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Transcript from an interview with John Bemelmans Marciano

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with John Bemelmans Marciano. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Meet John Bemelmans Marciano

My name's John Bemelmans Marciano and my newest book is Madeline and the Cats of Rome. I'm from Brooklyn, New York and books I've done in the past have been some other Madeline books as well as a chapter book called Harold's Tail and another one called Delilah and There's a Dolphin in the Grand Canal.

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The first Madeline

The original Madeline, I think you could say was my mom. When she was two and a half years old, her dad, my grandfather, took her on a trip to Paris and he made this wonderful scrapbook for her called, "Your First Voyage to France" and we still have it and it has these photographs of her in the classic hat and the coat and in front of the Eiffel Tower.

And visiting the zoo and after that, they went to an island in the Mediterranean called the (Unint.) and there on this island, very small island, there's only one motorized vehicle. And to get around my grandfather rented a bicycle and he promptly got run over by the only motorized vehicle, which luckily was an ambulance.

And it took him directly to the hospital and there on the ceiling was a crack that looked like a rabbit and in the room next door was a little girl who had just her appendix out and she jumped up on the bed and lifted her shirt to show him. And when he got home to New York, he sat down at his favorite restaurant and turned over the menu and started writing the story.

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Staying true to my grandfather's work

I didn't feel a responsibility to continue on with my grandfather's works. I mean I definitely consider it a privilege to be able to. I feel the responsibility is in doing it right and doing it well and one of the reasons that I decided to set this book in Rome was that my grandfather loved Paris and it was a second home to him.

He really knew the city so well and if you look at those books and you go to Paris even today, you see the same faces and the same places and even the same situations happening. And I felt that not knowing Paris, I really couldn't do anything but a very touristic take on the city.

And I lived in Rome and I was able to, I knew the colors of the city. I knew what the city was like. I knew what the people were like. There's a scene where Madeline's running through the market and it was my local market and there's a guy that I used to buy tomatoes from there, there's the women I used to buy eggs from there.

So it was really, it was a way for me to put something of myself into the book while still doing it very much in my grandfather's style and staying true to his artwork.

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Creating a classic

I think what's unique about my grandfather and Madeline is that he was so successful and such a fantastic writer and illustrator both. I can't really think of another person who's done children's books who's quite as accomplished not only was he a very successful painter, but he was also, he wrote I think 20 books for adults.

He wrote over 200 magazine articles, was a regular contributor to "The New Yorker" for both covers and for fiction. And I think what he really brought where Madeline really is something apart is it was published in 1939 and at the time most children's books, illustration, the idea was really to illustrate the story, illustrate the words.

And they weren't… the pictures really weren't meant to stand on their own. My grandfather really came from things at a very visual, very graphic. He was definitely… his pictures are deceptively simple, he was… he knew plenty about expressionism and (unint.) and he is… you know just incredible library of art books.

He was also, he grew up in the Tyrol in the Alps and there's a very naïve native folk-art there that he also really assimilated into his work. And his original dream, his first dream was to be a comic strip artist and he did that comic strip in the mid-20s which wasn't very successful, wasn't very funny, which I think was the main problem.

But the illustrations were just really stunningly beautiful. And the first Madeline book was something so different, it was… there's a part in it, Miss Clavell ran fast and faster and it takes about three pages and I can see from his early work that he was working, he was thinking about the panels of a comic strip.

You know one, two, three. It was in France, I think in France they call comic books, sequential art. And he really used his art in that kind of manner. And it was actually rejected by his editor who said it really wasn't… it wasn't worthy enough, it didn't have enough… it didn't have enough depth to it.

And I feel like there's almost something… and I feel in a way that that's true and that's also the most fantastic thing about Madeline, it's all about (unint.), it's about color, it's about movement, it's about life. And there's nothing didactic about it. And I think that that's what children have responded to all these years, more then anything else.

And I think that that's what a lot of… I really have so many, it's incredible how many illustrators, in terms of children's books illustrators come up to me and say that, you know, my grandfather was such a big influence on them. And I think he really did, he was one of the people who really helped to free children's book illustration and really bring it into a more mass popular culture and not something that was such, you know, such an elite sort of thing.

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Becoming a writer

One of the first things I remember is getting in trouble for taking a fistful of crayons and just drawing all over the walls and I think those crayon marks were there until I probably got back from college. So when did I first want to be a writer, I don't know.

I loved comic books growing up and I think I really learned to draw by really copying comic books and I think… you know, I think that that's the best training that there is, taking something that you like and copying it, whether it's for art or for stories and then as you do that you can begin to add your own things to it and eventually it'll become your own.

I think my encouragement to be able to write and to draw definitely came from my mom and my grandmother, I actually never knew my grandfather. But for them they knew that… they knew that this was… that writing and drawing could be a career and a very fulfilling career.

So they were really able to help me in that direction. I think I was lucky that throughout my school years, especially when I was young, I had teachers who really encouraged me, especially with the writing. That was really my favorite thing, creative writing.

