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Maurice Sendak Interview Sneak Preview

I had the great good fortune of spending an afternoon with Maurice Sendak in October of 2011. And fortunately, I brought my tape recorder.

But, to begin at the beginning: I had previously spoken to Maurice nearly a dozen times by phone over the previous three years: initially desultorily, and later, when I decided that I was prepared to interview him for The Comics Journal, more earnestly and purposefully. When I formally approached him about an interview — perhaps in 2009 — he didn’t decline, exactly, but he was standoffish. He told me he didn’t like talking on the phone, and he politely but firmly declined my offer to conduct it at his home, which left me without many (that is to say, any) options. I finally persuaded him to do several short interviews by phone. He asked me how much time I needed, and I explained to him that my interviews could go on for hours because I wanted to do a thorough job. I heard a visible gasp on the other end of the line. He told me he couldn’t talk that long on the phone because he got tired. I quickly regrouped and suggested that we could talk for, oh, say 30 minutes at a time and just do a number of different sessions (hoping, even as I said it, that I could slyly turn 30 minutes into 60). He grumbled. He would commit to a couple. I remember mentioning to him that we’d already been talking that day for 40 minutes without any signs of his slowing down, which was true (I wish I’d had my tape recorder on at the time!), but which didn’t seem to impress him as an argument in favor of two hour interview sessions. Once he’d realized we’d been talking for 40  minutes, he quickly got off the phone.

From King Grisley-Beard; pictures by Sendak

 

The fact is, we got along incredibly well. We had several 30-40 minute conversations that ranged all over the place, but which usually centered on the state of the world and how much he loathed it. He was quite cheerfully and gregariously grumpy about it all, an attitude and a point of view that I appreciated, and even shared. It was obvious that he took no small measure of delight in inveighing against contemporary degradations, and I have to admit that I took no little delight in listening to him. He would cite specifics about the world going to hell in a hand-basket and I would inevitably, and truthfully, concur. I can’t say we became fast friends, but I can say that we got on and established a genuine rapport. (We also talked about more substantial matters —such as politics— and about things he loved— mostly old cartooning and old films.)

He agreed to sit still for a phone conversation and perhaps more than one. But each time we set a date, something came up to thwart it. He had to cancel twice, once due to a deadline and once due to momentary health problems. On the third date that we’d agreed upon, I was sitting at my desk, my notes in front of me, the recorder plugged in, prepared to keep the imminent conversation chugging for as long as I could. I dialed the number — and discovered that Hurricane Irene had downed his phone lines! Truly, it appeared as though the fates were conspiring against us, or at least, against me. I was becoming demoralized. Perhaps it was not meant to be.

When I casually mentioned to his assistant and close friend, Lynn, that I was planning a trip to New York the following week, she told me to come on up and conduct the interview in person. This surprised me because I’d learned, subsequent to my offering to visit him earlier, that he was wary of visitors and never let anyone he didn’t know visit his home. My theory is that he simply took pity on me and distrusted any future attempt to communicate by modern or semi-modern technology. The following week, on November 8, I boarded a train from Penn Station headed for Ridgefield, Conn. I had with me my trusty three-ring binder full of notes, ready to get as much of a career-spanning interview as I could, but nervous because I wasn’t entirely certain he wouldn’t throw me out after 20 minutes; he didn’t seem like the kind of artist who would sit still for a conventional interview.

He didn’t throw me out; in fact, quite the opposite, he spoke animatedly all afternoon and into the evening, mostly while we walked around his property, sat on a bench in his sprawling backyard (more like a private park), and strolled down the street, the tape recorder going much the time, and yielding the most unconventional, conversational interview I’ve ever done. (I could’ve left my binder full of notes at home.)

I had an unforgettable time. Maurice and I spoke a half-dozen times since; he’d agreed to a few follow-up questions, but all our conversations were casual, consisting of good-natured badinage. His fatalism was couched in a blithe spiritedness, and he was funny. The last time I spoke to him, in April, he actually sounded robust despite suffering from flu-ish symptoms, and told me to call him back in a couple weeks to ask him short follow-up questions. I put it off, and then learned that he passed. I had hoped to see him again soon, and despite knowing him briefly, I will miss him.

