Just around then, Maira was scheduled to appear at Monticello and at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and I was all set to travel three hours to Charlottesville just to see her. I’ve adored her work since the early 90’s, and it’s safe to say she’s one of my top three favorite picture book creators ever. Whether she’s chronicling the life of a President or contemplating cake, she speaks to our common humanity like no one else.
But. Her events were cancelled due to inclement weather (bad polar vortex, bad). And then when I had to rush off to Hawai’i at the end of March, I assumed if she was rescheduled I would probably miss her. Oh well.
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, NewYorker covers, or her much beloved New YorkTimes 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, LookingAt 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. ☺
“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.).
tells about how she looked deep into Abe Lincoln’s eyes and fell head over heels.
Her witty, incisive, endearing paean to our 16th President, truly a love letter to top all love letters, made me fall even more head over heels — not only for Lincoln but for Maira.
I couldn’t stop looking at it.
After all, it included Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous White Cake, Lincoln’s favorite apples, “ornamental pyramids of nougat and caramel with fancy cream candy,” veal Malakoff, visits to the Lincoln Diner and Baked Potato King, as well as other “fancy small cakes.”
“My dream is of a place and a time where America will be seen as the last best hope of earth.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
Our greatest President is 200 years young today.
Wherever he is, he’s probably thrilled about who’s occupying his former digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lincoln would be especially pleased to see Malia and Sasha living there, since he was the first President to bring his own small children to live in the White House.
Abe was an indulgent parent, who loved to wrestle with his sons. They provided much needed relief from the tensions of the war, sometimes throwing strawberries around at Cabinet meetings, climbing on furniture, and scattering papers.
Strawberries? Hmmm. What else did our 16th President like to eat? He was our tallest at 6’4″, so it seems he would have had a large appetite, but most historians disagree.