The Artist in the Office Interview: Ayun Halliday
Ayun Halliday is an actress, writer, illustrator, and zine maker. Her funny books include The Big Rumpus, No Touch Monkey!, and most recently, the children’s book, Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo. I HIGHLY recommend her award-winning zine The East Village Inky.
As with every AITO Interview: COMMENTS ARE OPEN. I bought a copy of Ayun’s fabulous memoir of her work life, Job Hopper, and will be picking a name randomly on FRIDAY of some LUCKY recipient. Do IT!
What are some of the jobs you’ve had? What was the worst and why?
Costume Rental Stylist, temp, waitress, massage therapist, one-day mime for a glassware convention, receptionist, costumed mascot, telemarketer, security guard…
There’s no one worst. Were I to try and pick one, it would no doubt pale next to the summer an acquaintance spent working at the Roach Motel factory. I will say – from experience – that were I to write No Exit, it would take place in a corporate setting, perhaps the company picnic I worked as a spirit team leader (I think that was the term). I was supposed to get these very reluctant (as I would have been) mid-level employees psyched about sack races and potato races with their secretaries and people from other departments. One participant gave me his sunglasses to hold. As I was bouncing up and down, clapping, and cheering like some cretinous ninny, they fell out of my pocket, and I stepped on them, damaging them beyond repair. I’m pretty sure they cost more than double what I was making. A horrible, soul-sucking day. I also lost my wallet, and had to beg a token booth clerk to allow me on the subway.
Were there ways you felt divided as a creative person with a day job and if so, were there ways you snuck in your creative life within the work day?
No. I never expected to be able to pay my rent with profits from my extremely low budget creative endeavors. The reason I had such sucky jobs is BECAUSE I was in the arts (and also, I tended to quit so I could go traveling). If I had it to do over, I would train for a specialized day job that would, by its very nature, provide health insurance and benefits. A man who joined my old theater ensemble after I moved to New York subsidizes his art as a technician for a pediatric cardiologist. I would never have been savvy enough to arm myself with such a skill.
I have to say, the way you phrase the question above cracks me up a bit…that “IF SO”. Weren’t no ‘if so’ about it. If my day job put me in proximity to a photocopier, I was going to harness it for my creative endeavors. I wrote short plays on company time, liberated office supplies, requisitioned postage… Looking back, I’m reminded of those barter pools… I slipped a playwright friend a thousand dollars worth of rental costumes when he had a show going up… another friend photocopied the first issue of my zine after hours at her job when I was on self-prescribed maternity leave.
I know you are currently making a living full-time as an artist. Are there times you miss having a regular job? If not, why not? If so, what do you miss?
In addition to the perks mentioned above, I miss the work-specific camaraderie, though when my children were younger, I enjoyed a variation of that in the playground. It always felt so weird, though, trying to take one of those close work friendships off-site for dinner and a movie, instead of an extra long lunch break in a place where our coworkers would be passing through every 5 minutes or so. It was like an awkward date. I was always shocked to find that the banter and ease were so closely tied to our mutual experience of our shitty workplace, and only came naturally within that setting.
I miss the free food that came along with working in restaurants, though it’s rare that the staff gets to eat the same quality stuff as the customers. The exception to this was at Dave’s Italian Kitchen in Evanston Illinois where we could eat whatever we wanted except for the chocolate mousse… In Job Hopper, I wrote about squatting in front of the refrigerator where it was stored, frantically shoveling as much as I could down the ol’ gullet. Dave read the book, and wrote to say, “Aw buddy, I would’ve let you have some. You should’ve asked!” Truly a prince among restaurant bosses …
And, massage wise, I do miss those really great treatments where a client proved so receptive that our breathing synched up, and it became like a dance, or a massage for me too. After working so many crap jobs, it was rewarding to feel like my work was meaningful, appreciated and not half-assed.
You publish a zine four times a year, write books, occasionally act in various capacities, while also maintaining a dynamic family life. How in the heck do you find time for it all?