The full interview will appear in the next print Journal, #302, but below are a few choice excerpts.

Gary Groth, May 10, 2012

SENDAK ON HIS COMICS CAREER

SENDAK: I would take my stack of papers back home, shut the door, make [my parents] believe I was doing my homework, and what I was doing was backgrounds for Scribbly, backgrounds for Mutt and Jeff, backgrounds for Tippy and Captain Stubbs. And there would be a weekly down below, one strip, and I would take it and cut it up, and make it fit on a comic page so that I would have to extend the drawing to fit the size of the comic box. Oh, God. I loved it. But I lost that because — What did they ask me to do? They asked me to do a more moderate thing, where the drawing was more Prince Valiant-ish. And girls were sexy, and it’s like, “You can’t draw sexy girls.” I failed. I failed. I loved it. I was really gonna be a cartoonist. I had a cartoon in my high school newspaper magazine. Terrible, terrible shit. [...]

GROTH: Didn’t you work on Mutt and Jeff? In comic books?

SENDAK: Yes, yes: small things like smoke coming out of heels.

GROTH: This is one of the things I wanted to ask you, which was how you became the artist you became and how you had the career you did. When you were a kid, you read comic strips. You must have read comic strips.

SENDAK: Yes, yes.

GROTH: And comic books came along around the mid-1930s, and you read comic books as well. But you didn’t become a comic-strip artist or a comic-book artist. You went an entirely different direction.

SENDAK: I would have liked to become a Big Little Book artist.

GROTH: But they died. [Laughter.]

SENDAK: They died, yes, they died. Although I have my collection.

Kenny's Window, Sendak's first book

GROTH: But I was curious as to why you didn’t — I mean, the dream of many artists back then was to have a syndicated strip. That was the Holy Grail. And those who couldn’t do that went into comic books. And so I’m wondering why you didn’t move in either direction.

SENDAK: I have no idea. I think part of why it happened had nothing to do with the actual craft. It had to do with meeting Ursula Nordstrom at Harper’s [Harper and Row] and knowing instantly my life was with her.

GROTH: I see.

SENDAK: And she said, “You do a book.” I would do anything she said. If she said do a comic book, I would have done a comic book. So she was integral, she was so important to my life. 

IN HIS TIME

SENDAK: We cannot, I think, separate ourselves from our time. Like when I began in the ’50s … Of course, I’d had the privilege of having great siblings. So me as an artist was with my brother as an artist, learning from him, copying him, living in the same house with him. It was unbelievable to have such a brother, and on top of that, I had such a sister. She wasn’t an artist. She had no impulses in that direction, but she was a great sponsor of. She was delighted with me and delighted with my brother and her brother. And then I grew up and lived through all of that Auschwitz time, and then we won the war. Hitler might have won the war, but he didn’t. That doesn’t sound like much now, but it sounded like a hell of a lot then. We won the war! My God! And we ran from Brooklyn to New York City to get ahead of the soldiers, and those doors opened, and we were welcomed. Young people were welcomed. New things were happening, a surge of energy: a surge of hope. A surge of happiness. And now it’s all dwindled. And so I say, look, I’m very lucky that’s when my time was. What a blessing that I could be there then and be with editors and people in the publishing world who appreciated young people and wanted them to be crazy like I was. Nobody wants them now.

WHY SO SERIOUS

SENDAK: Well, I get criticized for doing too serious books. Why is there a dead child in so many of your books? Why is there a chagrined mother? Because that’s the way it is. It works both ways. You either become very superficial, and do it strictly for the money, or you become very serious and turn people off. And if it’s a book for children, my God! I would not know how to write a book for children. I’ve never written a book for children. And yet I’m known as a children’s book writer and illustrator, OK? Why did they define me that way? I used to object much more when I was younger, much more. But I don’t care any more. I’ve thought that’s all part of this third-rate worldly thinking that should not be of interest to me and truthfully it’s not. Thank God I can still read. Thank God I can still hear music. Thank God I don’t mind being alone. I am very alone, and I’m lonely and there are very few people who satisfy me and what do they have to be, they have to be artists, for the most part [rooster crows]. They have to understand what it means to be a serious person in an unserious society.

