Author-illustrator David Macaulay’s books have been awarded the Caldecott Medal and Honor and have sold more than one million copies in the U.S.—and it all began with his debut picture book, Cathedral. The book, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, traces the construction of the fictional Cathedral of Chutreaux. Relayed through intricate pen-and-ink drawings, Cathedral laid the foundation for his series of architectural picture books for young readers, including City, Pyramid, and Castle, which in turn inspired a number of PBS specials. Macaulay recently reunited via Zoom with his former student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Caldecott Medalist Brian Floca, to discuss the book’s origin story—involving a trip to France and plenty of Muscadet—and its enduring impact on children’s literature.

Brian Floca: Congratulations on 50 years of Cathedral. When I look just at the book itself, that number is hard to believe; the text and drawings and the way they work together feel as fresh and smart as ever. And yet, when I look at the field of children’s books, 50 years makes perfect sense. There are so many books on the shelves today—and I include my own, certainly—that I don’t think would be there, that I don’t think would have been dreamt up, without the example and inspiration of Cathedral. For many of us in this line of work, the book is now as much of a monument as the building it describes. Anita Silvey put it succinctly in Childrens Books and Their Creators; she describes Cathedral as a book “that was to completely alter the face of American informational books for children.”

David Macaulay: I’m so glad she didn’t write that before I started the book. I wanted to do a good job of course, but the lack of outside expectations kept the bar at a reasonable height. I had no idea where the book would go or if it would be successful. I was just so pleased to be able to make a book.

Floca: Over the years, I’ve had so many conversations with other authors and illustrators, published or aspiring, successful or struggling, about this weird field: about trying to get into it, about trying to find or refine one’s voice or style, or one’s focus. Or about finding the editor and team who will help you become the artist you want to be, or finding an audience, or hoping for recognition... all of it. And one of the incredible things about Cathedral is you hit all of these marks with your very first book. And you were, what, 27 when it came out?

Macaulay: Almost.

Floca: Almost. One way to think of this is as a really horrible thing for other 26-year-olds to hear about.

Macaulay: I think we all deserve a little leeway on the first book. You just give it your best shot and hope for a little luck along the way. I happened to start my journey at the right time and in the right place.

Floca: That’s exactly one of the things I wanted to ask about. It takes a certain ecosystem to allow something like this to happen. Maybe we could start with hearing about where you were in your life and career when Cathedral came about, but also where Houghton Mifflin was, and about Cathedral’s editor, Walter Lorraine, too, and anybody else we should know about?

Macaulay: First of all, I was a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design with an architecture degree and no desire to become an architect. Having said that, I can’t overstate my gratitude for that education. Among the many things I learned, two stand out. Number one: good design isn’t magic, it’s hard work. And number two: good design depends on having good problems to solve. So the first thing you have to do is design your own problems to meet whatever the overall demands are.

During junior year, I started working for an interior designer and artist in his own right, named Maurice Nathanson. He was one of the first people to encourage me to think about illustration. After getting a few freelance advertising jobs and then some textbook work, I started trying to illustrate stories, one written by Maurice and others by my friend Mary Shaffer. I soon found myself happily enrolled in the teach-yourself-picture-book-illustration school.

At some point I found the phone numbers of three Boston children’s book publishers in the Yellow Pages and made appointments to present my first attempts. I did this a couple of times, but the most encouraging response always came from Houghton Mifflin and the editor who was tasked with sifting through requests like mine, Melanie Kroupa. It was another “no, thank you,” but it came with a “please try us again.” When I finally showed up with my absolutely guaranteed sure to please classic gargoyle beauty pageant book, they cracked. This time I was introduced to Walter Lorraine.

Along with a few small sketches, I had made two large pen-and-ink drawings with lots of cross-hatching (trying to be Sendak). Walter looked at the flying gargoyles, no comment, and then at my drawing of the facade of a half-finished Gothic cathedral. His response, more or less, was “I don’t think we need more gargoyles, but why didn’t you tell us about this building?”

