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Maira Kalman is a storyteller
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Maira Kalman is a storyteller
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Maira Kalman is a storyteller
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"That sense of connectedness and pleasure in the small things in life – I've had that forever."
1 January 2013

Maira Kalman is a storyteller

Interview by Rachelle Unreich
Photography by Anna Wolf

Rachelle Unreich on Maira Kalman

I first became aware of author-artist Maira Kalman when I lived in New York, and stumbled upon her unique children’s books.

There was the memorably named Sayonara, Mrs Kackleman—but the one that really killed me was Max in Hollywood, Baby, a book in her Max the dog series. In it, Max finds himself directing a movie in LA (long story), and it’s impossible not to delight in the rollercoaster language, like when Max’s agent gives him some tips:

‘Watch your step in this town. There are some back-stabbing, power-hungry, status-seeking vegetarians here. I know of what I speak. But hey, let’s driiive. If someplace is close that means you only drive for twenty or thirty hours with your eyes peeled for stars and with your mouth glued to the phone yackin and yammerin about this deal or that script and faster than you can say ‘Marcello Mastroianni likes to eat salami,’ you have arrived.’

If that wasn’t enough to do my head in—in the most fantastic way—there were the gobsmackingly good illustrations, each page crammed with colour and detail and innovation. It was a visual explosion.

So, I began collecting Kalman’s books, and was intrigued by her unpredictable and surprising work. There she was, illustrating the classic on grammar, Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style. In 2006, she wrote and illustrated a blog that appeared in The New York Times, “The Principles of Uncertainty”, which was later published as a book. Then, she meditated on American democracy in And The Pursuit of Happiness. One of her most famous works is a cartoon map she did with Rick Meyerowitz that ran on the cover of The New Yorker in December 2001. It showed New York’s boroughs broken up into tribes such as Pashmina (the Upper East Side) and Taxistan (the Bronx). Coming after September 11, it gave New Yorkers some levity.

In college, Kalman met the designer Tibor Kalman. The two of them remained married until his death in 1999. Together, they had two children, and ran the design company M&Co.

It’s eight o’clock in the morning in upstate New York, where Maira Kalman has temporarily retreated to do some work…

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

RACHELLE UNREICH: You’re up early!

MAIRA KALMAN: I have a routine when I have deadlines. A deadline is a beautiful thing. It puts me into a framework. I do like ritual and repetition. And then I travel a lot, so I get to run away.

What are some of the rituals you rely upon in your day?

Ah. Well… waking up [laughs].

Always handy.

Always good. It’s always reassuring. Waking up, having a cup of coffee, and meeting a friend to walk in Central Park for an hour in the morning. Which is an incredible way to start the day. I used to read the obits before I left the house. But I don’t do that anymore because I’m not reading the paper these days.

That’s not such an “up” way to start the day?

Well, I see it as a very emotional kind of epic way to start the day. It puts things in perspective right away. It makes you disinclined to complain about anything, because here we are.

And you walk with the same friend?

Yes. She’s a doctor; she goes on to take care of people’s health. And I say I go on to take care of people’s souls, or… something.

Their mental health.

Mental health, yes. Spiritual health. I have a studio, which is in my building where I live. I live on the twelfth floor, and have a studio on the ninth floor. So I organise myself and there I have everything I need. Music and silence. Music and peace. Nobody can call me… Nobody ever comes there, basically.

You have the phone off?

I have my cell phone but I usually forget it or something. And I don’t have email there. I don’t have a smartphone yet—I’m carrying my phone around like an old shoe—because I’m really nervous that I will just become addicted to this constant, constant need to “check-in”.

And you still type on a typewriter?

I have a computer, of course, but I do like to type drafts or notes on a typewriter. I have a few typewriters. I have pens and quills and ink and nibs. I like to write like that sometimes. I have a lot of pencils. Pencils make you feel differently in how you write.

There’s so much that inspires you when you’re either travelling or at home. When you produce, does the art come first, or the words?

