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Interview: Brian Selznick

The celebrated kid-lit artist-author talked with Time Out Kids about his creative process, his love for cinema and what it's like to have one's book become a Martin Scorcese movie.

Jamey Mazzie

Equal parts writer and illustrator, Brian Selznick rocked the kid-lit world with his 2006 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a groundbreaking mix of text and lengthy, cinematic passages of black-and-white drawings. These days the Brooklyn-based artist has a lot going on: the release of Wonderstruck, his second art-driven tome, earlier this week (click here for citywide book-release events); the imminent arrival of Hugo the movie, directed by Martin Scorcese (it's coming in November); and a companion book to the movie for die-hard Hugo fans. Selznick took time out of his whirlwind schedule to chat about his latest release, how The Invention of Hugo Cabret came into being and what it was like to find his true calling a little later than he had anticipated.

Congratulations not only on Wonderstruck but on your forthcoming compendium to the movie Hugo.

Thank you so much. I just saw my first finished copy of [the compendium] yesterday, and I must say it's really beautiful. It's nice to work on something for a really long time and then get to hold it in your hands for the first time.

How did you suddenly decide to switch gears from theatrical design to children's literature?

When I was in high school everyone used to tell me that I should write and illustrate children's books. Or mostly illustrate, because I guess there was something about my style that made people think it'd work in children's literature. I didn't really know anything about it, and like many people who don't, I didn't think it was a serious art form. So I ignored their suggestions and got into the theater when I was in high school and college. I decided I wanted to be a set designer because it was the perfect combination of my love of acting and my love of drawing.

I was all set to go to grad school to study set design and I didn't get in. I was shocked, because everyone had told me that of course I would get into whatever grad school I wanted, and I didn't. I thought that I would reapply, but I decided that I needed to reassess and take some time off. So I traveled, and I kept a journal. I wrote stories and I drew pictures. And when I got back home I realized the thing I loved doing most of all was to draw, and that in fact I should be illustrating children's books. But unfortunately I didn't figure this out until I'd already graduated from college, so I felt a little stranded and a little stupid at that point. A friend suggested that I get a job at a children's book store so I could meet kids and read books, and that turned out to be the single best bit of advice I've ever gotten.

That's interesting. So that revelation happened before working at the bookstore?

That's what got me to the bookstore. So I ended up at Eeyore's Bookstore for Children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And everything that I am today came out of working at Eeyore's. It became my entire education in children's literature.

Can you describe the process of how drawing, especially with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, became so important to you?

I've done about 20 other books, some picture books, and I've often illustrated novels for young readers. I always loved illustrating novels. I've done work where there's one drawing a chapter, which is pretty common for illustrated novels. And I've done books like The Doll People where it's illustrated with lots and lots of little spot illustrations, sort of like in the style of Alice In Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh, where the little drawings move throughout the text and really fill out the book. But I realized that in all of these books the illustrations, while fun and interesting to look at, didn't ever really convey any important narrative information that wasn't also included in the text.

So I was making my own picture books and thinking about this when I started working on Hugo. I had the basic outline for the story I wanted to write, about a boy who is secretly living in the walls of a train station and meets filmmaker George Mlis. And as I started developing the story, I thought it might just have one drawing a chapter or something. But as I got more into it I began to think about the story's connection with the cinema and started wondering if there was a way I could illustrate that. Picture books are really all about what happens when you turn the page. It's much like when the curtains open in the theater: Anything could be behind them. I started thinking about how those page turns could mimic some of the things that happen onscreen. The way movies are edited, there are tracking shots where you keep moving through a long scene; you could do that by turning the pages and having the drawings move forward. So I thought, What would happen if I went back to the story I was writing, took out big chunks of the text and replaced them with these drawing sequences that would have to serve a purely narrative function? It kind of all came together, but I didn't know if it would work—I didn't know if kids would be able to follow the story. I hadn't really seen anything quite like that.

It's a visceral experience of the action. Was it hard to decide which parts to leave as text and which parts to draw?

Well, I realized very quickly that it was going to tell me which parts were going to be illustrated, because there are only so many things one can actually draw. If in the text there's dialogue, or something the character is thinking, or something the character is smelling, or something that can't be indicated with a picture, then it had to stay as text. But if there was something purely action, a character moving from point A to point B, or doing something very specific, or if there was something very important that I want to underscore, then I could do a zoom in to show the reader that this is something important. Sort of like the way you use a zoom in movies. So I was able to go back and just take out the scenes that were purely action, or that I wanted to highlight.

