Flavor of Words: Brian Selznick and Paul O. Zelinsky in Correspondence
BRIAN SELZNICK: Hi, Paul O. Zelinsky. You know, everyone it seems, at some point, thinks I’m you. I’m flattered of course, but mostly I like that I end up with your “O” as my middle initial. It’s appeared with my name in catalogs, wall tags in museums, brochures and books. I must say that I like the “O,” especially because historically, an “O” has appeared before Selznick. David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone With the Wind among other classics, is my grandfather’s first cousin. I am always happy when the O. shows up with my name.
PAUL O ZELINSKY: Hi, Brian [ ] Selznick. As you know, I get mistaken for you, too. Our names are so close. If I were a Zelinscky and you were a Selznyick we would be perfect anagrams of each other. And as for the O, you have a historical right to it, even if David Selznick pulled the letter out of thin air in order to fake a middle initial. The O is hardly my property, but I’m happy to share it. It’s a lucky letter (have you read Thurber’s The Wonderful O?). And it hasn’t hurt Barack Bama any, has it?
SELZNICK: What can I say to that?
ZELINSKY: Maybe just change the subject.
SELZNICK: All right, what do you have on your drawing table now, and what are you thinking about it?
ZELINSKY: What I’m working on is the sequel to Swamp Angel, in dummy stage, and I’m thinking 18 different things about it at the same time, which is sort of like not thinking anything. Later I’ll figure out what I was thinking.
But [my wife] Deborah told me something interesting yesterday: the daughter of a friend of a friend of hers has become fixated on The Shivers in the Fridge, which is very pleasant for me to hear. What interested me more was that this same girl, who is seven, has been non-stop-reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I wouldn’t say that I cared or thought about age level very much when I illustrated that book, but I did some: the manuscript felt like a certain age, and I didn’t want the pictures to go in a different direction. It’s a bit amazing to me that the same person would be into both this 40-page picture book and your 500-page category-bending oeuvre. Would you like to talk about aiming at children, or the Child Within You, or that sort of thing?
SELZNICK: I just love that this kid is reading both Shivers in the Fridge and Hugo and enjoying them both! Why not, right? I always like to think that a good story is a good story, and there’s no reason once you can read longer stories you have to stop reading shorter ones. I mean, I’ve loved The Shivers in the Fridge since you showed me the sketches for it and told me about the story, yet I also loved Moby Dick (which if I remember correctly, doesn’t have any pictures at all)! I once heard someone joke, “Well, I’m thirty-five but I read at a forty-year-old reading level.” Maybe we don’t need to be so concerned about reading levels for kids. Maybe we just need to give them good books. But that’s not to say I’m unaware I’m making books for kids. I can’t say when I was working on Hugo that I thought a lot about age level, though. I knew I wanted to make the book alternate between written text and long illustrated sequences which would move the story along visually, but I didn’t know if kids would like that. I always know my books are for children, but beyond that, my main audience is myself, and I’m just trying to make the story work in the best possible way.
ZELINSKY: I think Barry Moser made his name with a fancy woodcut-illustrated Moby Dick, but I don’t think it’s become the standard edition yet.
SELZNICK: And Rockwell Kent did a lovely, powerful illustrated Moby Dick. But we digress …
ZELINSKY: That working-for-yourself point is just what everybody I know and respect believes and follows. I guess it’s not too self-evident to talk about, though, since most non-writers or non-citizens of the children’s book world, 75 percent of whom, as we know, have written or are planning to write a children’s book of their own, are doing so out of what they think is a generous concern for children’s needs, and not for their own amusement or delight.
But your almost throw-away line, “make the story work,” makes me want to ask about the specifics. For one thing, in the case of Hugo Cabret, it’s a pretty unprecedented form of storytelling, not like a picture book where story emerges from some sort of symbiosis between pictures and words. And how do you understand the meaning of “work”? The term has rankled me ever since I was an undergraduate art major, standing in awed incomprehension of my professors’ pronouncements—“This works, this doesn’t work,” and I couldn’t tell the difference. “Working” sounds so objective and clear.
SELZNICK: That’s a good question … what DOES “work” mean, exactly? It has a lot to do with instinct, doesn’t it? With my own books, it has an almost physical sensation when something snaps into place and is … right. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, again and again there are metaphors about how Hugo sees the world as a machine, and I think that when I finally hit on a solution for a moment in the story, it actually felt like something was clicking into place. It just fit. I had an image of a black hole at the center of the story for about a year and a half of the process, until I figured out that Hugo’s father was central to the story, and when I figured that out, the hole closed up.
ZELINSKY: You did this wild thing with Hugo Cabret: you switched without warning between pages of picture-free text and text-free pictures, in the interest of the story. I think people reading it can figure out why you did this and how it works, at least for them, but can you describe to me how you were thinking about it when you decided to make up this form—did you know it would work?
