Max: Hello, Amy. We enjoy your work and congratulations on appearing regularly in The New Yorker.
Amy Hwang (AH): It surprises me as well. Sometimes I think it’s like a joke. I don’t feel like anything’s really changed that much.
Simon: Do you have some idea of which ones will get accepted?
AH: Sometimes it seems random, they’re just normal cartoons. But for some of them, I do think there’s an aspect of being a mom—obviously they might want that perspective—and maybe the guys can’t offer that perspective.
Simon: A lot of the cartoons in The New Yorker are dark and edgy, and we see yours as gentler.
AH: [Laughter] Yes, I read that in your blog reviews!
Simon: Do you think your cartoons reflect something about your personality?
AH: I like to hope that people think that I’m a nice person, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily true. I don’t know if I really want to be that “gentle person”. There’s the cartoonist you want to be, and then there’s the cartoonist you are.
“We all use humor when you’re faced with some sort of miserable situation. I think that’s how a lot of cartoonists became cartoonists.”
Max: Maybe another part of that question is, do you feel like you’re more of an optimist or a pessimist?
AH: Definitely more of an optimist.
Max: By contrast, we were talking to Frank Cotham, whose cartoons are indeed fairly dark, and he didn’t even say half-empty, he said, “I’m more of a glass empty kind of a guy.”
AH: Like completely empty?
Max: Yes, completely empty. Though he was laughing when he said it.
AH: It’s strange, because we all use humor when you’re faced with some sort of miserable situation. I think that’s how a lot of cartoonists became cartoonists. You use cartoons to cope with any sort of issues. But it’s funny, how I consider myself more of an optimist. I have more of a can-do attitude. I work full-time and I’m always like, “Oh yeah, I can get this done.” I think later on, “Why did I say that?”
Max: Do you ever use your work as a cartoonist to cope with things?
AH: I wouldn’t say any one thing in particular, but yeah, sometimes you see those things come up and they bother you, and then you come up with a cartoon that I guess stemmed from all your feelings about it.
AH: I think that’s how my cartoons are — sort of everyday life scenarios. What gets in the magazine is just a small selection of what’s been sent to the editors. They probably see more of my life, to them it’s like a journal.
Simon: Your cartoons often deal with everyday subjects and relationships as opposed to, say, cartoons set in medieval times or something like that.
AH: Yeah. I realize I would never have a cartoon on the last page in the caption contest, because my cartoons are so normal-looking. It’d be no fun.
Simon: I read that you’re also an architect. Is that right?
AH: Yeah. I’m a project manager in the architecture and planning department at Eileen Fisher, the clothing brand. I work on the shops in the department stores. Some of the things I come up at work do kind of creep into my cartoons. I do think about clothes more now and I think about shopping, even though that’s not directly my work.
Simon: I’m going to ask the question that you’ve heard probably a thousand times, which is, when do you find time to cartoon?
AH: I always try to have jobs that can support my cartooning, because that’s what’s probably more important to me than having a paycheck. I still need a means of making a living. I’ve always picked architecture jobs that don’t make me work overtime. Eileen Fisher has a very good life-work balance sort of culture; they’re very family friendly. That was important to me. It’s just a 15-minute commute for me. They’re in Westchester.
That’s one part. The other part is that I have a daughter. I’m a single mom. Most people are like, “How do you do it, you’re a single parent?” For me, it’s because I’m a single parent that allows me to do it. When my daughter’s with her dad, I have several days where I’m like a single person again. It’s very nice. I have more time to come up with the ideas. I feel bad for any of the moms who are trying to juggle it with everyday life with kids. Even if you have a free hour or two here, it’s really hard to get that mindset — just that blank slate in your head — that I need to come up with ideas.
I do actually attribute to being a single mom as helpful. This weekend I have free, so I just kind of hunker down and I basically just sacrifice all my free time to do cartoons.
“I could have been in a Third World Country, I could have been in Ohio, anywhere. I would have been just as happy because I was working on my cartoons.”
Simon: Have you had to make some sacrifices in order to pursue cartooning? Does your drive to cartoon displace other activities?
AH: Definitely. It took me a lot longer to get my batch of stuff. I’m just slower at drawing, slower at coming up with ideas. I feel like I spend at least 20 hours a week in addition to my full-time job.
I remember basically telling my friends, “I’m submitting cartoons to The New Yorker, I want to get into The New Yorker.” I would use that, I wouldn’t say as an excuse—it was an excuse—but to not hang out with them. I would really only go out if it was somebody’s birthday. I was living in New York City at the time, and it’s so easy to get distracted by friends—they want to have brunch, they want to do this or that. I would just say, “No, I’m busy that night.”
I was very gung ho. I would just basically allot all my nights to working on my cartoons. I think I have the sort of personality that works for that. Just sort of slashing things out of my life. That’s what I basically had to do, just cartoons, cartoons. It got to the point where I was like: Why am I even living in the City? It’s so expensive and I’m just in my apartment all the time? I’m not even going out, which is why most people live in the City. I could have been in a Third World Country, I could have been in Ohio, anywhere. I would have been just as happy because I was working on my cartoons.
Now, it’s kind of the same. I don’t see my friends as much, but I think the only difference is that they’re, I think, just as busy. Me, it’s not necessarily the cartoons as much as it’s that I have my daughter more than half the time and then when I do have my free time, six nights every two weeks, at least half of those nights I really need to concentrate on my cartoons. I went to a PTA fundraiser last night. I went late and left early. I forego a glass of wine when I’m going out if I know I can go home and get cartoons done. Once you start drinking wine, you’re like, “Oh, I’ll just go home and go to sleep.”. I try to at least see my friends at least once a month. To me that sounds like a lot. I think there are other sacrifices, like dating. It’s almost impossible to date, but I think that’s kind of a single mom thing also.
