Brian Selznick and William Joyce are two of the most acclaimed authors for young people currently at work.
In a series of unique novels that includes the Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck, and—just released this month—the aptly titled The Marvels, Selznick has made himself the undisputed master of a genre almost all his own, in which he seamlessly blends the techniques of graphic novels, film, and prose in the service of wonderfully one of a kind stories.
William Joyce has won an Academy Award and three Emmys for his film and television work that includes Rolie Polie Olie and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (which is also a gorgeous teaching app). He is also a prolific children’s book author, whose work includes such classic titles as Dinosaur Bob and My Day With Wilbur Robinson. This fall he at last makes good on his long deferred dream of publishing his illustrated memoir Billy’s Booger. And with Jack Frost, he adds another title to his epic Guardians of Childhood series, a continuing saga that includes novels, picture books, and films.
At the invitation of The Daily Beast, Selznick and Joyce took time for a free-ranging phone conversation in which they talked about everything from false starts to films they love, the wellsprings of inspiration, the necessity of involving the audience in completing a story, and what Jay Gatsby would have done had he owned a dinosaur.
The Daily Beast: There is something that people who don’t create things don’t think too much about, which is the question of false starts. Obviously a ton of work goes into the kinds of things both of you do and I’m thinking there must be plenty of times when you get started on something and it just doesn’t go anywhere. So could you talk about things like that for a little bit?
Brian Selznick: Everything I do feels like a false start. I feel I spend most of the time that I’m working feeling frustrated and a little bit like I don’t know if the thing I’m working on is ever going to come together. I will generally have one basic idea that’s the seed for whatever book it is that I’m working on, but I don’t know anything about where it’s gonna go or what it’s gonna be.
I think it’s fair to say, Bill, that our creative processes are pretty different and a while ago I used to feel bad that I didn’t have more ideas. I would talk to you and I was like, “Oh, what are you doing?” and it was like you’d have a list of what felt like a hundred amazing different projects and ideas. And then you’d ask me what I was doing and I’d be like, “Oh, I’m still working on that book I was working on three years ago when you asked me.” It took me a while that even though I only get one idea every three to five years, it’s okay because it takes three to five years to make my idea into a book, so it ends up being okay. I feel a bit like it’s the wandering in that time that feels like I’m following a lot of false starts, but at the end I look back and it seems the past was clearer than how it felt at the time, if that makes any sense.
William Joyce: Total sense, except that, Brian, while you were feeling bad about not having enough ideas, I was sitting there going, “Man! I wish I had one idea like Brian, and could just work on one idea.”
I got all these ideas banging around in my head and they all want out at the same time and they’re beating each other up trying to get my attention, and I end up spending just as long on these books because I’m always competing with the other ideas or I’m getting frustrated with the one I’m working on. I always go into these things totally confident; that I know exactly what I’m doing. Within one or two illustrations, I’m like, “Oh my god! I’m going to die.” So I think our processes are just as tortured and I’m more delusional and you’re more realistic.
Selznick: I was wondering what the difference between you and me was. Now I think I’ve got it. So, when you’re beginning whatever the project is that you’re working on, you start with sketches, don’t you? Or do you start with words? Or could it be either?
Joyce: It used to be pictures way back before I could read. You know: I hate my sister; I’m going to draw a picture of her being eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I couldn’t write that, but I could draw it. Now that I’ve got the ABCs figured out, it’s just mostly an idea and not an image that gets me started, and it usually happens in the bathtub. I’ll be in there sometimes for so long that people are worried and asking, “Are you alive?” and they’ll be knocking at the door. I’ll come out looking like one of the bodies out of Silence of the Lambs that have been soaking in the river for a week or so, and it’s awful and scary, but I have these “Eureka!” aquatic moments of story. Occasionally for a book I’ll have the whole thing pretty much written or mapped out in that one soggy…
Selznick: How long is this bath?
