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Birnbaum v.

Chip Kidd

The estimable Chip Kidd, designer of books’ fronts, backs, and spines, chats with our man in Boston about what it’s like to work on the words that come in between.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

If you are not a twenty-something graphic design student, a reader of serious literary fiction, a fan of superhero comics or Peanuts, of Ivan Brunetti and Charles Burns, it is possible you are unacquainted with Chip Kidd. And not knowing who he is might have made picking up and reading The Cheese Monkeys (his first novel) or The Learners (his second and most recent novel) an unlikely happenstance. Which would be unfortunate.

Kidd is most well known as a highly regarded book cover designer for Alfred A. Knopf, among others. He is also, in a loose and flexible arrangement, an editor of graphic novels and anthologies at Pantheon Books, having produced a compendium of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts strips and an Alex Ross monograph.

This is at least the fourth recorded conversation I have had with Chip Kidd. Oddly, we have not yet run out of things about which to chat—in this instance, we discussed his new novel, set in idyllic early ‘60s New Haven and effectively weaving the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments into the narrative. We also talked about his music project, his interest in making movies of his books and whether he likes his job and other diverse and wide-ranging topics. Our chat took place in a basement classroom of the Art Institute of Boston while this year’s American Institute of Graphic Arts’ “50 Books/50 Covers” exhibition was on display.


RB: Will anyone remember that when you published The Cheese Monkeys, you had a very definite and different idea for your follow-up novel?

CK: The ballroom dancing thing—I think it has all but been effectively killed by the subsequent proliferation of ballroom dance – themed popular culture. Dancing with the Stars, and there was—what really killed it for me—somebody did a play in New York that was called Six Weeks or Six Lessons or something like that; it was a very similarly themed kind of thing. And it got creamed by the critics, and I thought, “OK, this is going on permanent hiatus.” It was the sort of book [where] to really do it right I would have to go down to Florida and enroll in a ballroom dance class.

RB: Your meat-and-potatoes is book cover design, but you clearly bubble over with ideas and projects, and at the time I didn’t think you had just one idea for a novel, so obviously you replaced that idea with another. So what’s the next book?

CK: Technically the next book, which I am still working on but [will] hopefully wrap up pretty soon, is one of my comics-related things called Batmanga: The Secret History of Batman in Japan.

First of all, The Cheese Monkeys is by and large based on very direct experience[s] that I had.

RB: The secret history?

CK: Yes, that will be a Pantheon book in October—

RB: I misspoke—

CK: What?

RB: I wanted to know what the next novel will be.

CK: Uh. [chuckles] At this point, I really don’t know.

RB: Do you want to write another novel?

CK: That’s a really good question.

RB: [laughs]

CK: I frankly didn’t really enjoy writing this one.

RB: Really?

CK: Believe me, there are people that go on to your site—somebody asked me, “When are you going to do the ballroom dancing thing?” recently. I had always had in mind to write about the Milgram experiments. [The experiments were series of tests conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s, in which social psychologist Stanley Milgram explored people’s compulsion to follow directions even when told to administer electric shocks to others—eds.] That’s what I had originally set out to do in the first place and because no one had written a novel about them. Certainly people had written about them. Three or four years ago a biography of Milgram called The Man Who Shocked the World.

RB: The biographer has a website and seems to be an apologist for Milgram—

CK: It’s funny: I’m sort of an apologist for him, I think.

RB: Conventionally he is viewed as some kind of mad scientist, or evil genius. In The Learners he comes off as a mild-mannered, conscientious researcher.

CK: Yeah, in the brief author’s note at the end, I do try to make the case that he was very much looked down upon as—here he was, trying to expose this moral problem in society and yet the way he went about it actually was not ethical. It’s not ethical to put your subject under that kind of emotional stress.

RB: Like in family law, the boundaries hadn’t been defined until someone crossed a line.