I hate these kinds of questions, but I am still dying to know—what does a ‘typical’ day look like for you?
It really depends on what the deadlines are… I tend to zero in on a new coffeehouse for every book and the biggest trick is getting myself out the damn door, because all the little domestic chores and scheduling concerns conspire to keep me in the apartment. The guidebook I just finished was completed in a very strange place around the corner – it has wifi, which I needed for fact checking, and really good coffee beans. You can sit there for hours! I think people shy away from it because it’s less a café than a gallery with confusingly mundane, not-so-hot art on the walls. I think they’re freaked out by all that empty space in the back. It feels like it should have closed after a week in business. I always wonder about the nice young people behind the counter. Like, in all of New York, why there? Actually, I guess it’s not unlike that hippie clothing store in Chicago, where no one came in but lonely old men and paranoid schizophrenics. I didn’t make much but I had plenty of time to do my own stuff, and eat carryout Chinese food, and loll around making things out of pipe cleaners. Oh, but I digress.
Even more importantly, my working day (or lack thereof) is shaped by the needs of my family, particularly the kids… if they’re in school, or not, whether their dad’s in town to split the responsibilities, how much laundry is piled up. Today, I burned a CD for my good friend’s birthday, and have dawdled so long that now I’m going to spend my entire working day mailing our taxes, and her present, and doing the laundry and hauling it back, getting groceries, and not going to the gym. It happens. I try not to beat myself up about it. I guess I should take off my workout clothes though.
Then every summer, I spend about five weeks working at an amazing camp in New Hampshire so my kids can go there for four. And I love it. This summer I’m hoping I’ll use my free time setting up some publicity for the guidebook, but it’s awfully fun to just hang out with the counselors, admiring the moon, and chewing the fat.
With all the activity listed above, you seem to maintain a pretty prolific outpouring of ideas. How do you keep the inspiration wells from running dry? What keeps you going?
Well, I’ve got a lot of ideas, but my agent often reminds me that the majority of them appeal to a very specific, small audience. I suspect that’s probably the very quality that’s allowed me to be published at all. I read a lot, and spend a lot of time browsing in bookstores, particularly Rocketship, the comic shop near my home – it’s inspiring to see what people in other countries are doing, and what people half my age have accomplished! Even though my family responsibilities prevent my attendance, I’m incredibly jazzed by all the freaky, low-budget events in NYC, the result of someone having had a cool idea and deciding to carry it out. I wander around Chinatown. I freak out on the funny videos people post on the Internet. I try to write what I myself would like to read.
What are you working on now?
I’m hoping to co-author a book with Erica Perl, whom I met when we threw in together for a little mid-Atlantic tour promoting our just published children’s books (Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo and Chicken Butt!) It’s something we came up with on one of our interminable drives. It’s about best friends whose summer plans are thwarted when they’re sent to different camps. The friendship starts to fall apart once they’re separated. It’ll all be told in letters, with me writing one kid and Erica writing the other. I also want to write a graphic novel about a girl who writes obituaries for her school paper, possibly as a semi-sequel to Peanut, the graphic novel I’ve got coming out in 2011. And also, that laundry I mentioned earlier.
Do you have any advice for creative types with jobs out there you care to share?
Remember that it’s ultimately your fault if you end up frittering away those precious non-job hours. Don’t spend them all on the internet, or in front of some video. Take your work to a coffeehouse (and forget about your facebook page while you’re there). I guess this advice is kind of impractical for sculptors, but you know what I’m getting at, right? Then, when it’s done, don’t let timidity, or other people’s indifference consign it to a drawer. Self-publish and sell it yourself too. Hang it on street signs. Provide free entertainment on a busy corner. Even though I spend a lot of time wishing that I had cohorts, handlers, yes men, and fairy godmothers, I do derive enormous satisfaction from looking back and realizing that the finished product wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t participated so fully.
Thank you, Ayun Halliday!