PEN WORLD VOICES
The Award-Winning Author on Art, Storytelling and Recovering What is Lost
The first time I sat down to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret was with my daughter, who was six-years old at the time. The story takes place in a train station in 1930’s France where a young boy named Hugo lives secretly within its walls. As we read this beautiful graphic novel together, I felt a mixture of awe, inspiration and a rather overwhelming sense of inadequacy. There’s nothing like an acknowledged work of “complete genius” to trigger a simultaneous dose of sheer delight and artistic inferiority.
Night after snuggly night, my daughter – a budding artist herself – and I would nestle under the covers of my king-sized bed and pore over Hugo’s pages, scanning each meticulous detail and studying every nuance of word and image.
Hugo, the story’s hero, keeps the train station’s clocks running not only because he inherited an interest and fascination in clockworks and gadgetry, but also so that no one will discover his secret: He is an orphan, hiding and surviving on his own. The only connection he has to his deceased father is a broken automaton which he is determined to fix. However, the automaton requires a key to unlock a secret Hugo believes could be a message from his father.
One day, Hugo tries to steal a gadget from an elderly, curmudgeonly toy booth owner and is caught. The owner punishes Hugo by taking his father’s notebook containing sketches related to the automaton’s inner workings.
In an attempt to regain his beloved notebook and find the key to the automaton, Hugo embarks on an adventure that leads to the discovery of French silent filmmaker, George Melies. We travel with Hugo on a journey through the invention of cinema and ultimately surprising connections to his father and the automaton.
Selznick spent two and a half years composing The Invention of Hugo Cabret. In 2008, he and Hugo received the Caldecott Medal, named in honor of nineteenth century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott, and awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. Shortly thereafter, Selznick spent another three years crafting his most recent novel, Wonderstruck. Hugo has since become a full-length feature 3-D film directed by Martin Scorcese. It received 5 Oscars at the 2012 Academy Awards.
WRR: Hugo and and your latest book, Wonderstruck (Scholastic Books, 2011) are arresting in their visual presentations – likened to a silent film on paper. Your work has been said to “evoke wonder, raise the bar, and shatter convention.” The Horn Book Review dubbed it “complete genius.” Can you take us through your personal creative process?
Brian Selznick: I just try to tell a story in the best possible way. For Hugo I had the story first and had written most of the main outline of the plot before I had any idea how I was going to illustrate it. Eventually, as I was researching the book and watching films from the 1920s and 30s – around the time the book takes place – I began to wonder if there was a way that I could make it feel like a movie, you know, since the book is so much about the history of cinema. So I was thinking about picture books and what happens when you turn the page.
You can think about something like The Wild Rumpus and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (who died on May 7, 2012), where the pictures take over the story and it’s up to the viewer to move through the narrative visually. So I, basically had this idea to try and combine what picture books can do with what movies can do in terms of editing, zooming in and out, panning and telling a story visually. I went back and I took out as many words as I could and replaced them with the picture sequences.
WRR: So you wrote the full manuscript first?
Selznick: Well, [chuckles] there’s actually no real “thing” that was the full manuscript, but I had a full outline. I had a lot of text written before I went in and took out words. If anything had conversation in it, anything that a character was thinking or smelling or anything that couldn’t be gotten across in pictures, I knew that it had to stay as text. But if it was just a description of an action or if we were just looking at something, I was able to take the words out and replace them with the pictures. So the book grew from what I thought was going to be like a 100-page novella to a 530-page brick. [laughs]
WRR: And Wonderstruck?
Selznick: With Wonderstruck it was sort of the opposite because after finishing Hugo I knew that I wanted to take everything I had learned but do something different with it. So right away I had the idea to separate the words from the pictures and try to tell two different stories – one with text and one just with images. So then I had to find a story that would make sense being told visually. That’s when I remembered a documentary that I saw about deaf culture and deaf education and thought that it might be interesting to tell a story about a deaf person with pictures. Because when you can’t hear, what you see becomes even more important. Telling a story about a deaf person in pictures might, in a way, kind of echo how that character might live their life.
WRR: How did/do you divide your time between the computer and the drawing table?
Selznick: Basically, I write the narrative first, then I try doing some pictures – sketching things out and seeing what works, what doesn’t work. Then I do all the first drafts by hand in a notebook with a Bic pen, and then I go back and put the text into the word processor and do all of the rewrites on the computer; and that, basically, is the process from beginning to end. Throughout the rest of the time I’m working on the book. I’ve got drawings under way and then I’m going back to the text and polishing and trying to figure out the plot. Generally the pictures come much easier than the words.
