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Transcript from an interview with Norton Juster

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Norton Juster. The transcript is divided into the following clips:


Shared stories

We didn't have an extraordinary number of books at home, but we had absolutely wonderful ones. I grew up primarily, at least my memory of it is, on all the Oz books. And most people know The Wizard of Oz, and that's about all, but there were about 14 or 15 that Frank Baum did and then there was a woman named Ruth Plumley Thompson who did even more than he did, and then two other people.

By that time I had stopped reading them, but they were magic for me. And I remember we had books of folk and fairy tales, which I loved, and we would read all together all the time. And the great reading was the Sunday paper where my father would get on the floor with me and we would read the comics and then whatever else looked interesting.

I am a great believer in reading because I think for a young kid, where I think it's very important, it's more of the process of sort of being with and I guess bonding with a child. I think you can read the telephone book to a child who is cuddled up in your lap and it's just as satisfactory an experience as reading anything else. But we read a lot in my family.

I read growing up a lot of things that I had no business to read. I was one of those people when we went to the local branch of the library, I would always be thrown out of the adult section trying to find the books that look interesting to me.

But my parents had several shelves of — they were a first generation American family — and they had several shelves of huge Russian and Yiddish novels all translated into English, but you know, 1200, 1500 pages. And I would read them and have no idea what I was reading, but I just loved the language and the way you read it and how the words sounded.

And I think that has always affected the way I write. From my point of view, a child reading a book, if there is a sense of rhythm, almost a musicality to the way you read the words, they can go past almost any difficulty and it doesn't bother them at all. But with my daughter, I remember we started even before reading, we would take walks and I would carry her and I would just talk to her about things knowing that she probably didn't understand anything I was talking about.

But something, I think, gets through that way, the sense of talking, which is telling stories or describing things, which is telling stories, is a fun activity, is an enjoyable activity. And to this day she still insists that she remembers some of those things. I have no idea — I doubt it, but it's so embedded in her that I don't argue with her about it.

And both my daughter and my granddaughter have reading problems, they have ADD and dyslexia and they are both very bright and they have great struggles with that. So with my granddaughter I've been doing, we do a lot of reading together. We read in a lot of ways. Sometimes I'll read to her, sometimes she'll read to me, sometimes we'll sort of go back and forth; I'll read a few pages, she'll read a few pages.

And it's wonderful because we can pause at words or pause at a particular way someone has said something and talk about it a little bit. It's one of those things I have against the e-books; very odd to do that with them.

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Word play

I'm always confronted by people objecting to difficult vocabulary, which I tend to use. I like words. And someone said recently, I wish I say that I couldn't, but to kids, there are no difficult words, there are just words they have never come across before. They are not difficult or not, they are just something they don't know about.

And if we go with that, I think life becomes much simpler, you don't have to worry about that. I remember reading and not knowing words and you'd go right by them. Because out of the context of it, or as I said before, out of the rhythm, out of the flow. It's like a music, almost a melody, you know. And I remember as a kid also I would say a word sometimes and then repeat it again and again an again and faster and faster and faster until suddenly it had no meaning — it was just sounds, and the sounds were wonderful.

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Making things

I studied architecture. I grew up with architecture, my father was an architect, my brother, who is four and a half years old, was training and then became an architect. I had no idea I was every going to be a writer or anything like that; I was going to be an architect and all my early playthings were all the things he brought home from the office. Samples of, you know, wood samples, marble samples, electric bits and pieces — everything.

They were absolute magic and I could never understand how you could ever plan to do anything where you didn't make something. In fact, when I was at university, I was the University of Pennsylvania, most of the people I knew were in the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and they never made anything, there were just bits of paper and reports and I could never understand the reasons for that.

Anyway, after college I went into the Navy. Those were the days that you had to go into service. And with great objections and I was being wronged and everything, but it was a terrific experience. I met people and confronted problems and things I never would have without going into that kind of life for three and a half years.

But as you know in service, a lot of your time is wasted. You know, you do some things and then there's a lot of standing and waiting and trying to kill time. We were stationed in Newfoundland, which is kind of an interesting place, it's right where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current meet generating masses of misery, I called it. It's all fog and damp and very cold and wet, but the kind of cold that goes right through into your joints.

