Norton Juster Interview, Preview Massachusetts.
By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
Photography by Paul Shoul
The Phantom Tollbooth is considered part and parcel of childhood for so many kids. Reaching its fiftieth anniversary in 2011, both an annotated edition and a new one containing added material and essays are being released.
Its author, Norton Juster, didn’t stop there. Along with The Dot and The Line and Alberic The Wise, which Random House rereleases in November, his 2005 The Hello, Goodbye Window—illustrated by Christ Raschka—won a Caldecott award. The pair then created a sequel, Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie. In September, The Odious Ogre—illustrated by Jules Feiffer—came out.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser: This marks the first collaboration between you and Jules Feiffer in…
Norton Juster: … Almost 50 years. We’re great friends.
I started Odious Ogre about 30 years ago. Typical of me, I didn’t quite understand it and I put it in a drawer, as I often do. I pull it back out weeks or months—or years—later. About a year and a half ago, it kind of called out “me, me, me,” and when it started to take shape, I thought of Jules. The work he did for this book represents such a departure for him. And it’s terrific.
SWB: That’s a long time for a story to lurk somewhere in your consciousness.
NJ: There was this large ogre, not exactly a bully, although big and scary. What I wanted to do was tell a story in which the ogre would be overcome, but not fought. I love the girl character. That this big ogre’s scary simply does not occur to her; she just goes along.
The hardest, most time-consuming part of writing a book isn’t really what happens on its pages. The larger task is getting to know the life of these characters outside the book, to understand them well. I often write conversations between characters that never come into the book. The best moments I have writing are when I’m not making a story up at all. I am simply eavesdropping on my characters.
SWB: It sounds like you travel to other worlds.
NJ: I do feel I’m off on a planet of my own. When I’m writing, I can’t have anyone around. In fact, when I was working on Phantom Tollbooth, I had to lock the cat out.
SWB: Yet, you didn’t rush from initial success to a writing career. You had an architecture practice, you taught design.
NJ: Launching a small architecture firm, there wasn’t really time to sit back and reflect upon my choices. In architecture, when you’re busy, you’re frantically busy. As a kid, I played with wood scraps; my father was an architect and so was my brother.
Our firm was small. We’d set up a problem and everyone would solve it together. We did many wonderful projects, including the Bangs Community Center in Amherst and an archival building in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
At Hampshire College, most of my students weren’t studying architecture. What I taught them to do was to understand how an environment was made. The process changed how they saw spaces. It was fascinating to teach people whose minds weren’t trained in design.
Besides being busy, I was terrified of being forced to write a sequel. The next two books I did—The Dot and the Line and Alberic the Wise—confused my editors, because they differed so from Phantom Tollbooth.
SWB: For most people, retirement involves relaxation.
NJ: Well, I enjoy spending time with my friends. My wife, Jeanne, and I love to travel. My granddaughter is 14. We get along very well, and that relationship’s a central part of my life.
But it’s hard for me not to do something. With the architecture firm and teaching behind me, now I have time to write.