CK: Yes, it was what—those experiments then were responsible for new legislation about what could and couldn’t be done in scientific experiments. Another famous example [is] the college kids playing the roles of prisoners and prison wardens—it really became intense and toxic and awful. [He’s referring to the Stanford prison experiment, conducted in 1971 at Stanford University.—eds.]

RB: Did Milgram serve as some kind yardstick for the Abu Ghraib imbroglio?

I got lucky. Book designers are not in the upper-tier tax brackets.

CK: He did—we were in Italy at the time and I was on a month’s fellowship trying to concentrate and write this book. My direct goal at that time—spring 2004, whenever that happened—it was the middle section of the book, it really takes you through the experiment as if you are participating in it. I had my documentary film of it that Milgram made that I had transferred to DVD. I was watching and literally paying attention to all the details. Halfway through our stay Abu Ghraib exploded, and we were on the net getting it day by day, and it didn’t take long for someone to invoke Milgram.

RB: The Milgram story is fascinating, and then you have the narrative of postgraduate entry into the real world of design and advertising—something you clearly know from experience—and then you have this interweaving of postmodern infusions and intermissions of—

CK: Well, they are ads.

RB: That conceit and the other things I mentioned suggest that you had fun writing this book. But—

CK:—there were moments of fun. Definitely. [Long pause] But—

RB: What was the hard part?

CK: There were several—there were a lot of hard parts. First of all, The Cheese Monkeys is by and large based on very direct experience[s] that I had. Then when you turn it into a novel, then you can have fun with it; you can tweak the facts and do all this kind of thing. I have never worked at an ad agency in New Haven in 1961 before. So, it was weird because I am in and out of New Haven all the time. Because we have a house in Stonington, and Sandy [J.D. McClatchy] teaches at Yale, and New Haven is literally the halfway point between Manhattan and Stonington, so I am familiar with it in a very superficial way; and I had to bring off the idea that I really knew it, that I knew what it was like to live there day to day and live there very much in the shadow of Yale.

RB: So it was laborious coming up with the local bars and eateries and stuff like that? Was there a building that was converted from a fire station to an office building that housed the ad agency in the story?

CK: I have no idea.

RB: So you get to make stuff up.

CK: Yeah, all I care about is that it becomes real for the reader. Again, that’s why I often rightly claim that I’m not a real writer. Real serious writers can research the hell out of something and really make it seem like, “Boy, and there you are.” There are so many people better at it then I am. So that was hard. It took a while to come up with the idea that, “Oh this guy is going to design the ad to get people into the experiment.” And once I figured that out, that freed up a lot of stuff. But also really in the last third of the book—and it is a first-person narrative—this guy is going into a downward, suicidal depression. You have to get into that head in order to make it seem plausible, to make it seem real.

RB: What are the chances that you may rely on this character, Happy, to continue the story about the advertising, marketing world, popular culture?

CK: It’s possible.

RB: But you have no—you have the freedom to never have to write another novel and your life will be fine.

CK: See, that’s it, that’s the thing. I don’t rely on it for a livelihood. There are so many other projects that I want to work on—I am doing this whole thing with music now.

RB: Tell me about it.

CK: Sure, I can now. We have this MySpace page and demo recordings and all this kind of thing. It’s a group that I formed with a former college friend that I reconnected with about five or six years ago. His stage name for now is Mars Trillion. He teaches high-school math in Texas and he wants to separate those two lives, for now. He’s great. He is very talented. When we reconnected he was still living in New York and we were just getting going—

RB: And he took a job teaching math in Texas?

CK: It’s a long story, but basically he and his wife had their second kid and they were living in a one-bedroom apartment in the East Village, and basically since she works for an airline, they can live anywhere. She has family in Fort Worth and so they are there. We figured it out long distance and he comes to New York and we lay down tracks and figure stuff out. It’s called Art Break and we finally have what I think is a fairly decent demo, a good collection of songs.

RB: What kind of music is it?

Real serious writers can research the hell out of something and really make it seem like, “Boy, and there you are.”

CK: It’s pop, and in that sense, as pretentious as it is to say so, I see the collection of songs as they are now like a collection of short stories all by the same person, but they all have a different theme or style. I love New Wave and punk and post-punk, so there are a couple of songs like that. There are some that are inflected with a little bit of disco, but Mars is a blues guy, so there are some that are very guitar-oriented.

RB: Who sings?

CK: Me.

RB: Who plays the music?

CK: He plays most of the instruments and I am a drummer. I come up with the melody and the words and the themes and all that stuff And I don’t read music, so literally I am like, “La, la la, la la,” in the key of G. He figures all that and then he fleshes it out.

RB: He arranges it.

CK: Yes.

RB: Mars wants to distance himself from his real life. Do you perform under your name?

CK: It’s Art Break, and definitely me.

RB: Chip Kidd and Mars Trillion?

CK: Yeah. Look, he’d love to move back to New York and do this full time if we could make that happen.

RB: He’d have to accommodate his growing family.

CK: Yeah.

RB: Which would be hard to do in Manhattan as a musician. Maybe he should become a book cover designer?

CK: [chuckles] Yeah, I got lucky. Book designers are not in the upper-tier tax brackets. [both laugh]

RB: Would you accept the statement that you are the preeminently known book-cover designer in the USA?

CK: No, let’s talk about something else.

RB: OK, but I may come back to it.

CK: It’s probably accurate to say that I get the most attention. There is a show that’s upstairs, 50 Books/50 Covers. There are so many people doing amazing work.

RB: When you say you are lucky—that’s a nice, easy way of dismissing the subject of your career. But why have you been—

CK: Because I’m lucky. I was in the right place at the right time—

RB: But you seem to be singled out. You are a singular reference point.

CK: I think it’s because I keep working. And part of keeping working is staying at Knopf. That was key and it’s been key.

RB: Has the roster in that department changed at all?

CK: Yes, Barbara [De Wilde] left and then came back. It evolves. Technically the constants there have been Carole Devine Carson—my boss, who is the art director, and me. In terms of the art department we have been there for the last 20 years, and don’t really have any intention of leaving any time soon. Since then the art director of Vintage, John Gall—I forget how long he has been there—but it’s been a good, at least 10, probably more like 15 years. And that’s very key. He’s extraordinary.

RB: Would it be fair to say that one of the enticements to stay is the incredible selection of books and authors?

CK: It’s everything: the incredible array of books and authors, Sonny Mehta as editor in chief. And then I get this wonderful playground at Pantheon, with all the comics and the graphic novels to play around in. My God: Batman in Japan as part of my day job? That’s pretty amazing. And the people are smart and interesting to work with. They don’t yell or get crazy or lose their tempers. I have seen secondhand what a hostile workplace is like: It’s absolutely awful. And this is so not that. And then there are the superficial things; I have an office that overlooks the Hudson, 19 floors up.

RB: What’s superficial about that?

CK: Um.

RB: That’s nice.

CK: All right, it’s not superficial. I guess, physically it’s nice for me to be there. The coworkers are great, the other designers are terrific, and it’s very inspiring to see what other people are doing. We help each other out—I was struggling with this new Martin Amis book for months. My officemate, Peter Mendelsund—

RB: House of Meetings?

CK: No, I did that with Peter. That went great. The only struggle with that was finding the right faces for that. No, it will be out this summer and be called The Second Plane: September 11: Terror And Boredom. It’s essays on 9/11. Anyway, Peter in our department very politely said, “I think this would solve this problem for you.” And he was right.

RB: It’s nice to feel that you can receive advice from a coworker without feeling upstaged or that it’s part of a calculated career move.

CK: It’s a very delicate balance, but part of what makes it work is that we are all getting credit for what we do—literally, in the [dust] jacket. So you don’t have to worry about perception of who did what: It’s right there on the flap.

RB: Have you been interviewed by Charlie Rose?

