Shel Silverstein: An Interview by Publisher's Weekly

(February 24, 1975)

by Jean F. Mercier

PW got an idea of why it has taken the publicity people at Harper & Row nearly a year to set up an interview with Shel Silverstein when we overheard him telling Joan Robins of Junior Books: "I'll be around town for about a week, I think. Then I'll probably go to East Hampton or Key West. Maybe both, I'll see."

He is a strong, well-muscled, fit-looking man who wears blue jeans and a big cowboy hat. Though he has to be into his 40s (he's a Korean War veteran), he is also totally in touch with the contemporary scene. His songs, notably "A Boy Named Sue," have made Shel a hit with pop singers and their vast audiences. Those he prefers to sing his songs (they do) are Bobby Bare, Dr. Hook, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Johnny Cash. Besides composing the music and writing the lyrics of his own songs, Shel has made a name for himself as a cartoonist. Many of his brisk, spare drawings have appeared in Playboy.

How, then, PW wanted to know, had he decided to get into children's books? "I didn't," Shel said, "I never planned to write or draw for kids. It was Tomi Ungerer, a friend of mine, who insisted. . . practically dragged me, kicking and screaming, into Ursula Nordstrom's offic. And she convinced me that Tomi was right; I could do children's books."

The relationship between Ursula Nordstrom and Shel Silverstein is mutually rewarding. He considers her a superb editor who knows when to leave an author-illlustrator alone. Asked if he would change something he had produced on an editor's say-so, he answered with a flat "No." But he added: "Oh, I will take a suggestion for revision. I do eliminate certain things when I'm writing for children if I think only an adult will get the idea. Then I drop it, or save it. But editors messing with content? No."

Had he been surprised by the astronomical record of "The Giving Tree," his biggest seller to date, and one of the most successful children's books in years? Another emphatic no. "What I do is good," he said. "I wouldn't let it out if I didn't think it was."

But "The Giving Tree," which has been selling steadily since it appeared 10 years ago and has been translated into French, is not his own favorite among his books. "I like 'Uncle Shelby's ABZ,' 'A Giraffe and a Half' and 'Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back'--I think I like that one the most."

"The Giving Tree" is one of those rare creations that seem to defy categorization, appealing equally to the reverent and the irreverent, the sophisticated and the simple. It tells of a tree and the use a man makes of it. When he is a boy, he plays in the tree's branches and enjoys its luscious fruit. Later, he courts his love under the tree and uses some of its wood to build a house for his family. Years pass; the man is now old and alone. The tree lets him take its trunk to carve a boat from, and the man rows away. Finally he returns for the last time to sit and rest on the stump of the tree--all that's left of it.

Shell cannot explain the book's phenomenal sales, but suggests: "Maybe it's that it presents just one idea." Whatever it is, praise from the pulpit and from ecologists and from people who like to feel they have discovered the book all on their own moved over 100,000 copies of the book out of the stores and into homes in 1974 alone--and the demand shows no signs of slowing.

He is naturally pleased by this, but he doesn't like to think about the reason for its success. "I still like the book but I think that books, even for really little kids, can deal with more than one idea. A story could deal with more, even 50--and so can the reader, if the ideas are all laid out." He feels that "Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back" does deal with several complicated ideas, for instance.

"I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick one up and experience a personal sense of discovery. That's great. But for them, not for me. I think if you're a creative person, you should just go about yoru business, do your work and not care about how it's received. I never read reviews, because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don't care about success. I do, but only because it lets me do what I want. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too."

When he's not wandering around, he lives on a houseboat off Sausalito--"but I'm free to leave. . . go wherever I please, do whatever I want; I believe everyone should live like that. Don't be dependent on anyone else--man, woman, child or dog. I want to go everywhere, look at and listen to everything. You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life."

There wasn't much wonderful around when Shel was growing up in a small town in the Midwest. "When I was a kid--12, 14, around there--I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls. But I couldn't play ball, I couldn't dance. Luckily, the girls didn't want me; not much I could do about that. So, I started to draw and to write. I was also lucky that I didn't have anyone to copy, be impressed by. I had developed my own style, I was creating before I knew there was a Thurber, a Benchley, a Price and a Steinberg. I never saw their work till I was around 30. By the time I got to where I was attracting girls, I was already into work, and it was more important to me. Not that I wouldn't rather make love, but the work has become a habit.

In addition to working hard at his craft, he "noodles around with other things." On his houseboat he keeps a piano, a guitar, a saxophone, a trombone and a camera; he's trying them all "just to see if I can come up with anything."

He goes on: "I have an ego, I have ideas, I want to be articulate, to communicate but in my own way. People who say they create only for themselves and don't care if they're published. . . I hate to hear talk like that. If it's good, it's too good not to share. That's the way I feel about my work.

"So I'll keep on communicating, but only my way. Lots of things I won't do. I won't go on television because who am I talking to? Johnny Carson? The camera? Twenty milliohn people I can't see? Uh-uh. And I won't give any more interviews."

Silverstein put his cowboy hat back on and got ready to leave. Hastily, PW rushed in one last question. What does he plan to do next? "I'm going to write a couple of plays." He agreed the idea of such a different genre was a challenge. "But I've been fooling with the thoughts about these plays long ehough; the time has come to see if I can bring them off."

And he was on his way, leaving PW--and, no doubt, his publishers--with the thought that whatever else he may try, it would be a sad day for the children if "Uncle Shelby" were to desert children's books.