Andrew Ladd interviews Bruce Eric Kaplan (better known to readers of The New Yorker as BEK), who has a new book out.
Bruce Eric Kaplan is a Los Angeles-based television writer and producer who’s worked on Seinfeld and Six Feet Under, and is now in New York shooting the HBO series Girls, which will premiere next year. But he’s probably better known as “BEK,” for his 20 years of New Yorker cartoons—black-and-white line drawings of a blocky, mostly featureless couple named Edmund and Rosemary—and his short books based on the same characters.
Everything Is Going to Be Okay: A Book for You or Someone Like You, his latest, is out this month (Simon & Schuster, $12.99), and details what happens when Edmund is asked to give a commencement speech at a local college. BEK spoke to us on the phone the other day about his inspirations, being cynical, and what it’s like cartooning for the New Yorker.
Your latest book is Everything Is Going To Be Okay. How did you arrive at that idea?
The title actually came much later—it was the area of graduation speeches that interested me. It always has. When I was 22 I didn’t actually have much fun at graduation speeches, but as an adult when I would read quotes in the Times or see clips on TV I would always find them fascinating. These ideas about how you should live your life, what you should do with your life—what a graduation speech is and does is something I find very interesting. But the “Everything Is Going To Be Okay” came much later, in the writing of the book—you know, Rosemary says it to Edmund near the end—and my editor just liked it as the title.
You refer to Rosemary and Edmund almost as if they’re real people. Do you think of them that way?
Well, obviously there’s a lot of me in both of them, too. But yes, once they exist, they exist independent of you, and you have to listen to what they say.
So do you feel like you learn things from them sometimes?
Yes! Like, in the book, there’s a point where Rosemary is listening to Edmund, and she realizes we’re all infinite even if we don’t feel like we are. And she says that, you know? Maybe deep down I always knew it, but I feel like Rosemary told it to me. She reminded me.
I’m looking at one of your recent New Yorker cartoons. It’s a bridge-of-the-starship-Enterprise sort of scene, with a giant woman on the viewscreen, and one of the characters is saying: “Captain, we’re headed straight toward a big gaping hole of needs!” I feel like that’s pretty typical of the sort of cynical sentiment that comes out in a lot of your cartoons, and it seems very different from the more optimistic subject matter of this book. How come?
I’m sort of the most cynical person in the world but also the most optimistic—it depends on what time of the day it is and what I’m thinking about it. The most pessimistic people are actually closet optimists, I think, and the most cynical ones are the closet idealists.
But you know, a theme of the book is that things that are good are also bad, and things that we think are horrible are often not horrible. I actually feel like I’m exploring the same things I’m always exploring but in a more optimistic way. I’m still looking at the things that are around me and trying to grapple with and it—it’s the same process as when I’m doing my cartoons.
Speaking of your cartoons … Do you feel like there’s a New Yorker aesthetic you can shoot for when you’re drawing, or is their editorial taste as impenetrable as it seems?
I don’t think about it that much. To me, there is no New Yorker aesthetic. There’s a Roz Chast aesthetic, a BEK aesthetic, a Jack Stiegler aesthetic. Each one has their own voice, and their own point of view. So I guess if the New Yorker has an aesthetic, it would be someone with a strong point of view. The idea of a New Yorker aesthetic feels more connected to the magazine’s earlier years. And even then it’s not like they’d ever say, “Do this one again, but make it funnier,” or “Make it about young people,” or something.
My editor wants me to squeeze you for behind-the-scenes-at-the-magazine anecdotes.
Well, I’ve lived my whole adult life in L.A., and I just send them the cartoons, so I feel pretty disconnected from the actual magazine.
Not even any funny rejection slips?
Nope! They only accept 1 in 15, maybe, of the cartoons I submit, but I never get a note. It’s just yes or no. Even when they don’t reject me I never get a note. [laughs].