I always thought I was going to be a writer and coming to America from Israel, learning English, listening to and learning a new language… it was just enchanting. So there was always that component of listening to words and loving words. But I was also able to forget about using words when they were getting in the way. That’s what’s developed over the years… I see things that I want to paint, I hear things that I want to write. I write and I paint, and it all gets mixed up in this thing.

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

Your books go hand in hand with illustrations. As far as the writing goes, do you ever yearn to write anything a bit longer?

Definitely not. I want to write something shorter. I think I say way too much. I would like to use the words the story needs, but I would like to edit it as pithy as it can be. When I look at some of my children’s books I think, Oh my God, I never shut up! Why didn’t I cut these parts away? But, you know, on to the next.

Oh no, I love them! The children’s books are so poetic. I fell in love with your children’s books first, before even having children! They’re so beautiful. When you come up with your work, is it the thoughts you want to get out on the paper, or the drawings?

In a children’s book, the writing is more important than the illustration. If you had not such good writing but better drawings, I’d think the book wasn’t a success. But you could have mediocre drawings with wonderful writing. It’s not so much decorating as trying to find another way to say the same thing, and trying to explore the philosophy and humour visually.

The humour, that’s something that’s consistent in your work.

There was a great deal of humour in the way that we spoke in our family. I always go back to the women, to my mother and her sister. There was just a tremendous amount of irreverence and unsentimentality. There was tremendous love, but they weren’t sentimental in that way. So you could make fun of things and you could be iconoclastic and irreverent. That had its impact. I had a kind of funny disposition; I thought I saw things in a funny way. It was certainly encouraged.

In a children’s book, the writing is more important than the illustration.
Maira Kalman
When you see people laughing at what you say, you go, Ah-ha! I’m going to keep this part of myself!

Did you consider yourself a rebel at college, before you dropped out?

No, I was always pretty reasonable. I never got into trouble. When there were the student rebellions, I was quietly writing poetry. Maybe I went on a few marches that I didn’t even really understand. My boyfriend, who became my husband, was very active politically. I met him while he was trying to burn down a building. The maths building.

It’s rare to meet someone in college and remain married to them for so many years.

Yeah. That was some extraordinary piece of heavenly luck; that we met when we met. And that he was so brilliant… We were just never bored in the thirty years that we were together. Of course we had normal stuff that everybody has, but his brain just was extraordinary.

Where did you meet him first?

We met in summer of flunk out class. We were both failing economics and math. The school said that we had to take a course to make it up. So we met in this class of all these people who were failing things. It was such a great, fun, interesting group of people! He asked me out for a coffee. I was so grateful for flunking out of those classes, it’s funny. You just never know what’s going to bring you together. It’s crazy.

So when your kids failed classes at school, you wouldn’t have been too worried. You would’ve thought: Maybe this will be part of their destiny!

Well, I was very disappointed that they both graduated college, because Tibor and I both dropped out. So I thought, What’s wrong with you two that you’re both finishing college? They laugh, of course, and say that they were the first college graduates.

Your husband was such a creative driving force. Did you both have a lot of influence over each other professionally, creatively?

We were constantly influencing… I think that the basis was great love in our relationship, and we really cared for each other, and loved each other. For some reason, two people meet, and they fuel each other in a creative way. We were both curious about so many things at the same time together. We developed it in each other, but we also had it innately. Literature, music, film, architecture, travel… It was just an extraordinary, as they say, “bit of luck”. So we did fuel each other and we were each other’s critics for our whole lives. And we were able to be honest with each other and have really interesting dialogues about work. Work was really important to Tibor, and I think that he had a work ethic that I adopted. I don’t think I naturally had that in me.

What lesson will you pass on to your kids about love and relationships?

What can you do? I think you have to follow your instincts. I just don’t know what else anybody can do. I also think when I use the word “luck” or “lucky”, what does that mean? Is it some force controlling them? The randomness of the universe? I basically say to them, ‘You have to follow your hearts.’ It’s all you can ever do. And try to be kind along the way… But you can’t always be kind.

Have you always looked at the world like that?

It’s the universe.

