Phone-a-friend: Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton

Published March 4, 2016.

Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.

Ann: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.

Aminatou: I'm Aminatou Sow.

Ann: And I'm Ann Friedman.

Aminatou: Every other week we'll be bringing you a special phone-a-friend episode between either Ann or me and one of our rad pals.

Ann: Ugh, Amina, this week I talked to a rad San Francisco lady, illustrator, woman about town. I always say that. These are always women about town.

Aminatou: All of our ladies are women about town.

Ann: Wendy MacNaughton.

Aminatou: Yeah, she's the best.

Ann: Who does some of the coolest collaborations of many people that I know. I feel like a lot of her work is done with journalists and writers, and recently she and her partner Caroline collaborated on a book called Gutsy Girl which is sort of a, I don't know, guide to being rad for baby girls out there. She's illustrated a scratch-and-sniff book about whiskey. She's worked on a couple of projects about tattoos. She did a very, I don't know, I guess you would call it visual journalism? A book of drawings and reports and kind of eavesdropped, overheard snippets from San Francisco that is super, super good too. So she's all over the place.

Aminatou: She's so cool. I was recently at a hotel in Tahoe and loved the illustrations and lo and behold it turned out to be her. Recently again I was at a gala and all of the wine labels were done by her, so her vibe is very strong and beautiful. I'm excited to hear this.

Ann: Yeah. She's also someone who came to this profession as essentially a professional visual artist pretty late in life. She kind of had a whole other career. And so I always love talking to women who are finding really great, creative fulfilment and success in kind of a second act or later act. So anyway, here's Wendy.

[Theme Song]


Ann: Wendy, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Wendy: I'm so excited to be here, Ann.

Ann: Be here metaphorically. Be here like in the Internet, drinking tea on opposite ends of California.

Wendy: I am excited to be meeting somewhere in the middle of a tube with you and everybody else. Yes.

Ann: Yes. That will explain any technical echoes or difficulties we have. We're in the middle of a tube. [Laughs]

Wendy: Exactly.

Ann: Yeah. So for people who are not familiar with your work, first of all I think a lot of people who listen to this podcast have probably seen your illustrations or some of your books in part because I think they circulate pretty widely on the Internet, but they might not draw the connections like "Oh, Wendy is the woman who did the pen and ink tattoo book" or "Wendy is the illustrator who worked on Meanwhile in San Francisco and does the visual journalism" or "Wendy is the illustrator who does the New York Times spot illustrations." I think people who sometimes are not illustrators or designers, in the same ways that writers pay attention to bylines that no one else does, sometimes it can be like oh, yeah, look at all these different things I've seen and I am familiar with what someone has done. And so I know your website is kind of divided into these broad categories of the bookwork that you do and the magazine illustration that you do and all of these different types of stuff. Do you just give people a laundry list when they say "What do you do?" Or how do you summarize it?

Wendy: I kind of just say I draw.

Ann: [Laughs]

Wendy: That's like a good catch-all phrase, I guess. I draw. Then we can break it up from there. But what you said before is totally true, like I get that a lot. People say "Oh, yeah, you're an illustrator. What kind of stuff do you do?" Then we'll talk about it or whatever and they'll be like "Oh yeah, that thing!" You know? And I think that is . . . a lot of people work in one particular area but my work is pretty broad as far as how it manifests. Like it can be online; it can be in a magazine; it can be in a book. But what it always kind of reflects is my interests. I describe myself as an illustrator and a graphic journalist, or I do illustrative documentaries which means I tell stories with pictures and words. And a lot of times I draw from life. Does that make sense?


Ann: No, it does make sense.

Wendy: I don't know. I'm still trying . . . you know what? The words are really strange, because it isn't like -- this field of illustrative journalism actually has this really rich, long history, but because of cameras and how the journalism field has changed and everything it kind of means something different now than it did back in the day and there's not that many people really doing it now. So I'm still trying to figure out a word. So if you can or anybody can help me figure out a great phrase for it, I'm open.

Ann: And maybe you can describe what types of projects would fall under this illustrated or drawn journalism rubric? That you've done.

Wendy: Okay, so a couple that were in a book called Meanwhile in San Francisco that I did, there's one about the San Francisco Public Library and I went and spent a month in the library and took a bunch of notes and interviewed a bunch of people and just hung out basically and tried to really get to know the place from the inside out. I'm a big fan of libraries anyway, but I found it was the most amazing place in the world. They had a full-time social worker on staff and they were doing all this great stuff. And all the while while I'm figuring out what the story is behind this library I'm drawing from life, drawing the things that I see and the people that I talk to. And then after I gathered all this information, I put all the pictures together with the words and did the biggest edit job you've ever seen -- this is what makes it more documentary and less journalism, it's definitely a cut-and-paste job -- to tell the story. You can then see it online or you can see it in a book. In some ways it's like a documentary. In some ways it's like journalism. In some ways it's like a comic. In some ways it's like an illustration. I don't know. Maybe if you make a Venn of those things it's somewhere in the middle there. But the word for it I'm not so sure.


