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Q&A: Maira Kalman, The Elements of Style Illustrated

For author and illustrator Maira Kalman, it all comes down to a walk in the park

By Caroline Callahan - December 19, 2005

Since arriving to the U.S. as a child in 1954, the Israeli-born author and illustrator Maira Kalman has immersed herself in the creative world. The mind behind over a dozen children's books—and wife of the late Tibor Kalman, one of the most influential designers of our time who, among other accomplishments, brought those controversial Benneton ads to life—Kalman has made her most recent contribution with the vibrantly illustrated version of Strunk & White's Elements of Style. Kalman stumbled upon an old copy of the book in a Cape Cod thrift shop, and found it so humorous that she immediately felt the need to put pictures to its words. Here, Kalman talks about how a New York University English major ended up with such a dynamic career, how her processes differ between painting and writing, and why rules are made to be broken.

Mediabistro: I understand you were an English major at NYU. How did you cultivate your painting and drawing talents?

Kalman: I was at NYU for literature and I thought I was going to be a writer, but it was some sort of vague idea—it wasn't serious. I don't know what it was at that age anyway, but I decided that my writing was pretty awful. My sister was an artist and I had bounced between art and music but the notion of painting and drawing seemed like a natural thing to do, so I thought, "Well, I'll try this, it might be easier than writing." And I started drawing and then started doing editorial illustration, and I did that for about 15 years before I did my first children's book. So we didn't study design before we opened M&Company and I didn't study art, but it seemed like the natural curiosity and love of it was good enough.

Mediabistro: You discovered Strunk & White's Elements of Style in a Cape Cod thrift shop—what was it about the book that made you want to illustrate it?

Kalman: It was an immediate "Aha!" moment, and it was reading a book that was clearly written by someone who was a wonderful writer. That was foremost. The book was also very funny—it was written with a lot of humor. It was humorous, and personal, and human—the exact opposite of what you expect a grammar book to be. It had the voice of the writer in it from the very first line. And it was very humanistic. I also love things that are disjointed, where one sentence just jumps to another sentence. And for me that kind of jumping from one thing to the other is really wonderful.

Mediabistro: How did you go about obtaining the rights from the Stunk and White estates?

Kalman: My agent proposed their agent (laughs) and they said yes. And it was incredible because once they had said yes there was absolutely no intervention or control. They just let me do exactly what I wanted to do and didn't see the book until it was done. It was such a leap of faith for them and I was very happy.

Mediabistro: At what point did you approach publishers with your idea, and did you receive any rejections?

Kalman: I met my agent Charlotte and she brought me to Ann Godoff and it was clear that we really liked each other, and that she loved the idea and was completely behind it, and also gave me total freedom to do what I wanted.

Mediabistro: In his foreword to Elements of Style, Roger Angell comments that "writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time." Is painting or illustrating a similar struggle? How do the processes compare?

Kalman: My writing and my painting, there's really a flow that goes back and forth. I try to paint in a narrative way and I write in a painterly way. I don't' know if one is harder…I think there are different difficulties—no, there's always the same difficulty in finding your voice in whatever you're doing, and being both inspired and natural at the same time, and traveling the lines of extremes, being smart and stupid and happy and tragic. I think that crafting language—in the end they're all hard, but I wouldn't know how to define the difference in difficulty. Though maybe for me painting gives me more leeway to be ungrammatical.

Mediabistro: And do you re-paint? Writers often re-write obsessively, trying to get the right words on the page—do painters go "re-paint" so to speak?

Kalman: I think that everybody has a different style, but I do a lot of sketching before I actually do a painting. So for me I really am doing drafts and re-sketching, which I think is pretty normal for most painters, who often do sketches or thumbnails or studies before they begin. It's a way of finding out what you want to say, editing out things that aren't important, looking at a piece in terms of the graphic design, so there's all that kind of constructing and then un-constructing.

Mediabistro: Do you struggle when writing your children's books?

Kalman: Yeah, you know though it always seems like it's a lark. There's drama behind that. I do struggle. To write a children's book—a book that's 32 pages long or something like that—you really have to be able to pare down what you want to say and distill it and then make it alive, and make it sparkle. That's a real challenge. And everyone wants to write a children's book, and it seems like so much fun—and it is fun—but it's also, you know, I write many drafts of a book and I usually over-write to the point where I've written 10 times too much, and spend six months or a year trying to edit it down to something that's not boring.

Mediabistro: Do you ever get stuck—on a painting, on a sentence, on a plot in your children's books—and if so, what do you do to "un-stick" yourself?

Kalman: Oh, God yes! It's writing, and then throwing it out, and then writing, and then hating it, and then finding something. You know, I don't think it ever ends. Often even after I've finished a book I think, "Oh my God, I would have changed this and that and the other!" So there's plenty of being stuck. I often go for a walk or wait till the next day and just the doing of it brings you to the end, hopefully; you just keep doing it.

Mediabistro: Penguin also bought an illustrated memoir from you called Look, according to Publisher's Weekly. Any idea when we can look for this—and are there any other projects in the works?

Kalman: Ha, I don't know what it's called! I keep changing the name. (It will be out) in forever and a day! I imagine, three years from now. Depends how long it takes me to do that. I've started conceptualizing and making notes, but I haven't plunged in. I may go to Israel to write that, which is where I'm from and where a lot of the book takes place.

Mediabistro: Why is rule-breaking important, do you think?

Kalman: Well, you can decide what your definition of a rule is, but I think there has to be a moment in the process where you make a leap outside of what is expected. There can't be an original piece of work that isn't conceived outside of some constraint. Even if you're bound to grammar, you're doing something within that context that's inventive or experimental. That's how things change and things progress, and that's why we have new things and things that are inspired. I think it's learning how to have fun, or the sense of play—it's thrilling to be able to do that. And also for the reader, or for the person who's looking at a painting, that there's some kind of fresh spark that's set off in you, how to tell your story in your own way. And not everyone wants to do that or needs to do that.

Mediabistro: What is a day in the life of Maira Kalman like?

Kalman: Well, um, it's a very free-floating day. I wake up very early—I am not a fan of the night. I wake up early, have coffee, go out for a clip through the park—a fast walk, with a friend. Have a nice breakfast. And then depending on the day, either go to my studio and paint and write, or do whatever it is if there's an assignment or a deadline or whatever I'm working on, and if not, I just kind of wander around. I go to museums or I take long walks. Not that much happens. I walk my dog—there's a lot of walking going on. I see a lot of stuff. I always have a camera and a sketchbook with me and I'm basically wandering around taking pictures and collecting material. Early to bed, and there you go.

Mediabistro: Where do you look for your inspirations?

Kalman: I go to museums and I read a lot and movies and concerts and traveling…I go for trips to wonderful places. I'm going to India for a month—it's an extraordinary place. Italy. India. Israel, places that begin with I! Iceland, haha! Japan, Russia. I took a fabulous road trip to the south, and my trips inevitably contain high art and low art. I enjoy going to a thrift shop as much as going to a great museum. And then there's dreaming and there's family and life and philosophy and it's kind of an unlimited source of inspiration—all you have to do is get outside and look and live. And there's more than enough…

Caroline Callahan is a freelance writer and former GQ staffer.

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