From the TCJ Archives

Maurice Sendak Q&A

[Rambling question about the books being scary]

SENDAK: The books have been controversial. When Wild Things came out in ’63, it was denounced by lots of colleges and schoolteachers as being frightening and depraved and I should be put into a straightjacket. All of which may have been true about me, but certainly was not true about the book. Night Kitchen came out to attacks because [the lead character] was naked. Apparently, there hadn’t been frontal nudity in American children’s books ever. All our librarians had never seen you-know-what [audience laughter]. I couldn’t quite tell what.

I don’t want to sit up here sounding like I’m defending my work, but the idea of them being frightening is so foolish to me, because children are not. If they had been, they would have told me; in all these years, I would have known. It’s the parents who are frightened, like you, and it’s the teachers who are frightened, because they have this idea of what is appropriate for children,or what they think might frighten children, or might not. It has nothing to do with what’s in the kid’s head. But something else, completely at odds with that will frighten the child.

My father took me to see his favorite person in the whole world, Charlie Chaplin. He had to take me out of the movie because I was screaming bloody murder because that man terrified me — you know, with his odd feet and his white face — and my father thought, you know, that he had a moron for a child [audience laughter]. Who, indeed, could have imagined that Charlie Chaplin could have scared a kid? Scared me. Took me many years to see why people thought Charlie Chaplin was funny. You cannot predict simply what will frighten a child. Children don’t like to be frightened, and if they see something in a book that frightens them, they get rid of that book. I remember a lady asking me once, “Every time I read Where the Wild Things Are to my daughter, she screams.” My question was, “Do you hate your child?” [Audience laughter.] “Why are you doing this?”

QUESTION: I’ve seen a treatment that was done with the Wild Things in animation. I wanted to know what you thought about seeing your work in animation on the screen, if it captures what goes on originally in your mind?

SENDAK: Is that something you saw on television?

QUESTION: No, it was in a conference.

SENDAK: I didn’t much like it. But The Wild Things has always been very difficult to animate. There’s only been two versions — that attempt that you saw, and then an animated version done many years ago in Connecticut, also which I don’t like. I don’t think Wild Things is something that can or should be animated. It never will again. I will never let it be tried again.

It’s now an opera, which I’ve designed. In three dimensions, seeing 12-foot wild things magnificently costumed on the stage, coming out lumbering, where all the kids let out a hullabaloo like you’ve never heard — now, that works for me [audience laughter].

There’s something surrealistic about those wild things, whereas in animation they look paltry. They just don’t work at all.

QUESTION: Do you have children?

SENDAK: Do I have children? No, I do not. I have a German Shepherd.

QUESTION: Do you ever get stuck for a particular pose or position and do you ever use a model?

SENDAK: Occasionally. I don’t usually use a model. I did not use a model for Wild Things or Night Kitchen. I ran into problems with Outside Over There because it was a different mode of drawing. The style of the book is completely different. Part of what was important in that book was how tedious it was for this 9-year-old girl to deal with an infant. Part of it was what daily life was like. To get right down to it, what is it like for a nine-year-old to hold a baby? It’s not like a Mary Cassat painting where the child is comfortably poised on the woman’s elegant elbow. That ain’t the way it is. It’s terrible, is what it is.

promotional Outside Over There poster

Because what I did was I rented a 9-year-old. She lived on Long Island, and I rented a 14-month old baby who came from the Bronx, and my friend, who’s a photographer. We got into a room. I knew the family of the 9-year-old a little bit. It was a really interesting story, because she was an only child. She was thrilled at being the model for this book, and she was a ballet dancer and from a cultivated family. In other words, she was very spoiled. Very beautiful. Anyway, we got to the apartment in the dress that I had provided for her, a vague approximation of an 18th-century dress. But then she was completely taken aback by the fact that a baby had shown up. Because this was going to be her own show. She was an only child, had never had to deal with sibling rivalry of any kind. She’d been catered to all her life. She hated this baby on sight. What was interesting for me was she re-enacted unwittingly the plot of my book, so that I spent the whole afternoon watching her hate the baby. What was more interesting was the baby, who was absolutely adorable, goodnatured, robust — she had to be robust, because we dropped her about 18 times. For those of you who are alarmed, we covered the floor with pillows. But she would let anybody pick her up. I held out my hands and her arms sprang forward with a big, trusting grin and the only person she started screaming at was Aismee, this little girl. She would not let the 9-year-old touch her. Of course, that spoiled the whole camera session, but this baby knew this was a mortal enemy. And I really do believe that infants know just whom to trust. Some instinct tells them. We know babies cry terribly when they’re held wrong, because some instinct says, “This jerk is going to drop me,” or “My neck is going to break.” They have to know this in order to survive. Now Aismee was smirking and smiling and putting on a show of how much she liked the baby, but that baby knew, “Don’t believe that smile, don’t believe in this kid.”