And I was also able to take out some sections that were just descriptions. Like originally, I had written a three-page description of the interior of the train station. And I thought I had written it really nicely; it was filled with metaphors of the pigeons trapped in the train station that were supposed to symbolize George Mlis and Hugo trapped in the train station. And I took out all three of those pages and replaced them with 26 drawings that now open the book. And of course, this meant the book made a huge leap in its length, because Scholastic had originally signed on to publish a 100-page book with pictures. So suddenly I had to call them and say, "Look, this is going to be a 500-page book."

How quickly did the drawings go?

The idea appeared pretty quickly, but I was slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of doing the 150 drawings that this was going to entail. But when I'm working, I do have a good forward momentum. And I loved the boy I was writing about, I loved the world I was writing in, I loved silent movies and George Mlis. So I was surrounded by things I was excited to be exploring, but there was a certain sense of feeling overwhelmed. And there was a moment where I actually considered hiring another illustrator to illustrate the book. I had some names on my list, because I knew the idea was good, but I didn't know if I could do it. But I'm happy to say I stuck it through and illustrated the book myself.

Well, clearly your audience is happy you did too. Between writing and drawing, does one come more naturally to you?

I would have to say drawing comes easier, in that I'm trained as an artist. I've been taking art lessons since I was little, and I've always drawn. I think in pictures. So that is sort of where everything starts. So when I'm writing, I always feel like I'm translating form one language to another—from pictures into words. Because if I need to have a scene where a character is running down a hallway, if I'm drawing that scene, I know exactly what the place will look like. I know where to put the kid and the action, and I know what I want the composition to be like to get across the idea of movement. But if I have to write that scene, do I write "The boy ran down the hallway" or "The boy ran quickly down the hallway" or "The boy ran down the marble hallway"? I get caught up in the words to use, but luckily my editor, Tracey Mack, at Scholastic, is really good and really patient so I find the right words eventually.

How did it come to be that Martin Scorsese directed Hugo?

I'm still asking myself that question. It's the most incredible thing. A copy of my book made its way to his desk before it was even published. He saw that it was this story about early cinema and George Mlis and this boy—all things that he related to very much. And I got a call saying that he wanted to make the movie.


Yeah, I couldn't really believe it. You know, there were ups and downs. He started working on it, then he had to leave, and another director came on. Then that director left. Luckily Marty came back, and as soon as he was back everything happened really quickly.  That's the great thing about a movie by Scorsese. You get his entire team, which is made up of some of the greatest cinema artists in the world: Dante Ferretti designing the sets—he began working for Federico Fellini—Sandy Powell designing the costumes and John Logan writing the script. So you get this really brilliant team of people, and they all used the book like their bible.

That is so cool. Did you act as a consultant at all?

The book was the consultant. And they did a great job using the book as much as they could. But the book was written to be a book. Even though it's about movies, and I wanted it to echo some things that happened in the cinema, the book is ultimately about the power of the book itself. And I wanted you to be reminded of the heft and beauty of the thing in your hand as you were reading. And so one of John Logan's challenges as a screenwriter was to figure out how to take the narrative I had created and transform it into a story that had to be told, and could only be told, onscreen. So that's where the differences happen.

A lot of times people complain about how books and stories change when they're translated to the screen. But I think sometimes people forget that a lot of changes have to be made because we're not in a book when we're watching a movie. And especially with something like Hugo, I think it's really clear why certain things had to change. But of course, Hugo serves as the perfect inspiration for that because I was trying to tell the story as visually as possible, so everyone talked about how they had a leg up when they started doing the adaptation.

I can't imagine the book without the drawings. Obviously you can't have the drawings onscreen. But maybe some kind of magic happens.

Well you know, it is live action. It's 3-D. So you've got Scorsese experimenting with new technology the way that George Mlis is experimenting with new technology, the way directors in 1931 were experimenting with the new technology of sound. Personally I love the way that echoes the way I was experimenting with what I could do with illustrations in the book—that was my own little personal experimentation. Obviously Scorsese was doing it on a much larger scale, but it means a lot to me that he was actually working on Hugo in a way the echoed the way I'd been working on it at my desk.

That is exciting. Given the success of that book, do you think you'll continue to illustrate the work of other people?

Yeah, I definitely want to illustrate other people's work. I love doing that. But right now I've been really excited about the chance to make these big, giant illustrated narratives that I also write. So I'm going to keep doing that. But I hope that when the right project comes along, I'll be working with other authors again.

Your new book, Wonderstruck, alternates two stories, one told in word and the other in pictures. How did that concept come to you of using each language for a completely different story, or different threads of the story?