And I think the best thing that you can do is to encourage and also not just to encourage things to be right or wrong, but just pure encouragement. I remember being… I remember writing a story in second or third grade or whatever, however old I was and I used the verb "to muck" in it.

I grew up actually on a horse farm and we used to muck out the stalls. And "muck" to me was as real a word as you could possibly have and the teacher said that, marked it wrong and said "muck" was not a word. And I remember taking that kind of hard and being a little bit, you know, I don't know if it was mortified by it, but now thinking back on it, I don't think there should be anything wrong with somebody inventing a word.

I think that that's really a wonderful thing. So I think that the best kind of encouragement is really the purest form of encouragement to have somebody go their own way.

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A stop-and-start process

I would say probably for every book that I've done, I've probably had about 10 or 20 ideas that I've just really quickly jotted down or… sketched down. Even though I'm an illustrator really first and primarily, I always start with writing and I, whenever I have an idea, if it's a sentence, if it's a… you know, if it's a whole story, I'll just write it down and I'll put it away.

And sometimes they come right away, sometimes I never see them again. The book I'm looking to do next actually is probably an idea I had 10 years ago and I just came across it again and I thought, this is a good story and it was something that I really couldn't have done 10 years ago, but I feel like I can do now.

And I think it's very interesting when you start something and you stop and you start it again and you can look at it with a fresh perspective and I think it's very important to take time between drafts of something or while you're working on something to really get perspective and I think it's great to work on many different things at once.

I think if you're only working on one thing, it's very hard to keep your perspective. So I like to start, as far as process goes, you know I like to start with a quick story and then once I get that into a form where I know the beginning, the middle and the end, then I do quick sketches.

With the Madeline book, it's different because it's in rhyme, so I'll come up with couplets of rhyme that I like which almost in the end are never used and the sketches are never used. But it just gets you started. And one of the things that is great about being a writer and an illustrator both is that you can go back and forth.

And I think that's… I think going back and forth is really the best way to make a unified whole of it.

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Leaving space within the story

When I start sharing in the process… I have to rein myself back from doing it too early because I'm always dying to get feedback and I really want to get peoples opinions, but I only have a limited circle of friends. So I can't really abuse their generosity too much.

And you also have to know from your friends, I think early in the process, you want just encouragement. So I tend to then show it to people who I know are going to be easy reads. And the further along it gets, I'll start showing it to people who I know will be far more critical.

But for me the one of the best parts of it is… is sharing it with is sharing your new stories with other people. And you get so much immediate impact and I think probably if I'd learned to do anything, anything that was really bad with, when I first started off about 12 years ago, is to be able to take other peoples criticisms, even when I think it's unfounded, to be at least, see where they're coming from.

And it also helps, it's helped me to realize that the vision that you have in your head will never be the vision that anybody else takes to a story. And that what you're doing, especially when you write, is you're allowing your readers to create their own experience with the work that you've created.

And it's not a medium where everybody experiences it the same way and that's really the best thing and I try to leave a lot of space within a story that I don't try to explain everything. I did that when I first started off and now I really want it, especially in picture books.

One of the most fantastic things about picture books is that you only have, it's not only one other person, it's two other people because you have a lot of times parents reading it. So it's their interpretation and then it's also what the kids are going to get out of it.

And if you can leave things for the parents to explain, even things the parents don't know and maybe they have to look up or… it just enriches the experience, especially because you hope they're going to be reading to the kids the same book, 10, 20, 30 times.

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The life of a writer

The best and worst parts of being an author and an illustrator, I would say definitely the best part is that my commute is… really just across my bedroom to my drafting table. And I would say that the worst part of it is sometimes I don't do anything more then that commute for weeks at a time.

I really… I am a very social person and I love when I had a regular job, I actually just absolutely loved the coffee breaks and the going out to lunch with people and it's really, that's really the part that I miss the most. And when you're getting close to a deadline, it can be two or three months where you really just, you know, you're working seven hours a day and you really don't have much time for anybody or anything else.

The best part of it though is that you do have this incredible freedom and when… and you do love what you're doing all day long, maybe not all day long, but most of the time and I especially love to write because then I actually can get some… I can go out to a café, or I can go the park and I can work wherever.

When I really get into drawing mode is when I really feel chained to the old drawing table.

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Beyond Madeline

My favorite book that I've actually done that's not a Madeline book is called Harold's Tail, and it's about a squirrel who lives in New York City in a little park. He's got the perfect life. He's the only squirrel that lives in the park and there's this kindly old gentleman who feeds him his nuts every morning.

And one morning Harold looks up, and he goes down and sees that the garbage can has been knocked over and he sees there's a rat in it. And he goes over to the rat and he says, like, 'Excuse me rat. You've had your fun here, but it's time for you to go. We don't like your kind around here.'

So the rat turns to him and says, 'Oh, you think you're better then me?' He goes, 'Let me tell you something. The only thing you have that I don't have is that big fluffy tail.'

And the squirrel says, 'Well, while it's true I do have a fluffy tail, I also have a much better personality… and frankly, you stink.'

