Transcript from an interview with Brian Selznick

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Brian Selznick. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Brian Selznick

GI Joe island

I think mostly what I did when I was a kid was make stuff. And so I drew all the time and I also had a — I called it a GI Joe island — in the back yard. There was a little, undeveloped piece of land behind my house in New Jersey. And the developments for other houses were slowly encroaching in, so every once in a while it would be dug up and new houses would appear. But there was still this section that was trees that butted up against my yard. And it was still pretty wild. It was a little piece of woods right in our backyard.

At the edge of the woods I built this whole GI Joe island with fortresses and tree houses and roads. I don't think I actually brought GI Joe out into it too much. I think it was mostly just the active building all of these things. Also on the edge of the house I remember building a little sort of fantasy home for some trolls that I had. I used to have those little troll dolls with the big, spiky hair. And my dog got to it at one point and ate out its eye, and its arm was bitten off and I made it a new arm out of clay.

I remember very painstakingly trying to match the color of the skin of the troll through the arm. And then I cut its hair because it needed a little hair cut but I figured it would grow back. And it hasn't yet but I'm still kind of hoping. I did that a lot. I took art classes outside of school, as well as having good art classes in school. I grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and they're pretty well known for having a really good art program in their public schools.

I met an art teacher when I was in 5th grade named Eileen Sutton and I worked with her from the time I was in 5th grade all the way up through high school. She was a really big influence on me and so I would go and do drawing classes with her, and I learned how to paint from her. Probably the main thing I was doing as a kid was drawing.

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Choosing a career

I drew all the time, everyone always supported the fact that I was going to do something with art. My parents were very supportive. My Dad was an accountant so he was always dealing with money so he was always worried about how I was gong to make my money. But he always wanted all of his kids to do what we wanted to do. I had no idea what I was gonna do with my art when I was in high school and I had a very bad college guidance counselor when I was in high school and she gave me terrible advice.

I grew up in Jersey so I was told I couldn't apply to any schools in California because that's too far away and I couldn't apply to any schools in New York City because that's too dangerous, of course. And so I was allowed to apply to like two schools and I was also allowed to apply to a school called the Rhode Island School of Design even though I was told I wouldn't get in because it's the hardest school to get into. I got into one of the other schools I was allowed to apply to and, you know, I didn't know anything.

I didn't think about one thing or another. I was going to go to this other school but at the last minute RISD — Rhode Island School of Design — sent me an envelope saying congratulations, you've been accepted. Suddenly I was, "All right, I guess I'll go to RISD." RISD has an open policy with Brown University which is right next door in Providence and so you can take classes or do activities at either school. I went to RISD and I became an illustration major, but only because at the time there were no requirements for being an illustration major.

Because I did not want to be a children's book illustrator. In high school people actually used to tell me I should be a children's book illustrator, which I think kind of annoyed me. By the time I got to college I had decided I definitely was not going to be a children's book illustrator. I started doing more theater up at Brown University and I did some acting, and I had a friend who also was in the theater there and he said, "Well, Brian, you know, you act and you go to Rhode Island School of Design where you do art, so you must do set design. You must design the things for the stage, the scenery."

I said, "No, I've never done that." And he said, "Oh, well, I'm directing a show called The Bald Soprano. Think about designing it." We literally took out a napkin and he told me what the show was about and I started making sketches and we ended up building what I designed and it was kind of a hit. Suddenly I was a set designer. And I was like, "Oh, this is perfect because it combines my love of theater with my love of art."

I was going to be a set designer and I was very excited about that, and I was going to go to grad school for set design and I was all set to do that and I didn't get into the set design graduate program that I really wanted to get into. I found out you usually have to apply a couple of times for that, but I thought you know what, maybe this is a sign. Maybe I need to just back off a little bit. So I traveled around Europe for a while which was great.

While I traveled, I drew and I wrote stories. When I got back, I realized, huh, you know, I really love to draw and I really love telling stories, and I have always loved kids, and so I was like, "Oh no, I think I am supposed to be a children's book illustrator".

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Eeyore's Books for Children

At the last minute I decided to move to New York. That's what brought me to New York and it was the right decision for me.

Because I didn't know anything about children's books, I was talking to friends of mine about what I was gonna do, how I was gonna learn about children's books at this point as a college graduate without any education in children's literature, and a friend told me that a mutual friend of ours had worked at this children's book store called Eeyore's Books for Children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and that would be a good place for me to learn about children's books.

I thought that was a great suggestion and I went to the store and there was a little sign in the window that said, "Experienced sales person wanted. Must have an extensive knowledge of children's literature." I knew like Green Eggs and Ham and Where the Wild Things Are and that was about it. But I kind of went in with a big smile and introduced myself to the manager, and he gave me a quiz that he gave all perspective employees and I totally failed it.

He could see how sort of heartbroken I was and he said, "Well, just go out and study and learn some books and come back," which I found out later he actually told to a lot of people and no one ever came back. But I came back. I went out and studied and I was able to name a few more. I think the fact that I came back impressed upon him that this was something I was serious about. And so he hired me. His name is Steve Gack and he was the manager at this store at the time and he's now an editor at Green Willow and he's really fantastic.

