things that are really bothering me—that are kind of a real problem—so that in drawing a small version of it, I can evoke the larger thing. Rather than maybe what a philosopher is, which is to try to explain a very vague concept so fully that people can understand it. I’ll take a concept that people already know, so there’s a lot less onus on me to describe it fully because they already know.
KL Yeah. So, it sounds like it’s quite often, but how often does the process of sitting down to create each illustration kind of help you work through your own emotions or something that you might be going through?
LF I don’t really sit down to draw them; I’ve gotten into the practice of trying to pin things down in my head. I think that’s the big change that the Instagram has made in my life. If I’m thinking circularly about something, I will try to boil it down to kind of logo format, and once I do that, I can kind of see the outline of it and I stop thinking about it so circularly and it’s really helpful. I think I already have them fully in my head before I draw them and I draw them kind of to take note of what I’ve figured out. I can’t really explain it, but there’s a real good feeling in sharing something with strangers, so I feel like I’m sharing this thing with strangers. I’m saying, “this is no longer my private shame, this is something we all share,” and that’s the second part of the therapy for me.
SWB Was that hard for you to get to a place where you could do that? Because as a self-described shy person, you had to be really vulnerable to be able to kind of get that out. Or was it easier because you were more comfortable drawing?
LF I think it was hard for me to get to the part where I can draw in a way that’s not self-conscious and I think there was a lot of trial and error in practice. I really believe Malcom Gladwell. I believe that about 10,000 hours; I think if you’re self-conscious about something and if you do it for 10,000 hours, the self-consciousness will go away and you’ll feel comfortable doing it. Or however many hours. So, somehow once I felt comfortable enough to draw for—I don’t want to even say a wider audience. But I never felt self-conscious drawing when it was for one person and I knew that they wanted something—like they’d asked a question and I was answering and drawing if there’s a really specific reason. I think the self-consciousness comes when there isn’t a specific reason. But somehow, I think through submitting a lot of New Yorker cartoons, I got past that self-consciousness. And at that point, it’s much more fun to draw for strangers than it is to draw for one person, you know? If you know how to do it, [KL & SWB laugh] there’s a lot more freedom in it.
KL Yeah, I imagine so. So, some of your illustrations make explicit commentary on things like sexual harassment. There’s a whole section in the book on gender and politics. And they’re funny, yet unnerving. Two that Sara and I both laughed and groaned at were one is a group of women standing around a man holding cocktails with just the word “fascinating,” [laughs] and I think we both audibly [laughs] groaned at that one. [LF laughs]
SWB Been to that party!
KL [laughing] Yeah!
LF Thanks for getting that one.
KL [laughing] Yeah.
LF That was based on—that was part of a series of drawings I did based on people’s pictures on OK Cupid. [KL & SWB laugh]
KL [laughing] Oh god!
LF There was this man with a picture of himself holding forth for a group of really ditsy-looking women.
KL Yeah, that one we really stared at and commiserated on. And there’s another one where there are scales of justice with the words “he assaulted me” on one outweighing the other with the words “no I didn’t.” And that’s really powerful. What kinds of reactions do you get to these drawings? How are folks connecting with what you’re saying there?
LF Well, the “he assaulted me” one was drawn during the Blasey Ford hearing. Reactions I get? I don’t know. I’m curious to look back. I have a feeling that the fascinating one would have gotten some weird reactions. Not because people aren’t feminist who follow me, just because when I draw something that’s open to interpretation, that’s when people who have various kinds of chips on their shoulder will pour in and write something saying like, “is this a picture of me? Do you think I’m [SWB & KL laugh] them or something?”
SWB Oh my gosh!
LF But when I draw something as clear and—I’m trying to remember actually if I got any weird reactions to the scales of justice. I actually think I might have gotten some misunderstanding ones saying, “no, it’s actually not equal, we should believe the victim,” which is actually what I was saying. If I get bad reactions, it’s usually a misunderstanding, at least to the feminist ones.