We did get a couple of shots, and it was clear that 9-year-olds hold babies like they must hold the garbage when they’re taking it out. Because they weigh too much, so you sort of start out in the middle where they grab the baby around the middle, and slowly it slides down, and in her efforts not to let the baby drop, then there’s this thing around the neck, then you’ve got this thing over here. It just made me bow my head with wonder how we survive infancy in the hands of older siblings and parents and the rest. But I did lots of drawings of her and the baby. So that the drawings of Ida in the book look as tiring as it must be for a little girl to have to deal with a baby all day long, who weighs too much to carry, who has to be schlepped around from one part of the house to another. I wanted to get that ingredient of reality, and that could only be with models.

QUESTION: Are you deadline-driven and how do you manage your time?

SENDAK: I am deadline-driven. Even though the publisher may not say they want it right then and there, I give myself a deadline because, unless I do, it’s just going to go on for too long. So I just will make up a deadline for myself.

I work in this extremely mechanical fashion, day in and day out. Every day, the routine is precisely the same. I’ve been told often that I lead a very boring life. I don’t think it is, because that’s the life I like to lead. I draw the same time, I write, I do my exercise, my walk with the dog, my lunch, my one soap opera during lunch. But I find that in this repetition is when the motor keeps going. Keeps going until it finally goes smoothly and the drawings are produced steadily. So I cannot break the rhythm. When I’m working on a book there is literally no social activity at all. If I’m desperate, I’ll rent a movie, put it on the VCR, because I can illustrate while watching television and listening to music and having friends sitting around talking. I can’t have company when I’m writing, but when I’m illustrating I’m very comfortable with noise and people and television sets going. It’s a ritualized life. This is my first break, coming out here and doing this, being in San Francisco and all of that. Can’t wait to go home back to my little ritual.

[An audience member asks about drawing materials]

SENDAK: I’m not someone who’s big on materials. I’ll draw on anything that’s in the house. I work with tempera paint because tempera paint has always been the most comfortable medium for me. You can make it look like watercolor; you can make it look like gouache: it’s so flexible. Best of all, it will cover up mistakes. Watercolor paper? It varies. It really is what I have in the house and what I feel like working on and how transparent or how heavy I want it to feel. I really don’t make a fuss about paper and paint. I do make a fuss about pen-points and brushes. That’s where I’m very finicky. That’s about it.

QUESTION: What kind of pen-points?

SENDAK: Pen-points for me are Hunt pen-points, and it’s the 102, which is an English pen-point. It’s difficult to get here, although maybe it’s getting easier. I can get maybe half a day’s work out of one pen-point before it drops dead on you. It’s so flexible that it just falls apart.

QUESTION: Is it a crow quill?

SENDAK: Yes, it is a crow quill.

QUESTION: In Outside Over There, we had many different versions of it as you worked out the sketches, and could you let us in on how much input the editor had?

SENDAK: Outside Over There was the last book I did with Ursula. She retired after that. There was a good deal of input from her in the text. She never had or wished to have input on the illustrations. She felt that was a domain in which she didn’t belong. And, frankly, I agreed with her. When it came to that, there was an element of private-ness, which comes from my own head. It’s difficult for someone to say, “That drawing is wrong, or inappropriate,” because I should know that a drawing is wrong or inappropriate before an editor tells me. It’s not always the case, obviously, because I had to learn. So in early books there were inappropriate and bad drawings and she was fiercer in those days when I was beginning.

