An interview with Maurice Sendak

When Maurice Sendak was a boy, his grandmother would dress him all in white. Innocent enough, this sounds – and may even bring to mind Max’s white wolf suit in Where The Wild Things Are. However, as is true so often with Sendak – the man and his work – there is much below the surface. This was Brooklyn, in the 1930s; Sendak was born, the youngest son of Philip and Sarah, in 1928: the same year as Mickey Mouse, who he once called “an early best friend”. Both parents had come to America from Poland before the First World War, and the life of the Jewish shtetls outside Warsaw was not quite left behind. Sendak was a sickly child – nearly killed by measles at two and a half, beset by pneumonia and later, scarlet fever. But there was, perhaps, a way to effect escape from the inevitable: “My grandmother sewed me a white suit,” Sendak tells me. “White stockings, and I had white shoes and I could only sit outdoors with her. God would look down and think I was already dead because I was an angel, dressed all in white. This was something that went on in the ghetto – so I was a loser, right from the beginning. And I had to be dressed such so as to fool the fates – white, the colour, as if I was already gone.”

And so, in Wild Things, white is transformed from the colour of death to the colour of life, as Max goes on his splendid night-time adventure to be King of all Wild Things. But perhaps it’s not surprising that, in the main, white is not what springs to mind when one thinks of Sendak’s work: consider the bold blue greens of Wild Things  – published exactly 40 years ago now, and perhaps the best known of his books – the vivid yellow-red-mauves of his fantasia on his early Brooklyn life, In the Night Kitchen, or the muted but no less compelling 18th-century tones of Outside Over There. His black and white work, from Higglety Pigglety Pop! to his illustrations for the Grimm fairy tales in The Juniper Tree, are made distinctive by his textured cross hatching, the page stitched and stitched with fine lines. His work has won him almost every important prize in children’s literature, from the Caldecott Medal to the Hans Christian Andersen Award and, most recently, he was the first winner of the Swedish government’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Former Children’s Laureate Quentin Blake says of him: “He introduced metaphorical psychology into children’s books, which is very important. And he took children’s books seriously. He never regarded it as a separate act for which you had to reduce your capability.” In awarding him the National Medal of Arts in 1997, President Clinton remarked: “Perhaps no one has done as much to show the power of the written word on children, not to mention on their parents, as Maurice Sendak.”

Yet Sendak has not been content to stay between covers: in the late 1970s Sendak turned to opera design. There have been designs for The Magic Flute, Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges – and of course Oliver Knussen’s opera of Where The Wild Things Are, which first took to the stage in 1980. But now, in his 75th year, this greatest of American author/illustrators has added to his roster of masterpieces with a new book and a celebratory volume to landmark his career. Tony Kushner, the American playwright whose Angels in America won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991, has written the text to The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present, a fine companion volume to Selma Lanes’s magisterial The Art of Maurice Sendak, published in 1981. But of greater significance than this tribute is Brundibar, a new picture book, and opera – with words/libretto by Kushner and images/set design by Sendak. 

Brundibar originated as a children’s opera by Hans Krása, a Jewish Czechoslovakian composer. It tells the story of Aniku and Pepicek, a poor brother and sister who need to get milk for their sick mother. They decide to sing in the town square to raise money, but are thwarted by Brundibar (“bumblebee” in Czech), a hurdy-gurdy-playing bully who chases them away. But a dog, a cat, a sparrow and 300 children come to their rescue; the bully is driven away; Aniku and Pepicek are showered with cash and can get milk for their mother. So they all lived happily ever after.

Except: they didn’t. Brundibar was written in 1938 and first performed four years later at a Jewish boys’ orphanage. It had three performances before all involved were rounded up and transported to the concentration camp at Terezin. There, it was performed 55 times by the children of the camp. Before long, the Nazis were using this tale – of power overcome by the powerless – as propaganda: it was filmed for inclusion in the Nazi-produced documentary, Der Fürher schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Furher gives the Jews a City). Nearly all the children who appeared in the opera were later transported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered – as was Krása, in October 1944.

