Brian Selznick interviewed by Nikki Gamble

Brian Selznick
, author of the award winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, grew up in New Jersey and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Art and Design in 1988. He worked for two years after graduation at Eeyore's Books for Children in New York City. His first book was published while he worked there. The Invention of Hugo Cabret was a ground breaking novel in the way it combined text and illustration alternately to tell the story. It was made into a film, ‘Hugo’, by Martin Scorsese. The follow-up Wonderstruck entered the New York Times bestseller list at #1.

Brian has worked as a theatre designer and professional puppeteer. His first book, The Houdini Box was inspired by a fascination with the legendary magician and escapologist, Houdini. Set against a theatrical backdrop, his latest novel The Marvels takes Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as one of its inspirations.

About The Marvels

The journey begins on a ship at sea, with a boy named Billy Marvel. He survives a devastating shipwreck and later finds work in a London theatre. There his family flourishes for generations as brilliant actors until young Leontes Marvel abandons the stage and runs away.

A century later, Joseph Jervis, another runaway, seeks refuge with an uncle in London. Stormy Uncle Albert and his strange but beautiful house, with its ships and theatre programs, haunting portraits and ghostly presences, lure Joseph on a search for clues about the house, and his own life.

As readers piece together the mystery of how the two narratives connect, they will be swept up in a gripping adventure that is also a moving exploration of our need to belong and to tell stories.

Watch the trailer:

Nikki Gamble met with Brian Selznick at the Dennis Severs House, in Spitalfields, London, where he talked about his latest book and the inspirations behind it.

It’s been a while since we first talked about The Invention of Hugo Cabret and I’m really looking forward to sharing reflections about your new book The Marvels, which I found both thought provoking and affecting.

You have written about the feeling for things, the empathy with objects. That’s a very potent idea as we sit here in the Dennis Severs house surrounded by fascinating objects and the recreation of a living past. What does the 'empathy with objects' mean to you?

I’ve always been a collector. Ever since I was a kid I have liked to collect objects and to make things. I’ve always had a direct relationship with things. And I have always been intrigued by other people who have a connection or obsession with things. When I first came to the Dennis Severs house, I didn’t know much about it. I basically knew that it was a house from the eighteenth century which was kept as if the family who lived in it was still alive.

The premise is that every time you stop into a room in the house it is as if the family has just stepped out: the candles are lit, there’s hot tea on the tables, there’s a fire in the kitchen and laundry in the corners in the bedrooms.

As you move through the house you move through time. The kitchen and the dining room are eighteenth century but by the time you get to the attic, the fortunes of the family who lived here have changed. In the last room it’s 1900. The house is filled with objects which are mostly true to the time period.  However, as you move through the rooms you will also see things like a New York Yankees’ baseball cap and envelopes with modern stamps. Then you start to realise there are simultaneous stories happening. There’s the story of the family who lived here. And there’s the story of Dennis Severs who created the house, who wore the baseball caps and whose photograph can be seen in the Victorian room.

The collection of objects, all of which are very carefully curated and placed, are meant to be seen and considered in relationship to each other, in relationship to the house, and in relationship to yourself as a viewer. 

So here we are having this interview  sitting at the dining room table at the Dennis Severs House and in front of us is a candle with a collection of oyster shells, which look haphazard, but they have been carefully placed with the candle lighting the oyster shell from behind so that it makes the oyster shell glow. There’s rock candy pouring out of a silver crystal chalice and there’s wine and a porcelain eighteenth century pig-shaped toothpick holder with toothpicks made out of carved feathers, and there’s a porcelain lion on the other side of the table. Every one of these objects is considered and placed by David and his staff to tell a story.

What I find striking is that the potent objects are not necessarily expensive objects. For instance, it’s the positioning  of a deck of cards, with a hand that has just been played. You feel that there’s an invitation to play the next hand..

Yes, because it’s the objects that we use to live our lives. There are children’s toys on the stairs. There’s a smoking room with overturned chairs, which is very similar to the Hogarth painting which is hanging over the fireplace in that room. There’s a punch bowl and tobacco, which you can smell. There ARE some fancy objects in the room - crystal goblets, Delft pottery and Chinese vases, but it’s the things that are part of the everyday life of the people who lived here that are often the most moving because they are the things that you wouldn’t normally be preserved or found in a museum. These objects were used, and it’s beautiful to see them in their natural habitat.

As a collector of objects, what are you looking for when you acquire something or add it to your collections?

It’s very personal and subjective. Why do you respond to one person and become good friends with them but don't become friends with another, even if they are perfectly nice and amenable? You don’t get a lot of best friends in life but when you do meet someone you really connect with, then you hold them close and you don’t let them go.

