Each week, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten and illustrator Eric Shansby team up to create the often hilarious “Below the Beltway” column that runs in newspapers across the country. Now the duo unleashes their humor and wisdom on young readers with a children’s book, “Me & Dog.” We talk with the pair about the dynamics of their collaboration, the questions of faith they raise in the book and the importance of knowing your audience.
- Gene Weingarten Author, 'Me & Dog'; columnist, 'Below the Beltway; staff writer, The Washington Post; cartoonist, "Barney & Clyde";
- Eric Shansby Cartoonist and illustrator, 'Below the Beltway' 'Me & Dog'
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWriter Gene Weingarten and illustrator Eric Shansby have been partnering on the "Below the Beltway" humor column read by about a million people a week in this region and beyond each week for a decade. And now they're charting new waters, releasing a children's book "Me & Dog" about a kid named Sid and his adoring dog Murphy. A simple sweet story that also asks some big questions about who exactly is in charge around here.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about Sid and about their collaborative process is Gene Weingarten, author of the new children's book "Me & Dog." He's also the columnist behind "Below the Beltway" and as a Pulitzer Prize-winning alleged staff member -- staff writer at the Washington Post. I say alleged staff writer because I think he is subversive and sneaks his way into the Washington Post. But he's certainly here in person today. Gene, good to see you again.
MR. GENE WEINGARTENGood to be back here.
NNAMDIEric Shansby also joins us in studio. He is the illustrator of "Me & Dog" and the "Below the Beltway" column. Eric Shansby, good to meet you.
MR. ERIC SHANSBYGreat to meet you, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you have questions either for Gene Weingarten or Eric Shansby, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Before we get to the new kid's book, let's talk about your collaboration on "Below the Beltway." How did you two come to work together?
WEINGARTENWe started in a very atypical way. I went to talk to a high school class at -- what was your school, Eric?
SHANSBYBlair -- Montgomery Blair High School.
WEINGARTENMontgomery Blair High School.
NNAMDII like that school.
WEINGARTENYeah, and I was just talking to the journalism students there and, you know, it was a pretty ordinary half hour presentation. And afterwards this very, very young-looking guy came up to me. I don't know, if you look at Eric here he probably looks to be about 23 or so.
WEINGARTENSo when Eric was 17, Eric looked 12. And so this 12-year-old came up to me with a packet of papers. They were basically political cartoons he had done. And he could barely meet my eyes. You know, he's looking at the floor and he asked me if I could take a look at this packet of papers. And I didn't really look at it until I got home. And it was just brilliantly drawn political cartooning. But he was so vague about this that I didn't even know who he was. His name wasn't on it. I had to get back to the school to try to figure out who this little genius was. That's how we met.
NNAMDIEric, when you were 17 years old, you're meeting a guy who is already a famous columnist. You hand him -- how seriously did you expect he would take your cartoons?
SHANSBYOh, I didn't expect him to read them at all. I walked up to him and I handed him the latest school paper that had just come out. And because I had just become the art editor, rather than being organized enough to delegate all the different illustrations, I ended up doing them all myself on the night before the paper came out obviously. And I gave it to him and he said, well, I don't really have time to look at this now. And to me that meant, thanks, I'll be recycling this.
SHANSBYBut he emailed me a few weeks later.
NNAMDIGene, did you have any reservations selecting a relatively young and untrained cartoonist or was that part of the appeal of working with Eric?
WEINGARTENIt was part of the appeal. He hadn't learned any bad habits yet really. And it worked out well almost from the beginning although we work -- you know the term creative tension? We kind of surpass that. We work through creative hostility.
NNAMDII was just about to ask you what your collaboration process is like.
WEINGARTENYeah, it's constant fighting. You know, I initially -- one of the things that I thought would be great about working with essentially a kid is that he would be in awe of me and do whatever I wanted him to do.
NNAMDIYeah, that's what I used to think with this production staff, too. But it's not working out that way.
WEINGARTENExactly. Exactly. And what happened, the very first interview he gave about this new collaboration -- I forget with who it was -- who he gave it to but his comment about working with me on my column is that he considered my column to be a long tedious caption to his cartoon. And at that point I realized this was going to be a fight.
NNAMDIYou're not overly impressed with his writing, Eric?
SHANSBYOh, I'm extremely impressed with his writing. Really I'm just reacting to his own personal hostility towards me. And so my defense mechanism is to lash out.
NNAMDIAnd so there's this creative hostility and it's been working out for you two so far?
SHANSBYOh, it works great, I think. You can ask Gene if he agrees. I don't really know.
NNAMDIWell, Gene, images can often convey a joke in a way words cannot. How important was it that your senses of humor aligned or at least are complimentary?
WEINGARTENYeah, they align pretty well actually. We're both very seditious and it kind of comes out. But the process, the process can be painful. Before we came here Eric was way better with computers than I did. He toted up some figures looking at all of our correspondence over, how many years?
SHANSBYOver ten years. I think I'm missing the first, like, year.
WEINGARTENHe went through all of our emails together back and forth, each pretty much about the next column and what he would be drawing. Give them the figures, Eric.
SHANSBYOkay. So what I found were over 8,000 emails in the last ten years. That's sort of about 800 a year. And I happened, out of curiosity, to just search the various vulgarities that Gene tends to use. And I have a list of a ton of different words that I can't use on the air, but can I say the word that begins with I? I mean, it's not a very bad word.
NNAMDIGo ahead. Let's just get me fired. Go ahead.
SHANSBYOkay. All right...
NNAMDINo, use the word.
SHANSBY...277 instances of the word idiot, 281 stupid, 100 moron, 162 of a certain body part that won't be mentioned, 159 terrible, 12 horrible, 40 unfunny, 88 ridiculous, 30 you are wrong. And then just 3 you little Jew.
NNAMDIWow. All of these people who do not like what Gene Weingarten is doing. Have you ever run a database on how many times Gene has used the word poop in a column?
SHANSBYNo, I actually didn't search for that but in terms of the expletive, the S word, I had 200 of those.
NNAMDIGene, does this make you proud of your work?
NNAMDII think it should. Eric, the Post seems to be a pretty cartoonist-friendly place. We've talked with Nick Galifianakis and Carolyn Hax about their collaboration. The Post was the home of Richard Thompson's "Cul de Sac" and Mike Cavanaugh writes about cartooning and graphic novels for the paper. What is it about D.C. that fosters that kind of community for illustrators, do you think?
SHANSBYWell, I think one of the things about D.C. is that it's obviously political. And so you have a lot of things to draw about. And the fact that it's, you know, not a huge city means that a lot of the different cartoonists and people who write about the industry and deal with the industry know each other. So I emailed Nick Galifianakis and Richard Thompson and Mike Cavanaugh just before I came on to let them know I would be on here. We all kind of know each other and it's a very supportive group. It's not cutthroat, it's not, you know, a group of people who hate each other and stab each other's backs. It's a really great supportive community.
NNAMDIWhen you were in Montgomery Blair at 17 years old, did you envision yourself becoming a part of this community? Is that what you wanted to do?
SHANSBYWell, from about the time I was 17 or 18 I became obsessed with cartooning. And part of that was joining the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. And from the very beginning with them I found them to be a really supportive group. And they did give me a lot of optimism about my, you know, prospects in the industry of course.
NNAMDIThat's the voice of Eric Shansby. He is the illustrator of the children's book "Me & Dog." He's also the illustrator of the "Below the Beltway" column which of course is with Gene Weingarten, author of the new children's book "Me & Dog." He's also the columnist behind "Below the Beltway" and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at the Washington post. If you have questions or comments -- parents, have you found children's books useful in helping answer your kids' tough questions or is it a jumping off point for deeper discussions? Tell us how you've used them, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIGene, you write in so many different styles. You've earned two Pulitzers for features. You've got a successful humor column, comic strip. You're pretty prolific on Twitter. Do you find that variety and the different demands of each form, do you find that that strengthens your work across the board?
