Transcript from an interview with Chris Van Allsburg

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Chris Van Allsburg. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Chris Van Allsburg

Art school

I went to that meeting and sat down with this fellow and had a form. There were many colleges within the university, and by choosing a college, you were essentially choosing your major. I didn't see anything that was really interesting to me there, and I went into the office with my application essentially incomplete.

He said, "Well, what are you interested in?"

And I said, "Well, gosh, I don't know." I looked down at this form, and I saw "Forestry." I said, "Well, how about forestry? That sounds interesting." I had this idea that we could plant trees for four years in college and drive to the upper peninsula of Michigan in utility vehicles and be lumberjacks.

But he said, "No, no, no." So, he explained to me what might be involved in forestry.

I looked back down and said, "Well, what is this 'A and D'?"

He said, "That's 'Architecture and Design.'"

And I said, "Well, what's that?"

He said, "Well, that's the art school"

I said, "Well, that sounds good. Could I do that?"

He looked at my transcript and said, "Well, you haven't taken art."

And I rose to the challenge. I don't know exactly why – there's a point in a teenager's life sometimes when the temptation of pulling the wool over an adult's eyes is irresistible. And I rose to the challenge and said to him, "Well, it's not on my transcript, because I study privately on weekends."

He said, "Oh, that's impressive."

We talked for a while, and he was finally willing to admit me into the art school.

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These kids could really draw. I mean there were some really talented students down there. And when I saw how well they could draw, I was greatly intimidated by it. I thought, "Well, I don't belong here. I'm not really an artist. I just got in here by mistake, and maybe I shouldn't stay."

But then I had a 3-D class, which is studying the rudimentary materials and approaches to making sculpture – three-dimensional design. That drew on skills that I had in abundance from being a model maker and being able to make model boats and cars and trains. And when I started building things, making things with my hands, I realized, "Well, maybe this is the place for me. I can't draw, but I can really make this stuff. I can really build things."

And I had the ability to envision things three-dimensionally and make them with my hands, and I had a kind of a quick understanding of how to use tools and materials. I quickly became, you know, a pretty good sculptor. That's not really the best way to describe it. I became comfortable with the challenges that I met there, and I was getting praise from my professors and from my fellow students.

I started feeling much more comfortable about being in art school – and so I stayed there. I stayed at University of Michigan for five years, just studying sculpture – at the exclusion of everything else because of those early experiences I'd had as a draftsman, as a drawer. The only thing I drew when I was in college – and this would include graduate school, the two years after that – the only thing that I drew were images of the sculptures that I would make. And I did that so that I would have a way of determining how much bronze I would need, how much clay I would need, how much wood I would need; and I would sketch these things out. But I never actually drew pictures in the sense that we use that word to describe illustrations. I never made a picture of figures doing something together. I mean I just only made drawings of things that I would make.

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A young artist

I had a sculpture show down in New York City, and then I worked for about two or three years making sculpture. I had a second show of sculpture, and my dealer was happy with the results. He didn't sell everything, but sold a lot of it.

And then one day, my dealer called me, and he said, "There is a curator here from the Whitney Museum. He's looking for young artists who draw." And he said, "Do you draw?"

And the fact is at that point, I had done a couple of drawings. And now, by the term "drawings," I mean, specifically, pictures of things happening, of people doing things. And I had done these drawings because in the winter, my sculpture studio, which was a couple of miles from my house, got so cold that I couldn't work in it at night. So, I had to find something to do at night, and what I found to do was to sit down and just draw pictures. So, I was trying to draw pictures, and I had a few of those. And I told my dealer that that's what I was doing on cold, frosty nights.

And he said, "Well, why don't you send a couple of them down?"

I said, "You don't want to see these," because this was a curator from the Whitney, which is a very important New York City museum. I said, "You aren't going to like these. He's probably not going to like them."

He said, "Send them down. Send them down."

So, I packaged them up, and I sent them down. And he calls me and says, "You know, this guy at the Whitney thinks these are fabulous drawings. He wants to put them in the show."

So, that's a fairly big deal. I think I was 27 or 28. It's unusual. That really is a young artist. You know, it's a very old basketball player, but it's a very young artist. And so I thought to myself, "Gee, I've got these drawings in the Whitney Museum." I even had a little catalogue with my name in it, with the other people in the exhibit. It was a group show, and I thought, "Well, maybe I should think about this a little bit more." So, I spent a little bit more of my time drawing pictures and a little less of my time making sculpture.

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The Impatient Dinner Guest

My wife volunteered. She said, "I'll take them up there."

And so I said, "Oh, sure. Go ahead." At that point, I was still making sculpture and still doing drawings.

She visited this publisher up in Boston, and also went down to a couple in New York City and showed this work around. These pictures were black-and-white drawings of peculiar things. I remember one was a picture called "The Impatient Dinner Guest." And it was just a picture of a man standing at a table, dressed in a formal suit, biting into a plate – with little shards of ceramic dropping onto his tuxedo and a woman standing next to him with a look of surprise on her face. It was just called "The Impatient Dinner Guest." Five or six pictures like that.

