Getting the inside scoop on his new book “Tortured Artists.”
In his recent released book, Christopher Zara profiles 48 of “the most obsessive, neurotic, depressed and despondent creative figures in history.” The artists range from Charles Schulz to Charlie Parker, Michelangelo to Madonna, Andy Warhol to Amy Winehouse. Although he now lives in New York, Zara, a former resident of Capitol Hill, began his journalism career as an arts writer for Seattle Magazine.
A launch party for the book comes to the Hawaiian-themed tiki lounge Hula Hula this Thursday, coincidentally the anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain, arguably one of Seattle’s most tortured artists. A book signing takes place from 7 to 9 p.m. (Queen Anne Books will be selling the books at Hula Hula), and karaoke ensues from 9 p.m. till 2 a.m. Admission: free; drink specials for guests who arrive in costume!
Seattleite: What inspired this project, and how did you select which artists to feature?
Christopher Zara: I come from a punk background, so it was always a given to me that great art should express things like angst and rage and pain. But at some point it occurred to me that even if an artist is expressing something positive, it still comes from a negative place. Bobby McFerrin didn’t write “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” because everything was fine and dandy. He wrote it to cope with worry. Great art comes from the need to communicate something—something burning inside—and executing that need is always a struggle. As far as selecting the artists goes, that really was the most difficult part of the book. There are so many great stories of tortured artists, and I knew I was going to have to leave some out. In the end, I tried to pick the most diverse group of artists possible without telling the same repetitive stories about drug-addicted rock stars and alcoholic novelists.
CZ: Walt Disney’s story really surprised me. Here is a guy whose name is associated with fluff and family entertainment, and yet when he created Mickey Mouse, he was a scorned cartoonist who had just been ripped off by the studio he worked for. It doesn’t get more poetic than that.
S: How long did the project take, and how did researching and writing about this topic affect your own psyche?
CZ: It’s been about five years since I first came up with the idea. I spent a lot of time developing and revising the proposal and pitching the project. I’d say it most affected my psyche by making my own problems seem petty. It’s like, here I am writing about all these artists who have overcome so much adversity, and I’m getting annoyed because the guy at the bodega is out of orange juice. When you write about tragedy, it makes you thankful for what you have.
S: How much do you credit environmental factors? (And do you personally notice more “tortured artists” in Seattle or New York City?)
CZ: I think environmental factors play a huge role in all of our lives. Most of the stories I write about in Tortured Artists start in the artist’s childhood. There was abuse, or trauma, or some incident that forced the artist to work through his or her issues in a creative way. This is why so many artists explore the same themes over and over again—it’s their own form of personal therapy. As far as Seattle vs. New York goes, I’d say that the tortured-artist rate is about the same, per capita. It’s the execution that’s different.
S: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
CZ: I just hope people will be comforted by the fact that suffering doesn’t happen in vain. The world can be a pretty horrible place, but as a result of that horror, we have all this wonderful art, music, and literature. I like to think of art as humanity’s ultimate revenge against a cruel and cold world.
S: Why do you think this will be of particular interest to Seattleites?
CZ: If there’s one thing Seattleites understand, it’s misery. I lived there for three years, and I remember being surprised that Seattleites complain almost as much as New Yorkers do. It’s funny, because Seattle is such a laid-back place, but laid back doesn’t equal happy. I just read a study recently that listed Seattle as the ninth most stressful city in the country. Seattle has high rates of alcoholism, divorce, property crime, unemployment, sleep deprivation, and suicide. At the same time, the city’s arts scene is incredibly vibrant. Who better than Seattleites to grasp the plight of tortured artists?
S: Do you believe there are any critically acclaimed artists who aren’t tortured?
CZ: Critically acclaimed artists, perhaps, but not good ones. Are there artists who create out of pure joy and who don’t have a care in the world? Sure. Are they producing great art? Of course not. As consumers of art, we invest ourselves in the work of creative people. How can we be expected to invest ourselves in something that was created without struggle? It’s like reading a story with no conflict. Sure, the story might have been fun for the writer to write, but it’s going to be a big “so what?” to the reader. Great artists challenge themselves—they push and pull and twist themselves in all different directions until they get somewhere they’ve never been before. You have to be a little tortured to put yourself through that.