Interview: Julie Andrews Reflects on Writing, Reading, Libraries, and Film
A selection of clips from her stage, screen, and television performances over more than 60 years demonstrated clearly why Julie Andrews filled the enormous convention center auditorium to capacity for her keynote speech April 26 at the Texas Library Association's annual conference in Houston. There to promote her new book, the radiant Andrews said she hates the idea of being what publishers call a “celebrity author.” She writes under her married name, Julie Andrews Edwards, and talked about her writing as “a lifelong passion” that began when she was a child performer with a tutor who “allowed me to scribble all I wanted.” Being an author is not a new thing for Julie Andrews: Mandy, her first book, appeared in 1971. Her latest, The Great American Mousical, coauthored with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton and illustrated by former husband Tony Walton, is a delightful introduction for children to the theater—its language, conventions, and personalities.
Andrews said that at this stage in life (she is, hard as it may be to believe, 70) she wants to channel whatever media attention her movie-star status offers into advocacy for reading, which is “all about children learning to use their imaginations. Words, wisdom, wonder,” she said, “there is no greater gift we can give our children.” She talked about how the response of wave after wave of youngsters to her films has made her feel a sense of responsibility to them. Andrews said it was a thrill to have children come up to her and say that one of her books had turned them on to reading.
“Books are an extension of my singing voice,” Andrews said, and although that glorious voice was damaged during vocal cord surgery in 1997, she told the audience she had recorded a song four weeks earlier called “The Show Must Go On,” available on the website of The Julie Andrews Collection, her HarperCollins imprint. “It's always been about the words,” she added, quoting Gabriel García Márquez: “Words matter; books count.”
Thanks to HarperCollins and the persuasive powers of Texas Library Association Executive Director Patricia Smith, the star of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins took time after her keynote speech to talk with American Libraries Editor-in-Chief Leonard Kniffel and Texas Library Journal Editor Gloria Meraz about her faith in the importance of teaching children the joy of reading.
Gloria Meraz: Where does your inspiration come from?
Julie Andrews: It comes from anyplace. Truthfully, once the antennae are kind of up I'm always thinking or looking or feeling. The first book, Mandy, happened because we were filming on this wonderful old Georgian estate in Ireland. We actually lived on the property as well as filmed there and were able to discover how people must have lived in the old days. And the cavernous rooms, they were so beautiful—these glorious Georgian windows that looked out over this vast park. And they did, in fact, have a little shell cottage on the grounds, which is the theme of Mandy. When I was thinking of what to write for my [stepdaughter] Jenny—she had been raised more in the city than in the country—I thought, well, she doesn't know very much about country life and so maybe that's what I can do to begin to bond with her. And that idea came. And the idea for The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles: I was looking something else up in Webster's.
That little mouse in The Great American Mousical honestly is a true story. He was running around in our wardrobe, and it was as if a light bulb came on. I thought, oh my God. Then somebody made a joke about it: he probably came up to see all the big stars up here, and I thought, oh God, of course, they're always down there! What would they know if they were able to think and feel and see? So we had delicious fun writing it.
In Dragon: Hound of Honor, which was probably the most difficult book that we've done recently, I actually was trying to find a word in Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia and I was looking under the Ms and I couldn't find my word, but I did see “Montargis, Dog of,” and I thought, I've never heard of the Dog of Montargis. And there were just five sentences, which summed up what the legend of the Dog of Montargis was. It's a phenomenal story about a dog that witnesses the assassination of his master and eventually just keeps bringing attention to the same person in Paris. It comes to the attention of the king—this is the legend—and the king decrees that there will be a trial by combat between accuser and accused—that is, the man and the dog. And I'm like, it's Gladiator, it's Highlander, or whatever, you know? And then I said to [daughter and coauthor] Emma, this is just fodder for an adventure story for children. I mean, we could teach them about medieval times. And then I had to start doing all the research. What did people eat in those days? How did they live? How did they sleep? What was the kind of armor in that particular period? Nobody had ever written about this legend, and so it was as if details kept falling into our laps. Finally we based it all on the legend but then embroidered it, as truthfully as we possibly could and added what we thought would appeal to children of a young age who would be interested in the great knight. We discovered that as we did more and more and more research, we were more and more right. There were, in fact, these characters, and it's like serendipity. So those kinds of things come my way. It's just if something hits you.
Leonard Kniffel: Mandy seems to have tapped into something universal. Girls, especially, are still reading it, and it's never been out of print. What do you think that special thing is? I have my own theory but....
Julie Andrews: Well, I think it's evocative of many other books. It was the first book I ever wrote. I mean it's like The Secret Garden; its universal theme is how much we all yearn to belong. I don't know what your thought was; I'd love to hear it.
Leonard Kniffel: My thought was that it's about children without adults, and those kinds of books fascinate children.