Drawn while listening to Brahms: from The Art of Maurice Sendak

SENDAK THE ANARCHIST

SENDAK: Bush was president, I thought, “Be brave. Tie a bomb to your shirt. Insist on going to the White House. And I wanna have a big hug with the vice president, definitely. And his wife, and the president, and his wife, and anybody else that can fit into the love hug.”

GROTH: A group hug.

SENDAK: And then we’ll blow ourselves up, and I’d be a hero. [Groth laughs.] To hell with the kiddie books. He killed Bush. He killed the vice president. Oh my God.

GROTH: I would have been willing to forgo this interview. [Sendak laughs.]

SENDAK: You would have forgotten about it. It would have been a very brave and wonderful thing. But I didn’t do it; I didn’t do it.

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44 Responses to Maurice Sendak Interview Sneak Preview

  1. Pingback: Comics A.M. | Florida comic store raided, owner arrested | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  2. Pingback: What Do Professors Do All Summer? Monday

  3. Pingback: UPCOMING: Sendak in The Comics Journal 302 | The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log

  4. Pingback: Maurice Sendak Said Killing Bush Would Have Been ‘Wonderful’ - ABC News

  5. Are you kidding me???? The guy says he regrets NOT killing a sitting president and vice president and you’re. OKAY WITH THAT????? What if somebody said that about Clinton or Obama? Would you be fine with THAT as well? I think I speak for most Americans when I say that we prefer our presidents NOT BRUTALLY MURDERED.

  6. R. Fiore says:

    Upoon deeply searching my soul I find I don’t give a shit.

  7. Lou Copeland says:

    I can completely relate. Every time Elton John and Billy Joel tour together, I can’t help but think of how thrilling it would be to be able take them both down at the same time.

  8. Mike Hunter says:

    ————————-
    NJlibertarian says:

    Are you kidding me???? The guy says he regrets NOT killing a sitting president and vice president and you’re. OKAY WITH THAT?????
    ————————-

    Oooh, the sensitivity!

    (As if there needs to be any more proof that libertarians are just Republicans who like to present themselves as daringly independent thinkers…)

    ————————-
    I think I speak for most Americans when I say that we prefer our presidents NOT BRUTALLY MURDERED.
    ————————

    However, our presidents being mass murderers on a scale beyond imagining; that, we’re just fine with.

  9. Brush says:

    If nothing else it just shows how insane left wingers are. Despite claims of moral superiority, they’ll actually wish they killed a President. When conservatives or libertarians have questions about Obamas motives or ability to do his job you fools just cry ‘racism’.

    Mike, I know you’re a fool, but do you blame Roosevelt or Trumen for all the deaths during WW2? I mean, just how crazy are you?

  10. John Farwell says:

    hear, hear.
    o why o why doesn’t somebody write and draw a book on it all.
    oh, wait, they did: Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
    but but -the story continued. and still does.

    somehow culture doesn’t save us any more.

    …and we wonder what’s become of comic books…

  11. I’m not saying I agree with what Sendak says here, because I don’t, but merely in response to your question:

    If you can’t see the differences between WWII and the Iraq War, you’re kidding yourself.

  12. Franklin says:

    Clearly Sendak is kidding. He had a big personality and he’s enjoying making a shocking remark.
    Why anyone would take that seriously and start getting all left/right about it….well, I guess everyone likes to feel self righteous. Either he’s being funny or he’s being a jerk. Depends on your perspective I guess….but getting worked up about those comments of his. Oh brother!

  13. greenlight says:

    Clearly. No reason to be shocked at either Sendak’s remarks or Groth’s response. Nothing to see here. Move along.

  14. Hey Troll, if you think you’re so right, why not use your real name? At least your fellow teabagger ‘NJLibertarian’ has a link to his wingnut blog.

  15. “I’M SO MAD THAT THE QUEER KIDS BOOK ARTIST SAID SOMETHING MEANABOUT MY FEARLESS LEADER THAT I”M GOING TO ANONYMOUSLY GET REALLY MAD ABOUT IT ON A FUNNYBOOK WEBSITE!!!!!!!!!!!!”

  16. Jack says:

    Peter Bagge had a pretty good strip about being at a party with Dick Cheney where Bagge and some other attendees guiltily sulked around making “treasonous wisecracks” about how this was their big chance to free the world from tyrany.

