Brian Selznick Gives Us the Inside Story on The Invention of Hugo Cabret

BookFocus March 2007

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Q: The Invention of Hugo Cabret combines words and pictures in a truly original way. The storytelling happens visually, unfolding like a series of film stills, and also in segments that read like a novel. When you started working on the book, which came first, writing or drawing? How did you decide which scenes to draw, and which to describe with words?

A: I started writing the book as a traditional novel, thinking it would have perhaps one drawing per chapter.  But I love picture books and the idea of visual narratives, and I've wondered what would happen if you illustrated a novel like a picture book. I've experimented with this idea a little bit in some novels by other authors I've illustrated, like The Meanest Doll in the World by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, as well as Our House by Pam Conrad.  I created visual openings for these books, so the reader's first connection to the story is through the pictures. 

I've always loved the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, because the words disappear, the pictures take up the whole page, and we move forward in the story by turning the pages.  The more I thought about this idea, the more I thought how interesting it would be to have part of The Invention of Hugo Cabret told with pictures, because the story involves the early history of cinema.  The pictures would be like a series of silent movies running throughout the book, helping to tell the story.  When I got this idea, I had to go back and take OUT all the text that I was going to replace with pictures. I wrote long lists of what I wanted each picture to be in each visual sequence and then made small dummy books of those visual sequences to make sure that the story was getting across in the pictures.

Q: You have written other books, but you are mostly known for your work as an illustrator. Working as both author and illustrator here, was there anything that surprised you about the writing process?

A: Well, everything surprises me about the writing process because illustrating comes much more naturally to me than writing does.  I love illustrating for other writers because I am given stories I never would have thought of, and my work as an illustrator is always in support of the story.  When I am making up the story myself, I often have no idea what will happen next or what a story is about, and it takes me a very long time to figure it out.  I ask myself lots of questions and I work with really good editors who help me along and give me guidance when I need it, which is most of the time.  Sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out something that is central to the story, but once I finally figure it out it becomes hard to imagine the story without it.  For instance, I didn't know that Hugo's father had died until I had been working on the story for over a year.  But once I realized that, many things fell into place.

Q: The story is partly inspired by Georges Méliès, an early French filmmaker whom some people credit with making the first ever science fiction films. When did you first see one of his films? What aspects of Georges Méliès' work and life story seemed to you like good starting points for a work of fiction for children?

A: I don't remember when I first saw A Trip to the Moon, Georges Méliès' most famous movie, but I do remember loving it.  It's a silent movie made in 1902 and it's funny and beautiful and strange.  I thought it would be great to one day write a story about the man who made this movie, but that idea sat in the back of my head for over ten years.  I eventually learned about a book called Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood, about the history of automata, which are wind-up mechanical figures that often seem to be alive.  Gaby wrote a chapter about Méliès, who owned a collection of automata that he donated to a museum when he could no longer afford to keep them. The museum didn't take care of them and they were destroyed and thrown away.  I imagined a boy finding one of those automata, and that's how the story began. 

Méliès began his career as a magician, and he always filmed his movies as if they were stage productions an audience would sit and watch.  He was a great artist who lost everything and was rediscovered at the end of his life and celebrated once again.  His use of magic, his belief in the power of imagination, and the joy he experienced as he created his art seemed to me the kinds of things that kids would understand.

Q: What kind of research did you do while you were creating The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

A: I read a lot of books and I traveled to Paris three times to research the book.  I walked around the streets where Méliès lived at the end of his life, and I photographed everything. Also, when I'm researching a book I like to talk to people who are experts on the subjects I am writing about or illustrating.  I talked to lots of experts for this book.  I talked to a young man who owns a clock shop in New York that his father founded many years ago, and I talked to scholars of film history. I also talked to a man named Andy Baron who is a mechanical genius.  Like Hugo, he's able to fix just about any kind of machine, and he gave me lots of advice about how machines work, what they are made of, and what tools Hugo would have needed to fix them. 

Q: Do you see yourself in any of your characters? Which one(s) and why?

A: I guess I see a part of myself in everyone I write about.  I tend to write about kids who are obsessed with something, and even though I have never been good with machines the way Hugo is, I did love miniature things when I was a kid.  I made entire cities out of twigs in the woods behind my house, and I liked building models. 

Q: What were some of your favorite books when you were young? Does The Invention of Hugo Cabret remind you of them, or relate to them in any way?

A: One of my favorite books was The Borrowers by Mary Norton, about a family of little people that lived beneath the floorboards of a kid's room.  I thought it was a true story.  I made miniature furniture for the Borrowers who lived in MY room, and left it out for them to use. I also loved several picture books by Remy Charlip, including Fortunately, Thirteen and Handtalk, which is how I learned the sign language alphabet. A few years ago I became friends with Remy Charlip and I noticed that he looks like the photos I've seen of Georges Méliès. I asked Remy if he would pose as Georges Méliès in my book, and he said yes!  So remember, every time you see a drawing of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it's really a picture of Remy Charlip. I also really liked stories about Harry Houdini when I was a kid, and I loved seeing movies about him (my first book, The Houdini Box, was about him), so The Invention of Hugo Cabret isn't really like any of the books I read as a kid, but it touches on subjects that have interested me my whole life.

Q: You reference a lot of films in the book-not just films by Georges Méliès, but ones by by other directors, too. Can you tell us more about the movies you watched as you were working on this book? Did any of them help inspire your storytelling, or the look of your drawings?

A: One of the most wonderful parts of working on this book was that it gave me an opportunity to watch many early French films that I had never seen before.  I started by watching as many movies by Georges Méliès as I could find.  Then I watched movies that were made in or about 1931, when my story takes place.  This was around the same time that synchronized sound was introduced to the movies (before that all movies were silent).  Some directors, like René Clair, did very experimental things with sound which I found really interesting.  Clair made a wonderful movie called Under the Roofs of Paris, and I reference that movie in the very first line of The Invention of Hugo Cabret:  "The story I am about to tell you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris."

I also fell in love with the work of Jean Vigo, who made a movie about a rebellion in a boy's boarding school called Zero for Conduct.  And I watched many, many films by François Truffaut, who came a little later but who made some movies that really influenced my writing and drawing, especially The 400 Blows, which is about a twelve-year-old boy who runs away and tries to live on his own.

The drawings in The Invention of Hugo Cabret are filled with visual references to all these movies, and many of the characters' names come from the films as well.  For example, check out the name of the café that Hugo walks past as he heads to the French Film Academy.

Q: What do you want readers to come away with when they read this book?

A:  Well, what I'm trying to do is to make a fun and unusual story about situations and characters and historical events that really interest me.  I hope readers will like following Hugo's adventures, and I hope they will enjoy learning about the history of movies, and automata, and the city of Paris.  I also hope that readers will enjoy how the story is told, with the combination of words and pictures all blending together into a single cinematic narrative.

Q: For readers who want more after they finish the book, do you have any suggestions of other things to read or explore?

A: It would be great if readers picked up some of the books that I read and movies that I saw when I was working on The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  If you haven't read any books by Remy Charlip, you should immediately go to a bookstore and ask for some.  Older kids and adults should read Edison's Eve by Gaby Wood if they are interested in automata, and they should see some of the movies I've mentioned. 

Q: Any ideas about what's next for you?

I know I'll be illustrating some books by other authors, and I'm beginning to think about a new book I'll be writing and illustrating myself, but it's in the very early stages right now.  I'm reading and thinking about the subject, and hopefully I'll begin to start writing soon.  I don't know how it will be illustrated, but that's always one of the fun challenges of making a book...figuring out the best way to tell the story.

 

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