What Tony Kushner Told Me About Maurice Sendak

He said what?

He said what?

Monday night I was in reader heaven: listening to one of my favorite authors talk about another of my favorite authors over dinner. It was after the ceremony for the Whiting Writers’ Awards, given annually to writers at the beginning of their careers. The speaker was Tony Kushner, whose play “Angels in America” I’m obsessed with–both as a book and as an HBO miniseries. (Al Pacino’s performance will break your heart into tiny little pieces.) Kushner joked about the irony that after he wrote last year’s “Lincoln,” a movie bursting at the seams with inspiring speeches, it was the first time in 18 years he hadn’t been invited to give a commencement address (which he loves to do just for the “contact high”). So, he had many inspiring words stored up for the Whiting honorees–of which he was one in 1990, years before “Angels.”

But the real treat for me was listening to Kushner talk afterwards about his decades-long friendship with Maurice Sendak–whose “Where the Wild Things Are” was my childhood bible. Some of what Kushner said about Sendak blew my mind–and were too good not to share. Here are five highlights:

1) Millions loved seeing Maurice Sendak appear as a guest on “The Colbert Report.” When Sendak got the call, he’d never heard of Colbert–but he enjoyed being on the show so much that he asked to be a regular guest. He wanted to be Colbert’s movie critic, with one stipulation: He would only review movies he hadn’t seen. Colbert loved the idea. (Unfortunately Sendak’s health declined before they could make it so.)

BFFs

BFFs

2) Sendak was a brilliant artist. But, in the 1940s and ’50s when he was starting out, abstract art was all the rage–Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, etc.–and Sendak preferred to paint and draw recognizable humans and objects. He became an illustrator of children’s books so that he could be paid for his art.

3) Sendak was an avid collector, obsessed in particular with Herman MelvilleWilliam Blake and Mozart. He owned a first-edition copy of “Moby-Dick” inscribed by Melville to his sister and dozens of rare Blake engravings, including one of “Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience” that had been embroidered by Blake’s wife (she signed it “Mrs. Blake”).

4) Sendak owned the second-largest Mickey Mouse paraphernalia collection in the world–but nothing that originated after 1940, when Mickey’s looked changed in a way that Sendak hated.

Maurice Sendak's self portrait with  Mickey Mouse

Maurice Sendak’s self portrait with Mickey Mouse

5) In the early 1990s, long before Sendak was publicly “out”…. Read the rest on Bookish

The Jackal in the Hermès Suit

Andrew Wylie, the literary agent known as “The Jackal,” sat down recently for one of his always delightful interviews with the New Republic’s Laura Bennett.

Literary agent Andrew Wylie and his alter ego

Literary agent Andrew Wylie and his alter ego

Among the many zingers (“If one of my children were kidnapped and they were threatening to throw a child off a bridge and I believed them, I might.” –on what it would take for him to sell a book to Amazon Publishing),  there was some tough love for the book industry that felt to me like a breath of, if not fresh-smelling, at least refreshingly honest air:

The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.

It’s not a travesty that not a lot of people read books–it’s just true, and it’s always been true.  So why not leave the “Fifty Shades of Grey”s of the world to the people going after those elusive profits, and serve your small audience the very best?

Rage on, Jackal.

Book Endorsement: “The Patrick Melrose Novels,” by Edward St. Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. AubynWhat is it about British rich people that’s so fascinating to us? Not just “I’ve got platinum rims on my Bentley” rich, but “My family has had more money than God since God was young” rich. We’re talking capital-A Aristocracy. There is no “proper” aristocracy in America. The wealthiest Americans are self-made tech tycoons or business geniuses who work for their money–which, if you’re a true aristocrat, embodies the very depths of bad taste. Lifestyle-wise, it’s “Cribs” vs. “Downton Abbey”; when it comes to hobbies, it’s bankrolling the Tea Party and nannying New Yorkers vs. fox hunting and holidays in the south of France. The Aristocrats have class, in ways we admire, despise and obsess over.

The aristocratic family at the center of Edward St. Aubyn’s brilliant, scathing, hilarious, emotionally annihilating and–scariest of all, autobiographical–series, “The Patrick Melrose Novels,” are deliciously horrible: The patriarch, David Melrose, is addicted to the romance of his fading promise–a gifted pianist and doctor who refuses to record his compositions or practice medicine because that would display “vulgar ambition.” David is a snob even about snobbery: “To break even the smallest rules by which others convinced themselves that they were behaving correctly gave him great pleasure. His disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar.”

David’s cruelty toward his family–rendered with deadly precision by St. Aubyn–drives his wife, Eleanor, to self-medicate into oblivion with drink and pills, and his son, Patrick, to a fall into a decade-long heroin addiction. These descents are hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Take this exquisite depiction of a hangover:

“She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature…. She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth.”

You can feel the sweet relief of the cold vodka and the crack of the ice, but it’s already couched in the inevitable misery of the aftermath. As for Patrick, here’s David’s theory of education:

“Childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet… he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him?”

I can’t say that the experience of reading “The Patrick Melrose Novels” is…. Read the rest on Bookish