Ann: Right. And it's funny that you should mention Venns because you also do visual -- well you call it visual philosophy, which I love, but sort of diagramed ways of understanding concepts and complicated taxonomies. I don't know, what are your other . . . 

Wendy: I feel like we share this in common because you're like the queen of the pie chart which I feel is the kind of ultimate essential diagram and way of understanding things, and you're so good at it, Ann. Oh my god, nobody pie charts better than you.

Ann: Well actually, so maybe we can talk through. I feel like my pie charts frequently could just be a list or could be represented visually another way and I default to pie charts because it's the only thing I know how to draw. Like I trace a coaster.

Wendy: [Laughs] This is so . . .

Ann: Yeah, exactly.

Wendy: Underselling yourself a little.

Ann: But no, serious though, I wonder -- I mean any one of the pie charts that I do is something that I could write a short essay about. I could convey that information in another way. And the overlap with what you do is like that. It is I have chosen to make it a kind of chart-like thing. But also it's in my own handwriting which I think that is a through line to a lot of your work. It's like the font that is Wendy. [Laughs]

Wendy: Right? No, it's true. I wonder if you took your pie chart and then made it in whatever it is, but [0:07:35] if it would not be yours anymore. I mean it still would be your brain but I wouldn't read it as an Ann Friedman, you know? But I think maybe I wonder if we both do this visualization for similar reasons. I mean I guess that's kind of the way my brain works is I visualize things more. Complicated things get super simple -- I can't really understand them so they get super simplified.

Ann: Mm-hmm.


Wendy: I'm sure you could write a beautiful long essay about this stuff but it's almost like just condensing it down into this small little bite and I feel like sometimes when I look at diagrams like yours or I'm trying to figure out whatever. I feel like I leave these things and it keeps my brain kind of ticking in a different way. There's like spaces to fill in or something with thoughts. So yeah.

Ann: Yeah, or it's like deciding that rather than trying to tell a complete story about something you're going to pick out one detail or three details and how they interact.

Wendy: Right. Right, exactly, and then leave a lot to the viewer or reader to kind of put the rest of the pieces together. And also Make Somebody Smile, they're fun. They're fun to make. And even if it's about a challenging topic or something, I think that putting it in that way gives a little bit of lightness to the topic, you know? And brings a sense of humor to things which I think is always a good thing to do these days for sure.

Ann: Yeah. And so, okay, there's all this different stuff that you do. I feel like I encounter most of your work in books and in the New York Times in magazine illustrations, and then like I say I occasionally bump into you on Tumblr or somewhere I don't expect to find you necessarily. Of all of the stuff that you do, is there something that is like okay, this is my payment workhorse? This is where the money comes from. And then this one is like my time work. This is where my time goes but it's not the highest-paid. How does that break down in terms of you making a living? Because I know you draw full-time, right?

Wendy: Yeah. Yeah, that's such a great question and I feel like for drawers and all freelancers we're all trying to figure out what that . . . I don't want to use the word balance, because it's not balanced at all, but what the right combination is. I've found that that distinction doesn't work very well for me because the jobs that I've taken on where I'm like okay, this job pays well, it's usually a commercial job meaning that it's somebody who's like a company or has a product or something and they're like "We want your look on this product and we're going to tell you what to draw and we're going to tell you what to say." Right? And maybe in your handwriting or whatever. But it's very much a hands and head for hire situation.


I find that no matter what the number is that's attached to it, at some point I get really, really angry and super bummed about the project and get really resentful. And it's hard for me to turn that feeling off and then switch over to the work that I'm really excited about and I love to do, and all my work ends up going to shit because it's kind of been contaminated by this angry feeling of resentment or something. It's not to say I don't take those jobs. We need to eat. We need to pay the bills. That's great. So sometimes I'll take them. But I'm really striving to do the work that I love to do and as much as I can because also work begets work, right? The more kind of work that we do that we love, that's what people see and that's what people ask us to do. And if I do more of that other stuff that I don't like to do then people are like oh, they see that and they're like let's do more of that. And that is not the right direction.