But in Outside Over There, there were tons of studies for the book, sketches, dummies; the book took forever to write. It was the most difficult piece I ever had to write. I wanted a certain kind of writing, I wanted what I call mirror writing, or backward writing. I wanted Ida to be so perverse and so stubborn in not dealing with her problem that she reverses everything, even language. So I had strange sentence structures that were important to me, and there Ursula was amazingly flexible and helpful in letting me achieve what I wanted. Even if it was something that didn’t even excite her, she would let me go ahead and do what I wanted to do. So you had writing for two years on that book, dummy-making for a year, pencil studies for another year, all the research, and then the painting of the book is another year. So Outside Over There was nearly a five-year plan of solitude with my soap operas, with my walks, with my rituals, which is one of the reasons I went to the stage after that, because it was either go into the theater or into the madhouse because that much solitary confinement is very, very difficult.

Whereas the theater, you’re with crazy people, but they’re wonderful. It’s very sociable, you’re working with designers, lighting, people in backstage, opera singers. I need the sociability in my life.

[An audience member asks whether Sendak draws exaggerated poses for his characters.]

From Where The Wild Things Are

SENDAK: Well, children do take these dramatic stances, these dramatic poses. They’re wonderful to watch, as though they’re on stage all the time. And it’s been very useful, working in opera, and posing people on stage. The woman who plays Max in Wild Things has simulated the postures from the book and it’s incredible how she’s transformed herself into a 5-year-old child. Male child, too. It’s amazing. It was all there in her head.

[An audience member asks about the similarities and differences between working on a book and on an opera]

SENDAK: When you’re doing an opera, it’s not the same as doing a book. But in one respect it’s the same, in that you’re involved in every aspect of it. When I’m illustrating a book it goes through all the things we’ve talked about, but once the book is finished, then you have another job ahead of you. You have to work with the printers, and you work with the designer, and you work with the typeface, and how it’s going to be bound, and what kind of binding boards. All the manufacturing is part of the illustrating of the book. You stop short of standing on the street and selling copies. That’s where you quit. But to the very last moment you are functioning as the artist who is involved in the aesthetics of your own book. Same with an opera: you can’t just design and costume. You have to be there to fit the costumes; you have to see what that stuff looks like on stage; there are revisions; there are sets that don’t work; there are costumes that don’t work.

Nutcracker was the first ballet I did, in Seattle. I had designed a number of operas before that but what I didn’t realize was that opera singers don’t move. For the most part they don’t know how to move. They know how to sing, and very few opera singers have a dramatic ability to move their bodies convincingly. So, when you dress them, you’ll almost be certain that your drawing will look like what’s up there. Except that they turn around or walk sideways. Now, a ballet dancer — they move. I found hilarious examples  that I designed for the women who were in the court ballet — for the snowflakes, I designed a very pretty costume; except when they moved they all suffocated to death because the sleeves were right in their faces. This was interesting to me that I’d forgotten they moved. I’d forgotten that when they moved, everything moves. So it was a whole object lesson in how to design costumes that were pretty that didn’t kill the dancers, or cripple them, or smother them. And the dancers are so wonderful that they tell you what works or what doesn’t work. You just have to work with them.

QUESTION: Do you have any professional colleagues who inspire and delight you?

SENDAK: Well, I’ll name just two for the moment. There are lots of them. I’ll name three.

My oldest friend in the business is Bill Steig, and he lives in Connecticut, too. When Bill and I get together it’s fantastic — because he isn’t a children’s book person, which is what’s so lovely about him. He does children’s books, he does cartoons, he does anything he wishes. He doesn’t limit his imagination or his conversation to doing books. He’s just an extremely good friend. We’re even looking to collaborate on a book together just so we could see each other more often. I keep telling him there are some books that I love, but that I draw better than him occasionally, that he should write a book for me because most of the books he writes are incredibly, wonderfully illustrated by him because he writes for himself. So part of our job together now is to write a book that he doesn’t want to illustrate. That would be the one for me.

James Marshall is a very good friend. I think Jim is one of the most terrific illustrators going right now because he’s the funniest illustrator going. My books do tend to be on the serious side — back to the “Morose” again — and what I envy in Jim is his absolutely insane sense of humor. I just laugh at all his books. So I would say he is our prize comic in the business. Plus, stylistically, a great colorist.

