Julie Houts lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. She creates satirical drawings beloved by the internet, famous people, not famous people, cats, rats, and all ants. Julie grew up in Indiana and St. Louis, and has known GAL co-founder Eliza since they were in High School. Literally Me is Julie’s first book which is out on shelves today! Happy Book Release Day, Julie! Also: tell us everything, please. See below for Everything.
Girls at Library: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a life long reader?
Julie Houts: I’m not sure. My mom was a first grade teacher and was really big into reading. I grew up reading a lot.
Remember Book-It? I was living for Book-It! I couldn’t wait to color in my pizza slice. I don’t know if anyone shares these references. We had to color in a piece of pizza for every book we read. And when you had filled in your whole pizza, you got to participate in a pizza party. I really liked reading and also really liked coloring, and I really really liked pizza, so this was a perfect cross section of my interests. I had about five more pizzas colored in than most the other kids. Reading was just a big thing in our house growing up, so it was a pretty natural thing to carry on with into adulthood. Now I basically color for a living and can eat pizza whenever I want. My first grader self would think that I was living the dream.
GAL: Did you and your sister read a lot of series together?
JH: My mom started us both off on things like The Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew. But after a certain point I think I broke off into trashy Sweet Valley High and Jenna went more of a C.S. Lewis, J.L Tolkien route. We synced back up on Goosebumps. We loved the “Choose your own adventure” ones. They blew my mind. I would read them over and over to get different outcomes. I love Hopscotch by Julio Corotzar in a similar way. It’s kind of a grown up version.
GAL: You mentioned to me your mom would make you reading lists of classics to finish in high school, do you still have any of Judy’s reading lists?
JH: I don’t have them! But I wish I did. They were great!
GAL: Did you read a lot in high school?
JH: Not as much as I do now. There was so much reading to be done just for coursework, I don’t remember feeling like I wanted to read much for fun during the school year.
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
JH: I find them impactful in the sense that I understand the people in my life and myself through the stories of the characters in the books I love. Often I’ll find myself in a situation and see that it parallels something I’ve read. It helps me make sense of life, living, blah blah.
GAL: What illustrators inspire you the most?
JH: I love William Steig, Hilary Knight, Al Parker, Coby Whitmore. I love René Gruau, Kenneth Paul Block, Antonio Lopez, and David Downton for straight fashion illustration. I love Isaac Mizrahi’s fashion illustrations. Hope Gangloff, Howard Tangye. Basically anyone who is represented by my agency Illustration Division. David Shrigley if you count him as an illustrator…
GAL: When did you start putting text with your illustrations? What inspired that?
JH: I think it just slowly crept in bit by bit over time. I think the drawings themselves started getting a bit more of a perspective and the writing aspect came along with that.
GAL: What was the most challenging thing about writing Literally Me?
JH: I think WRITING Literally Me was challenging. I had a hard time getting over the mental hurdle of considering myself a Writer, capital W. I just felt like I wasn’t qualified to do it. I still don’t. I wasted a fair amount of time just telling myself I was incapable of writing anything. Finally I just had to buckle down and do it.
GAL: Why do you use mice in your drawings? What character do they represent?
JH: Not totally sure why I use the mice. They’re handy. They help me say things that I don’t want to put into the mouth of a human. They neutralize things a bit. Beyond that, when I was at Parsons, going out pretty aggressively but also working on my thesis like a maniac, I was living in a mouse-infested apartment and sleeping under a pile of coats. When I’d finally come home around 4am to sleep for a few hours, I’d always hear them scurrying around next to my bed. I just made peace with them. I decided we were all just pals.
GAL: Do you love fashion? Is it a love-hate relationship? What designers interest you right now?
JH: I do love fashion, but yes it is a love-hate. I’m never sick of learning about the history, and I’m never tired of analyzing how people use fashion to tell a story or project an image. Also just a big fan of people pulling LOOKS. Most of the time I love to get dressed. It makes me happy. But I’m definitely exhausted by the (for lack of better word) bullshit that is so intrinsic to the industry.
GAL: Do you read magazines? If so, which ones? What should we get a subscription to?
GAL: What do you love most about The Paris Review and The New Yorker?
JH: I found Frederik Seidel through the The Paris Review and then wanted to read everything I could that he had written. I bought every book I could find after having read only two poems and without really hardly even understanding them. It just felt like a gut punch. Or like I had really (lol) *DISCOVERED* something.
This has happened a few times through reading The Paris Review. I’ve just stumbled across someone or something I didn’t know existed and then looked into it as far as I could. Everything gets cracked open in a new way, at least for a little bit.
GAL: What books make you laugh out loud?
JH: David Sedaris, Miranda July, Gary Shteyngart, and my very favorite, George Saunders.
GAL: If someone wanted to read one book of these authors which book from each would you tell them to start with?
JH: I think most people read Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris first. I also like Naked or When You Are Engulfed In Flames. The First Bad Man by Miranda July; Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteygart; In Persuasion Nation or Pastoralia by George Saunders.
