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Interview: Edward Gorey (Newsday)

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Nov 8, 1998

By Emily Gordon

E IS FOR Edward, who likes to pet cats. It doesn’t have quite the shadowy pall that most of Edward Gorey’s work does, but then, Gorey is far from a one-dimensional character. On an early fall day in his Cape Cod house, viney with a calamitous garden amid tidy New England clapboard and a proper village common, Gorey sits in his kitchen and holds forth in a deeply amused, somewhat theatrical drawl that, despite his trajectory from Chicago to Harvard to New York to here, is untraceably singular. You might not expect the author of — among many, many other odd, funny, vaguely terrifying illustrated books — “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” “The Unstrung Harp” and, out this month, “The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas” (Harcourt Brace, $15), to make exclamations like “Oh grand,” and “Anyhoo,” but Gorey’s surprises are as ceaseless as his conversation.

“Tea-Cosy,” which first appeared in The New York Times Magazine, is “A Christmas Carol” retold, sort of. “They sent me a copy of Dickens’ `Christmas Carol,’ and they said … would you like to do your version of it? … I wrote the text for that and sent it off to them, and they said, Whoopee! and I thought, you people really are crazy.” The tea-cosy, property of one Edmund Gravel — “known as the Recluse of Lower Spigot to everybody there and elsewhere,” as the book’s first page informs us — is haunted by a six-legged emcee for various “subfusc but transparent” ghosts, whose lessons, unlike those in Dickens, are dramatically inconsequential. Nevertheless, at the end of the book, Gravel is compelled not to buy turkeys for urchins but to celebrate with all Lower Spigot and a fruitcake. “I wouldn’t buy [the book] as a present, but then apparently they’re hoping for lots of people to,” its author says impishly.

Gorey has been coming to Cape Cod for more than 50 years and has lived in this house since 1985. He says of the explosion of plant life outside the window, “I just let this run totally crazy. I’m sure everybody could cheerfully kill me.” He talks about his garden in fatherly but laissez-faire tones — his philosophy of landscaping is “Let them all fight it out!” Dear as it remains, his retreat has changed considerably since he first moved here. “It’s much more suburban… . But on the other hand, I’ve been here forever. We all sit around crabbing about it all the time - there’s nothing to do here, so you might as well have something to crab about!”

Still, he’s no Recluse of Lower Spigot. He and his cousins prowl local yard sales, where “there’s one thing that they can always get me to buy: rusting iron. I have boxes filled with rusting iron objects.” He also receives visitors when in the right mood; he offhandedly mentions the regular pilgrimages of a pair of aspiring comic artists, whom he chats with despite his bafflement at their product. (“Comic books I feel have long since escaped me — I’m trapped back in Marvel comics.”) As for crazed fans, “I haven’t actually been attacked. Sometimes people come and knock at the door, or waylay me someplace or other.”

Gorey has five cats (the woman at the pet store “knew I was a sucker”). Why no cats in “Tea-Cosy,” or, for that matter, any other Gorey concoctions? “I think there are a number of rather depressed-looking dogs in there somewhere. Ordinarily I don’t have regular cats in my books. I wouldn’t presume on their … something or other.” Dignity? “Sure,” he says, addressing one. “Cats are seething with dignity, aren’t they, dearie, you great fat pig.”

Gorey traces his immediately recognizable style to 19th-century book illustration, “the kind of stuff that Max Ernst cut up for all the collages and whatnot. It’s always sort of fascinating, because to us it looks so sinister and lugubrious and everything, but it obviously can’t have looked that way to anyone in the 19th century — I mean, they would have all committed suicide back then!”

Though this is his first commercially published book in about a decade, Gorey draws many smaller books and has an infinite number of works in progress. “I’m so far behind on all my drawing I’m thinking of giving it up entirely,” he says with a comic grimace. He gets loads of requests to illustrate classics, but proceeds with caution: He refuses to do any Jane Austen, for instance, calling her — with awe — “totally unillustratable,” and says that people who redo the “Alice in Wonderland” illustrations “shouldn’t even be let near a drawing board.”

But Gorey is the first to admit his mind hasn’t been on his art much lately. He’s busy with theater: specifically, puppet plays, which he writes, directs, designs and stages all around the Cape. He just put on Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales for Children” with puppets whose heads he describes as “little shapeless lumps,” and recently he did one of Seneca’s tragedies with puppets in eight minutes. Not to mention Shakespeare: “I just finished doing … the first quarto of `Hamlet,’ which is completely loopy, and I’ve made it even loopier by reducing it to 216 lines.”

Gorey procrastinates, like many of us, with television. In keeping with his eye for the otherworldly, ” `The X Files’ and `Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ are the things I live for,” but he doesn’t have much truck with any of the prime-time animated shows. “On the other hand, `Ned’s Newt’ I feel is the greatest … It’s about a little boy named Ned Flemkin, who has huge jug ears.” (It’s on Fox at 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays.)

And, of course, he reads. How about Dickens? “Well, I am a Dickens fan. Unfortunately, there was an anecdote I read about Dickens, and I haven’t read a word of Dickens since. I haven’t told anybody, I don’t wish to burden anybody with it. It haunts me.” Much like a certain presence his cats kept noting up in the rafters. “It was nothing you could see or anything. And then it disappeared a couple months ago,” Gorey says. “I have no theory at all.”

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