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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

July 5, 2001

It might be odd for a New Yorker, a Brooklynite to be more precise, to think of life in a low-key university town as approximating an urban existence. Compared with his previous digs in the backwoods of Franklin County, though, Amherst is "city life," according to Norton Juster.

Then again, contradictions and things that aren't what they seem are not a problem for the creator of Milo, the bored little boy who enters a world of punsters and idea benders in "The Phantom Tollbooth." The children's book, which Juster wrote 40 years ago, has shaped his life in many ways.

For one thing, it got him to Massachusetts. Juster said he never had "a chunk of money that wasn't spoken for" until he sold the film rights to "The Phantom Tollbooth" in 1968. He also had never thought of a country house as anything other than an abstraction. He was an architect then, with a steady job teaching design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and he and his wife, Jeanne, plunked their movie windfall down on a farm in Buckland, near Amherst. It was to be their weekend cottage.

Two years later, in 1970, they moved to Buckland full time, and Juster unsuccessfully sought a teaching job at Amherst College. Instead, after hearing about "this crazy little college" opening up down the road, he became a part-time faculty member at Hampshire College during its debut semester and taught there until retiring in 1992. He also started an architectural practice and wrote books, mostly for children.

A triangulated career suited Juster, now 72, because, he said, he could only do two of the three things he loved doing (teach, design, and write) at any given time. Knowing that the third thing awaited him kept him happy.

To understand this logic it helps to know that Milo, the protagonist of Juster's most famous book, was autobiographically inspired. "The Phantom Tollbooth" opens with the plight of the boy who never knew what to do with himself: "When he was in school, he longed to be out, and when he was out, he longed to be in. On the way, he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going."

Twenty years ago, Juster and his family left the hills in favor of town life when his young daughter longed for easier access to activities and friends. The center of Amherst attracted them, he said, because they figured, "if we're going to be in town, let's be in the middle of town."

One appeal of the house they found, built between 1910 and 1914, was that only one family had owned it for the previous 50 years, limiting the opportunities for multiple owners to, as he said, "muck things up."

It is big and bright and required little work other than dispatching the array of various wallpapers in each room. Juster prefers white walls because, he said, a house should be "a background to the rest of your life."

His writing space (inspired by his 5-year-old granddaughter, he is writing books for small children) is a low-ceilinged office under the roof, notable for the lack of electronic equipment. The tools of his trade are No. 2 pencils, which he acknowledges chewing. A dartboard hangs on the wall for when writer's block strikes. Stuff tends to pile up in his office, and periodically, he devotes two days to just cleaning surfaces.

"My idea of a perfect world would be to have an endless amount of work surfaces or a series of rooms so that I could just move on to the next one when one gets filled with stuff," he said.

Using writing as a respite from architecture made sense, said Juster, because "one thing I quickly noticed is that very few people sue children's book authors." Also, "as an architect, if you spend five percent of your time doing what you like to do, you're lucky." Now in semi-retirement, he devotes himself more fully to writing. "All I have to do in the morning is face the terrors of the blank sheet of paper."

He writes for only a few hours at a time. Afternoons are devoted to hobbies such as pickling. He keeps his basement larder of chutneys, marmalades, and pickles well-stocked.

"Modesty prevents me from saying that my New York kosher pickles are the best in the world, but they're not far," he said. The woman who bought his Buckland house still brings him a basket of quinces from a tree in the yard every year.

Besides "The Phantom Tollbooth," illustrated by Jules Feiffer, with whom Juster shared a Brooklyn bachelors pad in the late 1950s, Juster's books include "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics," which Chuck Jones made into an Academy Award-winning short animation in 1965, and "Alberic the Wise." He also edited a book for adults called "A Woman's Place: Yesterday's Rural Women in America."

Juster's literary career got off to a false start in the Navy. Stationed in Newfoundland, he said, "there was nothing to do. You could go crazy, so I started writing and illustrating, doing watercolors and hanging them up."

His commanding officer objected, however, saying he was demoralizing the battalion because, Juster recalls, "real men don't do children's stuff."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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