Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, which seamlessly blended visual storytelling and prose, is a visionary author — in more ways than one. This September, he releases The Marvels, a dazzling tale of family, theater, and the act of remembering. In it, Selznick stretches visual storytelling to new limits: The first tale unfolds over nearly 400 pages of continuous illustrations, while the second is told entirely in prose. Upon first glance, the stories seem like two unrelated narratives. The magic is in watching them come together.
Q | What inspired The Marvels?
A | I found this really mysterious, beautiful house in London called Dennis Severs’ House. It’s kept as if it’s still the 18th or 19th century; you feel as if you have fallen back in time. I had also wanted to write a book about the theater and create a history of actors. Ultimately, I realized those two inspirations should be in the same book.
Q | How did your desire to write about the theater come about?
A | I was in shows starting in fifth grade. I loved the artificial world of the theater — the sets, the curtains, the immediate response. It really influenced the way I think about books. The act of turning a page is very much like a curtain rising to reveal something new. When you’re making a book, you get to be the writer, the director, the costume designer, and the actors. That’s one of the main reasons I love making books, the theatrical qualities.
Q | The Marvels opens with nearly 400 pages of pictures. Why focus so much on that style of narrative?
A | I like to think about how pictures work in a book — what they mean and how they’re related to the story. Hugo Cabret is about the cinema, so I wanted to tell the story partly like a silent movie. Wonderstruck is about a deaf girl, so I wanted to tell the story visually to reflect her experience. With The Marvels, the pictures have a lot to do with memory and the act of storytelling. When the reader transitions from the first story, in pictures, to the second, in prose, the experience of having seen that first story unfold becomes part of our collective mem-ory. That act of remembering becomes part of the plot.
Q | Were some elements of the story hard to represent visually?
A | When I begin my stories, I don’t start thinking in pictures. I start by writing down what I want the story and characters to be. For Wonderstruck, I wrote that the main character, Rose, is obsessed with New York City. I could have had her write in her diary: “I love New York City.” Instead, I put her in Hoboken, so she could see the city and dream about it. But even that wasn’t clear enough. So then I thought, “Maybe she loves the buildings and makes paper models of them.”
Q | Are there any elements that are easier to represent in pictures?
A | Movement. It’s like camera angles: when you do a close-up or pull away. It’s much more challenging to write a similar sequence, choosing the correct vocabulary, finding the right structure.
I also prefer to show emotion in pictures. With Hugo, I didn’t have to write much action or emotion because I could switch over to pictures. When Hugo was running through the train station, I switched to pictures and we watched him run. With The Marvels, I had a whole picture story first and then no pictures for the next 200 pages. If a character was moving, I had to write about it. If a character was feeling an emotion, I had to write about it. It was a challenge, but ultimately that challenge is part of the story.
Photo: Jamey Mazzie