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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Pearls Before Swine’s’ Stephan Pastis made the choice to create instead of litigate

“Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven.”

Stephan Pastis, 52, can relate to the lyrics from the epic Led Zeppelin classic. Before becoming a cartoonist, the creator of the comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” was an attorney. But the author of the “Timmy Failure” children’s chapter book series isn’t the only entertainer to choose art over commerce.

Artist Paul Gauguin was a stockbroker. Sculptor Richard Serra moved furniture. Boston guitarist Tom Scholz was a product design engineer for Polaroid. Comic Jeff Foxworthy worked in computer maintenance at IBM.

Pastis, who will appear Thursday for a virtual Northwest Passages Book Club forum, discusses why he decided to leave litigation behind for a career in the arts, what cartoonist had a profound impact on his life and what recurring nightmare still plagues him.

What did you want to do when you grew up?

I was asked that question by a teacher when I was in the fifth grade. I had read the “Peanuts” 25th anniversary book (“Peanuts Jubilee”), which I’m looking at right now, and so I said, “A syndicated cartoonist.” I knew what I wanted to do.

But you didn’t start out as a cartoonist.

No, I started out as an attorney.

For the security?

Yes. When I was growing up, our family didn’t have much money. I wanted a job in which I could make a lot of money. I did well in school, and I became a litigator. I discovered that when making money is your primary goal, well, it’s probably the wrong reason to have that job.

I was a litigator for nine years. The funny thing is that so many attorneys I knew had an out. There were attorneys who wanted to be artists or chefs.

During an interview with the comic Lewis Black, I asked him if he was any happier now than when he was a struggling playwright a generation ago. He said, “Even though I have stupid success, no. I’m not any happier now than I was then.” Black contends that happiness is derived from enjoying your career.

I think the key to life is being excited about Monday morning every week. If you can pull that off, you got something. I’m almost disappointed by holidays since I can’t work. That’s how much I enjoy what I do.

How did you become a cartoonist?

A turning point for me was meeting Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts.” I found out that he would go to the same cafe in Santa Rosa (California) every day for an English muffin. I went to the cafe (during the late ’90s). I waited around for an hour and then he showed up. I introduced myself, and it was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

I met my boyhood idol. It was so intimate. It was one-on-one. He gave me advice. He looked at my strips. It was like having Willie Mays coming over to a kid and asking him to hit some balls. It was just one of those moments in your life that you can’t believe was happening. “Peanuts” changed comic strips kind of like how Marlon Brando changed acting.

What advice did Schulz have for you?

He told me that narrators never work for comic strips. That experience of meeting him was incredible, but it was so nerve-racking. I have so much respect for Charles Schulz.

But how about Bil Keane? You parodied the creator of “Family Circus” a few times. That hits home since he’s an alum of the high school I attended.

That’s right. He’s from Philly. The dirty secret is that we were actually friends. He had a great sense of humor. When I joked around about “Family Circus,” he couldn’t have been nicer about the whole thing. I got to meet him, and he was just a great guy.

How much of an impact did “Dilbert” have on your career?

I owe my whole career to (“Dilbert” creator) Scott Adams. My strip (“Pearls Before Swine”) debuted online in 2001. Scott Adams said he was reading the strip, and he liked it. His endorsement meant so much to me. When he endorsed me, I knew that it was the moment for me.

Do you ever think about what life would be like if you never left law?

I still have nightmares about it. I see the lawyers I used to work for in my dream, and they say, “You haven’t handed in your time sheet. We haven’t gotten any of your time sheets for years.” I wake up in a sweat. After all of these years, I literally still have that nightmare. Isn’t that bizarre?

Pastis will be featured again in Wednesday’s Serendipity section ahead of his Northwest Passages Book Club online chat Thursday with Rob Curley, editor of The Spokesman-Review.