Edmund White: Novelist, Memoirist, Essayist, Playwright, and Professor Emeritus

August 2020 saw the launch of A Saint From Texas, Edmund White’s 29th book. He’s famous for his self-deprecating sense of humor as well as his twinkling and often mischievous wit. White is the undisputed “silverdaddy” of gay literature. He unabashedly shares with his readers his deepest and often darkest thoughts about life and sex. He is also the co-author of The Joy Of Gay Sex.

His conversational and irreverent style of writing has garnered him many awards. White was made an officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and won a literary prize from the Festival of Deauville. He was also named the 2018 winner of the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

It is his memoir A Boy’s Own Story that splashed Mr. White onto the literary scene. Rounding out his trilogy of autobiographies he followed this up with The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony. White is an essayist and he also worked as a correspondent at French Vogue for a decade. He still contributes to the New York Times Book Review.

In City Boy, White chronicles his life in New York City during the 60s and 70s. He moved to the City in July of ‘62 after majoring in Chinese at the University of Michigan and was accepted at Harvard to do his PhD but opted to move to Greenwich Village to live with his first boyfriend.

White wrote States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, a travelogue that explores gay culture in cities across the states in the late 70s. This was a gloriously free and adventuresome time just prior to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Along with Larry Kramer, White was one of the original 6 founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).

White shares with us his life in Paris from ’83 to ’90 in his memoir Inside A Pearl, and in ’93 he penned the critically acclaimed biography, Genet.

He often spent summers in Venice and it was on my second trip to the “Floating City” when author David G. Hallman suggested I read White’s 2009 memoir City Boy, in particular chapter 11. Wickedly funny as well as informative, I now recommend the same to all my friends journeying to Venice. Each visit, I happily make my obligatory visit to Peggy Guggenheim’s museum. In fact, during a recent trip during Carnival the apartment I rented overlooked her museum garden, in particular, her stone chair.

“…she (Peggy) had one obsession— arranging for her babies (Lhasa Apsos), and herself, to be buried in the garden of her palazzo. It was against commune rules to be buried anywhere but in a cemetery, but Peggy was willing to give her entire art collection and her palace to the city of Venice in exchange for having the rules bent in her favor. She eventually succeeded. In her garden she had a Byzantine stone chair, and now she and many of her dogs are buried in the ground that surrounds it.” – from Chapter 11, City Boy

I recently had the great pleasure to talk with Edmund White (www.edmundwhite.com), discussing a broad range of topics as well as the launch of his latest book, A Saint From Texas.


Edmund, Venice is my favorite city abroad and I can’t stop visiting her. Do you still travel there?
I would in a heartbeat go there but it’s a tough city for someone on a cane.

You’ve lived in Paris. You made a risky trip to Syria in the early 80s, traveled to Jordan and Crete. You’ve visited Zurich often and went to the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. But New York City has remained your home base. Is there a destination you’re still aching to explore?
My favorite city is Istanbul, but I doubt it’s the same. I’d love to go to Kyoto.

Why is Kyoto your must-see city?
I love classic Japanese literature: Genji, the Pillow Book. And I once thought of myself as a Buddhist.

You weren’t just living in New York City during Stonewall, you were there! The night of June 28, 1969 you were at the Stonewall Inn during the riots. What was that like? Did you have an immediate sense of what was happening and the importance of the event?
Yes, it felt historic, but we laughed a lot at the slogans, The Pink Panthers or Gay is Good in imitation of Black is Beautiful.

We must discuss your most recent book, A Saint From Texas, launching this August, 2020. First, the cover design is gorgeous. It is so reminiscent of the late and beautifully talented illustrator, Roger Duncan. Who created the cover?
I think it was a cover of Vogue in the 1950s.

I haven’t read the entire Edmund White library, but I’ve consumed my fair share. I must confess, A Saint From Texas is definitely my favorite book of yours to date.
“Yvette and Yvonne Crawford are twin sisters, born on a humble patch of East Texas prairie but bound for far grander fates. Just as an untold fortune of oil lies beneath their daddy’s land, both girls harbor their own secrets and dreams—ones that will carry them far from Texas and from each other. As the decades unfold, Yvonne will ascend the highest ranks of Parisian society as Yvette gives herself to a lifetime of worship and service in the streets of Jericó, Colombia. And yet, even as they remake themselves in their radically different lives, the twins find that the bonds of family and the past are unbreakable.” (from A Saint From Texas)

The story is intelligent, clever, and emotional, but then slaps you across the face being unapologetically acerbic, even gleefully shocking. The twins, Yvonne and Yvette are complimentary, identicals. A Saint From Texas is just itching to be adapted to screenplay. Would you consider a film adaptation or have you been offered one?
Consider? I’d beg for it!