  17. Pingback: ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ Author Wanted To Assassinate Bush And Cheney | Freedom Report

  18. Jack says:

    Oh my God, did you see this was picked up by ABC News?

  19. Desert Eagle .50 says:

    Leftists are pathetic. If we’d said the same thing about Dear Leader Obama you sissies would be demanding the Secret Service investigate.

    Here’s the bottom line. I don’t care if you hate Bush, or Obama, or the wars they started. YOU DO NOT joke about assassinating the president of the United States.

    Our society is circling the drain, and people like you are filling the bowl.

  20. Frank Santoro says:

    Get ready for the site to crash…

  21. Pingback: Maurice Sendak wanted to suicide bomb President Bush…seriously? | Hipster Jew

  22. Kim Thompson says:

    NJlibertarian, you are an idiot. Sendak did not make a joke about killing a “sitting president.” The interview was conducted over two years after Bush left office. Even by the elastic standards of trying to stretch what was clearly a joke into some sort of threat, that places this one firmly in the utterly non-threatening joke camp.

    I find the inability to distinguish between jokes and genuine threats about “killing” politicians sort of silly whichever side of the aisle they come from. (Is Ted Nugent really anything other than a dumbass?)

  23. Dimitri Chabez says:

    Says “Desert Eagle .50″! Hahahaha!

    I will joke about anything I want, thank you. If our society is circling the drain, people like Bush helped pull the plug, you moron.

  24. HiredMind says:

    He was talking about assassinating a president WHILE IN OFFICE. He didn’t say he wished he’d done it in Crawford, TX, he specifically mentioned the White House.

    Damn, leftist nutbags can rationalize anything that fits their warped worldview. You’re all violent, dangerous psychotics.

  25. Pingback: Maurice Sendak fantasized about assassinating Bush, Chenney The Daily Cartoonist

  26. The interview was conducted in October 2011; I must have missed the section where Sendak talks about his functioning time machine.

  27. I am a pole (and so can you) says:

    Maurice Sendack is freakin’ awesome! Show the dead guy some respect. He was only joking, and I know many republicans who have made the same jokes about Obama

  28. Kim Thompson says:

    I think there’s a pretty big difference between joking that you wish you’d killed a no-longer-sitting president when you had the chance vs. joking you’d like to kill the current president, for reasons that should be fairly self-evident.

    Even if I was particularly concerned about jokes of this kind in general (I’m not), I really don’t think I’d give much of a shit if some wingnut opined that he wished he’d killed Clinton while he was in office when he had the chance. The equivalency “liberals say it’s OK to joke about assassinating Bush but freak out if you joke about assassinating Obama” is just patent bullshit.

  29. Nerdie McSweatervest says:

    No, he just had a functioning grasp of the past tense:

    Bush was president, I thought, “Be brave. Tie a bomb to your shirt. Insist on going to the White House.

  30. Kim Thompson says:

    If there is any one thing wrong with today’s political discourse (well, there are dozens of things wrong) it’s the 24-hour-cable-news-fueled thirst to latch onto any possible statement from someone from the Other Side, pronounce it horribly offensive, quickly expand to to somehow involve everyone on that side as either Inherently Horribly Typical or Something The Other Side Implicitly Defends And Endorses Because They Won’t Get As Frothing Made About It As I Will. It is below moronic and has displaced most genuine debate and both sides are guilty of it (although of course the Right far more so).

    A now-dead cartoonist made a wisecrack about how great it would’ve been to kill a President and Vice President who are no longer President and Vice President. 24 hours later all liberals are bloodthirsty murderers because they think the way he talked about it was kind of amusing. Wingnuts, if we say we trust you when you say only a tiny tiny tiny minority of yours seriously think it would be a genuinely excellent idea to have someone shoot Obama in the head, can you return the favor and take our word for it that only a tiny tiny tiny minority of ours seriously think it would have been a genuinely excellent idea to have someone do the same for Bush and Cheney?

    As for tasteless jokes, anyone who thinks the other side has a monopoly on them is a boob.

  31. R. Fiore says:

    What’s a mystery to me is how these people found there way to this specialized corner of the internet. Are they trolling every obituary article on Sendak everywhere to drop their little turd in the punchbowl?

