Marc Brown Interview Transcript
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
Over the years, many people have written to Marc asking him about his life, his career and, of course, about Arthur. Here, Marc answers kids' most common questions.
Are your children's names hidden in your chapter books too?
Yes. There's one book where they are not hidden: Arthur's Nose. I didn't get the idea to hide them until the second book, Arthur's Eyes. One day my sons were fighting in my studio, and I hid their names in the illustrations I was working on and asked them to see if they could find them. It took them about an hour, and I thought, “Hmmm . . . this is a good game.”
Why did you first start writing the Arthur books?
Because I had lost all of my other jobs. I was a truck driver, but I kept getting lost. I was a short-order cook, but I didn't know what “catch a fish, hit it with rye, and put a pair of shoes on it” meant. (Can you guess what it is? It means tuna fish on rye to go.) Then I was a TV art director, and I got fired because I wanted to put the weather woman on a swing during the six o'clock news, and she would be dressed as a fairy —a weather fairy.
Then I was teaching at a college that had been in business for 106 years, and when I started teaching there, it closed. I was at home one night, and my son, Tolon, asked me to tell him a bedtime story. He said, “Tell me a story about a weird animal.” And I was thinking alphabetically, so aardvark popped into my head. Now Tolon works with me and helps me with the television show; he's an assistant producer. Writing books puts together my favorite things: thinking up stories, drawing, and working with kids.
How did you come up with the name Arthur?
After aardvark, there's nowhere to go but with A names.
How did you get the ideas for so many books when you only told one bedtime story to your son?
I think the best ideas come from real life. If you're looking for great ideas for your own stories, just keep your eyes and ears open. Great stories are around you every day. I like to look for things that are helpful to kids and families to write about.
Do you use a computer when you write your stories? Who is Muffy based on? How did you get the idea of the Bionic Bunny?
I do now, but it took me years. I used to write my stories on little pieces of paper and scotch tape them together. I knew that when the string of paper was as tall as I am that the story must be finished. Muffy is a real person. She was my sister Bonnie's best friend when we were growing up. The Bionic Bunny happened when my wife, Laurie, and I were driving to an antique show. She was driving, and we were talking about superheroes and how young kids think that they are real. She had studied superheroes when she had worked at Harvard. We came up with the idea to do a book about them, and the more we talked, the more excited we got. And before we knew it, there was a siren and a flashing blue light behind us — it was Laurie's first speeding ticket (but not her last)!
We are in Texas, where are you today? We know Arthur is an aardvark, but what kind of animals are the other characters, and why did you choose animals for characters instead of people?
I love Texas! I've been to a lot of schools in Texas, and they were always very nice to me. I have a special warm spot in my heart for Texas. I just went to the White House to visit two famous Texans. I miss the pralines and the great Mexican food. I'm in Hingham, Massachusetts. It's near Boston on the coast, and the Atlantic Ocean is about a mile from my window. Right now I'm on the fourth floor of the barn behind our house. I feel like I'm in a tree house because I'm up so high; I'm looking at the tops of trees. I started to write about animals because that way, all children can relate to all of the characters very easily.
I have a class of first-grade writers who are very interested in learning how to become an author and an illustrator. We are in Franklinton Elementary, Franklinton, North Carolina.
The best advice I can share with you is to read as much as you can, keep a journal, and write about whatever interests you and draw whatever you find interesting. Writing and illustrating are a lot like playing basketball or the piano: you have to practice, practice, practice.
We are second graders from Charlevoix Elementary in Michigan, and we love your stories. We were wondering what your favorite book that you have written is.
It's so hard to pick a favorite book. My books are like my children.
Hello from Spring Ridge Elementary in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. My second graders want to know what kind of books you read. Are you near Erie? I grew up in Erie, PA.
I love biographies, mysteries, books about history, art, and American antiques. I also like books about growing fruits and vegetables and cookbooks. Last night was my night to make dinner. I made Cuban rice and beans, scallops, peas, and sugar cookies for dessert. I love to make pies too. Red raspberry is my favorite pie to make.
Hi! We saw that you were raised near Erie, PA. I was also raised there and am wondering if you ever had Erie in mind for any of the settings of your stories. How do you come up with the idea for the setting for your stories?
Absolutely. Lakewood School where Arthur goes to school is where I went to school. The Mill Creek Mall was near our house, and a lot of the characters in the Arthur books were people I knew when I was in third grade in Miss Kingston's class.
Was there ever a time that you became discouraged with the writing process? Collins Garden Elementary in San Antonio, Texas wants to know.
I love what I do so much, and I feel very lucky to have a job that I love. When I was growing up, my dad hated to go to work (he worked on the railroad). I always thought, “When I grow up, I want to have a job that I really like.” And now I do.
Our seventh grade class wants to know what subjects you might write about next.
I just finished D.W's Guide to Preschool. That was a lot of fun to write a story in D.W's voice. I'm getting ready to illustrate a book that someone else wrote. It's called Wild About Reading. It will be the first book that I've illustrated in many years that doesn't have an aardvark in it. I bet you didn't know that I studied to be a painter. This other book will look very different from anything I've done to date. I'm very excited about it.
Are most of Arthur's problems ones that you or your children had when they were growing up?
Certainly when the first Arthur books were written, I got problem ideas from myself when I was growing up, as well as my own children. But when they started to get older, I would get a lot of my ideas from kids and families around me.
First graders from Clearview Elementary in Missouri want to know how Arthur became a TV cartoon.
I had a lot of offers to put Arthur on television that I turned down. But when PBS came to me, they wanted to do a TV show that would excite kids about reading. That's how they won me over. I'm a producer of the television show, and right now we're working on new episodes for Season 8 that will start next October.
Hello from Union City, Tennessee. My second graders want to know if you had a little sister like DW growing up.
I had three little sisters that were like D.W. growing up. That's what makes the D.W. in my book triply lethal. My sisters are: Bonnie (she's a kindergarten teacher), Colleen (she's a stay-at-home mom), and Kim (she travels around the country talking to kids in schools about being the real D.W.). I had an e-mail from Kim this morning; she's on her way to Des Moines to talk to kids there.
We are a class of third-grade writers from Chehalis, Washington. How many books have you written? How long did the longest book take to write?
I've written over 100 books now. I never know how long a story will take to write. Each one is different. Sometimes the ideas stay in my idea drawer for as long as five years before I have a fully formed story.
What is your favorite type of music? West Englewood Elementary School, Kansas City, Missouri, wants to know.
I probably should say The Backstreet Boys because I worked with them on the Arthur special. I like folk music; I like classical music; I like the Dixie Chicks. My daughter Eliza plays the guitar and writes music. She likes Dave Matthews a lot.
Hi, I have 26 second graders here in Germantown, Tennessee, that just finished a Marc Brown author study. Right now they are writing mini-plays using the Arthur characters. Are any of your relatives writers?
I don't have any relatives who are writers, but I think it's really exciting that you are writing your own plays. I recently worked with a couple of people adapting Arthur's Christmas as a musical. We're going to perform it in Erie, PA, in December. I'm getting very nervous about everything going just right.
In the story Arthur's Nose, Arthur's nose was long, and then it changed in the other books. How come Arthur's nose is different, but it didn't change in the book? First graders from Hayestown Avenue School in Danbury, Connecticut.
I wish had a nickel for every time I answered this question. Arthur looks like a real aardvark in the first book. But the more I drew Arthur, the shorter his nose became. I guess I just wanted to make him friendlier looking. My friend Steven Krensky, who's also a writer, said that Arthur is starting to look human and it's scaring him.
Why doesn't Arthur ever grow up? Is he still in the third grade? Second graders at West Buncombe Elementary, Asheville, North Carolina.
Arthur will always be 8 years old. He will never take the S.A.T.s. He will never have to worry about which college he will get in to. His life is perfect — almost.
Happy Birthday Marc Brown (November 25) from Mrs. Tillotson's Tigers and Mrs. Sterrett's Stars at Charlevoix Elementary (MI).
Thank you. I'm really looking forward to being 25.
Did you write stories when you were young? And how old were you when you wrote your first story?
I always liked to write, but I never imagined that it would be my job one day. I remember writing mysteries; two mysteries that I wrote when I was about 11 were called “The Diamond Dagger” and “The Daisies Didn't Die.” I was big into alliteration.
Do you have any pets? Have any of them been in an Arthur books?
I wrote Arthur's Pet Business because Eliza and I wanted a dog. My wife,Laurie, didn't. I use my books to work out personal issues a lot. We now have two cats: Oscar, a black and white cat, and Mambo, who is a calico. They are brother and sister. They are the sweetest cats in the world.
What media did you use when illustrating your books?
I use permanent ink, watercolor, and colored pencil.
Will you add other characters to the Arthur stories?
We've added new characters to Arthur stories on the television show, and sometimes they make their way into the books as well. Do you know Marina, Prunella's friend who is blind?
What kind of animal is Marina?
She is a variation on a dog. Sometimes I take great liberties with my animal characters.
How did you become so good at drawing pictures?
I practice drawing every single day. If you want to get good at anything, you have to practice.
Which character do you best relate to?
This is a tough one because when I write my stories, I try to take the perspective of each character and how they feel and think. But I guess I'm an awful lot like Arthur because I make a lot of mistakes and get picked on by other people a lot.
If you wrote another book and it was not about Arthur, what would it be about?
I'd love to do a folk tale about a mermaid, set in America in the 18th century.
Which college did you attend?
I attended the Cleveland Institute of Art and Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. It's a wonderful school [Cleveland Institute of Art]. I was just there last week; I'm on their board of trustees. I was so impressed with students working with computers and doing very creative things.
Do you have a Web site we can visit?
Yes, I'd love for all of you to visit our Web site: it's arthurworldwide.com. We just had a meeting in the studio yesterday to add new things to the Web site, so it will be changing in the next month. Dana Woulfe helps us design our Web site and does a very good job. It will link you to the Arthur PBS site, which is the #1 children's Web site in America. There's a lot to do on the site.
Where is the TV show created?
We write the stories here in Boston, and a lot of writers live in New York and California. The production happens in Boston, and the animation happens in Montreal, Canada, and some parts in the Far East. Hundreds of people work on the show.
Do you do the illustrations for the TV show too?
I worked with the artist at the beginning of the show to make sure they had all of the characters the way I see them. Now I work on the storyboard for each show with other artists. I make changes when I think things aren't just right. My son and I also work with the writers to help develop the scripts for each episode.
Who was your favorite teacher of all, and why?
My favorite teacher was my high school art teacher, Nancy Bryan. She gave me the best advice I ever got. She told me if you want to be successful, do what it is you really love to do and do that one thing as well as you can.
What is your favorite thing to do for fun? What is your favorite food?
I love to grow things, and we love to travel, and I love to be with good friends. My favorite food is pizza.
Somerset second graders ask: How do you get all the different voices for the characters on the TV show?
Most of the characters are played by actors who are children; it was really important to me to have real children play the parts of children. But as a result, Arthur has been played by three different actors since the show began.
Did your parents push you to write?
No. My parents didn't want me to be an artist either. They thought I would starve to death in an attic somewhere. They wanted me to be something responsible, like a teacher.
Did you ever think of doing a book on parent-teacher conferences?
No, but it's a good idea. I see the possibilities forming already.
We noticed your chapter books are authored by Stephen Krensky. Does Mr. Krensky write these books?
Stephen is my best friend. He doesn't actually write the stories; he adapts them from stories that I work on with the TV writers.
Did you know students like Binky and the Brain when you were in school? How about Francine?
Yes, Binky and the Brain and Francine are all real people that I knew in third grade. Binky was an annoying fourth grader with a nose like a potato who tortured all of us third graders at recess. The Brain was a good friend who was the smartest person I knew at the time. And Francine was based on a bossy person who liked to talk a lot — who happens to be my sister Bonnie.
Somerset second graders ask: What was your favorite subject in school?
I loved art. I loved creative writing. Go figure! I guess our interests are very telling, even at a very young age.
Where do you like to travel?
I love to travel all over the world. I particularly love the architecture of ancient places, and I love to try new food all over the world.
If you hadn't become a writer, what would you have been instead?
That is a very depressing question. I don't even want to think about it because I love what I do.
Is Arthur going to be an artist?
We'll never know, will we?
Did you ever have a nightmare about Arthur?
Strangely enough, I never dream about Arthur. It's odd, too, because I'm with him all day long. I have had strange dreams of my children sprouting long fuzzy ears.
Have you ever thought about songs in your books?
In Arthur Writes a Story, there is a song about purple elephants on the planet Smellafint.
Who plays the music on the TV show?
Ziggy Marley does the theme song.
Have computers changed the way you write your books?
I don't think so. I use the computer the same way I use scotch tape, scissors, and paper.
Have there been any authors who have inspired you in your writing?
I remember reading Where the Wild Things Are when I was in high school, and it made a big impression on me. I love the work of James Marshall, Rosemary Wells, and many others.
What do you read at night before bedtime?
I love mysteries, and I'm reading a book about American painters who painted portraits of children back in the early 1800s.
Horatio kindergartners ask: How long does it take to go from the idea of a story to the published book?
It usually takes almost a year from start to finish, but sometimes I work on more than one book during that time.
What books did you like to read to your children? Somerset, Pennsylvania, would like to know!
We read all kinds of books to our kids when they were growing up. They also liked to listen to audiotapes of stories. When Eliza was very little in her crib, she had a Sony tape player, and after we were through reading to her at night, she would play tapes of books. Now she is an excellent writer and that may be what she does when she grows up. I think we all owe it to the Sony tape player.
We enjoyed the book Witches Four too. You had great rhyming words in the book. Will you be writing any more books like that?
That was such a fun book to write. It was about my sisters. I love thinking about stories in rhyme and look forward to doing another book in a rhyme at some point. In the TV show, we made Sue Ellen a poet; it's one way to deal with my interest of poetry.
We're coming to the end of the interview. Is there anything you'd like to add?
I'm really hungry, and I'm thinking about what I'm going to make for lunch. Maybe it's that whole-wheat bagel that I saw in the fridge. I have this new favorite sandwich: it's a whole-wheat bagel with provolone cheese, pesto, and sliced tomato. I had so much fun doing this! I'm here in my studio by myself, and I write and illustrate all these books, and I always wonder where they end up. It makes me feel really great to know that you guys read them and enjoy them. You made my day.