SELZNICK: Well, I knew early on that I wanted to tell the story like a silent movie, since the history of cinema is so important to the plot. I had written out a text-only version of the story first, and then went back and took out everything that I could draw. I had to keep sections with dialogue, or things people heard, because you couldn’t see that in a picture. The challenge was to tell as much of the story as possible visually, like a movie. I knew this idea worked (for me) early on, because it excited me.
ZELINSKY: Excitement is good evidence of working. How did you test the idea out? Was there a first moment’s confirmation that it did work, and what was that like?
SELZNICK: During the process I wrote the text on the computer and only had separate drawings and little dummies for the visual sequences so I couldn’t get a sense of how one would flow into the other. I tried to explain it to people and I think usually it just didn’t sound like it made sense, and this made me really nervous. It wasn’t until the book was published and I went out on tour that I met kids who had read the book and understood it, they understood the use of the pictures, saw that the book was like a movie, and embraced it.
ZELINSKY: Do you mean to say that adults were less likely to embrace it?
SELZNICK: No, some adults did catch on a little earlier. The sales reps at Scholastic got computer printouts of the book while I was working on it and they liked the idea a lot, but it’s a book for children so I was most nervous about finding out what kids would think.
ZELINSKY: What about yourself—when were you first able to flip through actual pages of printed text followed by wordless pictures?
SELZNICK: It wasn’t until the advanced reader’s copies were finally printed that I got to read the book as it was intended, and saw that the story was comprehensible. This was a great relief to me!
ZELINSKY: Interesting that relief was your emotion. I’ve also felt relief, or sometimes shock and depression; and sometimes elation, when I’ve first held a printed version of what had previously only been sketches and dummies. Actually, it is always a shock to me, whether good or bad. It mostly has to do with the page turn, which is the equivalent to a change of scene in a novel or a movie, right? The surprisingly complicated effect of turning from page to page, one double-page spread being replaced by the next, is so different from scanning a series of sketches and imagining that effect. And turning those pages when they are the real, printed deal feels so different from turning the pages of a sketched dummy, although the difference pales to nothing compared to what you had to imagine with Hugo. Even when the effect is exactly as I’d hoped it would be; that’s its own shock. I find myself saying, “This page turn is a disappointment, but this next one really worked.” And then I start to ask myself, “What exactly do I mean by that?”
SELZNICK: Which all makes me wonder, when you are turning a manuscript into a picture book, do you start with a single idea or image, or is it more general than that for you?
ZELINSKY: That is a fun question. Probably because starting is a fun stage to be at. I start with a flavor—I think that best describes how pre-verbal and intuitive this early stage of the process is for me. When I’m moved and excited by a text (and it doesn’t matter if the text was written by me or someone else), I can always identify the impression it has left on me as some sort of feeling very much like a flavor. I then try not to lose track of that flavor as I go forward with all the stages of picturebook-making: dividing the manuscript into spreads, dummying, making rough and then less rough sketches, and finally the finished art. Maybe I’ve got a bit of synesthesia …
SELZNICK: Yes. I’m intrigued by synesthesia. Vladimir Nabokov had it. It’s rather poetic, isn’t it? Anyway, you were saying …
ZELINSKY: About flavors. Sentences have them. At least good ones do. Lore Segal’s beginning line of our picture book The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless, Her Cat was very short and simple: “Mrs. Lovewright was a chilly person.” Then you go on and read about how when it got night outside, she closed her door and made a fire; then she took off her shoes and put her feet up in on the stool, and that’s when Mrs. Lovewright knew that there was something and she didn’t have it. (“It” was coziness, in the form of a cat). Her neediness, her discomfort with the world, her eventual problems with her uncozy cat, all of this was brilliantly condensed in that first sentence, and it was bursting with feeling. Salty, with a lot of bite. The whole story was like good pickles. Good writing makes good illustrating a much easier task, don’t you think? To say I start with a flavor may be too head-in-the-clouds, though. I took a while to settle on what the Mrs. Lovewright feeling was, and then I began associating it with some kind of look. Mrs. Lovewright got hitched to the early Max Beckmann, if you know what those paintings are like.
SELZNICK: I just googled Max Beckmann, and I see the connection with Mrs. Lovewright.
ZELINSKY: Beckmann’s images are jagged, chaotic, and tragic and comical at the same time. Whereas a text like Hansel and Gretel wants something totally different. What about you?
SELZNICK: I love the idea of starting with a flavor, of bringing in other senses, something I understand but perhaps don’t directly share. For me, the thing you said that jumped out the most is: “Good writing makes good illustrating a much easier task.” For most illustrators, the pictures begin with the words and if the words are right the pictures will come naturally. Not to say it won’t be a struggle to find the right match, but a picture book will never work if the illustrations are amazing but the text is mediocre. I guess I often start out with one image, which becomes the key to the look of the book. I guess my synesthesialessness …
SELZNICK: … leaves me with the need to find visual invitations into the text. For Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride by Pam Muñoz Ryan, about a night flight over Washington, D.C. with Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, the key in was a note from my editor Tracy Mack, who told me she pictured the book being like a 1930s movie musical. After that, the rest became easy. For Hugo it was silent movies; for Waterhouse Hawkins it was a scrapbook I found at a museum in Philadelphia that Waterhouse had kept himself about his own life.
