Maurice Sendak: the fight in him was an expression of life

When I interviewed Maurice Sendak last year, he was furious with everything. That fury came from love – and it drove his art

I was genuinely frightened when I went to interview Maurice Sendak at his home in Connecticut last October. I had read the cuttings and most interviews with him seemed to descend quite quickly into a series of gruff clampdowns of what he saw to be stupid or condescending questions from the journalist. And he looked terrifying: fierce eyes, wild hair. I was prepared to be unnerved.

And I was, although in a completely unexpected direction. Sendak, promoting Bumble-Ardy, a story about a pig who loses his parents to the slicing machine on the first page, was furious with everything, appalled by modern life, his own publishers, charmless children, Gwyneth Paltrow, anything that came up, but with such energy and wit, the effect was one of joyous abandon. Memorably – and, I should add, not without affection – he referred to Salman Rushdie as that "flaccid fuckhead", an insult to which Rushdie magnanimously responded, with equal affection, on Twitter.

Sendak was playing, but the roots of his play went to very dark places. He spoke in the language of his books, at a kind of mythical level that contained the terrors of life by naming them, which allowed for the possibility of love in the most difficult landscapes. As a colleague just pointed out to me, the thump in the chest one got this morning on news of his death has to do with his voice in one's head – those words we were all read 3,000 times sound to many of us like the "cadences of childhood".

There was something else from that interview that stayed in my mind for the singular way he expressed it. It sounded like a translation from the Yiddish, which it probably was. Sendak was talking about the day of his bar mitzvah, when his father got word, "that he had, no longer, a family. Everyone was gone." The murder of his parents' entire families by the Nazis and the deranging effect this had on his childhood, drove Sendak's art. He still felt searingly guilty about how insensitive he was to his father that day. "I made him suffer more than he had to." Sendak spat it out in disgust: "This 13-year-old ersatz man." He was as tough on himself as on everyone else.

After the interview, we went out into the garden and Tim the photographer took photos. Sendak posed with his dog, Herman, and made some lively suggestions about the proximity of Tim's groin to his face.

He was fantastically, ebulliently alive. Which was always his point, I suppose. The fight in him was an expression of life, will, engagement with the world; an expression of wonder, ultimately. There were so many dark elements in his work, but it came down to love in the end. "If it's true," he said, "then you can't care about the vicious and the painful. You can only be astonished."

Contributor

Emma Brockes

The GuardianTramp

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