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Hugo author Brian Selznick on The Marvels, his most personal story yet

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Illustration from The Marvels. © 2015 Brian Selznick. Used with permission from Scholastic Press.

A Brian Selznick book is a multifaceted piece of art. There’s the coming-of-age story itself, obviously, like The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There are the marvelous illustrations that play an essential role in the puzzle of the plot. And then there is the majestic binding and cover, which can make a brand new book feel like a rediscovered classic from a previous age. His latest novel, The Marvels, has gold-edged pages and a lavish gold and purple cover, and just holding its weight in your hands — it’s 667 pages — makes you almost regret ever considering a Kindle.

Like Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, The Marvels combines two stories from different eras that eventually link together. The first tale is the story of an American boy named Billy Marvel who survives a shipwreck in 1766. In London, he becomes enthralled by the theater and is quickly adopted by the National Theatre company, which incorporates his stories and memories of his late brother as a benevolent angel into a mural on the new theater dome. In time, Billy’s son becomes the first of a long line of brilliant actors — a tradition that finally ends when his descendant, Leo, tries to run away from the theater in 1900. Ninety years later, another lost boy, Joseph, arrives in London after bolting from his posh private school. Cold and frightened, his only hope is to find the Uncle Albert he’s never met. But Albert turns out to be a strange bird, in that he’s living in a spooky but splendid house that is practically a gateway to the 18th-century. Is the house haunted? Are Joseph and his mysterious uncle somehow connected to the Marvels? And what’s the secret behind the phrase that’s etched on a banner on the book’s cover, “You either see it or you don’t?”

Selznick spoke to EW by phone from London, where he’s promoting the book. One recent event was held at the Dennis Severs House, the historical home that helped inspire the story. “I’ve been going to the house for about eight or nine years,” says Selznick. “David Milne, the curator, and Scholastic collaborated to make a really beautiful party where there was champagne and a really wonderful violinist who was wondering around playing live music. There were speeches and we raised our glasses in a toast to Dennis at the end. It was really magical.”

Selznick spoke extensively about his new characters, and how they are as personal as any he’s ever written. The conversation includes major spoilers from the book, so be cautious if you haven’t yet read it.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did these particular characters pop into your head?

BRIAN SELZNICK: The main inspiration for the characters in the book were two real people: Dennis Severs, who created the house that is an 18th-century silk-weaver’s house that’s kept as if the family is still living there, and David Milne, the current curator, who was a friend of Dennis’ who wandered through Spitalfields in the 1980s and discovered an 18th-century dinner scene through a window of a building on an otherwise derelict street. So I based the characters very much on these two real people and then built a fictional set of narratives around them. But I very much wanted to create a story about a boy who comes to London and thinks about ideas about what family is, why we tell stories, and how we place ourselves inside of history. So the story grew out of that.  

What I love about your work, and it’s really on display in this particular book: it’s almost like you’re painting this enormous mural, but you start by filling in the outside corners and the sides. It’s only at the end that you can see the complete picture. It’s that puzzle that’s a wonderful storytelling experience. I know that you’ve said that the text comes first with your stories, but was there a first picture that you drew for The Marvels, one that kind of confirmed that you were on the right path?

What I mean when [I said], “I write first,” is that I write down the stories, whether or not they’re going to ultimately be told in pictures or in words. So I write down what I want the drawing to be. I will make an outline of what I think the arc of the narrative will be. I will write lists of what I want the drawings to be. So pretty early on, I knew that the first half was going to be a story in pictures, and the second half was going to be a story in words. So I developed the plot of both of them pretty simultaneously. Then I began all of the drawings chronologically. So I started with the first drawing and then worked my way through the rest of them in order. And then once I have them down — they’re just little thumbnail sketches at first, very quick and messy — then I go back and I fill moments in where maybe the narrative isn’t clear or I might make a change of direction with the story. But everything is pretty much done in order.

This book starts with 387 pages of illustrations before the text kicks in. Were there any doubts in your head that that was something that could work? Did this feel like an experiment to you?

Yes. They all feel like experiments because with each of them I’m trying to use the pictures and create a structure that I haven’t done before. So I was very worried about having almost a 400-page story in pictures and then suddenly jumping and having 200 pages of a completely different story set 90 years later. It felt very dicey. In fact, a friend of mine suggested I reverse it, because kids generally like looking at pictures more than they like reading. He said that if I have all the pictures [first], then make them read for 200 pages, they’re going to feel like they’re being punished. But if I have them read for 200 pages and then have them look at 400 pages of pictures, they’ll feel like it’s a reward. I thought that was an interesting observation, so I actually rewrote the entire book. It took me three days to restructure the entire book so that it would potentially work. And after three days of work, I was finally able to see that I had been right in the first place — it had to be the pictures first and then the words. The understanding was that if the picture story is compelling enough, then the word story will be satisfying because the reader will want to see how they come together and how the character in the second story comes to understand his connection to the first part of the story. I knew that it was a little tough, but I thought, “This is the way that it has to work.”

