An Interview with Maurice Sendak, by Celia Johnson and Maria Gagliano
November 29, 2012
Maurice Sendak captured the power of a child’s imagination, to transport them into the wild recesses of dreams, in his most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are. We had the opportunity to chat on the phone with Sendak, who lived in Connecticut, a week before his eighty-second birthday.
During our interview, Sendak took us back to the wildest place he ever went to, the place that inspired the adventures of his mischievous character named Max. It was his childhood home, located in Brooklyn, the same borough as Slice’s headquarters. So it turns out that the wild can take root in your backyard, or if you don’t have one—as is the case for many city kids—in the nooks and crannies of your apartment.
This brief chat is an excerpt from an interview Celia Johnson and Maria Gagliano conducted for Slice’s ninth issue, “Into the Wild.”
This is the Brooklyn magazine, right?
Yes. This is Celia Johnson and Maria Gagliano, from Slice.
Maria is actually from Bensonhurst.
Oh my god. Well, she lived through it.
Our first question is actually about Brooklyn. You were born in Brooklyn, which is where we are based, and we were wondering what some of your favorite childhood memories are.
Let’s see if I have any. I guess there were my friends, the kids I knew. It was a good time for me. The trees were healthy and shady. I guess I say that because there was an article in the paper today about how all the trees in this poor little town, all the trees were blown away. It made me think of Brooklyn where all the trees were wonderful, so thick, heavy. I know there are trees elsewhere than Brooklyn, but I only knew the Brooklyn trees. And the stoop where everybody sat and chatted and talked and hollered, yelled and threatened. Skating with my brother.
These are ordinary childhood memories, nothing special. There were mysteries that we hid from our parents, but that’s what all children do. We only told them a little bit about life. We didn’t want them to get nervous. So we kept things from them. But that’s not Brooklyn, that’s just childhood. All I can really tell you is, I had a good time.
One of the best parts of childhood is the little things.
Yes. Blanket in the backyard. Having a girlfriend and not knowing what that meant. Things like that. Giving a girl a ring. It meant something. But she didn’t know what it meant any more than I. But I remember, I gave a girl my 1935 World’s Fair ring, and immediately I regretted it. But I knew I shouldn’t ask for it back. I didn’t marry her. I never saw her afterwards. I didn’t leave Brooklyn, but if you moved as often as we did, even if you lived only eight blocks away from someone, you never saw those people again.
So you never got that ring back?
No. She still has it wherever she is, god bless her. I hope she’s alright. I hope she didn’t sell it on eBay.
We’re with you there. Our theme for this issue is “Into the Wild,” so we immediately thought of you. Your writing and your outlook perfectly fit into the theme. We were wondering, what is the wildest place you ever visited?
The wildest place? You’d probably have to go back to Brooklyn. Things happen in childhood that are so flabbergasting. They don’t happen again because we control ourselves when we grow up. We try to be respectable people. But there’s nothing respectable about childhood, nor should there be.
So I would say the wildest place was Brooklyn. And that’s when the relatives were still alive. People who came from the old country during the war; it was a terrible time. And my uncles and aunts came from Europe. It seems I had something against all of them, because they always came to our house to eat, and I was not a generous fellow. I didn’t like the eating at our house. They became the wild things. The wild things looked just like them. That’s a hard thing to say, but they’re all gone.
I remember my brother and I and my sister would go into another room when they came to talk about whether we had to sit with them, because they were so hungry waiting for my mother to cook dinner. They might easily have taken a bite out of us. We used to hide together. I loved my brother, and I loved my sister. They’re both gone, and I miss them very, very much. I did not love my relatives, but they did make a good book.
They definitely did. What was one of your standard meals at home with the relatives?
Anything that was in the Jewish cookbook. It was a lot of chicken-y type meals, and soup-y meals, and also my mother was not a great cook.
No. I remember everybody lived together in a four-family house. We were on the top floor. Across the hall from us was an Italian family. I used to sneak from our house—or apartment, rather—to the Italian part where my friend and her brothers and her sisters and I used to sit at their table.
Oh, Italian cooking was so splendid and wonderful. But once my mother found out I was sneaking off to their house, then I was in a lot of trouble. But the Italians ate and drank and kissed and hugged. They were bad…they were a different type of people.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and co-publisher of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, Salon, and BrooklynBased.net, among other publications. When she’s not playing with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at pomatorevival.com.
Celia Blue Johnson is a writer and the Creative Director of Slice Literary. Her most recent book, Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, features stories about the inspiration behind great works of literature. Her next book, Odd Type Writers, was recently published by Penguin.