Norton Juster

In the early ’60s, Norton Juster used his Navy allowance to rent a small basement apartment in pre-residential Brooklyn Heights, in a building that also happened to house cartoonist/screenwriter Jules Feiffer. The book that came out of their playful collaboration, The Phantom Tollbooth, has never been out of print since 1961, and is often considered the American Alice In Wonderland. Shortly after, Juster drew on his background as an architect for the 1963 book The Dot And The Line: A Romance In Lower Mathematics, which famed animator Chuck Jones adapted into an Academy Award-winning cartoon short in 1965. Since then, Juster has worked with many other great illustrators, including Eric Carle, Arnold Roth, and Chris Raschka, who won the 2006 Caldecott Medal for illustrating Juster’s The Hello, Goodbye Window. As The Phantom Tollbooth celebrates its 50th anniversary with a new special edition due later this year, the 83-year-old Juster spoke with The A.V. Club about his life as a writer, architect, and straight line.

The A.V. Club: Relating your own life to The Dot And The Line, would it be reasonable to say that the straight line is architecture, the squiggly line is writing novels, and the dot is survival?

Norton Juster: The Dot And The Line was something that popped into my head one day, doing a little thinking about myself, not so much architecturally as socially. I was very much that rigid straight line. And I had a friend who was absolutely disreputable, would say anything, do anything, ran around like mad, had enormous success in both his life and with women. And he was the squiggle. So I view that story, a little bit, as my revenge.

AVC: What did you think of the animation on Chuck Jones’ short?

NJ: I liked the animation, except I found some of the background things a little disruptive. I would have liked it if he had played it a little purer, but it went over very well and it works very well, so I was pleased, and I was delighted that he won an Academy Award with it.

I wasn’t very pleased with what they did with the Tollbooth [film adaptation]. One of the problems, and this is very unusual, was that Les Goldman and Chuck Jones were treating it like the Holy Grail and wouldn’t change anything. When you transform a book into a film, there have to be changes. You can’t stick with dialogue the way it is written in the book. You have to really adapt it for the big screen. He was too respectful.

AVC: What would you have changed for the adaptation?

NJ: I can’t say now, but I know that I would have certainly changed parts of the beginning. If I were doing it now, I would establish much more clearly the demons as a force in Milo’s life. Because all those demons were his personal demons, and of course they were my personal demons when I was growing up. I still see them occasionally.

AVC: You once said in an interview that you challenged Jules Feiffer to draw three characters: “one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two.”

NJ: It’s an impossible illustration to draw, of course. There are some things Jules likes to draw and some things he does not like to draw. I love maps, and I always wanted to do a book with map endpapers. Jules didn’t like to draw maps, didn’t know how to draw maps, and wasn’t interested in drawing maps. So I drew the map and he traced it over so it looked like part of all the other illustrations. At one point near the end where the armies of Wisdom appear to rescue them from the demons, when they’re rescuing Rhyme and Reason, he didn’t like to draw horses. The army was mounted on horses, so he asked me one day if he could put the army on cats. I said no, I didn’t think that was a terrific idea. So he drew one silhouette of a horse and then projected it back several times so that was all there was, and he put some people on it.

So it went back and forth, and we began to have some fun with these things. One day I made up these three demons for him, one short and fat, one tall and thin, and the third who looked exactly like the other two, and of course you can’t draw it. It’s impossible. The way he got his revenge, there’s a picture of the Whether Man, which is me. Probably looks more like me now than it did then.

AVC: Frankly, you look more like King Azaz.

NJ: Oh no, I don’t think I would ever look like King Azaz. He’s much too imposing for me. 

(from left to right: Whether Man, Norton Juster, and King Azaz)

AVC: Narnia and Oz also have famous maps.

NJ: The ones I knew were by an English writer named Arthur Ransome. He did a whole series of boys’ books, and every one of them had a map in the endpapers. They helped me understand where the action was taking place.

AVC: What was Brooklyn Heights like back in the early ’60s?

NJ: Well, I loved it. I first went to the Heights when I was in the Navy, my last stationing was at the Brooklyn Navy yard, I was in the Navy for about 38 months, and they gave me the option of living in the Navy barracks or taking a living allowance and going someplace else, and the nearest place that seemed to be interesting to me was Brooklyn Heights. So I got an apartment there, a little basement apartment, and I absolutely loved it. It wasn’t as much like it is now. It was just beginning to get people living in it and sort of improving the area, and when I was in it, many parts of it were kind of ratty, which they are not now. It’s a very expensive area. I lived there for a good number of years. I was married, I lived there with my wife, and then we bought a house in Park Slope. We lived there for a few years and then we moved up to Massachusetts.

AVC: What did you do in the Navy?

NJ: I was in the civil engineer corps. I was in the Seabees. We were a mobile Navy engineering outfit that would handle all kinds of jobs, especially in World War II. When you landed, they were the ones who would build the airfields and the places to land ships. They were also involved in the action. When I was involved in it, it was in the early ’50s, right after the Korean War, so I was kind of lucky. I was stationed in Morocco for a while building roads and a couple of airbases. Then I was stationed up in Newfoundland, still working on airfields and roads. I never thought I would ever say this, but I enjoyed it.

AVC: Would you say you’ve witnessed a lot of change in the world and American society in particular?

