DUMBO writer Mallory Kasdan is signing copies of her newly published children’s book, ELLA, this Friday night at BookCourt. Illustrated by Marcos Chin, Kasdan’s cheeky parody gives a fresh spin to Kay Thompson’s beloved Eloise, but instead of setting the scene at Manhattan’s iconic Plaza Hotel, the book features a cool six-year-old who lives at a hip, designer spot called The Local Hotel. Think Eloise run thorough a Brooklyn artisan grinder, with pickled everything and pizza cooked in an oven with “logs from the country.”
Like Eloise, Ella lives large; only now she has a male nanny called Manny who has tattoo sleeves. She sometimes weaves purses from Ziploc bags, and altogether has attended “62 events, including that Hillary Clinton fundraiser.” Her mother works in the “Entertainment Industry,” and would very much like Ella to be well rounded. Kasdan’s voice is pitch perfect and the text is a joy—layered with hilarious detail and whimsy, but also moments of beautiful melancholy. It’s kid friendly and grown-up witty.
I met with Kasdan recently to talk about the book, her life in Brooklyn raising two children, and how she came to chronicle the satirical version of one of our most beloved literary characters.
RD: Tell me how ELLA began. Was writing a children’s book always in your plans?
MK: Not exactly, no. First of all, I didn’t feel as though the original Eloise was really a children’s book. It just didn’t feel that way to me. And it was surprising that no one had done this yet—there was no 80’s version, no 90’s version. It was an opportunity to put out into the world all of the stuff I’ve soaked up living here for a long time and being a parent here. The kernel of the idea initially came from picturing someone in my life having an experience from a classic book. Many of these kinds of ideas and books are timeless and we reinvent the same ideas again and again. Sometimes they’re good. I hope this is a good one.
RD: Were you an Eloise lover as a child?
MK: Yes, I was a big fan. I thought she had such a dreamy set up, she seemed so droll, so sophisticated. I loved books about kids who lived in apartment buildings. I grew up in a house in Pittsburgh. And I thought how amazing it would be to not have to go outside to visit a friend. Just go down the elevator or go down the hall. I thought that was very exciting.
RD: Of course raising our children in Brooklyn often leads to wishing for larger spaces. A house sounds great from time to time.
MK: I know! Now I sometimes think…wouldn’t it be great to just let them go into a backyard?
RD: So obviously Eloise was on your mind, but this is your first children’s book, so tell me how the idea found its way onto the page?
MK: Even though I didn’t have this plan specifically, when it happened it was really exciting to me. It felt very inspired by things happening with my own kids, in my own life. To be able to have a dialogue with my kids that could spur something like this was great. A lot of my daughter, Zoe’s intonations and shtick made it into the book.
She was six when this began. She was obsessed with Eloise as well, and also with staying in hotels. I don’t know how that happened—usually on vacation we rent houses or stay with family, but somehow she still was into the hotel thing.
I’d won a night at the Wythe Hotel from her school auction. Before my husband and I went that night—it was my birthday—Zoe kept asking if she could come with us. I said no!—the Wythe is a fun, hip, cool place—not a place you go to stay with your kids. But once we were there, I found myself thinking, God this would be hilarious if she was here. It was definitely not a kid situation. I thought, she’d be in the middle of this scene acting noisy and bossy, breaking things, scootering around. And then I realized, Oh! This is so obviously where Eloise would live if she were still with us. Eloise would live right here! That was my light bulb.
RD: Then Ella’s beloved Local Hotel is indeed the Wythe? I guess there are lots of theories…
MK: Well, the hotel is now really an amalgamation, but I was inspired by the Wythe, definitely. Marcos did some sketching there as well. Nowadays there’s a whole hotel style though—the ACE, the Standard, others too, that could fit this description. We moved away from getting Brooklyn-specific in the book as the process went on. That’s been one of the best parts of the experience: working with a publisher who understood the reader and guided me. They loved the book, but wanted it a bit more generic. Things can feel very saturated with Brooklyn-ness and this needed to be broader.