Weirdly it seems to be a parallel experience with objects.  I knew someone who used to call it ‘object identification’, which means you see certain things in the object that you identify with. It could simply be that it’s pretty; beauty is an important draw. But on the other hand, not everything here is beautiful. It could be that the objects are useful, or they do something unique.

We also associate stories with objects, and we identify people with objects. For instance, a lover gives you something, if they die you might not be able to look at that object because it makes you too sad. On the other hand, if they leave you for someone else, you might take your anger out on that object.

When I go to a flea market and see the objects that have become separated from their owners, I always think about that. You know the objects come from some time in the past but there’s no way of recovering the reason they been severed from their original owners. It may be that the object was hated, or that someone died, or maybe it had to be sold for financial reasons. So objects in flea markets have an opportunity for a fresh start, which I think is interesting.

Listening to you talk, I think this is something more than nostalgia…

Yes, it’s strange that the word nostalgia seems to suggest a false idea about what the past held. The feeling of missing or mourning something that never actually existed. But for the people in the past, it wasn’t the past, it was the present and everything was as modern and technologically challenging for them as it is for us today.  I think that’s what the Dennis Severs House does; it exists outside of nostalgia. In a way it exists outside of history because you don’t feel as though you are in the past. You feel that you are in the present of the eighteenth century.

I wonder, say in  200 years from now someone puts together a house like this but full of things from the 21st century, will visitors will have a similar experience? I say that because there’s something magical about a house lit by candles. It’s hard for me to imagine that you would get the same feeling in a house with electric, LED or neon light.

I guess it would be as distant as strange as this is to us. It’s hard to comprehend that we are living through what will be someone else’s distant past. I don’t like thinking about it too much because it involves thinking about your own death, and no one really wants to do that. But it will be someone’s past, and people will be trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing.

It's true that a big part of the beauty of this house is that it is lit by candles, except for the last room, which is gaslight -  but even that is live flame. It’s warm and beautiful and controlled; it’s never going to be super bright at night. But in 200 years, if you have a halogen or fluorescent light, it will just be what it is. You can still control it, you can make dimmers and have fairy lights to change the light. We find ways to make that light more romantic, perhaps with a red lampshade or a scarf thrown over it like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. We create atmosphere in other ways.

When did you know that the inspiration of the Dennis Severs House was going to turn into a story?

After I finished Wonderstruck I was thinking about what I would do next. I had an idea that it might be great to make a book linked to the Dennis Severs House that would be a Valentine to London. I moved to London and started researching and came back to the house again and again. I built the plot from what I learnt from David Milne about his own life, Dennis’s life, the house and Spitalfields.

I don’t want to give too much away, but it took me a while before I realised I was reading a very different story to the one that I had thought I was reading.

We don’t want to spoil it for readers, but yes the story doesn’t end up where you think it’s going. I believe that when we read, we want stories that end up going in directions that challenge our expectations. The Dennis Severs House has that effect and I tried to capture that feeling in writing the book. Ultimately, I tried to make the story feel as though it was worth the journey, even though the place you end up may not be the place you think you are heading.

Like Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, The Marvels is a novel told through a combination of words and pictures. One of the things that struck me when I was reading it is how the process of reading the words and pictures creates a different sense of time. Paradoxically  the pictures speed up time as we move through history, but at the same time they slow it down because they require the reader to stop and take note. So I was aware of both of those things simultaneously, if that makes sense.

Yes, 150 years passes in the pictures and I think that most of the writing takes place in a week. It does jump forward a few months but even so it still takes place in a much more condensed time.

In the picture story you might have to pause to look at the close up image of a character, which stretches the moment.

Yes, and you have to move from page to page to find what the next moment is. The act of turning the page takes a moment and becomes part of the activity and movement forward. So you are really moving through time as you move through the picture sequence.

In the words even though you turn the pages it isn’t the same experience. Turning the page of the prose narrative is just a technological necessity because you’ve run out of space. Within that page I am telling you everything. So on one page a lot of things can happen: Joseph can be walking down the street, be cold, see a row of derelict houses, see a glow in the window and look in the window and see the eighteenth century feast and feel like he’s falling back in time. All of that can happen on a single page of text.

However, if I was drawing that sequence we’d have to see the street, and then we’d turn the page and maybe we would see a close up of Joseph, and then we’d turn the page and maybe we’d see the street, and a way in the distance we’d see a glow from a window, and then we’d need to move down the street and that might be another page, and then there might be a close up of Joseph’s face to show that he’s scared, cold, lonely and desperate and so on…

There are lots of echoes in the narrative, and again I don’t want to be too specific in case I spoil it for readers, but can you say a little bit about that?