And so my wife made these visits. She came back and said, "You know, they all think this is really terrific, and they sent these stories back for you to look at and see if you're interested in illustrating them."

I looked at them, and they were all very uninteresting stories. They didn't provide an opportunity to draw a picture anything like "The Impatient Dinner Guest," because it was, you know, Little Opossum Loses His Pencil. And I was unmoved by it. So I didn't do anything about it. You know, I just forgot about it. I went back and continued to make sculpture.

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Abdul Gasazi

So, I saw this boy chasing this dog, and then I started to interrogate myself: "Who's the boy?" "Who's the dog?" "Whose garden is this?" And in the process of that interrogation, a story revealed itself, and the story was basically about the boy losing the dog, the boy confronting the magician who owns the garden, and the boy then confronting a perplexing problem for children, which is: Is magic real? Namely, does somebody really have the power to do Merlin-like things? Or is magic just a trick – something that somebody can fool you into believing? The boy is confronted with that by his interaction with the magician.

I didn't realize that's what I was writing about when I was writing, but I was just trying to keep the story going and make it interesting and leave a little mystery at the end, because I love mysteries – especially the ones that are unsolved…

So Houghton-Mifflin published the book, and I thought that the greatest benefit from being a published author might be the opportunity to buy large numbers of remaindered books at a low price. And I would have Christmas presents and birthday presents to give to people for years to come. But much to my surprise, my publisher started sending reviews to me – book reviews…

So I was getting a lot of these reviews, and flabbergasted to see these reviews were sometimes in national media. I mean reviews in Time magazine and reviews in Newsweek magazine and The New York Times. I said, "Well, gosh, this is different. This isn't the same as being a sculptor in New York City, slaving away for the tiniest bit of recognition." So, that was a surprise to me.

And then, of course, as I said, also surprising was that they were, for the most part, filled with praise. My publisher was very excited. And then that first title got the a Caldecott honor book award…

It was the first one I ever did. Literally, there was a picture in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. It's not the boy on the cover. I think it may be the first picture in the book, where Miss Hester is leaving. That, I think, is the first picture I did for the book. But I think that was probably the eighth or ninth drawing – and by "drawing," I mean an illustration – that I ever did in my life. And I thought, "Well, if I could do something this well with so little experience in the art form, I should try it again, because I could probably do something better."

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At the art table

That's an odd thing, talking about how the idea of a waiting audience might motivate an artist, because certainly that never played a part in my efforts or inspiration in making sculpture - because I wasn't sure anyone would see it. Or if they did, it would be a small number of people. I think when I was doing The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, I had that same feeling; but because I discovered there was an audience for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, I anticipated there would be one for the next book I wrote.

I think that created a little bit of motivation for me, but I think that actually thinking about your audience is poisonous to the art process – it truly contaminates it. If you think, "Oh, they're really going to like this…" If you ever hear a voice like that in your ear while you're drawing, it's time to put down the pencil, because there should be no "they" at the art table. There should only be one person at the drawing table, and that's you.

And so even though I realized that I might have a larger audience for Jumanji, I think it created a kind of excitement in me, maybe. But I've always tried to guard against the idea of having an audience have any effect on me as a creator…

And the story for Jumanji grew out of, once again, a visual idea, in the same way that Gasazi grew out of this idea of a boy chasing a small, white dog through a topiary garden.

In Jumanji, I was interested in what I refer to as kind of a cognitive dissonance – disparate things juxtaposed. And in the case of Jumanji, it's the very comforting and secure idea of these domestic interiors. But there's something that doesn't belong there, which is, namely, a python, or a group of wild monkeys. And I loved the idea of the wild jungle inside the safety of the house – or, what we associate with the safety of the house. So, that was the visual theme I had in mind.

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The Polar Express

When I was writing The Polar Express, I just knew, "Well, we're going to leave. And let's see where we go." I knew we were going North, by the way, but I didn't know what was going happen there. I didn't know what the boy was going to ask for there. And even when I read it now, when I read that the boy was longing to hear a bell, and then he had an opportunity to choose the bell – usually, when you see stuff like that, you understand, "Well, that was contrived by the author. He got to a point where he wanted the boy to ask for the bell, so then you go back and you put him longing for the bell at the beginning."

But this story didn't happen that way. This story was one draft. And the reason I say this – it seems like a kernel of truth, once again – is because it seemed like I was recovering a memory. I wasn't pushing forward, looking for where the ideas were next. I just sat down, that's where we went, and that's what happened. We came back home. And even the sort of coda at the end, where only the boy can hear the bell – that was all there.

The final page, where it turns out that his sister can't hear it any longer, I felt had to be there; because it didn't seem right to end right there, and for me, as an adult writing that story, there's the whole idea of parents caring about children believing in it, and then the transformation that they undergo as they grow older and they stop; but their parents are hoping they don't, because that's a kind of a passage in life they hate to see their children give up – because they aren't kids anymore. It's like Alan not being able to decide, with Gasazi, if it's real magic or if someone's fooling him. You know, when kids still believe in magic, it makes the whole house at Christmastime different.