And the ending is ripe for a sequel. Are you planning on continuing the story?
No. Now I’m writing a novel set in the future about polyamory.

The dialogue flies at record speed. I sense you really enjoyed writing for and through these characters, especially Yvonne and Yvette.
I’ve always enjoyed writing female characters, especially Frances Trollope in Fanny, Crane’s wife in Hotel de Dream, and the sisters in the Saint.

In your memoirs I admire your ability to share the most intimate details of your life. Your body of work is the definition of an open book, no pun intended. Are there limits as to how much you will reveal about yourself, family, or friends and have you ever regretted scenarios you have shared?
I’m a literary exhibitionist, but when a dirty passage from Our Young Man was read out loud at my 80th birthday I cringed.

The flavor of A Saint From Texas tastes a bit like John Irving in all the best possible ways. Interestingly, the two of you are good friends. How did your relationship with John come about?
I could never have written the Saint without having read Irving—the scope, the braided narrative, the satire! I met him because he said nice things about me in a paper in Nashville. He’s a very warm, sincere man with strong opinions, though he can be self-deprecating. I was able to give him a Lammy as a friend of gays. (Lambda Literary Awards, also known as the Lammys, are awarded yearly by the U.S.-based Lambda Literary Foundation to published works which celebrate or explore LGBT themes.)

I know as an adult you’re a voracious reader. Were you also, as a child?
I remember, or think I do, when I learned how to read and I thought it would be my passport into other, better worlds. I didn’t like to read children’s books. When I was nine I wanted to read Anatole France’s Thaîs, which was under reserve as a dirty book. When I was unable to obtain it I took my protest all the way to the mayor’s office (no response). My favorite books in grade school were Pierre Loti’s Disenchanted about life in Turkey’s harems, War and Peace (though I disliked how the aristocrats’ dialogue was not translated from French), a novel about the Lost Dauphin, and Henry Green’s Nothing (still a favorite).

What is the most challenging aspect of the creative process for you?
The most rewarding aspect of writing a novel is how it ties your days together.

Any advice for wannabe writers?
If you’re a serious “literary” writer, don’t study the market but just write a book you yourself would like to read.

You’re a professor at Princeton and have taught creative writing classes. Do you ever offer master classes for plebeians like myself? I’d certainly be first to sign up.
I retired two years ago. I’d give a master class if offered. You’re hardly a plebeian!

When you’re in the throes of writing, what is your writing schedule like?
Totally chaotic, like my life. Only fear and guilt make me settle down to write.

Edmund, I have found you to be amazingly accessible and generous. In fact, you offered a blurb for the cover of my first novel 15 years ago. Thank you, again. And thanks in advance for the novels, memoirs, essays, and reviews you’ll be entertaining and enlightening us with in the near future.

My pleasure.

 

Acqua Altas and Art in Venice


 

For the anniversary celebrations of Tintoretto, da Vinci, and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, I traveled back to my favorite city in the world, Venice, Italy. I was there during the now infamous week of November 12, 2019. An Acqua Alta (extreme flooding) traditionally occurs once, recedes and everything is back to normal, but during the course of my stay we experienced record breaking flood levels 5 days out of 7. This was to be the 2nd highest flood in 50 years.

Piazza San Marco - The Perfect Storm

The day before my travel mate Bud and I flew to Venice, the manager of the apartment I was renting from through the Red House Company, sent me a text suggesting I bring boots on the trip. He informed me that we were arriving at high tide. I was an old pro at this, having traveled to Venice previously and experiencing an Acqua Alta that would become the 6th highest flooding in recorded history. Acqua Altas tend to happen around November and the perfect recipe is a full moon, a high tide, and a storm. I guessed I could wait till I arrived at Marco Polo Airport to buy a pair of wellies if need be, I wasn’t going to use up precious room in my luggage for a pair of boots. Well, guess what? There are no shops in Venice’s airport that sells wellies or even the slip over your shoe, knee high plastic booties. I’m going to move to Venice, open up a shop at the airport, sell boots and booties during flooding seasons and make a fortune. Around 11 A.M. the morning of November 12th we landed at Marco Polo during high tide, but there was no rain, and I asked a woman at the information desk if the vaporetto (water bus) stop called Ca’Rezzonico was under water. “No, no, signore, Ca’Rezzonico is high. No problems.” Phew, that’s a relief. 


