Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Elise Broach's children's book Masterpiece. Marvin lives with his family under the kitchen sink in the Pompadays' apartment. He is very much a beetle. James Pompaday lives with his family in New York City. He is very much an eleven-year-old boy. After James gets a pen-and-ink set for his birthday, Marvin surprises him by creating an elaborate miniature drawing.
What inspired you to write a story about a beetle and a boy who become friends?
I've always loved books about miniature worlds, and I thought it would be fun to write a story with that component. I also liked the challenge of creating a strong relationship--one full of love and trust and loyalty--between two friends who couldn't ever talk to each other.
Like your first novel, Shakespeare’s Secret, you seamlessly combine history, art, mystery, love, and friendship. Is there a method to balancing the various threads?
I think the key to balancing the different threads is to have them connect in crucial ways--so that the mystery fundamentally illuminates the friendship, or the themes of art and love are tightly linked. When the different elements of the story are tangled up in each other, progress in one area tends to influence another; likewise with impediments.
Were you interested in the work of Albrecht Dürer and other Renaissance artists before writing this novel? Discuss your interest in art.
I've always loved to draw, so in that sense, I've been interested in art since I was a child. I took lots of History of Art classes in college and worked at the Yale Art Gallery during my senior year. When I came up with the idea of Marvin doing miniature drawings, I tried to think of an artist who would be a good match for that talent--whose drawings were almost magically tiny and precise. Durer was the person who came to mind. As I researched more about his life, he felt like a good fit for the story in so many other ways; diversely-talented; intense and melancholy; but generous with his colleagues and devoted to his friends.
Have you been inspired by novels that depict miniature worlds? If so, what are some of your favorites? Did they influence you in writing Masterpiece?Oh, yes! The two books of this type that I loved when I was growing up were The Borrowers and The Littles. The artist Michael Heizer has said that the human experience of awe is related to the immense size of something; massive structures evoke a sense of awe. But I think awe is more related to scale. Something very small can create a sense of awe, too: the wonder of something so tiny and perfect. For me, that's what stories about miniature worlds do. There's something so appealing about the idea of a magic, secret realm that exists on a much, much smaller scale than the real world.
James gets credit for artwork he didn’t create. How does he deal with this awkward situation? And what does he learn in the process?
When James receives praise for Marvin's artwork, he is filled with conflicting emotions: delighted at the attention, proud of his friend's work, guilty at undeserved compliments, worried about the consequences of telling the truth. He is driven to end the charade eventually--because the burden of the deception becomes increasingly unbearable--but he has to do so without putting his friend at risk. I think basically James just wants to be liked and valued for his true self; and in the course of the story, his friendship with Marvin gives him that gift.
How did you react when you first saw Kelly Murphy’s illustrations for the book? How were they similar or different from the mental images you had of your own?
From the minute I saw Kelly's first sketches, I loved her art for this story! She has a gentle, quirky touch that manages to be both endearingly old-fashioned and distinctively modern. Her art is full of detail and personality--perfect for the parallel worlds of Marvin and James. As to whether Kelly's pictures matched my own mental images: it's strange, but this happens to me with my picture books, too--as soon as I saw Kelly's images, they effectively replaced whatever I'd held in my head all through writing the book.
Marvin says that “people like James weren’t treated right by the world . . . They were doomed to be jostled, bullied, and overlooked because they didn’t know how to take up space for themselves, to insist on their own share.” By the end of the novel, does James learn how to “take up space for himself”? What motivates him to act? Briefly explain.
Hmmm. That is an interesting question. I think James learns how to take up space for someone else--he takes action to help Marvin--and in the process, also learns how to stand up for himself. But maybe the larger answer to this question is that when you have a true friend, you are no longer doomed to be jostled, bullied, and overlooked by the world, because someone in the world is always paying particular attention to you.
At its heart, this is a story about friendship. Do you agree? Please discuss.
Oh, absolutely! See the answer above. :) I consider myself very lucky in my friendships, and it was really fun to write a story that is at heart a tribute to all of the things my friends give me--the laughter, companionship, goofy adventures, interesting ideas, and thoughtful support. Marvin's and James's friendship has so many challenges... they belong to different species, they can't speak to each other, and, really, how much can a beetle do for a little boy? But I hope that the story's answer to that last question is 'quite a lot.' Marvin and James are on each other's side; they take each other's part; they want what is best for each other. Theirs is a great friendship, by any measure.
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