GAL: Ever since I’ve known you I feel like we’ve related on a sense of humor level, it’s essentially a personality challenge, not that I can keep up but I try. Was there any one specific thing you can attribute your sense of humor to?
JH: Not really, no. I love funny people and I like having “bits” with people. It’s just how I naturally work through ideas. Beyond that, who knows? I was a kind of chubby kid who desperately wanted to be popular?
GAL: Do you identify as a millennial?
JH: No, but I’m sure I am.
GAL: Okay, I can’t resist. Why Larry Bird?
JH: I love him. I grew up kind of idolizing him. He’s like a god in Indiana. He’s just my people.
GAL: If you could ask Larry Bird one questions what would it be?
JH: What happens when we die?
GAL: How often would you say you read? Please estimate.
JH: When I can. Sometimes that is whatever I can get my hands on a book, maybe for an hour or two every day for a week. Sometimes there is basically no reading of anything that isn’t an email for a week.
GAL: Was there a time in your life when you read the most?
JH: When I lived uptown, I read a lot. I’d take my book and go to the park and read all day for both weekend days. I was also reading on my train commute.
GAL: Do you have a favorite memory of reading all day in the park on a weekend--like one day that stands out as the weirdest/strangest encounters/most serene/ideal?
JH: I have a bench I claimed as mine in Central Park that I go to when I’m up there. The dedication plaque is “For Grandpa Cheese.” Nothing really happened there that was especially extraordinary. I just got a coffee at Saint Ambroeus and a tiny sandwich. They have really great tiny sandwiches to go. I’d just go sit, eat and read. A few times people came and sat next to me and tried to chat.
There’s also a really intense bird watching society-- I think specifically for hawks. Those people would be around certain times of the year. They’re fun to eavesdrop on. A lot of inter-group drama I was really surprised by.
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot? Where is it?
JH: Not really. I read in cabs pretty easily. I’m a big fan of a park bench.
GAL: Have you always been able to read in cars?
JH: Yes, I didn’t know it made people car sick until I was an adult.
GAL: Or – can you read anywhere - place is not important?
JH: I just have to be focused on what I’m reading. Wherever that happens is fine by me.
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold a book you read? Or can you read on a device with no problem and no impact on the experience?
JH: Yes, I need to hold the book. I don’t like reading off a Kindle or a device.
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
JH: I literally judge the book by the cover. Then I’ll read the first two paragraphs off the back. Then I carry it around the bookstore with me until it’s decision time, and then I whittle it down to two options and then inevitably buy five.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction to fiction? If so, why? / If you read non-fiction, what genre do you prefer?
JH: No, I prefer fiction.
GAL: What do you want to do next?
JH: I’m trying to figure that out. I think for a little bit I’d like to focus on working purely on illustration. I’m still new to working in this way.
Beyond that, I’ve been working on an animated pilot for television. It’s a really slow process, but I’m learning!
GAL: Now that we know what you want to do next, what are you reading right now?
JH: I am reading The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. It was recommended to me by my friend Lucia. It’s very dense and I read it in about twenty page bursts, highlighting as I go, and then put it down. I’m also reading Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann before bed, and The Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut is in my purse.
GAL: Who is your favorite author? or “forever” – favorite book?
JH: No, I have ones that jump out in my memory but I really find it impossible to pick favorites. I really just cannot do this! I have many authors I love and that I’ll read whatever they write/have written, but I could never really chose between them. The author I love most who is still living is George Saunders.
GAL: What do you love about George Saunders and what are your favorite books of his/why?
JH: I just love the way he writes. I didn’t know one could write like that-- at once so, so very funny and so, so very profound and really devastating at the same time. To me, when I read Pastoralia, I felt like it broke all the rules. I just connected with it and the way of writing in a way that felt really personal or like it was for me. My best friend Katherine had the same experience. I think that’s incredible.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to re-read for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
JH: I don’t re-read books. Occasionally I’ll go back to a random book to see how someone or something was described. This maybe isn’t the wisest, as I’ll often get the plots of three different books confused: one part Madame Bovary, two parts The Portrait of A Lady, a dash of The House of Mirth. In my head that is one book. I’m like, “I can’t remember the name right now!”
A table of people looking at me like I’m an idiot.
GAL: Favorite NYC spots? Bookstores, restaurants, stores, anything! Name at least 5.
I love Orsay, Cafe Carlyle, Bemelmans, The Candy Shop on Lexington, Sfoglia, Neue Gallerie, Cafe Sabarsky, Central Park, JG Mellon, PJ Clarkes, Saint Ambroeus, and a circuit of charity/consignment shops on Madison and Lexington.
Downtown I just go to the same tired places everyone else goes to.
In my neighborhood, Carroll Gardens, I go to Buttermilk Channel, Prime Meats, Frankie’s 457, Brooklyn Social, Books are Magic, Shen Beauty, Rucola….
GAL: Please name three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
JH: I really dislike recommending books to people without knowing what sorts of things they like to read. Just email me. I’ll ask you to fill out a very detailed survey about your likes and dislikes in life and then will curate a list. It’s really no trouble.
and now Julie & Daisy...