Instead of dealing with the public water bus and morning rush hour I hired a pricey private water taxi, through the Red House Company (or you can easily book your own through Venice Link) and right on cue Alberto arrived at our pier ready to whisk us off to Ca’Rezzonico. Did I say whisk? It was more like an amusement park ride. I’ve ridden some choppy water on the Venetian Lagoon before, but we seriously needed seat belts and neck braces on that day. It wasn’t vintage, but it was a beautiful wooden, covered motorboat, but the retractable roof, which allows you to stand up and take in the breathtaking views of Venice as you approach her, needed to be sealed shut. It still wasn’t raining, yet, but the waves were quite high and eager to spritz all over us. Not the kind of spritz I was looking forward to. When we’d hit a large squall and be thrown about the boat with our luggage, Alberto would periodically look back to see if we were still alive and give us the thumbs up. 

 


 

As the boat slowed down to circumnavigate the fragile canals of Venice’s inner city, finally, I recognized the Ca’ Rezzonico Palazzo that our water stop is named after and was anxious to get onto dry, solid ground. Well, it was solid and my former gymnastic days came in handy for managing to exit a small bouncing boat up onto the platform without doing a dismount into the choppy canal. Waiting at the stop for us was a young woman who works for the Red House rental company whom we had met on a previous trip. And what did she have in her hands? Slipover- your-shoe booties. I think the woman back at the information desk in the airport needs to brush up on her Venetian neighborhoods and their water levels. At the vaporetto stop the water was mid shin high. Raised wooden boardwalks had been erected by the city to help tourists as well as natives navigate the pooling of sea water. Luckily, the apartment was nearby and the platforms took us far enough down the walkway to reach our apartment—the booties were not needed…yet. The apartment was quirky, ancient, charming, had a gorgeous rooftop deck plus it was toasty warm. One odd layout was that the original beams on the floor of the dwelling were not flush with the regular floor boards. A tricky and conscious stepping over of the beams was a constant must. Rather than a negative, I saw it as…character.

The "quirky" attic apartment.
 

Plus, in the apartment were wellies, well, one pair. Part of this trip to Venice was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of artist Tintoretto and to discover the best of his paintings throughout the city. If Verdi is Venice’s master musician then Tintoretto is its prized local artist. Born in 1518, Jacopo Robusti was 1 of 21 children. His father was a dyer, which is tintore in Italian, and Jacopo worked with his father garnering the nickname, Tintoretto (little dyer). At the age of 12 years old, he became an apprentice in Titian’s workshop. Titian at the time was the master painter of Venice and renowned for his vivid use of color. Even though he was very young, Titian felt threatened by Tintoretto’s innate talent and fired him from his studio, creating a lifelong feud and competition between them. As much as Tintoretto was frustrated by Titian’s constant blocking him of winning competitions and earning money, Tintoretto respected his short-lived former mentor and developed this motto towards his work: “The drawing of Michelangelo, the coloring of Titian…” 

 


That day we aimlessly explored Venice from our neighborhood of the Dorsoduro, north towards the San Polo district and, without looking at a map, and just by chance, we ended up in front of the Church of San Rocco, also known as Church of Saint Roch. One of 4 plague churches, it was built for the Confraternity (a society of wealthy and religious Venetian men) of San Rocco between 1489 and 1508, to honor and help the victims of the plague. In fact, Saint Roch dedicated his life to helping those suffering from the Black Death. Next to the church on one side was a new da Vinci museum, and on the other is the actual Scuola Grande di San Rocco, home of the Confraternity. I knew the Scuola housed scores of Tintorettos, but when we approached the building someone inside was closing and locking the doors earlier than their website indicated. Disappointed, we stepped into the church. 

Church of Saint Roch

What an unexpected surprise. The church was a jewel box of sumptuous paintings mounted on the walls, surrounding the alter, covering the balconies and even up on the ceiling. The artists included Angeli, Ricci, and Fumiani, as well as 6 paintings created by Tintoretto. Still an active church, we were courteous of worshipers praying as we tip-toed around the church admiring the masterpieces. One that stood out for me was Tintoretto’s painting Christ Healing the Paralytic (Pool of Bethesda). 