SWB So, the book is divided up into sections. There is a lot that is feminist cartoons like Katel was talking about, there’s a lot on gender and politics. And then these other sections like strangeness, shyness, and sadness, and notes to self. And I’m curious—how did you land on those categories? Did you look at your work and realize that it was falling into these common themes organically? Or did you specifically want to explore certain topics?
LF Well, I made the categories after the fact; I didn’t make the work hoping it would fit into any of these categories. And the categories were made together with my editor at Random House, Andy Ward. I can’t remember who thought of what. I know he thought of notes to self as the catchall for the very long ones without any pictures. I don’t remember the strangeness, sadness, shyness. I hope I thought of that; I like the idea of linking together neurological difference with emotional states in a way. I think that there’s some poetic license there and some deep truth. The strangeness applies to my feeling very, very slightly neurodiverse in a way that I can’t define further than that because one, I’ve never been diagnosed and two, I don’t really trust the diagnosers for people who are very, very on the cusp. And the shyness I think arose from the strangeness in a way; I think I was shy because I knew I was strange in a way that I couldn’t quite define and I was very afraid of being found out. And the sadness I think arose from the shyness of like, “I really don’t think I’m someone who is hopelessly sad all the time. I think I get sad for a reason and I think I’ve been sad most in my life because I was hiding myself and I was afraid of showing myself and I felt trapped and helpless and out of control. And I think that has a lot to do with something that society didn’t find me exactly what they ordered.
SWB Yeah. That whole category sounds so much like it’s a category of stuff that can make you feel really alone and alienated.
KL Mhmm, yeah.
SWB And I think though you talk a lot about feeling different or feeling like you didn’t fit in or have that many friends. And yet, when we look at your work, and I think when a lot of people look at your work, they see some of themselves in it, even if they’re very different from you.
SWB And there’s so much that I think that’s very validating to see somebody else be able to make this perfect little cartoon that encapsulates something I’ve felt. And I’m curious—as you’ve been able to do that and connect with people in that way, if that’s let you feel less trapped, as you said you felt before?
LF Yes, so much less trapped. I feel like Instagram has saved me in a way from feeling very obscure. And to re-answer your question about whether it’s stressful to draw for strangers, I think it’s so much easier to draw for strangers because if I was drawing for someone I know, they can tell that I’m not making eye contact and my smile is crooked from terror. And even if they can’t tell that, which they probably can’t, I’m afraid they can tell it. So having the distance from someone of drawing is like wearing a mask. You feel so much freer than actually being seen by someone or being known by someone. I think there’s a lot more possibility of people relating to me if I’m wearing a mask than if I’m right in front of them.
SWB That’s really interesting. And it’s interesting that you think of that medium of drawing it as giving you a bit of a mask. And I’m really curious about your development as a cartoonist and the career path that you’ve been on because I think being a cartoonist, that is not a career choice that most people would even think of. And it almost seems like, “how can that really be someone’s job?” Or like there’s five people who have that job and then nobody else! But it is! This is what you do. And I would love to hear more about that backstory, especially you talked about going to Cooper Union, but you weren’t able to call yourself a cartoonist when you were there. How did you go from that to leading yourself back to calling yourself a cartoonist and eventually getting your work in the New Yorker?