Ann: Right, which is such a hard thing when you are starting out as a freelancer because it's sort of like get what you can to pay your bills but then oh, god, have I set myself on this track where I'm starting to get assignments or work that is not the thing that I love?

Wendy: Totally. Did you have that experience too?

Ann: I did, yeah. And I remember reading something. There's a writer that I very, very much admire and I remember reading something that she wrote, I can't remember if it was on her blog or Facebook or something where I only say yes to things that I feel so passionate about and 100% interested in. I had a super bitter, must be nice kind of reaction. [Laughs]

Wendy: Absolutely.


Ann: Even though she's totally right that that is a great way to live and make sure you keep getting the work you want to do, but I don't know, I feel like I'm still trying to figure out in some ways how to strip out the things that are lingering from a time when I was financially bound to say yes to things I didn't want to do. Has it been like that for you?

Wendy: Totally, and I feel like there was . . . it wasn't like a switch happened but there was a period of time of change to when I was saying yes to everything, but for two reasons, in part because it was good experience, good exposure, good money, whatever it was, all that stuff just coming together. But mostly because I'm really excited about everything. Like there really isn't anything that you could tell me to do a story or do a drawing about that I couldn't find interesting in some way.

Ann: I also have this problem.

Wendy: This is actually -- it's like the best problem and worst problem.

Ann: Yeah.

Wendy: So there was this time when I was like yes to everything and all this great stuff was coming but then I was getting burnt out really, really bad because I was doing a lot of smaller projects for little bits of money and was just spreading myself really thin I feel like. There was this period then when I had to switch to making the selective yeses and starting to say no and that was really hard to do. It still is hard to do because some things are tempting because of the subject, because of the collaborator, because of the money, because of the creative freedom or whatever it is. It's such a clich but I guess as the clich goes they are clichs for a reason. Saying no to something, I've really learned it really opens up the door to say yes to the next thing that's going to be the right thing that comes along, you know?

Ann: Right. Yeah.

Wendy: And it's taken a lot of mistakes. Like I tend to learn the same lesson again and again and again.


Ann: [Laughs] Is there a memorable . . . I mean I guess you don't have to name names, but is there a memorable no or series of nos where you were like okay, that's really the last time? Like trying to quit smoking or something, but in a work context where you're like that's the last time that I say yes to that type of work. What have you done to try to hold yourself accountable for that?

Wendy: I have a wonderful partner who's responsible for my historic memory. [Laughs] I really can't recommend getting one enough. My partner Caroline is . . . I kind of run everything by her because I've also learned being in a partnership she goes through everything I go through. If I'm really stressed out or really excited about something she gets the runoff from that, right? So if there's big decisions around projects to be made I'll kind of run it by her and she'll be like no, I just want to point out that this is the third time that you have said maybe and done it and then gotten really stressed out so we're going to say no this time, right? So luckily she's taken that proverbial cigarette out of my mouth.

Ann: Well also a partner has to deal with the fallout. Like if you are truly grumpy for three weeks while you work on something I'm sure she bears the brunt of it.

Wendy: Yeah, exactly. I think our partners bear the brunt of all of that. They get the highs and the lows. They get all of it. So I'm trying to think of a good example.

Ann: I mean I'm even willing to say on the record that there are people who I've had really terrible experiences working with. Sometimes I think it's not their fault, it's the publication's fault, and sometimes I think it's a personality issue. But I have an actual blacklist.

Wendy: Oh, good for you. Okay, yeah, back on the record again, I think that's a great policy actually and a really smart idea. Maybe I should make a little list too. In our work, yours and mine, we collaborate with so many people on so many different levels, right? We have our job where we're sitting in a little room alone, but we're always in contact with other people and who we work with has so much to do with the whole entire process and the feeling of it and the outcome and the quality and all that. For sure. And there are some people that I love to work with so much. Oh my gosh. You know, writers and editors and cooks and really great, smart people.


Ann: How can you tell someone might make a good collaborator for you?

Wendy: I work with a lot of my friends. I think that's one thing. We get along really well. I already know that we have a good chemistry in terms of just bouncing ideas back-and-forth, and have maybe a similar vision in what we want to contribute and what we want to make in the world. And they're fun. That's pretty important. I want my work to be fun. I seem to have made some pretty awesome, talented friends in the past five or so years, yourself included.

Ann: Yeah, same. Has it ever -- I mean not to immediately make it a bummer question but has it ever been more difficult for a reason, one reason or another, to work with someone because you're friends?

Wendy: Oh my god, yeah. Well a collaboration is a relationship ,right? I mean especially if you're working on a book. And I'm sure that some people who I've worked on books with could very well hear this. I love you. I love you so much.