The wound healed and the hole was quickly filled by the challenge. Two days later, I was back in the RISD library, an architecture student once again, looking at the spines of books about cathedrals. John Fitchen’s The Construction of Gothic Cathedrals stopped me in my tracks. The information was so clearly explained in words and diagrams. I quickly began to see it: some cross-hatching and a bit of a story. Over the next few days, I made sketches on tracing paper covering the whole saga from a plan to a finished building. The next time Walter, Melanie, and I met, I laid the sketches out on a long table and told them the story. This time Walter said, “Okay, let’s do it.” And that was November of 1972. The book came out on September 13, 1973.

Floca: There’s so much to talk about in this story. For starters, we were just discussing the importance of choosing the right problem. And yet it turns out you had actually set out to Houghton with a very different sort of problem than the one that would ultimately get you to Cathedral, and from Cathedral to so many of your other books. That says a lot about Walter, but also about your ability to, you know—you wouldn’t have accepted a new problem if you hadn’t recognized something within it that spoke to you.

Macaulay: Absolutely right. Walter gave me an opportunity and even though it meant that my “classic” gargoyle beauty pageant book would most likely never see the light of day, I took it. For the next 30 years I was guided by Walter’s suggestions and questions, but most of all by his complete faith in me to make the best stuff I could. It doesn’t get better than that. It can’t.

Floca: I was fortunate to have what sounds like a similar sort of relationship with Dick Jackson. And it brings to mind something maybe relevant here, something I once heard Chris Raschka say about Dick and his willingness to place a bet on a new author or illustrator: that “Dick would publish you because he thought your fifth book might be successful.”

Macaulay: We both got lucky, but that fundamental belief in the possibilities of a person rather than a particular book, that also was Walter. Houghton had the same kind of trust in Walter as Walter I guess had in me. And what you just mentioned about Dick Jackson, it’s not about the first book being a great success. Walter believed in the book, but even more so, he believed in me. Talk about going out on a limb.

Floca: It’s a daisy chain of trust and gambles. Houghton has to trust and take a gamble on Walter. Then he has to extend that trust and take those gambles on his authors and illustrators.

Macaulay: And we in turn, you know, respond with the thought, I will not let you down. But what did I know about making an actual book? Zero. Still, I knew what the basic problems were as I went along, and I was excited by the challenge. The rest I figured out by trial and error.

I happened to start my journey at the right time and in the right place.
—David Macaulay

Floca: And then you’re trusting and taking a gamble on the reader, too, that they are up for reading about a certain subject at a certain level.

Macaulay: Fortunately, I was completely ignorant about that side of things as well. All I could do was give it my best effort. How do you write a children’s book? I don’t even know. Yeah, I had one child. And she was like a year old at this point, or a year and a half. So I wasn’t going to test anything on her. I didn’t even think about that. I thought about what book do I want to write? What book would I want to read? What book would I have wanted when I was younger? What does it mean, “when I was younger”? When I was 10? Or when I was like 18?

Floca: It’s fascinating to hear you talk about what you knew and didn’t know. Inexperience can be a sword with two edges, but in this case what you didn’t know worked out for you and for the book in only the happiest ways.

Macaulay: Happily oblivious to all that stuff, I got a contract—it wasn’t a dream after all—a couple of days before Christmas, and took the next step.

Floca: I was just reading this in Building the Book Cathedral. You flew to Amiens...

Macaulay: Ah yes, my first business trip. I went to Amiens because I had used a photo of that city’s facade to make the first drawing for the gargoyle beauty pageant. It was also built in something like 25 to 30 years, a manageable length of time for my little starter story. I checked into the first hotel I found not far from the railway station, dropped my bag, pointed and grunted my way to art supplies, and set off to meet my subject. It was pretty easy to spot. In my jet- and train-lagged stupor, I wandered into this enormous, magnificent structure and sat down to take it in. My head was spinning with the challenge of capturing it all under construction, and by this time I was also hungry. Dinner at the hotel, a half bottle of Muscadet, sleep, and up early. I ate my meals in the hotel in the restaurant downstairs, I had a half bottle of Muscadet with lunch, and another half bottle with dinner. I repeated this strategy for three or four days.