LF I did it without realizing I was doing it. Cooper Union has a really good program for getting kids Fulbrights, which is a grant where you travel to a different country for ten months of a year. There was a teacher who was in Gwen Hyman who was a powerhouse helper of essay writing for that. So, I applied for a Fulbright. I think I knew I couldn’t apply for a Fulbright as a cartoonist. I probably could have, but I thought I couldn’t because that was so looked down upon in the academic art school world. So, I applied as a writer who draws…I think? Or maybe even drawing sounded too mundane, so it was probably like, “a writer who creates images” or something. [SWB & KL laugh] And after I did get the grant, I went to Belgium and I spent ten months living on a very low stipend sitting in a little cold room and trying to make this new medium that had never been made before—writing with images. [SWB laughs] What came out were comics. And after I got home from Belgium, I’d kind of been broken and realized I wasn’t this super highbrow intellectual, I was just a lonely person. And I was a little bit humbled. I started frequenting the comics world gatherings and they’re so unpretentious and wonderful and smart. And I thought, “this is what’s lowbrow that I’m trying not to be part of? This is wonderful and not lowbrow!” But another thing that made it easier for me, which is a really horrible thing to say, is the financial crash in 2008. I never saw myself having an office job, partly because back then I used to cry during job interviews and I just thought I wouldn’t be able to get a job soon enough to make a salary. That’s why I tried so hard to get grants; I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to make money otherwise. But after the financial crash, so many of my friends also didn’t get full-time jobs and I felt weirdly like part of a community in a way that I hadn’t expected. And so many people I knew went freelance and I was kind of part of a wave of that. Being a New Yorker cartooner is the same amount of weirdness as what everyone else was doing, like freelance web design or things like that.
SWB Yeah, everybody was trying to string a gig together.
SWB How did you start doing that? How did you start getting your work published? You mentioned earlier that you spent a while trying to get into the New Yorker before they accepted something, so how did you build up your work or build up your client base?
LF I would come into the New Yorker once a year for many, many years. I think I started by mail when I was sixteen; I mailed in some cartoons. And being really self-conscious, I would take the no as a real no. Whereas, of course, if you want to submit cartoons to the New Yorker, you should be prepared to submit for six months or so before they pick a cartoon. You need a lot of confidence to do that I think and that’s what I was lacking. And finally, I was able to start doing it, partly because the first day I came back when I was maybe 26–the first time I came in a year or so—the office was full of all kinds of different people because a documentary was being filmed that day. The documentary was to become Very Semi-Serious, which is wonderful. Usually, when I could come in, I would be the only newbie, and also the only woman, and also the only young person. And also of the young people—if there were any young people—the only one who didn’t go to Harvard. I would feel so out of place and so much like I didn’t belong, but on this day I did feel like I belonged. And I realized that I wasn’t the only person submitting cartoons who wasn’t a regular already. And after that, I think it was three or four months before I got one, and then I was just hooked. The cartoons I submitted got easier and easier to submit over time. What I’ve always needed in my life is for someone to force me to practice something. I think you need confidence to be able to practice something on your own without constant feedback. Because usually when I do it, I just feel like I’m wasting time and being ridiculous.
SWB It’s so funny that you mentioned that you learned that to be a successful New Yorker cartoonist, you basically keep submitting over and over again and not take the no as a final no. You know, I don’t identify as a particularly shy person, but I get really embarrassed about having to submit things. I’m the kind of person where I submitted an article and then they didn’t get back to me and I was like, “oh my gosh, I should feel embarrassed, it was definitely awful—
KL [laughing] They hate me.
SWB —and it wasn’t even good enough to send me an email back, and, and, and.” And I find out six months later that they lost it in their inbox. [KL laughs] But I would be that person who would be like, “okay, well, they didn’t reply to me, so I must be totally ashamed and I should spend the rest of my life hiding from this person, and if I see them at a social gathering, I have to pretend I don’t even exist.” [KL laughs] And that’s not a [KL laughs] healthy response! [laughs & SWB laughs]
SWB Yeah, yeah! So, how did you gain more of that courage to keep submitting? It sounds like the dynamic in the room was different that one time you went in and that really helped. But then you went back home and you had to keep sending them stuff? So, how did you find the courage to do that?
LF First of all, I got to be a character in the documentary so I felt like I had to play the role of someone who kept submitting. And that really helped! I think you can abort shyness by pretending that you’re someone else. I think that was the main thing.
