Q: And like Maurice, you seem too acidic to write children's books.
A: True. (Children's books) were a means to an end, a way to make me a living. Children's books were not a passion. That's how I felt in the '50s -- once I met Maurice, I didn't think I would dare compete with him. But years later, after one of my plays,"Grown Ups," got beat up badly, I thought I needed another obsession. My idea was about this kid cartoonist, and that became "The Man in the Ceiling." I wrote it, then I called Maurice, and he gave me the name of his editor, Michael di Capua, and I've been with Michael ever since.
Q: Did you read "Peanuts"? It seems like the kind of jaundiced comic you might have created.
A: That's a good point. I started a strip named "Clifford" that ran on the back page of Will Eisner's (comic book) "The Spirit." I was trying to do the sort of thing Schulz did later so much better. I was nervous and working for approval, and he just went ahead with the kind of odd, personal strip he thought he should make.
Q: You're working on a graphic novel named "Kill My Mother"?
A: Yes, thought I could write a graphic novel, someone else could illustrate it. But as it developed, it ended up being long, starting in 1933, then switching to 1943, going from the Depression to World War II. And I couldn't find anyone to draw it right. For this kind of Chandler-Hammett noir thing, you need shadows, rain. So I had to learn how to do it. Fortunately, I have Turner Classic Movies. I record all this film noir,"The Maltese Falcon,""The Big Sleep," and hit pause on my remote. That's been my research medium. It will not be drawn (in a) traditional Feiffer style. I stole from Eisner. I hope it will be finished by the end of next year.
Q: You've done so many different things -- where do your biggest royalty checks come from?
A: (Laughs.) A diversity of places. Mostly children's books, I suppose. A lot of it comes from "The Phantom Tollbooth," the book I did with Norton Juster. That book has become a great annuity for me, a sizable one. It just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and it's amazing how well it still sells. It's also amazed me how much the book and my art has been remembered. At the time, in the early '60s, it was work that I didn't really appreciate that much. I had difficulty doing it and didn't feel like I was a natural at that kind of thing.
Q: Was it hard because so much of "Phantom Tollbooth" feels abstract?
A: No. Maurice, in the new edition, wrote that I was one of the few cartoonists who can illustrate ideas. I've always felt that illustrating the abstract -- drawing ideas -- is one of the primary jobs of the cartoonist.
Q: It's hilarious how often you crossed paths with big cultural figures of the past century. One of the most surprising connections in your memoir is probably your friendship with Philip Roth.
A: Whom I haven't seen in years. We had been good friends, then, for whatever reasons I never really understood, it just stopped. Which saddened me. Philip was one of the funniest people I've known. He was falling-on-the-floor funny. Philip and I were great at parties. You couldn't guess that from his books, though.
Q: Also, Stanley Kubrick talked to you about writing "Dr. Strangelove"? How did you meet?
A: I forget. We were both from the Bronx. I knew him casually at first. When he was shooting "Spartacus," he got in touch with me about a movie based on my modern dancer cartoons. He had a dancer girlfriend. That was the first of several times we met about making a movie together. But we had different sensibilities. He was always the guy in the charge, even beyond the ordinary need of a director to be controlling. He approached me about "Strangelove," but I wasn't going to be a stenographer. I wouldn't have used his broad strokes -- that Mad magazine approach. (Writer) Terry Southern eventually did an amazing job, though.
Q: And you claim to have introduced Jack Nicholson to Warren Beatty? OK, now, come on.
A: Ask Jack! I wrote "Carnal Knowledge." We were shooting in Vancouver -- Robert Altman was a good friend and was stuck in this small town making "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." He threw a party. I brought Jack and Arty (Garfunkel). We stood on the outskirts of the room. Jack was apprehensive. He was saying about Warren, "He's got the right height for a movie star, the right looks." He said it as a joke, but not really. Warren, of course, stood at the center of the room, being the kind of guy he is, always at the center of every room.
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