Floca: You mentioned pointing and grunting. I take it you didn’t speak French.

Macaulay: Not even close, so I couldn’t ask any questions about the building or whether or not it might be possible to get up above the vaulting and see the roof. I just sat there and imagined myself in those places. I didn’t even sketch. I just sat there with the Fitchen images in my head and started to take it apart. I also wandered around the city to see the building from different angles and distances. I wanted to be able to make a few repeated images from the same point of view to show the growing structure, along with cross-sections for a simplified version of the structure and close-ups now and then to illustrate a craft or a detail I thought might be relevant. That was it. No magic, as promised.

Floca: You’ve got the set of home base images, then you’ve got the more dynamic images to keep the energy going, then you’ve got the humanity of the people in it and all the little details that are tucked in.

Macaulay: Basically yes, that was it: an extension of the crude sketches I showed Walter and Melanie a month earlier. On my second day in Amiens, I came across an art shop and somehow managed to buy a few sheets of Fabriano paper, a pen, some nibs, and a bottle of India ink. One piece of the paper completely covered the tiny round table in my room, which meant that the ink bottle sat on the drawing paper as I worked. Not a great idea, but once again, I was lucky.

Floca: I was going to ask about that. I saw that in Building the Book Cathedral and I thought, does he really mean he did final art in his hotel room?

Macaulay: Yep. I knew what I wanted the beginning and the end of the book to look like, so those are the drawings I made: the cover and final drawing, the three-quarter view of the finished cathedral and the title page drawing.

Floca: Incredible. This with just a bottle of Muscadet and a bottle of ink.

Macaulay: And you try not to get them mixed up. Muscadet with lunch and dinner. It was especially helpful, I have to tell you, when, after dinner, I started trying to write the version of the story.

Floca: Not to belabor this, and maybe this just speaks to my own compulsions, but I’m amazed you were able to make those initial drawings and then illustrate the rest of the book without feeling at the end of the process something like, well, along the way I’ve figured out this or that additional aspect of this building, and now I need to go back and redo those first drawings to bring them up to the level of the others. You did the drawings in your hotel room, and when they were done, they were done; and they’re in the book, and they’re beautiful.

Macaulay: Sadly, though, the innocence of that process never happened again. Ever. When you start with a success, you’re always competing with yourself and wondering whether or not you will meet the expectations you know are now out there. If you have to start your career with a Caldecott Honor, so be it, but it is kind of a high bar.

Floca: I was hoping we could get to that.

Macaulay: I was just so happy to be making a book. It’s that simple. And so pleased to be working with Walter and Melanie. If they thought this was going to work, then who was I to argue? I did what came naturally and used my common sense and Cathedral was the result.

Floca: And when Cathedral came out, how quickly did it become clear to you that the book was receiving a certain kind of attention, that it was going to do well, even if nobody could have predicted just how well? What was that like?

Macaulay: Well, people said really nice things, pretty much from the start. It was intoxicating. No Muscadet required.

Floca: Back to the timeline here. When did you get the contract, November of—?

Macaulay: I got the go ahead at the end of November, and the actual contract in December of 1972.

Floca: And now we’re talking about the book coming out in the fall of ’73?

Macaulay: Yes. Once I got home from France, I just drew all the time to get the art finished by the end of April. The story was written in January. I did take one very helpful shortcut. Since I already had the last drawing, all I had to do was work backwards towards the hole in the ground. So I had copies made of the last drawing, which I simply cut up and worked over to create the building sequence. They’ve now all fallen apart, but they did the trick.

Floca: I remember seeing an exhibit of your originals at Old Slater Mill, just outside of Providence, in Pawtucket, and I could see you had used that method. That was a little revelation for me.

Macaulay: If I do the same kind of thing today, I do it on the computer and with Photoshop. No rubber cement, no stain, no smell.