LF But also, once you know that someone is at the other end and listening to you, I think then it’s easy to keep submitting. I think what’s really hard is at the beginning of submitting something, you keep getting either really stark nos or just being ghosted. I still feel like I’m at that point in many things that I’m trying to branch into, such as kids books. I’ll mock up a draft of a kid’s book every year or so and I’ll send it to my agent and I’ll send it to an editor I know. And I’ll write a really, really long email saying, “I know the jokes aren’t landing, I know the drawings are messy, [SWB laughs] I know that the story is way more bitter than it should be; these all symptoms of my extreme self-consciousness. If you give me a little bit of encouragement and feedback, I will go back and make a better draft. And then I’ll get a, “we really don’t like this draft, we’re so sorry.”
KL [laughing] Aww!!
LF And that’s the only feedback I’ll get. And then it takes me another year to build up my courage and make something new.
KL Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s really important for people to hear that it’s okay to put yourself into a submission like that, into a request like that. To me, it sounds like you’re being very true to that. And it’s too bad that you’re not getting super comprehensive feedback, but I don’t know, I think that sounds like you’re staying aligned with who you are.
LF Yeah. There’s got to be a better way to say it though, [KL laughs] that will get better results.
KL I don’t know, I think they should give you more feedback. I’m mad at them! [laughs]
SWB You know, it’s—
LF I’m mad at them too. [KL laughs]
SWB I hear that children’s book publishing can be really hard to break into. I’ve heard that from a few different people.
LF Yeah, I know. It is. And I think it’s changed. And I think, unfortunately, all the children’s books I love are ones that wouldn’t have been published now. They’re really oddball ones like a book by Roz Chast and Steve Martin that’s like an alphabet book of limericks, which are illustrated—which is my favorite part—by Roz Chast. Each page has everything that begins with an A all kind of interacting in the funniest ways, and the next page has everything that begins with B.
LF And I love Maira Kalman’s kid books that are just so loopy and so funny.
SWB So, I’m curious—you’ve talked about having some semi-regular stuff in the New Yorker, and you do a lot of posting on Instagram. But what does the day to do look like? How many projects do you have going that are for publications versus projects like your Instagram drawings that might end up in a book? What’s the breakdown of things?
LF It’s always changing, and I don’t love that fact, I’m not great with change. My work life also is super mixed up with my social life because I’m a work-at-home freelancer and that’s very confusing to me also because that keeps changing. My parents moved a few months ago and I had to block out time in my calendar to emotionally support them and see them a lot. If I have a book too, that’s also a big shift in the calendar. I can’t avoid social things the way someone would if they had a 9–5 and just say, “I’m sorry, I just can’t help from Monday through Friday, I can only help on the weekends.” I just can’t do that. Right now, I’m on a book tour, so it’s a totally different schedule. I’m doing a talk or a social thing or an airplane flight or several of the above every day. Jewish holidays also—and those are bolded, I mark them on my Google Calendar the same color as the book talks because to me they’re the same thing. But I guess in a more normal time, I hope to reserve three days each week for New Yorker cartoons because I don’t like to rush myself with those. I think they’re much funnier and much more fun to make if one has time to wander and think and not have one’s brain crowded with other things. Realistically, I probably actually give myself just two days a week for the New Yorker cartoons, sometimes less. Sometimes I reuse old cartoons, which makes me feel really bad. And then I do a lot of freelance. I also am always working on a book in some format. Either it’s close to finished and I’m revising it, or it’s not a thing yet and I’m trying to come up with it, which are really different processes. When a book is really underway, I like to be always at home at my desk when I’m working on it. I like to keep that time separate from the freelance time. When it’s a new book, I like to mix it up with everything, I like to be outdoors. I do as much work as I can outdoors or on trains or in cafes. I like to watch people. I hate to be talked to, I love to watch people. [SWB laughs] That’s my ideal place to be.
KL Yeah, I understand that a lot. I want to ask about your last book actually. It was a graphic memoir titled Passing for Human. What was happening in your life that made you want to write a memoir?