Anyway, in order to keep myself sane, I began doing some watercolors and I brought some stuff with me and I began doing some little illustrations geared to nothing, and then I started to do little stories to go along with them. And we were living on a barrack ship and the commanding officer after a couple of weeks called me in and said that he was a little disturbed, I was demoralizing the battalion because I had these little pictures of elves and fairies and castles and things on the walls, drying, the watercolors.

And that the Navy men didn't do that sort of thing, so I had to stop.

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Two mathematical illiterates talking about infinity

I came home after my Navy service and I started working in an architectural office. And after awhile I began to have an idea that it might be fun to do a kids book about cities, how you experience them, how they get built, how they affect your lives, how you affect the way they develop — all kinds of things.

And I applied for a grant and I got it. You know, there is an old saying that when God wants to punish you, he grants your wishes, and this is what happened with this thing. I started, I worked for about three or four months on it until I was literally up to my neck in little 3 X 5 cards with footnote kinds of things on them and I decided that's not what I want to do.

So I went away and took a little vacation and to keep my mind off the city book, I began scribbling a little story which ultimately became The Phantom Tollbooth. I had no idea I was starting a book, it was just something, really, to keep my mind away from the other thing. And it was triggered, interestingly, by — I went out to dinner just before I went on this vacation and they were crowded, it was right in my neighborhood.

So I was sitting out in the lounge and about a ten year old boy walked out. I think he had finished his dinner and his parents probably said go bother someone else in the restaurant — not us. He came out, sat next to me and he looked at me and said, "What's the biggest number there is?" So I said, "Well, what do you think?" And he reeled off a million, trillion, scavillion kind of a number and when he finished, I said, "Well, add one to that."

And he looked at me and kind of — and then I made a number up for him and he very quickly understood and he said, "Well, add one to that." And we talked for about 15 minutes, it was wonderful. It was two mathematical illiterates talking about infinity. And it really started me thinking about the things that always, not so much bugged me, that I didn't understand. I understood them somewhat conceptually, but I didn't understand why they were there at all, I mean why we had to concern ourselves with things like that.

And I was a great troublemaker in school for that reason. I always did — I did assignments, but I always did them in my way and kind of a different focus on them. And as I began working on this, I began to remember more and more about the problems I had as about a ten year old or an eleven year old and the thing just began to grow.

And I finished about 50 pages of the book and a friend said, she worked in publishing, said let me show this to one of the editors. And luckily, she showed it to an editor who was not a children's book editor, a wonderful man named Jason Epstein who worked for Random House and was a very important editor. And at that time he was producing a series of books, reprints from classic children's literature, mostly English, and putting them out in this country.

And there was a bit of a disaster because the books were much too literate for the age groups that they were meant for in this country. There was a stage in the early 1960s where we were very busy dumbing down books as fast as could, nobody should ever read anything that they didn't already know. So his books didn't do very well.

Mine was the only original that they did, it was called Looking Glass Library. And then when they folded up, it went right into Random House. But anyway, that sort of started me writing. But all through my life I had an architectural practice and then I started teaching, which I love doing, both in New York at Pratt Institute and at Hampshire College in Amherst.

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A drawer full of ideas

Well, I joke about this, but I think the hardest thing for people to understand is the major — of course, they don't recognize it as work — is the major work you do is looking out the window with your eyes blank. Because you do, you do a great deal of thinking and you try to get something down on paper and you go back and forth to it.

I write in a very agonizingly kind of a way. I will get some ideas and put them down, I'll put them aside for awhile — days, weeks, whatever, bring them back. When I've written them, I thought they were just what I wanted to say and when I look at them again, I realize how badly, in many cases, I've said them or how I missed the thought or how I didn't even have the thought that I wanted.

And I have drawers full of envelopes with sort of half-started things. I will never get to them in three lifetimes, but I get to some of them, and it's interesting. Sometimes when I open a drawer and if I lean down and listen there will be one of them saying "me, me, me!" And that's the one I should take out and start to work. And sometimes you are ready that way.

The new book, The Odious Ogre, was a little story I started close to 40 years ago. It was in one of those big folders — they weren't envelopes, big folders with closed ends, you know, I love because you can put a lot of stuff in them. And I would take it out periodically and I would look at it and I would say there is something there, I like it, but I haven't got it yet.

But two, two and a half years ago, maybe three, I took it out and I suddenly said I think I know where this is going or what I should do with it, and I began working and I kept working on it. But there are other ones that are in there that will never see the light of day.

