Maira Kalman is an illustrator, author, designer and creative force. She brings joy to many people through her whimsical drawings and witty observations about life. When I told my sister that I was interviewing Maira, she immediately emailed saying, "WHAT! I love her so much, so much. I loved her TED talk. I love her drawings - I keep one on the fridge." I have a hunch that many people feel this way about Kalman.
Maira Kalman is equally well known for her children's books including What Pete Ate From A-Z, a story about the infamous dog who eats everything he should not - accordions, cameras, egg beaters - as well as for her adult books and covers for The New Yorker. In 2005 Kalman illustrated The Elements of Style, originally written in 1918 by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The original was a writing style guide and in 2011 was named by Time magazine as "one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923". The updated illustrated version includes 57 bright, charming illustrations by Kalman which adds to the beauty of this iconic book. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, teamed up with Kalman and the two put together an illustrated edition of Food Rules An Eaters Manual. The result is an immensely readable book that you can devour in one sitting.
Something enjoyable about Kalman is that I learn something new every time I look at or read a piece of her work. For example, in her illustrated blog called And the Pursuit of Happiness for the New York Times (which she no longer updates but has been made into a book by the same title), Kalman wrote a piece called By George, an entry about George Washington. In this particular post, I learned that she thinks that her mother resembles George Washington, that Washington had many dogs and one of them was named Sweet Lips and that George's wife Martha wore fancy shoes. What delightful pieces of trivia!
The latest work from Kalman was released in January 2012 called Looking at Lincoln. This children's book follows a little girl who wants to find out more about the Abraham Lincoln whose legacy is everywhere including the American penny. Fans of the author/illustrator will be pleased to know that Kalman is also curating a show for the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York in book form which will be published in 2013.
A Visual Journey Through Kalman's Work › Play Video
AbeBooks: What books are currently on your bedside table?
AbeBooks: Can you tell us about which illustrators you admire?
Maira Kalman: Ludwig Bemelmans is a hero of mine. He wrote and painted for adults and children about his travels and his life. That sounds good to me. Charlotte Salomon was a painter and writer and she is a great inspiration. She perished in the Holocaust but her paintings miraculously survived. Hilary Knight created sensational illustrations for the Eloise books by Kay Thompson. Of course Alice in Wonderland was originally illustrated by Lewis Carroll. And that book is the top.
AbeBooks: What was the first book you illustrated?
Maira Kalman: Stay Up Late (1986) by David Byrne. Our children were little. The playful and funny antics around the house suited the book.
AbeBooks: How did your relationship with The New Yorker come about?
Maia Kalman: After numerous attempts on my part and many polite rejections, Francoise Mouly called me (1994 I think) and asked if I would be interested in doing a cover. And that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
What book do you wish you wrote or illustrated?
Maira Kalman: The Encyclopedia. Though if I wrote it, the information would be highly unreliable. But so what.
AbeBooks: Can you describe your space when you paint?
Maira Kalman: Very very neat. Everything in its place. Clear tables. Books dusted. Photo references pinned on the wall. No food or phone or email. No visitors. Just music and light and time and me.
AbeBooks: Do you have any new books, children's or adults currently on the go?
Maira Kalman: Food Rules Illustrated by Michael Pollan. Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler. Looking at Lincoln, words and paintings by Maira Kalman. I am curating a show for the Cooper Hewitt Museum in NYC from their collections. That show will be a book of my favorite things. It will be published in 2013 (HarperCollins) when the show opens.
AbeBooks: The events of 9/11 influenced some of your work including Fireboat and the iconic New Yorker cover depicting"New Yorkistan". Do you feel differently about the city since the events of 9/11? Have things changed - for the better or worse?
Maira Kalman: Things are always better and worse. I can be optimistic one minute and fall into a state of despair the next. But what else is new. I am allergic to people who only see the downfall. The New Yorkistan cover was done in collaboration with Rick Meyerowitz. We both love New York. And we know when to laugh. And Fireboat was really a love letter to New York City. Where there is life there is hope. And that is true.
AbeBooks: Do you have a food rule you follow that wasn't included in Michael Pollan's Food Rules?
Maira Kalman: I heard this from someone and I like it but I did not mention it to Michael because I thought it was too extreme for Food Rules. When you eat till you're sick, you must fast till you're well.
AbeBooks: You once mentioned that you thought your mother looked like George Washington. Do you look like another famous person?
Maira Kalman: On my good days, I look A LOT like Albert Einstein.
AbeBooks: Who would you most like to have tea with - dead or alive and why?
Maira Kalman: Hadrian. I just read Memoirs of Hadrian by Margeurite Yourcenar and I fell in love with him, with apologies to Abraham Lincoln who I feel I am engaged to.
AbeBooks: Do you own a hat that has pom-poms on it?
Maira Kalman: YES. My sister has created a line of felted hats under the OTTO label sold at the Cooper Hewitt and at MOSS in NYC. They look like creations from my books.
AbeBooks: Where is the happiest place on earth for you?
Maira Kalman: A bookstore. Really. Of course there is also the cafe after having been in the bookstore. And then the art supply store. And then the kitchen of my aunt. And then the museum. And then the garden.
AbeBooks: Other than cheese doodles, what is your favorite snack?
Maira Kalman: Lemon pound cake.