Bob Odenkirk is an Emmy Award–winning writer, actor, and comedian. He’s also the author of a collection of humorous essays, A Load of Hooey, and the memoir Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama. His daughter Erin is an artist and recent graduate of Pratt Institute. Their new book, Zilot & Other Important Rhymes, is a family affair, featuring playful poems by the duo along with Bob’s wife Naomi and son Nate—and illustrations by Erin. We asked Bob and Erin to talk about the joys and frustrations of creating together during the pandemic, and revisiting this family anthology that started when the children were young.
Bob: Do you remember those first conversations we had regarding turning our collection of poems into a book?
Erin: I had thought about making drawings for the poems for a while, inspired by a family friend who we love, Travis Millard, who does drawings for his mom’s elementary school writing. But I never really had the time or made a concerted effort. And it wasn’t until I came home during the pandemic, when I was 19 and in college, that you came and knocked on my bedroom door, and said, “Hey, do you have free time today? What if I wrote 10 poems and gave them to you? Would you draw some sketches for them?”
Bob: My recollection is that it was initially a little overwhelming. It was the pandemic, you were in your room doing classes at Pratt, and I said, “let’s rewrite those poems,” and you said, “sure, OK.” It seemed intimidating. It seemed like another thing added to a schedule that already had so much stuff in it, and also, maybe, could be a failure. And you don’t want to romance failure sometimes. And I remember you, at some point, saying, “I never said I wanted to be an illustrator.”
Erin: That’s true, yeah. I don’t know what it was in rebuttal to, but there were many moments when something was brought to me that felt intimidating, or felt out of my wheelhouse maybe, and my gut reaction was “what did I get myself into?” and also, “this is a one-time thing.”
Bob: Yeah, I think you were overwhelmed by the sheer work of it. It was just work. That’s what kind of got you frustrated at one point.
Erin: And it’s not that I don’t like work or committing myself to a project, but I was still in school, and also I was internally battling, trying to figure myself out at 19, and here I was, dedicating so much of myself to something that I had never thought of doing. I had always made art and always loved drawing, but the career of an illustrator is a very specific thing to pursue, that suddenly I was five months into. I still feel a little bit of that, but it’s much more with gratitude and love. I love the book we made, but I’m still like, “I’m not an illustrator.” I just drew for a book, and now it’s illustrated.
Bob: I think that every parent dreams of collaborating with their kid, whether they’re putting together IKEA furniture, or making a poem come to life with an illustration. You love your kids, and when they get to be young adults, they don’t need you as much, and they’re exciting human beings to be near, and the idea of sort of sharing in your area of expertise with them is extremely attractive. So, I always wanted to do it, and to some extent, I think you want me to not want to do it so badly. [Laughs.]
I just did a show with your brother in Chicago; we did a sketch show. We each wrote sketches and then we put it up at the Annoyance Theater. And I know he had a great time, and I had a great time, but he wouldn’t want me to camp out in Chicago and keep doing shows.
Erin: Collaborating with you wasn’t something that I thought about. I didn’t sit around waiting for the day—but I always respected and looked up to you, and loved your work. And part of it was getting that validation that I was good enough to be a part of all that. And, it was just fun. It was fun to, at the end of the day, bring three drawings into the kitchen, and show you, and have you react to them, and try to be silly again, and revisit all the funny ideas we had as kids. I also experienced the side of it that was annoying, having your dad around, trying to get things from you, just as if you were telling me to get ready for school, except now it was “do you have those five drawings for me yet? Knock knock knock, I’m at your door.”
Bob: Yeah, it becomes a job.
Erin: It becomes a job, and if it was my boss, I could be annoyed about him privately—but then add on the layer of “he’s my dad,” and you get to be, like, a teenager who’s double-annoyed. But those bad feelings were not that bad. They were just being young, and ultimately, it was a great experience that I look forward to having again.
Bob: It’s very sweet to be able to work together. Listen, I know I’ve shared the impetus of doing this is to help your kids feel like they can be part of the world and they can be one of the people who writes, draws, paints, and helps build and make the world around you. Additionally, I don’t think there’s anything that feels more like a wormhole to the beautiful times of having [young] kids more than having a little poem you wrote with them when they were a kid, and reading and seeing their handwriting. It’s like a real trip through time.
Erin: I agree.
I think when you’re that young memories form in this very visceral, sensorial way. We moved out of my childhood house a long time ago now, and I haven’t been able to revisit a lot of that sort of stuff, but to hold that book in my hands and those pieces of paper and be taken back to that feeling, like it’s a magical gemstone that brings you back to a memory, is crazy. I don’t necessarily remember each individual poem or writing every sentence, but not remembering is part of the joy of rediscovering it. To be reminded that you were once that kid who had that funny idea and that funny way of thinking about things, or having a mid-level grasp on language was awesome.
I love all the poems, but my favorite over the last four years has been, pretty consistently, “O Shoelace, My Shoelace.” It makes me laugh every time I read it out loud. Any time someone has [an advance copy of] our book in their hands, I tell them to go read that poem. And it’s funny to read it in a stately voice as well. I think my favorite illustration right now might be “That Time of Year.” It draws from reality but also the whimsical and magical, and it has a lot of that hidden detail, and it gives life to that world of creativity of the kid who is experiencing nature and coming up with the names of the trees.
Bob: I love “A Cat Named Larry” very much, and I love the drawings in it, too. My second choice, because it’s a very tight one, is “Lollygagging”; I just love what it’s about. I feel like in our world right now, mostly because of screens and the internet, it’s very hard to have free space where you’re just hanging out and meandering mentally, and I think that’s an important thing to try and have in your life. And additionally, I think possibly the hardest thing to draw is some representation of what that might look like. And you came up with a great thing.
A great deal of the early work on the book, it was really for fun and to relax and let the kids write, but then we decided to make it into a book to share with the world; then it became a work experience, and you’re flirting with danger there... because of the pressures of the world, and editors and publishers, and in this case, reviews. It’s a tricky choice to take a childhood project and turn it into something for the world, and there are dimensions of it that you have to consider. I’m super happy we did this.
Zilot & Other Important Rhymes by Bob Odenkirk with Nate Odenkirk and Naomi Odenkirk, illus. by Erin Odenkirk. Little, Brown, $19.99 Oct. 10 ISBN 978-0-316-43850-6