Joyce: Well, it can go on for like… I’ll get to where it’s like I really feel I need gills or I’ve made all the progress I’m going to make that day. But every now and then … I made up one the other day called “The Great Yum.” It’s this fat guy who’s just blissfully happy, and all he says is [deep resonant tone] “Yummmmmm…” whenever you feed him. He floats into this small town on this raft and they don’t know what to do with him. He never opens his eyes, just looks really, really happy like a Buddha. Then they go, “Maybe he’s hungry?” And they give him their best food and he goes “Yummmmmm…” and this “Yum” that he bellows out or chants makes them so calm and happy that they’re like, “Oh my god, we have to keep feeding him so we can hear that sound. It makes us so peaceful!” And complications ensue.
Selznick: What were you doing right before you had that idea?
Joyce: I think I was washing behind my left ear.
Selznick: Just want to take notes for myself later.
Joyce: I’ve been writing a novel for about a year now, along with doing other picture books. The novels take a different sort of concentration, and I find myself getting much more lost in those. I don’t know what this is like for you, Brian, but writing long fiction is a whole different space for me and I get so submerged in it, so gone, so lost. But for all its agonies, it’s also a sort of meditative place. But I’m not sure I enjoy getting that far gone in a fantasy world.
Selznick: So the novel you’re writing now, is it a fantasy story?
Joyce: Unless toys have learned to talk, and small evil clown toys have learned to lead armies of their minions, yes, I think it’s a fantasy.
Selznick: Do you know how you want to illustrate it? I assume there will be pictures of some fashion.
Joyce: Yes, I came up with a whole different style this time, which sorta just came organically out of the story. A lot of it is the memories of toys, remembering back when they were beloved by their owners, and those are in color—all the toys are in color. Everything that’s real—all the people—are in sepia tone. And you never see the people’s faces.
When you start on your things, Brian, do you know how much of it’s going to be visual and how much of it’s going to be written?
Selznick: I usually start with no clear idea about either of those things. Especially with Hugo. When I started Hugo, it was going to be a 110-page novella with maybe one drawing a chapter. There was something else I wanted to do with the pictures, but I didn’t know what it was when I started. I wrote a novella version of the entire plot, and while I was working on the story, I was doing research and starting to watch more old movies, especially old French movies and films by François Truffaut. The type of story he was telling, especially The 400 Blows, was very related to what I was going to be doing.
I started thinking more about how cinema tells its stories and about the connection between movie making and picture books and how every time we turn the page in a picture book it can be used for so many different things. It can move forward in time, it can do a close up. It’s a very dramatic action, the turning of the page in a picture book. Think about the “Wild Rumpus” in Where the Wild Things Are, where there’s no more text and there’s no more white space—there’s just four-pages-full-bleed of the Rumpus, when we’re inside the illustrations themselves. At some point I thought, “What if I take out some of the text that I’ve written and replace it with picture sequences like the Wild Rumpus?” So I could take out everything that’s a description. I could take out everything that’s an action described and replace it with a picture. So what had been a 110-page book swiftly ballooned up into a 550- to 600-page book.
The new book, The Marvels, started out as text and eventually developed into this idea where 400 pages of pictures come first and then there are 200 pages of text that tell a different story, and eventually the two stories converge.
For me it always starts as text, even if I’m seeing … that image you have of coming out of the tub and having a book in your head, I have a version of that in terms of how I understand or how I see a narrative moving forward as I’m developing a story. But I never draw what’s in my head first. I always write what I see or what the story’s developing into or what I want it to be. Once I have a full outline of pretty much the entire plot, then I will translate the text into the drawings that are related to things I’ve sort of been seeing in my head.
You draw from your head. That’s another thing that I’ve loved about your work that’s very different from my work. Obviously some of your work is based on our actual world that we’re in, but then you take us into a world that we’ve never experience before. It’s dreamlike, it’s another place, it’s the kind of place you can’t research. I write books about Paris, London, and New York, and so when I’m writing a book about Paris, I go to Paris and I research Paris and I learn a lot about Paris and then when I come home my version of Paris isn’t the real Paris, it’s a version of Paris that exists from my memory, from the photograph I took, from the research I did, and from the movies I watched that were set in Paris. So I’m definitely creating a dream world, but it’s a dream world of a recognizable place.
