Brian Selznick: By the Book

Brian Selznick

As a boy, the author and illustrator Brian Selznick preferred consuming stories on screen: “I usually watched the movies of books I should have read.”

What books are on your nightstand?

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” by Junot Díaz, which was given to me by my friend Lynnette Taylor, who is a sign language interpreter. She said I would love it after I told her how much I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s crazy novel “Pale Fire.” Also on my nightstand: “Sapiens,” by Yuval Noah Harari; “Tennessee Williams in Provincetown,” by David Kaplan, which I bought on my first visit to Provincetown this summer while at the wedding of two friends; “Nos Vacances,” by Blexbolex; and “There’s a Mystery There,” by Jonathan Cott, about Maurice Sendak, who was a friend and mentor to me.

What’s the last great book you read?

Everything by Edith Wharton. I stumbled upon her novel “Summer,” which shocked me with its honesty about sex and power, and I spent an entire year trying to read every single book she wrote. I felt this weird kinship with Edith Wharton for some reason, as if I alone had discovered her, which I think is how we’re supposed to feel when we fall in love with an author. When Martin Scorsese was filming “Hugo,” I watched all of his other films and read endless interviews with him, and I was intrigued by something I came across regarding the characters in “The Age of Innocence.” There was a discussion about how Wharton’s characters spoke in a social code that was as rigid and mysterious to outsiders as the code used by his Mafia characters. Nobody was able to say what they meant. It seems there really wasn’t that much of a difference between Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and Edith Wharton’s characters, and maybe this is why so much of her work still feels incredibly visceral and modern.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I learned that Leonardo da Vinci was a failure. Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography turns Leonardo from an icon into a human being. For me Leonardo becomes the most human in the explorations of his endless failures: unfinished paintings and statues, ruined frescoes, unpublished ideas, unbuilt machines. Michelangelo even made fun of Leonardo for never managing to finish a giant bronze horse. Of course, these failures are tied to Leonardo’s deep curiosity, which kept him endlessly moving forward, questing for more knowledge and understanding, while the things that we recognize as his “work” often seemed to suffer. Isaacson points out that many experts bemoan all the unfinished work left in the wake of Leonardo’s self-education, but he also points out that it’s the same self-education that enabled Leonardo to create the “Vitruvian Man,” the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” Not bad for a failure, I guess.

Which classic novel did you recently read for the first time?

“Rebecca,” by Daphne du Maurier. It’s so good! Every summer my husband and I go to a book festival hosted by our friend Catherine St. Germans. The festival is held in and around Port Eliot, her late husband Perry’s ancient family home in Cornwall, England. During our first trip there, Cathy told me that Daphne du Maurier lived nearby in a home called Menabilly, which served as the main model for Manderley. Cathy and Perry believed that Port Eliot was also an inspiration for Manderley, as well as another home in a book by du Maurier called “The House on the Strand,” about a drug that allows you to time travel. It’s a bonkers book, but it’s also good. I’d long ago seen the Hitchcock film “Rebecca,” which was produced by my distant relative David O. Selznick (!), but I’d never read the book. It has one of the great opening lines in literature (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”) and the rest of the book is as good as that line.

What book did you most like to recommend to customers when working at Eeyore’s Books (R.I.P) in the ‘80s?

I didn’t really know anything about children’s books when I started working at Eeyore’s. But my boss Steve Geck, who is now an editor at Sourcebooks, took me under his wing and sent me home every day with bags of books to read. His favorites became my favorites: “My Father’s Dragon,” written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by her stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett; “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree,” written and illustrated by Robert Barry; “King Matt the First,” by Janusz Korczak; and “Good Night, Gorilla,” written and illustrated by Peggy Rathmann, to name just a few. I also liked recommending the few books I remembered from my childhood, especially “The Martian Chronicles,” by Ray Bradbury, and “The Door in the Wall,” by Marguerite de Angeli.

And which recent children’s books would you highly recommend?

Anything by the mysteriously named French illustrator Blexbolex is an event. One of my favorites is called “Ballad” in English. Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky’s “Moose” books are great for a laugh, and “Toys Meet Snow, Paul’s book with Emily Jenkins, is one of the most beautiful picture books published in the last few years.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?