WEINGARTENYeah, I think it does. It -- you know, the things that I'm perhaps best known for are very, very serious stories that I write very infrequently.
NNAMDIThat's what you win prizes for.
WEINGARTENYeah, you know, I wrote something about parents who accidentally leave their children to die in hot cars. Basically, if that's all I did, I would be walking around like Raskolnikov and Melon Caulik (sp?) So being able to write funny kind of underwrites the rest. And also I basically feel that tragedy and comedy are all part of the same stuff like matter and energy. You know, it's all about the anxiety of living this odd life. And you can either laugh or cry or do a little of both.
NNAMDITo add to your resume, you now have this children's book coming out. How did this project evolve?
WEINGARTENI stepped on my dog's foot. We were out -- my dog's name is Murphy, same as the dog in the book and we were out on a walk. I stepped on her foot, she yelped and then looked at me and apologized. And, you know, anybody who has a dog knows when a dog is apologizing it's a very eloquent thing. You know exactly what's happening. And clearly she felt that she must've done something wrong or I would not have punished her.
WEINGARTENAnd I realized kind of immediately that this was a little bit of a parable or an allegory for the way some people deal with God, you know, and that I was Murphy's god at that moment. And I must -- she must have displeased me because otherwise this terrible thing couldn't have happened.
NNAMDIYep, so Murphy looked at you as if to say, God, why would you do -- Eric, what was the process for illustrating this book with different demands than the column? Was that a big shift for you?
SHANSBYYeah, it was a very different process but being able to work with Gene the whole time gave it some sort of consistency. And it unfolded over sort of two iterations. The first version of the book that we made was about, you know, 60-year-old Mustachio Gene and his bloodhound. And we gave it to the publisher and they said, well, it's a great idea but it can't be about a 60-year-old man and a dog. It has to be about a boy and a dog and it's got to be cuter. So...
NNAMDIGene did not object to being dropped from the book?
SHANSBYWell, I think that...
WEINGARTENI would argue that I wasn't dropped from the book. I simply became a five-year-old boy.
NNAMDII see. And that's the argument that I guess prevailed in your creative hostility during this process.
SHANSBYYeah -- no. I would say there was less hostility over the book than there is over the column. And I think, you know, even if I haven't conveyed it I think Gene is a genius. And it was just a total pleasure to be able to draw this neat little story.
NNAMDIWell, Allison in Bethesda, Md. wants to talk but not yet about the book. Allison, before we get into the details of the book, go ahead with your question or comment, please.
ALLISONHi, Kojo. Long-time listener, first-time caller. I just love your show.
ALLISONGene and Eric, I just wanted to say how much I love your column. It makes me laugh out loud every week. And I think it's just great how it -- you can be a young reader, an old reader and it doesn't matter. It just speaks to every age group. My question was, and I'll take this off the air, just asking about how you get your inspiration, whether it's Murphy or what else really inspires you to write?
WEINGARTENI'm going to give you an absolute honest answer. It may be a disappointing answer but any person who has a weekly column to write will, if they're being honest, give you the same answer. And that is that the greatest news is the pressure of a weekly deadline. It simply forces you to find something and to make it as good as you can because it's unrelenting.
NNAMDIThe deadline is what starts everything going. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk in more detail about "Me & Dog" with Eric Shansby and Gene Weingarten. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. Have you got a pet who thinks you make everything from dinner to the weather happen? Tell us how you handle your pet or how your pet handles you being God, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Gene Weingarten, author of the new children's book, "Me & Dog," and columnist behind the "Below the Beltway" column in the Washington Post. He's also a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at the Post. He joins us in studio along with his collaborator, Eric Shansby, illustrator of "Me & Dog," and the "Below the Beltway" column. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Or shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDIGene, the "me" in the title is a kid named Sid. And Sid strikes me as a pretty self-aware little kid. Through the book he gently questions faith, wondering if there's really anyone in charge. How do you hope that parents will use this book?
WEINGARTENWell, really to do that, to begin a conversation with a child. You know, this -- one of the reasons this book was written is that if you go on to Amazon.com and you try to call up children's book and religion, there are literally tens of thousands of pages. There are books about how to explain Rosicrucianism to a six year old. There was nothing you cannot find. But if you call up atheism and children's book you essentially get nothing.
WEINGARTENThis book is not hectoring, it's not proselytizing. It's sort of daring to ask a question. What if there are no real presumptions of magic? You know, what if there's no magic in the world? What if we have what we see? What's that like? And basically the book finds that it is totally unthreatening. That so long as have love and care for each other, there's a kind of secular magic that is beautiful in what is real. That's what the book deals with.
NNAMDIYou know, it's funny because as a teenager, I "discovered" Rosicrucianism. And for a while was fascinated with it. So I'm glad you brought that up. Eric, some of the illustrations in the book take up entire, full, double-page spreads. Others are simpler with little or no background behind an image or two on a page. Which were among your favorites? Both to come up with and in terms of the final product that you sought.
SHANSBYWell, I think I tend to be very critical about anything that I draw within about 12 hours of finishing it. So there's a short grace period, but then I almost can't bear to look at it. And I think the things in the book that I like the best are the ones where Gene has sort of Seussian sections with a lot of different fanciful rhymes. The whole book is in doggerel, you know, pun intended. But I like the ones where I got to do little basic, imaginative drawings, especially of the dog.
NNAMDIHow many times did the publisher send your drawings back?
SHANSBYWell, I -- there were a lot of sort of tweaks and then a few -- it was relatively infrequent that entire concepts needed to be rethought, but there was a lot of back and forth on getting it sort of just right.
WEINGARTENEric is -- I should say this because he won't say this about himself. His drawings are fabulous, but his ideas are even better. And there were many of his ideas in the drawings in this book. We just finished -- I just finished a column where -- it's going to be coming out in a few weeks. And it's about my trying to do something on a baseball diamond with real professional baseball players and failing terribly because I am basically a flabby old man.
WEINGARTENAnd, you know, we just gave this to -- my editor and I gave it to Eric to try to illustrate. And almost immediately he came up with an illustration that is essentially the Dodgers' logo, the logo of the Dodgers. Only is says the Codgers. Not many people could think of that.
NNAMDIThat's fascinating because you do think of him as a codger, don't you?
SHANSBYYeah, I do. Oh, yeah.
WEINGARTENI do, too.
NNAMDIThe -- did either of you have qualms about the sort of existential questions that this raises for a young audience or do we not give kids enough credit a lot of the time?
WEINGARTENI think we don't give kids enough credit a lot of the time. But more as we give them ridiculous alternatives. One of the reasons that we wrote this book is sort of as an antidote to an international best seller that's out there called "Heaven is for Real," which purports to be the story of a four-year-old child who went in for major surgery, and when he was unconscious, took a trip to heaven where he met Jesus and all these fanciful -- and it is presented as truth. Not as, you know, a dream under anesthesia or not as fantasy.
WEINGARTENThis is out there as truth selling multimillions of copies because it's creating this anodyne world that people kind of gullibly want to believe in. And I would much rather deal with the truth as an unthreatening concept. Something that children can deal with and deal with and take and take away a positive message from.
NNAMDIAre you good with that, Eric?
SHANSBYYeah, I'm great with it. I'm a culturally Jewish American atheist. And I, you know, there was some conversation about how explicit to make the art in illustrating this and how kind of subversive we could be. And I don't think it's subversive at all. There were some ideas that I proposed with a little bit more direct references to religion and Gene always said, "No. Don't do that. It's too in-your-face."
