A life in pictures: How Truffaut and Vigo inspired author Brian Selznick

Selznick's new novel combines text with thrilling, flip-the-page sequences of illustration that are pure cinema.
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The Independent Culture

The American author and illustrator Brian Selznick was working in Eeyore's Books For Children, a shop in Manhattan, when his first children's book, The Houdini Box, was published. Since then he's written or illustrated 14 more and won several awards, including the Caldecott Honour for illustrating The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. But his latest book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has raised him to new and well-deserved heights of fame and success: it has taken up residence in the New York Times bestseller list and has won the prestigious Quills award.

Quite simply, he has invented a new kind of children's novel; almost, one might say, a new art form. The novel is certainly more original than anything currently going on in adult fiction. But unlike most experimental fiction, Hugo Cabret is wonderfully readable. Reading it is like falling down a well, in the nicest possible way you simply don't stop until you get to the end of it. I finished it in a morning and gave it to my 10-year-old daughter, and she finished it the same afternoon, and then I gave it to my eight-year-old daughter and she finished it the same evening.

"The idea grew out of the story when I sat down to work on it, I didn't know what kind of book this would become," says the amiable Selznick. "I saw the George Mlis film A Trip to the Moon many years ago you know that famous image of the moon with a rocket in his eye? For a long time I carried around in my head the idea of a novel with Mlis as the main character. It just kind of hibernated there, and then I found myself reading a book called Edison's Eye, by Gaby Wood, about the history of automata. In that book there is a chapter on Mlis, who, it turns out, was a collector of automata. His collection was donated to a museum, but then, for no good reason, ended up being thrown out with the garbage. And there came into my mind an image, of a kid climbing through a pile of rusty metal, trying to make sense of these twisted ruins of automata."

The character of Hugo was born: an orphan who lives alone in a garret room in a Parisian station in the 1930s, winding the station clocks by day, trying to mend a broken automaton by night. Mlis himself becomes an old toy-shop owner; his grand-daughter Isabelle befriends Hugo and so the story, originally conceived as a conventional children's novel with illustrations, began to grow.

The result, two and a half years later, was The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel of some 530 pages, of which nearly 300 are pictures. Not comic-style pictures with speech-bubbles: just pictures. They are black-and-white, shaded drawings of fantastic liveliness and charm, and one picture leads on irresistibly to the next so that, according to taste, the reader turns the pages eagerly or slowly, spinning the pleasure out.

It's like watching a film where you control the speed of the frames yourself. "I wanted the act of turning the page to be part of the action," Selznick explains. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he was born in New Jersey but now divides his time between San Diego and New York. "I wanted to use pictures as they are used in picture books for very young children: to tell the story in themselves, not merely illustrate it."

Selznick has done similar things before, though not on this scale. "When I illustrated Ann Martin's The Meanest Doll in the World, I included some scribbling on the title page, crossing out 'Meanest' and replacing it with 'Greatest'. It looked real, and some people took it back to the shop and complained their copy had been defaced. They'd missed a little tiny doll's hand I'd put in as the author of the scribbling. There's something playful and self-referential about it. I like it when the drawings aren't just decoration, they're integral to the story."

They're certainly integral to Hugo Cabret. One of my favourites is a page where Hugo opens a metal grille set in a wall; the next page shows his foot disappearing behind it. It gives the most extraordinary impression of life and movement. Selznick tells me his own favourite part is a chase sequence where Hugo is pursued through the station for 18 frames without a word spoken. Clearly, both the form and the content of the book owe much to the techniques of the cinema.

This is not surprising, given his family background. "My grandfather's first cousin was David O Selznick [who produced King Kong and Gone With the Wind], and though I never knew either of them, my grandmother's house was full of books about David O Selznick she'd persuaded herself that he and my grandfather were best friends, though in fact they loathed each other. So that was my introduction to the cinema, and I remember thinking how cool it was to see my own surname rolling on the credits for these famous films. I grew up with a real love of the cinema not that I'd call myself an expert, just a fan."

But American film was not the only influence. "While I was researching Hugo Cabret I watched a lot of early French films like Vigo's Zero for Conduct," says Selznick, "and then that led me to Truffaut, who was influenced by Vigo. I think Hugo Cabret is kind of influenced by Truffaut's 400 Blows. I've seen all of Truffaut's flilms now. What I really love is the way every shot is filled with a love of the cinema and an awareness that the story can only be told with a movie camera. You get that same sense with Hitchcock, and Scorsese has it too. And that's what I was aiming at with Hugo Cabret. Great movies have a lot in common with picture books. Look at Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are: when the wild rumpus starts, the words disappear and the story is all told through the images."

I ask Selznick whether setting the story in France was a veiled political statement; after all, in America one's attitude to France is a fault-line between left and right. "All that stupid anti-France stuff you know, calling French fries 'freedom fries' and so on started while I was at work on the book, and for a time it looked like it might become a statement. Which I was quite happy about, because I am a liberal, but that was never my intention. However, by the time the book was published that had all settled down. People don't seem so politically polarised about France any more."

A book so cinematic is plainly asking to be made into a film. "Right and it's going to happen. Someone sent it to Scorsese and he wants to make the movie, which is just unbelievable. I mean, that's who I'd have wished for if I'd been granted a wish. As well as being possibly the greatest living film director, he's an expert on film history and I guess that part appeals to him. The first draft of the script has already been written. Now there's a hold-up because of the screenwriters' strike, of course. But though you can't be certain of anything where Hollywood is concerned, I do think it will get made."

Will he be involved? "I won't have much input, no I'll probably get to hang around on set, but I won't be actively involved. I'm just interested to see how it turns out, because of course things will change. Which I don't mind. The book is as I conceived it, and in that form I wouldn't want it to be any different, but it will be very exciting to have the movie as well."

Before we part, I ask him about his next project. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is going to be a tough act to follow.

"Currently I'm illustrating the latest book in the Meanest Doll series it's called The Runaway Dolls. Which I'm having fun with. After that, I have an idea in the pipeline for another novel of text and pictures, using the same techniques as Hugo Cabret. That's not quite worked out yet, and I don't have a title for it. But I'm expecting it to start crystallising once I can devote some time to it.'

If The Invention of Hugo Cabret was anything to go by, we may have to wait another two-and-a-half years. But it will be worth the wait.

The extract

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, By Brian Selznick (Scholastic 12.99)

'...The word horologist had been painted on the door of Father's shop. Hugo knew it meant clock maker, and he always thought he would be a clock maker like his father. After the discovery of the automaton, Hugo began to have other ideas. He wanted to become a magician. Hugo began to think about runnning away... but as if reading his mind, Uncle Claude grabbed the back of his neck and didn't let go...'