Floca: So all told, we’re talking about, what, four months? Were you working day and night?

Macaulay: I was working long days, but not overnight. It was comfortable enough. I wore the same sweater, a new one I’d received for Christmas, every day. I wore it again when I worked on City and even Pyramid. Luck, anyone?

Floca: I feel I need to recap. You cold-called Houghton Mifflin, you pitched the gargoyle book, Walter responded with a question that opened up this alternate path, you responded with a completely new book proposal, got the green light in November, got the contract in December, went to France in January, finished the book in April. My head is spinning.

But then what? The art is done, the book is going to come out in September. What happens now?

Macaulay: Well, Walter and I were in New York doing some promotion before the book was out and he asked me what was next. The only other thing I felt I knew a little bit about was Roman planning and building because of a terrific history of Rome course I’d taken at RISD. So in the summer of 1973, before I’d actually held a hardcover copy of Cathedral, I was back in Italy and southern France doing my research for the next book. So in January of ’74, when Walter calls to tell me I’ve been awarded a Caldecott Honor, I’m drawing an amphitheater and Roman sewers.

Floca: I reviewed your bibliography in preparation for our talk and the schedule for those first few years struck me as almost implausible: Cathedral in 1973, City in 1974, Pyramid in 1975, Underground in 1976, Castle in 1977. Did you have in the back of your mind, as Cathedral was wrapping up, a sense that there would be a book after that, and a next book after that, and so on, and if so, did that come with a feeling of anticipation, or did you ever feel tied to an assembly line, or what?

Macaulay: As I worked on Cathedral, I had no reason to believe that I was creating a schedule that would take over my life. I just wanted to see my name on the cover of a book that I had made. It didn’t matter that much what it was about. So City comes out in the fall of ’74. In November of that year, I went to Egypt to start gathering information and images for Pyramid. But by the time we got to Underground it was a really welcome break—no historical stuff. Walter and I were talking at lunch one day about what happens underground in a city. I decided to find out and then to explain it.

Floca: And you do some new things in that book. With Cathedral everything feels real, feels grounded. You’re involving us, you’re making us feel physically present for the creation of this thing. In Underground, you’re ungrounding the subject, in a way—you’re removing the earth and showing us cities and systems floating in the air, in ways we could never really see them, but ways that help us better understand them.

Macaulay: It was a book that could easily have been incredibly dull. The challenge was to engage the imagination of the reader, and that meant taking serious liberties such as removing all the soil and clay and getting down to bedrock. I’m very proud of Underground because it was the first book I did that seemed somewhat original. I got almost all my information from actual people rather than from other books. Then with Castle, it was back to the formula and ironically another Caldecott Honor. I knew I couldn’t just keep making the same book over and over.

Floca: There’s a kind of person who could do that, but that’s probably not the kind of person who would think that an interesting way to show how piers support a building would be to put the viewer 30 stories under the sidewalk and make the earth invisible, for example. Which is to say, if you’re motivated by finding interesting new ways of looking at things, you’re probably prohibited from cashing in by repeating yourself 50 times.

Macaulay: Let’s face it. Safety is not the goal of this or any artistic profession. We chose a risky path in the first place and then we make things worse by trying to keep things interesting for ourselves while at the same time making a living. You have to be a little unhinged in a good way to do this, but it also helps to have great people behind you, next to you.

Floca: What if any nonfiction books or narrative or informational books were you looking at before you made Cathedral? Did you have books that set a precedent you felt you were following? Or is this again a case of benefiting from not knowing what you didn’t know and just following your good instincts?

Macaulay: That was pretty much the case. None of the books that lured me into the field were information books. They were all fiction, more along the lines of the gargoyle story, but much better. I saw terrific illustrators—Sendak, Delessert, Ungerer, McKee—telling stories and having fun, and I wanted to join the party.

Floca: So we could say you ended up writing and illustrating a groundbreaking, genre-defining, genre-shaping informational book by not setting out to make an informational book at all?

Macaulay: Bingo!