Christ Healing the Paralytic

Here was a beautiful example of the artist honoring Michelangelo in his depiction of massive and muscular male figures as well as applying the rich and vivid colors, like Titian. Also amazing were the paintings of The Vows of the Doge and Patriarch’s Wish to St Roch, both done by Giuseppe Angeli that were up in the balcony. From below, they were hauntingly observing us. Having spent more time than expected in Saint Roch’s, we headed out and were shocked back into reality as we scurried home retracing our steps as water levels began to rise and the sun was setting. This was way too early for the tidal waters which primarily begin about 3 hours prior to high tide, which was scheduled for 11:30-ish in the evening. Plus, we noticed water bubbling up from the centuries old stone grate drains along the walkways, something I had never seen before.

 


After a shower, change of clothes, and with our stomachs growling, we decided not to take any chances and we ducked into a trattoria directly across the street from our ancient attic. Pane Vino San Barnaba turned out to be fantastic, not only for its food and ambience but because of the host and head waiter, Massimo. We devoured our food and drink, and then happily walked across the calle (narrow street) to our house. It was so enjoyable that we returned twice more during our visit.

 

Scallop Gratin and broiled Razor Clams

 

At 9 PM, while still exploring the workings of the apartment, we decided to sleep with a light on to navigate the treacherous floor beams in the middle of the night. While getting ready for an early sleep due to jet lag, we suddenly heard World War II type sirens begin to blow really loud. Once the sirens stopped, high pitched beeping sounds followed. There were many of them and they sounded like some sort of alien code echoing throughout the city. We slept for 3 solid hours and woke up to a freezing and pitch-black apartment. Stumbling around, I glanced out a window and noticed the city seemed awfully dark, with only a light on here or there. 


 

I grabbed my cell and called the landlord. We had no heat, no electricity, no hot water. The power was out. He then explained to us what those high-pitched beeps were. They alert Venetians to the possible height of the inevitable flooding, hence why there were so many this time. He said the entire city was under water.

I’m not sure where the owner of the apartment lived, but it was certainly not nearby. I think he was on the mainland. To solve the power outage problem, he asked me to check the circuit breakers for the apartment. For that, I put on my wellies and Bud and I carefully walked down the pitch-black staircases to the first-floor vestibule of our house while using our phone’s flashlights to help us navigate. Having reached the bottom floor, I saw the metal circuit breaker box but it was across the room. He instructed me to open it. Even though I was wearing rubber boots, I was standing in shin deep water and fearful he was going to ask me to flip a switch. Suddenly, I remembered that one day I had said, “I could die happy in Venice,” but I didn’t want this to be the day, or the way. He asked me if all the switches were in the ‘up’ position and I said yes. He then said, “Head back upstairs. The city has either lost its power or has purposefully shut if off for safety reasons.” I survived and we clambered back up the stairs to the freezing attic.

Wind and rain smashed against the roof and our skylights and come morning we still had no power. I called the owner again, who finally seemed as concerned as we were. I was also thinking that we were going to lose power to our phones soon. He was going to send an assistant over to the apartment to figure out what to do.

Two hours went by and I called him back to inform him that no one had arrived. He said, “She couldn’t reach you.” “Why?” I asked. “The floods are above waist deep. Six feet above sea level to be exact.

 


I thought that we’d wait it out and in a couple of hours the tide would recede, but it didn’t. Finally, there was a knock on the door and the assistant to the landlord appeared in hip waders. She was able to turn the power back on, but informed us that we should wait a good 3 hours before attempting to leave the house. The inside foyer of our house was still full with at least a foot of water.

That night the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Grugnaro, said in a tweet that the city was “on its knees” and he declared a “state of emergency.” I also read that one person had died…he was trying to start his water pump and got electrocuted.

After 3 P.M. we managed to crawl out of our house. We walked down our street to Campo San Barnaba. A permanent da Vinci installation was housed in the Church of San Barnaba with actual reconstructions of many of da Vinci’s inventions, but it was closed. We were to discover that many museums, churches, shops, and restaurants would be closed due to the devastating effects of the flooding. Part of this trip to Venice was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of artist Tintoretto and to discover the best of his paintings throughout the city.