NNAMDIThat's so funny. I'm an Episcopalian, believer, atheist, agnostic depending on what day of the week you catch me. Here is Jean, in Rockville, Md. Jean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEANGene, I wanted to grasp -- thank you for taking my call, by the way. My question has to do with how you decide when to run a column. I remember one Easter morning opening up my paper looking forward to reading it because I had the day off and all that. And reading an article about eating -- if I remember correctly -- poop. Which I wasn't quite sure was appropriate for Easter. I realize that there's humor in it, but I thought when do you think that's over the line, frankly?
WEINGARTENOkay. I'm going to give you as honest an answer as I can. I think that what you're talking about is a column that I wrote, interviewing a doctor who had developed a cure for an intestinal disease that involved, essentially, a poop transplant. You had to ingest the poop of a healthy person. Is that the column you're talking about?
JEANI believe so. Which, in a sense, is a column about eating poop on Easter. Right?
WEINGARTENYeah, yes. No. I'm not questioning your…
NNAMDIStop laughing, Eric.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Gene.
WEINGARTENI can't recall -- I do not recall that this came out on Easter, but I'm going to accept your word that it did. And I'm going to try to explain how this happened. It probably happened because my humor columns are written three to four weeks in advance. And nobody stopped to even think that this particular Sunday would be Easter Sunday. And I think had we -- again, I'm presuming you're right, that it was on Easter. And probably had somebody in the process said, "Wait a minute," we probably would not have run it that day.
NNAMDIHey, Eric -- Jean, thank you very much for your call. Eric, to what extent does the editor that Gene refers to as Tom the Butcher play a role in your collaboration?
SHANSBYWell, he has a role similar to Gene, in that he is sort of like smart, but vulgar old man. And I really…
NNAMDII hate to hear how you're going to describe me after this is over.
SHANSBYNo, no. There the exact opposite of you, Kojo. No. I am exaggerating that aspect. But Tom and Gene go way, way back. So they're like best buds and they're usually on the same side of everything. So if there's a disagreement it's usually between me and Tom and Gene. So that's kind of how it works.
NNAMDIGene, as he said way back, I remember you were an editor at the Miami Herald, where you worked with now Washington Post writer Marc Fisher.
NNAMDIAlso worked with Dave Barry when he was there. Were you writing humor at that point in your life?
WEINGARTENI was doing something more important, in terms of developing as a humor writer. I was editing humor. And what that -- it's a very valuable thing to do because it teaches you to think analytically about humor. You're not just reading it and enjoying it or not enjoying it, but you're constantly put in a position of thinking how could this be funnier. How can we set this up better? It makes you kind of a mechanic for humor. And later, when you're writing it yourself, it's a tremendous tool. I had the greatest teacher imaginable in Dave Barry.
NNAMDISo can we look forward to humorous Tom the Butcher in future years, after years of editing your column?
WEINGARTENHe's pretty funny, but I wouldn't urge him to do that because then he would become a competitor of mine. And we'd kind of have to kill him.
NNAMDIOn to Matt, in Silver Spring, Md. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTThanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say that I think it's so amazing Gene and Eric. You guys are creating this -- or have created this book and I'm excited to go read it just because I think -- like you mentioned before -- parents who are Zoroastrian or parents who are Jewish or parents who are Catholic, they have all these sort of outlets that they can use as a way of explaining their belief systems.
MATTAnd those of us who are secularists, humanists, atheists, it's a little bit harder to, you know, explain to a child, like, why we believe or don't believe the way that we do. I just think that's really great.
WEINGARTENAnd it's -- actually it's harder for us because, you know, you don't fall back on mythology, which is very easy to explain. The truth is a little more complicated.