WRR: Is it like left brain, right brain and back again?
Selznick: [Laughs] Yeah, I think it might be. I don’t know. I just think in pictures, so even though I start everything with language in my head, they really start with images. I just don’t know how to write, so I have a really good editor – Tracy Mack at Scholastic – and she helps me craft all of the text into something that somebody might want to read.
WRR: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand it took you about two years from beginning to end to write Hugo?
Selznick: Two and a half.
WRR: And the same for Wonderstruck?
Selznick: Wonderstruck took three.
WRR: Do you work a full eight and half hour day?
Selznick: You know, I have a lenient boss so I try to make pretend that I have a regular job where I work a full workday, but I just work at home so I’m very flexible. But, yes, I generally try to work at least eight hours a day. Sometimes it’s more than eight hours a day, sometimes it’s a little bit less. Sometimes I’m working six or seven days a week. It’s a lot of work.
WRR: You’ve known about George Melies for a long time, but the idea for writing Hugo implanted itself in your mind after you read a book called Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood. How did that book inspire you?
Selznick: I was in this period where I got a little stuck. I felt like I wasn’t excited about the projects that were being offered to me and I don’t have a lot of my own ideas. Most of the books I’ve done have been brought to me by other authors or by editors. Once I have a project I have a thousand ideas about how to illustrate it, but I don’t have a lot of ideas for new projects, necessarily. So I was taking a couple months off and reading and reassessing my life.
I came across Edison’s Eve and there was a chapter about George Melies that talked about how he had this collection of automatons that were destroyed and thrown away at the end of his life. I had seen A Trip to the Moon a very long time ago and one idea I had in the back of my head was making a story about a boy who meets George Melies. But I didn’t have any characters. I didn’t have a plot. I didn’t know anything.
When I read that story about Melies having this collection that had been thrown away, I imagined a boy climbing through the garbage and finding one of those broken machines. I thought, okay, I don’t know who that boy is, I don’t know what he is doing in the garbage, but this seems like it might be the beginning of a really interesting story.
WRR: Ah, but then it became about Hugo’s dad and the museum.
Selznick: Yeah, the dad didn’t show up for another year and a half.
WRR: Wow. So you were working with a different idea.
Selznick: Yeah, well, I had the main idea, I just didn’t know what any of it meant or why any of it was happening. And my Dad had died right before I started working on this so for a really long time I was trying to keep Hugo’s dad alive. I realized at a certain point that his dad had to die… in order for the story to work. And so I killed Hugo’s father [laughs] and suddenly everything in the plot made sense because I didn’t know what the automaton was going to write when Hugo wound it up. When I started writing the book, it was going to write a poem and the poem was going to then lead to some connection to George Melies but when I realized it had something to do with his dad, I realized it doesn’t write, it draws and I figured out what the automaton drew, what this all meant and why it was important to Hugo.
WRR: That Hugo’s father dies in a fire deeply resonated with me because I lost my own father in a fire. I find your courage to write about the tragic death of a parent wonderful because the characters are trying to reconcile the loss at such young, impressionable ages. Did you struggle at all with crafting the storyline?
Selznick: I struggled with crafting it the entire time, but I can’t say that I was really thinking about readers while I was putting the book together. I mean, obviously I’m aware that most of my audience is kids so I know that most of the people who would be reading this book would be about ten years old – and that’s in my head – but when I’m working I’m not really thinking about them. I’m just trying to figure out how to make the story work and how to make all the parts of the plot come together and I definitely thought about putting Hugo together in the same way that you might think about putting a machine together, which was a natural metaphor for the book anyway, because of all the connections with machines.
So really all the stuff with the dad, which was all the emotional stuff, came last. What I had was, first, all of the literal mechanical plot points: Okay, if Hugo goes here at this point, we have to set up these three things. And, and if this happens here this other thing has to happen later. So that’s why the book’s divided into two sections, so everything that is brought up in the first section is answered in the second section. The book is divided into 24 chapters, like 24 hours in a day, so that the book itself becomes like a clock. When I realized that Hugo’s dad was going to die and all this stuff was going to happen, it definitely was very emotional to put all of that in, but the character traits for Hugo started coming together with more clarity for me as I was writing it.
Of course, there is a long history of orphans in children’s literature, and a lot of times you just need to get rid of the parents so that you can let the kid have their adventures on their own and guide everything themselves.
WRR: Round out their character?
Selznick: Yeah, and of course there’s a big difference between a literary orphan and an actual orphan because I think it’s a very natural fantasy for all kids, no matter how happy their home life is, to wonder what it would be like to be on your own, to not have parents.
