Maurice Sendak, 81, is the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, the classic story about childhood frustration mitigated by the imagination. Now the book has been made into a feature film directed by Spike Jonze and a novelization by Dave Eggers—both of whom collaborated on the screenplay. Just days before Wild Things Week NYC
(October 12–16) and the nationwide release of the Warner Bros. movie, Steven Heller, a leading graphic design historian and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Designer as Author program, sat down with Sendak to talk about the author’s willingness to see his work transformed and how his childhood in New York City played a role in the original Wild Things book.
Steven Heller: I was amazed when I saw a screening of Where the Wild Things Are. Although I knew it was going to be live-action, I thought it would contain many more special effects. Yet the almost casual, real-life way of dealing with the Wild Things felt so natural.
Maurice Sendak: Spike is an incredibly gifted young man. And that’s true of Dave, who wrote the script. For someone who has grown old in the profession of literature, it is such a pleasure to be working with people who are unspoiled by everything that would and could spoil them.
SH: They intervened in work that has so much history attached to it. The work is yours and it’s not. It’s both of yours, right?
MS: Yes. What I wanted more than anything was for Spike to have the same freedom with this subject—the book—as I did when I did it in ‘63. I worked with Ursula Nordstrom, who was the best of all the editors in the children’s-book world. She was so ahead of the times—she made sure that this little Brooklyn kid would not come into this situation with any preconceived notions of what a children’s book would be. From the first book I wrote [in 1956], which was Kenny’s Window, she insisted that I be myself—that I not worry about what a first children’s book should be. By the time I got to the Wild Things, which was my first full-color book, I had earned the right to do such a thing. When it came to Spike doing the film, I had talked to a number of people who wanted to direct it, and I was very disappointed because it was sounding like a kiddie movie. It scared me. What the hell was I doing?
SH: Would Ursula have done anything differently with Wild Things? Or was it just so well formed by the time you were ready to do it?
MS: It was not well formed. It was a mess. The original title was Where the Wild Horses Are. I loved the title, and she loved the title. It was very evocative. The only problem was, I drew horses so very badly that it couldn’t be published that way. It took a period of time to determine what the Wild Things were—what they looked like, what they sounded like. It seemed to take quite a time, and I began to lose hope, thinking that this was just a nice title. But finally it became Where the Wild Things Are, and that was a brilliant discovery because "things" could be any thing, and there was certainly some thing I could draw well.
SH: Who are the Wild Things?
MS: They were my relatives. I fixed on the people in my own life who would come to our house—from Europe, bewildered and frightened by the idea of coming to America and not being able to dress well or look well or eat well. And my mother and father, who were also immigrants but had come earlier, had adapted to a degree and became their hosts.
SH: Did you sympathize with your relatives? I recall being embarrassed by my immigrant aunts and uncles.
MS: I couldn’t bear them. My sister, brother and I would usually hide out. They would pinch you very hard. That was supposed to be affection. Everything about them was alien and foreign. We were American kids; we didn’t want to be foreign. They spoke Yiddish, so we only understood part of what they said. And we didn’t care what they said. They were not people we wanted to have around. So it’s nice to hear what you’ve said, because I never realized that this was typical. It took so long to get to know and appreciate them. And by the time one did, they were dying out. There was only my grandmother, who I truly adored, but she was as alien and foreign as them all.
SH: Were any alive when you wrote Wild Things?
MS: Yes. Once I got the idea and knew where they were coming from, then I could take revenge. And a number of them are revenge characters. People I remember from childhood who, in their crude ways of being affectionate, really frightened me. They could have eaten me. They could have squeezed me to death.
SH: But aren’t they also asking you—certainly as the Wild Things do in the movie—to be their leader?
MS: And I had to be. Children have to survive, and it’s truly through the imagination that they do. Yet some other thing in me told me they should be respected. They were, after all, my mother’s brothers and sisters. By the time they got around to bringing my father’s family over, it was too late—they were "Holocausted." So I knew deeply that I had an impact over them. I was an American, I was born here, I spoke English. And as the years went by, I befriended some of them. Some I never liked.
SH: So they appear in the book.
MS: I was thrilled to use them. They were my Wild Things. Finally, I had a book. And Max, although he rules them, is quite often vulnerable that he could be eaten—though not so much in the book as in the movie.
SH: In the book, a sense of menace prevails. The film is menacing, but Max can escape.
MS: Exactly. And that’s not making it softer for the filmgoer—it’s making it bearable for the child. The child has to feel strong. He has to know that he has a fighting chance. But he also knows that there will be times when he and his mother will have conflict and rage flare between them, which will happen again and again and again. Once, someone asked me one of the cute questions that interviewers ask: "Whatever happened to Max? He must be in his 30s now?" "Well, he’s unmarried," I said. "He still lives with his mother. He’s in therapy, and it doesn’t look like he’ll ever get out of therapy. And he didn’t go into literature."
