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Hugo’ Writer’s New Book Traces Generations Of Theatrical Family

La Jolla author’s illustrations echo movie scenes

Reported by Katie Schoolov

Viewers may be familiar with the movie Hugo, but may not know it’s based on an award-winning book by a San Diegan. Brian Selznick writes and draws books for young people. His book Wonderstruck is heading to the big screen next year and will be directed by Todd Haynes. Selznick’s newest work is called The Marvels. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone visited the author at his home studio in La Jolla.

La Jolla resident Brian Selznick, author of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" and "Wonderstruck" has a new illustrated book for young people. It's called "The Marvels."

Brian Selznick's La Jolla home is full of conversation starters. I visited him there recently to discuss his new book "The Marvels."

The author and illustrator of children's books is an enthusiast for things that have a story or sense of history.

A portrait of author and illustrator Brian Selznick.

For example, Selznick and his husband, UCSD professor David Serlin, chose their mid-century condo because of the 1963 Frigidaire oven, which is original to the building. Selznick slowly lifts the oven door to accentuate the Jetsons-like sound effect.

"You can hear the sound of the future from 1963," Selznick said.

Art covers the walls in salon style. Standing out is an iron grate cover from the train station set of "Hugo," the 2011 Academy Award-winning film directed by Martin Scorcese based on Selznick's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." That book earned Selznick the 2008 Caldecott Medal, a prestigious award given to illustrators of children's books.

Less esteemed is a flea market-purchased portrait of Law and Order: SVU's Mariska Hargitay. Selznick is delighted when I ask about it. "Who paints a portrait of Mariska Hargitay?" he asks. It's a good question.

It goes on. There's a pink bathroom the color of Pepto Bismol. To drive the point home, bottles of Pepto Bismol line the sink. They share space with Selznick's extensive snow globe collection from around the world.

I see enough to generate hours of conversation in the 30 feet from the door to Selznick's studio, where we finally land.

The studio doesn't disappoint. Stacked on Selznick's desk are books and items used as research for "The Marvels." There's a tiny paper theater set.

"The Marvels" is divided into two stories. The first follows a legendary family of actors from 1766 to 1900. The second jumps ahead in time to 1990. It's about a boy named Joseph who runs away from boarding school to look for an uncle he’s never met. The two stories eventually come together.

Fans of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" and "Wonderstruck," which is heading to the big screen next year directed by Todd Haynes and starring Julianne Moore, will not be intimidated by the doorstop size of "The Marvels," which is just over 600 pages. He makes hefty books by mixing text and illustrations.

Selznick's signature black-and-white pencil illustrations are even more pronounced in "The Marvels," mostly because he decided to populate the first 400 pages with just drawings.

"Trying to figure out how to tell the story of five generations of a single family over 150 years with almost no text was really challenging, but it was a fun challenge because it really pushed the way I tell stories and pictures about as far as I could go," Selznick said.

Photo credit: ©Brian Selznick 2015. Scholastic

One of Selznick's drawings for "The Marvels." Split into two stories, the first is about five generations of actors in the late 1800s.

Drawings are about action. That works well for plot developments like a shipwreck, which provides the dramatic opening of the book. But exposition is harder to put into images. For the handful of expository moments, Selznick relied on his long love affair with movies.

"I resorted to what is often resorted to in old movies where newspaper headlines will spin, and then show you something that lets you see in text what you otherwise couldn’t get across with pictures," Selznick said.

Selznick loved movies even as a kid. He’s a distant relative of David O. Selznick, the famed producer of "Gone with the Wind" and "King Kong." He remembers the thrill of seeing his last name in the credits of those old movies. "Even though he’s from the Hollywood movie-making side of the Selznicks and I’m from the New Jersey, dry cleaning side of the Selznicks, we are related," he said.

He never wanted to make movies though. Instead Selznick drew a lot as a kid. "My kindergarten report card says 'Brian is a good artist,'" Selznick said.

His love of movies and drawing come together in his books.

Photo credit: ©Brian Selznick 2015. Scholastic

One of Selznick's drawings for "The Marvels."

"The drawings are very much supposed to echo and parallel what movies do and the way cameras tell their story," Selznick said. "In these movies, there’s panning, there’s zooming, you can have an abrupt edit. I try to take all of that and think about what the art form of the book is capable of."

The illustrated portion of "The Marvels" revolves around the theater.

"'The Marvels' is the first book about the theater for me. And it’s about my love for the theater," Selznick. "Everything that I’ve learned about the theater, I tried to put into this story."

Selznick considered becoming a set designer at one point. He's a professional puppeteer.

Selznick is currently working with the La Jolla Playhouse to develop a musical based on this first children's book about Harry Houdini. It's called "The Houdini Box" and Selznick said he's hoping the production will hit the stage in the next couple of years.

"The Marvels" is also inspired by a house museum in London. It was created by a man from Escondido named Dennis Severs, who died in 2000 at the age of 51. Severs loved all things English. He moved to London and bought an old derelict house. He then recreated 18th and 19th century worlds inside the rooms of the house. It’s like a cross between a museum and a theater set.

"Now when you visit the Dennis Severs' house, the idea is that the family who lives there, in the 18th or 19th century has just stepped out. So there’s hot tea on the table, there’s food cooking in the kitchen, the beds are unmade, there's laundry in the corner," Selznick said. There are sounds and smells throughout the house.

"It's this really uncanny, full-sensory experience. It's unlike any museum I've ever been in."

Photo credit: ©Brian Selznick 2015. Scholastic

A drawing from "The Marvels" that shows a house inspired by the Dennis Severs' House in London.

There’s a house like the Severs House in "The Marvels." It becomes a bonding force and an emotional catalyst in the book.

Selznick spends more than three years working on each book. The worlds he creates for his characters dovetail with his own interests, on which he'll do extensive research. In "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" it was automotons and French silent filmmaker Georges Méliès. In "Wonderstruck" it was deaf culture and the American Museum of Natural History. The result are books with very specific, idiosyncratic universes.

Selznick said the plot always comes first as he pursues a story nugget or curiosity. Characters come next and last is emotion.

"Even though the emotion is the most important part, it always comes last for me," Selznick said.

Selznick has explored a similar theme in all of his books.

"When I finished making 'Hugo,' a reader came up to me and said I love how this book is about how we make our own families. About how we gather people around us who make us safe," Selznick said. That theme is carried through to "The Marvels."

"The need for us to find our people, the people who understand us, who relate to us, that can understand us in a way that we feel like no one else can," Selznick said. "That is something everyone experiences."

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