I usually read books that are actually in the form of books, with paper, covers and binding. I like the weight of the book in my hands and I prefer the experience of actually turning pages. I like the smell of books as well. I usually have two books that I am reading simultaneously. One is normally a paperback that fits into the back of my pants and is easy to travel with when I’m heading out. The other is often a hardcover and it stays at home waiting for me by my bed. That said, I do love audiobooks. I listen to audiobooks while I’m drawing. For example, I’ve listened to books by St. Augustine, Oliver Sacks, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Patti Smith and Carrie Fisher. In fact, I might even argue the last two authors have audiobooks that are better than the physical books, since Patti Smith and Carrie Fisher actually read their own books to you. And two years ago, I experienced all of the “Harry Potter” books as read by Jim Dale. They were glorious.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have a lot of Bibles. Several years ago I read both the Old and the New Testament as research for a speech I was giving in D.C. and I was very moved by the humanity of many of the stories. King David and his son Absalom especially got to me. Here was a story about a child who spends his entire adult life trying to usurp his father, yet in the end the father loves his son no matter what and mourns him deeply when he dies. Isn’t there a lesson here for all parents about the meaning of love without conditions? I was also surprised to discover that the story of Onan isn’t actually about onanism, and that King Solomon, the wisest of all the kings, ended his days turning against God. Who knew? Plus, there’s a talking donkey like in “Shrek.”

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

I’ve always been drawn to stories about orphans: Pip from “Great Expectations,” by Charles Dickens; Mary Lennox from “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett; and of course Harry Potter from the series by J. K. Rowling. If pressed, however, I’d add a few children with living parents, like Lyra Belacqua from the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman; Max from “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak; and Douglas Spaulding from “Dandelion Wine,” by Ray Bradbury.

Antiheroes or villains include Humbert Humbert from “Lolita,” by Vladimir Nabokov; Mrs. Coulter from “His Dark Materials”; and the particularly terrifying Dolores Umbridge from the “Harry Potter” series. I’d also add Edward Gorey, who is responsible for the deaths of 26 children in “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.”

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

Some years ago I received a fan letter from Ray Bradbury that simply said, “I love Hugo Cabret!” I was floored, particularly because I’d loved his books since high school. I wrote him back and ended up in a phone conversation with one of his daughters, who told me that I should stop by if I’m ever in Los Angeles. “I’m supposed to be in L.A. next week,” I lied. When I arrived at his house his daughter met me at the door and ushered me into a tiny room where Mr. Bradbury was sitting in a recliner surrounded by VHS tapes of old movies, piles of books and papers, and a model of the Nautilus from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Around his neck was a medal, which he said had recently been given to him by the president of France. We talked for a while, and I asked him if it was true that he wrote every single day. He pointed to a nearby box and told me to bring it to him. He opened the box and inside was a manuscript he’d just finished typing for a new book of short stories to be called “We’ll Always Have Paris.” One of the short story titles jumped out at me. “Remembrance, Ohio.”

“That’s a beautiful title,” I said to him.

“Thanks,” he said, “I made it up.”

Sometime later a package arrived at my home. It was a copy of his new book. I’ve only now realized it was Paris that had brought us together in the first place, since it was the setting for “Hugo Cabret.” So I guess it’s true for me and Mr. Bradbury: We’ll always have Paris.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I usually watched the movies of books I should have read. “The Wizard of Oz,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are all movies I loved based on books I did not read (I’ve read all of them since). The most influential book I did read was probably “The Borrowers,” by Mary Norton, with exceptional line drawings by Beth and Joe and Krush. It’s about a family of tiny people who live under the floorboards of a boy’s house, and I basically read this as nonfiction. I made miniature furniture and left it for the Borrowers who lived in my house.

What book made you a reader?

“Fortunately,” by Remy Charlip. It begins in full color with the words “Fortunately, one day, Ned got a letter that said ‘Please Come to a Surprise Party.’” But then you turn the page and the next picture is black-and-white. “But unfortunately,” the text continues, “the party was in Florida and he was in New York.” Turning the page again reveals another color drawing, and the text, “Fortunately a friend loaned him an airplane.” This pattern of alternating between happy color and sad black-and-white continues through all sorts of adventures and misadventures until Ned winds up at the surprise party, which, fortunately, is for him! The joy of turning the pages, and the surprise of each reveal, has stuck with me to this day and has influenced so much of my work. It was Remy Charlip who taught me the importance of turning the page. (As a side note: I met Remy for the first time just after I’d just begun work on “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” I was able to tell him how much I loved his books as a kid. He asked me what I was working on and I told him about “Hugo Cabret.” At that moment, I realized that Remy looked exactly like a character in my story, the French filmmaker Georges Méliès, so I asked Remy if he would pose for me. He said yes, so all the drawings of Méliès in my book are actually my favorite childhood writer and illustrator Remy Charlip.)

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“Charlotte’s Web,” by E. B. White. It shows the importance of decency, friendship and language.

What do you plan to read next?

I can’t wait to read “The Book of Dust,” Philip Pullman’s prequel to “His Dark Materials.”

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