NJ: I was born in 1929, the year of the big crash, and I grew up at a time when the Depression was the ruling thing in everybody’s lives. It’s a serious situation now, but you have to remember that in those days, there was almost no social network to support anybody. There was no Social Security, there was no health planning. So everybody was out on their own. It was a very difficult time, and everybody lived hand to mouth, at least most people that we knew where I grew up, and everybody was very aware of everybody else’s situation at that time. Everybody was scarred by that. My parents’ generation never outgrew that idea that the next Depression was lurking around the corner.

Also, you have to remember that the country was so different. There was no interstate highway system. There were no national chains of motels or restaurants, things like that. In 1948, I entered my freshman year of college, I hitchhiked to California one summer, my rite of passage from being a kid to an adult, and it was an experience you could not duplicate in a million years now. You went, you got mostly picked up by truckers, stayed in small towns, little hotels, or slept out by the side of the road. It was just a completely different world at that time. So to answer your question, yes.

AVC: Your 2005 book The Hello, Goodbye Window is about a little biracial girl. Are your grandkids biracial?

NJ: Yes. I only have one granddaughter and she is biracial.

AVC: That seemed like something the illustrator wouldn’t have made up.

NJ: No, it was very interesting. My wife is a mixture herself, she is—looking to put it simply, I’m white, she’s black. And when the book came out, I wanted that to be portrayed but with no comment whatsoever, no explanation, nothing.

AVC: How did you communicate that to Chris Raschka?

NJ: We talked, that’s all. I said, “This is what we are. You do it the way you want it, and there will be no mention of it in any of the advertising or promotion of the book or anything.” It was just a fact of life.

AVC: What else did you tell him to do?

NJ: Nothing! You don’t tell an illustrator what to do!

AVC: What else did you suggest be incorporated into the concept?

NJ: This was our family and this was a book about our family. I showed him the pictures. He made no attempt to make them look like us. It just appeared, and it didn’t seem to generate much conversation or questioning or anything, it was just, that was it. Sometimes he would illustrate something that would make it unnecessary to include some of the words that I had. His pictures were so good, I often didn’t need those three or four lines. He said it all. And sometimes it works the other way. So there’s always a lot of interaction. The book changed as it was being done.

AVC: The sequel, Sourpuss And Sweetie Pie, is one of the few times you’ve done a true follow-up in any of your work.

NJ: You’re exactly right. I don’t like follow-ups. I don’t think it was a real follow-up. It was really my sense of fun, really of dealing with my granddaughter getting older and displaying the things kids do as they grow up. This meteoric change of mood when something happens. So it was a sequel in the sense that it was the same characters, but it didn’t build on any continuity of storyline or anything. I was concerned when it was finished that nobody would be too interested. It doesn’t have conflict. It’s a slice of life. I have 15 or 16 rejection letters from The Hello, Goodbye Window.

AVC: Norton Juster gets rejection letters?

NJ: Yes, everybody does! I found an editor, Michael di Capua, who at that time was at Hyperion books. He has always had an individual imprint.

AVC: Is there a third one coming?

NJ: There may be at one point. I have a couple of storylines that I’m working on.

AVC: My understanding was that for the bulk of your career as an architect, you weren’t an active writer, but looking at your bibliography, you were.

NJ: There were a bunch of others, too. My first book, The Phantom Tollbooth, came out in 1961… And I was just beginning my architectural practice. You must remember this, that while I was running an architectural firm, my partner and I, I was also teaching. I taught for 32 years, 10 years at Pratt Institute in New York, and 22 years at Hampshire College, always as adjunct faculty, I never worked full time. It was a balancing act between doing all of these things, and sometimes you could do them and sometimes you had to lay something aside.

My wife is a graphic designer. Now, I’ll answer your next question, “Have you ever collaborated with your wife?” And the answer is no.

AVC: My next question was, what’s your favorite Marx brothers movie?

NJ: I love all of them but [“Tutsi Frutsi Ice Cream!” from A Day At The Races] in particular.

AVC: I presume that you’re an acolyte of painter and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

NJ: Yes. What I call “building animation.”

AVC: What’s that?

NJ: It’s bringing buildings to life. Bringing environments to life.

AVC: How do you bring life to life?

NJ: I’m going to let you answer that one.

AVC: By getting out of the Doldrums?

NJ: Well the Doldrums was a place I inhabited a great deal. I was a very introverted kid. In fact, I was quite intimidating to my parents, who never knew what I was thinking about or what mood I was in or how I was going to react to anything. In contrast, my brother, who was about 4.5 years older than me, he died a few years ago, was the family’s great hope. He was a really good-looking kid, he was the golden boy, and I was that strange kid. Consequently, one of the great advantages was, they left me alone. I inhabited a world which I invented, and in many ways, it was a fortress.

I started writing children’s books when I was stationed in Newfoundland. We had things to do, but our time was never that full. I began to do some little stories and watercolor illustrations. And we were living on a barracks ship at the time, so I’d hang them up to dry, I’d hang them up on the bulkhead. After about a week or so, the commanding officer called me in and let me know that naval officers did not draw pictures of gremlins and palaces and castles and goblins, looking at me in a way like, “What are you, some kind of queer?” I had to stop it. He forbade me to do that. But I was hooked.