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Brian Selznick: A Head Full of Secrets

selznick cover(Photo by Jamey Mazzie) Having an imagination is hard work, especially if you’re living inside 46-year-old Brian Selznick‘s head. The author of the Caldecott Award-winning children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which was adapted for the Oscar-winning 2011 Scorcese film Hugo) spends most of his time contemplating the development of beloved characters and the authenticity of magic. Much like his predecessor and muse — and the nonfictional redeemed hero of the novel — French filmmaker George Méliès, Selznick is obsessive about details because “details make sense. They can make any world, even if it’s a fictional world, feel entirely real.”

hugo book coverThe two worlds of film and fiction will collide on Sunday, March 17, at Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, where Selznick (who is a distant relation of film maker David O. Selznick), along with his Scholastic editor and longtime friend Tracy Mack (whose home base is in Berkshire County, where she lives with her husband and three children) will follow a screening of Hugo with a discussion and book signing. Of course, some of the world’s toughest critics will be in attendance.

“Kids are a much tougher audience than adults,” Selznick says. “They’re much more direct and honest. And they may not ‘get’ all of the details that I use in my work — actually 97 percent of the audience might not be experts on the details that I use — but for the three percent on the planet who are experts, I want them to know I’ve done my best work.”

It’s hard to imagine that Selznick would do anything but his best work. According to Mack (who hopes there will be other opportunities for reader/author discussions, especially for kids in the Berkshires), the fantastical, obsessively technical writer is always imagining, always creating, and always researching every subject he dares make a foray into.

tracy mack“Brian is somebody with huge, wide-ranging interests,” Mack says. “He’s an exhaustive researcher. Once we hired him to do little pictures for the opening and closing of chapters for a book, and they were so meticulously done. So when he handed me Hugo Cabret, I totally trusted him.”

Over the course of three years (2004 to 2007) the 30-page, unillustrated manuscript that Selznick gave to Mack slowly morphed into the epic quest of a Parisian orphan and the redemption of a pathmaking, wildly imaginative but failed filmmaker.

“There was a kernel of something really original,” Mack says of the novel. “We were kind of toiling away in secret. It was something the industry had never seen before, and it finally broke open the novel as a form of art. The book as an object. It was an invitation for other artists to try something different.”

hugo trainstationSomething different may be an understatement as Selznick sought, and ultimately succeeded, to meld the two worlds of Hugo the fictional boy with George Méliès, the real filmmaker. As with all of his stories to date, Selznick used his research — a trip to Paris, long nights sifting through the catacombs of magic, silent film, and the construction of automatons — as a springboard for creating beloved characters and settings.

“The research gives me a framework to hang most of the work that I do,” he says. “It really becomes the stepping stone of the story that is trying to tell itself. I discovered that Méliès’ parents owned a boot factory and Méliès hated the place. And yet, at the end of his career most of his film rolls were melted down and used to make shoe heels. You can’t make up that kind of irony. Hugo is the catalyst for almost everything that really happened to Méliès in the story. It’s real.”

The author, unlike many of his peers, had the opportunity to see his scrupulous imaginings come to life on the set of Hugo, where he spent two weeks watching set designers, lighting technicians, actors, and film professionals build the fantastical, sometimes treacherous world, of the brilliant boy and the ‘cinemagician’ turned train station toy store clerk. (It was also a nice validation, Mack says, that “everyone on the set had a copy of the book, carrying it around like a bible.”) Selznick’s involvement with the film was nothing short of intimate.

“Walking on to the set of the film was as strange as you could imagine it to be, at least for me,” Selznick says. “I got to see, in 3-D, what was in my head. I was able to walk into George Méliès’ glass studio. Sure, it was a set, but it was real glass and I was in it! It was like hanging out with god, they can make anything happen on a studio set.”

wonderstruck coverAnd he can make anything happen in a book, it seems. With Hugo and Méliès somewhat behind him, Selznick is on to new adventures (Wonderstruck, another voluminous novel, was released in 2011) in his high-octane mind: always working on a story, always untangling the problems and breakthroughs of each character and plot, much like his own favorite authors Charles Dickens and, surprisingly, for someone who claims Maurice Sendak and Remy Charlip as major influences, Edith Wharton.

“I read her novel Summer and was so taken with it, I had to read everything else,” he says.

Perhaps we should look for regal estate gardens and haunted pet cemeteries in his next book. —Nichole Dupont

Sunday, March 17
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
Screening of Hugo begins at 2 p.m., followed by a discussion and book signing.
14 Castle Street, Great Barrington
(413) 528-0100
General admission is $10.


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