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Eavesdropping

I get up very early and I'll stick a notebook in my pocket and take a walk. Well, in my early days, I would take these tremendously long walks and I lived in New York, I was living mostly in Brooklyn Heights, and I would take a walk and it would last an hour or two. I would come back and suddenly realize I must have crossed a hundred different streets and never looked, I was so into the ideas I was thinking about.

And it was always a miracle that I came back alive, first of all. But then I'd take the notebook out and there were pages of things that I jotted down and maybe ten percent or a little bit more were things that had any value. The other things were just there to get the wheels turning, I guess. And I did a lot of that and that helped a great deal. That used to launch me.

And there was another trick I used to use. There was nothing more terrifying than getting up in the morning to a blank sheet of paper to start, so I would always leave myself the night before in a position where I either had to finish a paragraph or a sentence or an idea that I knew would be there in the morning. It's almost like a train starting. Slowly, you build up the momentum of it because someone gave you a little push to start.

But basically, the actual work of it, I think for me is very much the same. It's just I pace a lot, I write little things down, I don't write often in order or it's not sequentially quite often. And the one thing I like doing, and I still like doing, is in order to know the characters, which to me is the most important thing you do, I will write a dialogue with some of the characters that I'm working with.

That almost never ends up in the book, it's just my way of seeing what they are like or what I want to make them like. And every once in awhile, it's a miraculous kind of a moment, you're working on a piece of a dialogue and you suddenly realize it almost seems like you're not making up the dialogue, you are just eavesdropping.

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Thinking in pictures

I guess my background is such that I start thinking visually before I think about words. You know, the background in design, it's very visual. And when I taught at Hampshire, it was interesting to me that — I don't know whether you know anything about Hampshire College, but it's very different than most traditional colleges.

I would get in my classes a lot of kids who were dyslexic because they would say well, I'll go into a class where they draw and then they can't find me out. Most kids now in college, a lot of them are dyslexic, and they are brilliant and kept masking it. They get through most of their college education, in many cases, without anybody understanding if they really are.

And I would find out and work with these kids and we would do some wonderful things, but it's very difficult for them to conceive in words. And to me when I'm working on design, it's the same way. And the visual, I think, is the most important entr??e point for writing. I can't begin to write unless I can see or have some sense of the people, the place, what it feels like, what it smells like and everything and then they become real for me.

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Collaboration and critique

The ideal, I discovered, for most publishers is that they would not only not like you the author to work with the illustrator, they would be very happy if you never met or you never knew them, because they lose that sense of control over what's going on.

Again, growing up in the architectural profession, almost all the work on a design problem is collaborative, you work with people. You get together and talk about it, you criticize each other. And the criticism, from a design point of view, is never the same as if you're talking about writing, which many people take very personally, and there's a reason for that, I guess, and don't like to hear things like that.

So we, quite often, there are conflicts that arise from that. I don't ever want to tell an illustrator what to do. I don't think you can. But what I do want is the illustrator to know where I came from with the story, so what the spirit of that is and what I was trying to do in the story. Then they are on their own, you know, they can do it in any way they want.

It's a difficult thing to try to get to. I was lucky in the sense that when The Phantom Tollbooth was written, I was sharing an apartment with Jules Feiffer in Brooklyn Heights. He was on the one floor, I was on the next floor up. And we got together and he looked at some of what I was doing and disappeared and came back with these unbelievable drawings.

And when we went in with the story, there we were. Here was the story, here were the pictures. And there was no way you could say no to that because they both worked very, very well and they worked well together. The second book I did, it was the only I did the illustrations, such as they were, which was A Dot and a Line. And I had great fun doing it.

And again, they were inseparable — you couldn't take that apart. And the third book I did, Albrecht the Wise, was interesting because I did three short stories, which were very much influenced and I wanted to do stories that were set in medieval times, because I love medieval architecture and medieval cities and things like that.

And I began writing on it and I just loved the sense — there were books called "books of days" that are published that show daily life in medieval times. And I really wanted to get the sense of that all went into the story also. And one day I was walking around town, I stopped in an old bookstore, which I always do, and on the remainder table was a book called Orestes or The Art of Smiling done by an Italian illustrator named Domenico Gnoli.

