Peter Sís – children’s author and illustrator "forever caught between two realities"

Peter Sís, photo: Evan Cohen

Peter Sís was born in Brno in 1949 but has been living in the US for over a quarter of a century. He won a Golden Bear for best animated film at the West Berlin Film Festival in 1980, before later launching an extremely successful career as a children’s author and illustrator. Indeed, he is a seven-time winner of the New York Times Book Review award for best illustrated work of the year. His most recent book is The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. We spoke at his studio in Soho in New York.

“Dad [Vladimír Sís] was a documentary filmmaker. He was highly regarded in the ‘50s so he got a position…actually, he was drafted into doing army films so he moved to Prague with the whole family, when I was two years old.

“So I became already an expatriate at that time, because I was from Brno and at that time it was a big issue, who’s from Prague, who’s from Brno.

“Then we settled in Vršovice and I went to school in Vinohrady so again it was a question of where I’m from. So I was always not quite from where I was living.”

You were a DJ on the radio and with a travelling disco. Were you a bit of a star on the Czechoslovak music scene in those days?

“I was a big star. But it all happened by accident, because my father was making a film with the famous traditional jazz musician Acker Bilk and one of the producers of the film was Frances Hitching, who was the producer of the very popular English programme Ready Steady Go.

“I was like 17 and he gave me about 300 demo 45 records and I at that moment probably became the person with the most records in Prague. I would play them to my friends and at that time the interest in disco started, so because I had all these records I became a disc jockey. I believe I was one of the first three disc jockeys in Prague.

“It was in 1969, just after the Russians came, and everything was still sort of without any rules. I was a student at the art school but I was still getting lots of money for my performances at the Sluníčko club in Prague and at Olympik, and all of a sudden all this interest from Brno and all other parts arose so I could demand all kinds of money. For an art student it was amazing, though it’s nothing looking at it today.

“Then I got a radio programme which I think was part of the propaganda…scheme. Because before things got really bad lots of things opened up, so they could sort of close them down again.

“So there was one year, two years of this relative freedom, of getting as much money as I wanted. I was also the first disc jockey going from Prague to Poland.

“After that all kinds of rules came in and we had to pass kinds of tests and prove our political affiliation. Then I dropped it because art school and the life of a rock star didn’t agree with one another.”

You also travelled to the UK and interviewed some of the biggest rock stars at that time.

“That was interesting because I became also a rock journalist, which was pretty obnoxious because if I look at my articles now and how I was describing somebody’s guitar solo…really, looking at it from the point of view of the musicians, how did I dare to be critical of some of them?

“At that time, until 1971 you could still sort of travel if you had an invitation. Again through my father’s work I was connected to the Marquee-Martin Agency in London, I had free admission to the Marquee club and I could meet all the musicians.

“I think all the promoters in England were interested in open Czechoslovakia, they thought there could be the possibility of concerts, so I was able to talk to many, many different rock stars.

“I spent a week living with a newly formed band called Yes, which then became big. I spoke to Led Zeppelin…I never saw them live but this was just when they were formed and before they became big.

“I spoke to members of the Beatles coming to the Apple corporation, I spoke to the Rolling Stones, to Joe Cocker, the Bee Gees, and John Peel, who was a wonderful DJ on Radio 1. So lot’s of memories of that time.”

Was it the case that in the ‘70s you were able to travel and sell your animated films abroad, and were you kind of privileged in a way, because of your success?

“I was privileged…but because I experienced that sort of youthful travelling when I hitchhiked all over the UK and Scandinavia when I was 17, 18, I already knew the feeling of being able to go places.

“After 1972 the borders closed again. I would say half or maybe more than half of my friends left Czechoslovakia and would be living all over the world, from South Africa to Denmark.

“Then we couldn’t travel again. I, being sort of disappointed at what was going on, which was called normalisation, but still being into rock music, I did my animated films based on music tracks.

“In 1980 I got lucky because I won the film festival in what was then West Berlin. Through that I became really a name in animation and I became a commodity for Czechoslovak Film Export. So all of a sudden I was able to travel and work in Switzerland, in London.

