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"The stories, the myths, the misunderstandings are all part of life"

When I was in 8th grade my father gave me The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman for Christmas. Fashioned to look like a sort of encyclopedia, the fact that it was used (it was his) made it all the more intriguing. As soon as I flipped open the doodled cover, I knew that this book was different. Reading it at the tender and challenging age of thirteen, I thought it was one of the most intimately constructed memoirs I had ever read. I still hold that perspective, but I discovered its value has only deepened since that day.

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The Principles of Uncertainty is like reading through someone's thoughts. The writing and the illustrations are used to their full potential as mediums, in that they pull the reader further into the psyche of the creator rather than increasing the distance between audience and work. Its an incredible achievement in terms of storytelling as well as art. When presented with Maira's distinct voice, readers regain a childlike, almost Proustian sense of whimsy as they glance over her pithy observations. Yet the universality of the themes present in the book allow us to reach the conclusion that we are all human, that there is a sameness present in people of every type, regardless of how exceptional. She shows the reader that there is comfort in being a part of the whole, even in being a passive observer of bustling humanity, rather than inundating us with daunting philosophies. Though the entire book is saturated with philosophical teachings (both self-crafted and already established), the personal angle prevents the subject from being intimidating. We are invited to ponder the concept of infinity and the futility of life in the same manner a young child would, not yet so attached to life that it becomes an extension of ourselves and therefore mundane and impossible to part with, instead it is our toy, our plaything, an object to muse over at and to mold.

I find this concept as attractive now as I did at thirteen, and it's truly a testament to Maira's skills not only as an illustrator, writer, creator but also as an empath. The rest of her work is equally as notable for this. In Girls Standing On Lawns, she offers a poignant narrative for photos that would otherwise be disconnected and foreign. In And the Pursuit of Happiness, she brings historical figures into the modern era with epigrammatic details and profound yet humorous speculation. She feels her way through her work, and the audience, in turn, feels it as well. Her musings are on paper but they feel as though they're whispered in your ear. Her observations are rhythmic and building a crescendo that appears to be just for you, but also for everyone else. They're a conversation, and leave plenty of space for the reader's own thoughts.

But even after being offered this graceful glimpse into her thoughts, I wasn't satisfied. Her work left me wanting to have a conversation with her that wasn't so one sided. In December, I reached out to Maira for an interview. I remained persistent over the weeks that followed, though I feared I was becoming a menace, to my surprise and utter delight, she replied and I was able to ask her a few questions that her book raised.

What other jobs did you have before you were able to make a living off of being an illustrator/writer?

Baby sitter. Bookstore clerk. Waitress. Secretary.

You said in an interview with The Great Discontent that New York was an optimistic place. How do you continue to hold this view even when the ugly sides of the city show themselves to you? What are your favorite places in New York?

You cannot dislike a city because there are ugly sides. That is a given anywhere on earth. But NYC is the center of amazing energy. A raucous messy mix of every kind of person. Every kind of fashion. My favorite places in NYC are Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Fifth Avenue Bus. The Frick Museum. Museum of Modern Art. The garden of the Museum of Modern Art. My block (12th Street).

I know you like to dance. What's your favorite dance move?

A basic tango.

I know you said it's a terrible thing to give advice, but what's the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?

Ignore all advice, and just do what you feel is right. AND never stop working. Work solves most problems. And make your bed in the morning. And walk.

Who do you think the most creative person alive is?

No idea. Probably a two year old.

What is the best piece of storytelling (in any form; books movies, photos, paintings, etc) that you've ever encountered?

In books, Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Flaubert's Madame Bovary. In movies, so many. Including My Man Godfrey. Citizen Kane. Les Enfants du Paradis. In paintings, Matisse and Bonnard. In children's books, Ludwig Bemelmans, Lewis Carroll.

What work are you most proud of?

The first children's book, HEY WILLY, SEE THE PYRAMIDS. The Elements of Style. The Principles of Uncertainty. I was given the most freedom. I was trusted by my editors and was able to do what I love.

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Describe your favorite outfit.

A white, very well starched and ironed cotton nightgown.

I know you collect broken things. What's your favorite object in your collection?

A torn, moth eaten green sweater.

I really like how, in your work, you sometimes focus on a seemingly insignificant detail about a historical figure, or scenery, or the world in general and explain how it relates to their character/the bigger picture. What's a seemingly insignificant detail about you that's actually emblematic of your character?

I love to get into a well starched and ironed bed at night. And I love to get out of bed in the morning. In the morning, I love to drink coffee and read the obituaries. I like to put the shelves in order in the supermarket. I love to fold things.

How can you be creatively prolific without becoming overwhelmed?

That is something you learn to do with time, perseverance and patience. Critical part of working. Sometimes you do get overwhelmed. Then you have to go for a walk, or eat a donut, or read a book or talk to someone who loves you. And then you find your way.

Do you think that when people dress up their dogs in clothes and shoes and all that it's cute or seems uncomfortable for the animal?

I don't think I like that but I must admit to putting hats on my dog.

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I quite enjoy your illustrations of people in hats. Do you have a favorite kind of hat?

Anything fanciful and elegant. Or jaunty.

I've always wanted to be a writer. When I was younger, I felt kind of distanced from the world as a result of this. Your work helped me realize that being a writer and an observer/storyteller actually connects you to the world even more and in different ways. When was a time you felt connected to a stranger?

I feel connected to strangers all the time. Often more connected than to people who are part of my life. There is a general sense of dignity and courage to all of humanity going about their day, trying to do the best they can.

What's the happiest thing you've ever witnessed (without being a part of)?

Probably the love of parents and children. There is nothing like that love.

Have you ever doubted your career path?

Never doubted my career path.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Don't want a superpower.

What do you think Proust meant in this quote: "Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were"?

He is the smartest. There is no such thing as AS THEY WERE. Everything is subjective and changing and re remembered and mis remembered. The stories, the myths, the misunderstandings are all part of life. They ARE life.

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You can bet Maira's latest endeavor, Cake, is first on my wish list.


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