ZELINSKY: So was the beautiful ornamental design on Waterhouse Hawkins’s cover derived from his actual scrapbook?
SELZNICK: Yes, it was.
ZELINSKY: It must have been almost transporting to see that scrapbook and know it contained the world in which your book would take place. I told you I am working on Anne Isaac’s manuscript about the tall-tale heroine Swamp Angel, who has moved from Tennessee to Montana, and battles outlaws there. I’m beginning to feel a sense of a mythic Montana that I hope can be palpable in the book, and as I’m looking for images in libraries and books and online, that sense—maybe it isn’t completely a flavor—is taking hold of me. It’s that old cliché—books carrying you to other worlds; it’s no surprise that a book is not going to do that unless the maker of the book has been carried to other worlds first.
SELZNICK: When I’m working on a book, I always have this sense that I need some kind of “permission” to draw the pictures. It’s not any actual kind of permission, in the literal sense, but it’s my own need to own the content of the book. Maybe that’s what you’re talking about. The maker of the book has to be carried to the other world, and once I AM carried, I feel like that permission to draw has been granted to me.
ZELINSKY: You’ve illustrated a number of books that are like story books, but non-fiction. I’d imagine there must be a bit of a barrier there to feeling ownership of the world you’re drawing. You could strike a wrong note in relation to the historical truth, even if your drawing works perfectly for the story and for the book.
SELZNICK: I actually don’t feel any difference between the fiction and non-fiction books I make, in terms of needing “permission.” The picture wouldn’t work perfectly for the story and for the book if it hit the wrong note in relation to the historical truth.
ZELINSKY: The closest I’ve come to a wrong historical (well, at least cultural) truth may have been when French publishers turned down the opportunity to publish my Wheels on the Bus, because the bus’s windows didn’t look like French buses (they open like the windows on American school buses). But I see I was taking your “permission” point too literally. Are you saying that the text holds all the rights until you show you can do it justice? If you’re not the author and you’re reaching for this ownership, that is a good explanation for why publishers traditionally keep the author and illustrator of a picturebook apart from each other, isn’t it?
SELZNICK: Yes, I suppose it might be harder for the illustrator to have a sense of ownership if the author was constantly telling the illustrator what to do, or what exactly they had been thinking when the story was being written, but I think good writers and illustrators respect each other enough to allow room for ownership. Authors and illustrators were not kept apart in the past as much as they are today and maybe it would be nice some times to return to that more open, fluid relationship.
ZELINSKY: I certainly understand writers’ frequent frustration at being kept at bay during the illustration process, and agree that most writers who don’t illustrate are respectful of what the illustrator is doing. And I have had some fine experiences when going around an editor’s back and contacting an author. But I may not have enough self-assurance, if it weren’t for that publisher-imposed separation, to be able to sever my feeling of obligation to the author so that I could attach it instead to the text. Good ideas will come from attaching it to the text. Of course writing your own text would tend to solve any such problem of split loyalties (as well as the problem of split royalties), wouldn’t it?
SELZNICK: I actually do feel the same need for “permission” when it’s my own text. It’s the need to feel like I’ve done the right research and have a real reason for illustrating something. I guess not everything needs to be illustrated, and if there ARE going to be pictures there had better be a very good reason they are there.
ZELINSKY: Finally I may have stopped misunderstanding what you are saying—it’s that you don’t feel permission to make the book until you come to feel like a citizen of its world, and that you have something worth saying with the pictures. That’s plenty commendable. If only the people who write and illustrate those books that should not be written or illustrated could muster the requisite restraint! I have to admit to not having this qualm about making pictures for a book. Often enough I am presented with a manuscript that I can’t imagine doing justice to, or creating illustrations that would justify themselves (in your sense of needing a good reason). And then I won’t try to illustrate it. But I assume from the start that if it can be done, I can do it. Then once I’m into the process, I begin to worry and curse. It looked like a guaranteed smooth sail from sketch to finish but it isn’t; I thought I knew how it should look and work but I don’t; I thought I could do it but I can’t. And yet I haven’t ever hit a wall that I couldn’t somehow get over or around, so this may be my version of the same process you were talking about.
SELZNICK: Well part of our job is finding the reason to illustrate something and making it work (there’s that word again!). I’ve turned down manuscripts because I didn’t think my drawings would be right for the text, but if a story grabs me, I know that down the line, at some point, I’ll figure out how to illustrate it. And with really good manuscripts, the clues are there in the text, waiting to be found. And I must say I find it very comforting to hear stories of other artists who feel inadequate and unable to finish a project because that’s how I feel all the time, but somehow we manage to continue through the terrible feelings and (hopefully end up) with something that is satisfying and perhaps, if we are lucky, beyond what we might have imagined it would be when we began. Does that make sense?
ZELINSKY: Let’s ask the world …