Cartoonist Liana Finck on her graphic memoir ‘Passing for Human,’ influences and more

The peculiarities of New York life aren’t always easy to talk about. Which is why Liana Finck draws them.

The Park Slope illustrator and writer’s humorous advice column “Dear Pepper” appears every other Thursday on The New Yorker’s website, and her quips about being an artist, woman and millennial are the basis of her popular Instagram account (@lianafinck). Now, she’s putting herself at the forefront with a graphic memoir, “Passing for Human.”

amNewYork spoke with Finck, 32, about illustrating her life’s story, what it’s like to “make it” as an artist in New York and her audiobook habit.

What inspired you to write a memoir?

The project started out as an adaptation of a book I felt really close to, “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” [by Vladimir Nabokov], and that became “Passing for Human.” When you’re young and don’t really know what you should be doing, the thing you should be doing finds you, it just takes some time. Now, I know why I wrote a memoir: This is the story of my life that helps me relate to the world. It’s the filter through which I understand art and being a woman. I was a weird kid. And I stopped drawing and doing all the things that made me weird. It’s a book about reclaiming my weirdness through drawings. It’s also the story of how my mom left her career as an architect to raise kids and poured all of her love and artistry into our beautiful home, and what it means to be a woman and an artist.

What is your writing and illustrating process?

I usually work first with words then with pictures. Ideas work spatially, so I don’t usually start with them on a computer. I write by hand in batches so I know where words will be on the page, and then I trace them. I treat drawing like writing and work in drafts. That’s how this story was made. As I made more drafts, I figured out more and more clearly what I was saying.

Where do you like to work?

I like to work in cafes and parks and in trains and on subways. Lately I’ve been working in my house, but it depends what I’m working on. If it’s too big and vague a project I’ll procrastinate in my house so I need to get out.

Do you listen to anything while you work?

I listen to audiobooks and podcasts a lot. It’s my main vice: I feel like I’m not giving my full attention to my work. They’re good for when I’m doing something boring like retracing something I’ve already created. I like to listen to an audiobook like 10 times; I like ones that are rambling and you’re plunging into a world where you can pay attention and then stop paying attention. I think I’ve listened to “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara like 100 times. For podcasts, I like to listen to really smart people that I can eavesdrop on.

Who influences you creatively?

I love [the illustrators] Roz Chast, Maira Kalman, Saul Steinberg, William Steig and Gabrielle Bell. I also love kid’s books. I think in some ways I relate more to kid’s books than comic books because they’re freer.

What are some challenges of making a living as an artist in New York today?

When I’m not careful I spend all of my time emailing and invoicing and pitching things and no time working on things. I tend to drift toward projects that are smaller, pay right away and have deadlines rather than working on a long book where I don’t show it to anyone for years. I think that’s a shame because I think the books mean more to me. I’m a fast-paced person in a slow and meditative job. That’s difficult. Paying for health insurance is difficult. And having to figure out where you’ll put yourself to work is hard. I’ve had many different iterations of workplaces, but it gets expensive. I now live alone so I can work in my house. Two years ago I couldn’t afford to work from cafes.

How do you know when you’ve made it?

I have that feeling more than I used to. I don’t have a constant feeling of failure. I feel good enough about myself that I let myself take breaks, which I think is a really big deal. When you feel bad about yourself you don’t let yourself see people because you feel like you need to work all the time. I still worry all the time that I won’t be able to pay rent in the next few months. I always worry about the next book deal. But I think that’s good. I think I’ve made it enough that I feel some of the uncomfortable parts of doing well. People ask you for things a lot and you don’t know if they like you or want something from you. It gets overwhelming sometimes.

’Gram go-tos

Like many a modern cartoonist these days, Liana Finck has found an audience for her simple yet humorous drawings on Instagram (she even offers the disclaimer to her nearly 200,000 followers that they can get tattoos of her work, no permission needed).

“Instagram is the only thing I do that I haven’t fought to do and it just kind of happened,” Finck says. “In a way that’s the thing I’m the most proud of — I haven’t formed myself to fit an expectation and people still relate. It’s so nice.”

So what cartoonists does Finck follow? She shared a few of her favorite accounts:


Liana Finck is in conversation with Roz Chast on Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Greenlight Bookstore | 686 Fulton St., Fort Greene, greenlightbookstore.com