The third illustrator who I’m relatively good friends with lately, and whose work I admire, and we critique each other, is Chris Van Allsburg, who lives in Rhode Island. Chris is much younger; I’m 59 and Chris must be in his early 30s. What’s nice there is the generational gap, where I can be a little bit of poppa to him. But he can come back and be the other generation telling me what’s going on. I find that very nice. We’re very open with each other, and very critical of each other’s work, so it isn’t a patting each other on the back-type of relationship.

And innumerable others.

QUESTION: I’m wondering how you have dealt personally with your great success and your fame.

SENDAK: Well, it’s nice being a success. It would be hard to put that down. But if I’m dealing with it, I don’t have any trouble with it. Partly, it was because it came so slowly. I began when I was 18 years old working, and I didn’t have a commercial success until I was 24 or 25. And then I didn’t have a major breakthrough on a book until I was 32 or 33. So I had over a decade of getting used to being in a profession where success came slowly, where money came in dribs and drabs, and where you were doing what you wanted to do. So the success was nicely done, in that I got used to it as it went along. I think it would have been hard to turn my head after a certain point, because I became very inflexible about the manufacture of books, about my own ethic, about what I wished to do in the business. I actually do have an ideal as to what to achieve in my work, which I have not yet achieved.

So the success is mitigated by the fact of my own sense of not having accomplished what I want to accomplish. Nevertheless, it’s very nice. Books do sell. I live in a way now that allows me the most enormous amounts of time to work on a book. Those are the privileges that come, and I’m grateful for them. The other stuff, the star stuff, is ridiculous. I mean, it’s completely meaningless.

QUESTION: Most of us don’t have the opportunity to draw without any sort of supplemental income. Do you think it’s possible to do a worthwhile book in what amounts to our spare time?

SENDAK: I think you have no choice when you’re young. Let’s face it. When I was your age I had a full-time job, and I stayed up all night illustrating my books. That’s why we’re young, so we’re strong enough and healthy enough to endure these monstrous happy times called youth. It has to be done that way. There is no other way. Unless you have a sugar daddy or very rich parents. But most of us don’t and that’s the way I did it for the first 10 years of my career, having jobs — I worked at a toy shop all day designing their windows and came home in the evening — and that was the only time to do my books.

But I remember them happily. Maybe they were awful, but I remember them happily, because I was still doing what I wanted to do. I wasn’t earning very much money and I could borrow money from my brother or my sister or anybody who was crazy enough to give it to me, so that I could keep going for another year and another year, and then after five years I was able to quit F.A.O. Schwarz and get a little apartment in New York City, and a few more books, and blah-blah-blah. It just goes very slowly. What infuriates me is people who say, “How lucky you are! You’re successful...” It came from schlepping around and being in the business, but loving what I was doing, so the hardships were part of the business.

QUESTION: Given the way you feel about the importance of text before illustration, how do you feel about wordless print books that do try to tell a story?

SENDAK: Well, I like them because I think all these books have a place in the literature. If they work, if the story without language works, fine. It’s just one adjunct. I would only insist that they be good, that’s all. That the story they’re telling be good. Otherwise, it’s just a gimmick. But there are people who worry about books like that, or books that are in the comic-book form. I love the comic-book form, and I love the wordless form. I don’t want to come off as pedantic about how “a book is this, and should be only that.” Nonsense. A book is anything you want it to be, if it’s honest. If it tells what you think is true to your own feelings, any form it takes is fine. It just has to be convincing, that’s all.

[An audience member asks how Sendak maintains the flow of a story when it is transferred from his imagination to the pages of a book]

SENDAK: That’s precisely the problem of doing a book — how to disguise the fact that it’s broken into pages. What is the rhythm? What is the syncopation that is going to make you turn the page? What is the secret mystery that you’ve put in that forces you to turn the page? Now an adult may turn the page because adults are polite and they turn pages. If they bought the book and it’s $19.95, God-damn it, they’re going to turn those pages. But since children don’t put out financially for the book, they don’t have to turn the page, and I defy you to make a kid turn a page if he or she is turned off by the title page. They won’t do it. So you have to put a little motor in at the beginning, a little generator that’s going to so tease and tempt the reader, say the child for now, into “You’ve got to go on, you’ve got to go on, you’ve got to go on.” So your breaks have to be critical. You must disguise the fact that it is a dead pause because you have to turn that page, and you have to pick it up again. That’s a limitation of the book. You as the artist have to disguise and make that work.

