2007 National Book Award Young People's Literature Finalist Interview With Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Scholastic Press


Interview conducted by Rita Williams-Garcia.

RWG: Now that it’s all said and done, what is the story decision that you are most proud of?

BS:For over a year of the two and a half years I worked on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I didn't know what would happen when Hugo fixes the automaton he's found and winds it up. I thought that the automaton, which is shaped like a man sitting at a desk, would write some kind of poem about the history of movies and that the poem would be signed by the person who made the automaton (and wrote the poem). All this would somehow lead Hugo further into a mystery surrounding the machine. Yet as I worked on the story, I always felt like there was some kind of hole in the center of everything. The story was missing something vital but I didn't know what it was. Finally, after a thousand different ideas and different drafts, I came to realize that Hugo's father had died and HE had some kind of connection with the machine. Hugo therefore comes to believe that when he fixes the machine it will have a message for him from his father, which would tell him what to do with his life. The idea of this message keeps Hugo going, and once he gets the message he discovers that he was both right and wrong about what he hoped the message would be. But in the end it is this message which does save Hugo's life, and it's all because of the love he has love for his father. Suddenly the hole that I had been feeling in the center of the story disappeared. Fixing the automaton became very, very important to Hugo, therefore it became important to me, and, I hoped, it would become important to the reader as well.

RWG: The work of hands, machinery or mechanisms all coexist like clockwork (forgive me) in HC. How much did the story’s time period aid this dynamic coexistence?

BS:What's so beautiful about the technology that was developed at this time (the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth) was the fact that everything was still in many ways hand made. Brilliant inventors, craftsmen and artists hand-built the first movie cameras and projectors (not to mention clocks, watches, light fixtures and everything else). Georges Melies, the French film pioneer had started out as a magician, and all the sets and costumes for his movies were carefully handcrafted, hand-painted and all the special effects were created in camera, with careful editing, splicing and other tricks. The result of all this handiwork is movies that feel especially human and alive. So much today is produced via computer and I think everything can be too slick and too clean. But look at the original King Kong which was released in 1933 (around the time my book takes place). Whenever you see Kong, you can see his fur moving in strange ways. What you are seeing is the effect of human fingers, which are moving the miniature model of Kong one frame at a time to simulate movement when the film is played back at full speed. We might look at Kong and the other early movies with special effects and think they look "fake" today, but we already know what we are watching isn't real...we know there are no thirty foot tall gorillas, so what we lose in realism we gain in humanity. Kong has a soul, and I think much of it comes through because of the fact that we instinctively understand and appreciate and SEE the people who made Kong, and other similar special effects, come to life.

RWG: Your many illustrations of books and the act of writing throughout this inventive story book will not go unnoticed by readers. Care to comment?

BS:I once heard a great quote by the composer Stephen Sondheim although I've never been able to properly attribute it to him. He was asked about West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics, and he said that alot of people think the musical is about racism, or intolerance, or prejudice, but it's not. What West Side Story is about, he supposedly said, is the possibility of musical theater. I love that quote (whether or not it may be accurate) and I think about it a lot. What's central isn't just the plot, but the form. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is very much about movies, and the history of cinema, and what can happen when we lose our purpose in life or don't know what it is in the first place. But more important for me, the book is ABOUT bookmaking and what can happen between the covers of a book. Hugo is 550 pages long with 300 pages of pictures, and the idea of using illustrations in a narrative fashion grew out of the fact that I watched many, many movies while researching this book and I wanted to see if I could use some of the devices of cinema in a book format (close ups, tracking shots, edits, zooms, etc). But these same visual devices as we know, are also used all the time in picture books for younger kids. Picture books allow the images to be used narratively much more than chapter books for older kids. There are graphic novels of course, but these don't usually take full advantage of the idea of the page turn. What a glorious thing the turning of a page can be! It's like opening a door or a curtain and the next page is always a surprise. The wonderful illustrator Remy Charlip talks about this in his essay "A Page is a Door," where he says "the element of delight and surprise is helped by the physical power we feel in our own hands when we move that page or door to reveal a change in everything that has gone before, in time, place, or character." Just think of the Wild Rumpus sequence from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and you'll understand what Remy is talking about. I wanted the reader to be reminded with every turn of the page that they are an important part, perhaps the most important part, of the story. It is the reader that moves the story forward. And yes, books and reading play central roles in the plot, and in the end, we find out that the very book you are holding in your hands has been written by a character in the story. The movies are important, but the key to everything is books.

Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of six distinguished novels for young adults: Jumped, No Laughter Here, Every Time a Rainbow Dies, Fast Talk on a Slow Track, Blue Tights, and Like Sisters on the Homefront. She has also published a picture book and has contributed to numerous anthologies. Williams-Garcia's works have been recognized by the Coretta Scott King Award Committee, the PEN/Norma Klein Award, the American Library Association, and Parents' Choice, among others. She recently served on the National Book Award Committee for Young People's Literature and is on faculty at Vermont College for the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program. Rita Williams-Garcia lives in Jamaica, Queens, NY and is the mother of two daughters.