I've been meaning to write about this for a while. I wanted to do a comic about my time there, and I eventually will, but sometimes just typing things out works better. This is a long entry, and the next one will be similar in length. Phew!
Thanks for reading,
One hot summer day I checked my mailbox for Netflix and bills, and instead I pulled out a mysterious envelope which was sent from some organization that called itself The Sendak Fellowship. My heart raced a bit, even before I opened the letter. The Sendak Fellowship. What could that mean? I sat down on my apartment building’s staircase and opened the envelope.
The letter began, Dear Aaron Renier,
The members of the Sendak Fellowship committee have forwarded your name as a finalist for this year’s 2010 Sendak Fellowship. The Sendak Fellowship is a residency program that supports and encourages emerging artists interested in telling stories with illustration.
The Fellowship offers a one-month residency in the early fall for four artists to live and work in a house on Mr. Sendak’s property. Artists will be provided a comfortable room and studio in a natural setting, communal space and kitchen. Fellows will work on their own projects, as well as receive instruction and inspiration and participate in a weekly dialogue with Mr. Sendak and visiting artists and professionals in the field.
The letter went on with finer details about the specifics... but my mind trailed to the end where it asked for a response asking, that if I was interested, I should respond by a given date. Luckily, the woman who wrote the letter, Dona Ann McAdams, included her email address, so I was able to give my response in a matter of minutes. My heart pounded as I raced to my computer to write what I hoped to be a cool and collected response. Only after pressing send, and reading my response twenty times, did I realize how hysterically desperate my response was. I had never heard of this program before, and yet, never in my life had I ever wanted anything this badly.
Time passed. A lot of time passed. Weeks passed with very little response. An occasional date was given, but those came and went. I asked if I could tell people... I was told I could tell my friends, but not to blog about it. I asked if I would be told if I didn’t get it... I was told to calm down and relax.
And then, after weeks of being told I was on a final list, I was informed that I was one of four chosen to be a part of the inaugural year of the Sendak Fellowship. I was going to meet Maurice Sendak. I was going to live on his property. It was a dream come true. I felt like I was Charlie Bucket... I felt like I was Charlie Bucket and that I had been eating a Wonka bar, and nobody told me Golden Tickets even existed. It was just there in my chocolate. It was luck beyond luck.
Shortly after, the four fellows were given each other’s names, and I quickly googled them all; Antoinette Portis
, Paul Schmid
, Robert Weinstock
. I went to bookstores and libraries to familiarize myself with their work. In a few long months, I was going to be living with them and I couldn’t wait. When I thought of Mr. Sendak he felt a bit like a character from a dream. I hoped I would get along with him. I hoped he would like me. I didn’t want to be a Veruca Salt or Mike Teavee.
I don’t want to bore everyone with what happened in between. But, one thing that was big in my life, was the release of my second book The Unsinkable Walker Bean
. The fellowship would begin just weeks later, so I made a longer trip out of it. My publisher, First Second, decided to arrange school, library and store visits for me along the east coast. I said goodbye to my dear hound Beluga, and flew back to my old home, New York City. I spent two weeks with my friends in and around the city, in between book signing and talks. It was a great time, but everyday brought me closer and closer to getting on the Greyhound and heading to Mr. Sendak’s house.
I was to get off in a small town near his house where a woman named Lynn was going to pick me up. I had talked to her a few times on the phone, and she felt like someone I had known for a long time.
The trip there was very strange. The bus service overbooked and I sat in two different terminals watching my buses leave without me. I told Lynn from the fellowship that I was running late. I thought initially I’d be an hour or two late, but I ended up being several hours late.
When I finally made it on to my last bus it was after 10 pm, and a strange man was talking to the driver. He was going on and on about his life... talking about how he didn’t have any friends, and that the trip he had just been on to New York, was strictly business. When the bus driver asked him what he did for a living, I could hear his voice shake. He tried to engage the man in friendly banter, but the conversation always came back to how he didn’t have friends, and didn’t need them. There was fear in that bus, and it wasn’t just mine. As I looked around in the dark I could see the other passengers looking at each other, making sure they weren’t alone in feeling a pit in their stomachs.
When I got off the bus, the city was nothing like what I pictured. I seemed to be in some seedy section of town, where people hid in the shadows and stared at you. One man who seemed like an extra from Wild at Heart walked by me several times checking out my one bag of luggage. Even the taco truck that was standing there was foreboding. I stood there asking if they still were making tacos... and the man behind the yellowed screen barely acknowledged my presence. I really wanted a taco.