Nothing is arbitrary, so why did you jump the story to 1990 from 1900? Is there a reason it couldn’t be 2015 or 1975?

There’s a relationship to something that happens in The Winter’s Tale, with the number of years that happen later. There’s also this idea that it’s tying in to a lot of things that are happening in Spitalfield, and 1990 was the year that the Old Spitalfield Market closed, so symbolically, it felt like it made sense to have that happen as part of the story. And so, with various other elements, it seemed to be the right year.

Did you already know London well, and feel an affinity for the city and this neighborhood? Or was it something that grew out of writing the story?

I’ve been coming here for years. I’ve always loved London very much and have spent a lot of time here. I was here on tour with Hugo, which was really great fun, and a little bit with Wonderstruck. I have a lot of friends here. Every time I come, I feel like I make more friends, and so I’m always very eager to get back. When it was time to start working on a new book, I was aware of the fact that Hugo is a kind of Valentine to Paris and Wonderstruck is a kind of Valentine to New York, and so I thought maybe it was time to write my Valentine to London.

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Joseph feels like one of the most personal characters you’ve ever written. Did it feel that way, or are all your characters equal [pieces of you]?

They all have pieces of me in some fashion. But I think because there were a lot of things that happen to Joseph, and elements and ideas around — his relationship with his uncle, and some parts of the story that deal with death and how we grieve — that came directly from personal experiences I’ve had. So I think it would be fair to say that Joseph and this story in certain ways are the most personal.

I think I remember during the Wonderstruck press tour, you referenced how the characters being deaf in that novel were in some ways kind of analogous to growing up gay for you, in terms of feeling like an Other and also feeling alone. What made you want to address that issue more straight-on with this story.

[Laughs] So to speak. The fact was that the character of Albert is based closely on Dennis Severs, who himself was gay. That was very much a part of Dennis’s life and the world that he created himself. And so it felt like it made sense for this story to explore that very directly and have it be woven naturally into the plot itself.

It’s 2015, but were there any serious conversations with publishing people who might prefer these books to be as quote-unquote safe as possible?  

Scholastic was entirely supportive of every aspect of the book from the very beginning, and honestly, there’s not really anything controversial in it. It’s a story about people who fall in love and have a relationship and live together in a house and raise children. There are a lot of very mainstream ideas. I realized when I finished, the word “gay” doesn’t appear in the book; the word “homosexual” doesn’t appear in the book. It’s just stories about people who meet and fall in love and are there to support each other.

And a parallel theme in the story is that of fathers and sons. All the generations of actors and their sons, and Albert in a way is a father figure to Joseph. I don’t know if your parents are still alive…

Yeah, my mom is.

Are there elements of your father than went into these characters and are there traces of your relationship with him embedded in the story?

Ummmm, probably. [Laughs]. I don’t know if it’s consciously or not. My dad was a tricky character. He was a child of the 1950s, so was very old-fashioned in a lot of ways. He definitely had some problems with my coming out, but by the time he died, he was very accepting and he got along very well with my husband. That all ended up being resolved very nicely, although there was definitely some difficult years. But none of that is really part of the landscape or the story in The Marvels. One of the things about the way the story is structured is that the characters all have a lot of problems in the story, but being gay isn’t one of the problems. Nobody comes out. Nobody is upset about who the other person loves. It’s just presented as a series of facts, while the plot is unfolding and the actual problems that the characters are dealing with are then resolved.

The story’s last chapter ends with Joseph and George in the house with a baby. Do you and [your husband] David have children or is that something that you want? 

No, we don’t have children, and we’re very happy not having children. We have a lot of nephews and nieces, and we have a lot of friends with a lot of children and I have two godchildren. Children are very important to me and they’re very much a part of my life. But for Joseph and the way the story unfolded in a book that’s about biological and non-biological families, it felt very important for them to carry on and have a child in a way that echoes all the generations of children that open the book.

Are you already working on something special for your next project?

I’ve got the beginning of an idea for another book, but right now, I’ve been working on a film adaptation of my previous book, Wonderstruck, so that’s been keeping me occupied for a little bit and it’s been really fun. I wrote a screenplay and Todd Haynes is going to be directing it. That’s hopefully going to be shooting in the spring and summer, and I’m working on a stage adaptation of my first book, The Houdini Box, so there’s some other projects that are keeping me busy. But I’m looking forward to getting back to my next book.

Screenplays are a very different type of structure than you’re used to, yet you also think so visually that perhaps you have a leg up.

Yeah, it was very challenging. John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for Hugo, sort of took me under his wing and gave me notes and helped me structure it. Then, once Todd came onboard, I started doing rewrites with him. I do think cinematically and visually and so the books themselves are sort of like storyboards for a movie in certain ways. But it’s definitely a different art form and a different genre, and working with masters of the field like John Logan and Todd Haynes really helped me understand what elements of the story would work for the screen and what would need to shift and change and transform. So it definitely was a big learning experience for me.

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