Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Interview with Wonderstruck author, Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck A Novel in Words and Pictures by Brian Selznick
637 pp. (Middle grade; ages 9 to 12)
Publisher: Scholastic Press (September 13, 2011)
ISBN-10: 0545027896
I’m so 2011! September 2011, to be precise. I didn’t stumble upon this book myself and I wasn’t the first to announce to the world how much I actually enjoyed it. Basically, when I posted about Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck  in October 2011, it was already old news. I mean, the New York Times had already reviewed it.  Nevertheless, I decided that I needed to at least read it and added it to my pile of “fun” reads that never get read when you’re a professor teaching at a university in hard economic times. Wonderstruck is not light reading. I mean, the book itself weighs (pauses, goes into the bathroom scale to weigh the book) 4.5 lbs! I’ve mentioned that I’m a commuter and a 4.5 lb book is not something I want to lug about on the train. AND, while it is available for my Kindle, I actually wanted to hold this book and read it from non- e-ink. When I finally heard from Mr. Selznick (I actually had to stalk him, I mean, contact him the old fashioned way… wow, he really locked down his email address fast!) in November, it was nearing the end of the semester and I was preparing to go to London for a conference so I had to put him on hold (I know, can you believe I had the nerve to do that! I wasn’t trying to be too self-important, I just knew I couldn’t take on anything else at the moment… especially not with the focus that I would need for Wonderstruck). So, here I am at the start of the year talking about last year’s book.  If you haven’t read Wonderstruck, you should. It’s a charming story with Deaf Characters.  It’s visual. It includes American Sign Language. It’s a book that the masses will see and apply to real life Deaf people (i.e. that was a great deal of pressure on Mr. Selznick). Fortunately for us, he did his research and created a beautiful book that I hope to include in one of my future courses. Below is my interview with him. He’s down to Earth, incredibly cool, and I believe he is having the time of his life!  He actually responded to one of my emails from Paris during the Hugo premiere. This was after being in London and meeting Prince Charles in which he wrote, “holy cow!!” See, I told you he was cool.

SP: I have my own interpretation but I'm curious if you could discuss your decisions to use words for Ben's story and pictures for Rose's. 
BS: The structure of the book actually came before the plot and the story. After I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret I was trying to figure out what to do next, and how to use what I'd learned in Hugo without repeating myself. I remembered a puppet show that a friend of mine made in which two separate stories were told, one wordlessly with Japanese Bunraku style puppets and another with only spoken language, told by a storyteller sitting on the side of the stage (this show, Hiroshima Maiden, was made by Dan Hurlin and based on a book written by my boyfriend David Serlin). The idea of two stories told simultaneously but with completely different modes intrigued me and I wondered if I could separate the words from the pictures and tell two different interlocking stories. The goal with Hugo was to tell one single narrative, with words and pictures alternating, and this new idea seemed like a logical, if difficult, next step. 
   Once I had this idea I had to figure out WHY I would be telling one story just with pictures. In Hugo the story is about the cinema so telling the story "like a movie" made sense (and of course I had no idea at the time that an actual movie of Hugo would ever be made, but that's another story!). But what would make sense for this new book? I then remembered a documentary I saw on PBS called Through Deaf Eyes and remembered a quote from a Deaf educator who said that the Deaf are the "people of the eye." I took this to mean that when you can't hear what you see becomes even more important, and sign language is a language that you look at to understand, so suddenly I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of a Deaf person just with pictures so we experience her story in a way that reflects how she might experience her own life. That's when my research into the Deaf community began.
    The other story, the one in text, is about a boy who becomes completely deaf at age twelve. He begins his life deaf in one ear but identifies as hearing. The text in his story is sometimes reflected in the pictures in the other story, and vice versa until the two stories eventually come together at the end. Much of the story is about the difficulty of communication and finding one's place in the world and one's community, so the use of different ways of communicating to tell the stories seemed to make sense.
SP: Several of the illustrations include signs of the ASL alphabet. You mentioned in your Acknowledgements that you learned this when you were younger. Since your work on Wonderstruck, have you learned more American Sign Language?