RD: In a review I did of ELLA, I mentioned the self-awareness that’s taken hold in places like Brooklyn and Portland—often leading to Preciousness Fatigue but also some fantastic parody—great stuff like Portlandia. I think your book fits into this way of looking at things. I think we apologize a little bit for our behavior, our preoccupations here. Being able to laugh at ourselves and the relentlessly branded scene becomes essential as stores start stocking shelves with toilet paper stamped BKLYN.
MK: Yes, definitely. I think I had more snark and satire in me when first I began. Initially I sent it to places like McSweeney’s. I was thinking it would remain satirical, more of a straight-forward parody, more edgy. Ultimately I’m so happy it went the way it did—the publisher wanted it as a children’s book. Working with an editor who knows what they’re doing and has a full understanding of children’s books, led me to shape it in a way that would read affectionately to the audience. It was a nice thing to see that develop during the process.
RD: Yes, I’d love to talk about that. There is such a lovely balance between satire and deep affection in the book. There’s a ton of humor—the mint muddling, Ella’s online shop where she sells her photographs, etc.—but also real love for this place and this character, and for many of the adult characters populating the book. Talk to me about your feelings about Brooklyn in that regard. Despite it being a great place to live and raise a family, do you feel things have tipped to the ridiculous at this point? And how do you write it in a way that reconciles your affection for it?
MK: I love Brooklyn. I’ve lived here for almost fourteen years, before I was married to my husband. And I’ve seen everything explode and change, but not necessarily in a bad way, and it’s dovetailed with my needs in most ways. It’s absolutely worth laughing at, but I’m not above it—I’m deeply in it. I recognize myself as an archetype. I’m a Brooklyn mom. I’ve got these stupid clog boots. (We both gesture down at our feet.) We all have these uniforms, and that’s why the book is visually successful because it’s an affectionate depiction of things that are over the top, but that we’re kind of used to here. If you saturate it with color and make it move the way Marcos has, without making anyone looking cartoonish, it works. I knew that if this were going to be a book for kids, it would have to balance the sweet with the satire. I’m definitely sometimes exhausted by the coolness, especially as a mother who often feels Not Cool. But the idea is to not be mad about the Brooklyn-ness of Brooklyn, to not be snarky, but still be able to put a point on it. I love the idea of writing from exactly this vantage, this place and time, as a mother and a writer. My husband calls me an overzealous New York convert, which I am. But I can still laugh at myself.
RD: I agree. It’s really just the branding with a capital B and the authentic, approved stamping of our life here that’s gotten so tiresome, not the actual daily life itself. Look at Ella—like a lot of our kids, she has a great life.
MK: Right, and she didn’t need to be identified as living in Brooklyn for the reader to recognize her.
RD: Ella could be found in lots of places these days—Austin, Portland, maybe there’s a Wythe Pittsburgh coming soon.
MK: Right. It’s just worth thinking about and looking at. I’ve always been conscious of my environment, secretly thinking about it and writing about it. Being aware of the artificial nature of what might make something look and feel a certain way. That’s why I love New York—there are so many worlds to immerse yourself in—sometimes I fear less and less so, but it’s still a rich life for my family and me. I feel at the moment that this works well for us. Having a peaceful life can be hard here, but if you want action and energy and to have the potential to have adventures and good conversations and to be with people who are like-minded, there is going to be inconvenience sometimes.
RD: How did you begin working with Marcos Chin? His drawings, like Hilary Knight’s in the original Eloise, add such humor and magic to the book.
MK: He’s so talented. His art is filled with movement and energy—he perfectly grabs a place and moment in time. In general, publishers like to pair you with someone and really prefer you not get in one another’s way. If you’re the author/illustrator it’s different, but as just an author, they pair you. One day, I saw a piece for the MTA that Marcus had done—a 150th anniversary mural for Grand Central. It had people walking through Grand Central with shopping bags—it’s a bit surreal—he had people wearing the cornices and marble details of Grand Central as hats. It was such a beautiful, active mural. I wrote it down and thought, well, ok, either Marcos Chin or Maira Kalman then—one of the world’s most famous and respected illustrators—either of them would be just great! As if Maira Kalman would have done my book—I just didn’t know many illustrators, so you could say I was aiming fairly high there. And then…the publisher picked Marcos! I was thrilled. He’d never done a children’s book either and I realized then that they were really going to get this project and direct the book the right way.
