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Artist, Writer and Designer Maurice Sendak

His new book Brundibar is based on a Czech opera of the same name. It was set to music by Hans Krasa, who was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin and later killed in Auschwitz. The opera was performed 55 times by the children of Terezin. Sendak has also written and illustrated the classic children's books Where the Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. Time magazine has said, "For Sendak, visiting the land of the very young is not something that requires a visa. He is a permanent citizen." Where the Wild Things Are was adapted into an opera, and Sendak designed the sets and costumes for the premiere production. He's since designed several other operas and ballets.

34:37

Other segments from the episode on October 30, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 30, 2003: Interview with Maurice Sendak; Interview with Patricia Clarkson.

Transcript

DATE October 30, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Artist Maurice Sendak discusses his work, including
the new opera "Brundibar"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Several generations of children have grown up on the books of artists Maurice
Sendak, such as "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen." He's
won the top awards for children's books, but his work has quite an adult
following, too. Sendak has also designed sets for several operas. His work
for children has always had a dark edge but nothing quite as dark as his
latest work. It's a collaboration with writer Tony Kushner, who's best known
for his play "Angels in America." They've adapted a children's opera that was
originally performed by the children in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin.
The opera, "Brundibar," is a parable about evil that was written in 1938 by a
composer who was killed in the gas chambers.

The English adaptation, with Kushner's libretto and Sendak's sets, was
performed at the Chicago Opera this year. Excerpts will be performed Sunday
at the 92nd Street Y in New York. A new book adaptation of "Brundibar"
features Kushner's text with Sendak's illustrations. I asked Maurice Sendak
why the children in the Nazi concentration camp performed the opera
"Brundibar."

Mr. MAURICE SENDAK (Artist and Illustrator): This opera was written by Hans
Krasa, a very young Czech composer, and it was written for Jewish children in
an orphan asylum in Prague to amuse them. There was a contest, who could
write the prettiest opera for the children. And Krasa wrote this and
everybody loved it, and at that very same point, the Nazis entered the country
and the orphanage was emptied and the children put into Terezin, the camp, and
he was, too, as was the librettist. And it became a show camp. It became
known as Hitler's favorite camp. He set it up in such a way and made a film
of how well the Jews were being treated and the Gypsies and the homosexuals.
And this was to--because rumors were getting out that were frightful. And so
he set this up to prove to the Red Cross and diplomats who were traveling the
world to come by, see a show and see how happy everybody was.

And it's in the film. You see the children singing in the last portion of the
opera. So they all sat there. It was performed 55 times; a huge success,
this little opera, which is about 45 minutes in length. That's the story.
Hans Krasa was murdered, too, as was the librettist, as was, well, mostly
everybody in the camp. It was an elitist camp. You had Bauhaus workers
there, you had artists, people teaching the children there, intellects. It
was a special camp, but it ended the same way for all of them.

GROSS: So the performances were for visiting diplomats to show off the camp?

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you know if they fell for it?

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely they fell for it. The streets were
cleaned, trees were planted, all the children were given clean clothes, all
the inmates were given clean clothes. Everything was swept up. And they went
and they had quite an attractive pass, which I'd love to have an original of,
but I've used as an image in the book to get in to see "Brundibar."

GROSS: Tell us the story that's told in the opera...

Mr. SENDAK: OK.

GROSS: ...that you tell in the book.

Mr. SENDAK: This was directly written for children and the limitations of
children. They don't have singing voices. Some of them do, but that was by
accident. But mostly it's sort of like a singspiel, which is--like a Mozart
opera is a singspiel, where you talk over the music rather than actually sing.
And those who could sing, sang. And the music is astonishing. He was in his
30s, so you hear Janacek and you hear Weill and you hear Gershwin and you hear
Ravel. And just like all of us young artists steal like crazy until we make
ourselves up as artists, you hear all these wonderful sounds.

And the story is ultrasimple so the children could follow it and produce the
tale, which has to do with a little brother and sister whose mother is ill,
and the doctor says unless they get milk for her she won't last. So they go
out into the world, which is, in my case, Prague, into the city proper. And
`Please, somebody, give us money to buy milk for Mommy,' and nobody will. And
in the streets of Prague, on a specific corner, is Brundibar, who is an organ
grinder; mean, mean. In Czech, Brundibar means bee, like a bee sting. And
he's taken over the whole place and he sings and people throw money in his
hat, and the kids say, `Well, anybody could do that.' So they stand on the
other corner and they sing this dreadful song, and everyone just ignores them.
And they wonder why they can't do this.

And they stay all night in the street by themselves, and a cat and a bird and
a dog come to their assistance and say, `Look, let's pull this together,
'cause the two of you can't do this by yourselves. Let's get all the kids in
town. Let's get all the kids in town.' In the morning, there's this
beautiful music as children wake up and they're getting ready to go to school
and comb their hair and wash their shoes and such. And the animals convince
them to come and help these kids, so they all come to the town square, 300 of
them, and they say to Brundibar, `We want to sing, and we don't care about
money. We just want to sing.'

And Brundibar says, `No, no, get the hell out of here.' And the townspeople
say, `Oh, let the kids do it.' And they sing a lullaby, which is, like,
extraordinary to hear it. And people are captivated, and they fill their milk
can with coins. They've made it. They have enough money now. But Brundibar
sneaks in and grabs the can and rushes off and steals their money, and the
whole town chases Brundibar and they catch him and they beat him up, and the
kids get their money back and buy the milk, come home, triumphant, and save
their mama. And that's the story.

GROSS: But there's an epilogue to the story.

Mr. SENDAK: There's a...

GROSS: There's a little poem at the end. Could you read that for us?

Mr. SENDAK: Sure. Sure.

GROSS: And just, you know, a reminder: This is written while Hitler is
coming to power.

Mr. SENDAK: Exactly. And the fact that it is impossible for me to doubt that
the children knew what their fate was. Imagine standing up on the stage and
singing about brotherhood and `If we all hang together we're going to succeed
and the bully will not'--and knowing that as soon as this audience left,
kaput, their lives are finished. I can't even grasp that now. I've been
studying and working this for over three years. So in this--I wanted my cake
and eat it, too, because they do say to their mother, `But evil will persist
as the world goes on,' and they have to know that, whether their parents like
them to know it or not.

OK. So we're just turning the page on the big happy ending where everything
is wonderful and safe and mommy is alive, and then there's a little coda at
the end, which was written by Tony basically. It's not in the opera. And it
says--this is Brundibar talking--`They believe they've won the fight. They
believe I'm gone. Not quite. Nothing ever works out neatly. Bullies don't
give up completely. One departs, the next appears, and we shall meet again,
my dears. Though I go, I won't go far. I'll be back, love, Brundibar.'

GROSS: Yeah. That's kind of chilling.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah, kind of chilling.

GROSS: Chilling epilogue.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: So Tony Kushner wrote that for the book.

Mr. SENDAK: He wrote that, yeah. We had to because we had to take into
account two things. One, this is a book for children as it was an opera for
children. So, obviously, the parents have an option of reading this epilogue
to their kids or not.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SENDAK: But my faith in children is that they know this. How can you
live in America and not know everything? So the towers fall down. Now we
know that something else has to happen. We've been warned over and over.
It's like this.

GROSS: How do you think the paintings and drawings that you did for the new
book, which is a kind of Holocaust fairy tale--how do those compare with the
classic books that you did, like "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Outside Over
There"?

Mr. SENDAK: This is strange to say more personal. "Where the Wild Things
Are" and "Outside Over There" and...

GROSS: "In The Night Kitchen."

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah, "In The Night Kitchen" are all books that came from my
original creative soul, self--whatever--that have no conscious connection to
events in my life. And I just think of them as terrific inventions that came
upon me and dominated my life until I finished them. This, which takes the
form almost of a grim fairy tale actually--it's a little Hansel and Gretel
story over and over and over again; all those stories were for children--but
this had such personal import. I've been carrying this around since childhood
and frankly wanting to rid myself of it, the Holocaust, and memories of
childhood and my parents suffering and no childhood--there was no such thing
as childhood, you know?

I was born early. My father always blamed me for the Wall Street crash. I
thought he was endowing me with great strength for a one-year-old. But he was
a very reasonable man so he probably believed it. And then right after that,
well, he lost all his money and his little tailor shop and then the war began,
and I think mostly the point of the marriage of our mother and father was that
you had to have a partnership and you're a young immigrant who spoke no
English, had just come over on the boat, and you got together as two partners.
Whether love was involved in it--maybe, if you were lucky, maybe not--but the
point was to pool your money and bring everybody over as fast as you can
because most of them knew what was going on and what was about to happen. So
it began with my mother's family, and she got her mother and she got two
sisters and a brother missing--the same amount of sisters and brothers--that
she never got over. My father got no one, because by the time they got to my
father, it was way too late to get anybody.

GROSS: When did they come here?

Mr. SENDAK: My parents came just before World War I.

GROSS: I think you were in high school during World War II.

Mr. SENDAK: Yes.

GROSS: What was the first you actually heard of the death camps?

Mr. SENDAK: Early, because my father belonged to--it's called the Lubser
Branch(ph). It was like a union. And this union kept track of what was going
on in Europe to the various villages and townships. They got their
information, I have no idea how. And they kept my father and his buddies
informed as to what was going on in their township, and they presented him
after the war with a book, which I treasure, of all the villages that were
destroyed and the names of the people in the villages, and his village was in
the book and photographs of the town square and the death of his whole family.
And that would have been before my bar mitzvah. I would have been between 10
and 12 when I knew what was going on and unhappily reminded endlessly of my
good fortune. And if I came up late for dinner, my mother howling from the
window and I'd hear about Leo and Benjamin and the other children who were my
age who could never come home for supper and were good to their mothers but
now they were dead, and I was lucky and...

GROSS: Ooh.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: Rule out any pleasure in your life, yeah.

Mr. SENDAK: Uh-uh. You're in mourning all the time.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SENDAK: And the sad thing is that when you're a kid, your natural
impulses are not to be mourning and have fun. I hated them. I hated them
because they blighted my life.

GROSS: Well, hated who?

Mr. SENDAK: I hated them for dying...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SENDAK: ...because all they brought was violent scenes in the house
between my mother and father and her pulling hair out of her head, my father
diving on to the bed, and it's vivid memories.

GROSS: My guest is artist Maurice Sendak. His new book is called
"Brundibar." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maurice Sendak, and he's the
author and artist of such classic books as "Where the Wild Things Are," "In
the Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There." His new book is called
"Brundibar," and it's a kind of Holocaust fairy tale that he wrote; Tony
Kushner did the English translation. It's based on a Czech opera. And
Maurice Sendak has also done designs and sets for an opera production of this
piece.

Your classic books are kind of like children's fantasies, you know, positive
ones, scary ones, but the new book, "Brundibar," it's a Holocaust parable.

Mr. SENDAK: Well, yes, and it's not original with me.

GROSS: Right, right. So, you know, the Holocaust is going to have
influenced, I'm sure, the way you drew and painted the characters and the
animals and the streets. So can you talk about how you drew them and how that
compares to the characters of your earlier books?

Mr. SENDAK: The characters of my earlier books are really only sort of
cockamamy self-portraits. I mean, unfortunately, I looked like Max and the
wild things. As children will tell you in their brazen way, `Oh, Mommy, he
looks like the Moesha(ph), the big wild thing!' You know, you just want to
crack them.

These children are European children. They are pretty much based--I did a lot
of research on Polish children's books, Czech children's books of the '30s.
And, like, the cover of this book and the whole quality of the printing and
the composition is my effort to make this look like a little folk tale from a
foreign country. And I've seen older people pick this up and say, `Oh, my
goodness, this is so much like I read when I was a child,' and that's what I
wanted to hear. And so I definitely was shifting away from my frenzied and
feverish head and getting to regular kids who are nothing like my life at all,
but I knew their lives, I had imagined their lives, but they come from little
villages where there's a village church, and then when you get to Prague,
there's a synagogue.

The last picture in the book, assuming that these two kids are Jewish kids and
that's why they have suffered so much, when they get home to the mother's
house and they provide the milk, and the doctor leaves who is Jewish, and he
says, `Mazel tov,' he's so happy for them, there's a huge crucifix on the
wall. And people say, `Please!' And I say, `But they're not Jewish; no one
said they were Jewish. They're just kids whose lives are wrecked by being
kids in the wrong place. They're in Europe, that's all. And the Holocaust
affected everybody.

GROSS: What about the animals in the book, 'cause the animals help the
children?

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: And so they're very animal-like and kind of humanlike in a way, too.

Mr. SENDAK: Yes, yes. But I was influenced, too, by the--in the opera, you
had to have three kids dressed as animals, and they're talking animals and
snotty animals at times. But I must tell you this. I met a woman--I did a
design for a ballet with Pilobolus, and that was at the very beginning of
getting involved in this. And that was a Holocaust ballet; it was very dark.
And the Pilobolus people were a little troubled by it. But anyway when it was
done, it was performed at the Joyce Theatre, and I was there with the crew and
Tony. And this woman came up to me--she had to be around my age--and crying,
crying, crying, and she put her arms around me and asked me if I was who I was
and was it true that I was going to do "Brundibar." She had read it. I said,
`Yes,' and she just, like, fell apart. She said, `I was in the production. I
was in the opening night production. My name is Eleweiss Berge(ph), and I
played the cat when I was a 10-year-old girl.'

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. SENDAK: And she produced photographs. And so she and I have become, as
you can imagine, fast friends. And she told me much about the opening
production and what life was in the camp and how did she make it, how did she
get out. She was freed by the Soviets. When they came in and took over, she
was still living. And she was one of 11 girls who survived out of, I don't
know, maybe 20 to 40,000 children who were murdered there. She's one of 11.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. SENDAK: Well, she became so identified with this work. And we were
sitting at the rehearsal hall in Chicago, me sitting next to her, and suddenly
the little girl who was playing the cat, a 10-year-old as she was, comes
tripping out on the stage with her arms stretched out, looking, `Do I look
good in my costume?' And we just died. I mean, time suddenly crunched up; we
were right in a time machine. It was Eleweiss, a new 10-year-old, and it's me
having lived through this in America. And the combination was too much. It
was really too much. But she loved it, and she provided me with lots of
information.

GROSS: You mentioned what it was like for you to see this 10-year-old girl
come out in her costume.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you design the costume for her?

Mr. SENDAK: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: What was she wearing?

Mr. SENDAK: It was a combination of black tights, was sort of a Max head
with two ears sticking up, all black, with a beautiful long tail, her haunches
packed so she looks like a cat when it arches its back. She was wonderful.
She also had a great voice. And she was like Mata Hari. I mean, she was very
seductive in her role, whereas the photograph of Ele(ph), which is in many
books--there's a cast photo which comes from the last scene in the movie, that
Hitler's favorite camp. Ele was a tall, strappy girl with a stricken look on
her face. And, well, make up anything you like from a photograph, but our
cat, whom Ele loved, is the most charming young girl. All the children were
splendid. But she spent time with them and told them what the story was that
they were in, told them about the camp, showed her what she said was her
mommy's star that she had to wear and her mommy's passport. And she told them
everything.

GROSS: How did they react?

Mr. SENDAK: If I could only determine that from the way they performed, they
reacted--children is tough. All they ask of you is the truth.

GROSS: Yeah, but, you know, you keep saying children are tough and
everything, but look at how traumatized you've been from the things...

Mr. SENDAK: Well, nobody told me the truth really.

GROSS: You think that's what it was?

Mr. SENDAK: That was partly what it was. Nobody sits down really with
children. And I don't think anybody told me anything as much as I picked up
everything. I also had an older sister and an older brother, and they could
keep me informed in their way. But this was not direct information from my
parents. Do parents sit down and tell their kids everything? I don't know.
I don't know.

GROSS: We...

Mr. SENDAK: I do. I do, because I've convinced myself--I hope I'm
right--that children despair of you if you don't tell them the truth.

GROSS: You're not their parent, though.

Mr. SENDAK: I'm not their parents.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SENDAK: But when they write to me and they treat me through my books and
my relationship with them, it's intensely private. I have been with them in
their bedroom for a good part of their childhood. They have written to me.
They trust me in a way, I daresay, possibly more than they trust their
parents. I'm not going to bullshit them. I'm just not. And if they don't
like what they hear, that's tough bananas.

GROSS: Maurice Sendak's new book, "Brundibar," is an adaptation of the
children's opera of the same name. The English libretto was written by Tony
Kushner. Kushner has also written the text for the book "The Art of Maurice
Sendak," which will be published later this year. Sendak will be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust; we continue our
conversation with Maurice Sendak. And we meet actress Patricia Clarkson.
She's in two new films, "The Station Agent" and "Pieces of April."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with artist Maurice Sendak,
author of the classic children's books "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the
Night Kitchen." His new book, "Brundibar," is a parable about evil that is
adapted from the children's opera of the same name. The opera was written in
1938 and was first performed by children in the Nazi concentration camp
Terezin. The English adaptation of the libretto was written by Tony Kushner,
who's best known for his play "Angels in America."

What were the stories or the fairy tales that had the biggest effect on you
when you were young?

Mr. SENDAK: My father's stories. My father was a great storyteller.

GROSS: Did he tell you stories about his life, or...

Mr. SENDAK: Yes.

GROSS: ...fairy tales in the classical ...(unintelligible).

Mr. SENDAK: No, not fairy tales. I mean, he told memory stories, which they
call me the dark man of children's--I guess I got it from him. But he would
tell us stories that would put us to sleep. My sister, brother and I shared
the same room, and he would sit cross-legged on the floor or bring a chair in
and he would tell us shtetl stories. These stories--You want an example of...

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. SENDAK: ...why I have been an insomniac all my life?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: Here's a story, which was one of my favorites--I wanted to hear
it over and over again--how the children of his shtetl got together. And it
was a contest, just the boys, of who could run furthest into the cemetery in
the middle of the night. And how do you prove that you ran furthest? Because
you had a stick. And he puts the stick down and in the morning you found out
whose stick had gone furthest.

Well, he was doing this with his friend and they all ran a certain distance
and they couldn't see each other, and he heard this horrible screaming from
one of his friends, horrible screaming. And instead of going to help him,
they all ran home. And in the morning, they found him dead. And what he had
done--because they wore these long shifts. He put the stick in and it went
through his own shift. And it went in the ground and he thought the dead man
was pulling him in. Because his screams were all to do--`The dead man is
taking me in! The dead man is taking me in!' They thought he was just
hysterical. But he thought somebody had reached in and was pulling him into
the grave.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. SENDAK: That was one of his stories; my favorite, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, gosh. And then they can't reassure you and say, `But, honey, it's
just a story,' because it was true.

Mr. SENDAK: No, because it happened.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SENDAK: Because it happened. I'd much rather have known that it
happened. I was in the unfortunate position of causing a child's death when I
was a child.

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. SENDAK: And we lived in Brooklyn and there were these big, ugly houses,
and there were these narrow alleys between each apartment house where we
played ball, where the clotheslines hung. And I was playing with Lloydy--How
can I forget his name? His name was Lloyd, but we called him Lloydy. And we
were throwing a ball to each other. And I was at the far end and he was
facing the street. And I had this ball and I threw it very hard and it went
over his head, and he ran into the street and he chased it and the next, I saw
him flying, hit by a car. He was killed.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. SENDAK: And I ran home and I stayed in the house, and I thought I would
never come out of the house because his mother would kill me and how could I
ever go on living. And my mother was very worried because I would not go out
of the house. And I don't know how it all came about, but they worked it out
that I was to come down into the street and sit on the stoop and Lloydy's
mother and his little sister would come and talk to me. And I wouldn't go
down unless she would forgive me somehow. And I remember sitting on the
stoop--I must have been six or seven, something like that--and I still see her
face and his little sister, and they came over to me and she put her hand on
my hand and she said that you--I don't remember what she said. She comforted
me, that this was an accident, that this was a terrible, terrible accident.
And it's bad enough to lose her little boy without me going down the drink.

So I knew that. I'd done that. I've never forgotten that I've done. I cost
him his life. And yet, it was a normal accident. Kids playing in the street,
they're always hit by cars or whatever. But imagine doing that and knowing
that and being aware of those over there--that's a hell of a childhood.

GROSS: I know a lot of this has come out, like, in your work as an artist...

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah.

GROSS: ...but if it's not too intrusive--Have you been in therapy over the
years, too?

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, God, yes.

GROSS: It goes without saying, huh?

Mr. SENDAK: Hello?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: Of course. I couldn't hold myself together till I left the nest
and I got uptown. And everyone said, `Oh, you're so talented and you're going
to get a book and you're'--and, of course, nothing happened as soon as I
wanted it to. And then I did get a job. I worked at FAO Schwarz in the
window, I did window displays...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. SENDAK: ...and I painted things and stuff and then I keeled over. I
just really ran out of steam and I was too frightened. I just lost it. And a
very good friend of mine then paid for my first session. He said, `You have
to help yourself.' And I went and I stayed for 10 years.

Did it help me? I think it must have. But if I'd known that if I could just
hang on to 75, I was going to be really OK. Nobody told me that with any luck
you get better as you age and the suffering decreases.

GROSS: Does it?

Mr. SENDAK: Absolutely. Absolutely. When people say, `What age would you
rather be at?' Anywhere between 55 and 65. I don't dare even go to 50.

GROSS: Huh. Why?

Mr. SENDAK: Because it's horrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SENDAK: I know there are supposedly happy people in this world. I never
believed it, but I take it for granted. God knows, they're all on television.

GROSS: OK. But I got to ask you: How much of that do you think is, you
know, like, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust and having these
horrible stories about, you know, dead friends...

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. But that's...

GROSS: ...and how much of it is just--Do you think?--like, the chemistry of
you?

Mr. SENDAK: Of course.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SENDAK: Of course, there's been a lot of mental problems in the family; a
lot of it could be genetic.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SENDAK: My brother was seriously depressed; my sister still suffers from
depression.

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. SENDAK: And so it was--and my mother was always depressed. So, in
fact...

GROSS: Without knowing it, right?

Mr. SENDAK: Without knowing it.

GROSS: Because there's no such word for--like, your parents would not have
known the word for depression...

Mr. SENDAK: No. No.

GROSS: ...even if--yeah.

Mr. SENDAK: No. And if you asked her what was troubling her, she'd burst
into tears and say...

GROSS: Nothing.

Mr. SENDAK: ...the whole life, bad children.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SENDAK: She would find a reason.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. SENDAK: She would find a reason for it. But yeah, she didn't know how
bad off--we didn't know how bad off she was. We treated her quite badly
because she wasn't an appropriate mama.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking--you know, we've talked about how the
Holocaust affected you and how, you know, being Jewish...

Mr. SENDAK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...branded you in a way. And do you think of yourself--I know you
feel very defined in some way by being Jewish.

Mr. SENDAK: Yes.

GROSS: Are you secular Jewish or are you observant?

Mr. SENDAK: Total secular.

GROSS: Total secular.

Mr. SENDAK: I love being Jewish.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. SENDAK: I love the bits of it that--I loved the candles. I especially
love the memory of the dead, the little yortsayt that you put out.

GROSS: The candles...

Mr. SENDAK: The candles that burn for 24 hours.

GROSS: ...the 24-hour candles.

Mr. SENDAK: Yeah. But other than that, nothing. I am not a religious
person, nor do I have any regrets. The war took care of that for me. You
know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I--it made no sense to me. It
made no sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to
me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to
being Jewish.

GROSS: Do you ever wish that you had faith?

Mr. SENDAK: No.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. SENDAK: Because I don't need it. I don't believe in that. Faith--Do
you know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently?

GROSS: Who?

Mr. SENDAK: Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson--she's probably the
top--Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me
through the narrow straits of life.

GROSS: I'm going to end on a really trivial note.

Mr. SENDAK: OK. Is that all I deserve?

GROSS: No, but that is what I am going to end on, which is this. Your
paintings and illustrations and just--I mean, it's glorious colors.

Mr. SENDAK: Thank you.

GROSS: And you're wearing a gray sweater today. Do you like color on your
clothes, or--like personal adornments of color? Is that, like, just totally
not relevant to you?

Mr. SENDAK: Totally. Well, I mean, everyone who knows me complains.

GROSS: Of what?

Mr. SENDAK: Of how drably I dress, how innocuously, stupidly and boringly.
I don't buy clothes. I don't buy clothes. I hate to buy clothes. Color on
me? Heavens forfend. No way. I mean, men wear pink shirts. I'm very
traditional. I'm very Brooklyn. I'm very middle class. I'm very embarrassed
about the way I look. And I think if I dress sloppy and gray like I am now
that I won't be noticed. Hey, I don't have a strong self-image. And when
kids say, `Oh, you look just like the wild things,' that doesn't help, just
doesn't make it for it. That's not trivial. That's heartbreaking.

GROSS: It's funny, too.

Mr. SENDAK: It's funny. Everything is funny, too.

GROSS: Maurice Sendak, thank you very, very much.

Mr. SENDAK: Oh, well, thank you. I so enjoyed being with you.

GROSS: Maurice Sendak's new book "Brundibar" is based on the children's opera
of the same name, first performed by the children in the Nazi concentration
camp Terezin. A collection of his work since 1980, called The Art of Maurice
Sendak, will be published later this year.

Coming up, actress Patricia Clarkson. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Patricia Clarkson discusses her latest film work
TERRY GROSS, host:

Patricia Clarkson didn't get noticed in movies until she was in her late 30s
and co-starred in the film "High Art" as the German lesbian lover of a
photographer played by Ally Sheedy. Clarkson won best supporting actress
awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film
Critics for her role as the gossipy neighbor in "Far From Heaven." This year,
she was in four films at the Sun Dance Film Festival, and won a special acting
award for her work.

Two of those films are playing now, "The Station Agent" and "Pieces of April."
In "The Station Agent," she plays an artist who's grieving for the loss of her
young son and the end of her marriage. She becomes friends with two other
lost souls, a hotdog vendor and a dwarf who loves trains and had just moved
into the abandoned train station house. He's played by Peter Dinklage. In
this scene, Dinklage is walking down a country road and is nearly accidently
run down for the second time by Patricia Clarkson's car.

(Soundbite from "The Station Agent")

Ms. PATRICIA CLARKSON: (As Olivia Harris) Oh, my God, I can't believe this.
I can't. I'm so sorry. Here.

Mr. PETER DINKLAGE: (As Finbar McBride) Stay...

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Olivia Harris) I saw you. I tried to put my caffe Colinci
down and it spilled all over my abs and it burned me. Therefore, I swerved.
Can I at least give you a ride back to your train station? The hotdog guy
told me where you lived.

Mr. DINKLAGE: (As Finbar McBride) No, I'm fine.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Olivia Harris) You sure...

Mr. DINKLAGE: (As Finbar McBride) Yes.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Olivia Harris) ...you're fine? You're--ow.

GROSS: The character Patricia Clarkson plays in "The Station Agent" is 40
years old. Clarkson says women that age are often one-dimensional in films.
She appreciates how Tom McCarthy's screenplay made the character more specific
and complex.

Ms. CLARKSON: I think her sexuality was real. I think her pathos was real.
I think her humor was very present, which sometimes really can get lost as
women age in film, and, you know, just, I don't know, kind of fun or cheesy.
You know, I'm kind of the chick in the film which is really great. You know,
I get to be kind of the girl in the film but a very complicated one.

GROSS: Right. Right. Now...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...in your other new film, "Pieces of April"...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...you play a mother who's dying of cancer.

Ms. CLARKSON: Oh, yes.

GROSS: And the family, you, your husband played by Oliver Platt...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...two of your children and your mother are on the way to a
Thanksgiving dinner and it might be your last Thanksgiving dinner.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: And the dinner is being made by one of your daughters who is--she's
kind of like the punk outcast of the family...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...you've never gotten along with her, and she doesn't know how to
cook. So she's in the position of having a turkey too big for her oven, and
she has to, like, knock on every door in the apartment building she lives in
in this run-down Manhattan apartment...

Ms. CLARKSON: Right.

GROSS: ...asking each of her neighbors for help with the turkey.

Ms. CLARKSON: It's actually her oven doesn't work...

GROSS: It doesn't work.

Ms. CLARKSON: ...is the problem.

GROSS: That's right.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: OK. So...

Ms. CLARKSON: Which actually my oven in my apartment doesn't work, so I...

GROSS: Oh, really?

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes, I swear. I've lived in my apartment for about eight years
now and my oven has never worked. I don't know what that says. Well, it says
a lot about me, but anyway...

GROSS: It probably means we know a lot of the same recipes which is the phone
number.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: OK. Well, anyway, so here you are. I want to play a scene from the
movie. So here you are...

Ms. CLARKSON: OK.

GROSS: ...you know, with your husband, two of your children and your mother
on the way for this perhaps ill-fated Thanksgiving dinner...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and...

Ms. CLARKSON: I think it's also important to know that, you know, I mean, my
daughter and I have been estranged for quite some time, so...

GROSS: Right. Right.

Ms. CLARKSON: I mean, I think all our lives has been a battle. The
relationship has been a struggle from, I think, the get-go.

GROSS: And here you are in the car, though, talking to your other children,
your daughter Beth...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...and your son Timmy and being, well, kind of critical of them.

(Soundbite of "Pieces of April")

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Joy Burns) I am so critical.

Mr. JOHN GALLAGHER Jr.: (As Timmy Burns) Mom, don't be so hard on yourself.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Joy Burns) It's one of my worse faults and some of the
reasons for this are obvious, but why I keep asking myself, `Why am I so hard,
for instance, on you Beth when for years you've been the daughter of my
dreams?' You have. You know you have. Apart from your weight problems, we're
practically the same person. So why am I so hard on you? I mean, forget the
fact that you're making the same mistakes I made, and I wish you'd make your
own, but I think I'm hard on you because we've had so many good times and I
think it's likely as this gets worse, Timmy, I'll be hard on you, too, because
we've had so many good times. So then why am I hard on April? We didn't have
any good times.

Mr. GALLAGHER Jr.: (As Timmy Burns) It's just not true, though.

GROSS: My guest, Patricia Clarkson, in a scene from the new film "Pieces of
April."

You're best known for your roles in independent movies, but your first movie
role was in a big major motion picture, "The Untouchables"...

Ms. CLARKSON: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...directed by...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...Brian DePalma...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...written by Dave Mamet.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes, that little independent film, yes.

GROSS: Yes, starring Kevin Costner. What did you think would happen to your
career when that movie came out? You played Kevin Costner's wife in it.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yeah, I had no idea. I was quite naive, Terry, and, you know,
I was maybe nine months out of Yale School of Drama and I wasn't studying film
and so I kind of thought, `Oh, this is going to be a great experience, and
this will be fun,' and, you know, it wasn't that demanding a role, obviously,
and so, you know, it's not like I thought, `Oh, my God, I'm in "The
Untouchables" and I will be a star. You know, I never thought that. I never
did. I knew I still had a journey. I did.

GROSS: Well, did it lead immediately to anything else in movies?

Ms. CLARKSON: It helped somewhat. I remember I went then right into a
wonderful, actually smaller film called "Rocket Gibraltar" which was one of, I
think, Burt Lancaster's second-to-last film and it was just this wonderful
film. It was Kevin Spacey's first film, Bill Pullman, Frannie Conroy, you
know, God, Macaulay Culkin. I played his mother. It was his very first
movie. He was five years old. So it led me actually maybe in a slightly
different direction. I didn't go right into some big whamo studio film after
that.

GROSS: I think the movie that a lot of people really noticed you in was "High
Art"...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...a film that in the late '90s by Lisa Cholodenko...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...in which an intern at a hip magazine tries to get some new work out
of a famous photographer who's disappeared, in part, because she's so drugged
up and Ally Sheedy plays the photographer. She's a lesbian...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...and she seduces the intern. You play Sheedy's German lover
Greta...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: ...who used to act in the films of Werner Fassbinder and I want to
play a scene from this movie in which Ally Sheedy has told you that she's
leaving and you're very angry.

(Soundbite from "High Art")

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) What are you doing then? I mean, you just kicked
me out, didn't you? What am I supposed to do now, just get on a plane, just
go back?

Ms. ALLY SHEEDY: No, you don't have to go back. I understand your life is
here.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) No, it's not. I don't have a life here. I came
here to be with you so that you could have a life here. I had everything in
Berlin. I had a great career.

Ms. SHEEDY: Greta, Fassbinder's dead, OK? You didn't have a career after
that.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) You are so spoiled. You are spoiled and selfish
and you think the whole (censored) world revolves around you. You're a
dilettante, Blusie. That's what you are. You never were...

GROSS: That's Patricia Clarkson and Ally Sheedy in a scene from the film
"High Art."

Can you talk about creating this character of Greta. I should mention here,
in case I didn't before, that she's very addicted to drugs.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes. It's interesting, Terry, because, you know, this film
really, you know, is enormously special to me, for lack of a better word.

GROSS: Hey, I wasn't even sure if you were German or not when I saw this.

Ms. CLARKSON: Oh, my God. Well, that's the greatest compliment. No, I'm
serious. It did happen, and I find it shocking that people didn't--`It's
Patricia Clarkson. Like, she was Eliot Ness' wife, you know? She's in the
movie.' You know what I mean? And, no, my agent got many calls about that
which is flattering and wonderful for many reasons, but it was such an
extraordinary experience because it did come at a time--I mean, it did rescue
me in many ways, this film, and I'm always forever thankful to Lisa Cholodenko
for many, many reasons. And I was fortunate I had known this German woman all
my life. I just had her voice in my ear. She had become a famous literary
agent, and one of dear friends in the whole world is Richard Greenberg, the
playwright, and she had represented him for many years. So I just was lucky.
I took that, and I've never done heroin in my life, but I, you know,
unfortunately, have known people and I met a heroin addict and, you know, kind
of extracted and extrapolated and went from there. And, you know, I have
never done any drug in my life which is odd, you know?

GROSS: Now you were already--What?--in your late 30s when you did "High Art."

Ms. CLARKSON: I was 38 when I shot. I can't remember. I was 37 or 38 when I
shot "High Art."

GROSS: OK.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So in some ways, that's when your real film career begins.

Ms. CLARKSON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

GROSS: But that's also the age in which a lot of actresses start losing work
because they're no longer young enough to be the romantic interest in films.
Is there something to be said for never having been the ingenue 'cause that
way you don't have to change your image and outgrow it.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: Do you know what I mean?

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: You don't have to prove it, capable of something else.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes. I think there is a lot to be said for that, that I am not
someone who had to deal with losing that gossamer or shimmer, having it fade.
I just never quite had it, and so now I have kind of like a patina, like, an
old--you know, now I could just step into film with, like--and now I feel like
people are oddly starting to discover my sexuality in a different way because
I am older, and as I've said, I think I'm actually given sexier parts now than
I ever was. And that thrills me to no end, and...

GROSS: You know, in some part, being in radio, that I always listen a lot to
actors' voices and I think you have a really interesting and kind of deep,
husky voice that gives a lot of character.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes. And I've had this voice all my life. And I think that's
something I've also battled. And I think I've had to, you know, grow into
this voice, my face, my body. I think I was just meant to really, you know,
come into my own at an older time, and I did, I guess, in some sense, or
people started to recognize that. And, you know, unfortunately, in our
business it is somewhat more the exception than the rule, but I don't know.
And I feel things are shifting in the business.

GROSS: My guest is Patricia Clarkson. She's starring in two new films,
"Pieces of April" and "The Station Agent." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Patricia Clarkson. She's starring in two new movies,
"Pieces of April" and "The Station Agent." She grew up in New Orleans.

When you were young and, you know, doing theater in public school, did you
think of yourself as heading toward comedy or drama?

Ms. CLARKSON: I think I was always attracted to both, but I think I probably
ended up doing more drama and, you know, like, my senior year at Fordham, you
know, I played Hedda Gabler, you know, but then I got to Yale and I started to
really do some wild and very crazy stuff. And suddenly I was at home and I
had rushes of feeling and excitement that I hasn't really experienced, doing
just kind of wild and crazy stuff, and little did I know that it was kind of
preparing me for kind of my life now.

GROSS: So, what's an example of something wild and crazy for you?

Ms. CLARKSON: You mean at Yale?

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. CLARKSON: Well, I played an eight-year-old murderer. Dick Phebe, this
incredible writer at Yale, took the bad seed and turned it into this kind of
wild cabaret. That's where a lot of the crazy stuff, but I played, like, the
bawd in "Pericles"? but I played this--he took the bad seed and turned it
into this wild, crazy--and I had to tap-dance and I was an eight-year-old
murderer, and then I was a big cajan mamma in an Afro in a muumuu. So, you
know, it was just a wild ride.

GROSS: Now you're speaking to us now from a studio in Montreal.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes.

GROSS: You're in Montreal...

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes, I am.

GROSS: ...on location for a movie that you're doing that's a thriller.

Ms. CLARKSON: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Now I know for some actors, they get so deep into character for a
movie that they're doing that, I think, they hold on to some of that even when
they're off the set. Are you right now in any of the space of that movie or
do you leave that behind?

Ms. CLARKSON: Oh, I can leave that behind. If you knew the character I was
playing in this movie, it's fortunate I've left that behind. And that's not
to say that there isn't sometimes a slight residual effect within your life,
you know, certainly with, like, when I did "Pieces of April," and when you've
done certain characters or even Greta in "High Art." You know, they're harder
to shake sometimes, but when I'm in the midst of working--you know, today is
my day off--and I wake up and I'm Patricia and I'm OK with that.

GROSS: Oh, good. Well, Patricia Clarkson, thank you so much for talking with
us.

Ms. CLARKSON: Well, thank you so much, Terry. This was a real treat for me.

GROSS: Patricia Clarkson is starring in two new films, "Pieces of April" and
"The Station Agent."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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