STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The author and illustrator of a new alphabet book for children dropped by our New York studio this week. And just like the book's subject matter, we started with the basics.

Let me make sure I pronounce your name correctly, it's Roz Chast. Is that right?

Ms. ROZ CHAST (Illustrator): That's right.

INSKEEP: And it's Steve Martin, correct?

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor, Comedian, Writer): Exactly.

INSKEEP: Just want to make sure…

Mr. MARTIN: It's actually Steve Martin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Steve…

Mr. MARTIN: Steve Martin.

INSKEEP: You may know him better as Steve Martin, the writer and actor behind movies from "Shopgirl" to "The Jerk."

Roz Chast is a cartoonist for The New Yorker. Her squiggly characters lay out their neurosis on the page, as in the cartoon titled, "The Party After You Left." Everybody at the party is finally saying something interesting.

Roz Chast and Steve Martin brought their talents together for a book called "The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z." Where did this book come from?

Mr. MARTIN: I had an idea several years ago to do an alphabet book. Don't ask my why, even though that's your job. And I just had this idea to write these crazy, rhyming couplets and then asked Roz to illustrate them as faithfully as possible.

Ms. CHAST: When we went through the alphabet, it was fun to kind of pick out interesting words that went along with each letter. Like when we were looking up U, you could, you know, oh, ukulele. Yeah, I forgot about those, you know.

INSKEEP: Can I get you to just to read a little bit of this? Maybe we could just start with the letter A. Why don't I get you, Steve Martin, to…

Mr. MARTIN: So your idea is to go in alphabetical order.

INSKEEP: That was the concept.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: We can start that way. We may skip around later.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, okay.

(Reading) "Amiable Amy, Alice and Andi ate all the anchovy sandwiches handy."

And Roz drew three very crazy-looking girls sitting on a sofa, eating anchovy sandwiches and saying ah. And she's added hundreds, it seems, of things that all start with A. We have a very weird angel, there.

Ms. CHAST: Well, it's an ape.

Mr. MARTIN: An ape who is an angel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Angelic ape.

Mr. MARTIN: I was looking this morning at O, which would be after L, M, N, O.

INSKEEP: The pages aren't numbered here. It can be hard to…

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, really. You don't know where you are. You have to look back in the index. This one…

(Reading) "Old Ollie the Owl owed Owen an oboe, but instead bought him oysters at Ozgood's in SoHo."

And Roz has drawn a health market. There's an owl who's buying oysters off the shelf, and Ollie is back saying that owl better have my oboe. And the owl was saying, he'll never know the difference.

INSKEEP: Roz Chast, did Steve Martin then just send you this strange little couplet? And you had no choice but to work with that, to see what you can come up with.

Ms. CHAST: Well, basically that we went back and forth. I think there was one -it might have been for the letter E that they were more like celebrity caricature-type things. And I said, I'm just really kind of bad at that. Could we do something else than…

Mr. MARTIN: Right, right. There was Elvis.

Ms. CHAST: Elvis, right, and Elton. And I remember thinking, I don't want to draw Elton John.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: So the letter E became what instead?

Mr. MARTIN: E, let me look it up here. I was planning to not look at the index. We should have put these in sequence.

Ms. CHAST: Yes.

Mr. MARTIN: No actually we did.

(Reading) "Excellent Edward, exceedingly picky, ate eggs with an eel whose earwax was icky."

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: And you've got a drawing there of an eel with some pretty icky earwax in his…

Mr. MARTIN: Yes, and we have a tiny Eskimo here.

Ms. CHAST: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Do either of you remember alphabet books that you read growing up?

Mr. MARTIN: I don't remember anything. I don't think I actually had any children's books as a kid.

Ms. CHAST: I think I had the "A Cat in the Hat."

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you were well off.

Ms. CHAST: Yes, we were rich.

Mr. MARTIN: We were poor.

INSKEEP: Are you - I don't - how serious are you, Steve Martin, when you say you don't think you had any children's books?

Mr. MARTIN: I'm serious.

INSKEEP: What did you read?

Mr. MARTIN: Playboy? I know, I read "The Prince and the Pauper." I was very proud of that because it was very thick.

INSKEEP: But you don't remember any books like "Go, Dog. Go!" or…

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, no. We just had Sally…

INSKEEP: "Dick and Jane"?

Ms. CHAST: Oh, "Jane and Sally."

Mr. MARTIN: "Dick and Jane." Forgot about that.

INSKEEP: Which had rather simpler words than bad baby bubble ducks beat up as bad with bashed up bananas and old moldy bread. I'm not sure if I've ever seen an alphabet book that included…

Mr. MARTIN: Well, "Dick and Jane" holds up. I recently reread it, and I was moved to tears.

Ms. CHAST: My mother didn't let me read them. She thought they'd be bad for me.

Mr. MARTIN: Because they are too stupid?

Ms. CHAST: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Well, I have to say that I have had some recent - because I've got a young daughter - I've had some recent experience with alphabet books, and there are a couple of letters that alphabet book authors seem to have special trouble with. How did you treat the letter Q? If you could just read that, please.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, yes. Let me just look in the index. There we go.

(Reading) "Quincy the kumquat queried the queen, cleverly, quietly, without being seen."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Roz has a drawing of a queen in her living room, and there's a little tiny kumquat over here on the left, hiding behind the bookcase, saying Psst! Hey, Queenie! Que pasa?

INSKEEP: To which the queen replies?

Mr. MARTIN: (Reading) "That's quite a question."

But also - I'll be - explain something here that just makes it really, really interesting. I tried to put in words also that sound like the letter, but aren't the letter, and also used different expressions of the letter. Like Quincy, it starts with the Q, but kumquat stars with a K, and cleverly starts with a C, and then quietly. I always there are some little educational bit that letters don't always sound the same.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask - because this is a book aiming, in a way, at childhood, and because it is funny. I'm curious if each of you can recall a moment when you realized that you could be funny, that you could make a living being funny?

Mr. MARTIN: For me, it was way late to my career to lose the idea that everything was going to vanish within the next three or four months.

Ms. CHAST: I still feel like at any moment, anything horrible could happen.

INSKEEP: You mean that someone on any moment could call you up and say, Roz, you know, you just can't draw?

Ms. CHAST: Oh, totally. It would be a different experience to put pen to paper and think this is going to be really funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I can't wait to call that lucky New Yorker and give him my latest stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Do you have time to analyze one more of these? The letter N.

Mr. MARTIN: Sure.

(Reading) "Needle-nosed Nigel won nine kinds of knockwurst by winning a contest to see who could knock worst."

There's a store here - Newts, Nunchucks and Beyond. We did get excited a couple of times when we'd think of new words.

Ms. CHAST: Yeah, definitely.

Mr. MARTIN: The ukuleleist(ph) of the universe.

Ms. CHAST: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Well, these all have been very useful.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much.

Mr. MARTIN: Yup.

Ms. CHAST: Thanks.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Steve Martin and Roz Chast, author and illustrator of "The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z." Hear what they wrote for the letter X and the couplet didn't make the book by npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

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