I would savour that particular moment, that moment that when you really have a rush going through you, because something is connected. Usually that moment of connection, of deed-to-deed, wellbeing and joy, happens when you’re doing something on your own. Walking somewhere or, you know, washing some dishes. That sense of connectedness and pleasure in the small things in life — I’ve had that forever.

Have you always recorded things? Are you a diary or sketchbook keeper?

I have journals, which are not really diaries so much as sketchbooks and notebooks from when I was eighteen. So I’ve had them for, you know, forty odd years. And I have all of them. They’ve become a little bit more biased to the drawing side. Because I travel so much, I’m sketching all the time. But I have all of those. I also have all of the paint rags that I bought. I probably started saving them about twenty years ago.

The way that I look at the world, the pleasure that I would get from the intimate moment — I know that I’ve had that since I was a child.

Are you aware that you a global reach now?

The New York Times’ pieces really blew that into a whole other level. Now when I hear from people from around the world, I think, My God! This Internet thing is quite wonderful! You know, I’m not on Facebook, I don’t Instagram, tweet… all of those things. It’s funny; I went on a trip with some friends of mine to the South. We went to Alabama a few weeks ago, my daughter and a few women. And they were Instagramming and tweeting everything! And I thought, What could possibly be interesting about this?

That’s funny. I love that you’ve had such a variety of things that you’ve illustrated, too, from Talking Heads’ projects to a book on punctuation. What has been the most fun project?

I would say The Elements of Style. It was such a perfect thing. And meeting Martha White, who’s E.B. White’s granddaughter, and hearing her say how much he would have enjoyed the humour; he was a very funny man.

And there are obviously different countries that draw you. Italy it sounds like, and Israel. Which call out to you?

In a few weeks I’m going to Spain to see the Alhambra and The Great Mosque in Córdoba. We’re staying in one of the paradores inside the Alhambra. Travelling to Moorish palaces and Moorish gardens and all of it in Spain—I’m really excited. I think it’s going to be extraordinarily beautiful. I very much want to go back to Japan and back to India. Have you been to India? Oh my God. Just extraordinary.

I think some people tend towards the exotic, but I go for countries or cities that are familiar to me…

Well, I don’t like to rough it. I do appreciate room service. I don’t want discomfort! But, just the beauty of the architecture of these places, the fashion, and everything. Everything.

How do you immerse yourself in a country when you go there?

I just wander around. I go to the museums. I wander the streets. Of course, not every place is equally interesting, but there’s always something. And then, if it’s not that compelling, leave, and go to the next place.

Do you feel like you’re always working?

I’m always working in the sense that I’m always collecting… there’s no separation between my life and my work. I’m aware that everything I’m looking at may be something that inspires me.

And I don’t know what I’m going to see. We were just travelling to see the giant sequoias in California, north of LA, which are beyond belief. And then, on the road, I saw this giant statue of an olive. A black, pitted olive. This gargantuan, humungous thing. And so, of course, we turned around. And that’s the piece that I want to present to The New Yorker. Not, ‘Oh, how lovely it was in the sequoias.’ But, ‘Oh my God! There was this ridiculous olive!’

Do you know straight away? Or is it because you can’t get it out of your head afterwards?

Can’t get it out of my head. I never shut up about it, and everybody’s, ‘Enough already with the stupid olive,’ but, you know, that sense of, ‘God! Incredible!’ That’s why it’s so delightful, because you just don’t know what you’re going to see.

I love how much joy you take from things. And obviously your life hasn’t always been roses. Is that your nature? Are you an optimist? Or is it a choice you’ve made?

In my family, we have this expression which I use all the time, which is, “I may be crazy but I’m not stupid.”

I know that things are awful and sad and confusing and tragic, and at the same time, you can’t be in that state. So I guess naturally I tend toward the optimistic. At the end, there is good. And there is the wonderful stuff. There is pleasure. And there is love. So I guess I am an optimist. But you have to be if you continue working. There has to be a reason for doing it.

Though I have a great capacity for joy, it goes hand in hand with sorrow and self-doubt. That is a daily circumstance. The sense of loss is palpable every minute of the day. I wouldn’t be human if that were not the case. I have found that there are some very real things that help deal with sadness. Work is one—engagement in a meaningful occupation, the satisfaction of focusing and disappearing into another place. The other is love. Love of my family. Love of rituals shared with them. Basically living life.