Ann: [Laughs]

Wendy: And just as we love all the people who we've been through major relationships with, and there are some moments when it's like total ecstasy and falling in love, and then there's like okay, now we're actually in the relationship and we have to do the work. Then there's tension and there's a fight. I mean there's almost always been one really tense part in every collaboration that I've had and that includes working with my partner. I mean we've done two books together now so that's interesting. But every single one we've made it out the other side, both super proud. I think of the work and also the process.

Ann: Right.

Wendy: I hope if they're listening, I hope they think the same thing.

Ann: I mean I would find it disingenuous. I would've been shocked and disappointed if you'd said "Oh, it was a completely smooth road with each one of these projects and I've never had a conflict with a friend I collaborated with." I would've hung up on you.


Wendy: Oh, I know. That's ridiculous. Who doesn't have . . . that's totally impossible because you take a friend and you take work. I mean there's no way that it can't be. I would feel like people who would be doing that would be holding everything in then they'd never speak to each other again after the project's over or something.

Ann: Right.

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Ann: Actually I feel like we kind of got ahead of ourselves. I want to go back to the whole conversation about taking work that you have to take versus trying to direct your career a little bit more. Maybe you can tell me about your earliest days as a freelancer and what that was like and then kind of how you've transitioned to where you are now?

Wendy: It was really intense. I was working at an advertising agency. We only worked with non-profits and director of strategy was my title there. It was a pretty full-time job that I felt really strongly about but I also wanted to draw and I wanted to make that transition. So I started getting these little freelance jobs and then started working nights, so I would go to work for a pretty full eight-hour day and I would come back home and I would draw until like 1 or 2 in the morning and wake up and do it again the next day. And I did that for like six months and it was super intense. But I don't know if you've ever felt this way. It was such a fire. It just felt like this is the right time. This is the right thing. This is what I have to do. It was almost like there was this door and it's like you can walk through this door right now or the door is going to close. That's really what it felt like.


So I worked my butt off and after about six months I had built up enough work. A lot of it was online. A lot of it was not paid and that I know is very controversial. But I was learning how to be a freelance illustrator so I kind of considered this like my school in a way for freelancing, and I was meeting a lot of people through doing that. Like perfect example, do you remember this thing -- you were there, for 48 Hour Magazine.

Ann: Yeah, I worked on it after it switched the name to Longshot but I'm very familiar. I know the people and the project and everything.

Wendy: Okay, that's I think a really great example and was pretty important I think in going from having art be this thing I do on the side to being my full-time work and realizing there's this community of people making stuff and asking questions and doing stories, which I didn't even really know about before. 48 Hour Magazine/Longshot Magazine was started by Sarah Rich and Mat Honan and Alexis Madrigal and I didn't know any of those folks. I just had an account on Twitter that I didn't look at very often. I saw somebody said they were doing this magazine in 48 hours and if anybody wanted to contribute to give a shout. And so I wrote and said "Do you need an illustrator?" Anyway, long story short, I ended up kind of going there with my paints and everybody's with their laptops around and I show up with my little travel pack of watercolors and pens and sat down and just started drawing. 

And it was cool because I had never seen people work -- like build a magazine before. I had never been in a room where people are working like that. And I don't think anybody there had ever seen anybody sit down and do watercolor paintings before. So we kind of found we could . . . we just really enjoyed working together and being with each other and they had something I could learn a lot from and I could contribute. So anyway, we all became fast friends. I think that's how you and I met, and I think that's how -- I think it's just a really great community formed around that, around a group of people wanting to make something cool and interesting and smart and fun in a short amount of time. That led to other freelance jobs. And yeah, after six months of that kind of crazy stuff I quit my job and then promptly had a total meltdown the next day. [Laughs]


Ann: Like what have I done?

Wendy: Yeah, are you kidding? I'm like wait a sec. Now what? You know what I mean? There's no . . . oh, shit, there's no more paycheck coming. There's no more health insurance. There's no more -- what is going to happen? It was like stepping off a cliff. And I remember I had maybe two months of work that continued on past, like freelance work after I quit, and then there was this break where the jobs ran out and I didn't have anything coming. It was like a chunk of time where I was like did I make the worst mistake of my life? Am I going to have to either go back to the job, or what am I going to do?

Ann: And how did you get through that? Over that hump?

