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Graphic Novelist Liana Finck on Yiddish Letters, Teen Angst, and Becoming a Book Person

Starting in 1906, the Yiddish newspaper Forverts (The Forward) published an advice column called A Bintel Brief (“a bundle of letters”)The questions came from Eastern European immigrants who were homesick for ‘the old country,’ and often perplexed by the customs of the United States. “They sought advice on the problems that beset them in the new world,” explained Seth Lipsky in Tablet Magazine earlier this year. “Some were mundane, such as how to use a handkerchief, or whether to play baseball. Others were profound.” Responses were initially penned by the newspaper’s founder and publisher, Abraham Cahan, and later, other editors.

Inspired by this historic, poignant correspondence, comic artist Liana Finck—a Fulbright and Six Points fellow whose work has appeared in The New YorkerThe Forward and Tablet—wrote a graphic novel, also called A Bintel BriefSlate‘s Dan Kois describes her style as “sharp, evocative,” and reminiscent of Ben Katchor and Roz Chast. I spoke with Finck talk about art, becoming a book person, and the making of A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York.

So, basic question: how’d you get to A Bintel Brief?

It started as a grant proposal for the Six Points Fellowship. I decided to become a serious comic book artist after college, and I gave myself one year. I had a Fulbright grant that was going to last less than a year, so I needed to finish a great comic. I was planning this amorphous, ambitious first novel and when the nine months were almost up I realized it wasn’t going to be finished and I needed another grant that would give me another year or two. I wanted something less ambitious and more limited, so I wouldn’t have to figure out how to locate and bare my soul. I was being calculating; jadedly I thought, “I can pretend to be the version of me that I’m not.” I can pretend to be this nice Jewish girl from the suburbs and write this small, nostalgic, non-intellectual Jewish story. If I could’ve sold my soul and done something that wasn’t me, that’s what I would have done with A Bintel Brief, but I really fell in love with it long before I finished the grant proposal—I fell in love the minute I started reading the letters. Once I read the letters I wasn’t jaded anymore.

What spoke to you from the letters?

They’re very simple and at the same time they’re seething with emotion. I’d always felt apart from the people I knew, especially people who were artists. I think I had a lot of feelings when I was a teenager and in my early twenties and I related a lot more to books and art than to people. I was expecting these letters to be things that I didn’t relate to, because they weren’t literature in my mind; they were in the human camp. But I did relate to them. Reading them made me realize that I wasn’t actually a high art person in an ivory tower; I was just a person who seeks human intensity.

Do you think that’s a part of growing up?

I think when you’re in your teens and early twenties—at least for me—you are a much more intense person than a full-fledged adult. I felt like I was miles away from other people with their small talk. I couldn’t find humanity in them. Just in Chekhov, etc.

I used to like books about people, but not people.

It’s so strange. I’m still like that, but I think it’s a delusion. We refuse to see humanity in people because we are so scared of them. They are layered and full of veils and contradictions. I used to think I liked it because only smart people could understand it, but I’ve realized that I like it because it’s abstract, and not trying so hard to make sense of all the feelings and mysteries. Abstraction does not lie.

It was The Catcher in the Rye’s anniversary last week. I re-read that book five times before I really got it—

I keep on seeing people reading it, I look at this guy and think, “He’s a brute of a Wall Street stock broker,” or “He’s a gangster wannabe,” and then I’ll see he’s got Catcher in the Rye in his back pocket. It changes everything. That’s the best feeling, seeing Catcher in the Rye in the back pocket of a pushy guy in a loud suit. I have to read it again. I read it when I was a young teenager and then an older teenager. I liked it but I don’t think it changed my life. I didn’t understand parts of it, and I wasn’t a book person yet.

When did you become a book person?

I became a poetry person at 13 and then a book person at 17. I stayed a poetry person until I was 21 and realized I wouldn’t be a poet because the poetry world seemed like a storm of ice crystals. I think I was always a story person, fairy tales and kid novels, but poetry was something totally different. When I was seventeen I realized that there were books that had the things I loved about poetry. I had a teacher who recommended great books to me when I was a junior in high school, and I started to read modernist novels like Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. Much earlier, my mom had given me [Vladimir] Nabokov and [Isak] Dinesen; I loved them the way I loved fairy tales as a kid, then I rediscovered them as puzzles as I got older.

Does your art mimic the puzzled thing that you liked in poetry?

I think working on art is a puzzle in of itself. I tried to be a poet and abstract painter when I was in college because that was the kind of art that really moved me, but I realized I liked abstract art and poetry because, looking at and reading it, I was doing a lot of work in my head that the artist or poet generously left unfinished. I’m not that generous in my work. I like to figure out the puzzles myself, and give the reader something more packaged and dogmatic.

What’s your favorite piece in the book?

I liked the first stories I started. I did more drafts of those, and was able to figure out slowly what the mood of the story was—time was my friend. I’m also fond of the blue parts [between the stories], I made those pages after I made the stories. The stories are adaptations—which is a limiting, tricky form to work in—you keep having to ask yourself, “Why does this letter need to be transmuted into comics?”—but also a safer art form. You aren’t telling your own story, so if the story turns out badly it’s not a reflection on your soul. Working on the narrative between stories gave me a very small, safe venue for telling my own semi-autobiographical story. I felt so free when I made it. It was also the least ambitious work of fiction I’ve ever tried to make, and working on it taught me that dry ambitiousness is NOT my friend.

One last question: Why did you draw Abraham Cahan with a heart-shaped face?

Because my mom used to draw heart-faced people on my lunch bags as a kid. She said I had a heart-shaped face. Cahan was a total brain-man. In creating A Bintel Brief, he tried to access his heart and he succeeded; he turned his brain into a heart. Sometimes I’m afraid his head looks like a turnip like the guy in Howl’s Moving Castle. Afraid is not the right word. The right word is delighted.

Image: © Liana Finck, reprinted from A Bintel Brief, published in 2014 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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