Maurice Sendak: different sides of a fascinating author

The release of Sendak's new book, 'Bumble-ardy,' lets readers see both the tender and curmudgeonly sides of the children's writer

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    In a recent interview, Sendak told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she brings out things in him that no other interviewer can. "There’s something very unique and special in you, which I so trust,” he said.
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One of the joys of a new Maurice Sendak book is reading the book, of course. But another is seeing the spate of frank, illuminating new interviews with the author-illustrator, now 83. And it’s striking to see the different slants of the articles and the different information each writer managed to elicit.

Many book fans, for instance, already love Terry Gross of National Public Radio for her intelligent questions and ability to draw out subjects. It turns out Sendak is a fan as well, telling her how pleased he was to learn she wanted to call him up once more. He talked with her about the sadness of missing loved ones who were gone, including his partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn, as well as the “blessing” of living to old age and appreciating the world’s beauty. He and Glynn “lived together for all of the years so that we [could] make trips to our favorite places in Europe, so that we could read our favorite books, so that we could and this is most important – we could listen to music,” he told Gross. And he was glad he didn’t have children of his own – he would have loved to have a daughter, he told her, but a real one “would be hard work, work I would not want to do.”

Sendak’s new book, “Bumble-ardy,” the tale of a pig who holds his first-ever birthday party at age 9, struck Gross in particular for two “loaded” lines after the pig’s aunt throws out his friends. The aunt tells him ““Okay smarty, you've had your party but never again. And then Bumble-ardy says in tears, "I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10.”

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Gross says that the “never again” makes her think of the Holocaust. Sendak tells her those are his favorite lines in the book, and no one has had her take on them before.

“Those two lines are essential … but I won't pretend that I know exactly what it means,” he told her. “I only know it touches me deeply, and when I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me, which is what the creative act is all about.”

He told Gross at the tender, introspective interview’s end that she is the only person who has ever brought out such things in him. “There’s something very unique and special in you, which I so trust,” he told her. And then he said, “And almost certainly, I'll go before you go, so I won't have to miss you.”

His interview with The Guardian comes off as far more curmudgeonly, with the reporter commenting that “at 83, Sendak is still enraged by almost everything that crosses his landscape.” His take for the reporter on ebooks, for instance: "I hate them. It's like making believe there's another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of book! A book is a book is a book." His take on Roald Dahl, a fellow children’s author with adult appeal? "The cruelty in his books is off-putting. Scary guy. I know he's very popular but what's nice about this guy? He's dead, that's what's nice about him."

Yikes! We won’t even reprint his words on Salmon Rushdie and Stephen King. And yet The Guardian interview has its heartbreaking moments too, as when he tells the interviewer that his parents led desperate lives and his childhood was dysfunctional. "I remember when my brother was dying, he looked at me and his eyes were all teary. And he said, 'Why were we so unkind to Mama?' And I said, 'Don't do that. We were kids, we didn't understand. We didn't know she was crazy.' "

Sendak showed The Globe and Mail his cranky side as well, (don’t look for iPad versions of his books as long as he’s alive to stop it, he vowed) but did say that what he loves best in the world now is reading: “To hell with [writing] the books, to hell with everything. I just reread The Odyssey, and it’s funny. It’s funny in a way I didn’t realize was funny. And I’m going to read Proust right after this. And then I’ve got to read Henry James somewhere in there. I want to hear his voice again. I want to smell his color. It’s so tantalizing.”

And in The Atlantic, Sendak comes across as frank and blunt rather than sour, telling the reporter, for instance, that children’s letters saying they hate his books are among the most gratifying ones he receives. It shows him that “I have pierced their armor.”

The Atlantic reporter tells Sendak that the aunt in Bumble-ardy reminded him of the Mother Bear in Else Minarik’s “Little Bear” books, which Sendak illustrated long ago. Sendak replied, “When I did those books, I was quite young. And I wished for a mother bear. I wanted somebody like that in my life. My mother was troubled and she was an ordinary human being, but I had high expectations of her. I didn't know about her problems. I didn't care about her problems – I thought she was there for me! And if she wasn't there for me, she was not really a good mother. So, the expectations of children are very charged and difficult.”

The expectations of adults can be charged and difficult as well. But I’ll always be glad to learn more about this complex, talented man. He told the Associated Press that he hates memoirs, so don’t expect to see one from him. But perhaps, someday, a biography?

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com

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