Julie Andrews: Yes. How do they survive. In my youth, I read an Enid Blyton book called The Secret Island, and the children think their parents have been downed in an aircraft and they weren't seemingly coming back, and they're very, very unhappy, and they removed themselves to an island on a river or a lake.
Gloria Meraz: I was just reading The Great American Mousical and there's such wonderful use of language and such magical language.
Julie Andrews: Oh thank you. You couldn't have said anything lovelier.
Leonard Kniffel: I also noticed the glossary in the back.
Julie Andrews: Yeah, do you like that? I'm glad. We did that also with Dragon because it's teaching children. That's what we put on the website too—how you can access some of the tools if you want to teach a class about it, and especially about medieval stuff. The fun was to bring it down to size for children, the Great White Way. I love the idea of coming down from a star and coming down and then down and then down and then down into the basement, and by that time you've reduced everything. Beginnings are always hard.
Gloria Meraz: Was this a fast book for you to write?
Julie Andrews: Well it was faster than some because, first of all, it was ridiculous fun. I mean the idea of that diva and when she says, “What's to discuss? I'm the star.” You know, I've seldom heard anybody talk like that. But it was such fun to imagine that she was serious. And I love it when she says, “I'd so love you to have seen my performance. It was completely my evening you know.” [Laughing.] It's just what all the ego-driven people might say, and it was terrific fun. We really did tap into people that we might know. I mean, the idea of all these little mice running around with The King and I headdresses on, in “The March of the Siamese Children,” things like that. You know, imagination can create a silly image. We were having a great time. It was faster than most, I guess, because it's what we knew.
Gloria Meraz: Given your career in so many different media, does that help you find that sense of wonder and the magic?
Julie Andrews: I think it comes from those early days with my father and my wonderful tutor. Particularly my dad. We used to go for long walks together. And I think also when I was married to Tony Walton, there were days—because he's such a fine artist—when he'd point something out and the world would shift just that little bit. I remember we were lying on the grass once and I was just looking up at the sun and all that kind of thing. He said, “My God, look at the leaves on that tree above us. It's like lace up there.” And I hadn't seen the leaves. I'd seen some of the general picture, but suddenly it all pulled in and I saw what he saw and I thought, my God, you can view the world differently if you will pay attention.
I want to do a book one day about—although it's been done— a tree. I've long wanted to write it (it's just finding the time) because a tree is actually a miracle that's every 20 yards down the street under children's noses, but I don't think they ever look or say, “Wow, how does it feed itself? What lives in it? How does it draw up? And what's the sap doing? And all of that.” So if I could make that into a little story, that's what I'm talking about, a sense of wonder.
Leonard Kniffel: There's a beautiful song from Flower Drum Song called “A Hundred Million....”
Julie Andrews: “...Miracles are Happening Every Day.” Yes, yes. And I do think that's true. If you can take the time to look. It took me a while to learn that, though some children know it instinctively and they do have wonder when they are kids. But the trouble is, as we grow older, we lose it.
Gloria Meraz: In Mousical it was wonderful to read about these characters, these mice, being very grand and having imaginations, and it's what you're talking about. I think children will read it and see that these little mice, these creatures, are dreaming and doing wonderful things.
Julie Andrews: These lovely things. It's really just bringing it down to their size. I do ask myself sometimes, what am I doing writing about animals that talk like we do? But I guess it's okay if it brings across a point. I've got to start writing about real people again! [Laughing.]
Leonard Kniffel: I'd like to ask you what role libraries have played in your life or are playing now.
Julie Andrews: Well not so much now, but in my youth, living in Walton-on-Thames in England, it was just a little country village, and the library was “the big place.” It looked like just an ordinary sort of old-looking schoolhouse, but it was a place where you went and then suddenly you could access something magical. And one couldn't afford all of the books one wanted in those days.
Leonard Kniffel: I wanted to ask you about public libraries in the U.K. because they've been having a difficult time lately.
Julie Andrews: Well, I'm so seldom there, but Mousical has just been taken up by Puffin in England and they're going to be publishing it in the fall, and I will be going over. I'm glad you pointed it out to me because I can do something, you know, just in a very small way. I meant what I said today. The librarians that I've spoken to, the teachers and the librarians who really care and do advise parents and children of what's good and what's out there, they are very special. They have a kind of wisdom that a lot of people don't have.
Leonard Kniffel: And your recognition of that is important.
Julie Andrews: It's only something that I realized as I began to write and to travel and meet people, because you suddenly see the passion that's out there, and it's lovely. And I do think, where would kids be if it weren't for you and for the good pediatricians, and for the good parents? I passionately believe in sitting a child on your lap and tracing the lines of the book with your finger, and they can read before they know they can, if you bother enough. I did it with my kids, and they're doing it with their kids now.
