TWO MONTHS AGO, Roz Chast got the call. The person on the line was phoning on behalf of some group called Heinz. Hmm. As if by reflex, the New Yorker cartoonist thought perhaps these folks wanted her to donate a drawing.
“The truth is, I hadn’t heard of the Heinz Awards before,” Chast tells The Post’s Comic Riffs on Wednesday. “I guess I’m pretty much in my own little world. When I first heard from them — from the Heinz Foundation — I was sure they were going to ask me to contribute a drawing for a charity of some kind.
“We were on the phone, and I had my pen and paper handy to write down what kind of cartoon they were looking for, when they needed it by, to whom I should send it, etc.,” Chast continues. “So, as the saying goes, ‘Imagine my surprise’ when the conversation went in a whole different direction.”
That whole different direction led toward the startling news that the foundation was looking not to receive, but give. Seems Chast had been chosen to receive one of six Heinz Awards, which regularly go to “exceptional Americans, for their creativity and determination in finding solutions to critical issues.”
Oh, and the Heinz Award comes with an unrestricted $250,000 cash prize.
” ‘Floored’ does not begin to describe it,” Chast says of her reaction. “I don’t think I’ve fully absorbed it yet.”
The Heinz Family Foundation is announcing Thursday the winners of the 20th Heinz Awards, which total $1.25-million in cash awards. Besides Chast, the recipients include a bioengineer, a geoscientist, an environmental scientist and two former Marines.
“These remarkable men and women come from different fields and diverse backgrounds, but they share a bedrock conviction in their ability and responsibility as individuals to make a transformative impact on the world and the lives of others,” foundation chair Teresa Heinz says today in a statement, by way of announcing the news. “They offer an inspiring reminder that the most precious kind of change always comes from those who see past today’s limitations to a world of new possibilities and discoveries.”
In the case of these six recipients, Heinz praised their “ingenuity and persistence.”
The Connecticut-based Chast, 60, has drawn for the New Yorker for more than 35 years. Four years ago, she told me she was working on a graphic memoir about her parents, and their collective journey through the eldercare system. Chast said that to write an emotionally honest and insightful memoir, she necessarily waited till her parents had died.
The creative result, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury), was released a year ago, and is a soulful masterpiece of personal storytelling and social illumination. Ever since, her bestselling memoir has been on a marathon victory lap, receiving the first Kirkus Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography; becoming the first graphic novel to be named a finalist for the nonfiction National Book Award; and just yesterday, being named an Eisner Award finalist for best reality-based work.
“The book provides an unflinching look at the increasingly common struggles faced by adult children caring for parents as they age and lose their health and independence,” said the Heinz statement, noting that Chast “details the realities of aging and end-of-life care—from dealing with the tragic effects of dementia to managing the high costs of elder care to reconciling her own personal feelings of guilt, exhaustion and love.”
Chast says she has witnessed the degree to which her memoir’s themes strike a universal chord.
“I think there were — are– more people going through caring for elderly parents, navigating that journey, than I knew,” Chast tells The Post. “But there’s also another aspect: that while we go through it, and even more afterwards, we know that unless something unusual happens, that’s where we’re going, too. As far as I know, life only goes in one direction.”
In selecting Chast for its Arts and Humanities award, the Heinz jury cited her “uncompromising body of work,” which brings “wry humor and wit to some of our most profound everyday anxieties, brilliantly translating the mundane into rich, comical observations that reflect her acute observations of the human experience.” The Heinz Awards also noted: that “in her articulation of our unspoken fears and dilemmas, she offers empathy and courage to confront them head on.”
The other recipients (by category) are:
Environment: Dr. Frederica Perera, founder and director of the Columbia (University) Center for Children’s Environmental Health — for her “research to illuminate the health consequences children suffer from prenatal and childhood exposures to hazardous chemicals.”
Human Condition: William McNulty and Jacob Wood, Team Rubicon of Los Angeles — “former U.S. Marines and founders of Team Rubicon, for re-engaging thousands of veterans in a new service, disaster emergency response.”
Public Policy: Aaron Wolf, geoscientist and professor at Oregon State University — “for applying 21st-century insights and ingenuity, as well as ancient wisdoms, to negotiate disputes over shared bodies of water.”
Technology, the Economy and Employment: Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — who “applied the principles of microchip fabrication to develop artificial human “microlivers” now widely used to screen drugs for toxicity.”
The foundation accepts anonymous nominations, by a system of pooling the categorical expertise of hundreds of people, as it choose the recipients of the Heinz Award, which was created two decades ago to honor the memory of U.S. senator John Heinz.
The awards will be presented May 13 at a ceremony in Pittsburgh.