Fugue State Ensues: An Interview with Tamara Shopsin




IF I WERE a different sort of critic, I might call Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal a poly-vocal portrait of Greenwich Village. But I’m not that kind of critic, and, more to the point, Arbitrary Stupid Goal isn’t that kind of book. For even as Shopsin writes in a series of short, almost fragmentary paragraphs — from afar a page out of the memoir might look like a page out of The Argonauts — the aim of the book remains remarkably un-esoteric.

In mid-August, I met Tamara Shopsin at the entrance to Sunset Park; she’d brought me an individually wrapped chocolate-covered espresso bean. We found a stretch of unoccupied benches and talked about Arbitrary Stupid Goal, as well as Shopsin’s first memoir, Mumbai New York Scranton, and her work as a designer and illustrator. Later, we corresponded by email. 

Arbitrary Stupid Goal is an intimate and unsentimental account of growing up on the blocks around the Shopsin family’s eponymous grocery store-turned-restaurant. Taking its title from a core belief of patriarch Kenny Shopsin, the book is both an illustration and an embodiment of the idea that life is best lived in pursuit of “a goal that isn’t too important,” a sort of “decoy point that keeps you bobbing along, allowing you to find ecstasy in the […] everyday.”

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CYPRESS MARRS: How did you go from doing graphic design to writing your first book, Mumbai New York Scranton? What made you think you could write a book?

TAMARA SHOPSIN: I didn’t think: I’m gonna write a book. It happened organically.

I wear a lot of hats. I’m a graphic designer, but most of my living comes from editorial illustration. On weekends I cook at my family’s restaurant. I used to run a novelty company. For whatever reason, I have never limited myself to one job. My husband is the same way.

Did writing … feel like it was using another part of your brain?

Yes. But it draws on skills that I developed doing illustration; part of my job as an illustrator is to read a story and understand it and then condense it into a simple visual that’s beautiful and fun to look at. My illustrations are spare; they tend to leave gaps that the viewer fills in. These gaps are also a part of my writing.

And I’ve always loved comedy, especially vaudeville, and that has influenced my writing as well. So it is a new part of my brain but it feels like part of the team.

So you’ve written now two books that might be classified as “memoir.”

Yes. I can own that. Yes, I did.

[Laughs.] You sound kind of ashamed.

I am! I mean, I’m not as bad as August Strindberg, who wrote at least five autobiographies. But I haven’t cured Parkinson’s or written plays. So, it is off that I have written two memoirs.

But they don’t feel like traditional memoirs. Mumbai New York Scranton was about something specific that happened to me. And Arbitrary Stupid Goal is more about my dad’s philosophies, and New York City.

I got a sense that a lot of your dad’s philosophies, as you present them, are totally tied up with the store and Village — do you think about them that way, or are they distinct in your mind?

The philosophies were born out of the store and the Village, but they are ideas that can be true anywhere and translate to anyone. Though they are maybe not for everyone. My husband and I live by a lot of the tenets I mention in the book. And we don’t run a grocery or live in the Village.

Can you describe what you mean by that?

Last week at the restaurant a customer’s order got messed up. We all felt bad, but the customer insisted it was fine and they would take it. In the end the customer loved the mistaken item and cleaned their plate. This made me so happy.

My dad raised me to enjoy everyday things, to be in the present. Jason, my husband, is a photographer that finds beauty and humor in places you wouldn’t expect. His photos are one of the things that drew me to him. When we travel, the things that make us happy are small moments. For example, last week in Sicily we saw flip-flops shoved in the sand like tombstones and realized they were goal posts for a soccer game.

In some of the press that has come out about the book, you are treated as an expert about New York City. What’s that like?

I have deep, unconditional love for a lot of things in New York — the Parks Department, the New York Public Library, museums, and institutions. I love them to death, so to be associated with them is a dream.

But it’s inaccurate to call me an expert. I was born here and will hopefully die here. That is my qualification.

People are so down on New York City of late, and rightly so. What I’ve felt most when people look to me as an expert is lucky. Lucky that I get a chance to point out the obvious, that New York is still a wonderful place. There isn’t another city in the United States where you can walk on the streets and just have crowds of people around you. It is throbbing, still, despite everything that’s happening.

When you say that people are rightly down on New York, what specifically are you thinking about?

It is a problem affecting cities across the globe. New York is hemorrhaging the small and unique, due to unaffordable rents. The holes these gems leave are being filled with things that without fail are enormously wealthy and boring.

But New York has so much that despite losing blood daily, it is still wonderful. If you visit it’s hard to see, but if you live here it’s hard to avoid.

I think when you say that New York is being filled with things that are “boring” you mean things that are sterile. Is that right?

There are still new and good things in NYC. I don’t want to call NYC sterile. It isn’t. I have fears and nightmares about that.

My friend Brooks recently opened a place called Superiority Burger on East 9th Street. It’s a great little place that serves veggie burgers and changes the menu every day. It has no plans to franchise. It doesn’t care about making money. The place has a lot of soul. Brooks cares about Superiority Burger, about the feeling of the place and the customers, and he loves it. This comes at you as soon as you enter.

