the phantom tollbooth and norton juster

This evening I went to see Nicolette Jones interview the writer Norton Juster at Foyles on Charing Cross Road. I sketched the two of them during the talk:

I grew up reading Juster’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth over and over and over again. I may have read it a hundred times, possibly more. I did that with several books growing up; it was hugely comforting to have a world I could always revisit when I wanted to get way from real life. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but with some of the books, I’d get to the point where I wouldn’t even really need to read the words on the pages, I could just open each page and in a single glance, know everything there was on it, and actually go beyond the text to step inside the world. It was a kind of mystical experience, really. Which means that, for these few books, it’s difficult for me to go back and read them critically, I’m too used just to living them to analyse their sentence structures or pick holes in their plot lines. I think it’s the same reason that, growing up, I had so much trouble drawing portraits of my parents, when I could get a basic likeness of anyone else. I knew them too well to analyze objective things like bone and muscle structure.

Which raised another interesting point. When I heard Norton Juster was speaking, it took me a second to connect: Norton Juster, he wrote The Phantom Tollbooth. You know, I’d never thought of Juster as an actual person, he was just part of the packaging of this marvellous world inside the book. I’d long ago come to realise that the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, was a person, because I’d seen other books of his, and I think, even growing up, I could relate to the drawings and question why he’d drawn things certain ways. But I think kids often don’t realise that, to make a book of words, it takes a person, who lives and breathes and eats sandwiches and uses the loo like anyone else. And because The Phantom Tollbooth had so completely become a part of me, I’d never grown up in relation to the book to realise this. Stunted, I guess. So I’d never read any more of Juster’s books, or even thought to wonder if he’d written anything else. How very odd. You’d think that, being a book creator and knowing lots of them, I’d have worked this out.

I loved all the funny word play in the book, but I think my favourite part, I found quite serious: when Milo meets Chroma the Great, who conducts the orchestra that generates all the colour in the world. Chroma even shows him what happens if he stops conducting for an instant; the whole world turns into a giant uncoloured colouring book. After Chroma conducts the sunset, he goes off to bed and just the the large, low string instruments keep playing to maintain the dark purples and blue of night. (I loved lying in bed and thinking that off in a forest somewhere, musicians were maintaining and looking after the colours of darkness.) Milo decides he’s going to do an experiment and see what will happen if he stands on the conductor’s podium and wiggles just the tip of his finger, like he’s conducting. He does, and a small beam of yellow light appears. As he expands his conducting, the colours appear, but as he gesticulates more and more wildly, the colours go completely psychadelic and at last, when he realises he’s out of control, he gives up and lets his hands drop in dispair. And then the crazy colours go away, and night returns, and… gosh, it still gives me shivers.

Juster gave a good talk, describing friends such as Feiffer, Maurice Sendak and Suzanne Collins, how he ‘had the great opportunity to be bored’ as a child, how he found maths very funny. He described how he’d walk for a hundred blocks through New York City without realising it as he formulated the next part of the story in his head. How he likes to leave off writing in the middle of a sentence or paragraph, so the next morning he can jump right in without losing any momentum. He talked about excitement of having a story idea, then the lonely misery of writing, but also the joy at knowing he’d tested himself against something extraordinary and seen it through, and looking back, thinking that he’d never been happier while writing it.

Thanks so much to Nicolette Jones and Neil Jackson at Foyles for hosting an excellent evening! I wasn’t the only one drawing, here’s graphic designer Simon Russell‘s sketch that he tweeted after the event:

Don’t forget to book tickets to our SF Worlds of Tomorrow talk at Foyles on 22 May!

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