Sitting with Sendak in the pretty red barn that serves as workspace on his property in Connecticut, it quickly becomes clear that this latest project is not only especially dear to his heart, but has also released him in some way. We sit in straight chairs at a wide wooden table; Sendak walks with a stick now and thought that if we sat in the armchairs across the room, he might never get up again. He groans at the infirmity of his body; but the eyes behind the big square glasses are sharp and bright, vivid and expressive and interested in everything they see. But interested particularly in the darkness that has shadowed his life and informs his greatest work; his own darkness, but the darkness of history too. While his own parents escaped Poland, of course, many of his relatives – in the time leading up to the Second World War – did not; something Sendak was always aware of.

“The art book and Brundibar are three years of my life, and I’m exhausted. Exhausted,” he says. His voice is gravelly, deep, rich Brooklyn. “But I’m feeling so good. Like I’ve come home. I don’t need to go there anymore. Brundibar is the book I’ve been doing all my life, but I’ve done it best now. I know I have because of the way I feel. It gnawed at me – these are all my dead cousins, all the people who haunted my childhood, who I hated for haunting my childhood – my parents didn’t know from shielding us from any of that. These are immigrant Jews coming from villages in Poland, there was no protecting us, just a blast in the face.  I just knew that I should be ashamed of being alive and having a good time. Play ball in the street, you forget dinner, your mother has to call you, and she says: ‘Your little cousin Rachel can’t have dinner any more…’ So I wanted to kill Rachel over again, and my mother. But then later I fell in love with all these people, and drew them in all my books and became a good son of the Holocaust –” wryness in his voice as he says this – “and now I’m free. Je suis fini. It’s a very good feeling.”

 It’s a surprise to hear him express this relief, this good feeling: his life has been shadowed by depression. But Sendak thinks that at last – with this book, with his age – he might at last have outgrown that. “My friends say oh, you think you feel good, but you know what you’re like Maurice, you’re in for a big depression! You’re such a fool, you’ve done this so many times – but you know what? At 75, you can’t afford depressions. They’re very time-consuming. Exhausting, I don’t have the time. If I’d known that in my thirties when I was in therapy I would have said screw this, I’ll just wait till I’m old. I’ll be all right. Save a lot of money! They don’t tell you that.” And he laughs, ruefully.

Brundibar is certainly his most focussed look at the Holocaust, though as he remarks, his family has of course informed his work. Their faces peer out from his illustrations to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh The Goat and his father Philip’s remarkable book of stories and reminiscences, In Grandpa’s House; they are even, Sendak has said, found in the gawping faces of the Wild Things, drawn from the memory of awful relatives who would visit with their “bad teeth and hairy noses” and say things like, “you’re so cute I could eat you up!” But Brundibar works as art that confronts the horror of history because it works as a picture book: text and images crossing and recrossing to make something both bold and subtle. The song the children sing in the square is a lullaby about the end of childhood, how children grow up and fly away. “Baby blackbird, fly now./ Time to go, who knows why?” The double page image that follows shows children on the backs of birds – the eye is drawn to them first – flying over a starlit city. But the eye moves down: the mothers, with their smaller children by them, weep and look away. 

“The picture is my variation on the actual song,” he says. “It’s a very sweet song, about children leaving, growing up – well, I took that to mean the children are dead. This is Europe during the Nazis. What they’re mourning is that the birds are carrying the children away and the children should not be dead. And all the mothers are reaching for them – it’s a very dramatic picture, but it’s not the drama of the song. The song is wistful; but I’ve turned it into a pogrom.”

A pogrom? In a children’s book? Can that be right? Surely children’s literature is a kind of place of greater safety: a place away from darkness, a place of light, of innocence, of protection. Of course not: no literature that is true can be that, and Sendak’s genius is to know that – to truly understand it – better than most. “Children,” he says, “are not ‘regular people’. Children are punched into regularity; they have to be, I guess: you can’t have them being what they are forever, running around like maniacs, terrorists, saboteurs. They are closer to death, they are closer to the whole thing. They know a lot. They feel sorry for their parents. When the Twin Towers fell, I have a friend whose daughter is in a school down there – and when it all happened, they go down, and there’s all the fire and the smoke, and they ran and grabbed her and said, are you all right? And she said: ‘Oh, it’s so exciting, with all the fire engines, and Daddy, I saw something I’d never seen before – I saw little birdies on fire and they were flying all around’. And they took her home, and calmed her down, and put her to bed and he kissed her goodnight and then she called him back. ‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘I have a secret. I know they weren’t birdies, Daddy.’ She had protected him for as long as she could from her knowing; knowing what that would do to him. That’s what they do. They are capable of that.”

Such directness has got Sendak into trouble right from the very beginning. He is, for one thing, not formally trained; his schooling ended when he left Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. He was not a success in the classroom – counting himself among the “maniacs, terrorists, saboteurs”, and lucky because of it: he escaped the die-stamp of “normality”. “I think my neuroses, my unwillingness to cooperate and my doing badly in school marked me by the teachers – he’s a goner, they thought. Leave him alone. So I got away with it, simply because I was impossible to deal with. I also had another remarkable gift – you could call it a weapon,” he adds, and when he does, I lean forward, thinking he will describe how his talent for drawing earned him praise and esteem. But no. “I was a projectile vomiter. No one knew anyone who could do that. I was like Superman. I could go across the room.” He’s laughing now, and so am I. He doesn’t stop. “You call my name in answer to a question: VRRROOOM!” A huge bellow; an imitative sweep of his arm; more laughter from both of us. “So – don’t ask him questions!”

After he left school he found work as a window-dresser for F. A. O. Schwarz, the famous New York toy store. He had begun to educate himself artistically in the city’s great museums; and the art of the comic strip and of Walt Disney remained an influence. It was in the book department of F. A. O., however, that he first encountered the work of great, early illustrators such as Randolph Caldecott; and it was the children’s book buyer at the store who brought him together with his first editor, Ursula Nordstrom, at Harper and Brothers in 1950. The first book which he both wrote and illustrated was Kenny’s Window, in 1956; but it was Where The Wild Things Are, published seven years later, that brought him real acclaim – the book won the Caldecott Medal in 1964 — and enormous sales. Yet it wasn’t all smooth sailing: Sendak was still a troublemaker. “The plan and technique of the illustrations are superb,” ran the review in Publishers Weekly, “but they may well prove frightening, accompanied as they are by a pointless and confusing story.” 

A couple of generations of children now have found the story of Max – sent to his room without his supper, gone off on a journey to be King of all Wild Things and at last returned to where “someone loved him best of all” – neither pointless nor confusing. Sendak’s little heroes make their own journeys and face their own perils. In what Sendak considers his trilogy, Max has his wild things; Mickey, in In The Night Kitchen, woken by a strange thump-bump, has the bakers who try to bake him into their cake; Ida, in Outside Over There – the book perhaps dearest to his heart, influenced as it is by his beloved Magic Flute and his own fearful memories of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping in1932 – has to rescue her baby sister who has been stolen by goblins. In Brundibar, too, Aniku and Pepicek defeat the bully and save their mother themselves; they have help, but it is not grown-up help. “There are these three children,” Sendak says of Max, Mickey and Ida, “a little boy, a tiny bit older boy, an older girl, in moments of crisis that are never seen. It happens right before your eyes as a parent. You know that; and you don’t see it. And that’s the point that just totally fascinates me. Something colossal has just brushed by that’s going to change a child’s life and you might have helped – if you’d looked! But you didn’t look. It’s very quiet – in Max’s life it’s this shock, every day he’s driven his mother crazy and what’s the big deal – but now she’s furious, and actually wields her power against him – and he has to survive this. In Mickey, it’s hearing grown-up people in bed, and dead Jews and Hitler and ovens and cooking and baking – and Ida, well. She deliberately turns her back, knowing full well what’s going to take place.”

Sendak has no children of his own; he shares his life with Dr Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst and his partner of many years. While it’s clear he dislikes the idea that his skill comes from some still-vivid “inner child”, nevertheless, he recognizes a connection. “You can’t write for children,” he says. “There’s no such thing. It’s a financial industry, made up. People say, what’s it like to be a children’s book writer? And I don’t know. I do seem to do it. That’s what I do: but not because I think children are wonderful and I want to save the world – like I am the Mother Teresa of children! Except there’s something in me that’s intuitively tuned in. I’ve never stopped being there. In the children’s book form, which seems innocuous enough, I can burrow in like a bug and do all I want to do, hidden by the form. It’s a great hiding place. You can do all the guerrilla warfare you like. And I did from the beginning. I was troublesome. I was saying things that were not acceptable to the established literary, librarian world – and I’m still fighting these battles, even though it’s centuries ago.”

He is right: to this day, many libraries won’t have a copy of In The Night Kitchen, published in 1970, on their shelves – why? Mickey’s “pecker”, as Sendak calls it. Mickey falls out of his clothes and goes naked into the Night Kitchen, crying a triumphant “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” at the end, wearing only a measuring cup on his head. “If it’s in libraries at all,” Sendak says, “the teacher or whoever takes a magic marker and draws over the privates.” He gives me a dark look. “There are some very kinky, sexual nuts out there. Then the kid holds the book up to the light and sees what he’s not supposed to see. What is this doing to the minds of little boys?”

It’s clear that such prudishness makes Sendak very annoyed. He’s good at annoyed; two hours’ conversation with him shows not only his hard-won self-knowledge, his breadth of understanding and sympathy, but also his caustic scorn for much he sees around him. He notes that the naked little girl he drew for George Macdonald Fraser’s fairy tale, The Light Princess, caused no fuss at all. “The frontispiece drawing is of the Queen sleeping in an armchair, these big French windows, and her baby is floating out the window. And the baby is forward, with her legs spread, and it is the most immaculate, intense rendering of a vagina that you’ll ever find in any book!” His voice is fierce. “No one mentioned it. It was of no concern. And she’s looking out, like, I dare you! So it’s only boys. I notice sex on television: women are completely naked, men never are, you can see their rears but you can’t see that. Why is that?”

Children want the truth. “There’s no such thing as childhood,” Sendak has said; and it is easy enough too trace a line from, say Outside Over There (1981) to his very adult illustrations for Penthesilea (1998), Heinrich von Kleist’s strange, sadomasochistic play of “gender warfare, of sexual longing, mythic passion, emotional violence and unsavory, gory lusts” as Tony Kushner notes. Not least because both were strongly influenced by the German Romantic painters Caspar David Friedrich and Philip Otto Runge. He has taken on Herman Melville, too – along with Henry James and Emily Dickinson, an author he returns to again and again – with illustrations for Pierre, Or, The Ambiguities (1995); and provided the cover art for Hershel Parker’s biography of Melville. His dense, Düreresque illustrations for Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell’s translations of Grimm, The Juniper Tree (first published 30 years ago and just reissued in the United States), add their own disturbing complexity to these already complex stories; each of the 28 images causing the reader to understand the tale differently, or see it from another angle. In Rapunzel, for instance, we see not the usual image of tower and tumble of blonde locks; rather, we see the woman inside the tower, leaning back as if in abandon – but surely dragged backwards by the weight of all that hair; at her side is the witch with her sharp scissors hanging from two crooked fingers. 

“Picking that moment is intuitive,” Sendak says. “You know the moment – you know your moment. Then for what it looks like, well, I have enormous faith in the original time of things. Operas in modern settings really disturb me. When I read Grimm, I just wanted to go back to that early German Romanticism. Dürer is the Grimm model, of course. I saw something of his called The Little Passion, the story of Christ’s birth and death in little pictures, so tight, jammed in – and I said, that’s how it’s going to be. Just jammed in as if the page is going to burst with what’s going on, no room to breathe, everybody aching, moved to one corner of the picture. Why? I don’t know. But once I feel that, I really believe it, and it’s what I’ve got to do.”

He calls the image-maker in his head “the Polaroid button”; he sets a finger against his temple to demonstrate. The pictures come easily; the words, his own words, do not. “That doesn’t happen to me with language – the way I can’t wait to begin with the pictures. I love to write, and want to write more, but there are no clues in writing. There are no clues. I can search high and low and not find it – and that’s why I must admit to being more fascinated with writing than with pictures. The pictures – it all knows what to do without my help. The intuition just comes, I trust the solution, I rarely make a mistake. But the things I’ve written are sheer hell. Sheer hell.” With a picture book, it is not until the text (“the poem”) is right that he will begin the pictures. The picture book, he says, is “a musical form. People so underestimate the picture book – because it’s for children, and anything for children they underestimate. But the picture book form is a colossal, erudite form of poetry. Of synchronization, of tempi, everything musical between language and picture. It’s such fun. It’s so hard. And I’ve devoted my life to getting it.”

So writing and drawing and musical composition are linked. He plays no instrument himself, though music pervades his life, particularly that of Mozart. The pleasure working on an opera gives him is clearly one of association: “You can’t be Mozart, but you can hang out with Mozart. The sets and the costumes – you do everything in your power to set him like a diamond and yet get out of the way. Don’t show off what you can do. But make it so beautiful that everyone thinks of him. Really. Because if you’re not thinking about him then the artist has gotten in the way.” This reverence for art that is not his own is evident too in the way he discusses Brundibar: he is far keener to promote the opera  — which had its premiere in Chicago in June — than his own book, and is dismayed that there are no further productions scheduled. He cites a mistrust of anything new, a desire simply to sell tickets: “I quit the opera business not because I stopped loving it, but because it’s become pinchpenny: Traviata 10,000 times. With Brundibar, my God, you’d think we were putting on a lost work of Monteverdi. They were so afraid of it because it’s an unknown thing, even with my name and Tony’s name – and it had rave reviews in Chicago, but no one picked it up. ‘Will it sell tickets? Will it sell tickets?’ Well, what are you afraid of now? What I’m hoping is that the book is such a success – so what I do now is talk about the opera when I’m meant to be talking about the book! That would be the greatest gift to me: if the book brought about this opera coming to life again and being played. But the book is paying off now: so the book is the choo-choo train and the opera is the caboose.”

That things were better in the olden days is a common complaint; Sendak subscribes to it wholeheartedly, not only in the world of opera but in publishing as well, inundated as it is by books whose illustrations are little more than Christmas wrapping between covers or tomes by celebrity authors. “Children can smell out the fake from the real,” he says. “They always can. Like the Madonna book. People are always asking me, don’t you hate the Madonna book? And you know, I just hate all those books. Maybe I hate hers a little more. But I’ve hated books for years that are written by trashy people who are just movie stars. People toss off anything for kids. It’s easy to beat her over the head. I mean, she’s a monster, but a million bucks is a million bucks. Books are like movies. Sell it over the weekend, if it flops on Monday, get rid of it. Who cares. It’s completely evil. Or am I just becoming pompous and old? Every older generation sits and says, oh, what a piece of crap it is now, it was wonderful then…” He looks at me imploringly. The light has faded now; we sit in a warm circle of lamplight on a chill November afternoon. “But it was wonderful. And it’s gone. It’s over. And my life is being insulted, and I don’t mean to sound like I’m hurt and paranoid – but I’m angry. The craft is dead. The beauty of people all working together, the little Brundibar dream… it just doesn’t work here any more.” 

It is much easier to get Maurice Sendak to express scorn than admiration; he reads little that is new, though he admits to enjoying Ian McEwan’s Atonement (“but I haven’t finished it yet”) and the work of the English author/illustrator John Burningham. But through the long, often sleepless nights – he has always been an insomniac – it is Melville, Keats, Shakespeare, Dickinson. That is where he finds “that plunging into darkness and then that joy” – there, and on late night cable TV. Really? “Oh yes!” He says with great animation. “There are these programmes that are about the birthing of babies, these women who are in distress — she’s crying and her husband is hiding in the corner, and the baby’s born and it’s all right – and that’s it. That’s it. The most obvious scene in the world, but the most important. Mazel tov! You know? And yet, when you see it, it’s so terrifying — when they plunge their hands into a caesarean: it’s like the inside of Moby Dick. And now they have a new show, which I’m fascinated by: autopsies. Unsolved cases, real corpses, real doctors – and everyone thinks, how morbid can Maurice get? But there’s a real silence about death. Oh, there are books, those horrible children’s books, I will not name authors… ‘Grandpa went away’, all that shit, like they just disappear. One day Grandpa’s there, one day he’s not –” he puts on a high, mocking voice – “ ‘it’s all right, Joel! Grandpa’s sleeping and you’ll see him again!’ People croaking is just not the right thing to do.”

But they do croak, as Sendak would say. First they are born and then they die: you could call his cable-TV habit a kind of voyeurism – or you say it was simply grabbing at the true stuff of life with both hands and hanging on tight. It is the way he has found to work his way out of darkness; it is part of the continuum of his work, that looks straight at that darkness and yet finds the light. On the train going to Connecticut to see him, I listened to an interview he’d given the day before on National Public Radio. I sat bolt upright when he said to the interviewer, in the course of an otherwise straightforward discussion of his childhood: “Of course, I myself was responsible for the death of a child”. And he told, for the first time, the story of his friend Lloyd, who was playing with him in a Brooklyn alley when they were both six. Maurice threw a ball to Lloyd; Lloyd missed the catch, ran out into the street – and was hit by a car and killed. 

“I don’t know what possessed me to tell that story,” Sendak says. “But it’s true. It did happen. I can’t ever forget it.” He closes his eyes and describes with his hands – they are small and delicate, I see for the first time – the event as he remembers it, and it’s clear that he sees it as he did then – and sees it as a framed image. “Lloyd is reaching up, if my memory is anything like correct, there’s the picture, there’s something like a car – and he’s at the very end of the picture, almost out of the composition, so I don’t see his head. He’s upside down and his arms are out like that — ” Sendak makes a starfish with his arms and legs  “ — and his feet are up in the air like he’s dancing. It was just after I entered school.  I remember him exactly, his face, his funny curved nose, short cropped hair. And of course I saw him go flying. And when I saw him fly I had no thought that he was killed. It was like a movie or a vision. And then when I came out I don’t even remember that I saw his body. But I knew I’d done it to him. I knew I’d done it to him. I knew that I was capable – I always knew that I was capable of destruction. And if I could get through my life without destroying it would be something of a miracle.” The little boy dressed in white to fool the fates the agent of fate himself. 

And yet in art, is there redemption? As Sendak describes the scene to me, I think of all the children in flight in his books – Ida gone backwards out the window into outside over there; Mickey falling and flying and tumbling through milk; the hero of Randall Jarrell’s Fly By Night. I list what I can. Sendak listens. The moon is up now, outside the window; a big bright moon just like the one found so often in his work. 

“Yes. That’s true. That’s true,” Sendak says.  “He’s most like the boy in I Want To Paint my Bathroom Blue” – a very early book with words by Ruth Krauss  – “there’s something about that boy, zooming into space….” His voice trails off. He looks sad, and he looks happy. “You’re right, you’re right. A lot of flying. He was flying. Lloyd was flying.”

The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present by Tony Kushner is published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc, £42

Brundibar by Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner is published by Michael Di Capua/Hyperion, $19.95