An Urban Fairytale
By Kate FeifferNovember 23, 2012
The whimsical imagination that Victoria Roberts has long breathed into her drawings, cartoons and stage characters comes alive in her first novel — a newly broke family of eccentrics settles, along with the contents of their penthouse apartment, in the middle of Central Park, New York.
Victoria Roberts arrives in New York City’s Central Park with a teapot and two porcelain teacups for us. The reddish hue of her hair and her tortoiseshell glasses sit well with the foliage on this overcast fall day. Her nose is not particularly large or bulbous. It is an absolutely lovely nose and wouldn’t be worth a mention at all if it weren’t for the egg-shaped noses she likes to draw.
“When I was a kid I drew faces without noses for years. Then I drew animals, and no people. Then the nose turned up and I drew people again. The nose is where the people begin,” Roberts explains.
The celebrated illustrator and cartoonist has met me in the park to discuss her new book, After The Fall. We pick a bench to sit on. “Would you like some tea?” she asks.
Born in New York City, Roberts was four years old when she and her mother moved to Mexico City, where her mother married Bob Benjamin. After the marriage ended, they briefly moved to Dallas before moving back to Mexico and then to Australia when she was 13. The point being, she says, “I got to learn British humour, Australian humour, American and Mexican humour.” And these meshed into her own subtle, insightful blend that works a little like comedic Médecins Sans Frontières.
As a young cartoonist living in Sydney, Roberts found early success. Her first cartoons were published in The Nation Review when she was only 19. Then came her first book, My Sunday, when she was 25. It wasn’t long before Melbourne’s The Age newspaper had dubbed her “Australia’s most successful female proponent of the art’’.
“Australia had extraordinary cartoonists,” she says, clearly in awe of her colleagues at the time, who included: Michael Leunig, Bruce Petty, John Spooner, Patrick Cook, Jenny Coopes and Peter Nicolson.
In her late 20s, Roberts returned to New York to try to break into The New Yorker magazine. Instead of gracious salutations, the vaunted publication greeted her with a steady flow of rejections. “I would get very upset. I’d get rejected and I’d throw the cartoons into the garbage bin,” she recalls.
During this time she had a disquieting revelation that would gnaw at her for two-and-a-half decades.
Roberts had been heading to Central Park for a jog after a day of drawing on spec when the troubling thought occurred to her: “I could just disappear here.” In Australia there were safety nets, but in the United States the chasm that might open up if she could not earn her keep looked dark and ominous. “That was the moment when I started to think about After The Fall,” Roberts says. She can recall her location (79th Street between Lexington and Third Avenue), what she was wearing (black leggings, a T-shirt and Mexican sweater) and approximate time (around three in the afternoon), when the thought hit her.
The relentless drumbeat of submissions and rejections continued until the day Roberts received a rejection with a note written on it from the editor and cartoonist Lee Lorenz. Lorenz encouraged her to keep submitting. “And that’s when I thought, okay, I won’t give up,” says Roberts. Six months later The New Yorker published its first Victoria Roberts cartoon. The cartoon features a mystified looking plump woman wearing round spectacles and a knee length coat. She stands with her dog in front of an ATM machine. On the screen are the words: “YOUR FINANCIAL INSTITUTION NO LONGER EXISTS.”
Soon her work started appearing with regularity in The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. The New Yorker cartoons grew into a serial of sorts, featuring a bulbous-nosed couple and their pugs. Roberts’s wry humor is so authentic that her cartoonish-looking couple are instantly and gratifyingly relatable. She gets us from the inside. “Hopefully things are funny because they have enough detail of life, so that it resonates,” says Roberts, whose work is almost always, and appropriately so, described as whimsical. (Roberts is now a frequent contributor to The Global Mail; she has also brought her characters to life in several one-woman shows staged Off Off Broadway, as well as in a web series, and she has numerous books to her name.)
And still Roberts’s mind had held on to the idea of The Fall; over time other filaments of real life clustered to it. Now she has penned a picture book for adults, an illustrated novel (that children will also be drawn to) about a rich family that loses all its wealth in one day. The family members wake up the next morning living in Central Park, that iconic 340-hectare tract of land that separates and sustains the upper-west and upper-east sides of Manhattan.
“I tried to write this for many years, but because it had the homeless thing, I thought I can’t pull this off. Homelessness is not funny,” Roberts says while pouring another cup of tea.
Her hesitation proved fortuitous. In After The Fall (published by W.W. Norton, and distributed in Australia by Wiley), Roberts has given us an urban fairytale that fits the post-Bernie Madoff Ponzi-scheme era. Homelessness, it turns out, can be funny, particularly in a book that begins with the line: “Pops won’t sell the Olmec head!”
And so begins Roberts’s tale of a Fifth Avenue family that finds itself destitute, but living in Central Park still in a manner befitting any self-respecting Fifth Avenue family.
The story is narrated by 10-year-old Alan, through whom Roberts remarks with guileless acuity on many aspects of existence. The family of four (plus three pugs — Roberts’s own dog of choice) has kept its beds, lamps, couches and books, only now it must contend with trees mixed into the decorating scheme. It retains the services of Usvelia and Gudelia, the Mexican-born housekeeper and cook, who dutifully show up for work in the park even though they no longer receive a salary. Kicked out of school because his tuition can no longer be paid, Alan sets off dutifully each day to attempt his own version of “lessons” at the neighbouring Metropolitan Museum of Art. And the family’s new home life centres around Kerbs Boathouse and pond. (Fans of children’s literature will recall that E.B. White’s Stuart Little braved the elements to race a model sailboat on Kerbs pond.)