I’ll give you two examples of two books that I would say, almost without exaggeration, I learned everything from. Two picture books, by William Nicholson. Nicholson was not a children’s book writer or illustrator. He was a wood engraver at the end of the 19th century, for the Beggerstaff Brothers. I don’t know if you know them. But Bill Nicholson’s woodcuts are fabulous. However, for his own children, for their own pleasure, he wrote two little picture books. One is called The Pirate Twins and the other is called Clever Bill. I think both these little books, which will take you less than eight minutes to read, say everything I could wish to say about what a picture book is, and how you construct it textually in such a way that you keep those pages going. Now, when I read those two books I have to talk to myself. It gets the rhythm and you just keep going and going and going. It’s because of the instinctual way he lay the language out.

Not the pictures. The pictures are laid out in quite ordinary fashion. It’s what he did with the language. Read them. They’re in the library and they’re in print.

[An audience member asks how Sendak was inspired to write about his dog in Higglety Pigglety Pop.]

SENDAK: Well, I got her in 1953, and she then appeared in all my books because I adored her. I just got her into everything. By 1967, she was very old and dying. I wanted one special book for her where she didn’t just make guest-appearances but she was queen of the May. So the story had to be constructed about her, and I dwelt a good deal on her death and what I would wish for her if there were an afterlife, which I must confess I don’t believe in. But let’s make believe that there’s a creative afterlife — I would wish her to be an artist. In her case, she would never be a children’s book illustrator or a painter, she would have been an actress because she acted out everything and wheedled her way through life. Her predominant interest was eating, like me. As much as I know she adored me, I never lost the sense that she probably would go live with someone else if the food was better.

I suppose you all know this about the people you are married to or having relationships with and we all must compromise based on the limitations of dogs and human beings. But I wanted to be fair to Jennie and I wanted to show her as selfish as she was, as loving as she was, and as tricky as she was. That’s what Higglety Pigglety Pop was all about. She had everything, but there must be something more to life than having everything.

Now, the funny part of the story was that I wanted her to be in a play in heaven where she performs the performance of Higglety Pigglety Pop every night, matinees on Saturday. So I picked a Mother Goose rhyme from that collection and it’s a fantastic rhyme that goes:

Higglety pigglety pop,

The dog has eaten the mop,

The cat’s in a hurry,

The pig’s in a flurry,

Higglety pigglety pop.

Means nothing. But it probably meant something political back in the 17th or 18th century, when the verses were put together — except that verse was not written in the 17th and 18th century. It was written by an extremely boring man who, by sheer coincidence, is buried in a cemetery in a town where I lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He wrote proper books for young boys and girls about loving their parents and going to the grave to look at the stones of their dead siblings and believing in God. Really quite atrocious books. He was also a minister, and at a church service where he was giving a sermon he stood up and denounced Mother Goose, said these are vile, filthy, incoherent blabberings and we should not befoul the minds of our children with them, they’re immoral, blah-blah-blah. He said, any idiot can make up a nursery rhyme, and he made up “Higglety Pigglety Pop” right there. Somebody in the congregation wrote it down, and to his mortification it became part of the nursery rhyme. And to make him feel even worse, I put it in my book. Since we both come from the same town, there was an extra pleasure in doing that.

QUESTION: About this last book that you’ve done: Did you have a difficulty with the religious element? When a writer is trying to fit himself into the book, he often has to jump over some barrier, whether it’s a religious element or a character element. How did you jump that boundary in terms that all of us can think of the difficulty before us?

SENDAK: Well, I don’t know if my experience could be of any use, but I’ll tell you about it. The story is a religious story. There’s a group of Grimm tales which are religious, which I always avoided because I felt I had no affinity with them. When I did the 27 tales from Grimm called The Juniper Tree, back in ’72,1 worked with Randall Jarrell and Lore Segal. We chose our favorite stories. None of them included any of the religious stories.