 

St Mark Saves the Slave from Torture by Tintoretto

Overcast but not raining we decided to walk over to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum

 

which was in our Dorsoduro neighborhood. Her palazzo is directly on the Grand Canal and although it isn’t on higher ground, the palazzo itself is built up on several feet of stone and I suspected they were safe from the flooding. I was right , and they were open. 2019 was the 40th anniversary of her death and the museum was honoring her with a special exhibit called The Last Dogaressa. On display was an eclectic array of sculptures, paintings, and drawings that she collected during the 30 years that she lived in her Palazzo Venier dei Leon, an 18th century palace. Shown were Jean Arp, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock and two of my favorites , David Hare’s sculpture, Moon Cage 

Moon Cage

and Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Trap.

 

Garden Airplane Trap

The next day the sun came out and so did all the Venetians and tourists! It was a perfect Autumn day to explore that year’s Biennale. Each year, the festival alternates between art and architecture, and 2019 celebrated art. It’s like the Olympics for the art world. That year’s theme was May You Live in Interesting Times, and 90 countries participated. Each country in the festival gets their own little pavilion. A real stand out this season was Russia’s contribution by artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. 

 

Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai

I also really liked Ed Atkins Bloom.

 

Bloom

Also impressive was Kemang Wa Lehulere’s Dead Eye. And although it was hard to reach, Lorenzo Quinn, son of actor Anthony Quinn, offered another version of his giant hand sculptures to the Biennale.

 

Quinn's giant hand sculptures.

 

“Venice is a World Heritage City and it is the city of bridges,” says Quinn. “It is the perfect location to spread a message of world unity and peace so that more of us around the world build bridges with others rather than walls and barriers.”

 

View from Rialto Bridge

Sloshing through Venice, at one point we discovered ourselves in front of the Rialto Bridge. And right beside it was the department store, T Fondaco Dei Tedeschi. Inside the breathtakingly beautiful building built in 1228, we discovered on the first floor their restaurant Amo.

 

Amo in T Fondaco Dei Tedeschi

 We grabbed a perfect bite to eat, had a quick glass of wine, and we were ready to go.

 


The following day, we noticed that the da Vinci Museum in our campo was open. 

 

Church of San Barnaba
 

2019 marked the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death and to commemorate it, the Church of San Barnaba had a permanent collection on display. After the tide receded enough, we ran over and took a look at the meticulous recreations of da Vinci’s amazing plans for flight, combat, and even whimsy. 

There were levers, pulleys, wheels, axles, wedges, inclined planes, screws, gears, ball bearings, parachutes, and floats. His plans for a bicycle were spot on, 


 

but I’m not so sure about wings for man to fly.

 


 

On another “dry-ish” day we headed back to the Scuola Grande di San Riocco that we had tried to enter on the first day of the trip. Doors were open and so were our eyes—wide open! In 1564 the confraternity built the Scuola Grande and wanted religious paintings displayed throughout. Like its sister Church next door, that meant massive oil on canvas paintings on all the walls and ceilings of the two floors of the building. There was a competition held to find the right artist to do the work and Tintoretto, who wanted badly to be a part of the confraternity, played a big trick on the other artists. He secretly got into the Scuola and installed his completed painting on the ceiling! 


 

Tintoretto's ceiling painting.

And he offered it for free, knowing the brotherhood could not refuse a charitable donation.

So, San Rocco in Glory and Tintoretto won the competition. The following year he was offered membership into the brotherhood. It took him 24 years to complete the 50 enormous paintings on display at San Riocco. There are so many magnificent creations in this building, take your time to absorb and appreciate them all. Even come back a second or third time. Note: the museum offers mirrors for you to hold out in front of you so you can view the ceiling paintings without hurting your neck.

The Accademia Gallery

 

The day before we left Venice, the Gallerie Accademia finally reopened its doors. Here we found many Tintorettos, including his Saint Mark Saves the Slave from Torture

Saint Mark Saves the Slave from Torture

Tintoretto was only 29 when he painted this masterpiece. Saint Mark swoops down causing the instruments of torture to break, cancelling the punishment that the provencal lord (seated top right) had sentenced his slave to because he traveled to Venice to worship the remains of Saint Mark. There’s such movement in Tintoretto’s paintings, they appear cinematic. He was the first of the renaissance painters to include the everyday man and woman as well as rich lords and politicians. If you look closely, there are knights as well as Ottomans…only a Venetian could have painted this master work. And with a nod to Titian, Tintoretto gloriously paints silks, satins, and brocades in bold luscious colors. In a sense, he’s showing off Venice’s riches.