And I looked at it and I said God, that's brilliant, that's exactly what we want. And sometimes someone up there smiles down on you because he was working in Italy and he had an agent in this country who happened to be Jules Feiffer's agent, Ted Riley, his name was. And I said, can you send this to him and see if he would be interested? And he did and we got a letter back saying he'd love to do it, and that was it.

You know, we had sort of a little letter of agreement. I waited for about four or five months and this enormous package arrived on my front door and I opened it up and those were all the illustrations. I had not talked to an editor about these illustrations and they were incredible. I mean, I've never seen anything — right after the book was published, he had an exhibit in, I think it was Chicago and in one day he sold out the entire exhibit, it was so beautiful.

And again, when I came in with that book then again, they couldn't say anything. So I got very spoiled. But most of the time I managed, at least, to get into a sense where I do two things, where we get to talk initially and when things happen, we get to look at the roughs and talk about them a little bit. I don't expect everybody to do what I suggest or be influenced by some of the things I bring up.

At the same time, I think it's good for them to look at it. Most of the criticism that I've had on my writing has been good not because it has told me what to do, but because it has told me what didn't work for someone else and I began thinking about it again.

But criticism is right not if it makes you do something, but if it makes you think. And right now with the editor we have, who is a wonderful editor, Michael di Capua at Scholastic, he said to me once, he said you know what, when I write you something, what comes back is not what you had and not what I expect, but something completely different, and that's the way it should work, I think.

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Seeing the world through a child's eyes

The Hello Goodbye Window didn't really emerge as a story idea. In fact, it worried me when I got through with it because I said this is not a story, it has no real plot, it has no conflict, it's not a quest for anything, it has no real action. It is just me observing my granddaughter. My daughter is a single parent, so we do a lot of backstopping and we live near each other where we live in Amherst.

And she comes over at least one night a week because my daughter has been going to night school and whatever class night each term is, that's the night that she stays over so Emily can get herself together and do what she has to do. And I would just see a lot of her. And of course, the major area we're in, there's always a kitchen, it was a very big kitchen and it had this window out to the garden.

And after awhile I just began to notice all of these things that she did or the way she reacted to things and I just started to make some little notes about it and pull them together. And I finished the story and I remember, I have it at home now another of my little folders with, I think, it's sixteen rejection letters on that story. And every author, I think, has a story like that and people saying no, and saying a lot of the things that I said, it wasn't a story, it didn't do this, it didn't do that.

And it wasn't, it was just a little slice of a piece of life. And it worked, you know, for me, but you never know when you do a story. I thought no one is going to like The Dot and the Line, it's just my little joke. And I was very uneasy when I brought it in for that same reason also. And then I had done things like, I thought everybody is going to love this and everybody hasn't loved it. So you just don't know.

But I love that piece for many reasons, and one because it was my granddaughter and two, because it was kind of a little lesson for me that there was enough, I don't know how you can describe it, there was nothing that almost anybody identifies with if they have children or are around children or know anything about them. And I think that was the nerve that touched, so that's why it is going to hang around for awhile.

And, of course, the illustrations there are incredible. You know, Chris Raschka, he won the Caldecott for it and they are absolutely beautiful. He was completely fearless. I'd never seen an illustrator that would work in 18 different mediums. Everything he could grab he worked, whether it was pencil and pen and charcoal and he would scratch it with something and then put watercolors on it. But it comes out and they just leap off the page at you.

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Who's going to think this is funny?

The Dot and the Line, the question was who was it for, and I never know when I write books who they are for. They are mostly for me. I write them because I think an idea is interesting or funny or whatever, but it just seems to work. And I know an idea is good because I want to work on it. If it's an idea that I don't want to work on, then it's no good. Maybe it would for someone else, but it's not for me.

When The Phantom Tollbooth, of course, came out, everybody was convinced it wasn't a children's book at all. It was too difficult, the ideas were things that kids wouldn't connect with, the puns and wordplay, they wouldn't understand. But then every book of mine is that and that same question is asked.

And finally again, Michael my editor now, when I brought The Odious Ogre in, he asked the first question, who is it for and I went through the whole thing again. A day or two later he called me and he said you know, it doesn't really matter; every one of your books is the same way and you can't say who is it for, and that's what I like. As far as I am concerned, books are for whoever wants to read them.

