How did a cartoonist “trying to overthrow the government” end up creating both the sex drama “Carnal Knowledge” and the illustrations for kid-lit classic “The Phantom Tollbooth”?
Question: What was it like to work on “The Phantom Tollbooth”?
Jules Feiffer: Well, I had never done a children’s book. Early on, shortly after I had gotten out of the Army in 1953, I put some samples together hoping to get some children’s book illustration, but I ran a **** of somebody named Sendak that was starting out, and his work was so devastatingly impressive that I thought I’d better get out of the way and let him have that field and find something on my own. So, in a way, I gave up children’s books because of Maurice and dedicated myself as a Cold War cartoonist trying to overthrow the government. So, it was by default.
And with The Tollbooth, Norton Juster, who wrote it, was first a young man who became a friend because we lived in the same building in Brooklyn Heights, and then we moved into a duplex apartment together with a third roommate, and that’s where he started writing the Phantom Tollbooth and he would read to me sections and I’d start doing sketches. So, it was all by accident, by proximity. Norton was there, I was there, he loved early 19th and 20th century English line drawing illustration. So, that’s what I tried to give him, my version of it, because his whole writing style was basically geared to the early 20th century. So, again, it was one of those things that I backed into. And it was accidental and it was great fun to do. But, once it was done, I had no intention of doing more children’s books. This was in the ‘60’s, and it was another 30 years or so before I decided to write and illustrate my own. And I’ve actually just completed, 50 years later, my second book with Norton Juster, called The Odious Ogre, which will be coming out in the fall of 2010. And that’s a big picture book in color, and very different in style from The Phantom Tollbooth.
Question: How did you transition from cartooning to the world of the theater?
Jules Feiffer: Well, I found it was my good fortune to somehow be able to work in these forms that I loved when I was a kid. I love movies and I could write screenplays. I love theater and I could write plays. I mean, they would be my own, I could never write what was used to be called the well-made play. But my first play, “Little Murders,” turned out to be a great success and a great influence on plays at that time. “Carnal Knowledge,” which was originally written as a play, still resonates and people still talk about it. And Mike Nichols’ production of the film is the best collaborative work I’ve ever done with anybody. So, I’ve had enormous luck and enormous pleasure in working in these forums and I just – because I could always write dialogue, because I always had a sense of how people spoke. And because I had a strong narrative sense; growing up and loving stories, loving novels, I just seem to know how to tell a story and I read a lot, I went to a lot of movies, I went to a lot of plays, and it rubbed off on me. And that’s all. It just rubbed off on me.
If Edward Albee had not been writing in the ‘50’s, just when I was coming along and getting interested in theater, I might never have written a play, but Albee suddenly opened these doors because he was doing stuff in a form that I found terribly inviting, and god knows I wouldn’t have ever thought of it on my own.
Recorded on February 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin rnAllen