Wendy: I think it probably was around that time that I started doing the Meanwhiles which are those stories, the illustrated journalism stories that I told you about. I wanted to work with the Rumpus and I was going to do some kind of comic or something like that but I had this background in social work and so I wanted to tell these stories, and if I was going to tell other people's stories, I kind of used these social work tenets as like a guide. I was like well, I'll have to use people's own words. I'm not going to put my words in other people's mouths. So I'll interview people, and then I'll draw them.


And I developed this kind of outline or like a methodology and I identified a few groups that I was interested in learning about and I went out and just started talking to them. So I guess I made up a project for myself. That's what I did to get out of that. I made up a project for myself, and unexpectedly, ironically, that project ended up being the thing I loved to do most.

Ann: I'm curious if when you were in college, or when you maybe thought of yourself more as a social worker and not someone who draws for a living, if this was in the back of your mind as something that you wanted to do or if it was like oh, drawing is my hobby, it could never be a career?

Wendy: I stopped drawing for eight years. I never thought I was going to draw. And I definitely never thought I was going to be an illustrator. So I went to an undergrad -- I studied fine art -- and I did social work for graduate school. But as soon as I got out of art school I did not want to draw. I definitely didn't want to be an illustrator because to fine artists at the time illustrators were just these people who decorate pages and there's no idea. It's just that somebody tells them what to do and they make it look pretty. So that's what I thought being an illustrator was, and I want nothing to do with that. And I also had to get a job, getting out of art school, so making art is not . . .

So I just stopped drawing completely and it wasn't until, wow, like eight or maybe even ten years later that I picked up a pen again and started drawing. It was like oh my god, this is what I do. This is who I am. And it just came back really fast and really hard and I have pretty much been drawing daily ever since. Pretty much.


Ann: I think that a lot of the building blocks that I intentionally or unintentionally laid for myself as a freelancer also involved work that was unpaid or not paid at all, which is not to say I was blogging for free for The Huffington Post but it was really comparable stuff. It was stuff like 48 Hour Magazine or projects with friends. And I always feel really conflicted when people tell -- I mean people tell illustrators and writers similar things about how to establish yourself and create worth for the work that we do, and that rule is always don't work for free, don't work for free, don't work for free. And so I'm curious how you respond to people who want to take a really hard line on that.

Wendy: I totally get it. I completely understand. It's messed up. I totally understand both sides. I think on one hand I was in a privileged position where I had a job during the day but on the other hand I worked my freaking ass off until 1 or 2 at night, you know? Making stuff for free to make the change. I don't see it as being one way or the other. I do think across the board that we should all charge more.

Ann: [Laughs]

Wendy: Absolutely. And I think also because coming in to any profession we're so excited about meeting a profession that we love and want to be doing, whether it's drawing or writing or taking a picture or whatever. We're so psyched that somebody wants us to do it and we're shocked that somebody wants our whatever it is and they want to put it and show it to the rest of the world and we're so excited about just that that I remember saying I'll pay you, right? If you do this. I'll pay you to put it out.

Ann: Right.

Wendy: And I remember feeling like I'm just so happy you'll give me $50. That's a bonus because I just care about getting it out there. Our worth is a hard thing at first and it still is. Oh my god, it still is. I'm terrible at that stuff. But especially when we're just starting.


It's weird with freelancing and with most jobs, we don't really talk about how much we make. Even with our friends we don't talk about it. My partner used to be a firefighter and she talks about how their salaries were publicly posted and everybody knew what everybody else was making. And it eliminated a lot of tension that can exist. She's a writer full-time now and nobody really knows much about each other and there's this added tension around that. I do wonder if we'd share that information more if we would feel more comfortable knowing our worth and asking for it.

Ann: Yeah, it's interesting. Pal Max Linsky who is one of the hosts of the Longform podcast recently tweeted that money is the number one thing that listeners of the podcast want to hear about from his guests who are journalists and it's the number one thing that guests tend to shy away from talking about. Which I think is natural, but it's funny because I'm also a listener of the Sex, Death, and Money podcast which . . .

Wendy: You just named two podcasts that I love. I love them. So good.

Ann: Yes, intra-podcast love. But I have to say that I feel like it's mostly about death and sex. I actually don't think they talk about money very often. It's like the stepchild.

Wendy: It's so funny. It's the real taboo in this crazy capitalist nation is the money, right?

Ann: And I think it's fear-based, right?

Wendy: Well what do you think people are afraid of?

Ann: Well I've had editors tell me, because I negotiate for myself on almost every job, I've had editors say things to me like "Well, I can give you this rate this time but don't say anything about it because I can't pay everyone this. I'd go bankrupt."

Wendy: I've heard the same. I've gotten the exact same thing.

Ann: Yeah.