He grew up in a children's book store so he knew everything about children's literature. Everyday he would send me home with bags of books, and that was really my education in children's literature because Steve has amazing taste. He knows everything. I would go home with all of his favorite books and then I would read all of these books because, you know, customers would come in they'd be like, "Oh, I'm looking for that book and there's, you know, the highway, and there's a house."

We'd be like, "You're looking for The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. That's right over there." So we really had to know what the books were and we had to be able to recommend books. Reading those hundreds and hundreds of books over the first couple of months while I was there showed me what children's literature was capable of.

I remembered this project I had done in school about a kid who gets to meet Houdini. It wasn't written for kids originally, but I found it in my closet and rewrote it and added some pictures and showed it to Steve just because I wanted his opinion because he knew everything and was really smart.

He really liked it and he said, "Oh, you know, my girlfriend is the Manhattan sales rep for Random House. Would you like me to show it to her?" And I said, "No, I didn't know that and that would be great." And he showed it to her and in the meantime I sent it out to a bunch of different publishers. The editor at Random House really liked it and said she would publish it. So the book came out while I was working still at the Eeyore's Books for Children.

So it was very fun to be a book seller and having a book for sale in the store. Customers would come in and say they were looking for a good book for a 10 year old and I'd say, "Oh, I happen to have the perfect book right here, The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick." So it was being at that store and reading all of those books that really got me jump started and got me understanding what you can do between the covers of a book.

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A trip to the moon

I loved pouring through these books and looking at the photographs about the movies and reading about the movies. I think I saw King Kong when I was pretty young which I really, really loved, and I loved that King Kong was made with a miniature model and they moved it one frame at a time so that when you ran it back, it looked like it was moving. You could sort of still see the fingerprints moving through the fur of the gorilla in King Kong if you look at the original one.

It gave it this really nice, hand-made quality which I really loved. That was really exciting. The Wizard of Oz was a very important movie to me when I was a kid. I still think to this day that the moment when Dorothy opens her door from her house into Oz, when the movie goes from black and white to color, is probably the greatest moment in all of cinema history. I think that is just thrilling. I eventually saw a movie by a film maker named George Méliès who was a French film maker and he made a movie called Trip to the Moon in 1902 right after the movies were invented.

He had been a magician and he, along with several other magicians, immediately saw the potential for the magic of the cinema. he made this movie called the Trip to the Moon where he imagined what it would be like for people to go to the moon even though it was still 67 years in the future before people actually landed there. He made this great, little movie and I saw it. I can't remember exactly how old I was when I saw that movie but it stuck in the back of my head.

So the cinema has definitely been a very important part of my life for a long time.

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A couple of years ago I read a book called Edison's Eve which is by an author named Gabby Wood.

It's about the history of automata which were very complicated wind-up figures that could do amazing things like write or draw. They were first invented right after clocks were invented and people would take the clockworks and gears and instead of making clocks, would do these incredibly strange and complicated and whimsical machines. In this book, Edison's Eve, I found out that George Méliès, the filmmaker, had a collection of these automata, and he loved them very much.

When he got older, he ended up — he had made 500 movies in his life time, during his career — losing his money. Eventually he lost his movie studio and he couldn't afford to take care of his beloved automaton collection and so he donated them to a local museum. The museum promised to take care of them and put them on display, but they never did. They put them up in the attic and the roof leaked on them and a beam fell on them and they were all destroyed and thrown away.

When I read that, I imagined a kid climbing through the garbage and finding one of those broken machines and trying to rescue it. As soon as I had that thought, it turns out I had what was the beginning of the Invention of Hugo Cabret even though at that moment I didn't know who that kid was, I didn't know why he was interested in machines, I didn't know what he doing going through the garbage. I then spent a long time, about 2-1/2 years, figuring out the answers to all of those questions.

That became the story of the book, which is that Hugo is an orphan and he lives secretly in the walls of the train station in Paris in the early 1930s and he has this broken automaton that he's found that he's tries desperately to fix it because he thinks that there is a message for him hidden within the clockworks of the machine from his father who died. He thinks if he can just get the machine to work, that the machine will write the message from his father and it will tell him what he should do with his life and rescue him.

Then he meets this mean, old toymaker in the train station and the toymaker's goddaughter. The book is sort of two mysteries that interweave with each other. The first half of the book is a mystery about that machine and who made it and where it came from and the message that eventually comes from it, and the second half is a mystery involving the old man who's the toymaker and his history.

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I was thinking about how I could maybe have one kind of storytelling pictures and working in with the other main kind of storytelling you usually have in novels, which is words. What I ended up doing was I went back to the story I had been writing straight through and I took out big chunks of text whenever I found places that I thought I could tell the same section of the story visually. For instance when the book opens and I had originally three pages of written text about Paris and the city of lights and the train station and a boy living in the train station, but I took out all three pages of words that I wrote and I replaced them with a list of what I wanted to draw.

