Good Old Charlie Brown

An Interview with Andrew Blauner

Octavian Report: What inspired you to create The Peanuts Papers?

Andrew Blauner: The origin story — aside from having the plush toys and watching the holiday specials as a kid — is that for the most part I'm a literary agent representing other people's books. I was working on an anthology called Our Mothers' Spirits: great writers, men, writing about the deaths of their mothers and the grief of men. I'm watching A&E’s Biography and it's about Charles Schulz, whom I knew at the time didn't give a lot of interviews and when he did he was rather stoic and didn't get emotional very much. When he started talking about his mom — and if you're obsessed with Peanuts, you know Schulz and his mother had a very loaded, intense relationship; she was very ill when he was young and died — there was something in his affect that made me think, “Well, maybe I'll take a shot and write to him on behalf of the client about this other anthology.”

I sent a letter to Schulz expecting a nice form letter declination. And instead I get a personal note from Schulz, politely as humanly possible declining to write for that book but saying if I ever found myself in Santa Rosa, California, please stop by. And I thought: “I don't think you just say that unless you mean it, because people will call your bluff on that.”

The next day, I said to my girlfriend at the time — who happened to be a little red-haired girl —“How would you feel about planning a trip to California’s wine country?” It took a while. But next thing I knew I was in his office talking to him and he couldn't have been nicer.

What I do, not for a living, but as labors of love, is to put together these collections of writing on topics that are near and dear to me. And it can be baseball or brothers or Central Park or coaches or Boston. I’d read David Michaelis's biography of Schulz and I still thought there was something to be said and to be written about Peanuts and its place in history and our culture and our minds and our hearts.

And sure enough, 33 writers contributed pieces to this book (which would not exist without the Library of America). Seventy-five percent of these pieces are original, new to this book. Bringing memories, stories, insights, context into this tapestry and forming a picture of Peanuts that I don't think we had before.

OR: Why do you think Peanuts is so powerful? Why has it stood the test of time?

Blauner: There's a piece in the book by Chris Ware, who's a great cartoonist in his own right, but also writes incredibly well. And the question came up: is Peanuts dark? And he said: “No, it's real.”

That's part of it. He also pointed out that before Peanuts, comic strips were populated by adults who acted like children a lot of the time. Peanuts was populated virtually exclusively by children who thought and talked more like adults

The strip talks about real problems. Like unrequited love. Everyone has been in love with someone who didn't love them back. You see that in the strips, whether it's Lucy and Schroeder or Sally and Linus and Charlie Brown and the red-haired girl. I also think a lot of people who really know what they're talking about think that the strip became what it is now when Snoopy got up on his hind legs and started acting like a person.

OR: What were some of the more surprising insights into Peanuts that you found among the contributions?

Blauner: Ann Patchett essentially says that she wouldn't have become a writer had it not been for Peanuts. Jennifer Finney Boylan writes about being an outsider and Pigpen and Peppermint Patty and Franklin. But perhaps the biggest revelation for me was that I went into the project feeling some apprehension about the book being monotonous or homogeneous. I thought: “Everybody loves Snoopy and everybody was going to want to write about Snoopy.” Well, not everybody loves Snoopy! A lot of people think he’s sort of a narcissist. A lot of people really love Charlie Brown or really identify with Linus. Schulz himself was on record saying that of all the characters, the one who had the best chance of leading a happy, healthy adult life would be Linus. It's a double edged sword.

OR: Do you agree with the critics of the strip who say that when Snoopy became more prominent it lost something?

Blauner: I never thought that way before I worked on this project. But as a result of immersing myself in it and going back and looking at the strips, I've come around to that way of thinking: that the halcyon days probably were the '60s. Sarah Boxer wrote on of the few pieces in the book that was actually reprinted. It was about the narcissism of Snoopy and Schulz.

It was revelation to some people that Schulz hated the name “Peanuts,” that it was foisted on him by the syndicate. He always thought the strip should be called Charlie Brown or Charlie Brown and His Friends. If you asked him what he did, he would never say he drew Peanuts. He would say, "Oh, I drew Charlie Brown and Snoopy and their friends.”

He never really wanted to go on record about things. He was a lifelong Republican who said he regretted not voting for Kennedy. But otherwise — though Barack Obama loves Peanuts, and Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon all loved it — he just never got into politics. He was on record saying anything that he had to say, he said through his characters and through the strips. All of which made it this sort of cosmic thing that happened when he announced that he had to stop drawing the strip because of his health. He died within 24 hours of that.