The Best Of Fresh Air 2011
4:50 am
Thu December 29, 2011

Maurice Sendak: On Life, Death And Children's Lit

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:10 am

This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2011. This interview was originally broadcast on September 20, 2011.

Bumble-ardy, the latest from author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, is dark and deeply imaginative, much like his classic works Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen.

Bumble-ardy is an orphaned pig, who has reached the age of 9 without ever having a birthday party. He tells his Aunt Adeline that he would like to have a party for his ninth birthday, so Aunt Adeline plans a quiet birthday dinner for two. But Bumble-ardy instead decides to throw a large costume party for himself after his aunt leaves for work — and mayhem ensues.

When his aunt returns she says, "Okay smarty, you've had your party but never again." Bumble-ardy replies, "I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10."

Sendak tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that those two lines — his favorite in the book — sum up his life and his work.

"Those two lines are essential. 'I'll never be 10' touches me deeply but I won't pretend that I know exactly what it means," says Sendak. "When I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me, which is what the creative act is all about. Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean. ... It comes at a time when I am getting ripe, getting old — and I want to do work that resonates."

Sendak says that he worked on Bumble-ardy while taking care of his longtime partner, Eugene Glynn, who died of lung cancer in 2007.

"When I did Bumble-ardy, I was so intensely aware of death," he says. "Eugene, my friend and partner, was dying here in the house when I did Bumble-ardy. I did Bumble-ardy to save myself. I did not want to die with him. I wanted to live as any human being does. But there's no question that the book was affected by what was going on here in the house. ... Bumble-ardy was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own. And it took a long time. It took a very long time."


Interview Highlights

On his current writing

"I feel like I'm working for myself at this point. If it's publishable, fine. If not, it makes not too much difference. Because I claim that this time is for me and me alone. I'm 83 years old."

"I'm writing a poem right now about a nose. I've always wanted to write a poem about a nose. But it's a ludicrous subject. That's why, when I was younger, I was afraid of [writing] something that didn't make a lot of sense. But now I'm not. I have nothing to worry about. It doesn't matter."

On wishing he had children, sort of

"I would infinitely prefer a daughter. If I had a son, I would leave him at the A&P or some other big advertising place where somebody who needs a kid would find him and he would be all right. ... A daughter would be drawn to me. A daughter would want to help me. Girls are infinitely more complicated than boys and women more than men. And there's no doubt about that. We just don't like to think about it. Certainly the men don't like to think about it. I have lived my whole life with a dream daughter."

On not discussing therapy sessions with his late partner, a psychoanalyst

"It just seemed like, why? It just seemed inauthentic and incorrect to burden him with that. My therapy went on forever. My being gay was something of not great interest to me. The person I lived with — we lived together for all of those years so we make trips to our favorite places in Europe, so that we could read our favorite books, so that we could listen to music.

"I couldn't deal with 9/11 the other day. I couldn't bear it. ... That evening of 9/11, they conducted Mahler's 2nd Symphony. ... And I sat there and cried like a baby listening to the music."

On being gay

"Finding out that I was gay when I was older was a shock and a disappointment. ... I did not want to be gay. It meant a whole different thing to me — which is really hard to recover now because that's many years ago. I always objected to it because there is a part of me that is solid Brooklyn and solid conventional and I know that. I can't escape that. It's my genetic makeup. It's who I am."

On his life

"I have nothing now but praise for my life. I'm not unhappy. 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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

We're going to continue our series of some our favorite entertainment and pop culture interviews of the year, with the inv that generated more e-mails than any other this year, our interview with Maurice Sendak. Many people who grew up reading his books have gone to read his books to their children. Books like, "Where the Wild Things Are," "In The Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There."

Me, I was slightly too old to grow up with those books, but I came to love them as an adult. And I try to talk with Sendak whenever he has a new book, which he did this fall. It's called "Bumble-ardy."

In The New York Times book review, Pamela Paul wrote, quote, "Sendak, Shel Silverstein and Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, are so much a part of the childhood vernacular today that it's hard to imagine their books were once considered to be wholly inappropriate for children. They brought a shock of subversion to the genre - defying the notion that children's books shouldn't be scary, silly or sophisticated. Their books encouraged bad or perhaps just human behavior," unquote.

Maurice Sendak is 83 now. It would have been difficult for him to get to a studio. So, in September, when "Bumble-ardy" was published, we called him at home.

Maurice Sendak, congratulations on your new book. And it gives me this opportunity to call you up and see how you're doing, and to say hello and talk with you about your work. So how have you been?

MAURICE SENDAK: Well, it's been a rough time. I've gotten quite old, Terry, since you've seen me last, which is not very unusual. And I'm working very hard but I feel that I'm working for myself at this point, because everything I'm doing is, if it's publishable, fine. If not, it makes not too much difference because I claim that this time is for me and me alone.

GROSS: Do you have a secret stash of work that you've never published?

SENDAK: Yes. Oh, sure.

GROSS: You do? Yeah?

SENDAK: A lot of it is junk...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SENDAK: ...which should not be published. Some of it is good and some of it is just fits and starts of things. I'm writing a poem now about a nose. I always wanted to write a poem about a nose. But, you know, I thought. gee. It's a ludicrous subject. Well, that's why, you know, when I was younger I was afraid of something that didn't make a lot of sense and there was not. There's nothing to worry about. It doesn't matter.

GROSS: Well, in your new book "Bumble-ardy," the main character is a pig who is orphaned and lives with his aunt.

SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: And when his parents were alive he never had a birthday party because his immediate family frowned on fun. Then he turns nine. His aunt buys him some gifts to through him a quiet party for two. But then he decides to throw a costume party for himself and he invites some grubby swine.

The party begins after his aunt leaves for work and then mayhem ensues. And when his aunt returns, she throws everyone out and says, OK smarty, you've had your party but never again. And then Bumble-ardy says in tears, I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10.

SENDAK: Right.

GROSS: So when the aunt says never again, which people say about the Holocaust, when she says that in reference to never having a party again, that's really, really loaded.

SENDAK: I don't know what to answer to that. You've just picked the two lines of the book that are my favorite lines. They're something so poignant and extremely funny if you could say that's funny about his answer, I'll never turn 10. In fact, it sums up my life, it sums up my work, whether it's mad or ludicrous or funny and odd, it's true.

What you just said is extremely insightful. Nobody has said anything like that. Those two lines are essential. I'll never be 10, it touches me deeply but I won't pretend that I know exactly what it means. I only know it touches me deeply, and when I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me, which is what the creative act is all about. Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean.

GROSS: You know, let me ask you, those two lines where she says OK smarty, you've had your party but never again. And he says, I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10. What a bargain that is, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: He has to promise to never have boisterous fun again, to not get older, to just like stay in that moment, the nice little boy.

SENDAK: That is correct. I will do as you say.

GROSS: Yeah, did you have to make that bargain with your parents to get love?

SENDAK: I had somewhat the same problem. I had a brother who was my savior, made my childhood bearable. He was older by five years Jack Sendak. He wrote a number of books. He was very, very, very gifted. More importantly to my life, he saved my life. He drew me away from the lack of comprehension that existed between me and my parents. And he took his time with me to draw pictures and to read stories and live a kind of fantastical life.

And my sister occasionally joined in, but mostly after all, she was a girl. All that was expected of her was that she should grow up and be very pretty and marry a decent man. So she had to concentrate on what my parents expected of her. And she didn't have the creative insanity that existed between me and my brother to go further with that. I wish she had. I loved her very much.

But that life with him contradicted the prosaic life that I was expected to be a decent child. I was expected to be with my brother and help him and to shut up and just be a quiet kid. I hated them for a long time. But I don't anymore because God knows, it's a blessing to have a quiet kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SENDAK: I don't have kids at all and I thank God that I never did.

GROSS: Yeah, but isn't there a part of you that wishes like you had a son or a daughter to come help take care of you, and shop for you and bring you things. And...

SENDAK: Yes. I would infinitely prefer a daughter. If I had a son I'd leave him at the A&P...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SENDAK: ...or some other big advertising place that, you know, where somebody who needs a kid would find him and then he would be all right.

GROSS: Why? Isn't that stereotyping what a son would be?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SENDAK: I suppose it is but I'm just an ordinary human being. A daughter would be drawn to me. A daughter would want to help me. I mean girls are infinitely more complicated than boys and women more than men. And there's no doubt about that, we all know it, we just don't like to think about it and certainly the men don't like to think about it. But a daughter would - oh, God. I've fantasies(ph) a daughter. I have lived my whole life with a dream daughter.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you this: You came out a few years ago.

SENDAK: Correct.

GROSS: If you were able to be out in a period like we live in today where it's socially acceptable in lots of circles to be gay and have children, it's so much easier to be gay and have children now, would you have had a child?

SENDAK: No. No. There's too much hard work involved.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SENDAK: And I am devoted to being an artist and a person who reads books for the rest of my life, however long I have.

GROSS: And that takes a certain amount of self-absorption to be able to do that.

SENDAK: Well, I think so, and I think it has to do with time spent trying to understand what it means to be an artist, to get under the skin of what is happening as best you can.

GROSS: Do you have someone to help you?

SENDAK: Yes. Yes. And she is a youngish lady who puts up with my oldness; that is, I'm fighting and struggling against. She puts up with my bad behavior and she loves me and I love her.

GROSS: Is she a friend? Is she a nurse?

SENDAK: She's a friend.

GROSS: Oh, that's great.

SENDAK: And I've known her since she was a little girl.

GROSS: Oh, wow. So it's kind of almost like a daughter.

SENDAK: Yes. And she belonged down the road and her mother was a saint in the best sense of that word, the best sense of what I imagine Christianity is all about. I adored her mother and I adore her. Her name is Lynn(ph) and I adore her brother, his name is Peter. And they both have grown up and are attached to me and I might as well have had them for my kids. They put up with everything.

GROSS: Oh, that's beautiful. Plus, you didn't have to do the work, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: We've talked before how you've been in therapy. And your late partner, who died in 2007, you were together for about 50 years? Do I have that right?

SENDAK: Oh, about 50 years. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And he was a psychoanalyst, right?

SENDAK: He was a psychoanalyst.

GROSS: OK. So here's the thing: like when you're in therapy, you have to decide if you're going to tell your spouse, your friends, your family about things that happen in those sessions, things you learned about yourself, things you said about other people or not. You know, whether you can confide in people about that or not. So since your partner was a psychoanalyst, did you talk to him about your therapy sessions?

SENDAK: About my therapy?

GROSS: Yeah.

SENDAK: With him. No. No. It just seemed like, why? I don't know why. I don't know why. It just seemed inauthentic and incorrect to burden him with that. My therapies went on forever. My being gay was something of not great interest to me - you just have to believe that.

And the person I lived with - we lived together for all those years so that we make trips to our favorite places in Europe, so that we could read our favorite books, so that we could and this is most important - we could listen to music. Now I couldn't deal with 9/11 the other day. I just couldn't bear it.

GROSS: The 10th anniversary of 9/11?

SENDAK: Yes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SENDAK: Yes. But that evening of 9/11, they conducted Mahler's "2nd Symphony," the "Resurrection" symphony, which has never been a great favorite of mine, but Mahler is a great favorite of mine. And I sat there and cried like a baby listening to the music. I'd got through the way – the whole day had not gotten through to me. I just couldn't deal with the whole situation.

But sitting there and listening to music that was written almost now a hundred years ago, it had nothing to do with 9/11, except that it had to do with the life and death of human beings, which takes me back for some reason to "Bumble-ardy," I won't turn 10.

The fragility of life, the irrationality of life, the comedy of life. My tears flow because two great, great friends died close together - a husband and a wife - who meant everything to me and I am having to deal with that and it's very, very hard.

GROSS: Did they die very recently?

SENDAK: Yes. She died two months ago and he died the day before yesterday. And I was, except for his son, the last person to speak with him. He was my publisher and I loved him and I loved her.

GROSS: Are you at the point where you feel like you've outlived a lot of people who you loved?

SENDAK: Yes. Of course. And since I don't believe in another world, in another life, that this is it. And when they die they are out of my life. They're gone forever. Blank. Blank. Blank. And I am not afraid of death. And I begin to - as maybe a good many elderly people do. Who knows?

When I did "Bumble-ardy" I was so intensely aware of death. Eugene, my friend and my partner, was dying here in the house while I did "Bumble-ardy." And I did "Bumble-ardy" to save myself. I did not want to die with him. I wanted to live, as any human being does. But there's no question that the book was affected by what was going on here in the house.

GROSS: We've talked before about how, you know, you're Jewish but you're very secular. You don't believe in God. You don't...

SENDAK: No, I don't.

GROSS: Yeah. And I think having friends who die, getting older, getting closer toward the end of life tests people's faith and it also tests people's atheism. It sounds like your atheism is staying strong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SENDAK: Is what?

GROSS: Staying strong.

SENDAK: Yes. I'm not unhappy about becoming old. I'm not unhappy about what must be. It makes me cry only when I see my friends go before me and life is emptied. I don't believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again. And it's like a dream life. But, you know, there's something I'm finding out as I'm aging that I am in love with the world.

And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, they're beautiful. And you see I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are. It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music.

You know, I don't think I'm rationalizing anything. I really don't. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it. "Bumble-ardy" was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own and it took a long time. It took a very long time, but it's genuine. Unless I'm crazy. I could be crazy and you could be talking to a crazy person.

GROSS: I don't think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guest is Maurice Sendak. He has a new children's book called "Bumble-ardy." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to my phone conversation with Maurice Sendak, the beloved children's book author who's best known for "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen." He has a new book called "Bumble-ardy."

What are your physical restrictions like? Can you walk OK? Can you get around?

SENDAK: No, I can't walk OK. I'd love to walk. That's why I've been doing that since the '70s when I had my first coronary. I have heart trouble and I've had a very bad time after Eugene died and I was very sick and they thought I would die and I came back to do "Bumble-ardy." And I have nothing but praise now, really, for my life. I mean I'm not unhappy.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SENDAK: I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die and I can't stop them. They leave me and I love them more. And I'm in a very soft mood, as you can gather...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SENDAK: ...because new people have died.

GROSS: Yeah.

SENDAK: They were not that old. And so it's what I dread more than anything is the isolation.

GROSS: Yeah.

SENDAK: But I have my young people here, four of them who are studying and they look at me as somebody who knows everything, those poor kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SENDAK: SENDAK: If they only knew how little I know. But obviously I give off something that they trust, because they're all intelligent. Oh God, 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.

GROSS: Well, listen - yeah.

SENDAK: You know, I have to tell you something.

GROSS: Go ahead.

SENDAK: You are the only person I have ever dealt with in terms of being interviewed or talking to who brings this out in me. There's something very unique and special in you, which I so trust. When I heard that you were going to interview me or that you wanted to, I was really, really pleased.

GROSS: Well, I'm really glad we got the chance to speak because when I heard you had a book coming out I thought what a good excuse...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...to call up Maurice Sendak and have a chat.

SENDAK: Yes, that's what we always do, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah. It is.

SENDAK: That's what we've always done.

GROSS: It is.

SENDAK: Thank God we're still around to do it.

GROSS: Yes.

SENDAK: And almost certainly, I'll go before you go, so I won't have to miss you.

GROSS: Oh, God what a...

SENDAK: And I don't know whether I'll do another book or not. I might. It doesn't matter. I'm a happy old man. But I will cry my way all the way to the grave.

GROSS: Well, I'm so glad you have a new book. I'm really glad we had a chance to talk.

SENDAK: I am too.

GROSS: And I wish you all good things.

SENDAK: I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.

GROSS: Well, thank you again for that conversation, Maurice. My interview with Maurice Sendak was recorded in September when his book "Bumble-ardy" was published. You can see a slideshow of images from the book on our website: freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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