Also, of note is Saint Mark Saving a Saracen from Ship Wreck. Saint Mark rescues a converted Saracen. Yes, I needed to look up the meaning of Saracen (an Arab or Muslim). A stormy sea with foreboding sky streaked with lightening shows amazing movement and color, as Saint Mark effortlessly lifts the Saracen to safety.

Saint Mark Saving a Saracen from Ship Wreck

What a perfect ending to a very unusual, exhilarating, and sometimes frightful trip to Venice…where it feels like Saint Mark has lifted the Venetian’s spirits up and encouraged their resilience and strength. It was devastating to walk the streets and witness shops, restaurants, museums, and hotels focusing on cleaning up the damage from the multiple floods. In fact, I have friends whose restaurants were still closed by the time I was flying back to NYC. I have such tremendous respect for Venice and its people, for their devotion to their exceptional city and their hard work ethic. My heart breaks for Venice. I don’t know what the future holds for her, but I will continue to return and rejoice in her splendor as long as I can. Ciao, Bella!

View from the Accademia Bridge

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 



Brian Selznick: Artist, Author, Screenwriter, and Puppeteer

 

Photo by Slimane Lalami

Brian Selznick is a New York Times best-selling children’s book author and illustrator. With scores of books under his belt, it’s probably The Invention of Hugo Cabret that he is most noted for. In fact, he won the coveted Caldecott Award for the book and then it was adapted into the 2011 film, directed by Martin Scorsese, which won 5 Academy awards.

Brian also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his book, Wonderstruck, directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven). And he was commissioned to rewrite the story of The Nutcracker for the Chicago Joffrey Ballet. It’s a timely and stunning retelling of this classic story, which now centers around the immigrants who built the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Harry Potter books, Brian was selected to create new covers for all 7 books. Most recently Brian illustrated the adult themed book, Live Oak, with Moss, a collection of poems by Walt Whitman. As he was turning forty, Whitman wrote twelve poems that were extremely personal and explored his attraction to, and affection for, other men.


First, we must discuss your book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Where did the idea for the story come from?

Well, to fully answer that question I have to go all the way back to 1991 when my first book, The Houdini Box was published. That story was about a boy who meets the magician Harry Houdini in 1927, the year Houdini died. Houdini had been a hero of mine when I was a kid, and I wished I could meet him, so the story grew from that idea. I was beginning to think about what my next book could be and I remembered watching the silent film A Trip to the Moon by Georges Melies. I thought writing a story about a boy who meets the man who made that movie would be a good idea too, but I couldn’t think of a plot so I mostly forgot about it. Many years later, after I’d done about fifteen more books, including several picture book biographies, I found myself stuck. I didn’t know what to do next. During this time, I met the great illustrator Maurice Sendak, and he became a mentor to me. He said, “Make the book you most want to make,” and suddenly I remembered A Trip to the Moon. Coincidentally, a few weeks later I came across a review for a book about the history of automatons called Edison’s Eve by Gaby Wood. That’s where I learned Melies had a collection of automatons which were donated to a museum at the end of his life. Supposedly they were destroyed by a leak in the attic roof where they’d been stored, and they were all thrown away. I imagined a boy climbing through the garbage and finding a broken automaton, and the plot began to take shape.

When you’re creating, do the illustrations and visuals come first or the story and characters?

Usually the mechanics of the plot come first. I will often write stories based on places I love or moments in history that intrigue me. I will try to find a character who can move through the elements of the plot, and the last thing I think of is the emotional reason that motivates the character to set the plot in motion. I don’t recommend this to other people, as it seems like I’m mostly working backwards, but it’s how stories usually come to me.

Your book The Invention of Hugo Cabret was a huge success, as was the film adaptation, Hugo. Did Hollywood come calling and did you have much involvement with the movie’s production?

Hollywood quite literally came calling! Even before the book was published, movie producers had gotten their hands on early review copies of the book and there was a lot of interest. I’d been making books for a long time and nothing like this had ever happened to me. It was really exciting, but of all the people who reached out to me, there was one letter that stood out. It was from a woman named Grey Rembert who worked for a company I’d never heard of. She said she loved my book so much and wanted to “take care of your orphan.” She’d grown up in a house with an automaton, so she related to the story in many ways. It was a beautiful letter, and I remember thinking this is the person who I want to offer Hugo to. It was only later when I was talking to Grey on the phone that I learned she wanted to give the book to Martin Scorsese to direct. I almost fell out of my chair. I had no real involvement with the making of the movie, but Scorsese loved my book so much he had copies of it all over the set and everyone stuck to it as closely as possible. He even used my drawings like storyboards. Dante Ferretti, the production designer who won his third Oscar for Hugo, had my drawings enlarged and hung all over his office.


