Remembrances
9:27 am
Wed May 9, 2012

An Inside Look At Sendak's 'Wonderful Magic'

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 7:07 pm

Besides his influence on generations of children and adults, author Maurice Sendak was also a personal mentor to a number of writers. Sendak, who died Tuesday at age 83, told NPR in 2005 that he felt it was his duty to pass on everything he'd learned.

"This big gorilla head that's stuffed full of experience — I want to give it away before I'm gone," he said. "I want to give it away to young artists who are as vehement and passionate about their lives and work as I was and am."

Among his mentees was Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked, a number of children's books and Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation.

Maguire tells Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered, that he visited the Where the Wild Things Are author in the hospital shortly before he died and brought a photo of Lewis Carroll. In the image, the Alice In Wonderland creator is seen sitting on the edge of a window with his feet hanging outside.

Maguire says Sendak felt a deep connection to Carroll and other authors who had come before him, including Emily Dickinson, Henry James and Homer.

"He felt that they were his friends and part of his family," Maguire says. "I brought Lewis Carroll so I could say, 'Lewis Carroll is over there — he's on the other side of the glass, Maurice. He's ready to welcome you so that you can lean down and be a family member. You're gone, [but] your books aren't gone, your influence isn't gone. Make sure to come back and haunt us."


Interview Highlights

On his sense of humor:
"I think Maurice did have a little bit of Borscht Belt in him or a little bit of the black side of what black comedy really means. He knew that life was rough — it was rough for children, and it was rough for citizens and it was rough for loners. And if you don't laugh at it, you're cooked."

On Sendak as his mentor:
"I remember having lunch with him once in South Hadley, Mass., and he said: 'Gregory, if you ever sell out, I will come back from the grave and I will sit at the edge of your bed and I will taunt you. You remember, children are the most important thing — you keep their welfare at the heart of everything that you do. Or I will come back.' So now I'm tempted to tease him — to see, will you really, Maurice? I would love to see you again, how can I get you back?"

On his relationship with children:
"He loved children because they are a pure repository of the human spirit. ... He wrote books that were published for children, but anybody who read them when they were young, found that unlike most other books, they were not put aside in the attic as one grew older. The books that I'd read of his when I was 8 and 10 and 12, maybe, seemed actually to say more to me the older that I got. They are real works of art, because the more you look at them, the less you understand how they do what they do — that wonderful magic."

On his writing:
"He was a poet of comedy and a poet of transformations — all his stories are about children transforming themselves out of the gloom of difficult circumstances into, maybe not paradise, maybe not salvation, but into a slightly better situation where they could take the next meal and maybe move onto the next hurdle."

On being obsessed with his own mortality:
"He railed against having to lose anything that was valuable and precious. But he had always faced — directly, squarely and with great courage — anything that was difficult. He taught children to face it in his books. He taught the adults who were inspired by his books to face it in their own work."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To the end, Maurice Sendak retained a wicked sense of humor, which he demonstrated this past January when comedian Stephen Colbert paid him a visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST:

Why write for children?

MAURICE SENDAK: I don't write for children.

COLBERT: You don't?

SENDAK: No. I write. And somebody says, that's for children.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SENDAK: I didn't set out to make children happy, or make like better for them, or easier for them.

COLBERT: Do you like them?

SENDAK: I like them as few and far between as I do adults; maybe a bit more because I really don't like adults.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Let me just get that: Maurice Sendak, children - eh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Writer Gregory Maguire has had a lot of chances to witness that humor. He's a longtime friend of Maurice Sendak, has written books for adults and children, and paid tribute to Sendak as a writer and illustrator in his book "Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation."

Gregory Maguire, thanks for being with us. And thanks for talking to us on this tough day.

GREGORY MAGUIRE: Oh, it's a sad day but I'm glad to talk with you about my dear friend.

BLOCK: Let me ask you about that humor that we just heard. That was just a couple of months ago. And all through this interview, Maurice Sendak is completely matching Stephen Colbert, joke-for-joke - in fact, maybe outshining Stephen Colbert in the humor department.

