After years of working as a costume and set designer with her creative and romantic partner Wes Anderson (see panoplies of her imagination on display in Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, among others), Juman Malouf has written her first book. The Trilogy of Two is filled with magic, music, and a natural narrative flair, and that just describes the words: Malouf, who was born in Beirut and grew up in London, has also populated the young adult novel with her beautiful, oneiric illustrations. It's a transporting and enchanting experience, just like all the best books are.
On a rainy November morning, Sweet sat down with Malouf (whose favorite word is "slither") at a cozy cafe in The Marlton Hotel in New York City's West Village. Wearing a ruffled vintage dress in emerald green and penny loafers, Malouf evokes any number of Anderson's characters (which is, of course, appropriate since she designed the costumes for most of them). Here, she talks about the thrill (and struggle) of writing her first novel, and how it felt to—finally!—create a world all her own.
What made you want to write this book?
"I never wanted to write, because my mother is a writer. So I thought, I can do visual arts and she can be more of the writer. But then I had this idea, and my other work [as a costume and set designer] wasn't satisfying enough. It wasn't so much world-building: the director tells you what to create. I realized as I was writing this book: I like to be the person who is creating the worlds and creating the characters."
I like to be the person who is creating the worlds and creating the characters.
How did you come up with them?
"It's funny, because a lot of them are based on people I know. The twins are major ones: they're my best friends from middle school. They were identical, and one wanted so badly to be with the other one but she wanted so badly to have her own identity. Tatty is based on my grandmother from Lebanon. She was illiterate, but very smart and interesting, and she always had a group of these crazy people who would come to hear her stories." Oh, and the bearded lady looks exactly like my brother, which is something he does not love.
Did you illustrate and write the book at the same time?
"When I'm writing, I'm using all my concentration and cannot even listen to anything. If someone walks in the room I'm like, "I'm trying to concentrate here, get out!" But I've been drawing most of my life, so [when I'm drawing] I have room to do other things. I listened to all the Charles Dickens books on tape—that's why the drawings have a bit of a Dickensian feel to them."
This was your first foray into writing. What did you learn?
"I had to learn how to write! When I got the idea for the book, I thought, This will be easy. In a year or two I'll be done. But then I realized, Oh, no, now I really have to use a different part of my brain. I was always in the arts—drawing, doing sets, or making costumes. So it's been wonderful because it's given me a skill that I can use even now, when I write emails."
The bearded lady looks exactly like my brother, which is something he does not love.
Whom did you write this book for?
"I wrote it for who I imagined myself and my friends to be when we were 11 and 12. Those were some of my favorite times. I think being 12 is so magical. You basically feel like you can do anything and you accept anything. You're less judgemental and you're very free. It's a time when you believe you can be anyone, so I think that age is very precious and I tend to gravitate toward it.
Also, the idea of being young and having talent and it being stolen, that came from my college experience. Because all my friends in college were artists, and then as we left school those people stopped doing those things-- they felt pressure, or they felt Well, is this even a real job?"
So, most of them are not in creative fields anymore?
"I would say only 20 percent of them stayed in creative fields."
Your novel just came into the world. How do you feel?
"Loss, relief, anxiety. Will people like it? But I am excited that people I know are finally going to read it. The most important thing is that a younger audience will read it. I'm most excited to hear what they say."
The Trilogy of Two, $18, mcnallyjackson.com.