  32. Stephen Michaels says:

    Lou, I feel your pain. Truly.

  33. L.N. Smithee says:

    I think there’s a pretty big difference between joking that you wish you’d killed a no-longer-sitting president when you had the chance vs. joking you’d like to kill the current president, for reasons that should be fairly self-evident.

    “Fairly self-evident,” huh? For those of us who wouldn’t dream of assassinating anyone that wasn’t a threat to us personally, perhaps you could take a moment to explain those “fairly self-evident” reasons.

    I presume that since you seem to have those reasons in mind already, you won’t use that well-worn, dishonest rhetorical device of “If I have to explain it to you, you’ll never understand.”

    Don’t chicken out.

  34. TimR says:

    Kim, I think I recall you gingerly weighing in on politics back in the old forum days (or maybe you lost it sometimes, my memory’s not that great) but I don’t remember exactly where you came down on our good old two party system.. Are you a lesser of two evils guy? Or happily voting for Obama?

    Me I’m one of these stubborn types who would either not vote or vote 3rd party or something before I’d “encourage them.” There’s a good article up on nakedcapitalism.com right now (prob have to scroll down a few posts) about Obama’s big con. The writer highlights a joke Obama made once during a speech that pulled away the curtain for a moment before he quickly recovered. I urge any Obama supporters to read it with an open mind and answer it if they can.

    (Speaking of the old forum.. whatever became of Ace Backwords??)

  35. Kim Thompson says:

    Let us first remind everyone that THIS WAS A JOKE and Sendak was not in the slightest suggesting he ever remotely considered actually assassinating anyone. From the rhetoric on the internets you’d think Sendak had been ready to shave his hair into a mohawk, write one last letter to Jodie Foster, and start stripping guns to his body. IT. WAS. A. JOKE.

    What makes something like this less of a joke is the idea/possibility that someone might actually do what the joker suggested. If in the year 2011 you joke what you wish the sitting president Obama were assassinated, this can be done. If in the year 2011 you joke what you once wished the sitting president Bush were assassinated, this cannot be done… because he is not the sitting president.

    Which is why Sendak didn’t make that joke in, say. 2007.

  36. Kim Thompson says:

    My opinion is that any democracy axiomatically gets the government it deserves. Good and hard. Apparently the U.S. deserves, for its presidents, center-right military hawks wasting lives and money on ill-advised foreign excursions, and whose primary goal is catering to the whims and demands of the financial titans who’ve bought and sold them. Operating within this narrow window, these center-right Republicrats (Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama) can indulge in little tweaks that please their base and not much more. If that’s the window we’re operating within, I’ll pick the slightly less shitty alternative, because your option is to give up and let the shittier alternative win, which will hurt a number of people. Although frankly the main benefit of an Obama win in November will be the simultaneous re-enactment of the key scene from SCANNERS among wingnuts around the country, to whom has been fed the complete and utter lie that Obama is any kind of liberal, let alone socialist. If there’s any policy question where he’s to the left of Richard Nixon (other than gay rights), let me know.

  37. Was I just condescended to by someone called Nerdie McSweatervest? Profiles in courage, you folks, one and all.

  38. ABC News picked this up, man, and there’s no greater font of idiocy than any given mainstream news site comment thread.

  39. Kim Thompson says:

    I propose to shut down this thread. It has literally nothing whatsoever to do with comics, and clearly the influx of wingnuts comes from people outside of and uninterested in the art form or the industry who are just free-floating message-board ranters and complainers who happened to click on the link to tcj.com in the ABC News blog. They’d be on a Muppets message board complaining about socialistic anti-business messages being inserted in the Muppets movie if they weren’t here. Closing this thread will instantly cut the dumb-fuck quotient on the board in half.

  40. R. Fiore says:

    Not a bad idea. Honestly, now that I see how ABC played the thing I almost can’t blame our visitors. They made it look like the entire interview was Sendak making out his Kill List. Of course that was a comment the Journal chose to excerpt . . .

  41. Tim Hodler says:

    Agreed & done.

  42. Pingback: The Interrobang - Maurice Sendak Fantasized About Blowing Up George W. Bush | The Interrobang

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