But the next thing that comes in your brain is: Holy fuck, how does this eccentric place survive? I know people think that when they come to Shopsin’s.

New York is making it impossible for people like my family and Brooks. Because you need to care about money — the rents and operating expenses are insane. If making money is your top priority, your place becomes boring.

In Arbitrary Stupid Goal, you write mostly about your childhood and early 20s. What was it like, growing up somewhere that you describe as being very “live and let live,” to be a teenager and have a rebellion?

There were no rules. The Village was a very lax place that accepted drugs and everything else. My parents were one step beyond the Village. No bed times, as much candy and soda as you like. I rebelled by doing all my homework and getting to school on time.

My brother Zack did not rebel in that way [Laughs.] — but I was definitely a good kid. I was the sticker monitor for the teacher and that kind of thing.

What’s a sticker monitor?

Oh, you’d get chores in class, and mine was to hand out the reward stickers. Other kids had to put chairs away, or clap chalkboard erasers. Sticker monitor was the top job. The easiest, most fun job — a.k.a. the teacher’s pet’s job. I see this clearly now, though as a kid I thought the job was very serious.

My parents didn’t believe in brushing with toothpaste or in wearing bras. I believed in giving the best-designed sticker to the most diligent kid. To me this was more important than the chore of feeding the hamster, who would die if my classmate forgot.

That is how I rebelled.

I know your twin sister is a filmmaker — do you think there’s some aspect of how you grew up that primed you two for creative pursuits?

Every aspect. My mom was a big supporter of creativity. She hired a student from Fashion Institute of Technology to teach me and my sister how to sew. Every Tuesday a whole booth of the restaurant would be taken up by me and my sister cutting patterns and fabric.

But also the Village was supportive. There was an inexpensive afterschool program called Children’s Aid Society, where me and my siblings took art classes: pottery, woodworking, even enameling. Our school PS3 was run by a principal who wore a purple velvet jacket and read poetry to us at lunch. Neighbors were singers and drag queens. My best friend’s dad was a professional water polo player from Czechoslovakia.

There are two moments I want to ask you about — one in Mumbai and one in Arbitrary Stupid Goal — that I think might be related, but I’m not sure if so or how. In Mumbai, there’s a scene where you and Jason are out to dinner, somewhere outside with lights, while you are in India, and you write: “Walt Disney copied the world so well that sometimes when Jason and I travel, real life seems fake.”

In Arbitrary Stupid Goal, you write about your dad’s collection of gumball machines, specifically one where when you put a quarter in and twist the knob, a little model baker opens an oven and releases a gumball. You really focus in on how the little baker is actually doing a job.

Disney creates these worlds that you see as a kid, and it’s interesting as an adult to find where they sprung from, because you’re seeing the source material. It’s fucked up because it is the original, but you feel like you are on a theme-park ride. That moment is about that complicated feeling. Is Epcot an authentic place? My gut says yes. But my brain says no.

The baker boy gumball passage is not just about the machine. It’s about my dad and mother running a grocery store and having a happy existence simply by taking care of everyday tasks — knowing the kind of jam a person ordered, or slicing meat, or fixing the soda machine. This little man performing his gumball task, he has this little life … that is a Life! But he is not breathing! Fugue state ensues.

When your brain says, “No, it’s not authentic,” what is it saying?

My brain is saying that Disney built a fake world, one that doesn’t include the negatives that make a world interesting and rich. That his version of India is missing the throbbing streets and burning garbage. His version of India is cute and safe.

How can anything be authentic if it is devoid of friction?

Then every nerve in my body will remember floating in space on the Spaceship Earth Horizons ride and my gut will take over.

I really love the passages in Arbitrary Stupid Goal where you write about being in the kitchen with your dad and brother. They are so immediate and so intimate; what were you thinking about while you wrote them?

I’ve been cooking at the restaurant pretty much every weekend since I was 18. It has changed over the years, and it is not always fun, but it is never boring. Those passages were some of the easiest to write, because there is true drama in the kitchen, little fires get started and put out. Cooking with my dad and brother is one of the true loves of my life.

It goes back to the question about living by my dad’s philosophies. People are surprised that I cook eggs and pancakes every weekend knowing a spot illustration pays more and is my own thing, but for me success is not measured that way.

Do you think you will write more books, or do other writing projects? What do you see writing — as opposed to design or illustration — as being good for?

In my work I let the content dictate the form. I will get an idea of something I want to think about or say and it becomes what it is meant to be. This might be a cartoon, a pin, or a book.

For example, with Arbitrary Stupid Goal the starting point of the book was memories of a man named Willoughby, who was a good friend of my dad’s starting in the late ’60s. But my memories of him had holes; I didn’t want to fill these holes with made-up stuff, so writing was the best way. Basically I am trying to find the form that will fuck my ideas up the least.

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Cypress Marrs has written for Bomb, Full Stop, and Lapham’s Quarterly.


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