CK: No, that bastard.

RB: Why not?

CK: I don’t know. I don’t know. Has a book-cover designer been interviewed by him? No, every time I have a project, we say, “Let’s get Charlie Rose now.” And I can’t ask him directly, but my PR people do and I get very little TV editorial.

RB: He does a fair amount of authors.

CK: That’s the thing—he’s such a book guy. It’s like, “C’mon, what’s the hesitation?”

RB: Do you watch his show?

CK: Sure.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

RB: Do you like his interview style?

CK: It’s funny, last night I was at the New Haven Lawn Club doing a reading—

RB: I was going to ask you about that [laughs]—

CK: Why?

RB: What is a lawn club?

CK: I have absolutely no idea. It’s a very nice little building there on the Yale campus. I should have asked that.

RB: Do they have patches on their jackets that say “New Haven Lawn Club?

CK: I didn’t see any.

RB: Blue blazers and periwinkle bowties?

CK: [laughs] That would have been much more amusing. It was perfectly nice, basically what it was last night. The bookseller R.J. Julia, that’s where they wanted to have it. One of the people who came raised his hand and said, “I have a Charlie Rose question for you.” I said, “OK,” and then he asked it and I don’t remember what it was.

RB: That would be a Charlie Rose question.

CK: But it was one of these thing at that to properly answer it would require hours of expounding—and so I said, “Since it’s a Charlie Rose question, why don’t you answer it for me?” as a joke, and everybody laughed. He does tend to ask a question and then start to answer it. But he is a very smart guy and there is almost always something worth watching.

RB: On the one hand, I thought an interview he did with Henri Cartier Bresson was wonderful, and on the other spending an hour on Las Vegas blowhard Steve Wynne was crap. How much of yourself is invested in The Learners so that you will be spending time out in the hustings doing publicity?

CK: A lot.

RB: You want to sell it as a movie?

CK: Um, sure.

RB: Do you want to make the movie?

CK: That’s a good question. Yeah. [laughs]

RB: You haven’t made any movies?

CK: No, that thing I just put on You Tube was my first go. What an auspicious beginning. The one nice thing about this book is that it got sold as an audio book, which you would think, “Oh, that’s a given.” But The Cheese Monkeys didn’t, and that I was very disappointed at. But then this firm, Blackstone Audio, got The Learners and I said, “That’s great, would you take a look at The Cheese Monkeys, please?” They did, and bought that also. They hired an actor named Bronson Pinchot to do it. He was on a sitcom in the late ‘80s called Perfect Strangers. He played a Russian immigrant, cousin to Mark Linn-Baker. He read it, and he has become my new best friend. He’s really, really into it. He also said this would be a great little independent film—it wouldn’t be hard to make. “You should direct it. You write a like a director, bladdy blah.” The Cheese Monkeys has been in development hell for years.

This sweet nutty little lady came up to me to sign her book. And she fixed her gaze on me and she says “Oh you have Darwin’s tubercle. Did you know that?” I said, “What on earth are you talking about?” She said, “You have this little flap on the end of your ear.”

RB: If you sold that, then haven’t you have sold the characters in The Learners?

CK: No.

RB: Are you sure?

CK: Yes, they have first right of refusal. Anyway, I have been thinking about—I can’t not think about this kind of stuff. It’s just the way my head works—how would I do it? I would make it an independent thing and really cut it off from The Cheese Monkeys somehow and really just make it about this kid who graduates from school and gets this job and then—

RB:—focus on the Milgram experiments?

CK: Absolutely.

RB: And how much would you pay attention to the amusing byplay in the ad agency world?

CK: A lot and there is a lot you could do with that visually. It would all be about set decoration and research and all of that stuff.

RB: Why wouldn’t you do the audio books?