MAGUIRE: Oh, I think he was running circles around Colbert.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MAGUIRE: I think Maurice did have a little bit of Borscht Belt in him, or a little bit of the black side of what black comedy really means. He knew that life was rough. It was rough for children, and it was rough for citizens, and it was rough for loners. And if you don't laugh at it, you're cooked.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you a little bit about Maurice Sendak as a mentor, which, I understand, he was to you and a number of other younger writers. And he talked about that kind of relationship back in 2005, in an interview with NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SENDAK: This big, gorilla head that's stuffed full of experience - I want to give it away before I'm gone. I want to give it away to young artists who are as vehement and passionate about their lives, and work, as I was - and am.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: You've just said you can't really write for children. So what do you...

SENDAK: No.

LUDDEN: ...tell young people?

SENDAK: I teach them how not to write for children - although they come here to learn how to write for children. But I'm freeing them of that incubus of, don't think about that.

BLOCK: Gregory Maguire, do you remember those words from Maurice Sendak coming to you?

MAGUIRE: I remember having lunch with him once in South Hadley, Massachusetts. And he said Gregory, if you ever sell out, I will come back from the grave, and I will sit at the edge of your bed, and I will taunt you. You remember, children are the most important thing; you keep their welfare at the heart of everything that you do, or I will come back.

So now, I'm tempted to tease him; to see, will you really, Maurice?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MAGUIRE: I'd love to see you again. How can I get you back?

BLOCK: What did he want you to remember about children?

MAGUIRE: Well, you know, that clip that you had about, he didn't write for children; he didn't care about children - well, that was a lot of baloney. Of course, he loved children because they are a pure repository of the human spirit. But it wasn't baloney in this way: He wrote books that were published for children, but anybody who read them when they were young found that unlike most other books, they were not put aside in the attic as one grew older.

The books that I'd read of his when I was 8 and 10 and 12, maybe, seemed actually to say more to me, the older that I got. They were real works of art. They are real works of art because the more you look at them, the less you understand how they do what they do; that wonderful magic.

BLOCK: What's the mystery there for you, as you look at them now?

MAGUIRE: He was a poet of comedy, and a poet of transformations. All his stories are about children transforming themselves out of the gloom of difficult circumstances into - maybe not paradise, maybe not salvation, but into a slightly better situation where they could at least take the next meal, and move on to the next hurdle.

BLOCK: Gregory, I understand that you were with Maurice Sendak in the hospital just before he died. And this is someone who was really obsessed with his own mortality, really, I think since childhood. He talked about it quite a bit.

MAGUIRE: He did, and he railed against having to lose anything that was valuable and precious. But he had always faced directly and squarely and with great courage, anything that was difficult. He taught children to face it, in his books. He taught the adults who were inspired by his books to face it, in their own work.

And what I brought into the hospital room was a photograph I recently purchased of Lewis Carroll - Lewis Carroll of "Alice in Wonderland." He's sitting on the edge of an open window with his feet on the outside of it, as if he's trying to escape the constrictions of a difficult, strict, Victorian life. And he has "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" ahead of him in his life, to make.

I brought this because Maurice felt that he was intimately related. He was relative to people like Emily Dickinson and Keats and Henry James and Homer. He felt that they were his friends, and part of his family. Oh, he would plump up the pillow for them. He would say, Emily Dickinson, come put your head down beside mine as I read some of your poetry as I drift off to sleep tonight.

So I brought him Lewis Carroll so I could say, Lewis Carroll is over there. He's on the other side of the glass, Maurice. He's ready to welcome you so that you can lean down, and you can be a family member of us. You're gone. Your books aren't gone. Your influence isn't gone. Make sure to come back and haunt us.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Gregory Maguire, author of the novel "Wicked" and many others, remembering his friend Maurice Sendak, who died today at age 83. Gregory Maguire, thank you so much.

MAGUIRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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