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Hiding Fritz

We traveled back to Michigan and I did all these sketches of the dog and took some photographs of the dog, and brought that back. That dog became Fritz, the dog in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. The dog's name that my brother-in-law gave to it was Winston. So, anyway, Winston was a fine pet, and I loved visiting him – a very unusual dog.

Winston was still okay after the first book. So I'm not sure exactly why I chose to commemorate him in the second book, but he does appear as a small pull toy. But Winston lost a territory fight with a car not long after Jumanji – and Winston didn't make it. He died.

I think that was right about the time I started the third book. And I thought, as a way of honoring Winston and the contribution he'd made to my first book as the character of Fritz, that I would include him from then on. And so Winston, or Fritz, has been in every book since in very tiny, little cameo appearances. Sometimes, he appears in places that the kids feel that I haven't played fair with them by hiding him there. In Two Bad Ants, he's actually in the garbage disposal, disguised as a slightly putrid piece of garbage. But the kids find him there, and then they write me letters, "How did Fritz get in the garbage disposal, and why is he so tiny?"

It's pretty trivial for me. I don't start a book thinking, "This is another opportunity to hide Fritz." It's just a little throwaway thing. But sometimes I'll be in bookstores signing books, and I'll see kids come to the bookstores with their parents. This will be the first time they get a book. They'll grab it from their parent's hand and rifle through it – and they're looking for Fritz! That's the first thing they want to do. "Where's Fritz?" So, it's another little amusement for them, but not terribly important in the scheme of things.

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From book to film

The director, Bob Zemeckis, said to me, "You know, Chris, I want to film this just like the book." Usually, that's something that a director will say as a way of reducing the anxieties on the part of an author; or even to say it kind of metaphorically, that "this is going to be a film which is like the book" – as much as a film can be.

But he meant it almost literally, which is that he wanted the quality of the film to be like a drawing – not like a photograph. Because the standard for filmmaking is a moving picture – a moving photograph. But he wanted to make something that looked more like a moving drawing, instead of a moving photograph. So, that's why this has all been done digitally, and has a very complicated software that tries to reconsider the world as if it had not been created in a computer by the kind of hardcore, hard-edged digital animation, but appears as if it was a world that was created in the mind of an artist who used pastel, crayons, and watercolor – and the other things that I used to make The Polar Express…

The experience with Jumanji… Any artist or author who sells their rights to filmmakers – unless they're extraordinarily naïve about the process – has to understand that they'll lose control. You can't keep control of the project, because you aren't the captain anymore. You're just someone who provided somebody else an idea. And their contracts fairly explicitly spell out just how much control you have, which is not much. You have influence, and even the influence you have is really contingent on the willingness of the filmmakers to hear you out.

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A Jumanji sequel

It started with Gasazi, because I got letters from kids. Gasazi has an ambiguous ending, which was: Was the boy fooled by the magician, or had the boy witnessed real magic? And kids would write me letters. They'd want to know what happened. Did he really turn the dog into a duck?

I'd write them letters, and say, "Well, thanks for writing, but I can't tell you. What do you think?" I didn't expect them to write me another letter and tell me, but I didn't want to give them the impression that I knew something and I was withholding it. I wanted them to think that what existed on the page was a living thing, and that it just was; it is. And if it has a solution, it's for them to provide.

And that was the same thing with Jumanji. Jumanji has a somewhat unresolved ending, because the game falls into the hands of a couple of boys that we learn on the last page of the book are not going to be particularly apt players of the game. And kids would write back, "What happens to these boys?" Sometimes they would actually write their own story of what happens to the boys who find the Jumanji game at the end.

You see somewhat unresolved endings in films and when you see them, you understand that they're clear indications that there's a sequel coming. I never had that in mind. I didn't want to suggest that there was a sequel coming – only that the story lived on; that even when you close the book, the action of the story continued. It may not continue in another book, but it does continue, because there's this alternate reality. And I wanted the children to think about that. I wanted the kids who read the book to think about that alternate reality – and they did. They sent me a lot of Jumanji games and what they thought happened next.

And I'd gotten enough of those over the years to on occasion have actually given it some thought and be tempted by the idea of doing it. And then about a year and-a-half ago, I succumbed. And it was not because I was interested in exploiting or cannibalizing my own idea. It really had a little bit to do with the fact that in the same way that when I undertook Jumanji after Gasazi, one of the motivations was, "I think I can do this better."

I looked at Jumanji, and even though I was very happy, satisfied with what was there, I realized that there were some elements missing in the story, which is that Peter and Judy, though they're bored and their boredom results in them finding the perfect gift, which is the cure for their boredom, there's not much more that you learn about them. They have a sibling relationship. The girl is somewhat protective of the younger brother. But I wanted to write a story where the relationship of the siblings had more to do with the story.

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"Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world." —

Malala Yousafzei