Wendy: So is that -- it might be true; it also might be, dare I say, manipulative? I don't know, you know? But that really puts us in a difficult position doesn't it?

Ann: Right. Because I want to share what I know about negotiating and about how much budget I perceive there to be for work that's similar to mine but I also don't want to wreck my relationship with an editor who has agreed to pay me what I feel I'm worth.

Wendy: Yeah, exactly. Was there some kind of math that you figured out at a certain time to know how much that should be to ask for?

Ann: Yes and no. I mean there are a couple of things for me. I think that friendships with other writers have been helpful. I ask friends. I mean not like I make a habit of sending cold emails to people I know and saying "Hey, how much is so-and-so paying you?"

Wendy: [Laughs]

Ann: But when I have a one-on-one in-person conversation with another writer, especially if it's someone I know pretty well, I bring it up. I say how much did you get for that thing that you wrote at this place? Or did they pay your travel expenses? I don't know. I feel like I'm constantly gathering information on whether . . . 

Wendy: I just wish -- yeah, I mean I could be better about doing that. I wish we all would do what you're doing more, which is just talk to each other. Because yeah, I feel like it's something that people do, myself included. I have a lot of questions a lot of times about how things work and how to make those decisions, you know? So yeah.

Ann: Yeah. I also try to be pretty forthcoming. I mean I think that it's also reasonable for places to offer different writers different rates or different illustrators different rates for various reasons, so it's sort of like I think I ask for things now . . . I ask for more now than I did when I first started and I think that that's warranted, but I also don't know. I think it's hard because this stuff, when it happens in this sort of way I'm describing which is a private meeting between two writers or two illustrators or whatever, it's basically the Lilly Ledbetter problem of there not being transparency. It's basically like your partner's firefighting example, the opposite. [Laughs]


Wendy: I know, and it's really such a thing that we all -- I do feel uncomfortable about, and maybe there's a way to talk about it when we're comfortable to talk about specifics. But even if we're not talking about specifics, just to talk about it in more general terms I think will be freeing and helpful.

Ann: I also keep thinking about the thing that you said about a job that you take for money sometimes bleeding over and affecting the other work that you do, or kind of locking you up from other projects you're working on. What are the things you do when you are feeling stuck on one thing or feeling like you're in-between projects or when you need to kick your own ass to be more inspired or motivated?

Wendy: Oh, yeah, don't look at the Internet.

Ann: [Laughs]

Wendy: Because that's the first thing I do. If I'm procrastinating or I'm feeling stuck I go and I look at Twitter or Facebook or something. But I've found that is a dark, dark hole. But yeah, I mean I'm in my studio right now hence the echo. I have a bunch of books all over the place which are kind of my panacea to stress about ideas because I can just go and look at all the stuff and after half an hour there's no way something can't pop up.

Ann: Oh, wow. So do you feel like the opposite would work for me as a writer? I need to illustrate something, not read a book. [Laughs] Do you think there's something about this cross-disciplinary thing, where I think sometimes of your work as sitting very neatly between the worlds of words and images. What can I do, Wendy? That's what I'm trying to ask you. How do I get unstuck? [Laughs]

Wendy: I don't know. A lot of people like coloring books these days. [Laughs]

Ann: What do you think about coloring books?

Wendy: Oh my god, I hate them. I really do. I cannot abide. I can't do it. I understand, I get it, but I guess I'm more in the camp of I feel like everybody can draw themselves, just getting a pen out and not judging how good the drawing is and making some lines on a paper as opposed to filling in other people's lines. It's just kind of a different thing. But hey, on the other hand there's nothing I love more than the painting -- the step of my work that's painting when I basically have a podcast on or even honestly a Netflix show and I'm pretty much coloring by just painting in-between, but they're my lines. So who am I to judge? Who am I? If it works for you, go for it. Hurray for the coloring books.


Ann: I think that most adults are very intimidated by the idea of a blank page and just draw something. It's so intimidating.

Wendy: Oh, that's like me and writing though. Oh my god. It's such a simple thing, like I have to write one paragraph and I'll sit down. If I have to write an email that is fine. If I have to hand-write something for my work, fine. But if I have to sit down and try to construct a cohesive, articulate paragraph, all of a sudden I'm just tearing my hair out. I can't -- ugh, it's bad. But no, the books in my studio are actually filled with pictures so I'm not actually reading, although I stopped looking at Twitter and Facebook in the past few weeks and I've read more books in the past few weeks than I have in maybe the past few years.

Ann: How does it make you feel?

Wendy: Oh my god, I feel simultaneously old and awesome.