“It was always sort of difficult because I was paid something but 70 percent of my wages would go to Czechoslovak Film Export.

“What was becoming extremely difficult was that I was meeting people outside who couldn’t go back, for instance rock musicians in Zurich. And I would meet people in Prague who were rock musicians and they couldn’t go outside, and the people outside couldn’t go back, and I was the one who was travelling.

“There were a few occasions when people said, how come you can and we can’t? I said, well, I’m an artist, I’m not doing anything bad. But they said, you’re still serving the government, you’re still serving the whole ideology.

“I didn’t see it like that but there was a sort of feeling which was growing inside me and that was part of my decision not to return from the United States.”

That’s something I’d like to ask you about. You came to the US in ’82 and basically never went back to Czechoslovakia – tell us that story, please.

“As I had done before, I came to work on a film in Los Angeles. I had a visa for six months or something to work on a film for the Olympic Games that were held in Los Angeles in 1984. I came in ’82 because animation takes time.

“At the same time I got approached by a new TV company called MTV to animate a song by Bob Dylan called You Gotta Serve Somebody. For me as a disc jockey and music aficionado it was like a dream come true, that I would be working on Bob Dylan’s song.

“I started to work on that and at that time the communist bloc decided not to participate in the Olympics. I got a cable – at that time there was no fax or computers – to come back to Prague immediately.

“I was already 30 years old, this was my life’s chance to do this film for Bob Dylan, so I decided not to go back right away. I thought I would reason with them, but I knew they didn’t know Bob Dylan as a sort of phenomenon, or whatever.

“I thought I was in a much stronger position to negotiate from outside, instead of going back to Prague and…because that had happened to me before, they took away my passport.

“But I never thought I was in America forever. Then I was negotiating for a number of years and then they realised that I wasn’t coming back.

“What happened was that the film wasn’t really appreciated by MTV, or Bob Dylan, they didn’t like it very much. I was stranded and I thought, why did I stay longer, and that I would be in trouble.

“Then I was afraid to go back, until I found out…actually I didn’t find out until now, because somebody sent me all these papers from 1982 to 1986 when Czech Film realised I wasn’t going back. Somebody in the Ministry of the Interior realised I wasn’t coming back so I was sentenced to two years in prison.

“Which is now so ridiculous, because you see all these people who come from somewhere to make a living somewhere else, and if you had an additional thing where somebody said, you didn’t come back home to Kansas, so you’re sentenced to prison…

“So the situation was that I sort of stayed here unwillingly, until I became an American citizen in May of 1989. So I still had a chance to go back to Prague with an American passport under the communist regime.

“Then I experienced in Prague all the East Germans going to the West German Embassy, and the fall of the Wall. Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have become an American citizen, but then who could tell?”

How did you get into doing books and doing children’s books?

“Well, it was desperation time, because after things didn’t work out with Bob Dylan and the film I was still trying to carry out some of my ideas in LA, and everybody in LA thought my ideas were crazy.

“I was struggling. I was teaching a little bit, but that didn’t work out, because I don’t think I’m a good teacher. Then I did some painted eggs for a woman who collected painted eggs by famous artists, but she was really…stunned when I started to send her many, many painted eggs, because it was my only income.

“Somebody who was watching my suffering sent some of my pictures to Maurice Sendak, who is the most famous children’s book author and illustrator.

“I had studied illustration at school but it was a last resort. I didn’t want to do books because it’s a lonely job, I wanted to do rock music, and somehow have exposure or whatever.

“Then Maurice Sendak called me in LA. I was surprised that he was calling me but he thought that I had sent my pictures to him…He said, so you want to be in children’s books?

“It hadn’t crossed my mind but if you’re broke and Maurice Sendak calls you, you don’t start to argue that you don’t want to do children’s books.

“So I said, yes, sure, because I thought it’d be instant…fame, I’d make a children’s book, then make a film of it and then get out of it again.