MATTYeah, absolutely. I think, you know, another point that I was mentioning is when I was a school teacher one of the things that we were always remembering to tell the kids is problem solve, critically think, use your logic, use the evidence. Except for this one sort of glaring lie that, you know, we tell kids, which was like don't question God, don't question religion. And so I think it's, yeah, it's highly appropriate to -- at a -- at -- whatever the youngest possible age, make your kids free thinkers and critical thinkers.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. You seem to be suggesting, Matt, that this book might be a way to help kids do that. Oh, Matt, has left the building or left the phone.
WEINGARTENI think he was suggesting that.
NNAMDII think he was suggesting that.
WEINGARTENI would also say that he touched on something very interesting that I'd like to talk to about. Which is you -- if you look at civilization and try to define what it is, probably the single-most riveting and obvious thing is that over the millennia civilization has been the gradual dismantling of presumptions of magic. You know, when -- very, very early on everything was magic. The sun was pulled by a chariot across the skies and, you know, diseases could be explained by a gnome dwelling in your spleen.
WEINGARTENAnd gradually, piece by piece, over the millennia, we have been removing all magic. Some of it took a long time to get rid of, you know. The divine right of kings took a very long time, but eventually that went. There's only one big thing left. And it's going to be hard to take down, but it will eventually go.
NNAMDIGene, you dedicated the book to our Plott Hound, Murphy, who will be familiar to readers of your column. But, Eric, it's my understanding you had a bit of a -- well, crisis of conscious in deciding on your dedication. Who's Marmalade?
SHANSBYWell, Marmalade is my now deceased cat. The only pet that I ever had. And I loved Marmalade very much, but there was sort of a dilemma that I was faced with when choosing a dedication. The publisher said, "Eric and Gene, you each get to pick a dedication. Send it back." And immediately Gene said, "Okay. I'm dedicating it to my dog, Murphy." And so I had to figure out who to dedicate my dedication to. And I -- the obvious choice for me was my grandmother, who -- the Yiddish word for grandma is Bubby.
SHANSBYAnd so I was sort of concerned that having a double-dedication, first to Murphy and then to Bubby, would make it appear as though I might be dedicating the book to a sort of pet with a cute name. And…
NNAMDIAnd you didn't want your grandmother to be confused with a pet with a cute name.
SHANSBYI didn't want my grandmother to be confused with a pet and then for people who know what Bubby -- what a Bubby is -- I didn't want them to think that I was creating some sort of…
SHANSBY…equivalence between a Plott Hound and family matriarch. And so ultimately I went with Marmalade. And I don't know how I'll be remembered in history, as a boy who betrayed his grandmother or not.
NNAMDIWell, hopefully, there's a book in your future…
NNAMDI…that can be dedicated to Bubby. Neither of you seems likely to be resting on your laurels for long, now that this book is out. What's next on your agenda, Gene?
WEINGARTENWell, I am…
NNAMDINot that you don't have enough to do with the column and the comic strip.
WEINGARTENYeah, we've got a column and a comic strip. And I'm also mired in a phenomenally complicated, difficult, ultimately rewarding book project. I'm working on a book about a day that I chose at random. I had children pull numbers out of a hat to create a date in American history. The date happened to be, purely by accident, December 28, 1986. It was a Sunday.
WEINGARTENAnd I have spent the last year and a half and will spend the next year and a half researching that day, top to bottom, to basically try to prove that there's no such thing as an ordinary day. That if you dig deep enough, you know, all of the drama of human existence will be there in one grain of salt. That's what I'm going for.
NNAMDIDecember 28, 1986. Gene Weingarten's version of Groundhog Day. He'll be researching it over and over again for quite a while. He's the author of the new children's book, "Me & Dog." Also the columnist behind the "Below the Beltway" column. And a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at the Washington Post. Good to see you again, Gene.
WEINGARTENGood to be here.
NNAMDIEric Shansby is the illustrator of "Me & Dog," and "Below the Beltway." Eric Shansby, good to meet you.
SHANSBYGreat to meet you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.