German author-illustrator Torben Kuhlmann is well-known for his acclaimed picture books about intrepid mouse adventurers, which feature his jaw-droppingly imaginative art. When the mouse hero of Einstein misses the big cheese festival, he builds a time machine but accidentally travels 80 years into the past, where he meets a patent clerk with some very unusual theories about the nature of time. We chatted with Kuhlmann about why mice make irresistible protagonists, the challenges and pleasures of creating a complex time-travel story and what he has in common with his mousy heroes.
Could you tell us a little bit about the creative journey of this book?
Every story starts with a core idea or a theme. In the case of Einstein, the idea to link one of the most famous theoretical physicists with the shenanigans of a time-traveling mouse came first. From there, I developed the narrative surroundings of the idea.
While in my research phase, many plot points seemed ideal for my premise of an Einstein-inspiring mouse. There was Einstein’s year of wonder in 1905, in which the young patent clerk wrote some of the most fundamental and revolutionary papers in theoretical physics. Where did his inspiration come from? Maybe from a mouse from the future?
As soon as I have a rough outline of the plot ready, I start working on the storyboard. I do rough sketches for every page in the book. These sketches also play with different perspectives and compositions for each scene.
As I craft the storyboard, I also start writing an early first draft, sometimes in rough handwriting next to the sketches. Once the storyboard is complete, I talk to my editor and tell her the story verbally.
The next and most time-consuming phase is crafting the artwork and writing the script. For each illustration, I use a combination of watercolor and pencil.
Einstein is your fourth book to feature a mouse protagonist, after Lindbergh, Armstrong and Edison. What continues to pull you back to telling mouse stories?
There seems to be a never-ending well of opportunities to link real historical events with mouse-size adventures. When I began writing, mice seemed to play a role only in aviation and space exploration. Then I moved on to inventors, visiting an unknown backstory in Thomas Edison’s career. In Einstein, the adventurous mice landed in theoretical physics. It’s fun to link the stories with each other and to hide small Easter egg-like surprises and hints to earlier titles. There is a small interconnected universe evolving.
All of your mouse books explore scientific ideas and figures. Did you enjoy learning about science when you were young, or is this more of a way to learn about topics you’re not already knowledgeable about?
It is a little bit of both. I have always had a keen interest in science. I always wanted to learn how things work. Even today, I am still eager to learn new things. Working on my mouse adventures, with their science and history-oriented themes, allows me to dive into different very interesting topics, like Einstein’s concept of relativity.
There’s a tradition of mouse stories in English-language children’s literature, including Stuart Little, Mrs. Frisby and Ralph S. Mouse. Many of these mice have human characteristics, but your mice seem more . . . mousey. Why do you think children’s authors are drawn to these small creatures, and how did you decide that your mice wouldn’t just be like small humans with whiskers and a tail?
Indeed, mice seem to be favored characters in children’s literature. I grew up with many of these stories, but even as a child, I noticed that sometimes it seemed almost incidental that a mouse was the protagonist. For example, there is very little “mousiness” with a character like Mickey Mouse. Mickey is even taller than his dog, Pluto.
One of the main reasons mice are so favored in children’s literature might be their cuteness. That was one of my main reasons for writing about them as well. But I wanted my main characters to be as little anthropomorphized as possible, to look like any mouse you might encounter in your attic or your garage.
What was the most challenging part of creating Einstein? What was the most enjoyable?
The most challenging part of creating Einstein was figuring out how to tell a story about time travel and numerous causality loops while maintaining accessibility and keeping the narrative focus on the visuals. Much of the more complex ideas are only hinted at in the text and can be discovered by observing every detail in the illustrations.
This challenge was simultaneously also the most enjoyable part. It was a joy to figure out how a time-traveling mouse, inspired by Einstein’s theories, could inspire Einstein in the first place, and how to mirror that plot with the more obvious story of a watch lost in the past and the fate of a furious cat.
You’ve mentioned that you’re a huge fan of science fiction films. Were any films a particular influence on Einstein—either on the story that you tell, or on your illustrations?
An eagle-eyed observer might find some nods to my favorite science fiction films. You may discover a hidden DeLorean or the TARDIS time machine from “Doctor Who.” Films or, to be more precise, the language of cinema plays an important role in my work. I sometimes describe my method by comparing it to the work of a cinematographer or a director. It is my task to shoot a scene, to tell something visually, finding the correct lighting, atmosphere and composition for each moment of a story. But I use a pencil and watercolors instead of a camera. Filmmaking is something I am very interested in, and I use every opportunity to direct short animations myself—for example, the book trailers for my mouse adventures.
In the beginning of Einstein, the mouse is looking forward to attending a cheese festival. What’s your favourite kind of cheese?
That is indeed something I have in common with my mouse adventurers: I really do like cheese. It is hard to point to one favorite kind. Among them are Italian pecorino, French Camembert and some Swiss cheeses.
I love the way you use perspective, and how so many scenes are shown from the mouse’s point of view. You must have periods when you try to imagine the world as though you were a mouse. If you woke up tomorrow to discover that you had become a mouse, what would you do? Where would you go?
I would try to follow in the footsteps of the protagonist of Lindbergh and build an airplane from scrap and odds and ends—just to fact-check my own story. And of course I would avoid cats and owls at any cost.
Self-portrait of Torben Kuhlmann courtesy of Torben Kuhlmann.