Joyce: I kind of do the same thing. It’s not like I can climb a tree and go find little leaf men running around, but I remember what it’s like to have been climbing in those trees and that wonderful feeling of summer at night when everything felt magical and dark and possibilities seemed endless. Then I go and watch Robin Hood to figure out what a leaf man would likely sorta look like. So I take the things I know and I think about how I wish they were and then do research of a similar sort. I mean, I definitely rely on the movies a lot, as you do.
You and I have always talked about movies in our friendship. Sometimes what was the most fun for me was I would tell you about movies you didn’t know about and I’d get so into it and I could see you’d be making up your own version of the movie in your head as I was telling you and that was kind of fun to watch. But then you told me about Over the Roofs of Paris, which I had never seen, and it totally influenced some stuff that I’m doing on a book that I haven’t finished yet.
Selznick: That makes me happy to hear.
Joyce: Oh, yeah! That thing is amazing! It’s one of the coolest movies I’ve ever seen.
Selznick: I think I stumbled across Under the Roofs of Paris after having seen … it started with François Truffaut and then I saw Truffaut was inspired by Jean Vigo a few decades earlier. So I went back I watched all these amazing films by Jean Vigo, and I think it was Vigo who led me to René Clair. I think Under the Roofs of Paris was 1931. It was exactly the year that my story was taking place and sound had just been introduced. Part of what both of us respond to about that movie is the joy that it takes in the medium that it’s made in.
Joyce: Well, Clair makes a Paris unlike any Paris there ever was or ever will be, but it’s definitely a Paris that appeals to folks like you and I who see reality as just a jumping off point.
Selznick: Yeah! I really love that he filmed that movie in Paris, but in a movie studio where he built Paris from scratch, so it was an extreme version of Paris, which then inspired me when I was making Hugo. I have scenes in Hugo that are directly lifted from stills that I have of Under the Roofs of Paris. Some of the streets that Hugo and Melies walk through are the sets of Under the Roofs of Paris. So then my dream version of Paris is inspired by the dream version of Rene Clair, who was himself French and living there, and now I can’t wait to see what it sparks from you and the book that you’re working on.
Joyce: The one I’m working on right now, the toy one, has lots of Truffaut in it, mostly Small Change.
Selznick: Oh my god, that’s one of my favorites.
Joyce: It’s that kid’s eye view, but it’s also a toy’s eye view—how they perceive the adult world. Truffaut was so good at capturing that and getting the truth and the poetry of it at the same time. For Dinosaur Bob, I watched King Kong and The Philadelphia Story, and Old Yeller, and just sort of mushed them together. It all sort of made sense to me.
Selznick: I love that if you take all those movies and put them in a blender, of course you get Dinosaur Bob.
Joyce: With the color added from The Wizard of Oz. The Great Gatsby sort of inspired Dinosaur Bob, too. I mean, I kept imagining what Gatsby would have been like if he’d had a dinosaur.
Selznick: That’s a question that not enough people have asked before.
Joyce: Don’t you find as well that you’re walking around with something that just jabbing you in the back of your heart saying, “I’ve got something here. I want you to tell this story,” but for years you don’t know where to put it, it can’t find its home?
Selznick: Yeah. I feel like the seeds that became each of the books that I made, especially with the last three, are built out of those little pieces that are something that for some reason I have a very deep emotional response to. And it’s not “I know this is going to be part of a book” or “I know this is going to be in a story,” but it’s the same sort of feeling you’re describing where “this is something that’s important to me for some reason. It’s saying something to me on some level.”
