Two to three times a year across the country, California Sunday, Inc., the publisher of the California Sunday Magazine, publishes a very different kind of magazine: a live one. Pop-Up Magazine is an experiment in form—a magazine performed live on stage, with editors emceeing the show, writers performing their stories, videos illustrating those stories, and live music underscoring them. Earlier this month, New Yorker staff cartoonist Liana Finck—the author of A Bintel Brief, Passing for Human, and Excuse Me—brought her cartoons to the stage with Pop-Up as part of its winter issue, translating a static form into a performative one. Finck sat down with Publishers Weekly to discuss her cartoons, how Pop-Up Magazine works, her books,and more.
How did you get involved in Pop-Up Magazine?
They courted me a couple years ago and then I didn't get in. But I liked the idea of it, so I asked my publisher to reach out to them again with this book because apparently it's good for that. I don't really do publicity things except when I have a book out. And this time it worked out. I sent them two pitches, which my publicist helped me with, and they chose a piece called "What We Mean vs. What We Say. And I'll give a kind of explanation of why what we mean versus what we say is a relevant topic, which isn't normal for me. That's more friendly than I usually am, I wouldn't usually explain. Then I give some examples of things we say in conversation when we mean the opposite. It's all illustrations. It's about trying to figure out why it's polite to lie.
So, this really is a magazine. You have to pitch them.
I don't usually pitch magazines, so it's new for me. At the New Yorker I'm as close as a cartoonist can get to staff. You don't have an office, you usually get invited to the Christmas party, they don't owe you anything but they pay you very well when they do buy something, and you owe them first refusal. And I love it. I love being a satellite, as opposed to being super in or super out. The life of a cartoonist. I often get asked to pitch places, which is a little annoying. It's kind of like bad flirting in a way. "Oh, we like you so much, come hither" and then "ew."
How did you adapt your form, cartoons, to Pop-Up Magazine's format?
I think you have to see Pop-Up to know how it works. I didn't understand how it would work when I was pitching it, actually. Mid-pitch, they sent me videos of what they look like, and I was pleasantly surprised. And I thought it'd be cool but weird, but actually, it really works. It's scripted but it feels emotionally honest, as opposed to high school thespian, which I was worried about. It reminds me of This American Life somehow. It's very scripted, but it also feels so honest and kind of simple and not overly produced, even though it is very produced. There's a screen, there's a band, the reader reads off of a script, but it sounds like good stand-up in that they seemed memorized but they didn't come off as like reading a list in front of an audience. For my performance, I'm reading off of my script, and I drew cartoons for the screen, which the art director of California Sunday Magazine animated.
You drew these cartoons specifically for Pop-Up, but they're similar to the ones in your latest book, Excuse Me. Can you talk about that book a little?
I post on Instagram several times per day. I took the cartoons from Instagram for the book. It was a long process, winnowing them down. My editor helped a lot. At first, I wanted them to be in chronological order from my Instagram feed, but he wanted them to be in chapters, and I'm glad he did. A lot of the things I post have a lot to do with dating because I was really hardcore dating when I started my Instagram and on and off after. I was having a feminist awakening at the same time, not unrelated, and I think I found a way to channel anger through my cartoons on Instagram. So a lot of them are feminist and political, and as a result, a bunch of the chapters focus on dating, then there's gender and politics. There's also a chapter on animals, which I think is related.
Your initial pitch for Pop-Up was about female loneliness, and it didn't get accepted. Do you feel, even as feminism continues its rise in the context of pop culture, that it's harder for women artists to break out? Have you felt pigeonholed yourself?
I think in some very high circles there's still a lot of sexism and even some backlash after #MeToo—a lot of very highly funded big prizes seem to go to men. I don't have experience not being a woman, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I have noticed that people super-relate to me and get really excited about me, but then when I do something that people don't relate to, I feel extra punished also. I think I rose up high in the New Yorker faster than I would have if I had been just another suave Harvard guy. But I might fall faster.
I also notice that people very much in my demographic relate to me a lot, but people a bit outside don't necessarily. When A Bintel Brief, [which adapted stories from the Yiddish advice column of the same name from the Forward] came out, I gave a lot of talks to communities of much older Jewish people, and they really didn't relate to me. I feel like I have a very specific voice, and that might have to do with being female. I think I'm highbrow—and by highbrow I mean abstract, an ideas person—and I'm hiding in this kind of low-brow format of Instagram. I love not quite fitting into a "brow." I think that's the way to be.
Can you tell me anything about your next book?
The next book I'm working on is called Let There Be Light. It's a version of the Book of Genesis, but with a female god. I love working on it. It's really fun, because I don't have to make up the story and get to just have fun with it.