The day contains many ups and downs. But the point is that you are alive. So you might as well do something that brings pleasure, joy, humour.

Also, I walk a lot and listen to a lot of music. Always good things to do.

Before I asked you if you’re always actively working, and I had to laugh when I read that your daughter got her middle name from a font, Bodoni. That seemed to me the best example of someone who is constantly thinking about work!

I said to her the other day, I said, ‘Honey, what do you think of your name?’ And she said, ‘Oh, it’s a real ice-breaker,’ [laughs]. Her first name is Lulu. Lulu just turned thirty. Incomprehensible.

Well, you started very young… I was reading that you collect books and you collect linen, and I was wondering what else formed part of your collections?

Clearly when you walk into my house you can see that I have a book obsession. So that really is the most important thing. And everything else kind of is little bits and pieces here and there, but the books are the most important. And I collect moss. From different parts of the world I go to.

I thought you said moss.

Yes. M-O-S-S.

How can you even take that back through customs?

I don’t say anything about it; it’s just a little bit in an envelope.

How on earth did you start that collection?

I was in a used bookstore and had just purchased a collection of books from a naturalist, a woman who had died. And it came with a shoebox full of moss specimens. I thought, This is fantastic. So then I thought, Well I should now collect my own moss, and add to that. That was around ten years ago. It’s a really nice thing to do. Now, from Alabama, I got Spanish moss and lichen. I brought a giant tumbleweed back from when we went to Texas, in the car! I look at it and think, Oh, that trip was very lovely.

How do you display all the moss?

Some of it I just take it out. I put it on the table. The lichen is beautiful. It’s like an electric green, it looks like a doily. But most of it I have in envelopes. Some are meaningful to me, like moss from Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello. I’m writing a book about Thomas Jefferson now. So he’s looming large.

The presidents have really played a big part for you in your work.

Yeah, who knew! I mean I couldn’t have cared less about any of that before I started working on it. It was because Obama was elected, and the discussion with my editor at the time was, ‘Well, I’m tired of writing about myself, what would you have me look into?’ And then we joked about what I don’t know anything about, and don’t care about, which I say very often. My editor David said, ‘What are you doing? You’re a bad American. If you don’t care about him, you’re the last person who we should hear about the president from,’ [laughs].

And now you care about it?

What’s funny is the result being that I don’t read the papers anymore, because they’re just a big downer. But it’s funny when people tell me what’s going on. Then you hear, like, the best stuff. The highlights. People say to me, ‘Did you hear about the scandal of so and so?’ And then they get to tell me. It’s something to talk about.

And have you gotten to meet Obama?

No. I met Michelle. I went to the inauguration. I went back to the White House. But it’s not as if we’re meeting for a tea and coffee Friday morning.

But I value and am deeply amazed at the genius of the American founders. Genius geniuses. Especially Lincoln, Franklin and Jefferson.

Many of them—incredible philosophers. But if I see the word “political” on any kind of email or anything, Blergh! Look out!

I think that’s a good approach. But, as someone born in Israel, don’t you want to convey Israel in a certain way to the rest of the world?

The way that I’ve written about Israel and the way that I’ve written about being Jewish is that you have to take every person as an individual, and not make some kind of crazy generalisation of a group. So if people are reading me and they like it, and they go, ‘Oh look, but she’s Israeli, and I like her!’ I say, ‘Okay, that’s a good thing! That’s how I would change someone’s mind about Israel.’

You said you’re a big book collector. What are you reading now?

Finally, in these wonderful years, I’m reading Proust. Who I’d never been able to actually focus on. There are things I pretend to read, or wish I’d read, or skimmed. When I went to Rome for three months, I said, Okay, this is a beautiful opportunity to read these books. I’m thinking, If I hadn’t read these before I die, I’d be the biggest fool on Earth. They’re really unbelievable. In between, when I take a little bit of a break from Mr Proust, I read other things. But he’s the focus of this year. Or two.

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