The Marvels is very closely inspired by a museum in London called The Dennis Severs House. It’s a house that’s kept as if a family from the 18th and 19th centuries still lives there. There’s hot tea on the table and laundry on the floor and piss in the piss pot, and you can hear the horses and carriages pulling up outside and church bells ringing and footsteps walking on the floor above you. The sense is that every time you walk into a room the people who live there have just stepped out. And the first time my husband and I went to visit this house, we practically couldn’t leave.
There’s no tour, you walk at your own pace, they don’t rush you. You’re not allowed to talk—that’s the only rule. By the time we finished we were both in tears because we both felt like we had experienced a great work of art. We had witnessed and experienced something that someone else created that we on some level felt what they had made, they made for us in some fashion. There was something about it that became ours at that moment.
We ended up becoming friends with the curator of the house, and I’ve been back dozens and dozens of times. Even way before I had that idea that it would be in a book, I just felt, there’s something magic about this house and I belong here.
When I was beginning to work on the book I started after Wonderstruck, I was always thinking about this house. It’s always sort of in the back of my mind. And finally I thought, “Oh my god, this house! This is the inspiration for part of the story that developed into The Marvels.
Joyce: So that’s just how it goes sometimes, these happy accidents of fate. If you hadn’t gone to that house, this book would not exist.
Selznick: So often there’s still a big gap between having the instinct and then actually doing the thing. The instinct has to be strong. It’s like Richard Dreyfus making the mountain of the mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
It’s like, you have to go there.
Joyce: That master switch that’s in our heads that says, this matters and it’s going to matter for the next few years of your life no matter what you do, you’re going to die if you don’t figure this out. It’s never planned, it just shows up.
Selznick: I’ve always felt that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the best metaphors for the artistic impulse I’ve ever seen—that whole sense of being called to something.
Joyce: And everybody thinks you’re crazy.
Selznick: And everyone thinks you’re crazy. And no matter what the cost, hopefully it doesn’t cost everyone their family, but in terms of a metaphor and being willing to push everything aside in order to be able to follow this thing that has taken you, it’s like it’s possessed you.
I always know when I’m on the right track when I’m inside a book and weird coincidences happen. There’ll be a hole in the plot that I can’t solve until I stumble upon an anecdote in some weird book. Or someone will tell me a story and somehow the thing they happened to tell me is the exact thing I’ve been waiting for to fill in a hole in my story. Those things happen again again and again and again. You can’t plan for them, but I always feel like when they happen, they’re reminders that I must be on the right track in some fashion.
Joyce: You reach a sort of fever pitch where your ganglions are attuned to the needs of your host.
Selznick: It pulls in everything to feed that thing that needs to be fed.
What’s so interesting is the people who read our books or the people who… how do I say this? When any of us see a finished product, we don’t actually see what the problems were along the way or what the early drafts were like. You’re given this finished thing, which if it’s good feels like it’s inevitable. It was always meant to be this thing. When I read a great book or when I look at a great movie or a play, I know that that these things had to have been hard to make, but when they’re good, that’s all you see. You’re not going to see all the problems.
Joyce: I have to tell my crew that all the time. We’ll be working on a shot if we’re working on a movie or something or a short and there’ll be all this agony about “This shot costs too much,” or “It’ll take too long in production,” or “We won’t be able to show this cool thing.” And I’m like, “No one will ever know. The people who are going to see this will see what we’ve shown them and if we do it right they will never suspect that there’s blood all over floor back at the.
Watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, watch The African Queen. As a filmmaker now I can see where John Huston had to make choices, where it’s like “I didn’t get this shot on the Congo so I had to film it on a sound stage in Hollywood.” But the thing is, you still go with it. We’re outside in the middle of the Congo, and then in the next shot it’s very obvious we’re on a sound stage in Los Angeles that’s pretending to be the Congo. And yet, we suspend our disbelief and go with it. No one knows all the times you didn’t get it right or all the things you wished you could have done and they never will.
