When Juman Malouf sees a dead bird on the street, she doesn't just see a pigeon carcass but a harbinger of bad luck. And dead pigeons are not total rarities on the streets of New York City and Paris, where the designer-turned-author divides her time with her partner, the director Wes Anderson.
“I have to be careful about that kind of superstitious, witchy-type thinking, because I think I get carried away,” she confesses, her voice at once deep and childlike.
Malouf is 40 but has an ageless face, owing in part to her elfin features and to a preternatural composure. With the exception of dead birds, nothing seems to faze her much. She is introspective but not at all self-involved; quietly idiosyncratic and disarmingly sincere, with an understatedly dry sense of humor.
When we meet in a Japanese tea house in New York’s East Village, Malouf looks distinctly out of place, like a young girl plucked from a late 19th-century portrait. She wears an emerald green sweater dress with a Victorian-style ruffle collar and lace wrists. Her dark hair is partially pulled back, voluminous around her forehead and loosely curled at her shoulders.
Malouf admits to an obsession with Victorian England, but her style isn’t confined to a particular time or place. The same is true of her new novel, The Trilogy of Two, a fantastical debut about identical orphan twins who were raised by a traveling circus in a “post-apocalyptic, Dickensian world,” as Malouf describes it in person.
Written for middle-schoolers, the book tells the story of 12-year-old Charlotte and Sonja, who have grown up wowing circus audiences in the Outskirts of Rain City with their musical abilities. Lately, their prodigious talents have caused strange things to happen: one performance summoned a biblical storm, lifting the top of the circus tent with tornado-like winds and dumping rain on the circus crowds.
Between hiding from the Enforcers, authorities who police the Outskirts, and fending off the Scrummagers, a group of miscreant orphan boys, Charlotte and Sonja set out to rescue the Seven Edens, a secret world of magical societies and races, from the villainous Kats von Stralen and his army of felines.
The book’s eccentric characters and the worlds-within-worlds they inhabit are richly illustrated by Malouf and inspired by everything from Shakespearean England to Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland and Charles Dickens’ novels (Malouf listened to all of them on tape during months-long periods of illustrating). The Scrummagers are reminiscent of the gangs in Oliver Twist; the muddy swamps of the Outskirts like the marshes in Our Mutual Friend.
Adults will appreciate the book’s contemporary political references, from the environmental wasteland that is Rain City to The Outskirts’ police state and the displaced people who live there—a nod to Europe’s migrant crisis.
Malouf began working on the book towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, “so I named one of the adopted Scrummagers ‘Georgie,’ the one who shoots bears and stuff,” she says drily.
The theme of displacement in The Trilogy of Two also figures prominently in Malouf’s life. The author was born in Beirut at the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Malouf’s mother, the celebrated novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, was forced to flee the country with Juman and her older brother, Tarek. (Juman’s father, Fouad Malouf, a construction engineer with a base in Saudi Arabia, was in the Gulf when war broke out). Beirut’s banks were closed, so al-Shaykh borrowed money from a woman who took care of the children and kept her savings under her bed. The four of them escaped to London on the last plane before the airport closed.
They spent next six years in Saudi Arabia and often visited Lebanon during periods of calm. But all hope of moving home was lost to what seemed like a never-ending war. (It finally ended in 1990.) The Maloufs moved back to London in the early 1980s.
“I didn’t like being displaced when I was younger,” Malouf tells me. “I wanted to identify with a certain people, so when I started at an American school in London I decided that I would be American.”
She became best friends with twin sisters from the Valley outside Los Angeles. “People always say I have a twinge of a Valley accent, and it’s their fault,” she deadpans.
Malouf’s family spent summers at Antibes in the south of France, where her father’s mother lived.
It sounds like her parents were part of a chic, jet-set milieu, I say.
“They really weren’t. My mother was an intellectual, and my father was an engineer so he was practical and not interested in fancy things,” she tells me.
Malouf’s father traveled often for work, and her mother found community among Arab intellectuals in London who had fled war or oppressive regimes. Malouf’s parents were chic because they were culturally sophisticated, particularly her mother, who passed on her love of art, theater, and literature to her daughter. According to one of her mother’s publishers, Al-Shaykh possesses a “Dickensian humor," which Malouf clearly inherited.