RD: So you gave him minimal input during the illustration process?
MK: Marcos got my text and then he started to work. We talked a few times and a few things from my life made it into the book. For example, my daughter has a rainbow on the wall in her bedroom and that made it in to Ella’s room. My friends got married at the Wythe – two women—and I suggested that we needed a gay wedding in the book and so we have one in there. I’m so jealous of his talent. I always thought ok, I can write, but now I just wish I could draw.
RD: Tell me about the more serious passages. There are a few that are very moving, particularly when we learn more about Ella’s mother, who she Skype’s with before bed.
MK: Ella is a famous kid. I thought about the Jolie-Pitt sort of kids we know so much about. Kids living in hotels, the ones we see in US Weekly and think we know. Her mother is working—she’s an actress or a producer and humanitarian—but she wants to be connected to Ella. When Eloise was written, no one was all that worried about her—this kid who was basically abandoned! There’s the bit about her mother “maybe sending for her if it’s warm.” I tried to mirror Eloise in a modern parlance, but in this case, I wanted to make it clear that even though we don’t see Ella’s mother, we feel her anxiousness, her desire to be close. She wants to be a big deal actress but she wants to keep an eye on Ella too. In Eloise, there is a long passage about her waking nightmare, and it’s quite dark. It didn’t feel right to be dark in exactly the same way so I made it more sentimental, more about feeling sad and lonely.
RD: Tell me about Ella looking up at the stars and thinking we are all one. It’s a very memorable moment.
MK: That was another thing that I used to think about as a kid. I still do when I’m up at night. What can you do with that feeling? You have to calm yourself down. So you say I’m insignificant, but all of us are, and we can still make the most of our lives.
RD: I love the passage about Ella looking into other people’s windows. And it struck me how that’s not something you can do living in other places, like the suburbs. It can be comforting to know people are all around you.
MK: I know for me that I like that—the feeling of people all stacked up around one another. And I wonder how my kids will feel about it—they won’t know any different. I know they love the country when we go on vacation, but I don’t know how they will eventually feel about it. For me it’s calming.
RD: All of our children will probably grow up and live on enormous ranches.
MK: You’re right!
RD: So what’s next? Will you write more children’s books? I hope so.
MK: I have lots of ideas for children’s books, yes. Some kids at a reading recently asked, “Is Ella going to be a movie? Is Ella going to be a series?” I’d like Ella to have more adventures. Maybe she’ll take a trip with Manny. Maybe he’ll become a yoga instructor and they’ll move to Costa Rica for a while. I’d like Ella to have a longer life—it’s a nice world to be in. I have some ideas about other kinds of kids too—maybe a character that is struggling a bit with life in New York.
RD: Well life here can certainly feel like an assault sometimes, particularly if you’re a very sensitive kid.
MK: Yes, I’m interested in that. How some kids cope with life in a loud, busy world. I’m really excited about exploring that idea and writing about how some kids navigate it. I do think my strength is going to be writing about kids in our urban environment.
RD: I really hope to meet Ella again—all of my kids became attached to her and they got all the jokes. Already self-aware! Even if Ella hits the road. I’d love to see her take on places that are nothing like Brooklyn.
MK: Yeah, I really think she doesn’t need to be a thing attached to a certain place. We’re ALL kind of silly and it’s fine that way. No one is that unique, and you have to laugh how everyone is trying to be different all the time. But we’re all in this.
RD: Like Manny says, right? We are everything and we are nothing too.
MK: Exactly! We’re all looking up at the same sky.
As part of the Brooklyn Writers Space Reading Series, Mallory will be reading Friday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at BookCourt, located at 163 Court Street.
She’ll be joined by Rachel Heiman, Matt Matros and Jamie Berk.
This interview first appeared on South Brooklyn Post on February 4, 2015.