“I want to say, before anything, that dreams are very important.” ~ Maira Kalman (Max Makes a Million, 1990)
A couple of years ago, Jules Danielson (of the premier children’s illustration blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast), and I were discussing our mutual love for Maira Kalman.
We agreed that reading Maira’s Max books (Max Makes a Million, Ooh-la-la (Max in Love), Max in Hollywood, Baby, Swami on Rye) pretty much changed our lives. It made her want to study children’s literature; it made me want to write stories. Safe to say that when it comes to Maira’s work, whether it’s her children’s books, New Yorker covers, or her much beloved New York Times illustrated essays, most people fall madly in love.
It’s rarely just, “I like Maira Kalman.” It’s usually, “I LOVE Maira Kalman,” or, “I ADORE Maira Kalman.” Few contemporary author/illustrators can provoke such a strong reaction across such a broad range of readers — both genders, all ages, ethnicities, political persuasions. Maybe it’s because she speaks to the adult in the child and the child in the adult. Or because she’s perfected the art of seamlessly blending typography with images. Maybe it’s because of all those hats and cakes!
I think it’s because her work is a candid expression of her essential self, always fresh and exciting. She chronicles what she sees, hears, and feels as she moves about the world with her own brand of sophisticated innocence. With Maira, there’s a surprise around every corner. When you read one of her pieces, you get the sense she’s creating something right there on the spot just for you. Suddenly and spontaneously, ordinary things are beautiful, you see connections between seemingly random, disparate objects, thoughts, and ideas. Her view is expansive, her energy, infectious, her humor, off-the-wall and clear through to the other side. Of course there’s also the pure unadulterated joy and hope she brings to a complicated, uncertain, troubled world. And she does it with crazy cool style and panache (and pie)!
So, Jules and I said, “Wouldn’t it be the ultimate kick to interview Maira?” Jules, who was born with an extra helping of gumption, emailed Maira but didn’t hear back. Perfectly understandable. She must receive a million such requests and like it or not, cannot accommodate everyone.
Fast forward to 2012, when Maira’s new picture book, Looking At Lincoln, is released by Penguin. We both review it, talking again about our “dream interview.” Jules, who has friends in all the right publishing places, tries again and this time Maira says yes!
Holy Wow! After we stopped screaming, we came up with a few questions which Maira answered right away. Pinch me. I’m dreaming, right? Jules and I are cross-posting this interview at our blogs today, because if anything bears repeating, it’s Maira’s words and pictures. Stereo à la Kalman. So, gather ye Cheez Doodles, zing your rubber bands, bless Abraham Lincoln, and read on.
(Yes, of course there’s cake.)
You’ve described yourself as a five layer jelly cake, a festive moment when you’re not following the rules. What do you consider to be the five most significant milestones of your career thus far?
There were many wonderful moments. The first children’s book that I illustrated and wrote, HEY WILLY, SEE THE PYRAMIDS. It is about my family and short unconnected moments. Digressions. Which I love. And since I love short, unconnected moments, THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE and THE PRINCIPLES OF UNCERTAINTY are also very important works for me.
How challenging was it, if at all, to adapt your well-loved and well-received NYT blog post on Lincoln into the 32-page picture book form?
Lincoln presents no problems. Every story with Lincoln tells itself really well. He is Lincoln, after all.
What Pete Ate from A-Z and Smartypants (Pete in School) are hysterical. Did the real Pete regularly devour things he should not?
The dear dog Pete ate MANY things that he should not. Yes, he ate my camera. But I loved him and could not get mad.
You’ve cited Ludwig Bemelmans and Charlotte Salomon as sources of creative inspiration. What do you love most about their work, and how have they influenced you as an illustrator? Also, are there specific experiences that formed the essential basis, the fundamental building blocks, of your artistic vision? Books, movies, artists (in addition to Bemelmans and Salomon), events, images, anything else?
Bemelmans and Salomon share a sophistication and love of beauty and place. And they also have a childlike exuberance. AND they write and paint. That appeals to me.
Of course there are many influences on my work. From literary, Nabokov, to films — The Marx Brothers, to music — St. Matthew’s Passion. And then there is architecture and fashion and and and. I have a basic curiosity about things and people. And I tend to listen and look. That goes a long way. Then I have many things to write and draw. And I day dream and dream. That also helps.
We love your humorous, surprising, whimsical, elegant, free associative style. You personalize objects and imbue them with cosmic significance, approach historical subjects with childlike wonder and curiosity, captivating us with your love of humanity. How do you sustain and nurture your creative life without becoming jaded, cynical or overexposed? How do you overcome self doubt?
All of these questions are complicated. There is a lot of hope involved. And hoping for the best. And just plain doing your work. I can’t emphasize that enough. Just sitting there and doing it — persevering. being patient. and seeing the long view. I am lucky in that my mother and aunts — the women in my family — were funny and irreverent. They told wonderful stories and baked cakes and generally had an optimistic view of the world, while knowing that tragic things happened all the time. And they loved to read. Reading was highly prized. And it gets passed on. I am immensely lucky, and it would really be awful if I were jaded or cynical.
On that note, what do you, as an artist, find most challenging and satisfying in the creative processes that you employ?
The best part is the surprise. I take many walks and wander. And in that wandering so much is revealed. And I find so much clarity and inspiration. Like a journalist reporting on what I have seen. And then in the studio, to not think too much. To let the work happen and to find the unexpected. To allow mistakes to be part of it. To not get it right, but just to get it.
Food figures prominently in your work, everything from cherry pies, strawberry shortcakes, onion rings, pink ice pops, veal roasts to Cheez Doodles. Could you please explain the significance of Cheez Doodles in your family history?
I came to the U.S. when I was little, in the 1950’s. It was a very can-do time, in a can-do country. And the playfulness of products and the names really struck me. I delight in candy names and in the fun of those products. Not that I eat Cheez Doodles that often. But I know that they have a place in our world.
We love Max. Will there be any more Max books?
Any projects you’re working on now that you can tell us about?
A book about Thomas Jefferson. A book about my favorite things that will be a catalog of a show I am curating for the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Articles for various magazines. Teaching. Walking. Traveling. Many wonderful things.
What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
I would like to dance in a show. Or be an extra in an opera.
Thanks so much for visiting Alphabet Soup and 7-Imp today, Maira! When you dance in a show or appear in an opera, Jules and I will be in the front row. ☺
♥ Check out Maira’s interview at 7-Imp!
♥ I love this cool trailer for the picture book she did with Lemony Snicket, 13 Words:
♥ This video of Maira and Lemony Snicket at the 13 Words Ice Cream Social cracks. me. up.
♥ Maira’s official website.
♥ My review of Looking at Lincoln is here.
“Quick Question. Would you love a dog who ate your lucky quarter, the Q from your alphabet collection, your porcupine quill? Even if for the quadrillionth time you said, “Quit It. Don’t EAT that,” and he Did, would you still love that dog? Quite a lot.” ~ Maira Kalman (What Pete Ate from A-Z)
This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share food-related posts (recipes, fiction, nonfiction, cookbook, movie reviews, photos, musings, etc.).
*Spreads from Looking at Lincoln posted by permission, copyright © 2012 Maira Kalman, published by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.
32 thoughts on “♥ in which jules and jama conduct their dream interview with maira kalman ♥”
Congrats and Cheez Doodles to Jama and Jules for this dream come true that you shared with us! Maira, Lemony S., ice cream, hats…ooh la la, this post has EVERYTHING!
I’m so glad you guys got your interview. The work speaks perhaps more than the author/illustrator, but you did a bang-up job setting it all here, and the gorgeous illustrations… ::sigh:: Lots of Maira in the morning. That’s just how I like it. I miss her blogging.
Thank you for this.
Yay, you! So glad you got to talk to her and that you pulled together this incredible collection of images. “Short unconnected moments of digression.” I love that!!
I ADORE her. Thank you thank you, Jules and Jama!
What a joy to start the day with this interview, Jama and Jules. What Pete Ate is one of our ALL TIME favorite books. Now I want some cake and a hat that says, “Panache.” Thank you and congratulations!
What Pete Ate is definitely in my top 3 favorite alphabet books of all time. 🙂 Love your taste!
Holy freakin’ hubba wow, that intro *nails* what is so great about her work. I’m just gonna send everyone HERE instead!
(So fun to do this with you!)
p.s. “an extra helping of gumption” …THANKS!
Put me squarely in the LOVE and ADORE camp. Great interview!
My favorite snippet: “I have a basic curiosity about things and people. And I tend to listen and look. That goes a long way.” Sounds deceptively simple out of context, but is so essential to creating an authentic, original perspective!
Love, adore, revere!
I adore her, too! She’s funny and insightful and hopeful. Love that last quality the most. So much of this work IS just showing up and putting in the time. But she’s so original, so quirky, I would love to have her mind for just five minutes. In this interview, I did! Thanks so much, you two!
I loved reading both of your blogs. Thanks, J&J! I love so many of Maira’s books, but am particularly fond of Fireboat and Smartypants. Very different from each other, and both brilliant.
Smartypants is one of the few picture books that can make me laugh out loud. Every time. 🙂
I love everything about this! Congrats to you both on your ‘stick-with-it-ness’ and a wonderful interview!
Wow, the best interview. I didn’t know much about Maira, & it’s thrilling to see more parts of her in addition to just the books. As I said on the Facebook page, I just purchased the book (Scholastic book fair at school), so this is an added addition. You always please, Jama!
And-thanks for your kind words on my post, Jama. Yes, it is a challenge to slowly watch fade away. I appreciate your thoughts.
I’ll go ahead and say it – I ADORE the work of Maira Kalman. To me, she seems like the ultimate flaneur – wandering and wondering and noticing and listening – and she seems to love or try to understand everything a city offers: people, clothes, buildings, patterns – this above all, the patterns, the connective tissue, the puzzling convergences that other people often miss. I love to pick up Principles of Uncertainty and turn to any page – any page at all – I find myself completely absorbed again. My dream day: Maira Kalman and Bill Cunningham showing me around the streets of Manhattan.Maybe I’ll add Peter Sis. I’ve given my grandson so many of her books – his favorite, for the record, is What Pete Ate A-Z. Thanks, Jules and Jama, for the interview!
Hear hear to everything you said, Julie! YES!! Your grandson has superb taste :).
I can also go through her Principles or Pursuit of Happiness and get wowed no matter what random page I look at. A sure sign of brilliance! Love your dream day, too. Sounds almost exactly like mine (mine would include cake in a cafe with Maira).
I don’t know much about children’s books, but I do love Maira Kalman. What a fantastic job you did with this interview, I enjoyed it immensely!
what fun! love that cake…and that doggie!
Wow, fun post! Great great interview, I can see why you admire and love her so much, she’s fantastic!
This post was SUCH A TREAT!! REALLY!! I love your pictures – the cake! the soup! I love Maira! I am going to read this again and tell my friends!
Wow. Smiles and smiles and smiles… thank you!
*applause applause applause*
WOnDeRfuL!!! Thank you so much for sharing this with us, jama. I watched the two videos in their entirety and my 13 year old had to come look over my shoulder and watch too. I think that says a lot. 🙂
I love this! I feel so lucky to have posted my review of Food Rules, illustrated by Maira Kalman, for Weekend Cooking this week. It’s like I’m basking in your afterglow.
It’s unbelievably cool that Maira Kalman is curating an exhibit at Cooper-Hewitt. And, making a book about it. Can’t wait!
Joy’s Book Blog
You pretty much made my day! I’ve been reading Seven Imps and Alphabet Soup since . . . oh since you guys started or so. That you linked up to me today is thrill number one. Thrill number two is that your post is all about Maira Kalman. I am absolutely in the love camp. I’ve reviewed a couple of her books on my blog and I love Max and food and her work and your interview. Can’t wait to see Maira’s Jefferson book and of course her work at the Cooper-Hewitt.
I’m happy that you’re happy! Maira does that to people, though — unites us all in the appreciation of the marvelous. Enjoyed your reviews of Food Rules and The Principles of Uncertainty. Can’t wait for her Jefferson book!!
Wonderful post and I love the bowl of soup! Here is my recipe for Chewy Granola Bars
One of my favorite posts ever. 🙂 Thank you for leading me to Maira Kalman’s work – her books would fill my library basket this weekend. I have to echo all the other comments shared above – there is so much to love in this post: from the fabulous illustrations, to the perceptive interview questions and lovely responses, the video clip, and the food glorious food (singing ala Oliver Twist) – throw in Lemony Snicket to the mix and I’m sold! 🙂
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