Caleb’s Cab: Sally and Sylvain Chomet interview

Illustrated by the director of animated films Belleville Rendez-Vous & The Illusionist is Caleb's Cab, a children's book by Sally Chomet...

Caleb’s Cab is the first book by Sally Chomet and it is a great story for children, creating an anarchic world in which Caleb, a young boy, must try to keep his mother out of debt after the mysterious disappearance of his father. He does this by taking over his father’s job as a cab driver – but the cab turns out to not be your average car, and an entirely different world from the one Caleb knows awaits him.

The inventiveness of the two worlds Caleb finds himself straddling is a gift for reading aloud, and it’s the kind of book that would really work being explored over the course of a few night-time reading sessions, with each chapter ending on a moment of excitement. From bizarre beauty treatments to living cash dispensers, there’s loads to enjoy, with a touch of Roald Dahl and a hint of slapstick coming together beautifully – and, of course, there are the illustrations to share, each one containing the most inventive and surprising details of the book. These illustrations were created by Sally’s husband, the writer and director Sylvain Chomet.

Chomet’s films are visually inventive, entertaining and funny as well as containing a real warmth for their unusual characters. From the determined Grandmother in Belleville Rendez-vous (2003) to the mute piano player of Attila Marcel (2013), these people draw us in to their worlds, and involve us in their struggles. So it’s no surprise that, when it came to illustrating a children’s book, Chomet breathed life into the pages with his drawings.

We spoke to Sally and Sylvain about their collaboration for this book and on previous films, and how the experiences differed…

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I really enjoyed the little details that breathed life into Caleb’s story, for instance the spam curry that he makes at the beginning that we then see sitting on the table in one of the illustrations while Caleb’s mum is completing her very peculiar beauty routine! Do you both have favourite moments or details from Caleb’s Cab?

Sally: As far as favourite moments go, I enjoyed creating scenes with Caleb’s adversaries the dreaded SODs (spoiled overeducated delinquents) and I had a lot of fun with the shortcomings of Caleb’s infuriating mother, Mopsy. There are many smaller details I could pinpoint but one of my favourites is that one of the book’s most pivotal moments involves a fondant fancy!

Did you share a similar vision of what Caleb and his adventures would look like, or were there aspects that you had different opinions about?

Sally: On the whole we had a similar general vision of what Caleb’s story was. Once that was established I was left to get on with the writing part. Two people can’t write a book. Along the way Sylvain had some strong images in his mind’s-eye, including the appearance of the cab itself and other details such as Mopsy’s ‘face-press’. It was no problem to accommodate those.

Sylvain: I was inspired by Sally’s vision of the story. We find the same things funny and I can rely on her to present me with things I enjoy to draw, like cars, dogs, ugly people and old people – ridiculous situations. I have to confess I’ve always been envious of Quentin Blake’s luck to illustrate Roald Dahl’s stories. That’s why illustrating a book has never been my priority. Then I met Sally and realized that she has some Dahl-like qualities in her writing and sense of humour. So I married her…. (for a lot of other reasons too!).

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Did you create the book with a particular audience in mind? Were you picturing a certain age of child, or the parents who might read it aloud to their children? Or were you writing it for yourself?

Sally: Obviously I wanted to be amused while I was writing Caleb’s Cab – it makes the process so much more agreeable. And a book with general appeal was an important goal. But ultimately we wanted to write a book we could imagine our own children reading and enjoying. Right now they are eight and ten years old. The youngest being still a little on the young-side for Caleb’s Cab. If parents were to read it aloud obviously we’d like to think they’d get as much pleasure from it as their children would.

Sally, you worked with Sylvain on Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003) and The Illusionist (2010) – how did the experience of collaborating on a book for children differ from working together on a film? Did you write the whole story before showing it to Sylvain, and did you always know that you wanted him to illustrate it?

Sally: I had a purely creative role in our collaboration this time. Generally my role on Sylvain’s films is less about an artistic contribution and more about facilitating the fabrication process. In the past we had talked about doing a children’s book together but there never seemed a good moment to embark on it. And then Lizzie Sitton from Walkers phoned out of the blue to gauge Sylvain’s interest in producing an illustrated book and that call proved to be the shove our project needed. It was Sylvain who chose me to write rather than me choosing him to illustrate. But what an opportunity! In the twenty odd years we’ve been together I’ve been aware of several authors who have approached Sylvain to illustrate their work and he has always refused, preferring to work on his films. Knowing his preferences I’m not sure I’d have pushed him if it had been the other way round. I am delighted he made an exception for me. I wrote most of Caleb’s Cab while Sylvain was away shooting his live action film Attila Marcel. I sent him chapters when they were ready so he could read after a day’s filming.

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You’ve created the kind of world that really appeals to children, I think, with an anarchic feel where adults never really seem to be in control of themselves, let alone anyone else! Caleb has to rely on his own wits to save the day after his father’s disappearance, and comes across some very scary stuff such as child slavery and organised crime rackets. Was it difficult to strike a balance between the comic and the scary aspects in the writing? How do the illustrations help to maintain that balance?

Sally: I think children like to be challenged and even daunted a little, but clearly you need to strike the balance with more lighthearted moments so that the reading experience isn’t morose or hopeless. A world where children are exchanged by their parents against bank loans is pretty grim. Empowering Caleb and Myra with gutsy qualities despite such woeful circumstances makes their plight more palatable. An example – poor Caleb has a horrible time in MoneyMonger custody, but the fact he gets struck by ‘inappropriate giggles’ whilst being torn to shreds in class by the formidable Monitor Trotter goes a long way to lighten the mood. I think we’ve all probably been there! Most children like to read about flawed adults – so poking fun at adult behaviour or even their appearance strikes a cord. Of course the illustrations help take the written word just that one step further. Sylvain’s depiction of Monitor Trotter in the scene I’ve just described is outrageous in the extreme – she’s just monstrous – it’s hilarious – one of my favourites…..

The theme of family – families separated, making new families – is so strong for me in your films, and now here it is in Caleb’s Cab, in the form of Caleb’s desire to save his father. Do you think of it as a key theme that you both keep returning to consciously, or don’t you examine the themes in your work in that way?

Sylvain: Until now I honestly hadn’t realized that this was a recurring theme. But in reality without an element of dysfunction I suppose there’s not much of a story. The book or film about a perfect family with a trouble-free life would be quite short and essentially quite dull. If nothing’s broken there’s nothing to fix. Yes, now I think about it, dysfunctional families are the basis of most stories aren’t they? Les Miserables, with Jean Valjean and Cosette, Harry Potter and even Superman who are all orphans….the list is endless!

I love Tarquin the dog in his Burberry footwear. Of course, he reminded me of Bruno in Belleville Rendez-Vous, and also the beautiful big dog owned by Mme Proust in your live-action film, Attila Marcel (2013). What do you think having a dog in a story (either a book or a film) brings to it?

Sally: A dog in a story can be as enriching as having a dog in real life. They provide further dimension and another point of view to a situation. Because of their innocence and simplicity they can act as a welcome counter-balance to complex human characters and of course can be used to add great comedy value. I can’t imagine everyday life without dogs – so it’s hard to imagine stories without them. I’m so glad you like Tarquin because he will be back in the second book with a much larger role to play.

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The book ends with the suggestion of further adventures for Caleb in the cab; have you already planned out what happens next, and when will we get to find out more?

Sally: Yes I am working on book two which will see Caleb embroiled in more perils and adventures – you can expect some more twists and turns and plenty more shocking behaviour from adults.

Sally and Sylvain, thank you very much.

Caleb’s Cab is published by Walker Books.