SH: In terms of locale, is there a New York City connection there?
MS: There is a Brooklyn connection. Brooklyn is not New York; it’s an island far away. And it is an island I did not love as a child. Strange things took place that were incomprehensible. That’s why I was so relieved that the Lindbergh kidnapping [of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in 1932] took place somewhere called New Jersey, which could be any distance away.
SH: In the film there is an eerie scene: a scary orgy of flame in a forest where large twig-like structures are being angrily bashed and thrown into the fires. A perplexed Max is watching from the brush. Is that a Brooklyn memory for you?
MS: Not really. It’s a curious thing, but there was one friend of my mother’s, who I adored, and when you described that scene I immediately saw her in my imagination. She took me for a walk—I don’t know how old I was, but very young—and I looked to the left and saw a long thin necklace of lights, and I pulled at her and wanted to know what it was. I was so frightened. They were so close to us. Were we in danger? And she said, "That is a boulevard, and those are automobiles." And she added, "You mustn’t worry." But that put into my head the word "boulevard," and it has always been a major word in my life. I’ve never used it in a book. But it convinced me of how children will hold on to words and images for their whole life long. I just have to hear the word "boulevard" to get gooseflesh. So, in a sense, New York was a place where there were boulevards, fires and incredible danger.
SH: I understand, however, that King Kong was a favorite film of yours. Doesn’t that suggest danger in New York?
MS: King Kong was an incredible favorite of mine—and remains so, because Kong controlled New York. Kong is clearly the root of the Wild Things. This is a movie that so did not scare me. You’re supposed to be frightened of these things. Kids need Kongs to help them conquer their anxiety.
SH: So Wild Things is a means to conquer anxiety. What anxieties do you have?
MS: I remember things that torment me. I’m still tormented by the Lindbergh kidnapping—and that it happened [near the town of] Hopewell. That’s such an ironic name. I began to collect Lindberghian things—even though I did not want to do it. But I had to, as if all your life you are conquering something that frightening. I’ve been fighting that story all my life. I think it’s typical of what children go through—they jump from one image and thought to another, and they don’t go away.
SH: I am interested in why the mother in the book and the film is the other key character and there is no father.
MS: Well, there never is a father in Brooklyn because they all go to work and you never see them. My father went to work before I got up. I would always say good-bye to my mother in the morning. My father was loving, but he was hardly around. So he couldn’t be in the book because he had no character—and no place.
SH: In the film, there is a disturbing scene where Catherine Keener as the mom is running after the sad and angry Max, and then she just stops dead in her tracks and he goes into the woods and the fantasy begins. It was scary to me that she stopped, as though giving up.
MS: [Laughs] For that you would have to interview Spike. I confess I did not feel anything about that. It seems to me that Spike hadn’t dropped the fear out of the book, but he didn’t let it dominate Max’s soul, which is something I very carefully had to deal with when I did the book. There was fear, and it is a natural feeling. People don’t like to think of that. And they don’t like children to be frightened, but children are.
One of the fights I had with Ursula—and her whole office—though it seems silly now, was with the last line of the book [about Max’s dinner]: "and it was still hot." It bothered a lot of people, and they wanted me to change it to "and it was still warm." Warm doesn’t burn your tongue. There is something dangerous in "hot." It does burn your tongue. Hot is the trouble you can get into. But I won.
SH: I guess that also makes the entire story inconclusive. Something dangerous could happen at the end. Childhood doesn’t end in one story—it keeps going on.
MS: Of course. There will be peace. He’ll have his dinner and then next week it will happen all over again. My not-so-funny little joke about Max being in therapy at 30 is that. That kind of anxiety and rage and disorientation will go on and on.
SH: You moved to Manhattan [as an adult]. You lived on lower Fifth Avenue—a very safe, almost bucolic environment—not being in the center of the urban action. Then you moved up to Connecticut. Why did you leave New York?
MS: I wanted to be in nature. It’s simplistic but true. I wanted to spend my later life with trees and grasses and views. I never felt in love with New York. I feel in love with movies and concerts and art, but I’ve not been in New York in two years. I don’t know why, but I feel a kind of alienation. It’s not that anything ever happened to me in New York. Lower Fifth Avenue and 9th Street was so beautiful to walk.
Only one violent thing ever happened to me. I used to love working late—and I simply cannot do it anymore. I worked late back then. And I love cake. So I went out very late to a store near the women’s prison next to the Jefferson Market library and bought a pineapple upside-down cake. I was walking home and someone stopped me and wanted my money. In his rage he punched the cake box. He grabbed the cake and threw it on the ground and began to do a Mexican hat dance on top of it. And I punched him—the only time in my life I ever hit somebody. Because splattered on the street was my upside-down cake. So that Maxian violence inhabited my soul.
Now I’m this elderly gentleman with a beard. And I walk the roads with my dog and people say, "Hello, Mr. Sendak," and I say, "Oh, my goodness, what have I become?"