WRR: We’ve all fantasized about that.
Selznick: Exactly. So I knew that was serious and that the emotions that I was writing about and connecting to my dad were serious. But, ultimately, I wanted it to be a fun story about a kid in a train station and an automaton and an old man and movies. I definitely wanted the book to feel magical without there being any actual magic in it because that’s something I really like and I felt like I wanted everything that’s in this book, no matter how far fetched, to be within the realm of possibility.
I mean, most of the things in this book actually did happen. Everything about George Melies is based on something true. But I wanted everything relating to Hugo to be potentially true or potentially possible. It’s been satisfying to me, since the book has come out, people have told me they have responded very well to the sort of emotional crisis that Hugo goes through in dealing with his dad, and then finding a new family, and creating a new safe place for himself… because ultimately that’s what we all hope to do when we grow up. We grow up and move out of the family we were born into, generally, and form a new family whether it’s with friends or lovers or whatever it is.
WRR: And he handles it with such grace.
Selznick: Thank you! I was aware of a lot of these things but, again, still it was like, now I need to make Hugo end up happy and safe. The fact that Hugo ends up saving Melies and Melies ends up saving Hugo, it sort of seemed like it was the way that the plot wanted to go as I was hammering it together.
WRR: I love how Hugo’s eagerness to make a broken thing work balances against the brilliant, inventive work of an aging man who’d rather forget his accomplishments, who preferred to let it go because it breaks his heart to bring it back.
WRR: What are your thoughts about creative potential and the fact that some of us are inclined to give up on our creative ideas. How life can challenge us enough to surrender those pursuits, yet how joyful it can be to reclaim them and make them work?
Selznick: Yeah, I mean that was definitely an important part of the story to me and was exemplified by the fact that the person who ended up modeling for George Melies in my book is the author and illustrator, Remy Charlip, one of my favorite authors when I was a kid. He did a book called Fortunately. He also did books called Arm and Arm and Thirteen, which are really great.
By coincidence, he turned out to be friends with a friend of mine so I met him right around the time I was beginning work on Hugo. Besides being this amazing author and illustrator, he was also a choreographer and a dancer. He danced with Merce Cunningham and John Cage. He designed the programs for John Cage’s first public performance. He taught at Sarah Lawrence College for many, many years; and he really lived his life with the idea that everybody is an artist and everybody is creative.
So when I met Remy and he asked me what I was working on and I told him about about this French silent filmmaker, I looked at him and realized that he looked just like George Melies. He had the same face shape, the same white goatee, and I was like, “Oh my God, Remy, you look like George Melies! Will you pose for him in the book?”
So he did. And the fact that Remy, whose entire life has been dedicated to art and to reminding everyone that they are an artist, ended up posing for the character who gave up on being an artist, but who was ultimately was reminded of it again by this little boy, was very resonant for me. Obviously that’s not something that anyone is going to consciously get from the book because that’s just my, sort of… you know, secret knowledge that went into making the book, but that kind of connection and that kind of… [pause]
George Melies as depicted by Brian Selznick
Selznick: Yeah, that kind of lovely irony really meant a lot because I wanted part of the statement to be even if you try to give up on this, in fact it’s still there somewhere – that creativity, that ability and desire to make art, to be an artist is still there, dormant somehow.
WRR: There are so many people out there who have really beautiful art and creativity and might fall off the map if someone doesn’t notice them. I learned about George Melies in film classes, but otherwise I never would have realized that the reason we have all this wonderful art in film is largely credited to a man who was courageous enough to make it.
Selznick: Yeah, and I think that’s really exciting. I love the fact that there’s a generation of kids who are going to grow up now knowing who George Melies was. And Remy is 83 or 84 now. He had a stroke a couple of years ago, and he’s hanging on. He’s in San Francisco. I think he made some of the best picture books in the world and the people who know him really, really love him. But he’s not really as well known as others from his generation like Maurice Sendak and Ruth Krauss.
One of the things I love about talking about Hugo is bringing attention to Remy again because it feels like, in a certain way, while Remy never completely disappeared the way Melies did, there are a lot of people who don’t know about Remy and they should.
WRR: That’s beautiful, and a very cool way to bring it into something tangible: out of the book and into the world.
Selznick: When Hugo won the Caldecott Medal in 2008, I invited Remy to come to the ceremony and I think I spoke to two thousand librarians at the Caldecott event. In the speech, when I told everybody that Remy Charlip was the model for George Melies and that he was in the room, two thousand librarians leaped to their feet to give him a standing ovation. I cry just talking about it. And I thought, oh my God, this is why I won! So that Remy Charlip could sit here surrounded by two thousand librarians from around the world giving him a standing ovation.