After Hugo I wanted to see what else I could do with everything I learned while making the book. A long time ago I gave myself a little challenge: that every time I made a book, I'd take what I've learned from the previous book and try to make something better. Whether or not it is better, that doesn't really matter in the end—that's just the goal in the back of my head. So when I made Hugo I took what I learned from every book I ever made and put it in there. And after this I thought, I'm done. I don't know what else I could do with this. But I traveled, and as I started working on my next book, I was thinking about a friend of mine named Dan Herlin, a director and a puppet artist, who made a puppet show for a grown-up audience called Hiroshima Maiden, which told two alternating stories: one about a Japanese survivor of Hiroshima and one about a little boy growing up in New Hampshire. And the story of the Japanese survivor was told with bunraku puppetry, a Japanese style of puppetry that takes three people on each puppet to operate, and the story of the boy was told as a spoken narrative by a Japanese storyteller. And these two different narratives, told in two completely different ways, wove back and forth until they came together at the end in a surprising way. And that actually gave me the idea to separate the words and the pictures and try to tell two different stories.

I was really intrigued by that thought, but I needed a reason to use the pictures in this way: I needed a story that would make sense of this structure. And so I remembered that I had seen a documentary called Through Deaf Eyes, which is about deaf culture. And there was a quote from a deaf educator who talked about how deaf people are people of the eyes because their language is a visual language. You watch someone communicate in sign language, and this idea of a visual language and a visual world fascinated me. Because I could try in some way to echo the experience of a deaf character through the way her story is told. And so I just started putting together elements of lots of different story ideas until I hit on the idea about two kids who run away to New York City 50 years apart.

That's quite brilliant. The deafness almost comes across because of the lack of words.

Yeah. Actually, when I finished Hugo, some hearing people said to me that they were very struck by the fact that when they got to the picture sequences in Hugo it was like everything became silent and the narrative moved forward quietly. Because while a hearing person sort of hears the words in their head when they're reading, that sort of stops when they're reading pictures.

Do you think you'll ever do a book in the future that doesn't have any words?

I don't know. I think about it often. Usually the narrative comes first, so I guess it just depends on what the story is. But one thing that has always frustrated me with words and books is that we read them too fast. We need to slow down, and when there are no words you keep plowing forward. A lot of times you'll go back and reread it, but it's hard to slow down.

I agree completely. It's a pity that once kids start to read, we put aside the picture books, because they can be so complex and expressive and amazing. But they do require so much looking, and we really don't know how to do that.

Yeah. We forget how. And I think that's why something like Shaun Tan's The Arrival is so brilliant because it does ask you to slow down in a certain way because the details are so strange and arresting and because we've never seen a world like this before. And as you're looking at it, you eventually come to realize that you can't put it into words. There's something happening that's beyond language. So that's a real thrill, but it's also extremely rare. I like the idea of having the words force the reader to slow back down and get back into this different place.

Have you ever thought of going into filmmaking? I know you're quite obsessed.

Yeah, my grandfather was cousins with David Selznick, who produced Gone with the Wind and King Kong, so I've always liked seeing my last name at the cinema. I'm excited to see my last name back on the screen with Hugo, but I'm a book maker and my stories make sense to me as books—when you open the cover and turn the pages. So that's what I want to continue to do.

And do you think you'd ever stray away from books for kids?

You know, I don't really write for kids. It's funny. A lot of people ask me, "Do you draw for yourself?" and I'm like, that is drawing for myself. For me, I do feel like I write what I want to write, and it just so happens that most of the people who like what I do are ten. But it's really wonderful when I hear that Hugo is being taught in college classes or when a grown-up tells me it's the first 500-page book they've ever read. But my work is first and foremost for kids and for myself. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does. It sounds like you're writing for yourself and also the child in everybody.

Yeah, I do the work for myself because I love the stories I'm telling. I get excited about the characters and figuring out the plot. And I think that I couldn't ask for a better audience than one that's mostly made up of kids.

That's great to hear. Do you have any advice for a kid who wants to become a writer or artist?

Of course, I always say you should read as much as humanly possible. I think I learned how to write and illustrate because of the reading I did and continue to do. And also, be sure that you do work about things that you really love. When I was making Hugo, I was writing a book for kids about French silent movies, which off the top of your head doesn't sound like a guaranteed best-seller in any way. People used to say to me, "Why are you making a book about French silent movies? That sounds like a bad idea, because kids don't watch silent movies." And I thought, Well I love them. And my editor finally said to me if the main character in my book loves these elements and the reader cares about the main character, the reader will love these things too. And that's the truth.

Another big piece of advice I give: Always ask for help. If you go to the back of Wonderstruck and to the back of Hugo, you can read the list of all the people that helped me and what they did to help me: people who were experts on lightning strike injuries, people who were experts on deafness and deaf culture, experts on museums and dioramas. There were so many people who I turned to and said, "I need help." And it's like putting yourself through school where everything you learn is something you want to know.

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