The Dot and the Line started as just a little idea vaguely influenced by a character I knew at about that time who was a friend, not a close friend, but someone I knew who was outrageous and did all the kinds of things I wished I was able to do when I was that age, in my 20s and always seemed to end up with the girl.

I had a friend and he was a terrible person. He did everything he shouldn't do, he was untrustworthy, he wasn't particularly honest, he had terrible manners, he dressed like an unmade bed. But yet whenever we went anywhere, he was always the one that ended up with the girl. I never had the nerve to do any of the things that he did.

He was always in the back of my mind as the squiggle and I, of course, was the line. I have no idea who the dot was, but she could be any one of the innumerable idealized figures that I knew I would never get to first base with. And the thing just started to form as a little story and I just loved the way it was going.

I wrote it very quickly, it didn't take more than a week or two to write it. And then I said to myself oh my goodness, how am I going to illustrate this? Because I couldn't think — you can't give a book like this to an illustrator. And they were little books of humor then, but there was never anything like this, so there was no precedent, nothing that you could talk about.

So I started to do it myself and around the corner from where I lived was a blueprint shop in the days when they would sell used blueprints and Photostats. And I knew the guy who ran the Photostat machine and I would do these little squiggle drawings and I'd take them in and I'd say okay, do a series of little enlargements.

And when it got to the point where the squiggle, when you enlarge a line enough it starts to get course and hairy, and I said when it reached that point, I knew we had the squiggle right. The dot was no problem, of course, and then the line, but then all of those other geometric figures. And I discovered a place, Yeshiva University in New York had a magazine called Scripta Mathematica. And it was a very erudite magazine, none of which I could understand.

But they had this library, and it was a big central room with an enormous table. And the first time I walked in, I had to sign a lot of things, they are very careful about who they let in. There were about three or four people sitting around, none of whom looked to be under 90, and bookshelves all around all four walls.

And I would take things out and find all of these diagrams that illustrated various kinds of mathematical equations and I would pick out the ones I wanted. And they were wonderful, they were so beautiful. So a lot of those ended up in there. And then I went to The Daily News newspaper file to get some of the photographs that are in there.

The hardest thing for me was to find a portrait of Euclid to put in the book. But it took me months to get all of these things together. And again, when it was over and I just had this terrible feeling who is going to think this is funny? Nobody is going to think — I think it's funny, but that's me, nobody else is going to. And that was has been around now for 40 years — 47 years.

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Finding your own meaning in the story

Lessons plans and activity books or outlines that you get about, not even just my book, but any book, worry me because they start to channel you into responses that are not really yours. You have to then deal with someone else's or what someone else wants you to do. I have an enduring memory when I was a kid of reading things, coming into class, bubbling over with my insights — I didn't call them insights then, of course.

And learning from the teacher when she let all the kids go through and say things and then would sit and explain what it really meant. And you would sit there saying how could I have possibly missed all that? And I didn't miss anything, I just made it mine which we should allow kids to do, and don't. So I don't like the idea of the directing all of this stuff.

There's a wonderful old Peanuts cartoon from some years ago and I can't remember exactly, I think it's Linus or Charlie Brown and Lucy talking about poetry. And the next to the last box, one of them says to the other, "But how do you know what it means?" And in the last box, the other one says, "Someone tells you." And of course, that is pretty much the way poetry is taught or has been in schools for a long, long time and I object to that strenuously.

So, always when I visit schools a question comes up, rarely from the kids, but mostly from the teachers, about what I'm trying to show them or tell them or teach them or what the message is and everything. And it isn't — I mean, I have things on my mind, of course, when I'm writing about it, but when they read it they may not be the things that they are thinking about. Because if it touches something, a chord, and then it makes them think about something or has some importance for them, it may be entirely different, but it's real and it's right.

You have to let them talk and most important, you have to listen. This is the thing that I think so many parents are not terribly good at. Yes, they hear what a child is saying, but quite often are not really listening to them or not really responding in the same spirit that the child is.

And I think that's the great art form and that's for teaching, too, I think, is listening more than lecturing or teaching or getting a point across, making sure that someone understands the lesson. I remember when I as in service, we did a little bit of teaching of various kinds of courses and things. They always tell you the military method, tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them.

And so your message always got through, it was just someone had a hammer and a big nail pounding it. Of course, at that level they weren't interested in your ideas, they were interested in getting a message across. That's not my idea of liter

"The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can't." — Mark Twain