Selznick: I once went on a backstage tour of the New York Metropolitan Opera. It’s an amazing space behind the scenes. We were being taken into where they make the scenery and all the different places and we got to one door that was closed and the tour guide said, “Now behind this door is the most amazing room in the entire opera. It’s filled with the wigs and costumes and models and it’s unbelievable. But unfortunately it’s locked today so we can’t see it.” I remember thinking, if she had just kept us walking right past that door, we would have all come away feeling like we had just seen this incredible marvel, because we did. Backstage at the opera was amazing. But by telling us what we couldn’t see, she made us all walk away feeling like, this tour was pretty good, but we missed that one thing.
Joyce: I think the opposite thing. I think that’s awesome that you didn’t get to see it, because now it’s in your head and now you can make it whatever you want it to be and they did you a strange favor by describing the most wondrous thing and not letting you see it. For the rest of your life, you’re going to be imagining your own version of it, which may very well be considerably better than what the reality was.
Selznick: I always want the reader of my books to feel like they’re finishing the story, they’re the ones who are piecing everything together. I want to give them enough information so they can do the work, so they can finish what’s there, but I don’t want to give everything away. There always has to be that sense that you’re being asked to bring something to it.
My first book was called The Houdini Box, and you never find out what’s inside this Houdini Box because of what you just said, Bill. It’s that same idea. If I answered the question at the end of the book and said that there was a book of instructions or a magic light or a flash of inspiration or a dragon that comes out and grants your wishes, whatever it is will be less wonderful than what you dream. So the metaphor of the unopened door falls into the creative side of what you want your audience to dream with as opposed to the blood and the pain of the compromises that you feel they will never know. Does that make sense?
Joyce: Yes it does, and I’m thinking the most horrible thing: Now we’re both going to be working on unopened door books. Maybe we should write them together but not show them to each other and them publish them jointly and see if they tie together anyway.
Selznick: What’s so interesting to me about this part of the conversation is that I’ve always assigned the meaning of that door in this anecdote to the idea of what the audience doesn’t need to know: the blood and the pain and the compromises. But in fact, the metaphor of the door is exactly what the audience doesn’t know: they can bring their imagination to it and it’s the thing that makes whatever it is even better and more magical.
Joyce: How many great stories end with an unopened door or a door that’s open but you don’t know where it leads? Gone with the Wind, Casablanca… Sometimes the most memorable ending is the one where you don’t know, and that’s kind of wonderful and tingly and it sticks in your mind forever and ever.
Brian: That feeling of ambiguity is very important. If a story does its job, it gives the reader or the viewer enough information to be able to make decisions to continue in some fashion what they want to have happen. There’s a certain satisfaction in some stories where every ribbon is tied up and every I is dotted and T is crossed. There are some stories where that can be pleasurable. But in general you want to feel like you’re heading towards a satisfying resolution and then the rest of it is yours, and by yours I mean the reader’s or the viewer’s or the person who’s experiencing the end of the story.
Joyce: It’s sort of like the end of Winnie the Pooh.
Selznick: Remind me?
Joyce: It’s when Christopher Robin is going away, when he’s going off to school and he takes Pooh up to the Hundred Acre Wood and tries to explain that he’s leaving, that basically their relationship will never be the same. He’s going to have to grow up now. Pooh doesn’t quite get it, and Christopher can’t quite make it clear, but he doesn’t want to. He gives it a bit of a try, but then he goes, “Oh, it’s fine. Let’s not worry about it. Come on, let’s go.” I’m paraphrasing it so terribly; this doesn’t at all sound like Milne. But at the end of it, you the reader know the heartbreak, even though it’s all unsaid.
Selznick: It’s coming.
Joyce: It’s never, never spoken. But the last line tries to give you a little comfort that there will always be a boy and his bear will be waiting for him somewhere some place somehow. It makes me cry every time I read it because Christopher Robin is aware that this delicate thing that he didn’t even realize was delicate is about to change and he’s not sure how it’s going to change, he just knows that he’s growing up and this is going to be different.
We serve our audience best when we just give them an indication of the change that’s happened and we don’t spell it out. Giving everything away isn’t any fun; that’s just lazy storytelling.