Then you created the book Wonderstruck, which was also adapted to film and you wrote the screenplay. Was that an easy or challenging adjustment for you as a writer?

During the making of Hugo I became friends with the incredible costume designer Sandy Powell. She read Wonderstruck soon after it was published and told me she thought it would make a great movie for her friend Todd Haynes. Todd’s movies were some of my favorites, including Far From Heaven and Velvet Goldmine, both of which Sandy had designed. Sandy also encouraged me to write the screenplay myself. I’d also become friends with the screenwriter John Logan who had written the wonderful adaptation of Hugo. He took me under his wing and walked me step by step through the process of writing the screenplay for Wonderstruck. I was incredibly lucky.

How was it working with director Todd Haynes?

Working with Todd was such an incredible dream. He’s a master at every aspect of moviemaking and it was so thrilling to be with him as he spoke with each department in the language of their particular craft. Everyone respected him so much and were proud of their collaborations with him. Most of the team had worked with him many times before, and each department was filled with the most wonderful artists and craftspeople. He also innately understood how to work with Deaf actors, who were integral to the production, so the entire shoot was completely accessible and collaborative. The whole crew were given sign language lessons before we began filming, and there were always interpreters on set. Some of the Deaf actors played hearing characters, so when it was their turn to say a line they needed visual cues, since they could not hear the spoken words. Something as simple as a hand being placed on a hip would be enough of a cue, and the actors all worked together beautifully. I’ve now had the chance to watch Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes make movies, and those are experiences I will cherish and be grateful for forever.

The Nutcracker! How daunting was it to write a new story for the beloved and classic ballet for the Chicago Joffrey Ballet?

I was honored to be asked by the choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon to help him conceive a new narrative for the ballet, but I didn’t want to tell him I knew nothing about ballet, The Nutcracker or his own work! So I spent a long crazy weekend watching about twenty Nutcrackers online, and interviews with Chris, and I watched as many of his ballets online as I could. I also bought tickets for An American in Paris on Broadway, which he directed and choreographed. He happened to be attending that performance so we got to meet in person, which was great fun. Our official first meeting for The Nutcracker was a few days later, at which point I had almost tricked myself into thinking I was an expert in what I was saying! By the time I left the meeting we had a few good ideas for me to start thinking about, and within a few days I’d written a 40 page outline for the entire ballet. Chris later said that if he tried to choreograph all of what I’d written the ballet would be fifteen hours long, so we began trimming. It was thrilling to work with Chris because he, like most dancers, had been dancing The Nutcracker since he was a small child and the music was truly in his blood. I’d go to his apartment and sit by his side discussing each moment, and sometimes he’d get up and move across the room to work out a thought or demonstrate an idea, which was magical. Once the outline was finished I was able to go to Chicago to visit him as he built the dance with the brilliant people at the Joffrey. It was such fun to sit in a room watching all of these artist-athletes bringing the story to life. One of my favorite designers, Julian Crouch, created the visual world of the ballet and I had so much fun going to his studio with Chris to look at the models of the sets he and his assistants had built. For anyone who is interested, there’s a documentary online about the making of the ballet.

You had an extraordinary friendship with Maurice Sendak. How did that come about?

I met Maurice at a bookstore where we were both signing books. I was too nervous to speak to him so I asked his assistant if I could have his address, that way I could collect all my thoughts and put them into a letter. A few weeks after I mailed it to him, he called me. We began having long, intriguing phone conversations every few weeks, usually late at night. I was always so nervous when the calls began, but they were so interesting and flowed so naturally that I calmed down after a while. He didn’t know my work so he asked me to send him some of my books. I think I sent him a box with everything I’d published to that point. After he received them he called me and said, “Well, you can draw, which is not true of most illustrators, but none of these books reach the potential I see in you.” That was the beginning of a reassessment of my work which eventually led to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. By the time that book was published Maurice had begun inviting me regularly to his home in Connecticut where we’d go on long walks. After I sent him a finished copy of Hugo he invited me for a visit and took me for a walk. He told me he’d read Hugo and then he paused. “This is the book I was waiting for,” he said. Nothing could have made me more proud. I loved him very much.

