Brian Selznick follows his 2008 Caldecott Medal-winning novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with Wonderstruck, which clocks in at 640 pages, 100 pages longer than Hugo, and looks like it’s going to be just as big a hit, having already received four starred reviews. Bookshelf spoke with Selznick to talk about where the story itself came from, and if he is being paid by the pound.
Hugo Cabret was a thick book, but you’ve outdone yourself with Wonderstruck. Will we need wheelbarrows for your next work?
I guess Wonderstruck does make Hugo look slimmer. There are 100 more drawings. But I think the size may have maxed out with Wonderstruck. I actually do feel bad, especially about kids lugging these books around.
A hundred more illustrations! Did you do them in the same miniature style as Hugo?
The illustrations are the same size as they were for Hugo Cabret – one-quarter the size of what you see in the finished book. In Hugo, that was a function of the ending – they were the size of a picture the automaton could draw so at the end you would learn that the whole book had been drawn by the automaton, but I liked the technique. When you enlarge them it loosens everything up, as opposed to the artwork of somebody like Chris Van Allsburg who paints these huge illustrations and then has them shrunk down to fit in a book. That has the effect of really concentrating his artwork and it’s glorious. This does the opposite, but I like what that does for my drawings.
Tell us about Sean Murtha, who you credit in the acknowledgments as having planted the seed for Wonderstruck.
In the early 1990s, Sean was a colleague of mine at Eeyore’s on the Upper West Side. He left to work at the Museum of Natural History, painting dioramas and building displays. He invited me to visit his workshop, which I did. Going to the museum and entering doors marked “Do not enter,” or “Employees Only,” was exciting. I love going through doors you’re not supposed to go through. Seeing all the work tables and desks with projects midway from being done – plaster casts of leaves, dinosaur molds, cavemen with half their hair missing, that was really fun. From the minute Sean took me back there I knew I wanted to set a book behind those secret walls. I didn’t have plot or characters just the setting. But Hugo hides behind walls in a train station and I really liked that setting. And, of course, The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was one of my favorite books. I mean, it’s one of everybody’s favorite books. I used that as a template when I was thinking about my story.
You mention in your acknowledgments that you salted Wonderstruck with references to Mixed-up Files as an homage to E.L. Konigsburg – how many total should we be trying to find?
I keep meaning to count them. How many did you get?
Five, I think.
That’s about right. The most obvious one is one I did not even realize I had included until after I wrote the scene.
I’m not going to mention any details because I think people will get a kick out of hunting for these themselves.
Well, there is one that is very obscure.
Okay, maybe we should give them a hint.
They’ll need to know what Konigsburg’s initials stand for.
Got it. Okay, so also, in reading your acknowledgments, I thought, ‘Jeez, it takes a village to write a novel.’
It takes an entire city! There were a huge number of people who helped but that’s my favorite part of the work – the stories I’m telling lead me to research all these elements that I wouldn’t otherwise know about it. I’m constantly struck by people’s generosity. I’m interested in this weird obscure fact or finding out precisely how something looked 50 years ago and people are almost always willing to share what they know. That’s a wonderful thing. Many of the people at the Museum of Natural History provided invaluable help, as did so many people in Grand Marais (Minnesota], the closest town to the actual Gunflint Lake. Carol Padden and Tom Humphries from the University of California-San Diego, two of the leading Deaf scholars in the country, read my manuscript again and again and again to help me fine-tune the experience of the Deaf culture to make sure it was true to deaf people in general and to these two characters I was writing about. They were incredibly generous with their time and there was no way I could have written the book without them.
Where did the idea come from to include deaf characters?
I started what became Wonderstruck while I was still working on Hugo. I had been thinking about Deaf culture after seeing this really, really good documentary, Through Deaf Eyes, which is about the history of Deaf culture. There was a line about how the deaf are a “people of the eye.” Most of the ways they communicate is visually. To me, that was the perfect reason to tell a story about a deaf person through illustrations. I had met deaf people who told me the thing they liked most about Hugo was the silence. Even when you’re reading words, you hear those words in your head but telling a story through pictures, there’s a feeling of silence about that and they really liked that.
There’s also a line in the acknowledgments about being deaf in a hearing family and having to look for one’s culture outside of one’s biological family. This made me think about being gay in a heterosexual family.
Yep. That’s exactly the parallel I was thinking about. In Through Deaf Eyes, there was a young man raised by hearing parents. His parents were great, incredibly supportive, but it wasn’t until he got to college that he became aware he was part of a larger culture that had its own history he could share and be proud of. Growing up gay, there’s this exact parallel. And you don’t have to be deaf or gay to feel like you don’t belong to your own family. So many people have the experience of feeling that the family they were born into is not a good fit: An artist who is born into a family of non–artists, or a kid who is not interested in sports who is born into a family of athletes -- there are a million parallels for that situation. You have the family you’re born into but you have this need to meet other people who are uniquely like you. One of the things that people told me they were most moved by in Hugo was how he creates a new family for himself. That’s a truth for so many people. You leave your family and create a family for yourself that’s often a better fit. Wonderstruck is a more direct way of exploring that same theme.
So you had setting and characters. Where did the story – actually two, interconnected stories, one in pictures, one in text, set 50 years apart – come from?
Well, I had the title before I had anything else and I wanted the story to live up to how good I thought the title was. I had read in Oliver Sacks’s book, Musicophilia, about this man who was struck by lightning and was revived with the ability to play the piano. I wanted an element like that. But, still, I wasn’t sure what the story was. I sent my editor [Tracy Mack at Scholastic] these long e-mails with 50 different ideas. She would write back saying, ‘This is for a different book. This one doesn’t make any sense.’ I usually agreed. She helped me whittle down the ideas until the story began taking shape. The other early element was I knew what the structure of it would be. I wanted to use the structure that my friend, Dan Hurlin, had used in creating a puppet show, Hiroshima Maidens, which had been inspired by a book that my boyfriend [David Serlin’s Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America] had written about this program in the 1950s that offered free reconstructive surgery to victims of the Hiroshima bombing, as a goodwill gesture.
Wow. Scientists are going to want to study your brain.
These women were brought to the U.S. and put on This Is Your Life! Dan’s puppet show weaves together two stories: the women disfigured in the bombing and a young American boy living in New Hampshire, using a form of Japanese puppetry called Bunraku. Three puppeteers on each puppet, each of which is three feet tall. I had helped build the show. The story of the American boy was told by a Japanese storyteller who sat on stage; the women’s story was told by the puppets. So one story was told completely with words and one told completely with puppets until the end when they come together in a beautiful way. I wanted to take this format and what I learned about storytelling from Hugo to create the story in Wonderstruck. I didn’t want to repeat myself. I wanted to challenge myself to do something I hadn’t done before.
You said in a previous interview that writing is “absolute torture.” Has it gotten easier?
I can see the story in my head but when I have to describe it with words I struggle. I can draw pencil lines to show something is moving but if I’m writing I struggle with how to write it. The boy ran down the hallway? The boy ran quickly down the hallway? The boy ran down the marble hallway? I agonize over the words. So my editor works very hard. I’m lucky to have her.
Have you ever had a book idea that simply didn’t work?
Um. I don’t have a lot of ideas. For most of my career I illustrated books for other people. Once I’m given an idea for a story I have a million ideas on how it should be illustrated but I don’t have a big shoebox full of unfinished ideas. I had one idea about George Méliès and this one other idea about a story set in the Museum of Natural History. Luckily the ideas I do have are big enough to keep me occupied for a while.
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. Scholastic Press, $29.99 Sept. 13, ISBN 978-0-545-02789-2