Interview with Elizabeth Hyde Stevens Author of Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

I have a treat that I'm happy to share with my readers. Below is an interview with Elizabeth Hyde Stevens who is the author of Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career. If you're in a creative career, be sure to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of her book. It's filled with great wisdom about how Jim Henson navigated the creative and business worlds. There are lots of great lessons in the book to help you along your way on your own creative journey. Enjoy!

Why did you decide to write a book about Jim Henson? Why not Steve Jobs, Walt Disney or John Lasseter? And what made you focus on the delicate relationship between art and money?

For me, and maybe for most writers, books seem to come from our obsessions. I grew up in a “Muppets family” – and so whenever I watched the Muppets, or even just heard Kermit’s voice, it activates a powerful nostalgia for me. It’s a nostalgia for a time before I lost my mother, but it’s also a nostalgia for the kind of adulthood I used to imagine as a kid – working together with a lot of nice people and creating really great works of lasting art. I’m really not sure why Henson’s work has stuck with me – even into adulthood. Maybe it’s because he’s the kind of adult I always wanted to become.

As a side note, I hope someone does write a book about John Lasseter’s approach to business and money. That would be really interesting! Toy Story came out when I was a bit older, and that probably means I’m not the right person to write that book. On the other hand, I knew I didn’t want to study Steve Jobs or Walt Disney too much. They could be caustic and egotistical, and I think in the end, it’s not worth it to me if that’s the cost of success. Henson, though, was a sweet man who was almost never angry and fostered the careers of many artists in a real paternal way. That’s the kind of success I’d really like to have.
You did a tremendous amount of research for your book. I’m impressed in its thoroughness! Can you share with us one thing that you learned about Jim Henson that surprised you?

The biggest surprise for me was that Henson actually suffered periods of depression in his life. Everything you read about the man is superhuman. He was a workaholic, staying up all night working, creating a new show, traveling, and then he could pitch a show the next morning. He almost seemed unstoppable.

But there were a couple points in his life when he was depressed, and they were both related to financial failures – neither The Dark Crystal nor Labyrinth had the kind of box office success he expected, even though they were really well-done epic fantasy films. This was deep into his career, when he thought he’d figured out the way to make art and money. You can have worldwide acclaim, but sometimes the fans just don’t go out to see your film.

It’s surprising that even he went through dark periods. But in a way, it’s encouraging, because it means that you can leave a wonderful legacy in spite of your dark days. He had to go through those periods, but it didn’t stop him.
We both share an affinity for Henson’s great masterpiece The Dark Crystal. For me, it’s a work of beauty that shows how we need to embrace both our dark and light sides to become whole. Why do you like Henson’s movie so much?

Yes! That’s a big part of it. The movie is really an encapsulation of Henson’s philosophy. He didn’t believe in “evil” like in the Disney villain sense. But he wasn’t blind to the dark parts of humanity, either. He just thought it was all connected, and that it – life – is a good thing.

What I love about The Dark Crystal is its completeness. To me, it represents just how fully fiction can replace our world with another, almost realer world. Henson was so careful about putting “the edges of things” on camera, he said, in order to convey the reality of this world – which was entirely made of art. There’s a whole Skeksis language that didn’t make it into the final cut. The first words of the film, “another world, another time,” are an incantation that sets the viewer free from space and time. That, I think, is just so powerful—if you can create a new world.

You talk a lot about failure in your book and how artists need to accept failure as a part of the journey. Can you share with us an example in which you failed and how you dealt with that experience?

It’s near constant, actually. I fail quite a lot. So hopefully, that means I’m putting myself out there enough!

One thing I’ve done lately is to move towards writing projects that are less timely. Fiction, for instance, is more timeless than journalism. When you write an article, and it gets rejected by an editor, you can always go to another editor, or you can always tie it into the latest news, and I always have a back-up list of media outlets ready for that “thanks but not for us” email. But at some point, it’s not timely anymore. I’ve abandoned a few articles, and part of the problem was that I was that they weren’t actually necessary – to me – to write.

On the other hand, I’ve been working on a novel off and on for 10 years, and there’s nothing timely about it, but it has to do with my weird life story, warped into an adventure tale. I’ve failed to finish it every year since 2005, but since it’s not linked to time, I can keep returning to it, to give it another try. For me, work is the only antidote to the pain of failure.  
Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of discussion on work/life balance from Sheryl Sandberg (in her book on “Lean In”) to the more recent NY Times negative article about working at Amazon. And even in your own book, you address whether Jim Henson was a workaholic. In the research you did for the book, what do you think Henson’s wife Jane thought about her husband’s work ethic? And for you, do you struggle with work/life balance?
Well I have to admit, I haven’t figured that out yet. I don’t have a very healthy work/life balance—book promotion and grading papers are two things I can’t really “come home” from. And when I become happily obsessed with my writing, I lose track of this reality completely, and I’d prefer to work through dinner. I’m not like Henson, though. He was really an extreme workaholic, because he loved his work so much, and it took precedence.

Jane Henson noted that her husband didn’t always come home to tuck the kids in to bed, and that’s putting it lightly. He was in Europe for months out of the year. It’s not altogether different from what the Pixar animators went through during their first couple films. Sacrifice. It’s pretty common to art and success.

I talk about this in the book, because I still struggle with it – the problem of work and family. I don’t have a child yet, and so like anyone else, I just want to know – how in the world can you make art, make money, AND have a family? It seems like most people have to make tough choices. I think Henson put his art first, and who knows, maybe in the end, his kids were lucky he did, since it provided for the family and made him happy.

