August 15, 2017 - Tamara Shopsin is an illustrator, graphic designer, writer, and part-time cook in her family’s New York restaurant. She has published two memoirs, Mumbai New York Scranton (2013) and most recently, Arbitrary Stupid Goal (2017).

As told to Laurel Schwulst, 1029 words.

Tags: Writing, Design, Art, Process, Success.

Tamara Shopsin on the importance of publicity for books

First, I have a very specific question. On your website, you position your four different roles: “author, designer, illustrator, cook” around a rectangle, one role per side. I noticed “cook” earned the upside-down position. Why?

This is because cooking is probably the least creative part of what I do. When I cook, it’s muscle memory. It doesn’t involve any brainstorming. I don’t make the recipes, my dad does. There is some bit of creativity in the way I interpret my dad’s recipes, but mostly I am trying to cook as good as my dad would.

You just published your second book, Arbitrary Stupid Goal. It focuses on your family’s store and restaurant, The Store, and your dad Kenny Shopsin, who is behind its central personality and philosophy. Your dad has a very specific view on press. Can you tell me more?

I was raised to think that press was poisonous. Press would bring customers he didn’t like into The Store. My dad was all about loving the customers and having the right kind of person: a person who is not just taking but giving and adding to the community.

As I’ve grown up, it’s gotten less poisonous. The response to my dad’s cookbook, Eat Me, has been great. The customers that come in because of that book are lovely human beings. Thankfully we get these people regularly. I can think of no bad customers who have come in who have said, “Oh, I love that cookbook.”


Tamara’s first book, Mumbai New York Scranton, 2013.

With my first book, I had a really hard time with the press thing. It felt anti-me. I did it, but it was like dragging my feet, gritting my teeth. It felt wrong. I have a huge amount of guilt that I didn’t do enough for that book. I didn’t “bring it.”

I realized that because publishing is having a very difficult time, if you’re an author, you owe it to your publisher to do this final third leg. First you make the book, then you edit the book, and finally there’s PR for the book: it’s important.


Tamara’s second book, Arbitrary Stupid Goal, 2017.

For my second book, I figured out a way the PR didn’t make me feel weird. I made it my own. I created stupid little trailer videos, I made hand lettered fliers, and my husband Jason agreed to do a surprise slideshow at each event. Everything I did was in hope that the press would feel uniquely me; when someone responds to it, hopefully it’s similar to how the Eat Me book worked with my dad.

Actually, the journalists I’ve met with have been so nice. I would hang out with them.

I think I’m just lucky. I’ve had a lot of luck this time around.

How did the tour go?

It was a mini tour. It started in New York. I have a very kind editor who only sent me to the places where I knew people: San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’m a very shy public speaker, so I think my editor was protecting me. Or maybe nobody wanted me. [laughs] It went really well.

How was the process of writing this book different than your first?

This book is so different. Mumbai New York Scranton is written in a perfect chronological order—each short chapter equals one day.

Arbitrary Stupid Goal hopscotches through time. It sort of ends where it starts. I wanted it to be overwhelming the way New York is. And it ended up being that overwhelming to write. I’m thankful for my editor Sean McDonald.

But Mumbai New York Scranton was overwhelming in its own New York sized way too. And at the end of the day looking back the process wasn’t that different.

I’m used to working on rush illustrations that get done in a day. These books were both total beasts.




A selection of Tamara’s illustrations for The New York Times from 2007, 2016, 2009, respectively.

I think Arbitrary Stupid Goal is also overwhelming in the way memory is overwhelming. It’s organized non-linearly through fragments. Different things from different times are juxtaposed. You can’t request your memories in a particular order like a meal. Memories are both stored and retrieved according to their own rules.

I also remember one time, when we were at a typography lecture, you said, “I need to be selective about what I remember. There’s a lot of noise out there.”

I don’t remember saying that. But I believe it.

Even though I apparently said that, I don’t think you can choose what you remember. For example, Jason sometimes sings this “Monchhichi song.” I’m sure it’s just taking up space in his brain. I love when he sings me this song. There’s no reason for the Monchhichi song to be stuck in his brain, but I’m so glad it’s there.

I wrote this book because there are many things I wanted to remember (personally) and many things I wanted remembered (by many people) about New York. I feel relieved, thinking, “Okay, that stuff is remembered. If I forget it, I can read it. And if somebody goes to Morton Street and thinks it’s just a boring place, they can read my book and know it wasn’t always a boring place.”

I fear having so many memories in my brain that I can’t find the one I want. I think that’s my final memory answer.

You’ve said completing an illustration assignment feels like a solving puzzle or a riddle. Does writing feel like puzzle-solving too?

Right, completing an illustration feels like a solving a puzzle. But with writing, I think I’m creating puzzles for somebody else.

I love puzzles. Just for the record.

Tamara Shopsin recommends: