Brian Selznick On Einstein, God, and Reaching His Potential

So I bought the postcard, memorized it and sent it off to a friend. And I never thought about God again after that.

Joe Fassler

Interview by

Winter 2012
By phone. Digital recorder.

Profile appeared on The Atlantic.com




David Gerlach: This is Blank on Blank. Where lost interviews come to life. Distributed by the Public Radio Exchange. PRX.org. I’m David Gerlach.

Joe Fassler: I’m Joe Fassler and I’m a writer for TheAtlantic.com.

David Gerlach: Back in early 2012, Joe spoke with Brian Selznick. He’s the author and illustrator of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” It’s a book that was turned into “Hugo,” an Academy Award-nominated film by Martin Scorsese.
[Music: “The Movies” from the “Hugo” soundtrack]

Joe Fassler: I’ve always had a really soft spot for kids’ books, and one of my favorite writers to sort of emerge on that scene in the past few years has been Brian Selznick. And I loved these books, “Hugo” and “Wonderstruck.” Just the books that read like a novel but are as illustrated as the best books for kids. And I had wanted to ask him about the experience of being enchanted by something because it seemed so important to his books. And I never imagined that he would have such a specific vignette to tell about the moment he realized how important it is to be wonderstruck by the world.

[Music: “The Movies” continues]

Brian Selznick: After college, I travelled around Europe and it was one of those trips where I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got back. I was sort of aimless and there was sort of a subtext of having a mission to try to figure out what God meant to me at the time. I mean, it wasn’t really a spiritual quest, but in the back of my mind I was like: I need an answer. I want to know what makes sense to me. And I found a postcard in a gift shop in Sweden that answered all my questions. It was a quote from Albert Einstein, which I have since discovered is a slight misquote. But it’s so good. The misquote is actually better than the quote, I think. It’s a little long. It starts off: “The most beautiful and the most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. My profound belief in the presence of a superior reasoning power that reveals itself in the incomprehensible universe forms my idea of God.”

[Music: Motion Trio “Stars”]

Brian Selznick: So I bought the postcard and memorized it, sent it off to a friend. And I never, never thought about God again after that.

[Music: “Stars” continues]

Brian Selznick: It’s this need for curiosity and for the experience of wonder that keeps us alive, that keeps us going, that keeps us engaged in the world. A sense of wonder is not something reserved for childhood.

Joe Fassler: What were some of the things that left you sort of wonderstruck as a child?

Brian Selznick: There’s a book called “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton.

Joe Fassler: Is that the little people?

Brian Selznick: Yup. The little people who live under the floorboards of a kid’s house. I basically thought it was a true story and so I would make little furniture for the little people who lived under the floorboards of my house. And that idea that, you know, there could be these unseen beings, these, you know, somewhat magical little figures living in my house among my things, was a deeply important idea to me when I was a kid.

[Music: “Stephane Visite Appart” by Jean-Michel Bernard from “The Science of Sleep” soundtrack]

Brian Selznick: Actually, in high school people used to start telling me I should illustrate children’s books. And I think it just was my ignorance that made me not interested. I didn’t know about children’s book as an art form. I didn’t think about what the genre could do, and so I just ignored it. But after college I kind of came to my senses and got a job at a children’s bookstore. And that’s when I really started learning about the history of children’s books and realized that in fact this is a serious art form that has a great audience. Kids are the best audience you could ask for.

[Music: “The Movies” from the “Hugo” soundtrack]

Brian Selznick: I also had the pleasure of meeting Maurice Sendak, who had always been a big hero of mine. And so he and I became friends and he had asked me to send him a box of my books, because he didn’t really know my work. And so he looked at it and he basically said, “You’re very talented. I see that you can draw, but you haven’t reached your potential yet. There’s more in you.” And basically that’s what we all need: is someone who can look at us and say, “There’s more there than you even think.”

Joe Fassler: So that gave you license to be brave?

Selznick: At first I had no idea what it meant. You know, I had made a lot of books and they had done pretty well. But somehow it resonated. It made sense. And yeah, when you have someone like Maurice Sendak say to you that you have more potential than what you’re reaching, you don’t ignore that.

[Music: “The Movies” continues]

Joe Fassler: Okay, thanks so much Brian. Have a great day.

Brian Selznick: Okay, bye.

Joe Fassler: Bye.

David Gerlach: Many thanks to Joe Fassler for bringing us this interview. Read his profile of Brian Selznick at TheAtlantic.com and find more of Joe’s fact and fiction work at JoeFassler.tumblr.com. Support for Blank on Blank comes from Tiny Letter—email for people with something to say. It’s a simple way to send an email newsletter from the people behind MailChimp. TinyLetter.com. Amy Drozdowska produced this Blank on Blank with me. Our sound logo comes to us from Jeffrey Alan Jones. And for all the journalists listening: we want to hear your lost interviews. So drop us a line to interviews@blankonblank.org. Blank on Blank is distributed by the Public Radio Exchange. PRX.org. That’s all for now. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening.

[Music: Zaz “Coeur Volant” from the “Hugo” soundtrack]

Music: Howard Shore “The Movies” “Coeur Volant” | Motion Trio “Stars” | Jean-Michel Bernard “Stephane Visite Appart”
Photo: Joella Marano