An Illustration from Live Oak, with Moss

And this close connection lead to Live Oak, with Moss?

When I met Maurice I’d recently finished a children’s book biography about Walt Whitman, and by coincidence he’d just begun reading Whitman’s poetry for the first time. He told me about a little-known sequence of poems that Whitman had written called Live Oak, with Moss. These twelve poems were about a love affair with another man. Maurice told me Whitman had never published the poems as he wrote them in his lifetime. Instead he cut them up, rearranged them, and hid them in Leaves of Grass, where they remained, unknown, for over a hundred years. Eventually someone discovered them and put them back in their original order. Maurice said he was thinking about illustrating these poems, but he believed poetry, in general, should not be illustrated, since the pictures would interfere in the relationship between the poem and the reader. Pictures, Maurice said, should illuminate a text, expand and complete the words, but poetry did not need this. After Maurice died I lamented the pictures he never made. But a few years later I was approached by my friend Karen Karbiener who is a Whitman scholar. She thought I should illustrate a book to celebrate Whitman’s upcoming 200th anniversary. By this time I’d made an erotic toy theatre puppet show (!) based on the poems, and I thought maybe I could try to turn the poems into a book with pictures. But I remembered what Maurice had said, so I wondered if there was a way to honor his belief that poems should not be illustrated, while illustrating the poems! My solution was to create a long visual sequence that leads up to the poems. My visual sequence is filled with images drawn from the poems: fires, and oak trees, and men’s bodies, but there are other images that come from the themes of the poems and are not literally found in the language. This visual sequence is like a path, and once we get to the poems, all twelve are then presented with no visual interruptions. More drawings continue the journey after the poems end. The images are a framework, or a lens, but they do not illustrate the poems in any traditional sense. I hope Maurice would have approved.

I’m obsessed with your puppetry. (I’m also a huge fan of Basil Twist.) Do you create all of the set pieces, yourself, for the puppet shows?

I’ve done three toy theatre puppet shows: The Christine Jorgensen Story, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, and Live Oak, with Moss. I hand built and painted every aspect of these three shows, and I wrote and performed them myself as well. My friend Dan Hurlin directed them, because I felt I needed an outside eye to help me craft them into finished pieces. In quarantine this summer I directed a puppet show that was built by two amazing puppeteers in Chicago. The show, Doll Face Has a Party was based on a book I illustrated in 1993. It’s about a doll who, without leaving her house, throws herself a party and makes her own friends from utensils and kitchen supplies. It seemed like a perfect pandemic story. All four of these shows can be found at my website.

 


 In regard to Harry Potter, did J. K. Rowling approach you about celebrating the 20th anniversary?

On Halloween three years ago, I got a call from some of my friends and collaborators at Scholastic. They told me the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter book was coming up and they wanted me to do new covers for all seven books. I almost said no because the project was too overwhelming…I mean, it seemed like the entire world loved Harry Potter. But while we were speaking I had an idea. I could make all seven covers as a single image that would tell the entire story of Harry Potter from his birth to the last chapter of the last book, and I’d do it all in black and white. I had a sketch for them in a week or so, and it was approved very quickly. I had come late to the books but I was already a huge fan when I was invited to do the artwork. As I worked on the final drawing I listened to the audiobooks narrated brilliantly by Jim Dale. It took me about eight full days to do the final art after three months of sketching and photographing models to prepare for it. I finished the drawing as I was listening to the Battle of Hogwarts during the last book. We were in touch with JK Rowling’s team throughout the process. They were very generous with me and wanted me to follow my own vision for the covers. It was quite an experience.

And what is on the horizon for you, Brian? I believe a musical adaptation of Hugo?

Yes, I’m working with Christopher Wheeldon who will direct and choreograph. I’m writing the book and co-writing the lyrics with Ryan Scott Oliver who is also the composer. It’s a really fantastic team. We had a month-long workshop in London right before the world shut down. We are continuing to work on the show via Zoom. Ryan and I are writing a new song right now. I’ve never written lyrics before and I’m learning so much working with him. Usually I write a first draft that has no real structure or rhyme scheme, then Ryan hammers it into a musical shape and sends it back to me, and I rewrite it, keeping to the new structure, and we keep going back and forth till we’re happy with the lyrics. He then sets it to music and sends me a demo to hear how it sounds when sung and we usually do some more rewriting from there. I love the process.