Ann: [Laughs]

Wendy: It's great. I know this is such an Internet-centric show. I feel like so much is about stuff that's online. So I feel kind of bad saying this, and I mean that's how I know you, like so much great stuff comes from the Internet. I would not be drawing like I am now without it. At the same time I feel like I hit this max where every second was about checking, this checking, constant checking, and nothing was really coming of it. There were no ideas or anything. It's kind of crazy how much more time there is in the day, I've got to say.


Ann: How do you stop yourself? Did you just delete the apps off your phone? How do you prevent yourself from going there?

Wendy: The phone. I just took them off the phone. I kept on Instagram. I'm still on Instagram, okay? So it's not completely. I'm not totally chased.

Ann: I was going to say it would be heresy for someone who draws to not be on Instagram.

Wendy: [Laughs] I got some serious scoldings from some very savvy friends. They're like that would be stupid. You need to keep your job. So I have that on there, but the other ones I just took off. And for the first couple days I noticed I would go -- it was like going for a gun. I'd like reach in the back pocket. You know, you kind of whip it out to check. I would go and whip it out and there'd be nothing there. I couldn't look at anything. Back in the pocket it went. After a couple days it kind of faded.

Ann: Tell me if you can what are the big projects that you're working on right now?

Wendy: I am in the middle of finishing up two big projects. One is as you mentioned the tattoo book earlier with Isaac Fitzgerald, we did that, that you are in.

Ann: Yeah. 

Wendy: Thank you. Yay! That was pen and ink. And we're doing one now called Knives and Ink which is about the culinary world and the chefs and all of their tattoos and that's really fun.

Ann: Wendy, why do chefs have so many tattoos?

Wendy: Oh my god, I now can give you about 60 reasons.

Ann: [Laughs]

Wendy: Those chefs play pretty hard and work really hard. There doesn't seem to be any one reason but they've got a ton of stories. Or it might be all the drinking and stuff behind the scenes. Who knows? And then the other one that I'm working on right now is a book called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat with Samin Nosrat who is an incredible chef. That will be coming out in a little over a year. Oh, then my book with Caroline called Gutsy Girl: Escapades for your Life of Epic Adventure. I'm so excited. It's awesome. It's for girls eight- to twelve-years-old to inspire them to be more gutsy and get outdoors and don't do things from a fear-based place. That's coming out in March.


Ann: So what does your process look like with her? Do you guys write together and you illustrate? How do you come up with it?

Wendy: That's a good question. When we did our first book together, Lost Cat, we thought that we were going to work really, really closely and then we decided we were definitely not going to do that really quickly. [Laughs] Like immediately it was just there was some tension there for sure. And then we thought it would be more like a church and state situation where she would just hand me the manuscript and I would illustrate it. But what we eventually kind of developed is this back-and-forth where we definitely don't work in the same room, we work separately, but we send each other pieces as we're working because her writing really does bounce off what I draw and clearly what I'm drawing is bouncing off of what she's writing.

Ideally I think when it's an illustrated text what it should do . . . what an illustrated text should do is the visuals and text should be complementary and they should create something together as opposed to the illustration just depicting what's going on in the words. And we created a way of doing that which basically looks like sending a lot of emails and then us carving out time where it's like a work meeting and I'm usually like let's have it at 7:00 with a glass of wine. And she's like no, I'm coming to your studio and we are having a work meeting. And that actually works really well for us.

Ann: I've never really . . . I mean obviously everything is a collaboration with an editor or someone, but in that kind of direct back-and-forth, I haven't done much of that.

Wendy: No.

Ann: And do you feel like it changes the actual work that you produce? Like the result on the page is different than if you had tried to tackle the same thing solo?


Wendy: Oh, completely. With everything, yeah. The people I work with all have fantastic ideas. They're all super smart and will bring a lot to it. So whatever I'm doing is reflecting what they're thinking about and what we're thinking about. But a lot of times people will come back and be like "That's awesome. You know what would be even greater is if this . . ." You know, we go back-and-forth and it can change. So you've never really collaborated? Have you ever done anything with an illustrator?

Ann: I mean, yeah, mostly though as an editor. Like I would sort of be the editor collaborating with the illustrator and passing along what the writer was doing and working with the illustrator that way.

Wendy: Right.

Ann: Often with the intermediary of an art director.

Wendy: So that's something that is confusing to me is there are some editors . . . I mean understand for a magazine, or for a newspaper. For sure I understand most of all with a newspaper the quick turnaround with an art director or the editor is in between those two. But a lot of times, especially with books and maybe lengthier magazine articles or something, it's perplexing to me that people don't think to put -- or sometimes don't want to put the writer and the illustrator in touch. I'm not quite sure why. I think only good things can come of it.