A young woman who seemed to be from some Scandinavian country, had also just gotten off the bus, and was looking for some directions from a man working at the stop. I propped my suitcase against an outside wall, and used it as a chair as I watched for Lynn to come pick me up. The bus station attendant was tall and skinny and hidden behind dark glasses. He was angular and smoked a cigarette. He pointed at pages in the young woman’s book she was carrying... I assume they were directions in a planner... but the scene made me very uncomfortable. She seemed happy that he was taking an interest in her, but still a little unsure of him. He flagged down a cab and ushered her towards it. He talked awhile with the driver and she got into the back seat. There was already a man in the back and I watched as they silently sat next to one another, occasionally exchanging glances. The station attendant and the cab driver stopped talking but nobody moved. It stayed like this for minutes. Finally, a large man in an even larger Dallas Cowboy’s jersey came staggering drunk down the middle of the street. He stumbled towards the cab and propped himself up next to the driver’s side window. After a short conversation with the driver, the man squeezed in the back on the other side of the woman. The cab driver nodded to the station attendant and took off speeding down the road. I watched the attendant light up another cigarette and watched the car disappear into the dark. He reminded me of the boss man from Cool Hand Luke. It was chilling.
Maybe in some cities cabs don’t drive anywhere unless there is a full cab. I imagine that is true. But it put me on edge.
I sat there for another twenty minutes until a car pulled up again. In the front seat there was a very young round faced boy who was smiling and waving at me. I was so on edge, that I initially thought that it was some weird kid from this strange little town. I looked the other way, and then back. Was this Lynn? There was another woman in back. They all got out of the car, and I heard the voices I had come to recognize from phone conversations. It was Lynn and Dona, and a new character I would come to know; Lynn’s son Nick.
I put my bag in the back seat and I sat shotgun next to Lynn. In the back seat, Nick quickly got back to playing what seemed like a very important game on his iPhone. The next half hour was a bit hazy. I wanted to tell them about that scene back at the bus stop... but it quickly got sucked out of my thoughts. I was being introduced to everyone, joking around in person , and being told that every fellow was late with flight delays, and crazy traffic in New York. I was the first to arrive. We were driving up and down hills, through the pitch black, the only thing visible was the dense woods. I finally let out a deep sigh. I felt like the first time I called a girl in high school, and she answered. She wanted to hang out. It was the same feeling...hanging up the phone and dancing because my parents weren’t home. Finally I was among people that knew what I was about to partake in, and who were going to go through it with me. I instantly felt close to everyone in the car. Even Nick on his iPhone. Everyone was so friendly. They answered every question I asked, and even the biggest one in my head. “When can I meet Mr. Sendak?” I was told I would meet him the following night at dinner.
We pulled into the woods and up a gnarly road. Before me was one of the strangest homes I’d ever seen. It was huge and white and flat, with what seemed like half a bottom story tucked under the hill upon which it was built. It seemed to be built to fit in with some forgotten barn, and at the same time seemed to be made out of windows. Rustic yet modern. I grabbed my bag out of the car, and we all walked the rest of the way to the house together.
Nick led the way inside the house, excited to show me everything. It was amazing. It felt half MTV’s Real World, and half Walden Pond. The building was obviously built many years ago, but it seemed to be the most perfect place for all of my feelings. We walked into the kitchen, and Nick asked if it was me who liked to make pizza. He was corrected by Lynn... it’s Robert who likes to make pizza. As I looked around and rummaged through cabinets, I thought, “I can’t wait to meet Robert... I love to EAT pizza.”
I was shown my room. It was PERFECT. I immediately thought about how I wanted to rearrange the furniture. It had a bed, a dresser, a closet, a drawing table, and a light table that Dona brought, per my request. I opened the drawer of the drafting table and a single marble bounced around and stopped there in front of me. Nobody knew how the marble got there. “Magic,” I whispered.
We walked around a bit more. The artwork on the walls was blowing my mind. Brunhoff, Beatrix Potter, Disney, Bud Fisher, Van Allsburg, and on and on. I was standing in my own private museum. And then Dona said, “Wait’ll you see the McCay.” I jumped a bit and looked at her, she was nodding and her eyes said, “I know.” Somewhere very near by, in Maurice Sendak’s own house, was an original Little Nemo in Slumberland, that I was going to be able to look at. Not to mention that inside that same very house was Mr. Sendak himself. It all became a bit overwhelming.
They told me they’d see me in the morning, and left me behind, alone in this wonderful place. All of the other fellows were somewhere in New York City. Stuck in terrible traffic, or getting ready to leave. For the next hour or so I would have the place to myself. I walked each floor looking at everything, and eventually ended up sitting on the front porch with a fancy bottle of bourbon that I brought to share. I needed a drink in the best sort of way.