But Malouf never thought of herself as a writer. “I wanted to do the opposite of what my mother did,” she says defiantly.
She studied art and theater at Brown University in the U.S., and remembers her friends being feverishly passionate about their interests in the arts. They were confident and optimistic, as college students often are, with big dreams for the future.
“I loved being around all of these people who did artistic things—they played instruments and acted and wrote,” Malouf says. “But when we left school, they stopped doing those things because they didn’t feel like their artistic pursuits were real jobs.”
She’s thought about this often over the years, so much so that the idea manifested in The Trilogy of Two in the concept of “stealing talents.” When Sonja and Charlotte’s magical, musical gifts are stolen—sucked from their ears while they sleep—they are terrified that they’ll never be able to play music again.
Malouf thinks that fear often paralyzes creative people.
“I think they freeze,” she says. “Because they think, I’m not going to be the most successful like I thought I would be, so I’m going to do something else.”
Malouf refused to leave her creative pursuits behind at Brown. She received an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of Arts for set and costume design and worked in New York’s theater world. She later dipped her toes in fashion design with a trendy label, Charlotte Corday, which she launched in the early 2000s.
“I realized I wanted to be the world-maker, but then I realized fashion didn’t have the same depth that theater had,” she says. “I would design clothing based on a character, but the stories didn’t go on.”
That’s when she began working on The Trilogy of Two, having petulantly resisted writing for her entire life. She’s still insecure about beginning her writing career so late in life, though it’s clear Malouf shares her mother’s gift.
Indeed, her prose is lyrical and evocative. Tatty, the Tattooed Lady of the circus and Sonja and Charlotte’s surrogate mother, “slipped a nightgown over her colorful skin, like drawing a shade over a bright landscape,” Malouf writes. In Mr. Fortune Teller’s caravan, “a colony of green caterpillars spun fluffy white cocoons—tiny oval clouds of silk. A single, smaller one whirled a completely different kind of thread: it sparkled bright gold. Its cocoon looked like a Turkish slipper.”
Her mother’s mother was illiterate but “an amazing storyteller,” Malouf says. (She is also the subject of a heartbreaking book by al-Shaykh, The Locust and The Bird).
Malouf recalls the tribal tattoos on her grandmother’s hands (Tatty is partially based on her) and visiting her home in Lebanon, where she hosted a revolving door of visitors and friends, “like the characters in the circus,” Malouf says.
At this point in our conversation, it’s clear that almost all of the characters in the book are vaguely inspired by Malouf’s family and friends.
“My brother looks exactly like the bearded lady,” she tells me, pointing to a drawing of “Bea” in the book.
I laugh. She says it wasn’t intentional, which makes me laugh more.
Tarek Malouf, her brother, is known as the cupcake king of London: he founded the wildly popular Hummingbird Bakery in 2004, bringing America’s cupcake craze to the UK.
It is hard not to imagine Malouf and her family in one of Anderson’s films, with their droll characters and vividly decorated sets.
When I ask how she feels about being Anderson’s muse, she squinches her face—the most expressive I’ve seen her in our two-hour conversation.
“I don’t know if he would like people calling me his muse,” she says politely.
“I don’t know what I am, but it’s very nice to be with another artist or creator because you can have a dialogue about what you’re doing. It’s very helpful for both of us.”
The two met eight years ago through mutual friends, around the time Malouf started writing The Trilogy of Two. Malouf has contributed to some of Anderson’s productions: she drew the character sketches featured in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and designed one of Suzy’s books in "Moonrise Kingdom" (Anderson dedicated the film to Malouf).
Does it bother her that she’s known primarily as Anderson’s partner?
“Not really because I like him,” she says earnestly.
“But I wonder how it will turn out. Will I just be that, or can I become my own person? People want to talk about him and I understand why, though sometimes I feel like, Oh, I guess we’re going to talk about Wes now.
“But I feel very much on his team, and I think he’s very much on my team. We both like history and we love old films and we both like creating worlds. But he doesn’t really do fantastical worlds. His worlds are realistic and of a certain time.”
Malouf is already dreaming up another fantastical world: a second book aimed at young adults. With The Trilogy of Two, she may well get the renown she deserves.