Leonard Kniffel: The Library of Congress has something called The National Film Registry….
Julie Andrews: They're a great organization. Phenomenal. They've asked me to donate all my papers there actually, which I'm thrilled about.
Leonard Kniffel: Librarian of Congress James Billington has called for more nominations to the National Film Registry, and one of your films is on the registry: The Sound of Music. What would be the next film of yours to be added to the registry if you were choosing?
Julie Andrews: Well it's probably a foregone conclusion, if it's a National Film Registry for children everywhere....
Leonard Kniffel: The films are selected because they are culturally, historically, or esthetically significant. They're placed on this film registry as an effort to permanently preserve and make accessible these films to the American people.
Julie Andrews: Oh, so it's not just for children. I see. Well, then that's different. Oh my.
Well I'd really have to think about that. There are some films that my husband [Blake Edwards] made, of course. Days of Wine and Roses is a very important film about alcoholism.
Leonard Kniffel: But what about your films?
Julie Andrews: There was a film—and you're going to think I'm crazy—that he and I made together and it's not what you'd expect me to say. It is called S.O.B. It is truly a slice, a real cut at Hollywood. But it has become a cult film, and I think it's a marvelous piece of work. I really do. I think it's riotously funny and silly and everybody remembers, of course, that I bared my breasts, but it was all done for a reason: that aren't we all silly, and what Hollywood is up to and media hype and all that kind of thing. So that one maybe. And maybe The Americanization of Emily because of the point that it makes about making heroes of our dead, and our anthem, therefore procreating war.
Leonard Kniffel: Not so much antiwar, but antiheroization?
Julie Andrews: Exactly. Glamorizing it being very wrong. And, oh gosh, you could go on and on. Those two will do. Blake made a wonderful cowboy movie called The Wild Rovers, and it's a little-known film of his. But he deliberately tried to do something that I think is rather interesting. He wanted the audience to root for the wrong guys. He wanted to see if the bad guys could be so damned attractive that you wanted them to survive and that the good guys were so unbelievably mean and mean-spirited. They're not good but really have their own hang-ups and their demons. And I think he succeeded. I watched Blake write it. Every voice in it is part of him-the cowboy that says, “Hey, I want it now. I don't want to wait till I'm 98 years old and still struggling.” It's a very good movie. It was cut to ribbons, but that's another story.
Leonard Kniffel: Are there other books that influenced you? Librarians love to hear what people are reading or authors they admire.
Julie Andrews: Oh! What influenced me as a child I guess was, funnily enough, the book that we actually have in [the Julie Andrews Collection] The Little Grey Men. I know I harp on my father a great deal, but he bought that for me when I was about 10 years old, and it hit me the way Watership Down might hit you if you were reading that today. It was a beautiful nature study. But, again, I really got the idea of bringing things down to size for children and yet teaching them so much. Through that little book I really became aware of every aspect of nature, and it influenced me a great deal. It's no accident that that book takes in the four seasons and that my best book, Mandy, takes in the four seasons too. It just seemed like a wonderful way to signify the passage of time and all that. And you really do see nature in all its glory. It's a wonderful little book. If you love reading children's books it's really great. It hadn't been published here for years and years and years. It's still in publication in England and I've had the rights to it for years. I'd love to see it done as an animated film.
Gloria Meraz: It seems as if all of your careers, your interests, your relationship with your family have put you in a perfect position to be a children's book author.
Julie Andrews: I suppose partially because of the success of the early movies and things like that, I began to realize, that children do look up to you in some way, and there is a responsibility for how you behave with them. I know that it's important to make them feel very valuable, not to talk down to them. And I try not to when we write.
Gloria Meraz: It's so wonderful the way you talk about your efforts to promote literacy because it's an important message for librarians to hear. So often they feel like the unsung heroes. When someone of your stature is talking about how important literacy is and what they do, it elevates them.
Julie Andrews: Try to imagine how daunting it is to be on a panel with someone like David [McCullough], all these wonderful authors at the National Book Festival, for example. And they're asking you to get up and read from your work. I was on a panel with people who were reading excerpts from their books, and [McCullough] was doing it and several other people were, and I was last. And I read a little, tiny bit from Little Bo, one of my early, early books, and I go, what am I doing up here? But it's all valuable, I suppose, a different take on things. They were very tactful with me.
Gloria Meraz: Tell us a little bit about your website.
Julie Andrews: We just realized that we were living in the day, today, and that we did need to [create one]. We thought of the useful tools, the teacher things that they can access to help teach children in classes, and things like that, and if I could bring children into the website and have them play games and make them engage…. It won't be on for another two or three weeks, but one of the games we're doing is based on a gorgeously illustrated book, Simeon's Gift, that [daughter] Emma and I wrote. And it's about a musician, and they can put together the sounds of the river, the sounds of the birds, and all that and make a song on their own from the website game. And that seems like something that is valuable and good. So we really tried to stretch it and embrace it.