In the last 5 years, there has been a digital revolution that has allowed indie authors, musicians and entertainers to directly release their art to the public through the internet. Do you think it will be easier or harder in the next decade for artists of all types to make a living wage?

I actually think it’s harder now. The barriers to entry are very low. When Henson started out on local TV, there wasn’t a lot of competition, and people watched whatever was on their TVs. With the internet, everyone can be a producer and a consumer, and that’s a tough economic proposition.

It’s still very possible, though, to make it as an artist, because when you make something good, people still want it. I think more than ever, marketing is of critical importance. People have so much vying for their attention that you need to catch their eye. But at the same time, good art requires you to ignore the market when you’re creating. People who can market and then ignore the market are rare. That’s why Henson’s strategy is such a good one for our time. He was able to shift roles quickly, and keep the art above the business.
Without getting too political, there has been a great divide in our country with protests taking place in several American cities over the last year. With so many problems in our country, what do you see as the role of the artist in today’s society and what do you think Jim Henson would think of the country that we now live?

Henson absolutely used his soap box to preach political messages. He made PSAs in the 80s about feeding the hungry, preserving the environment, avoiding war. He signed on to Sesame Street, even though it hurt his pocket book, because he believed in its message of addressing socioeconomic inequality through public television. Puppets have a history of use in political speech, because they can represent our real-life conflicts in a way that is almost detached and comical. They show us ourselves, criticize us, and challenge us to be better. I think that political messages, when presented in this absurdist way, can have lasting impact.  

I think if he were alive today, we might see Henson using his voice to speak against racism and police brutality, for example, but likely, he’d have done it with clear respect for the work police officers do, too. Not to backtrack or protect his career, but just because it was his way. He’s the kind of person who wanted to bring both sides together to show them their shared humanity. He would have appealed to us all on that same level.

Personally, I think artists do have to answer for the messages they choose to put out into the world. Overly political artwork can be insufferable, but at the same time, we shouldn’t ignore the big problems of our time.
You teach at Boston University and are helping to shape and educate the people who will one day be leaders in our country. Can you share with us why you chose to teach and how does your work marry with being an author?

I had a lot of great teachers growing up, and when I was in my 20s, one of them sent me a card asking me if I wanted to substitute teach in my home town. Then, I went to get my MFA, and teaching was built into the program. Basically, I feel like I just fell into it.

But teaching has been incredibly rewarding. As a teacher, you can basically create whatever kind of classroom environment you want, and so each semester, I get to run a mini Jim Henson Studio, where everyone is focused on doing their best work and helping each other. I get to help students succeed in college, and they teach me about whatever they happen to be experts in – video games, the Disney Channel, Dreamworks... I’m an adjunct, so it’s not a highly lucrative career, but I teach at a school where I’m valued, and my job affords me a lot of freedom and time to think through interesting problems related to my books. Plus, I feel like I’m doing something useful, because most of my students will use their writing skills in their chosen careers.
What do you think of the new Muppets TV show scheduled to air this fall on ABC? Do you think from the trailers and clips recently released that the show will be true to Henson’s original vision?

I keep an eye on the new show, but I haven’t watched the trailers yet. I feel sort of like Andy in Toy Story 3 when he grows up and realizes it’s someone else’s turn to play with Woody and Buzz now. Maybe viewers will like the new show, and that would be neat. But for me, I really just like to go back and re-watch the old stuff, the stuff with Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Dave Goelz, and Jerry Nelson. It had a spirit to it that was very specific to the people making it. It would be hard to recreate that now, but it’s great they’re trying! Who knows? I’ll definitely watch it when it comes out.
What is your next project that you’re working and when can we expect to read it?

Right now I’m wrapping up an essay about Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, and his relationship to money. It’s a bit of a pet project that I don’t expect to get paid much for. But I really wanted to apply the analytical model from my book to Borges. He’s such a unique and gifted fiction writer. It should be online somewhere this fall.

More long-term, I’m researching the grandfather of video games, Shigeru Miyamoto. He’s the guy created Donkey Kong, Super Mario, and Legend of Zelda, but unlike Henson, he didn’t own his company. He is basically still a salaryman for Nintendo, although he’s managing the artists there. It’s a very different situation from Henson’s, and it feels like a new piece of the money/art puzzle. It’ll take a few more years to get this book out. 2018?

I’ll also put my novel out soon. But I don’t want to say too much about it yet.
And one final question: Who is your favorite Muppet and why?

Rowlf the Dog, all the way! There are so many great Muppets: Gonzo, Grover, Telly, and Boober and Red Fraggle, Snuffleupagus, and Taminella Grinderfall. They’re all classics. But it’s just neat to hear Henson’s voice, since he’s this enigma I’ve been studying for so long, trying to access his brain. Rowlf is kind of like a cooler version of Kermit. He’s a musician, a bohemian, he never worries about anything. If they’re two sides of Henson, then Kermit is the business manager and Rowlf’s the artist. If I could choose, I’d just be the artist.

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is the author of Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career. She teaches writing at Boston University and the Harvard Extension School, and her work has appeared on Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s, Salon, Fast Company, The Awl,, the Millions, Electric Literature, Explosion-Proof magazine, The Faster Times, and theTrout Family Almanac. Learn more about her on her website.