“I was doing something I enjoyed. I never saw it as a career option.”
Simon: Do you send a batch a week to The New Yorker, eight to ten cartoons?
AH: I do send a batch a week. I try to do a fresh batch every other week—I just don’t have the time every week—so I go through my old ones. I might redraw it or recaption it. I just see ways to improve it, or they might just be resubmittals. Now that Emma’s [Emma Allen, the new cartoon editor] coming on board, my rejects are no longer rejected. I can resubmit them, but I think, “I wouldn’t send this again. I need to work on it.” Part of me is like: she’s younger, she’s in her twenties, she might actually remember what’s been sent before. I don’t know, maybe she’s deluged with so many that I think anybody would kind of forget what they’ve seen before. But then again they might be like, “Wait, Amy submitted that last year.” Part of me is like: I can’t fall behind. I feel like I need to keep coming up with new stuff.
Max: Amy, just for the record, even Roz Chast resubmits cartoons. You’re in good company if you do it.
AH: A lot of my cartoons that I’ve resubmitted have sold, like the second or third time around.
AH: The last time I resubmitted — one from before I sold my first cartoon — it sold!
Simon: To get back to when you first started, I read you were first cartooning when you were a student at Barnard. Is that right?
AH: That’s true. I did single-panel style cartoons for the Columbia Spectator when I was a student at Barnard. The Spectator was kind of the daily newspaper that the college put out for the undergrads mainly. I guess I was in my first year, and I saw all the cartoons. I was thinking, “I can do this. I can maybe do something better or at least as good.” I only came up with one cartoon and I submitted it. I said, “I want to be a cartoonist.” They were like, “Fine.” It wasn’t like you had to come up with 10. You only had to come up with one a week.
It was very encouraging and they would always print it. It was nice to always see your cartoons in print. It was so much easier than The New Yorker. [laughter] It’s funny, I was always cartooning in class. You’re supposed to be taking notes at a lecture. I’d be coming up with cartoon ideas. And I was doing something I enjoyed. I never saw it as a career option. I didn’t submit to The New Yorker until I was 29.
Max: What a thrill to get accepted.
AH: Yes, yes. It was a great feeling.
Max: Can you talk a little bit about how your style has evolved?
AH: I drew the hands as mittens and the faces were circles with just two eyes. It was very flat, I guess—very crude drawings, just stick figure type drawings, except they weren’t stick figures, they had legs and arms. For some reason I thought that was good enough. It didn’t really evolve until I was submitting to The New Yorker, and I realized I had to step it up a little bit.
At the time that I started submitting, there were a lot of New Yorker type exhibits going on. At the Morgan Library, they had a cartoon exhibit there. I would attend anything that was New Yorker cartoon related. I think just going to those motivated me to make my cartoons look like New Yorker cartoons a little bit more. I actually experimented with a wash, I started working on the way the faces looked, their hands, all of that. I guess by that time I was using Micron pens.
Max: Was there any cartoonist in particular that you emulated somewhat in order to evolve your style?
AH: Initially, I really wanted to be like Barsotti [Charles Barsotti – New Yorker cartoonist from 1960s – 2014], because It looked like his cartoons did not take that long. It was just so simple, and I was like, if I can just have that style, it won’t take me forever to do my cartoons. I can just draw a little puppy or a line for a dog. It was very simple. I think I started working with a thicker line pen to get that. It’s funny, then I was going back to a thinner pen. He’s the only one, because I felt if I could get my style like his, I could save a lot of time.
Simon: I read that you submitted soon after college to The New Yorker for a while, then you didn’t for eight years and then resumed. Could fill us in on that history a little bit please?
AH: Right after college, I did submit six batches. I actually still have them, but they’re kind of embarrassing to look at. I would never publish them or put them out there. I had a job by then and I just gave up in a way. It’s just rejection. I guess I didn’t realize how important it was to stick to it. Maybe some 22-year-olds are more driven than I was, but I just went, “I don’t have to do this”, so I didn’t.
I think what happened is, as I worked in architecture for a while—and I never had ambitions to become a registered, licensed architect and have my own firm or any of that—it was more just a job that I liked doing and I like design and I could do it. I was just working for an architect. By the time you hit your late 20s, you’re realizing, “What am I doing with my life?”
My dad’s always been one to tell me, “You could do whatever you wanted, you should try to do that.” At first, I was like, it would be great to work in interior design, so I actually worked for an interior designer, but that didn’t work out. I was back to working at an architecture firm again.
At that point, I really wanted to get my cartoons in The New Yorker, but I hadn’t drawn any more. You can say I wanted to try my hand at cartooning again. That was something I guess I remembered I liked doing before. I also realized it was something that I could afford to do. I had time. I already had a job, so I didn’t have to worry about making a living that way.
I went on a cruise to Alaska with my family, and I said, “When I get back, that’s when I’m going to start submitting”, and then I did. I didn’t go into the office to submit; I just put it in an envelope and stuck it in the mail. I didn’t know what the deadlines were, but I realized it was easier for me just to, by Monday morning, have the envelope in the mail, because then I could work on it all weekend. I just set that deadline for myself.
Simon: You had your first cartoon accepted fairly quickly, after about ten months, which isn’t bad actually.
AH: I hear about people getting their first one sold on their first visit or within three months or a couple of months and you’re like, wow. I look back at the early ones I submitted, and just starting from zero, they were really not that great. I think they did change a lot in that ten months to what actually was sold, which is still almost crude in some ways. It wasn’t my fully formed style, I feel.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Amy Hwang.