The Life Pursuit: An Interview with Maira Kalman

Kevin Nguyen speaks with author and illustrator Maira Kalman about her New York Times column, artwork for The Elements of Style (Illustrated), and “how to live and how to die.”

Photo by Rick Meyerowitz

I discovered Maira Kalman through her artwork for the illustrated edition of William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. I’d never considered a grammar book as a likely candidate for visual accompaniment, but now I can’t imagine reading the classic text without the pairing of Kalman’s imagination and subtle drollery.

As a designer, illustrator, and writer, Kalman is an interdisciplinary creative force. The understated pastel tones of her paintings and handwritten script transcend mediums and generation gaps. Whether it’s her series of Max children’s books, paintings that grace various covers of The New Yorker, or her blog, And the Pursuit of Happiness, a monthly column about American democracy published by The New York Times, Kalman appeals to audiences that might otherwise have nothing in common.

The Bygone Bureau: What inspired And the Pursuit of Happiness?

Maira Kalman: I had previously done a column for The [New York] Times called The Principles of Uncertainty. So when I finished that, I was talking to The Times once in a while about what I would return to do. When Obama was elected, it seemed like there was a new world greeting us, and it was something that was compelling, so I thought I would do something that I never had any interest in before: politics and government and history.

Whenever you put up a new column, it’s linked everywhere, every month. You don’t see many blogs like And the Pursuit of Happiness that are based on an original art, and I’m wondering why you think that is.

God, I never look at any blogs. I’m really not at all knowledgeable — pretty much illiterate — with the internet. So I can only be surprised that there aren’t more people doing drawings and paintings. There aren’t any?

Not that I know of.

Well, my guess is because it’s labor intensive. It takes a lot of time. This is a column that takes me about three weeks to do. I guess most people don’t spend that kind of time on a blog.

Excerpt from February's In Love With A. Lincoln in And the Pursuit of Happiness.

So what’s your creative process like? Are you painting on a canvas, then transferring it to jpegs?

I paint with gouache on paper, and then I do overlays with the text on it. Then I bring it to The Times and they scan them, so I just give them old-fashioned art. They have to make it electronic because I don’t know how to do any of that.

Your handwriting is really interesting — so you do that separately?

It goes on an overlay, in case there are any mistakes or if it needs any adjustment.

Is it just naturally the way you write or is it a specific handwriting aesthetic you’ve developed?

It’s something between art and handwriting. I’ve always loved typography, and that’s been part of my life as a designer. So [the handwriting] was one way of breaking away from the typography on the computer and bringing in some warmth. But it’s kind of how I write.

The narrative of your columns focus on single moments — they’re almost like snapshots. Is that intentional?

That’s actually a really good description of how I work, because in these situations I’m tackling such big subjects; the only way I can handle that is to give you a snapshot of what I’m seeing and feeling at the moment. I also like to go into a lot of different subjects and to digress, so it gives that kind of snapshot outlook. I can jump around from thing to thing, and hopefully, it’ll all make sense.

Are there any plans to compile Happiness into a book like The Principles of Uncertainty?

Yeah, it’s going to be a book with the same publisher, Penguin Press; it’ll probably come out in 2010 or 2011.

So when you adapt a blog into a book, do you make additional edits or does it go straight to the page as is?

There may be a few teeny, little edits. What I usually like to do is to add things, to add more information, either in the text or in the back — more imagery or more off-shoots of things that I didn’t have room for in the pieces, more paintings, more photography, odd bits of ephemera.

Switching gears a little bit, the way I found out about your work was through The Elements of Style (Illustrated). I was wondering where that idea came from?

That was a beautiful moment one summer day when I was at a yard sale in Cape Cod and I picked up a copy of The Elements of Style. I started reading it and said, “There’s no way I could not illustrate this book. It’s funny, crazy, and cinematic, and every example was beautifully written. There was also a tremendous amount of humor and quirkiness.”

A page from The Elements of Style (Illustrated).

I like some of the quirkiness you add to it, too. There’s one line from the book, “He noticed the large stain right in the center of the rug,” that you’ve illustrated as a murder (pictured above).

Right. (laughs) I like English murder mystery drawing room things. And it was great, there was no reason to be literal to have to adhere to any kind of form, which was the opposite of following a grammar book. Both [William] Strunk and E.B. White had a great deal of humor in the work.

So the White Estate was okay with running with the material?

It took a while for everyone to figure out what I wanted to do and for me to convince them, but once I did and they gave me the go-ahead, I had absolutely no intervention whatsoever. They were only accommodating, and only saw the book when it was finished and published, which was quite extraordinary. I met E.B. White’s granddaughter, Martha White, who came to New York for the opera that was performed of The Elements of Style, so that was wonderful experience for those worlds to intersect.

I saw your TED Talk recently, and you say in the opening is that you’re trying to figure out “how to live and how to die.” I was hoping you could expand on that idea.

Those things go hand in hand. Sadly, whatever the consciousness people have about how they’re living their life, the counterpoint is that things are finite, life is fragile, we’re very vulnerable, and ultimately, we don’t exist anymore. So everything that you do is in reaction to the notion of how much time you have, ultimately. Time’s the most precious thing. I actually don’t know how to die, and I don’t think anyone can learn how to do that — that might be a futile and crazy desire. I do want to learn how to live without feeling that time has been wasted.

Which sometimes it is anyway.

So you said the column takes three weeks of your time. What else is on your plate, if anything else?

I just finished a children’s book that I illustrated, and I’m working on a few more. I do the random assignments for magazines, I’m working on some wallpaper, and I’m going to start some columns on Tel Aviv for an online magazine called Tablet.

So you’re visiting Tel Aviv?

Yes, I’m originally from Tel Aviv. I’m going there in September, and then going back in the spring and researching a series on the history of life and love in Tel Aviv.

And the Pursuit of Happiness is published on the last Friday of every month. The most recent column is about immigration. You can find more of Kalman’s work on her website.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.