From the TCJ Archives

The Comics Journal #302: Maurice Sendak Interview Excerpt #2

For a previous sneak peek, click here.

From Outside Over There ©1981 Maurice Sendak

GARY GROTH: I thought Outside Over There was, if not your best book, among your greatest works.

SENDAK: Oh yes. That’s the one I feel closest … No, the one I feel closest to is Higglety Pigglety Pop!, that’s the one I feel closest to. I wish I could do another book like that. It just doesn’t seem to be. Outside Over There, in England, when it was published, it was called Inside Under Where.

GROTH: [Laughter.] No.

SENDAK: Yes. I mean they didn’t change the title. They thought it was a terrible book.

Now, I know that is a book that will become important someday, it’s just out of time. That’s the way it is.

GROTH: The book was full of some of the most painful, as well as some of the loveliest, drawing you ever did, I thought.

SENDAK: But that little girl, she was the little girl in the … I love advertisements. I did, I don’t any more. When I was a kid, the salt thing was a little girl in a yellow slicker and the rain coming down and it was the salt coming, they were advertising salt.

GROTH: Right, right, right.

SENDAK: And that’s where it was. It’s what you see as a child, it’s what you notice. It’s like when I was … the man who wrote a book that said Hauptmann was not the killer of the Lindbergh baby … and that’s bad. He made the terrible mistake of talking about his book at the Richfield Library. Richfield, this is the most right-wing, goyish a county that could ever be. And I went to the lecture, about eight people there — Who wants to hear about the Lindbergh kidnapping? — I kept raising my hand saying, “No, no you got that wrong, you got that wrong,” and afterward … he came over to me and said, “Can we have coffee? You seem to know an awful lot about his case.”

And I said, “I know when you made a mistake. You really haven’t done your homework carefully enough.”

So we went out for coffee and he said, “What is it about his case that … Why are you so involved in it, even now?”

 And I said, “Because when I was child, and I was shopping with my mother and she was holding my hand because I was a very little boy, and I passed the newsstand, and I saw a picture of the baby dead in the woods with an arrow pointing down to show it had to be him, and I took my mother to see it. And apparently nobody but me saw it.” So I was convinced that I was crazy and that I saw a dead baby in the newspaper. And I said, “It’s only in the past few years that I realized Colonel Lindbergh was enraged that that picture was used and it was taken off the afternoon edition; I saw the morning edition.”

I spent my whole life believing I saw that picture. But that to me is why children are so important: they see these things.

And then you have a mother who says, “You didn’t see that, that’s disgusting! Why do you think of such things?”

And I told my father and he says the same thing, “I don’t want you to talk about that!”

But see, children see those things. And when you take away the truth from them, you take away everything from them. And one of the passions I have about children is, we don’t know what they see, we don’t know what they really hear. And occasionally they are polite enough to let us in.

Was it you I told the story of the 9/11 event? Little girl, and I don’t know her, but I know her father and I know her mother. And the school was quite close to where the buildings were, and when they heard, they went crazy with alarm, and they ran all the way to the school and all the children had been put into the center playground and she was there, and they saw each other and she ran to her father and she said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, Daddy, we had a wonderful time. The smoke was all over and butterflies were flying all over the place. We saw butterflies!”

He took her home and they played TV, they played games, they played her favorite everything. They made her happy, gave her ice cream, everything they could to obliterate the day. And just before she went to bed she tugged on her father’s shirt and she said, “Daddy, I didn’t really see butterflies. They were people.”

When I heard that story for the first time I cried because I was a good friend of the father, and I said, “Do you realize she was protecting you?”

And he said, “Yes, we know what she was trying to do. She was taking care of us while we were taking care of her.”

She didn’t want you to suffer. A little girl. She had this thought process to make believe these burning people were butterflies.

I thought to myself, what don’t they tell us? What brave little creatures they are.  Just as I held that kidnapping in my head all my life, until I met this man in Richfield who, when I told him that story, he pulled out a paper and said, “You saw that, didn’t you?”

I said, “Yes, that’s the picture I saw.” I asked him how he got it and he said, “Well, I wrote a book, I had to do research, I had to do a lot of homework, so I got that picture and that’s what you saw.” I said, yes, that’s the baby. He asked me to draw it first on a napkin. “What was the composition like?”

I drew the tree and I drew the baby under the tree and whatever else that I recollected. It was all there. I could only have glimpsed the paper because my mother would have yanked me away.

GROTH: Isn’t that amazing how it can etch itself into your brain? Just a momentary …

SENDAK: Burrow in and stay put until it is understood. And when it’s understood it dissipates. It’s a horrible thing to have to suffer. To think I was the only one who imagined that picture. When the whole time I was afraid of being kidnapped.

GROTH: I know that affected you deeply. How old were you when the Lindbergh kidnapping … ?

SENDAK: Well, we were about the same age. He was a little younger than I was. I was about 2 ½ and he was about 1 ½. Babies.

GROTH: I don’t think I was aware of anything at 2 ½.

SENDAK: Yes you were; you just don’t remember. Of course you were. I think we are aware in a very particular way. We have to be. Even just chemically we have to be taken care of by our chemicals and … blah, blah, blah.

GROTH: Robert Crumb once told me, some years ago, that he was making at that time a concerted effort to remember as far back as he could. And I guess every night he would engage in a very concentrated exercise where he would try to remember farther back. He said he succeeded in remembering back to one or some very, very early age just by dint of that mental process of burrowing back.

SENDAK: It can be done.

I was in therapy for a long time and there was one particular question I had and my therapist and I talked about it, talked about it, talked about it and then he had a brilliant — at the time I thought insane — idea of going to a hypnotist. So, he and I went to a hypnotist and the hypnotist had me back in two minutes, and two minutes to that occasion, to that moment that I was arguing with my therapist about, and I broke into fluent Yiddish and went through the pantomime of what that was all about, in Yiddish. Every word was correct. I spoke Yiddish as a child. I didn’t speak English until I went to school.

GROTH: So that memory is just sitting there.

SENDAK: Yeah. Steaming away and we need it; we need it. It protects us; it’s not an evil thing. A child is a helpless little bundle of everything. Sometimes the thought of children’s vulnerability is terrifying to me.