Ann: I think editors are afraid of losing control. They're sort of like I need to keep the writer in line with what I want this to be then make sure the illustrator's also in line with it. I think they -- I know because I used to be one -- think of themselves as, yeah, like the parameter.

Wendy: And would you think that it would spin out of control and that it would create . . . something that you weren't expecting or don't really want would be created? Is that what you feel?

Ann: Yeah, absolutely. Which is not -- I'm not bragging about it, but I definitely think there's sort of this we assigned this thing with this specific set of reasons and if we just let the illustrator and the writer go off together what comes back might not fit whatever we need to do in terms of the issue overall because they're not looking at the big picture. They're just looking at their own thing.


Wendy: You're so right. See? That totally makes sense. Thank you for explaining that.

Ann: But I don't think it yields . . . I don't think it yields the best work necessarily. I mean I actually am not -- it makes sense, but I'm not sure, you know . . .

Wendy: Well maybe for . . . I mean you certainly couldn't do that -- one couldn't do that for every story in an issue. But I think it could be cool, and actually this happened with California Sunday, they assigned a piece to a journalist and myself and we did a collaborative project together and it was a really interesting experience. I think that that -- maybe a piece here and there, assigning it as a collaboration, could yield something really interesting and unexpected which could be good. Although that's the other thing I'm super psyched about this year. I just agreed with the fine folks over at California Sunday to do their back page for like a year, for a long time.

Ann: Oh, awesome.

Wendy: Yeah! I'm super excited. I'm really, really happy about it and quite honestly a little bit intimidated because that's, I don't know . . . it's a lot of responsibility. And it's a lot of fun and it's a lot of freedom and all of those things. Yikes.

Ann: The dream. The dream.

Wendy: I'm so excited. Do you ever get that? If you get a dream assignment do you totally freak out?

Ann: Yes, obviously. It's like, yeah, what happened to the girl who . . . it's Willy Wonka. What happened to the boy who got everything he always wanted? It's like panic. [Laughs]

Wendy: Total panic. No idea what to do. None.

Ann: Yeah. I have always wanted to ask you about your Meanwhile in San Francisco book. It's how notable the absence of the tech community is for me, like when I looked at it, which is not to say everyone who lives in san Francisco has this tech-centric experience. But I definitely noticed and assumed it must've been a conscious choice to not make that really very prominent at all/almost non-existent I feel in your representation of the city.


Wendy: Yeah, I think the only representation of the tech world in the book is in contrast to the people who are living on 6th Street which is a really challenging place to live which is being quickly gentrified. So I did not want to include the tech community. I mean the book is a compilation of stories about different communities in San Francisco and I didn't want to include that community because honestly they get enough attention. The book is about communities that don't get the spotlight a lot that I feel are really the fabric of this city, and without these communities everything from dog walkers to Giants fans to the guys who are like 80 years old and are swimming in the Bay in their speedos, that's the kind of character and culture that makes San Francisco and always has made it this really special place that it is that's really at risk of disappearing right now. So I wanted to celebrate those things as opposed to continuing to celebrate the thing that we see all the time that's representing San Francisco right now to the rest of the world. There's a lot more than that, you know?

Ann: Yeah. Do you consider your work political?

Wendy: Yes. [Laughs] 

Ann: Maybe that was a softball after that answer. I don't know.

Wendy: [Laughs] Yeah. Well, yeah. Yeah. Like softly political I think. Yeah. I mean there's people who tell like some graphic stories who I think are very political. Susie Cagle comes to mind and Dan Archer are two great graphic journalists whose works are very political and they're telling stories in a very political way. I feel like I'm coming around from the side a little bit more. It's like using celebration perhaps and using more of a positive light on the things that I think are worth supporting as opposed to a more critical examination of the things that should disappear. Just other people are so good at that. I'm not. My way of coming at things is through celebrating things.


Ann: Wendy, thank you so much. This has been such a treat.

Wendy: Oh my god, Ann Friedman, totally the honor's all mind. Say hi to Amina.

Ann: Also we have to collaborate someday.

Wendy: Yes, please! I've been waiting for you to say that.

Ann: Okay, great.

Wendy: Any time. Okay.


Aminatou: You can find us many places on the Internet, on our website, download our show on the Acast app or on iTunes where we would love it if you left us a review. You can tweet at us at @callyrgf or email us at You can even leave us a short and sweet voicemail at 714-681-2943. That's 714-681-CYGF. This podcast is produced by Gina Delvac.