The Illustrated Tanzer

By on July 12th, 2012
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As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I went to New York City last month for a reading tour along with several other writers who have been published by the Chicago Coalition for Literature and Photography (CCLAP) press. Ben Tanzer was one of the writers who performed with me at the KGB Bar, and if you ever get a chance to hear him read, do take it. He’s charming and hilarious, and his stories are great to hear aloud. Ben’s most recent collection of short stories, entitled The New York Stories, was released in a beautiful handbound, limited edition book with illustrations by CCLAP.


A few weeks ago Jason Pettus, the editor and owner of CCLAP asked me if I would be interested in interviewing the artist who illustrated Ben’s book, and I said I’d love to. The illustrations are righteous, and the book is gorgeous. And available for purchase on the CCLAP site here. So without further ado, here is my interview of Laura Szumowski.

DDK: Thanks for coming on my blog, Laura. I got a copy of Ben Tanzer new book, The New York Stories, a while back, and I really liked your work. It’s quite sharp. How were you introduced to Ben, and how did you get the job to illustrate this collection?

Laura: Thank you for having me! I was originally approached by Jason, the owner of CCLaP. We were at Quickies, and Jason introduced himself and said he was a fan of my work and had a project in the works that he would love to have me illustrate. At that point, I didn’t really think of myself as an illustrator, but it sounded like a really fun, interesting project.

DDK: So you mostly have thought of yourself as a fine artist then? Do you primarily produce paintings?

Laura: No, although I did start out as a painter. Over the past six or seven years, I’ve been writing and illustrating my own books, but for some reason had never really broached the idea of illustrating other books. Writing and illustrating felt very contained; I hadn’t separated the two.

DDK: Interesting. Where could people find your own books? And did you have a general subject matter you were writing about?

Laura: All of my work is non-fiction, and my main focus is women’s health. I also started a small press, ZMK Press. My books are all listed and available on my website I also branched off and wrote an illustrated guidebook to Chicago.

DDK: So were you formally trained or self-taught?

Laura: I was formally trained in drawing and fine art– I received my BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. However, as far as writing and publishing books is concerned, I am completely self-taught. It’s been an interesting challenge, to say the least!

DDK: When you are writing your own book and then illustrating it, what is generally your process of going from text to illustration and how did that vary when you were working with another author’s work?

Laura: With nonfiction, choosing what to illustrate is often pretty straightforward. However, I’m also trying to take subject matter that some people may find taboo or uncomfortable and make it approachable. Because of that, I always try to be aware of what type of message the illustrations send. For example, I’ve written both of my women’s health books with non-gendered language. At the same time, I also like to throw in drawings of cats or an accordion, to keep it interesting, friendly, and a bit playful. For Ben’s stories, it’s a bit different. I read through each story several times, highlighting key words and making notes about characters or aspects of each story that stood out to me. In that case, I felt there was a little more play, and I was able to take quite a bit of artistic license with what I chose to illustrate. Sometimes there was a specific character or moment that I found moving or particularly interesting—and these weren’t necessarily the main things that would jump out to every reader.

DDK: I like that. It causes the story to interact with the reader in a different way. Tell me about this one image of the house in flames. It has a very interesting dimensional effect to it. The fire looks like it is alive.

Laura: That illustration is from a very small moment in the fourth story, What We Thought We Knew. This story, in my opinion, is about adolescence and how volatile and out of control it can feel. It’s also about sexuality and desire, and how life sometimes happens around us in a way that we see and feel but can’t seem to touch or control. In the story there is powerlessness mixed with violence, and for me it culminates in this house being burned down. I like that you think it looks alive.

DDK: Yes, the flames seem to reaching upward with a force and dimension. I can see an analogy to desire in them, as if they are exerting their will to escape the house. Is there anything you want to mention before we close?

Laura: Only that I really enjoyed illustrating these stories– and thank you for taking the time to interview me and share my work on your blog!