Maurice Sendak, literature’s deeply passionate curmudgeon, whose grumpiness was matched by a warm and tender spirit, left a “wild” legacy of best-selling books, beautiful illustrations, and words that forever touched his readers, young and old. The author’s birthday is tomorrow. We wanted to celebrate Sendak’s life by revisiting some of his greatest and most fascinating interviews. His candidness, sincerity, and humor will never be forgotten.
PBS entered the “strange and wonderful world” of the author in this 2004 interview with Bill Moyers. The host tells Sendak that Joseph Campbell regarded the “roared their terrible roars” scene in Where the Wild Things Are as one of the greatest moments in literature. “Because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world,” Moyers expressed. Sendak replied:
“Oh, yes. We’re animals. We’re violent. We’re criminal. We’re not so far away from the gorillas and the apes, those beautiful creatures. So, of course. And then, we’re supposed to be civilized. We’re supposed to go to work every day. We’re supposed to be nice to our friends and send Christmas cards to our parents. We’re supposed to do all these things which trouble us deeply, because it’s so against what we naturally would want to do. And if I’ve done anything, I’ve had kids express themselves as they are, impolitely, lovingly… they don’t mean any harm. They just don’t know what the right way is.”
In 2011, the Tate visited Sendak in upstate New York to discuss his career and his endless fascination with William Blake. “Herman Melville said that artists have to take a dive and either you hit your head on a rock and you split your skull and you die, or that blow to the head is so inspiring that you come back up and do the best work you ever did,” Sendak said. “But you have to take the dive, and you do not know what the result will be.” He revealed that his works were “impressed and loved with the memory of comics, and how important they were to [him] as a child.” Sendak’s profound love of Blake bordered on “religious,” even though he said he didn’t understand him. “I believe in his passion.”
Grab your tissues for this one. You’re going to need an entire box. Christoph Niemann illustrated a Fresh Air interview with Sendak in 2011. Host Terry Gross spoke to the author about how growing old can test people’s faith — or in Sendak’s case, his atheism. The question opened the emotional floodgates for both of them. “I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy,” Sendak replied. “I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more… What I dread is the isolation… There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” As they said their goodbyes at the end of the chat, Sendak told Gross: “Live your life, live your life, live your life.”
This brief excerpt from Oscilloscope’s portrait of Sendak, Tell Them Anything You Want, directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze (shot during the making of Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are adaptation), shows Sendak with his beloved dog Herman, named after Melville. “Herman is the best,” he says proudly.
Martha Stewart hosted Sendak on her show in 2000. He brought some of his favorite books along with him: Mickey Mouse in Pigmy Land (one of his earliest favorites), The Prince and the Pauper (which contains his own printed bookplate), and Alice in Wonderland (a copy he stole from his cousin that he used as a sketchbook).
The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia is a wonderful resource for Sendak fans, with over 10,000 rare Sendak objects, artworks, photos, books, and manuscripts. In this DVD excerpt from the Rosenbach, Sendak talks about his childhood and going to the movies. He made friends by entertaining the neighborhood children with colorful tales about the films he saw.
Artists often fixate on the perils of old age, lamenting the loss of creativity and relevance, but Sendak was publishing books just months before his death. In a 2011 Vanity Fair interview, he discussed being an artist, an octogenarian, and a grump:
“[Verdi’s] glory was in his 80s. A new librettist, Arrigo Boito, came into his life, and he said, ‘Look, Verdi, you can compose better than you’ve done.’ The two operas they collaborated on, Otello and Falstaff, are brilliant. Verdi was malcontent and brooding, and that made me feel better. You can’t write masterpieces in your 80s and be happy too.”
A 2012 interview with The Believer revealed the books Sendak was reading, and wanted to re-read, before he died:
“I just re-read The Odyssey. I didn’t realize it was funny. Like the relationship between Odysseus and Calypso: hilarious. Hilarious. Penelope and her weaving and her doubt. It would make great television. A great movie, if someone had the talent and wit to do it. I’m re-reading Proust. I’m re-reading Henry James; I miss him so much, rat fiend that he was. Edith Wharton doesn’t make the cut. But George Eliot, yes. I want to read Middlemarch again.”
He also discussed the letters that children wrote to him (and mentions one of his own favorite books):
“When they write on their own, they’re ferocious. After Outside Over There, which is my favorite book of mine, a little girl wrote to me from Canada: ‘I like all of your books, why did you write this book, this is the first book I hate. I hate the babies in this book, why are they naked, I hope you die soon. Cordially…’ Her mother added a note: ‘I wondered if I should even mail this to you — I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.’ I was so elated. It was so natural and spontaneous. The mother said, ‘You should know I am pregnant and she has been fiercely opposed to it.’ Well, she didn’t want competition, and the whole book was about a girl who’s fighting against having to look after her baby sister.”
Early in life, Sendak wanted to become a cartoonist:
“I would take my stack of papers back home, shut the door, make [my parents] believe I was doing my homework, and what I was doing was backgrounds for Scribbly, backgrounds for Mutt and Jeff, backgrounds for Tippy and Captain Stubbs. And there would be a weekly down below, one strip, and I would take it and cut it up, and make it fit on a comic page so that I would have to extend the drawing to fit the size of the comic box. Oh, God. I loved it. But I lost that because — What did they ask me to do? They asked me to do a more moderate thing, where the drawing was more Prince Valiant-ish. And girls were sexy, and it’s like, ‘You can’t draw sexy girls.’ I failed. I failed. I loved it. I was really gonna be a cartoonist. I had a cartoon in my high school newspaper magazine. Terrible, terrible shit.”
Stephen Colbert and Sendak are incredibly charming and funny together. There are some deeply touching moments in this outtake clip from their talk. Sendak mentions his old dog Jennie, which brought tears to our eyes. He also offers his brutally honest view of childhood: “I think childhood is a period of great torment. We learn all these things — what is and what isn’t, what you can do and what you can’t do, and it’s really very hard.” Visit the full interview here and here.