So the rat says, 'Hey, fluffy boy! The only personality you have is in that tail.'

So they wind up breaking into a barbershop and taking a razor and taking off all of the squirrel's tail hair.

And they're gluing the fur onto the rat's and they go back to the man who feeds Harold every morning and the man sees him with his naked tail and beats him off with his cane and then the rat comes along with his big splendid tail and he showers him with nuts.

And… well, Harold realizes that he was wrong. And he has to spend the next year waiting for his tail to grow back, learning what it's like to live life as a rat on the mean streets of New York.

So I just found that actually not having the book, just freed me to tell the story in such a more lively way and I didn't actually need to depend on pictures, I didn't need to depend on the text.

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An excerpt from Madeline and the Cats of Rome

My name is John Bemelmans Marciano. I'd like to read from new book, Madeline and the Cats of Rome.

"From an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, left 12 little girls in two straight lines. Their bags were packed, the cameras stowed, they were ready to escape the cold."

The train that leaves at half past nine, hurry, hurry Madeline. Across the Alps the pace was slow, the mountains still were packed with snow. But the far and farther south the traveled, the more that winter came unraveled. Although it's dreary back at home, the time has come for spring in Rome.

Down the steps they took a stroll, hearing bells of churches toll. Here is a fountain they found quite appealing and everyone loved the Sistine Ceiling. But in Italy the greatest treat comes when it is time to eat.

Miss Clavell said, 'Over here señora. 12 plates of pasta, por favora.'

The hours of the day were running out, the sun was setting or just about.

'One last photo that's person tight,' said Miss Clavell, 'Yes, that's right.'

But the moment she had her camera drawn, it was yanked from her hands by the strap and was gone. Madeline took up the chase, first the theft and now a race.

Into the fountain with a splash, through the market in a dash, across the river that kept a tail, but coming back they lost the trail. Madeline said there is no justice. That little thief completely lost us.

Just then a cat seeking some affection, arched its back in Madeline's direction. Madeline said, 'My, what a nice kitten!' Her dog was of a different opinion.

'Genevieve!' Madeline yelled. Too late. She followed that cat through a locked up grate, into a house about to fall down, down in the poorest part of town.

Madeline pushed the door, it creaked. 'Is anyone there?' she asked as she peaked.

From somewhere deep in the shadowy dark, she heard Genevieve's whimpering bark. Then Madeline saw to her great surprise, those shining, staring, glaring eyes. There were cats, cats, look at them all. There were cats on the sofa, cats in the hall, cats coming out of a hole in the wall.

A voice from behind here clear and strong said, 'You have come where you don't belong.' Madeline turned to a disbelief to see that it was the camera thief. 'Yes, tis I, the thief, Catarina, protector of the Colania Polina. We are the orphans of the street these cats and I, so that we may eat is the reason why, I steal from you tourist passers by.'

Madeline said, 'While I applaud your charity, let me say this with this clarity. Stealing is wrong no matter the cause. You may not like it, but those are the laws.'

Catarina said, 'It is easy for you to judge and to scold, for what do you know of hunger and cold? Here is your camera. Now don't be slow! Just take your well-groomed mutt and go!'

The two of them left in a hurry but now they had a different worry. What was the name of the hotel, how would they find dear Miss Clavell?

'Little girl, would it be a bother to photograph me with my father?' But the picture Madeline took, was a portrait of a crook. 'Hey, Madeline, thanks for the assistance,' Catarina said running into the distance.

The victims were stunned and both of them hollered, but lo and behold the thief got collared.

'Gotcha!' said the cop as he seized her, and don't forget her accomplice either.

Meanwhile, Miss Clavell was at the court, filing a missing person's report.

'That's the second case I've heard today, of children who have gone astray. Their daughter, too, has disappeared, I'm sad to say the worst is feared.'

In came two criminals walking slow, their noses sniffling, their heads hung low. What a shameful sign of the times, still so young and turned to crime.

'Madeline!' the girls rejoiced with hugs and tears and eyes all moist.

'Catarina!' the parents cried. 'When you missed your dinner, we thought you died.'

'Dinner, a home, a family,' said Madeline. 'You lied to me!'

'I just wanted to help the cats somehow,' Catarina said. 'What will happen to them now?'

'What's this about some cats I hear?' said papa. 'How many do you have my dear?'

Catarina only made it to 11 when her momma cried, 'Good heavens! All these cats, what shall we do?'

Not a person had a clue until Madeline had the inspiration for how to solve the situation.

First a complete evacuation. Then a rescue operation. An orange tabby was bound for Brazil, a calico for Nodding Hill. Two more were sent off to be Russian, off to Stockholm went their cousins. Pepe a spotted kitty, would make his way to New York City. Another, missing half his tail, was flying home to Israel. And one last cat would be going home to a beautiful house right here in Rome.

'My parents are letting me keep this one, thanks Madeline for all you have done.'

Her cat let out a happy meow and now dear reader, we bid you ciao.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl