An Interview with Maurice Sendak

In July 2003, Horn Book Editor Sutton talked with the artist in his Connecticut home in a conversation that covered life and death, ego and excavation, dreams and nightmares, Melville and Homer, and . . . plankton.

ROGER SUTTON: Last night on that show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” one of the makeover experts made a joke about how the guy’s wallpaper looked like Where the Wild Things Are. How does it feel to realize that your work — Wild Things in particular — is so much a part of public culture?

MAURICE SENDAK: So you watch trash TV, too. Well, it’s been true for a fairly long time now, and, honestly, it doesn’t have any effect whatsoever. I see that book almost entirely in personal terms: I think about what I was like at that time, I think about Ursula [Nordstrom]. I’m not very impressed with being a catchword every time someone needs something to be “wild.” But then, it’s my book, right? So maybe I’m due the right to take it a little bit for granted. I certainly have a right not to be impressed.

RS: I wonder, too, if not being impressed and taking it for granted are both symbols of the same thing: that for you it’s also become part of the background.

MS: I do realize that Where the Wild Things Are has permitted me to do all kinds of books that I probably never would have done had it not been so popular. I think I took good advantage of that popularity to illustrate books that I passionately wanted to do without having to worry if they were commercial or not. That was a great opportunity. I can still do it based on that book. I’ve always wished that Herman Melville weren’t so afraid that he would be remembered for the popular Typee instead of Moby-Dick. He said, I just know that on my tombstone it’s gonna say, “Herman Melville, the author of Typee: The Land of the Wild Naked Women,” or something. Well, that’s what happened. But the fact is that Typee got him through a lot of books; it sold extremely well. You know, his first two novels were terrific boy-on-the-island sex novels. It’s only when he met Nathaniel Hawthorne that he decided to allow himself to be driven and passionate and write a serious work of art. His subsequent work, the books we honor him for, were “failures” and cost him his popularity. I don’t think Wild Things is my best book. But I don’t care what they put on my tombstone; God knows I’m no Herman Melville, but I’ve been blessed with having been taken seriously and having profited from my work financially and personally. It’s good.

RS: Does it ever feel like it gets in the way? Do you ever wish that like Doris Lessing you could publish something under a different name and see what people would think if they didn’t know it was by you?

MS: I fantasize that all the time. I guess most authors do. But I know that when In the Night Kitchen came out it was a disappointment to people because it had nothing to do with Wild Things. Why couldn’t I have just stayed put? The style was different, everything about it was different. The cartoons, the nakedness, everything seemed to be a rebuff of what I had “accomplished.” But I had Ursula, who would never have let me do another Wild Things. Never. Never. She never suggested it, to her immense credit. And then the other books were notorious in one way or another, but they’ve all finally settled in nicely, couched on top of the Wild Things. When I first discussed Wild Things, Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There as a triumvirate, people said, “What’s he talking about, he’s just trying to pull his not-so-good books into the good book,” but I always knew there would be three. It was a triumvirate.

RS: I think that those three books, in lots of different ways, allow people to use them as a lens on you. This is what matters to him. This is what he’s about. These are the kinds of things he’s afraid of; here’s what makes him laugh. Obviously you’ve done lots of other books, but those three give people a way into the work as a whole.

MS: Everything is in those three books. Over the longevity of a man’s life and work you get a sense of where his mind is, where his heart is, where his humor is, where his dread is. It’s the best thing you could ask, that this kind of understanding of an artist doesn’t happen posthumously. What more can you ask? Herman would have settled for a quarter of that.

RS: So what it’s like, then, at midlife to have published Outside Over There, what you acknowledge as your capstone achievement? What happened after that?

MS: Outside Over There was the most painful experience of my creative life. It brought on a catastrophe. It was so hard it caused me to have a breakdown. I left the business. I didn’t think I could finish it. At that point in my still-young life, I felt I had to solve this book, I had to plummet as far down deep into myself as I could: excavation work. Wild Things was excavation work, but I got up and out in time, like a miner getting out just before the blast occurs. Night Kitchen was a deeper run, and that was troublesome. But I did not anticipate the horror of Outside Over There, and so I fell down. I lost my belief in it, I didn’t know what I was doing, and so I quit; I stopped the book right in the middle and I stopped work. That’s when opera director Frank Corsaro called out of the blue and said he loved my books, especially Juniper Tree, and would I work on an opera with him? That was The Magic Flute. . . . After that, the books I did were rehabilitation from Outside Over There. I was ill. I was just meant to keep working and producing, but the joy and the great passion went into the opera now where I felt as if Mozart were the nurse taking care of me.

RS: What do you think happened?

MS: I think I went over my head. I went into a subject I thought I had some knowledge of or some control over as I did the other two books, but I fell off the ladder that goes down deep into the unconscious. Herman Melville (again I have to refer to him because he’s been my patron saint) called it diving. I mentioned it in the Arbuthnot speech, that you dive deep and God help you. You could hit your head on something and never come up and nobody would even know you were missing. Or, you will find some nugget that was worth the pain in your chest, the blindness, everything, and you’ll come up with it and that will be what you went down for. In other words, you either risk it or you sell out. In Melville’s terms there was only that way. So it was with John Keats, who also believed in the diving. It is my best work, Outside Over There. But I can take no pleasure in that.

RS: When did you realize that it was going to be more than you had bargained for?

MS: When I did the drawings. I always do a set of accomplished drawings before I get into painting. I did all the drawings for the book and there was something — Roger, if I knew what happened, I’d tell you, but I don’t. Something went amiss in me, a kind of panic, a kind of fear. I had touched on a subject, which is not in the book, but which had to be touched on to do the book. I couldn’t face painting the pictures. I could not face seeing them all over again and painting Ida. It made me sick to do that. I waited six months between the finishing of the drawing and the very feeble start of that book in paint. I went back into therapy, which didn’t help — but by that time I had really lost my faith in therapy. Anything but self-therapy I’d lost my faith in. So I just did it. I could do it, but it was heavy, heavy slogging. This book I’m doing now, Brundibar, is twice, three times as long as Outside Over There, but I’m just painting pictures and having a good time. I chose Brundibar because it’s another place in me that needed a solution, but it’s not as deep as Outside Over There, neither as quixotic nor as potentially lethal. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just how it feels.

RS: It’s interesting to me to hear you talk about Outside Over There in that way because the pictures are so light-filled. Even those goblin babies, the planes of their faces. It’s art that doesn’t seem frightened or in despair.

MS: That’s the artist’s good luck and grief.

RS: You can link that to Brundibar — there’s nothing in the story that suggests it was an opera performed by children at Terezin — you aren’t leaning really heavily on the context.

MS: No. To have leaned heavily on the context would have pushed the whole thing out of shape, and it would have been a sentimental thrust of no value whatsoever, because the opera was written to amuse the children; it was written to take their minds off the worst elements of their lives and it was meant to be cheerful. However, if you get to know the work very well, as I have had to, there are elements in the opera that are extremely brave in the face of the circumstances: the tyrant will come down, all bullies will be put away, and we must stick together, brothers and sisters. Who is Brundibar, who is this bully who’s been threatening you this way and making you do what you don’t want to do? I don’t know how the prisoners got away with that. Except it was in the form of a children’s opera, the superb music is fairly simple, sweet, Kurt Weill-ish. And you know we can get away with things in children’s books that nobody in the adult world ever can because the assumption is that the audience is too innocent to pick it up. And in truth they’re the only audience that does pick it up. Kids’ reaction to all my books has been pretty “for” or very much against. There is a tone, there is a smell, there is some chemical thing going on, and if they don’t like that they go away from it. That’s happened in every important book I’ve done. But it wins the Caldecott, and people think their kids have to love it. Hello.

RS: You told Selma Lanes a story about that. “My kid screams every time I read her Where the Wild Things Are . . . ”

MS: And I answer, did she hate her kid? Is that why she was tormenting her with this book?

Outside Over There brought some hostility from children, but it was a book that made them chew. It works; that’s all I know. It just works and whatever that means, that’s what you’ve gotta do. You’ve gotta make it work. On whatever level, you gotta aim that arrow even though you don’t know the target, really, you don’t even know why you’re so vehement. I hate being this mysterious, but I can’t help it because I don’t get it; I’ve never understood this — process, impulse, intuition, subject matter, what pulls me here and not there, what will unleash an enormous excitement in me while other things that I thought would, don’t.

RS: Things that you don’t think are going to take you as deep or as darkly as they end up doing.

MS: Or as tremendously happily, as Esau did. It wasn’t just being able to work with Iona [Opie]. That book was cruel in a way that is so human and dear. Kids can be so hard on each other — and you know that these little buggers are just going to be worse when they grow up — but that is the human condition. And the kind of lovingness they still can convey in all of that, and sweetness. I’m reading a new translation of the Iliad, and I’m in great pain because I’m finishing. I’m right near the end, and I can’t bear it. I chose the Iliad because, working on Brundibar, I’m so tired I can’t see straight. I know the story of the Iliad; I’m reading it now for the depth of the poetry. I read two or three pages a night, like reading the Bible. It’s exactly what we’re talking about, which is the sense of the sheer inanity of life, the stupidity of it — and the gods are worse than the people. Just when Agamemnon thinks they’re on his side, it turns out they’re on Hector’s side. The gratuitousness — I want Troy to win today, says Hera; well, no, says Zeus — and then the rest of it is the killing that goes on and on. I don’t know why it touches me this way. There’s the point where Hector is coming up behind this young man — say his name is Ajax — and Hector’s flashing sword is aimed at his neck, young Ajax who spent his own money to come all the way to Troy, he needn’t have, he lived on the rolling plains of Corinth and he had a farm and his wife stood holding her big pregnant belly as she saw him off, this young man so promising, so beautiful, so brave — the sword strikes him just under the lobe of his ear, cuts his major artery and the head topples off and he falls into his smoking foggy death and he goes clattering on the floor and everybody grabs for his armor. It’s like the cruelty of children. Homer never sits in judgment: Achilles is such an egomaniac, Agamemnon such a cheap bugger. But they don’t get chastised; they just get memorialized; that’s who they are. That’s what Esau was like, too. It’s that kind of nonjudgmental observation, with a big heart. Who are we to judge other crazy humans? It’s like King Lear — one of my favorite plays in the whole world. I cannot bear to read it because every time I do it’s got to end differently. That one brave daughter can not be killed at the last minute. It’s just too much.

RS: But what else could have happened to her?

MS: Yes, anything else happening would have been false. But during the entire eighteenth century it was performed with Cordelia coming back to life: “Oh, here she is!” Shakespeare, however, understood the need to go to the nth degree. I’m not claiming that I’m one of the nth degree people, but I am claiming that I believe in the nth degree. I believe in going all the way and being so ferociously honest because otherwise it doesn’t work, it’s contaminated. Why would you bother?

RS: Do you ever question yourself — can I go this far, should I go this far?

MS: No. I see myself as a fairly weak person. I’ve gotten better with age. Age has really done well by me. It’s calmed the volcanoes down considerably. Age is a form of kindness we do ourselves. But I don’t feel like I’ve been misunderstood. Honestly, I don’t feel like my work is that important. I have no brilliant conceptual gift for drawing or any really exceptional gift for writing. My gift is a kind of intuitive sense that I often think you would find in a musician, of knowing just what the music sounds like and knowing where to put your fingers. My talent is knowing how to make a picture book. Knowing how to pace it, knowing how to time it. The drawing and the writing are good, but if my whole career counted on that I wouldn’t have made it very far. I truly believe that, because I took forever to learn to draw. It took up to The Juniper Tree to really draw.

I think my work is miraculous in that it has kept me alive and kept me employed. Constantly, since I’ve been about fifteen. I have to work, that’s who I am, that’s how I live, that’s how I protect myself. I do it for me, it keeps me living, and it’s gotten me over the worst of my personal life into a period of time in which I look around carefully and can say, “It’s not so bad now.”

RS: So it’s the working, not the work.

MS: Being Jewish in the strict sense is to make your life purposeful. Otherwise, there’s no purpose for you to be here at all. I am not an Orthodox Jew, but I was brought up as one and that lingers, the business of making your life purposeful. Actually, you can’t make your life purposeful, it just is. And it was from childhood on. Why am I here, all that. But then you get over all that ego crap. I learned so much from Keats when he’s writing to his big brother George, who’s immigrated to America, about how you have to defeat your ego before you can become an artist who can be considered seriously. Keats says Shakespeare is the only artist who dumped his ego. He’s Rosalind, he’s King John, he’s everybody, but we don’t know who he is. (Not like Wordsworth, who was brilliant and tried very hard to submerge himself, but if you look very carefully you can see the shadow of his finger in everything.)

RS: Does happiness follow purpose?

MS: I don’t know. I’ve led an unhappy life, but I needn’t have. Growing up poor in Brooklyn was just like everybody else. My parents were no better or worse than everybody I saw around me. I had two wonderful siblings, which not a lot of kids had, older siblings who took care of me and protected me and really loved me. There was nothing like what you hear about today, the suffering of children. Yet I did suffer. There was something wrong, always. Why did I spend so many years in therapy? Whatever was wrong was ingested then and only manifested itself when I was becoming a teenager and then going to live on my own in New York. I was permanently frightened. And when you go to the therapist and he says, “Tell me what frightens you,” you say, “That’s why I’m here. I don’t know.” I never did find out. What happened was, hey, I got older, and the fear drooped, the fear got Alzheimer’s before I did.

RS: Cheap psychology says, Okay, he was this scared and anxious child and he took this fear and he made art.

MS: Yes, that’s way too easy.

RS: So when you allude, as you did in Outside Over There, to something that terrified you as a child, like the Lindbergh kidnapping —

MS: Even now. You just said those words and a little zingo went through me. It’s a sickening feeling. Like a lightning strike.

RS: — does it heal?

MS: It helps. I sometimes say I was trying to change history. Ida finds the baby. I refused to let the Lindbergh baby die. I changed history. And that is part of it — but it’s a very superficial part, because I’m not crazy, the baby was dead, and I don’t believe books bring people back to life. There’s a stubbornness in me that resists some ways of taking comfort.

I had a recurring nightmare when I was a kid — I must have been four-ish — a nightmare about being chased by a very frightening something and my heart is beating out of my chest. In the dream I’m desperate to get the cellar door open, but this thing is right behind me. And I finally turn. And it’s my father. And his face is hot on my face and his hands are out: murder. That’s all it is: he will kill me. And that went on and on and on. And then just this week, here I am seventy years later, and the dream came back, and even in the dream I was stunned to be dreaming this again! The same thing happened and — this sounds like a TV movie of the week; can’t be helped — I did something I never did before. I turned around and there he was, but I stood my ground and his face was so close to mine and his nose was pressing my nose and then I saw that he was laughing — that it was a joke. He wasn’t trying to kill me, he was playing with me. Now, does that reach all the way back — like that Gregory Peck movie with Ingrid Bergman, Spellbound — and say, “That’s your answer” (seventy years too late, but what the fuck)? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s an answer to anything. It’s probably just a release on my part. I can’t claim now that my father really wanted to kill me and that he really hated me.

RS: But I don’t think the dream is an indication that, Oh, all along your father was laughing. He’s laughing now, when you’re seventy-five.

MS: Precisely. Because I’m laughing now. Because I’ve decided these issues don’t matter anymore. They cannot be solved. Even more important, they needn’t be solved.

My worry, if I have any worry, is am I dodging? Have I found a way to fool myself, to ease myself out of the pressure-cooker life I’ve always had? Is it too easy?

I want to be plankton. Plankton is so under the radar, and they look real busy. You watch the Discovery channel and they’re bubbling and burbling away and right behind them is Moby-Dick. Plankton are too small to harbor ego, yet they seem to have plenty to do. You stand on top of the Empire State Building and look down and everybody looks like plankton. That suits me, to be plankton, not because I’m pretending modesty but because I’m hoping that the big answer is there ain’t none, so cut it out.

RS: In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about how writers need to turn off the little radio station in their heads — station KFKD, she calls it — which broadcasts endless praise into one ear and infinite criticism into the other.

MS: Yes, you need to get out of the center of attention. You need to stop obsessing. Am I a believer? Am I not a believer? Should I have won the Caldecott three more times? How come? Why not? When you pull out of that orbit — and you can — that’s when you’re plankton. Then you’re just swimming in life. Sure, even if you’re plankton you can be afraid that someone you love is going to die. I live in dread of my sister dying; she’s older than I am. I don’t want to be an official orphan. If that’s ego, well . . .

RS: You once said to me you wished you could believe in something — you said you wished your dog Jennie was up there waiting for you.

MS: More poignantly and painfully, my brother. I still can’t believe I won’t see him again. I can’t even talk about it. But death is a comfort because that’s what saves you. Suffering, cancer, some horrible disease, I’m terrified of pain. Death will just take you away from that. So what’s to be afraid of? It’s a cessation of pain. What more could you ask? It’s like the good nurse.

RS: Well, since we’ve established that you’re not a believer, there’s the basic fear of unconsciousness, intellectual extermination . . .

MS: I think the most graceful thing offered us is sleep without dreams. That is so sensible.

I have a passion for that cable TV show “A Baby Story.” I watch it all the time. People say, “They’re all born the same way, Maurice, why do you go on?” But here’s the thing: you can see the baby’s head, you can see the baby coming out. I cannot get enough of that, I cannot get enough of seeing the baby come out. There was one show where it was a C-section and there was a lot of trouble because the baby was huge. And you’re right there — you see them slit her belly open, and then they part her belly and grab whatever is there. They get this boy and the doctor is like “My God! Look at his head! No wonder!” and they get his head out and his head now is just over the slit. He’s looking around. His shoulders are stuck he’s so big. Just his head out and he’s looking around. It looked kind of like a Beckett play, but it was so beautiful, so moving.

RS: That reminds me of Julie Vivas’s book The Nativity, which has some really wonderful pictures of the Babe’s first look at the world.

MS: It is astonishing. I could look at it over and over. It’s that first moment, the uncontrollable gesturing, the legs — you know, babies show us that we’re really frogs. A torso, a penis or a vagina, and then the legs bow — it’s so basic, so elemental. It’s that first moment — we’ve been talking about mysteries today; you could headline this whole interview “The Mystery.” There’s nothing to solve. Why am I obsessed with birth? I have to see it, night after night, and obviously there are lots of people like me, because the show is always on. It’s the face. And the other moment is when this messy little thing is dried off. And the mother’s face is still in pain, and then it dawns on her she hasn’t heard the cry. The eyes sharpen, she comes out of herself and then she looks at her husband who she hasn’t looked at at all, that detestable scumbag over there who brought this on her. And he’s just standing there taking pictures.

RS: “Look this way, honey.”

MS: Almost the first thing she says is “I don’t hear the baby cry.” Sometimes there’s trouble, they have to clean out the baby’s lungs, sometimes they die, but oh, ninety percent of the time they cry and then her face is relieved, and she wants it, she wants it, and they put it in that little blanket and the baby is struggling with its eyes — and this must be some incredible chemical thing — and the baby looks at her quietly and mostly stops crying and then the look on her face and the transference of something and then her face just melts. She has given in entirely. It’s nature; she has no choice, perhaps. But to see it on a human being’s face, see the softness enter and the pact agreed upon; they sign right on the dotted line, the two of them, right at that moment. It’s then that she looks to her husband. He’s allowed to come into the picture. It’s so primitive.

All this is corny, right? — the baby being born. But I feel about that the way I feel about death. I’ve seen many people I love die. I was with them for that transference, that look, peaceful, really peaceful.

RS: Coming in and going out?

MS: Yes, you come on a wisp of air and you go on a wisp of air. Emily Dickinson is accused of morbidity because she loved being close to dying people; she loved to be there to watch, this little ghoul of a genius. She invested all her energy into looking into the person’s face and wanting to see “the Passing” — as she called the moment from life to death. It was almost as though she could see somebody step out and go that way.

RS: Do we know what she believed?

MS: She was basically a nonbeliever. How could she be a believer and be Emily Dickinson? Here’s what she believed in: the need to stop calling everything by its name, like when her sister comes out and says, “Emily, it’s time to put up the batter for mother’s bread. It is Tuesday, you know.” I’m making up this conversation, but it’s what happened. And Emily would mutiny. “No. Why are you calling it Tuesday? How dare you call it Tuesday, that nails me to Tuesday. And I don’t want to bake bread today. I want to be free, I want to sit here in the garden.” The fact that we call it Tuesday drives her crazy. It’s no day, it’s any day; if we make it Tuesday that means it came after Monday, which means it’s a very short ride to Sunday, and the week is fucked. If we could live that way without saying, Oh, just two more weeks to finish Brundibar, gotta go to the dentist next Monday, all of that.

RS: But when you’re working away, putting something down on paper, you’re saying, here’s something that needs to be kept for the future. It’s not enough just to have the picture in your head — you’re placing it in time as soon as you put it down.

MS: Because I signed a contract, and got money —

RS: Oh, come on.

MS: Listen to me. I am a commercial artist. I told them I would do this work for a certain amount of money by a certain time. My own needs to do this have nothing to do with that. Yes, I need Tuesday. I hope I get old enough to dump it, but I need it. Meanwhile they have given me the privilege of spending so much time in this Brundibar world, where I need to be. I don’t know why I need to be there, but that’s the joy of all this. The real mystery is, why does this make me so happy? Why does this free me of every inhibition? Why does this allow me to be normal? I know, from experience, that I’m good at this. Really good at it. I’m not ripping it off, I’m not fucking it up, I’m doing it as delicately and carefully as I can.

RS: So the absorption in the creating is the actual reward.

MS: Totally. In that period of time, I don’t need the Iliad, the baby show, or Ricki Lake. I am stirred to the top of my last brain cell because I’m working. I am stirred into life by my labor.

RS: “Look this way, honey.”

From the November/December 2003 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Sendak at 75.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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  1. […] is an interview Sendak did with Leonard Marcus published last fall in The Horn Book Magazine, and here is an interview Sendak did with Roger Sutton for The Horn Book Magazine back in 2003, in which he […]

  2. […] ego is what makes great art. It reminds me of something Maurice Sendak said in one of my favorite interviews with Roger […]

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