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Brian Selznick: ‘I wrote my new book because I’d fallen in love with a house’

An artist who blends prose and pictures, Brian Selznick is the author of The Houdini Box, Wonderstruck and The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal and was later turned into a film by Martin Scorsese. His latest book, The Marvels, was just published by Scholastic.

Why did you write your new book?
I wrote my new book because I'd fallen in love with a house. My husband and I were travelling to London many years ago and a friend told us we must visit the Dennis Severs' House, which is kept as if it's still the 18th and 19th centuries. It's not like a museum with velvet ropes and objects in display cases. It's a living, breathing home, with food on the tables, hot tea in the tea cups, piss in the pisspots and laundry piled by the door. There are sounds hidden in the walls so you can hear conversations in other rooms, horse and carriages outside and bells ringing from the church down the street. It's the most uncanny time-traveling experience I ever had and all of it was created by a gay man named Dennis Severs, a Californian, who fell in love with London as a child. My book became an homage to Dennis and his creation. He died in 1999 so I was never able to meet him, but The Marvels is my way of thanking him for what he left behind.

Whose sentences are your favourite?
Ray Bradbury's. No one uses language like Bradbury, and his words and rhythms are probably the single biggest stylistic inspiration for my own writing. I loved The Martian Chronicles as a kid, and The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine. At the time it was the plots and surprises and shocking twists that captivated my attention, but later, when I reread his work, I began to notice the shape of his language, the way he used words like jewels. Just read this, and you are transported: "They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K. eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust, which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind." How sharp and clear and alive that sentence is!

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Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?
Can I be invisible and time-travel simultaneously? How thrilling (and much safer) to be able to enter unseen into the past: the pyramids as they are being built, the theatres first performing the new work of Shakespeare, the Acropolis shining with freshly painted, rainbow-coloured marble? And if it's okay, I'd also like to do all this while flying.

What scares you as a writer?
Everything. When I start a new book now, I come well armoured with the experience of making all my previous books and all the lessons I've learned about storytelling, illustrating, page turns, plot twists, et cetera. But every new book is different and in some fashion unlike anything I've done before. The success of a previous book doesn't guarantee the success of the current book, and while I'm trying to piece a story together, I never know if the plot will work itself out, if the characters will be believable, if the drawings will look the way I want them to. It's basically three years of fear and worrying and hoping. I have a great editor at Scholastic, Tracy Mack, and she's guided me for 20 years and I know I'm in good hands with her, but still … the process is terrifying.

Which book do you think is underappreciated?
I think all the work of Remy Charlip is underappreciated. He was a dancer, choreographer, teacher, designer, illustrator and writer and he made all of my favourite books when I was young. Some of his titles include Fortunately, Thirteen and Arm in Arm. I had the great pleasure of meeting him when I was starting work on The Invention of Hugo Cabret and I was able to tell him how much his work meant to me. I also noticed that he looked exactly like Georges Melies, a character in my story, so I asked him to pose for me. It makes me very proud now to be able to say that Georges Melies in my book is actually my favourite childhood writer and illustrator. Remy and I became friends but, soon after, he had a stroke and was never able to really have a conversation again. But he was very much present behind the loss of words, and he drew and listened and was full of love. When Hugo won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, I invited Remy to join me for the ceremony and when I gave my acceptance speech I told the 2,000 librarians in attendance that my hero Remy Charlip was in the room. Everyone immediately leapt to their feet and gave him the most beautiful standing ovation. We all cried and I thought to myself that this was the reason the book won this award, so Remy could have this moment. He died a few years ago, but many of his books are still in print. Run to your local bookstore or library, or order them online and read them as soon as you can!

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