Brian Selznick is in the news! Based on his novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese’s new movie Hugo has just been released in UK cinemas. Meanwhile Selznick leaves no stone unturned in his quest for accuracy in his latest novel Wonderstruck – but the odd meteorite may be moved, as Damian Kelleher discovers.
Brian Selznick is a stickler for detail, and he doesn’t mind who knows it. Whether he’s taking photos of models to pose for his illustrations, or researching the archives of New York’s Museum of National History, accuracy matters in both words and pictures. The creator of the Caldecott Medal-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick’s unique and innovative style brings together a strong conventional narrative with the sort of pencil drawings that would normally only be seen on a movie storyboard (and even then, certainly never in this much painstaking and loving detail). It’s an innovative approach to children’s books that creates its own unique space between novels, graphic novels and picture books. Now, four years on from The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznik’s latest project takes this format in an intriguing new direction.
‘Wonderstruck is written as two different books that weave back and forth and come together at the end,’ Selznick explains. ‘So we have a story told in words that takes place in 1977 about a boy, Ben, who runs away to New York in search of a father he never knew. And we have a story that takes place 50 years earlier in 1927 about Rose, a girl who runs away in search of an actress she’s obsessed with. The two stories are completely independent, yet as they weave back and forth there are echoes between each other, elements in common, and they come together at the end.’
One of the more obvious elements the two tales share is the fact that both children are deaf: Rose from birth and Ben after a freak accident when he’s struck by lightning. As a hearing person, why did Selznick choose deafness as a major theme for his book?
‘I saw a documentary about deaf culture called Through Deaf Eyes,’ says Selznick, ‘and one of the things that really struck me was the visual way deaf people communicate. People who had read The Invention of Hugo Cabret talked about the silence of the pictures; for a hearing person when you’re reading you often hear the words in your head, and then you get to the pictures, and the narrative continues but you’re not getting the language running through your head the way you are with the text. A couple of people talked about this interesting silence that occurred. I thought that that would be the perfect way to tell the story of someone who’s deaf so that we the reader experience their life in a similar sense.’
As a reader, the experiences of these two deaf children, separated by 50 years, is never less than engrossing; Selznick pulls you into their parallel stories in an absorbing and serpentine tale that would put many detective writers to shame. But the deafness of the two principal characters is never presented as a disadvantage or a disability.
‘Very often in children’s books and young adult novels, if there’s a deaf character that person is there to teach some kind of lesson. I wanted to write a story where the characters just were deaf. A lot of the work that went into making the book was figuring out what was going to happen with the plot itself and then figuring out how these characters would communicate through the story. So I had a lot of work to do; I read a huge amount of books about deafness and the Deaf community and Deaf culture, and I talked to many deaf people.’
Wonderstruck also takes us on an intriguing journey into one of New York’s finest cultural institutions, the Museum of Natural History. It’s quite clear from Selznick’s meticulous descriptions and drawings of the building and its contents, this is a place that’s very dear to his heart. Just the mention of the word ‘museum’ brings a broad smile to Selznick’s face.
‘I really love museums! I love going to museums, learning about museums, I love reading about museums. I think because I always love collecting things: most of us have that impulse to collect something, to have objects that mean something to us in our possession. It’s a kind of control. Part of the impetus for writing this book was that many years ago, a friend of mine got a job at the Museum of Natural History in New York working on dioramas and displays, and he invited me to come behind the scenes into the workshops to see how the work is done. And I remember walking in and thinking, this would be a really great place to set a book, I mean what kid wouldn’t want to be behind the scenes seeing how this happens?’
Working on Wonderstruck was the perfect excuse for Selznick to catalogue some of the strange and fabulous contents on offer at the museum. But while giving him the opportunity to illustrate a cornucopia of frankly weird and wacky paraphernalia accrued by the museum, it also presented some problems in working out what went where.
‘The book is filled with real exhibits from the Museum of Natural History; the meteorite, there’s a giant mosquito, there are hallways, dinosaurs. Both of the characters in Wonderstruck end up at the museum, but they end up there 50 years apart.
‘I had to do a huge amount of research relating to the floor plans of the museum – they keep moving things around! So I had to try and track down the floor plans for 1927 and 1977. I found an original floor plan from 1977, but I had to recreate the 1927 version from scratch because there were none in the archives. But I found an old booklet that had a map and descriptions of where the rooms were so I was able to put the rooms into the proper places in the museum in 1927. I did that because I knew when I was making the book I was going to change a whole bunch of stuff. I’m writing a book of fiction so things don’t have to be exactly as they were. I changed things! For instance, in 1927, the first thing you see when you enter the museum is the meteorite. That was the very first thing on display in the lobby. But I wanted Rose to have to wander through the museum before she found the meteorite, so I moved it to a whole other room! That was very easy for me to do but much harder for the museum to move because it weighs many, many tons. But I wanted to know where it actually was so that I knew where I was moving it and that people reading the book would know I wasn’t just wrong; I was doing it on purpose for the story.’
When his first book was published, it was clear Selznick was using illustration to build tension and mood in exactly the same way that a film director uses the camera. Being a distant relative of legendary Hollywood producer David O Selznick (he produced Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, and King Kong) it seems cinema is in the Selznick DNA.
‘He and my grandfather were cousins,’ says Brian, ‘but they hated each other and never spoke. They did grow up together though, and as a kid it was always really fun for me to see my last name up on the screen: ‘a David O Selznick International Picture’. Seeing the word Selznick really large was a big thrill.’
That feeling will no doubt return now Martin Scorsese’s latest movie Hugo is on general in UK cinemas. Starring Jude Law, Emily Mortimer and Ben Kingsley, the name Selznick looms large on the silver screen once more – only this time as a credit for Brian as creator of the original book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
‘It’s incredibly exciting,’ Selznick admits. ‘They built a full-sized train station and it’s brilliant and beautiful and bustling, and on any given day there were 300-500 extras who were all wearing perfect period costumes designed by Sandy Powell and her team. It looked like everyone had stepped out of a photograph from 1931. Everywhere you turned, it was like you were back in time. To be there on this set in the midst of these hundreds of people who were working every day for months and months to make the story come to life, knowing it was being done with great respect for the story I had originally written meant the world to me. It was an unforgettable experience.’
It’s all a far cry from Brian’s first job in children’s publishing. Selznick looks a little wistful as he talks about how he began his career in children’s books, working at the legendary (but now defunct) Eeyore’s bookstore in Manhattan.
‘To this day I feel that everything I do comes out of what I learned at Eeyore’s,’ says Selznick. ‘You know, I started painting the window displays there. You had to paint on the glass backwards from the inside, and it had to look good from across the street, from up close, and from inside the store. When I think about book covers now, I realise they have to do the same thing. It was quite a place. I’m sorry that it’s gone. When The Invention of Hugo Cabret won the Caldecott Medal, there must have been ten people there who had some association with Eeyore’s. We took a great group photo together. It was like ‘look how far we’ve all come!’
Wonderstruck is published by Scholastic (978-0545027892) at £14.99 hbk. Hugo is on general release.