Author Brian Selznick takes a unique approach in "Wonderstruck"

Brian Selznick
Brian Selznick is author of "Wonderstruck" and "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Author Brian Selznick has been practicing how to describe "Wonderstruck," a 600-page novel that takes a new approach to storytelling.

"I guess I usually say it's about two kids who run away to New York, 50 years apart, and one story is told entirely with pictures, and one story is told entirely with words, and the two stories weave back and forth," Selznick said. "I usually say both of the kids are deaf, and I sort of leave it at that."

Selznick said when he first thought of telling two tales simultaneously in text and pictures, he knew he needed the right subject. Then he saw the documentary "Through Deaf Eyes" which includes an educator who described deaf people as 'the people of the eye.' He latched onto that.

"There were a lot of things interesting me at the time as well," he said. "The history of museums, and ideas about New York City. And Minnesota, as well, ... became a very central part of the story."

When visiting the Natural History Museum in New York, Selznick always found himself drawn to a diorama featuring two wolves bounding across a moonlit lake. It represented Gunflint Lake in northeastern Minnesota. He came to Minnesota and took a research trip up the Gunflint Trail.

"I had this idea that it might be interesting to write a story about a kid from Gunflint Lake who comes to New York, having never been there before, and finding this diorama of the place where he's from," he said.

The boy called Ben also realizes he's been dreaming about these two wolves, and sets out to find out why. Selznick set Ben's story in the 1970s and then began layering it with references to the place, and the time. For example, Ben's mother loves David Bowie's song "Space Oddity."

Meanwhile, Selznick was developing the other story, in pictures, about a girl called Rose living in Hoboken, N.J. in the late 1920s.

It took some juggling to tell the two tales simultaneously. For example at one point Ben is caught in a lightning storm at Gunflint Lake, and Selznick really wanted to draw the lightning. But he could only do that in the all-illustrated story about Rose. He decided maybe she could see lightning on the screen in a movie.

"I needed a reason for her to go to a movie theater, so I thought, 'well, maybe she's obsessed with this actress,' so I made up this actress called Lillian Mayhew," he said. "But then I needed a reason for her to be interested in this actress and that became a central part of her plot. But all of this happened because I wanted to draw lightning for Ben."

"Wonderstruck" is at its base about two young deaf people trying to make sense of a hearing world. Selznick knew this had to be handled sensitively. He wrote the story after extensive research and interviews. He also had his work checked and double-checked by members of the deaf community. He is requesting sign-language translators at his readings such as the one Monday at 6 p.m. at the Roseville Barnes and Noble, and Tuesday at Open Eye Figure Theater in Minneapolis.

When he gets finished with his tour, it'll just about be time for the release of "Hugo," the movie based on his bestselling book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." While that is a single story, it's also told with lots of illustrations. Selznick thought it was unfilmable, but then Martin Scorsese called to say he wanted to make a 3D adaptation. Given that Hugo is about the early days of film talkies, which many saw as a gimmick, Selznick appreciates the way history is repeating itself.

"Here we have in 2011, this brilliant director using a new technology that is looked on as a gimmick, and experimenting with it in a way that reflects that time period as well as even earlier when [George] Méliès was making his films and film itself was new," Selznick said.

And when that's all done, Selznick will sharpen his pencils to write and draw another book.