For 'Hugo' Author Brian Selznick, Life (Thankfully) Imitates Art

The author, whose children's book was turned into a Martin Scorsese-directed, Academy Award-nominated film, is starting to resemble some of his own characters.

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Paramount Pictures

In his lavishly illustrated books for children, author-artist Brian Selznick writes about magic—but not the wand-waving, quidditch-broom kind. Selznick takes up the real-life wonders conjured by history's big dreamers: the impossible illusions of Harry Houdini; the phantasmagoric landscapes of cinema's first auteur, George Méliès; the iconic exhibitions in New York's Museum of Natural History. Once a well-published but little-known illustrator, Selznick has catapulted to the very top of his profession in recent years. In this regard, he's starting to resemble his characters—visionaries who dream big dreams and strive, against great odds, to make them real.

Selnick's biggest success to date is The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), which won the country's most prestigious illustrator's prize, the Caldecott Medal, and was the basis for Martin Scorsese's film adaptation, Hugo (2011). The film's many Oscar nominations has resulted in a redoubled interest in the original; since the Academy's announcement on January 24th, Hugo Cabret ranks in the top five of the New York Times children's bestseller list, even beating Selnick's latest offering, the popular and acclaimed Wonderstruck (2011).

Hugo's story unfolds in Paris, 1931. He's an orphan who winds the clocks in Montparnasse Station; a broken automaton leads him to a disgruntled and disenchanted toymaker who we gradually discover is the filmmaker Georges Méliès. In time, Méliès rewards Hugo for his creativity, persistence, and technical skill. In turn, Hugo helps Méliès, who has renounced his career, remember how to make-believe.

Oscar Wilde claimed that life tends to imitate art, but in Selznick's case, the parallels are downright spooky. Hugo Cabret's fictional storyline foreshadows events the real-life book brought about: a talented but hard-up artist (Hugo/Selznick) joins forces with a famed director looking for a new story (Méliès/Scorsese). It's only one of many ways that Hugo's journey has been as strange, surprising, and delightfully unlikely as a Brian Selznick plotline.

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AS SELZNICK NOTES in The Hugo Movie Companion, his vibrant, behind-the-scenes treatise on Hugo's path from print to screen, Méliès fell into debt and out of fashion late in his career. His studio closed and his films were only worth the celluloid that they were stored on. During World War I, the French government melted down Méliès' archive to make boot heels—a vicious irony for a child of cobbler parents who'd turned to cinema to escape the awl and hammer.

The specter of failed promise haunts Hugo Cabret, in part because the book was written as Selznick struggled with his own creative and professional frustrations. Hugo's wrecked automaton, originally built to draw and write at the turn of a crank, can no longer perform its functions; by 2002, Selznick feared the same fate for himself.

"I hit a point where I thought I might not work anymore," he told me in a phone interview last week. "I felt like there was something else I should be doing, but I didn't know what it was."

At the time, Selznick had what he calls "a very good career" creating illustrations for other authors' books. But somehow, the thrill had gone out of his work. Editors seemed to offer him only one kind of project—illustrating children's picture book biographies, like ones he'd made about Amelia Earhart and the Victorian artist Waterhouse Hawkins. An illustrated book about Walt Whitman, eventually published in 2004, proved especially difficult—"Whitman just isn't a children's poet in any way," Selznick told me, laughing—and afterwards, he decided to take some time off. "I didn't want to illustrate any more biographies," he said, "but I didn't have any other ideas." For an alarming six-month period, he didn't work at all.

It was during this time that Selznick met one of his artistic heroes: Maurice Sendak, the iconic author-illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are. Growing up, Selznick told me, he bristled at friendly suggestions that he make books for children. As an undergraduate at RISD, he skipped a campus lecture by Sendak, whose work he'd never seen, just to prove a point. "I didn't know anything about the genre, or what children's books could do," he told me. "It was my own ignorance, but they didn't interest me." Over time Selznick "came to his senses." The second time around, he was thrilled to meet one of the genre's modern masters.

"Sendak and I became friends and would have long conversations," Selznick said. "He'd just finished a big book, I think it was Brundibar, and he was in between projects, too. He wasn't sure what was next, I wasn't sure what was next." The challenging Whitman book, by happy coincidence, helped solidify their bond: "He'd just started reading Whitman for the first time in his life, and had fallen in love with him. We had these long, amazing talks about Whitman's life and poems."

Then the crucial moment came. "He asked me to send him a box of my books," Selznick recalled, "because he didn't really know my work." And so he looked. As it turned out, Sendak--who is famously forthright and blunt—had mixed reviews for his new disciple. "He basically said 'You know, you're very talented. I see that you can draw. But you haven't reached your potential yet. There's more in you.'"

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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