Best known for his distinctive work in award-winning picture books like The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley and Eleanor and Amelia Go for a Ride by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Brian Selznick's newest offering is more than just "a departure." The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic) defies categorization—a 544-page middle-grade novel containing nearly 300 full-bleed pencil drawings. The book borrows from silent film for its design and pays homage to the pioneers of French cinema. Selznick spoke with Bookshelf about how it came to be.
In addition to being about a French filmmaker (Georges Méliès, who died in 1938), Hugo Cabret reads like a movie, if that's possible, with all the scene-setting, and pans and zooms and close-ups—which is quite an accomplishment.
When I started writing, it was supposed to be a 150-page novel with a drawing in each chapter. But the way I write is that I see scenes, and then transcribe what I'm seeing. I've heard other authors say, 'Oh, I just write down what the characters are telling me,' and that's not what I mean. It's torture for me to get the story to happen. Absolute torture. I have to make the character do something—I'll see him running through the streets—and then I write by describing what I see. 'He turns into an alley. It's a dead end. He shifts his head. He looks down. He glances left.' It's overly descriptive. Actually, what it really is is bad writing—very bad writing. One of the things [my editors] Tracy [Mack] and Leslie [Budnick] do is to take that whole long thing I've written and edit it so it becomes like, maybe, four words.
Your background is not in writing, though, correct?
True. I majored in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, although I never had any intention of being an illustrator and didn't take any classes in illustration there. It was just that the illustration degree had no requirements. I really want to be a set designer and did study set design at Brown [University].
Ah. I certainly see the influence of set design in Hugo, too.
All I knew when I set out was that I wanted to do something different with the pictures. Other novels I've illustrated—like The Meanest Doll in the World—I started that with a narrative sequence of double-spreads. And Our House by Pam Conrad also had a narrative sequence of potato fields on Long Island turning into Levittown.
So I was thinking about the role narrative illustrations play in chapter books. Something in the illustration is usually referred to in the text, and usually you put something in the illustrations that adds to the story, but in almost all cases the pictures could be removed and the story would not suffer. That's not the case in picture books, and I was thinking especially about those books in which the words stop and the pictures absolutely take over, like the wild rumpus.
From Where the Wild Things Are.
Right. It intrigues me. I really like that participation. Anyway, I just started thinking about all these things. I mean, it's a book about movies. A movie is a visual experience. And it's set at a time  when sound was being introduced into film and being used in experimental ways. The whole book is filled with references to the innovators in French cinema. The first line is a reference to the René Clair film Under the Roofs of Paris [Sous les toits de Paris, 1930]. The chase scene [a 36-page spread of Hugo fleeing the Parisian rail police] was inspired by one in Le million [René Clair, 1931]. I asked myself, 'What if parts of the story were told only in the pictures? Could I take out some of the text and replace it with pictures?'
Almost like you were making a storyboard.
It had a lot in common with the storyboards used in film. I took out all the text that didn't have dialogue in it or Hugo's thoughts. Anything that was just a description of what we could see, I took out and replaced it with a drawing. Whole scenes became three lines and six pictures, but since each picture was a double-page spread, that scene now needed 13 pages. I added up how many drawings I would then need to do this properly and multiplied that by two, then added the number of pages of text, and—Ohmigod—I had a 600-page book!
And at $22.99, you're now in Harry Potter territory.
If you're buying the book by the pound it's a good bargain.
But not what Scholastic signed up for. Did anyone have heart failure over the quadrupling of the manuscript's length?
I called them to ask, will you still publish it? And they said yes. They've been unbelievably supportive. Everything I've asked for they've said, 'Yep. Let's do that.'
But then you had to do all those illustrations. Did that add years to the process?
I started writing in mid-2003 and I thought I finished the whole thing in January 2006. I continued finishing it through August, and then did a little more finishing after that. But I just got hardcover copies so now, for sure, I am done.
Tell us about the illustrations. Are they charcoal or pencil?
Just my regular blue mechanical pencil on watercolor paper, but the finished pictures are one-quarter the size you see in the book. A lot of the time, I was working under a magnifying glass.
And tell us about your model for Hugo — he has the hang dog expression of Gérard Depardieu — another inspiration from French cinema?
Oh, that's great! Of course! If it's about French cinema, we must have Gérard Depardieu. No, actually the model is a boy who was in the audience at a puppet show I did at the Museum of Natural History. I spotted him and spoke to his mother. He's a little bit younger than I imagined Hugo to be, but I dressed him in period clothes I bought at a thrift shop. My main inspiration was actually Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played Antoine in Truffaut's The 400 Blows. It's about a 12-year-old boy who runs away from home, and there were all these parallels within his story to Hugo's. The scenes of Hugo stealing the milk from the café in the train station, and locked up in jail by the station master with his arms crossed and his face buried in his turtleneck—those are all taken straight from Truffaut.
How about the train station where Hugo, an orphan, is living in secret while working as a timekeeper's apprentice? Does it really exist?
Méliès' toy shop was in the Montparnasse station, which is the only one of five or six stations from the 1800s that has been torn down. So what you see in the book is an amalgamation of all the other train stations, plus a little bit of Grand Central thrown in because I have heard that there are secret apartments in the upper floors of Grand Central and that idea has always fascinated me. The photograph of the train crashing through the walls of the station that appears in the book is the actual photograph of the incident that did occur at Montparnasse [in 1895].
That's right—in addition to your own illustrations, you also have photographs and film stills in the book. Were permissions difficult to get?
Well, film stills that old normally would have gone into public domain, but the laws in France are different, and the Méliès family still has control over use of the images from his films. We were in contact with them for the entire process and in the end they were great, allowing us to use not only all the images we wanted but actual drawings that Georges Méliès did. We feel very lucky.
And speaking of lucky, sounds like you had to spend quite a bit of time in Paris to get the details right.
It was tough. Very tough. I had to go three times.