CK: That was what I said. First of all I thought it was so ironic that The Learners got scooped up right away for audio when The Cheese Monkeys didn’t because there are so many visual aspects to it—that’s going to be part of the problem for Bronson to figure out. How do you read [aloud] in a certain typeface, which is what he is going to have to do? By now we have a couple of ideas on how to make that work.

RB: Announce that “Please forgive me” is in a Bodoni typeface?

CK: He said you have to tell Blackstone what you want, otherwise they are absolutely not going to deviate from the text. At first I said, “I want to do it, I want to do it.” And they demurred.

RB: [laughs] They didn’t refuse, they demurred?

CK: There was a scheduling issue, because I am about to go out on tour and they need to get it recorded while I am on tour. And then my agent was saying, “They are going to be more comfortable with a professional that they know,” and so then when they bought Cheese Monkeys, I said that I insist I have to read it. I have been reading that for years; I can recite the damn thing. I do all the voices and blah, blah, blah. And then Bronson read that and went over the top, “Oh my God, this is…” So I just decided to let go and let him do it.

RB: It’s a lot of hard work. So, is there such a thing as Darwin’s tubercle?

CK: Yes.

RB: Where did you stumble across that?

CK: On my book tour for The Cheese Monkeys. We were in Palo Alto, Calif., at that great bookstore there, which I think shut down. This sweet nutty little lady came up to me to sign her book. And she fixed her gaze on me and she says [in a little old lady voice] “Oh you have Darwin’s tubercle. Did you know that?” I said, “What on earth are you talking about?” She said, “You have this little flap on the end of your ear.”

If you hung around me all day you would be even more mystified as to how I get anything done.

RB: What?

CK: [Moves his head] See it? Google it.

RB: On both ears?

CK: Yup. Darwin theorized it had something to do with a higher level of evolution.

RB: You are the step between humans and Vulcans.

CK: I had The Learners in mind at the time—I was sort of working on it and I thought, “That’s a really good detail, that this guy has these ear flap things.” And that is actually why he gets hired.

RB:—by Mimi. We have talked just a little on the multitudinous things that you are involved in. I was going to ask what do you do for fun, but would it be fair to say that much of what you do is fun?

CK: Heh. Technically yes.

RB: Is there such a thing for you as doing nothing?

CK: Sure, it’s called sleep.

RB: If I hung around you all day—

CK: If you hung around me all day you would be even more mystified as to how I get anything done. I can waste time like nobody’s business. It’s truly shocking. I think it’s due to the computer, like the speed of doing the thing on a computer and the fact that I don’t really have a family to look after and take care of—that’s how I get stuff done. I do a lot of nothing.

RB: Not having a family means that you can do stuff at any time?

CK: Especially this particular semester. Sandy’s and my schedule are divergent; after Friday night, I won’t see him again for a week and a half. This is special because I am on a book tour and he is teaching two classes a week at Yale this semester. If I had a family with children, to be away from them for a week and a half probably wouldn’t be too cool. We don’t even have pets—we barely have houseplants.

RB: No pets? You have your superhero collection.

CK: That’s right. [laughs]

RB: You live in Manhattan, I imagine you do what hip Manhattanites do? I called you hip—you didn’t cringe.

CK: That’s very amusing. I am about as un-hip as it gets. One of the things we are very fortunate about is, Sandy and I, is we have nice places to live in Manhattan. For me that is unusual. I feel very lucky. We both managed to find places we could afford before the market went insane. My point being we spend a lot of time at home.

RB: Is Stonington rural?

CK: No, it’s a village.

RB: Aren’t villages rural? A little town surrounded by lots of land and farms.

CK: All right, OK.

RB: And no pets there?

CK: No, Sandy is allergic to cats, and that’s what I would want and we just are too all over the place to keep a dog one place, and having a dog in Manhattan is just crazy. The poor thing would be scratching at the door in Stonington half the time.

RB: Is there something that you want to do that you haven’t done? That you are dying to do? That would surprise me, for instance?

CK: Well, the music—

RB: That doesn’t surprise me.