WRR: I know we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about Hugo – and with just cause – but let’s talk now about Wonderstruck. How were you inspired by the deaf culture to create this book?
Selznick: I think that I was sort of in the same place with Wonderstruck that I was with Hugo. I was writing it not knowing, in any way, how the audience would respond to it because, again, I found myself writing about something that was a relatively unusual topic for a book. Of course, there’s been many deaf characters in children’s books and YA books, but I was very conscious of not wanting the deaf characters to be there as some kind of lesson or some kind of metaphor. A lot of times deaf characters show up as metaphors or as a device that teaches the hearing main characters some kind of lesson. I didn’t want deafness to be the issue in the book. The issue in the book is: what does it mean to not be loved when you’re a child. Or, what does it mean to lose your parents and go on this kind of quest? Those are the issues that the kids are dealing with.
I worked very closely with a couple of deaf academics who helped me make sure that I got everything as accurate as possible. My boyfriend happens to teach with two of the leading deaf scholars in the country: Carol Padden and Tom Humphries. Carol was the first deaf person to win a MacArthur Grant a couple years ago. And so they both made sure that everything I was talking about relating to deaf culture and deaf education was accurate.
But also what was hardest for me as a hearing person was trying to get across the experience of being deaf. One of the things that they kept saying to me was they really appreciated the fact that the deafness in this is just part of the fabric of the character’s lives as opposed to being the single thing that defines them within the narrative. That was something I worked really hard to achieve. I loved working with Carol and Tom and I had other readers, who were deaf, read the book and give me their feedback.
I wanted to have a general sense of accuracy, but then ultimately I also needed to be true to the two specific fictional characters I was making up. Is it likely for a ten year old boy to get on a bus and go across half the country by himself soon after becoming deaf? Is it likely? No. But he does it! That’s what he does. It’s part of the situation, part of what he needs to do.
I wanted the deafness to be a part of that story and I liked the way that the pictures helped to tell Rose’s story and then the two different ways of communicating – pictures and words – eventually come together in a way that also echoes some of the other themes relating to how characters communicate, how they express ideas to one another. There are scenes in Wonderstruck where… in one scene, in one conversation… characters are signing, speaking, lip reading, writing and gesturing. Figuring out how to make that clear – and clear to the reader – was one of the bigger challenges of the book.
WRR: Hugo and Wonderstruck are categorized in the genres of YA and Historical-Fiction and therefore have the potential to cross boundaries and appeal to all ages. How does one define children’s literature and does it speak to issues that literature written for adults cannot?
Selznick: I love the fact that grown-ups are reading my books. I love the fact that Hugo is being used in college film classes and other classes with older students. Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. I didn’t really write Hugo as a children’s book. I just wrote it as a book.
I know that, generally, my audience is about ten and I love that audience. I think they are the best readers in the world. But if grown-ups find something in it that is meaningful, I think that’s really wonderful and really exciting, but it wasn’t an intention of mine. I really spent two and half years trying to write the best book I could and, to be honest, I also spent two and half years thinking I was writing a book that nobody was going to read, because it’s a book about french silent movies for children, which is not a guaranteed best seller. It doesn’t actually sound [laughs] like it makes any sense at all as a commercial vehicle because nobody watches silent movies.
I was writing about issues that meant a lot to me and I think that when you read a book you respond to very strongly, a big part of it is because the issues in the book meant something to the author as well, and the author was writing about something that they feel very powerfully about. So if some of that comes through, it makes sense that it will come through to any age reader, not just a young reader, but to older readers as well. In the end, a good book is a good book.
WRR: Yes, and it’s ageless, really.
Selznick: One would hope!
Denise Petti, Assistant Editor at WRR, is a professional marketing director by day and writer of short stories, memoir, poetry, and greeting card verse by night. Denise had a series of personal essays published in the Burlington County Times, as well as a creative non-fiction piece in Stories from the Heart, a book of women’s reflection and inspiration published by Church Women United.
Four of her poems were selected for inclusion in Rider University’s Venture Literary Magazine and her work was twice selected for presentation at Rider’s annual Film Symposium.
Denise’s verses and designs appear in greeting cards for Braveheart Greetings, a woman-owned company that offers encouraging, empowering and occasionally funny sentiments for life’s difficult situations, as well as for The Compassion Project, an organization dedicated to helping people help themselves during times of hardship, healing, recovery and transformation. She is also a contributing lyricist for the local music group, Deep Fried Thorns.
Works by Denise Petti
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