I came up with a list of 22 drawings that would basically tell that same story, but visually. Because every drawing in the book is a double page spread, those 22 drawings meant it is going to become 44 pages in the book. Sometimes I would take out one line, like "Hugo followed the old man home," and then that one line became 12 pages of pictures as we actually followed Hugo through the streets of Paris following the old man. The book went from what I thought was going to be like 150 page, you know, "regular novel" to a nearly 600 page, you know, gigantic book that would have these bursts of miniature silent movies throughout them.

The book's published by Scholastic and from the very beginning they were completely supportive of making the book longer, making it larger, making it this weird format because I'm very interested in graphic novels. I like graphic novels. But I don't think I could do that many drawings because on every page, there are sometimes dozens of drawings. The other thing is that you read a graphic novel very much like a regular novel where you start on the upper right hand corner of the page and you work your way down both pages till you get to the bottom of the right hand corner.

Well, you start in the upper left hand corner, then you go down to the bottom of the right hand corner, and then you turn the page just because you ran out of story. But in picture books, you turn the page often because of what's happening in the plot. When I went back and I was thinking again about the visuals of the movie and thinking about what happens when you turn the page in a picture book, I wanted the page turns in my book to be closer to a picture book than to a graphic novel.

I think of my book as kind of like a cousin to graphic novels and a cousin to picture books, and a cousin to the cinema, like it's definitely related to the cinema and the way cinema tells its story, but it's not quite any of these things. I don't really have a good term for it so I'm up for suggestions.

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Heavy reading

It's funny because when I was working on the book, the only thing I was thinking about was figuring out how to make the story work. I didn't know who was going to read it, I didn't know who would be interested in it. A lot of people, when I told them I was working on a book for kids about French silent cinemas, said, "That doesn't sound like a very good idea. Like what kid's gonna be interested in French silent movies." My editor at Scholastic had a really great bit of advice for me and she said, "You know, if the things in the story are important to the main character, then they'll be important to the reader." And movies are really important to the main character.

I just kept working and then the idea for the pictures grew and suddenly it's this 550 page book. I didn't know if kids were gonna like it, I didn't know what age kid would like it. I think one of the things that's been the most thrilling since the book came out is that I have heard many stories of teachers and parents who have given the book to kids who don't read a lot or who haven't read or who were struggling with their reading and it turns out because of the balance with the words and the pictures that it helps you get into the story in a sort of an easier way.

The book opens with a 44 pages of drawings, so by the time you get to the end of that you're nearly 50 pages into the book. You already feel like you've accomplished something. You've already met all the characters. You've set up the situation for the story. You've been introduced to the location, to Paris, and the train station and the secret access into the walls of the train station.

So hopefully by the time you get to the first words you are already kind of hooked on what's happening.

A lot of the pages have a lot of white space for the text. Not every page that has text is completely filled with words, because sometimes it's just like two paragraphs. There's that satisfaction of being able to read through it very fast and because it's 550 pages and it's heavy, it's like nearly 3 pounds, you get to walk around with this thing that you kind of conquered, you know, that you are able to like master. That's not something I had thought about when I was working on the book but I find it really wonderful that that's something that kids and teachers and parents are finding.

I'm also finding that parents and teachers are telling me that their kids are asking them to rent French silent movies to watch, to see A Trip to the Moon, the full movie, which you can see on-line now. The whole 16 minute movie is on-line. I've had kids ask me about Harold Lloyd because throughout the book there are also film stills from actual silent movies along with all the drawings that I did. We see film stills from the movies of George Méliès and we see Harold Lloyd in the famous scene where he's hanging from a clock after he scaled the side of a building.

There's a scene from one of the very, very first movies by the Lumière Brothers where a train comes into the station, and the story behind that is that the audience screamed and fainted when they first saw that because they had never seen anything so vivid and real, and they really thought a train was coming at them. Might not be a true story but it's certainly a good one. I really loved that all of these things that went into making the story have, in fact, sort of gotten through to the kids who are reading the book.

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Climbing inside the dinosaurs

It's always very important to me to do as much research as possible. And a lot of that research does generally involve going to the place where the story has happened. For Waterhouse Hawkins I got to go to London and I got to go to the Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham which is where the dinosaurs that he built are still standing, and I got special permission to go onto the island where the dinosaurs are because it's set up like a zoo so they're surrounded by a moat.

The viewers are supposed to look across the moat so that they're not in danger from the dinosaurs. I got permission to go onto the island and I got to climb into the dinosaurs and look out the dinosaur's mouth and see where Waterhouse Hawkins had signed his name. And so I was very aware of the smells of it and the feel of it and the essence of that place. I can't say there's a one-to-one relationship between being there and what happens in the drawings themselves, but I do know that when I get home and it's time for me to do those drawings, I feel more authentic.

I'm able to think as I'm working, "I was there. I touched this. I know what this feels like. There was grass like this and the sky was like this and there were people here. And it had a special and specific feeling." I remember when I was in college, I had a really great art teacher who always encouraged me to really think about how things felt and not just how they looked but really what they were feeling like. And so that means to me both physically, but also emotionally.

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser