Saturday, August 6, 2011

What's the word? A conversation with Norton Juster

Leonard Marcus (left) and Norton Juster
Oh, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: Raise your hand if this is the book that turned you into a reader.

The children's book historian Leonard Marcus interviewed Norton Juster, the Tollbooth author, revealing Norton's interactions with spies, an incident where he impersonated a Canadian journalist to present a fake award to Jules Feiffer, and the apartment rental deal he once worked with an Austrian dentist. (Seriously. Not making any of this up.) 

Some highlights from their chat: 
Leonard kicked things off by asking Norton where he and illustrator Jules Feiffer met. At the time, Norton had a $77.10 monthly living allowance to live off the naval base. He found a place in Brooklyn Heights (rented from the aforementioned dentist). Jules lived on the third floor.

"Jules claims we both met when we were taking the garbage out," Norton said. "I claim I was taking garbage out and he was looking for something to eat."

Norton always planned to be an architect. His father was one, and Norton played with scraps and things from his father's office. This taught him to think visually, which has carried over to his writing. He visualizes things before he begins writing about them. "I think I'd write very much differently if I didn't have that visual background."

How did he write the Phantom Tollbooth? 
 He had a grant to do research on cities. He realized it wasn't what he wanted to do. He went on a vacation and started to write a two- or three-page story that started to become the Phantom Tollbooth.

"The best work I do, I do trying to avoid doing something else I don't want to do. Don't knock that. It's terrific motivation."

On how he works
Norton said he never had any clear idea what was going to happen with the Phantom Tollbooth. He wrote bits and pieces, not sequentially.

He happened on a technique he's used ever since.

"I would write long conversations with the characters that didn't end up in the book." But they helped him understand their relationship and what people were thinking. "I realized I wasn't making up this dialogue. I was just eavesdropping. It was just happening."

You can write a conversation between two characters from any point of view he says. It's a great exercise. "I can't write at all unless I know the characters. The plot isn't nearly as important as the people and what they mean to each other."

Norton is a list maker. He puts something on his list every day that he knows he'll be able to do. He also makes lists of words (which Leonard found in the collection of Norton's papers).

This actually happened
The copy editor of TOLLBOOTH edited out all of the word play, and the manuscript came back to him looking like someone had bled on it. "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry."

Where did Milo get his name? 
Norton had a scholarship to study in Liverpool ("pre-Beatles, which shows you how old I am"). He traveled regularly to Dublin, where one member of his group was the character actor Milo O'Shea. "I just fell in love with the name. He has no idea I used that name for Milo. That same year, there was a Milo character in CATCH 22. I still love the name."

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I'd have loved to been there for that. Phantom Tollbooth is an all around classic. I still love it and just read it to my 6 year old son a few months ago, who also loved it.