Touring the area today, having packed away the tea cups into a wicker basket, Roberts notes the changes to the landscape since she wrote the book. Pops’s study, by the wall behind the boathouse, has seen a lot of brush growth. “This is all new,” Roberts says as we attempt some minor bushwhacking to reach Pops’s wing of the park. In the book, Pops sits “on the ground where it sloped at a similar angle to his own easy chair at home”.
Over in Mother’s room, she searches for the arched branch that Mother uses as a foot support in the scene where she envisions herself in a shoe store, and tries on her own shoes “as if they were brand new”. Mother explains that although she may now be poor, “Shopping is a habit … you don’t have to break!”
Mother’s room is situated on a hill overlooking a sculpture of the characters from Alice in Wonderland. Commissioned by George Delacorte and designed by the sculptor José de Creeft in 1959, the statue is a popular climbing destination for children. In After The Fall, Mother finds the statue grotesque and blocks her view of it with a portable wardrobe.
Roberts is no fan of the sculpture either. “I actually have a fear of large statues,” she explains. “Look how big their faces are,” she says, grimacing and pointing to the bronzed Alice.
Roberts wrote the text of her book before embarking on the illustrations. She admits she has a difficult time drawing landscapes. In fact, it’s a shock to hear someone who communicates so effectively in images say, “I’m not that visual.” Roberts doesn’t like to draw backgrounds, so generally keeps them spare. But when our tour takes us to Sis’s wing of the park, Roberts gleefully notes that she did a good depiction of Sis’s “reading rock”.
That well-rendered rock isn’t too far from the set Sis uses for the television program she hosts, once the ingenious Pops wires her outdoor studio so she can broadcast “live”. Wearing a turtleneck, “the uniform of the best TV hosts”, Sis announces her schedule of upcoming guests: “Mary Poppins, Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, Mary (who had a little lamb), Mary (quite contrary), and two other Marys, to be announced.”
“I love sound and I love dialogue, but it’s very hard for me actually to sit and draw the trees,” explains Roberts. As a result, our focus is held by her wonderfully eccentric characters with the well-endowed schnozzes. Roberts’s fans have laughed with and grown long-term attachments to many of her characters, particularly the married couple of her New Yorker cartoons and her charismatic and hilarious alter ego Nona Appleby.
Writers frequently draw upon their families for inspiration, and in this Roberts is no exception. The sartorially sophisticated, mercurial, heavy-smoking Mother in After The Fall is based on her own mother, Inés Roth, who went by the name Inés Roberts. Roberts describes her mother as “an Argentine firecracker”.
“She was extremely creative, extremely bright and sort of publicly a bit bi-polar,” the author says. When annoyed or bored with someone, Ms Roberts senior, who died four years ago, was known to exhort, “You are so Anglo-Saxon!”
On one cold day in Mexico City, when Roberts was a child, her mother insisted she wear tights instead of the prescribed socks to the Lycée-Franco-Méxicain she was attending at the time. For this dress-code infraction, Roberts was separated from her class for the day. “My mum really went bananas when she found out,” she says.
“She went to the highest authority and insulted De Gaulle.”
“She spoke to the sub director of the school, then the director, and finally they brought out Monsieur Gallifet … whom we had heard of but never seen.” Roberts does not know what the insult to de Gaulle was, “except that my death, from not wearing tights, would be blood on their hands”.
The DeGaulle move turned out to be a more serious infraction than the tights. Her mother’s outburst against the French president got Roberts and her step-brother Alan kicked out of school. Even after receiving a letter stating that the two children would be readmitted if she apologised for her derogation of De Gaulle, Roberts’s mother refused to retreat. “That was 1968, so my mother kind of credits herself with the beginning of the French student riots,” Roberts says.
All these years later, Roberts says of After the Fall, “I wanted mum to read the book because I was concerned it was too mean.” She ponders whether “mean” is the accurate word, before rephrasing. Roberts was concerned, given how much the book draws on her mother’s flamboyance, about, “How was it going to sit with her?
“Then I showed it to her and she said, ‘Seems like a perfectly normal family to me.’”
ROBERTS, WHO NEVER MET her birth father, says Bob Benjamin was the only true father she’s had. Benjamin, who died in 2009, had a varied career as a writer and journalist; he was for some time the South American bureau chief for Time magazine, and founded his own public relations firm based in Mexico. In After The Fall, aspects of Benjamin’s character find life in Pops, a madcap inventor whose creations include “Popover™ technology” and “the Never Late Again™” watch, which “shows the official time as well as the time according to one’s own perception of time’’.
Bob Benjamin’s youngest son, Alan, from his previous marriage, is four years older than Roberts. The real-life Alan and Victoria were raised together during the time her mother and Bob remained married. While the fictional Alan is the narrator of her book, it is really Roberts’s story he is telling — and Roberts is loosely represented by Sis, aka Alexandra, in After The Fall.
“I wasn’t thinking about homelessness in the true sense of it,” she says of the book’s theme. “It’s really about loss of family, also the nature of family.”
After she finished the book a deeper truth occurred to her, “I realised that I wrote it as if I wished my mother and Bob had never divorced, and I realised then that’s what this was about — it was about the family staying together.”
The sky is starting to darken and a real-life chill is setting in on this Manhattan evening. “Can I take you for a pastry?” Roberts asks. On our way out of the park, she points to a statue of a ballerina. “She’s here all the time. It’s extraordinary,” she says.
It’s not until we get closer that I realise the statue is a street performer. Roberts tosses a few dollars in a basket and the ballerina gracefully lifts her leg into the air and begins to dance for us. Before returning to her statuesque pose, she moves her hand to her lips and blows Roberts a kiss.
Perhaps she knows that the park’s buskers are paid tribute in After The Fall, perhaps she just recognises another graceful performer when she sees one.