LF I think it didn’t start out as a memoir. It started out as a kind of comic strip about a women who has unknowingly lost her shadow a long time and the shadow comes back, and the woman doesn’t realize it’s her shadow. She thinks it’s a prospective roommate and it’s kind of a sitcom kind of thing. Then I just couldn’t think of any jokes for the sitcom. It’s so obvious that there’s such a sad, real story under there, and all the jokes kind of fell into a black hole and I finally investigated where the sadness was from and I realized I felt I had lost something when I was maybe thirteen with puberty. I learned how to not be strange at that point, but it was really at the expense of losing what I called my true self. I think what I was trying to do was find the most universal, so that it became less personal. But it’s still pretty personal and there’s a lot there about my mom also. I think it’s complicated how she feels about it and that’s always a big burden to carry when you’re making creative work if you’ve brought someone else’s feelings into it.
SWB Yeah, yeah. Did you talk to her about it before you did it? How did you navigate that?
LF Yeah, I did. And I changed it a lot depending on what she told me. I don’t know if I was reading what she told me right or if I was reading too much into it, maybe because she’s my mom. It’s a story told in several strands and one strand is about me as kind of weird girl with this enormous ungainly shadow, which is what made the girl weird and also what made her able to draw and able to concentrate on little details and love nature and things like that, and she eventually loses her shadow. And then there’s another story that is kind of the control for the experiment of what if the little girl wasn’t weird? What would her shadow be like then? And that story is about my mom and how my mom lost her shadow. I have my mom as not a really awkward kid, but an artist kid who loves to read and is smart and has smart friends and has a lot of hope for the future. And she’s growing up a different time for me and her shadow kind of symbolizes her ambitions, but once it becomes clear that what her ambition should be is to get married as young as possible, the shadow shrivels up and becomes more of a weight than a helping force. And the character gets into a bad marriage and has to cut off her shadow in order to leave the marriage. That did happen to my mom. And I also tell the story of how without a shadow, she falls in love with a new person—with my dad—and she has to leave her career in order to marry him, and she pours all of her art into making this beautiful house for him. In reality, she did that. She left her ambitious career as an architect, but what I didn’t put in the book is that she became a painter and she’s really serious about it. I flattened her life story and I think that was the part that was painful to her. Also I think she would have rather been private about her first marriage.
SWB Yeah, gosh. It sounds really tough to be able to tell that story in a way that’s going to feel right to everybody and also can be told simply and in a graphic style. It sounds difficult! And it also sounds like she has a story that’s similar to a lot of women’s stories and that maybe it is more a universal story, particularly about a certain generation of women too.
LF Yeah, I wish I could talk to her more clearly about it. There’s no direct way to talk about it. I can say that the whole book was a tribute to her because she is the person in my life who turns life into stories the most and it’s a habit I picked up from her. I don’t think it’s something I naturally would have done otherwise.
KL That’s really sweet. We’re glad it exists! [laughs] Before we wrap up here, I just want to bring it back to something that we’ve touched on here, which is how you describe yourself as a shy person, but you’ve managed to put yourself out there in a lot of ways that are really public and vulnerable. How do you have a persona that maybe doesn’t always line up with how you’re perceived?
LF I think I put myself out there because I know that I have to. I think if I only did what was comfortable to me, I wouldn’t be able to make a life at all. I’m so used to stretching myself that I’m always doing it. Even talking to a male person would be really uncomfortable to me, so there’s really no difference to me between going downstairs to pick up a package and trying to get a book published, which is equally uncomfortable, I guess. [SWB & KL laughs] I was in discomfort and I get used to it, and I’ve learned to enjoy it sometimes. And I run! I run a lot.
KL Yeah, I hear that. You have to kind of make that uncomfortableness and anxiety your buddy sometimes.
LF Yeah, exactly. There was some point when I transitioned from crying at job interviews to really liking public speaking. It’s because the same thing that used to make me cry because it was so uncomfortable now feels familiar to me. It’s still uncomfortable, but it’s also familiar and I really enjoy it.
SWB That is really great to hear.