The idea that there are elements of second story that deliberately echo elements in the first story for various reasons. Some of them are coincidental within the story and others are very deliberate within the narrative structure. Those parallels are there because I hoped it would be satisfying for the reader to make those connections and to feel that part of the story is there for them to figure it out.

Hugo Cabret derives in part from a fascination with film. In The Marvels it’s theatre and the mechanics of theatre. I know that you have worked as a set designer and that for this book you visited lots of London theatres. Can you tell us what the appeal of theatre is for you?

My friend Harry Lloyd had taken me backstage at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to tell me about how the theatres were built by sailors who came in from the sea. They weren’t afraid of heights and they knew how to tie knots in ropes, which is why we have terms like 'crew' and 'deck' and 'rigging' in the theatre. When he told me that I immediately felt that I needed to write a story that would start in the eighteenth century on a ship at sea, which meant there was going to be a shipwreck and a lone survivor, a boy who would get eventually get to London and get a job in the theatre. And so I learned more history about the theatre. For a while, I thought there were going to be two books, one about the theatre and one about the Dennis Severs House. But the two came together.

There’s an obvious love for Shakespeare in this book, at one point you write, 'Shakespeare is everywhere', and that’s true. There’s a particular interest in The Winter’s Tale. Why that play?

I think I have seen The Winter’s Tale 9 or 10 times (not quite as many times as I have seen a Midsummer Night's Dream). I fell in love with it and it’s my favourite play. I wanted to make it one of the main inspirations. It’s the strangest most beautiful story, magical and mysterious. It’s also about forgiveness and understanding and what it means for time to pass and how we treat each other. These are themes that went along with the family dynamics that I was writing about. So there are lots of ideas from The Winter’s Tale, which are given to Joseph.

Yes, it’s the ‘miracles and sadness’ that exist side by side and which you write about so eloquently. Do you think that’s quite an adult perspective, or do young people respond to that theme also?

I think kids are the smartest, most honest most direct audience. They have fewer years on the planet so they will have a different perspective and it is true that there are a lot of adult themes in the story. However Joseph lives in an adult world, which it’s true for all kids. They are trying to figure out what the world is,  who their family is, what they were born into and what they are going to be like, and when they grow up what kind of family are they going to create for themselves. Kids experience sadness and loss as much as adults do, it’s not exclusive to older readers.

The Winter’s Tale like your novel is also concerned with the passing of  time...

In that play time appears to tell us that sixteen years has passed since the last time we were with these characters. So I was intrigued by the idea that when you are telling a story, you can control time.

You reference a book called A Child of the Jago in your acknowledgements, can you tell us about it?

It was searching for the location of that book that bought David Milne to the Dennis Severs House in the mid-1980s. And I learned about it from him. It’s a book about thieves and prostitutes in nineteenth century London in an area close to Spitalfields.  It’s a novel, but it was written as social commentary, to let people know what happens when people are trapped in poverty and don’t have any way out. It’s very bleak and very dark: the world of Oliver Twist without hope - without Dickens. 

There are allusions to other books in The Marvels. Joseph arrives at Albert Nightingale's house with a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and it’s easy to see the connection between your novel and that story. And you make reference throughout to Yeats' poetry. Does Yeats have any special significance for you?

I gave Joseph a lot of my favourite books, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Great Expectations, which I have always loved but also seemed to make thematic sense.

I had never really known much about Yeats poetry, until one day when David Milne introduced me to mudlarking along the shore of the Thames. As we were searching for treasure in the mud,  a famous quote from Yeats came to mind: ‘I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’ That just seemed to be an apt description for what it was like to walk along the shore of the Thames looking for objects from the past. .It popped into my head and so I gave it to Joseph to share with his friend Blink. Well, then I had to go and read some more Yeats and filled it out a bit more. It’s a collection of Yeats that Joseph holds and loves that reminds him of his friendship with Blink.
It’s always great to make discoveries when you are working on a book and Yeats was one of the big discoveries for me from writing The Marvels.

Well there are many more discoveries for readers to make when they read The Marvels. I have read it once and I will certainly be reading it again and I’m sure there are further discoveries for me to make.

Thank you Brian Selznick for another illuminating discussion about your work.

Copyright Nikki Gamble, Just Imagine November 2015
You may print and use this interview for education purposes. You may not reproduce it in any other format in whole or in part, without permission.
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