CK: Really? A lot of people have been, that’s been the reaction. Sort of like, “Where did this come from?”

RB: When you describe it, it certainly seems like something within your world, that you would do. Would you like to design a house?

CK: would love to do that. And Sandy and I talk about that all the time—

RB:—That wouldn’t surprise me.

CK: We talk about that all the time, too, because Stonington is great and it’s small, the house is small—Sandy has a fantastic studio and I have a little kitchen countertop. That’s about it. [chortles] And neither of us is getting any younger.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

RB: I thought you were.

CK: It doesn’t start to retrograde for another five years. So yeah, all that stuff. Make a movie of The Learners. Try and make a go of the music—at least get an album out on a label.

RB: Do you want to perform the music?

CK: Yeah.

RB: What venue do you see as appropriate?

CK: There is a place in New York called Joe’s Pub, which is part of the Public Theater. A very good friend of mine, Jackie Hoffman, regularly performs there.

RB: What does she do?

CK: She’s hilarious. She is sort of like Carol Burnett on acid. In the East Village or something. Right now she is on Broadway in Xanadu: She plays Calliope. She totally steals the show. She is going to put finally a CD out—she sings and does stand-up. She does this persona, it’s really her, of this Jewish (woman) of a certain age with the cute goy boyfriend.

RB: Bette-Midleresque?

CK: Much more of an edge. Much more—a lot of it along the lines of, “Get your baby away from my face” kind of stuff. Very funny.

RB: What makes you think you want to perform your music?

CK: Well, it’s a totally natural impulse. You want to see people hopefully enjoying it, that would be a real kick. And my music partner has been in bands and toured Europe and he says it’s the most fun in the world.

RB: What’s possibly yet in the cards for you is a making a movie—

CK: Well—

RB: And a CD and performing.

CK: That would be nice.

RB: Any interest in traveling around the world? In taking a break from your life as it is?

CK: Yeah I have done that: the Italian fellowship, which we did again this past fall. Random House has this great sabbatical program. Every ten years you are there you get a month sabbatical, and they made it retroactive, which was great in my case. I got an invitational speaking tour of Australia. Exactly a year ago, so I took my sabbatical and went to Australia for a month. I don’t think I would take a month off and tour Australia without having some other reason to do it. So no, I don’t have that impulse. I travel a lot but it is almost always connected to something else. Rarely just for pleasure.

RB: Is there a place in the world that you haven’t been that you would like to go to?

CK: Greece. Never been to Turkey. Istanbul—I’d love to.

RB: Why?

CK: Why? Everybody raves about it, [because of having read] Orhan Pamuk’s book. Obviously it’s not perfect, but it sounds definitely worth checking out. I have never been to South America.

RB: You have a lot of places to cover.

CK: Yeah.

RB: Thanks for sending in the Thornton Wilder note.

CK: Sandy, for years, was the president of the Thornton Wilder Society, and we have since become great friends with Wilder’s nephew, Tappan, who holds the keys to the estate. And it was through that friendship that Sandy got the rights to do Our Town as an opera with Ned Rorem, and it’s going to play at Julliard this Spring. Sandy just said you really should read that, it’s a great unknown work. I took it on a trip—it’s truly amazing.

RB: So what are you reading these days?

CK: It’s sad. Magazine and newspapers take up so much time, and crossword puzzles.

RB: Does traveling back and forth hinder your reading?

CK: It’s just that there is so much other stuff. And the crossword puzzles.

RB: [laughs]

CK: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, the New York Times crossword puzzle can take me an hour, hour and a half—like completely out of your day.

RB: Considering you sleep 14 hours a day, that only leaves nine hours for the rest of your life.

CK: There you go.

RB: Any surprises coming—since I know you so well?

CK: [laughs] Surprising things from me? [long pause] God! I don’t know. Nothing that we haven’t discussed.

RB: Well let me know—surprise me.

CK: I hope to.

RB: We’ll leave it at that. And thanks very much.