SWB Because I think some people think, “oh gosh, I’m just not a public speaking person, I can’t become a public speaking person.” And I don’t think everyone needs to by any means, but I feel like sometimes people have this spark in them, they want to do it, and they’re really scared of it because they’re not necessarily naturally great at it or naturally comfortable with it.
SWB I love hearing that you get over that and then it becomes this source of comfort for you. I think that’s a great moment to end on.
KL I know, I definitely love hearing that! I feel the same way, yeah. It’s helpful.
LF I think there’s a fine line between being terrified of something and enjoying it….like rollercoasters.
KL [laughing] That’s true.
SWB For me, public speaking is both at the same time! [KL laughs]
SWB Well, with that, we should probably let you get back to your book tour. So, Excuse Me is available everywhere that you can buy books, so everybody should go out and buy a copy. I love mine and I plan to show it to everybody—
SWB —who will look at it with me. Liana, it’s been so great talking with you. Thank you for coming on the show. Where can folks keep up with [laughs] all of those amazing drawings that you’ve been talking about?
LF In the book or on my Instagram, LianaFinck—spells out—with the @ symbol in front of it.
KL Awesome, thank you so much.
LF Thank you both so much for having me.
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay, Katel. What are we saying fuck yeah to today?
KL I want to give a fuck yeah to Indigenous Youth and I’ve got a reason for that. I’m on the list for 826 National, it’s the nonprofit arm of McSweeney’s that focuses on kids writing programs, it’s really awesome, they’re nationwide.
SWB I love 826, they’re so good!
KL So cool. And I just got this amazing book in the mail called Indigenous Originated: Walking in Two Worlds. It’s an anthology of youth voices from 9th and 10th grade All Nations students from South High School in Minnesota. It’s beautiful.
SWB Ohhh, it’s so beautiful! Katel just pulled it out and showed it to me and it’s got this really beautiful cover with a big moon on it and it’s full of like…poetry.
KL It’s so cool! You get to see these young folks being published in a book that amplifies them and their creativity. And to have a thing—I’m just imagining—to have a thing you can hold in your hand and say that’s my poem or my drawing in there.It’s just so cool.
SWB Oh my gosh, this is such an aside, but I remember winning a contest in first grade around designing something using the software Logo Writer, [KL laughs] which is the most eighties thing in the world!
KL [laughing] Yes!
SWB Anyway, the put the winning designs from each grade on a t-shirt.
SWB And I just was so proud!
SWB So, then I think about all these indigenous kids and how few indigenous voices we hear from and how few indigenous voices are published and I’m like, fuck yeah, get those kids published right now! Cultivate those voices now.
KL Yes! And to just know that that came from a place where they had space to do that creativity and to just express themselves, it’s wonderful.
SWB It’s so important. I was thinking about we just had Indigenous People’s Day and Indigenous People’s Week was last week. Except here in Philly, it was actually a lot of Columbus Day—
SWB —that we saw, which is pretty unfortunate that that’s still what Philly prioritizes.There was an actual flyer posted in my neighborhood with the headline—I shit you not—“Christopher Columbus: the first civil rights leader of the Western Hemisphere.”
SWB What?! [KL laughs] Don’t ask me what it means…I don’t know. I don’t want to know! It’s not true—
SWB —not useful. And when you live somewhere like South Philly, you see this kind of thing—this sort of Columbus worship—still existing because of the Italian American heritage there. And while I know the Italian Americans as immigrants in this country had a lot of problems that they faced, I think it’s very much time to let go of the Columbus worship.
SWB So, when I see that instead of indigenous voices, I think, you know what? We need to do everything we can to give more of these kids more opportunities and more power, so that they’re the ones being heard and so that this bullshit gets drowned out. [laughs]
KL Fuck yeah to that.
SWB Fuck yeah! Well, that is it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and it’s produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is Deprogrammed by Blowdryer. You can check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thank you so much to Liana Finck for being our guest today, and thank you everyone out there for listening! If you liked our show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever it is you listen to your favorite podcasts. And don’t forget to get Strong Feelings right in your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you all next week!
KL Bye! [them music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]