BS: I first learned the sign language alphabet from Remy Charlip's book Handtalk, which I loved as a kid. I memorized the letters and thought of it as a kind of secret language. When I was on tour for Wonderstruck most of my presentations had sign interpreters and I asked each of them to teach me a few words. By the end of the tour I was able to sign a rudimentary welcome to the Deaf audience members in the room. Since the tour ended I've been practicing very hard to learn sign. I'm teaching myself right now, mostly by looking at websites like Signing Savvy and watching people sign to pop songs on YouTube, which is oddly helpful. My favorite is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmKnQjBf8wM
Everything by this guy, Stephen Torrence, is amazing. I know that a lot of times the signers of songs on YouTube are using Signed Exact English, but I think I've heard this guy does a good job, plus even SEE is helpful for a beginning to learn vocabulary, which is basically what I'm building right now. I don't have any idea yet about ASL grammar. Once I have more of a vocabulary I'll look into actually hiring a teacher, although that's hard because I travel a lot. My cousin teaches Deaf kids so she's been helping me and I've become friends with some Deaf folks I met on tour and I've signed with them which is most helpful. Also, my boyfriend teaches with Carol Padden and Tom Humphries at UCSD. They are two of the leading Deaf scholars in the country and we are friends with them (they also helped a huge amount with Wonderstruck), but I haven't seen them since I started to learn sign. It'll be very fun to sign with them though when we get together in the new year. One thing I really have to practice though is fingerspelling. Because even though I've known the alphabet my whole life practically I find it really difficult to spell fluidly and quickly. And my receptive skills are terrible! It's much easier for me to sign myself than to understand what someone is signing to me!
SP: Would you discuss a bit of your process. Did you create Rose's story first and then Ben's story, or did the stories grow simultaneously? Did you sketch out the story or did your art and story flow organically?
BS: Once I knew I was going to have two stories, one in words and one in pictures, I began by writing BOTH stories in outline, present tense. I built the plots for both stories together and once I had the basic arc of the stories I then translated the story meant in pictures INTO pictures. The plot of each story changed a lot depending on what was happening in the other story. For instance, in the boy's story, which is all text, he's in a lightning storm. I really wanted to draw lightning, but there were no drawings in his story. So I thought, maybe I can just put some lighting in the girl's story. But why would there by lightning in her story? I decided to have the lighting appear on a movie screen in her story. But why would she go to the movie theater? I then invented a silent movie star named Lillian Mayhew for the girl to be obsessed with, and suddenly THAT became the central thing in the girl's story. And it all happened because I wanted to draw lightning. 
SP: Do you have any plans for a follow-up? 
BS: here won't be a direct follow up or sequel to Wonderstruck, but I'm working on my next book which will also use words and pictures in some experimental way that I haven't quite settled on yet. Each of my books are designed to stand on their own so I usually don't think about sequels. 
SP:  What do you hope that readers will learn or take away from the book? 
BS: My goals are always very basic when I'm making a book. I want readers to like the story and care about the characters. I hope people get caught up in the emotional lives of the characters. I always write about things that are interesting and important to me (in Hugo it was the cinema, machines and Paris, in Wonderstruck it was museums, Deaf culture and New York), so if readers are intrigued by these subjects and want to follow up on their own afterwards to learn more, that would make me very happy! 
SP: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your books for the first time? 
BS: I once heard the author M.T. Anderson say that books teach you how to read them. I thought this was a really interesting thing. Once you have a book in your hands, you are holding an entire universe, and you are the only person who can bring it to life. If you don't open the cover the book will just sit there. But once you open the cover and start turning the pages, well, you could end up anywhere in the world, with all sorts of interesting, strange, dangerous, loving characters. Hugo and Wonderstruck are BIG books, over 500 pages long, but of course much of the books are pictures. Once you start turning the pages, the book will tell you what to do next. It'll ask you to think in a new way, to go places you otherwise wouldn't go, to try to make connections you otherwise wouldn't make. I try to leave space in my books for the reader to interpret the story. I don't want to tell every single thing to the reader. I want the reader to have to work a little! But "work" in a good way hopefully, not in a way that feels like work. I want people to understand that you have to read pictures the same way you read words. Each reader will interpret them slightly differently, and that's exciting. And I've built all sorts of connections in to the plot of each book, little clues and hints that reveal themselves if you read closely. So don't be afraid of diving in and discovering what's there waiting for you.

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