Leonard Kniffel: In your speech to the Texas Library Association, I heard your concern about technology and social changes that children are facing.
Julie Andrews: I see it with my grandchildren—some of my grandchildren, not all of them. The only hope is that you can engage them enough. All it takes is one book. I mean literally one book will do it. And our one daughter reads all the time and then reads again and again. I mean she loves books, I mean really adores them. The other one has a real problem reading, and I keep looking for that one thing, because she just walks away from it and I cannot make it happen for her. She really does have a perception problem, I think. As I say, it takes one book. And I see my little grandson, who is 8, is a whiz at all these computer games, but that's it. And he's a genius at it, and I'm told that they can be very stimulating to children; they can inspire all kinds of things. Not that I knock them, but all he does is zap people and cream people and kill people, you know, and he's having a fine old time and in his head I don't know where he's at. But I keep looking for the one moment that I can say, here, how about that one, you know? That's all it takes, and I guess you just wait and watch and hope that you can be there at the moment that they can get turned on. It's a thrill to hear children go up to me and say Mandy was my first book or Whangdoodle was my first book and it made me want to read more. Because that's how I discovered it, you know.
Gloria Meraz: What's still on your life list?
Julie Andrews: Oh, a hundred more books. I hope I live long enough to do them. I have to say that this has surprised me as much as it might surprise anybody else. It's something that's ongoing and I'm discovering as I go. I guess I always thought that as I got older maybe I'd have the time to write something but it never occurred to me that it would be such a joy to work with my daughter or that she'd be the one who's the whiz at it. Of course she's very tapped into the media side of it. But she's far smarter than I am, she writes better than I do. But it's such a joy. It's something that I'm just learning as I go and I'm having a wonderful time doing it because, you know, now that I'm not singing and things like that it is an extension of the voice, and when she pointed that out to me I thought, wow, yeah it can be.
Leonard Kniffel: You said something about enjoying the process of writing. Do you actually enjoy the writing?
Julie Andrews: I do and I don't.
Leonard Kniffel: I tend to agree with Dorothy Parker who said, “I hate writing; I love having written.”
Julie Andrews: Yes, yes. I do too. But the thing is, the actual process is tough, it's like learning a role where you never think you're going to be able to conquer it when you start and it just takes enough focus and narrowing and getting enthusiastic and not losing it and so on. But the other thing I do love is that I'm never lonely when I'm writing, because you live with the characters that are so alive in your mind. And you really see them and know them and get to be friends with them. So in a way I do hate the process of writing. It's never good enough, but you aim for something and you hope it comes somewhat close. But it is a pleasure once you have written it; she's right, absolutely right.
Leonard Kniffel: I also wanted to tell you one thing. I have a group of friends and for us it was the first Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall special in 1962 that made us fans, especially when you had the temerity to make fun of The Sound of Music with that wonderful satirical song.
Julie Andrews: Well, but nobody knew in those days that I would be doing the movie, you know. I mean it was long before the offer to do it ever came through.
Leonard Kniffel: We memorized that song about goat's milk and yogurt and good food and bread, puddings and starches and dumplings like lead.
Julie Andrews: [Laughing.] You know, we're hoping to do a fourth one. We've done three. It's [Carol Burnett's] birthday today, would you believe? I have to go home and phone her.
Leonard Kniffel: I also remember that the two of you sang “Big D” on that special too, the song about Texas, dressed up in cowboy clothes, and I kept thinking that somehow it was so appropriate for you to be speaking in Texas.
Julie Andrews: Where are you from?
Leonard Kniffel: Chicago.
Julie Andrews: We just came from there. We literally were in Chicago yesterday. We went to a huge high school and lectured to 800 young kids and I signed books. And then there was a Q and A. Kids ask such great questions. One asked, “How did you get to be so famous?” Just like that. So I said, I was very, very lucky. I think his mother told him this was an important person or something.
Gloria Meraz: When you are writing, do you stage in your head?
Julie Andrews: Yes, I do. The opening of Dragon is all about the morning, and I mean visually I saw the plain and the mist rising and the larks singing. And it's just what I've known, I suppose. You have to sort of try to write what you know. It is visual. I do see it in my head, no doubt about it.
Gloria Meraz: We all often wonder how being a performer changed your life, but how did writing change your performing, if it did?
Julie Andrews: That's a good question. The immediate answer off the top of my head is that I don't think it did. I think if something changed my life it would be the idea that scenes and characters are rather important, and my husband stresses that all the time. He says you can have the flimsiest story but if your characters are strong enough you've got something going for you