Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of the classic Where the Wild Things Are, is one of the most important figures in 20th-century children’s literature, having helped to liberate the genre from its do-gooding shackles with tales of gleefully misbehaving children who never go punished.
But Bumble-Ardy, Sendak’s latest, is the first book the 83-year-old New Yorker has both written and illustrated in 30 years. In this interview, the artist explains how the death of his life partner, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, inspired his return to writing.
The publicity says this is your first book in 30 years. How is that?
It sounds good, doesn’t it? In one sense, it is. In the minute sense that it’s the first picture book in that many years for children. In the interim, I have illustrated a great novel by Herman Melville and a great German drama and I have designed sets for opera here and in Europe. I kind of took time off kiddie bookland.
I don’t know. I know only in the sense that someone called and said, “How would you like to do sets for a Mozart opera?” And I was totally captivated, because I love Mozart with all my heart. And he didn’t care that I was inexperienced. I had a wonderful time, and I did another opera and another opera in England and Belgium and Paris and it was great. To hell with kiddie books!
You must have faced a lot of pressure to write kiddie books over that time.
No. Out of sight, out of mind. This is America.
But you made most famous kiddie book of the age.
I’m not interested in that. I would shoo people like that away. I guess I’m known too much already by people. Stay away from him. He’s dangerous.
Do you still feel dangerous?
No. I’m old, Anybody who wants can push me over.
Is that why you returned to kiddie land?
No. I returned because it was a terrible time in my life. Somebody who means everything to me was dying. I don’t know why that amalgamation of emotions led me back to doing a book for children. I really can’t answer that honestly, except that I had this little story in my head for a long time. I couldn’t figure it out, I couldn’t solve it. Then, during this horrendous time, I solved it. And it was like heaven sent to preoccupy me during a terrible, terrible, terrible time. Bumble-Ardy was born under a dark cloud, just as he tells you at the very beginning of the book.
So I’m doing a book again that’s called a children’s book. Why is it called a children’s book? You got me, baby. People seem to know what is a children’s book and what isn’t a children’s book and I have never, ever claimed to know.
But surely you set out to write a children’s book?
No. How do you do that? How do you set out to write a children’s book?
I’ll ask you that question.
Well you will not get a satisfactory answer, because there’s no way of consciously doing anything. I was just reading an article on Henry James’s prefaces. His prefaces are even harder to read than his novels. But I love Henry James. I love him with all my heart.
But no one would mistake the lyric you wrote for Bumble-Ardy as the work of Henry James.
I’m not good enough to do that. And it was not at all intended to be that. It was intended to be a book that would preoccupy me during a tough time. A little kid pig who was a pain in the ass. I like kids who are difficult and pigs that are difficult.
I know you’re not hearing what you want to hear. But I can’t tell you what you want to hear. I don’t know why it’s a children’s book. I really don’t. Maybe because there are so few pages and they’re big. And there are big pictures in it, and nobody’s having sex or doing what they do in grown-up books. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a lesion in my head that I can’t control, that I write short stories like this.
A lot of children’s literature is very didactic …
Yes, teaching them brotherhood or whatever they’re teaching. Let’s go on a trip with daddy, let’s try not to hit mommy today. There are lots of good subjects.
So you’re not going to disavow that part of the work?
No, I can’t. But I cannot honestly answer the question “Why do you write books for children?” I do not set out to do that. I write something and if I like it, I do something with it. And if I don’t like it, it ends up in a drawer with lots of other things I wrote that I don’t like.
This character got under my skin and I can’t tell you why, because the situation in my life was immensely grown-up, terribly grown-up.
Was it helpful to you to write the book and send it out into the world like this?
No. That’s a fantasy, thank God. There are many fantasies that you think will do this or do that. But they can’t do this or do that. You have to do it yourself. I was holding on to life. I’m a fighting person. I’m slowing up with age, I have much more contempt than I used to. But I don’t bother people as much as I used to. I don’t bother people with my opinions or points of view or anything like that.
I should count myself lucky that people still want to interview me, that I’m still in the picture of publishing, whatever the hell publishing is. It’s all gone down the toilet as far as I’m concerned, like so much else that’s gone down the toilet in America.
I notice there’s no iPad edition of Bumble-Ardy on its way.
And there never will be, if I have anything to say about it. When I’m dead, I won’t have much to say about anything.
What do you say now?
I say I hate everything that presumably you can take to the beach and read. You don’t want to read at the beach, everything gets sandy and smelly and dirty, and you’re holding this thing that doesn’t look anything like a book and you’re pushing with your finger. Oh, it’s revolting. It is revolting and everybody grabs on to it – the new ideas, the new twitters, the new twatters, the new thises and thats. I mean really. What are we coming to? We’re coming to the end, I hope.
The end of what?
Do you feel apocalyptic?
I do. A lot of people do. But it’s become rather a cliché. When was the world supposed to end last, two months ago or whatever? It was a lovely thought.
You were looking forward to it?
Well look, I’m old. I’m 83, so what have I got to lose? But then you think of the young people and the children of those people. It’s not fair to wish the end of the world on them. But I think a great mistake happened in the land of Darwin, although it’s not his fault.
I was watching a film the other night of a certain monkey that does wonderful things. He lives in the jungle. He knows how to bang nuts with a stone. Then we came. Mother Nature is a pain in the ass. She never knows when to stop. If she had stopped with the monkey that broke nuts with a stone, how charming. But then I found later on the program the monkeys killed other monkeys. So there is no peaceful answer but to get rid of us. We are a mistake.
Do you have any young people in your life these days?
Yes, but of course they’re not mine. Other people’s children have grown up already, those kids I loved, and now they’ve made the fatal error of marrying and having their own children. So they’re very distressed and consumed with depression, blah blah blah.
You once said you based the Wild Things on your elderly, uncouth Jewish relatives. Have you become one yourself?
Apparently I have, and I’m not even a relative. It’s just being Jewish and old age. I’ve become an old person like the old Jews I knew. Sort of bitter, yet not bitter. I would say strangely that this is a good time for me. This is a good time for me to put aside all kinds of things and just to go back what it was like when I fell in love with William Blake and saw the world through his eyes for a minute and was so happy. And that world still exists in spite of us. This is the only time I have ever felt a kind of inner peace.
I mean, it’s great to have a successful book. I’m not so dumb as to not know that is a good thing. But that is not the thing, and that’s why this is a good time. Because the important things – what were considered important to me – are no longer important. They’re not shame-faced, they’re not bad. They’re just not what interests me any more.
What make you happy these days?
What makes me happy now is reading. I love reading. Oh God, I love reading, and now it’s become the most important thing in my life. To hell with [writing]the books, to hell with everything. I just reread The Odyssey, and it’s funny. It’s funny in a way I didn’t realize was funny. And I’m going to read Proust right after this. And then I’ve got to read Henry James somewhere in there. I want to hear his voice again. I want to smell his colour. It’s so tantalizing.
And when I want, I’ll do a book. I’m a very lucky man. I can do a book, they’ll take the book, they’ll publish it. However bad the industry is I will continue to be able to function. But then, I’m old. I’m not going to function for too many years, and I’d rather read than do books. I’d rather read the great, great people.
A lady friend asked me to ask you what your recurring dreams are.
Oh, she doesn’t want to know that.
Maybe the world wants to know that.
Oh, screw the world. Why should the dumb world know what I think?