This one is a variant of a legend about St. Joseph. St. Joseph has appeared in any number of the Grimm tales. I’ll give you a rough summary of this tale. There’s this mother and there’s a little girl, her daughter, her only surviving child, and they live down near the bottom of a little village and they’re perfectly blissful. For a moment. Because the next moment, clouds appear in the sky and the mother knows that war has broken out. She is terrified. She doesn’t know how to take care of her child, so she grabs the kid, runs to the edge of the woods, pushes the child into the woods and says, “Run, run, may God protect you! If you live, come back to me in three days!” This is very much like what Jewish mothers probably did in the Holocaust and Japanese mothers do, and all over the world — this is the arbitrary business of life.

Well, the child doesn’t understand why the mother is abandoning her; she just runs and she runs and she runs. There’s the obligatory Grimm run, with the trees grabbing her and snaring her. She collapses, and she prays, and says, “Oh, God, help your child!”

Now, I have to interpret this as I go along. The only way that I could reasonably comprehend how God could help this child at this point is to relieve her of the terrible anxiety that she’s going to die of exposure. So in my own image making in the book, I have her die at this point. Not visibly. It’s allegorical. She wakes up in a paradisiacal place. She sees a light; she thinks it’s a star. She follows it, and it’s the light emanating from a little cottage, and she goes to a cottage and she goes in, and there’s this stern old man sitting at a table. It’s St. Joseph, but she doesn’t know it’s St. Joseph. She lives with him, he takes care of her; she works in his garden. They share the same humble amounts of food. He gives her a guardian angel to play with, someone her own age so she won’t be bored. But she isn’t bored; she’s blissfully happy.

She suddenly remembers with a pang what her mother said. She comes to Joseph and says, “I think three days must have gone by.” But she also says, “I love you and I don’t want to leave you.” He gives her a rose, which is a closed, tight bud, and says, “When this rose opens, you will be with me.” The guardian angel points the way to the village; the child runs, runs, runs, runs.

What she doesn’t know, in true fairy tale fashion, is that not three days have gone by but 30 years, and she runs into the village and everything is quite different. At the bottom of the village is the house, still, but ruined. This blind old crone is sitting on a little bench outside the house with her arms waving, waving, waving. The child rushes into her mother’s arms; they go into the house, happy — and in the morning the neighbors find them both in bed, dead, with the rose of St. Joseph in full bloom on the pillow.

Well, it’s a very sad story, and it’s a very beautiful story, and what it was primarily about was the arbitrary, gratuitous suffering of human beings in wartime. The stupid war is going on — Napoleonic, probably. It’s the early 1800s. These people are trapped. This is the story. The difficulty I had, quite simply, was with St. Joseph. How could I deal with St. Joseph? How could I deal with a religious figure? It stumped me. I didn’t want to be fake; I didn’t want to be patronizing; I didn’t want to be pious. I didn’t know what to do. I could deal with the child; I could deal with the mother; I could deal with the suffering; I could deal with the ending of it, the passion of it; I could deal with the forest. But without St. Joseph I couldn’t do the book.

From Dear Mili

I mentioned the monastery I go to, periodically, where I got my German Shepherd from. Me and the dog go up and we both get trained by one of the brothers. I spoke to the father. It’s a Franciscan monastery. There are only seven brothers. They built this little monastery up on the mountain with their own hands. It’s incredible. It’s Russian Orthodox, so it has the minarets, it’s an incredible place. A tiny guesthouse, seven celibate men and about 36 crazed animals. It’s a very strange setting. But I asked the father who runs the place, a man my own age, and we sat down, and I told him my conflict. I’m Jewish and there’s no way I can deal with St. Joseph in a way that seems honest and real. We talked about it. And then, well, he helps me in every wonderful way, and he said, “Maurice, you’re overlooking something that’s so obvious. Joseph was Jewish” [audience laughter]. It just never dawned on me. And he said, “He’s a saint because he was so good with Mary and Jesus.” God made him a saint so that he could live in the woods and take care of children. And often children that run off into the woods, he will take them in and take care of them until either they go to heaven or go home safely.

Well, that kind of guy I can deal with. This was a real mensch out living in the woods, who likes kids. Then he became a real person; and I went home and drew the book.

Transcribed by Mark Thompson. All images ©Maurice Sendak unless otherwise noted.