The Three Golden Keys
“He said, you can’t be in LA, that’s the worst place to be, you have to come to the East Coast. I went to the East Coast and I realised that rent and life is even more expensive than in LA, so I had to find some instant solution. I started to draw for magazines and newspapers and at that moment I became an illustrator really.”

When you got into books you had a notable editor – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

“Unfortunately we only did one book together, about Prague coincidentally [The Three Golden Keys]. First I went with my own ideas to all different publishers, who again thought my work was crazy, it doesn’t fit the American market, it’s a different sentiment, they would tell me my faces don’t look commercially enticing enough.

“So first I started to illustrate books for other people, I illustrated for newspapers and slowly I got a chance to do my own stuff. In ’87 I did the first book of my own, Rainbow Rhino, then I did a book on Christopher Columbus [Follow the Dream], which somehow caught the attention of Jacqueline Onassis.

“She called me from Doubleday and said, why don’t you do a book about Prague? Which was shocking to me, because I had been trying to do a book about Prague but nobody was interested.

“She went to Prague in the very first years after ’89 incognito and she loved the architecture and everything and she gave me a chance to do an unusual book about Prague. We had lots of other plans of things to do, but unfortunately she passed away before the book even came out.”

You also did a book about Tibet [Tibet: Through the Red Box]. That’s interesting because your father made some valuable documentaries about Tibet in the ‘50s, filmed the Dalai Lama at the age of 18, I believe.

“Yes. That was the inspiration from the beginning, because my father really went to Tibet when he was 29 and I was a little boy. He told my mother he would be back for Christmas – he was back for Christmas, but two years later.

“At the same time I became six and we went to school and we almost forgot what father looked like. So it as a whole sort of trauma of the family, my father going to Tibet.

“He came back with these amazing stories, and he couldn’t tell them outside because Tibet was still very religious, it was Buddhist. So I was the beneficiary of his stories. He did a few books. He and the cameraman who went with him, Josef Vaniš, did a book of photos called The Road to Lhasa [Cesta do Lhasy].

“Then he wrote a book called Counting the Noodles in the Spring Soup [Počítání nudliček v jarní polévce]. When I started in books in America he said, why don’t you do a cookbook like I did and put in some stories from Tibet, it’s going to be very popular.

“I was trying to do that but at that time I had no name and he used MSG in almost all the recipes, so all the publishers said, you can’t do that – there are either children’s books or there are cookbooks.

“I wish I’d had more of a…presence then because I think it could have been a fantastic book. So I waited years to do the Tibet book, which I did when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.”

You later met the Dalai Lama yourself – what was that experience like having heard about him from your dad?

“It was and still is a little strange, because when I was a little boy my father would tell me stories about the Dalai Lama, who was 18, 19 when he met him. I took it as a sort of fairytale character, somebody who’s a boy king.

“Then it was really strange when I went to see him with the first printed copy of the book, to show it to him. I was going through Prague and my mother – who collected all kinds of things – pulled out the bear scarf which he gave to my father in 1954, ’55. I wrapped the book in that scarf so in a way it was like a full circle.

“He remembered those two young filmmakers who had come from communist Czechoslovakia, because they came just before he left himself. So it was an amazing experience, which was sort of magic in a way.”

Tell us about your most recent book, The Wall. It’s about a boy growing up under communism. Why did you write that book? And who is it for, who is it aimed at?

“You know, sometimes I wonder why I wrote that book. All my books become a struggle. It starts as a simple idea, then it becomes much more complex. But this really started by thinking about how things were and why things we experienced as children were the way they were.

“I was trying to explain it to my kids, who were young teenagers then. Sometimes they would say – oh Dad, it doesn’t make sense and it’s not funny.

“I started to make doodles of things that we had to do. I was trying to tell them we had to wear red scarves, we had to march in these parades, we had to go and pick hops, we couldn’t do what you can do and we were not free to say what you can say. And from these doodles I started to pull together this whole memoir of that time.

“I even had my kids in the first version of the book – where they really don’t care at all, they’re playing their Gameboys – and I put in too much information, because if you live through something you tend to think people know what certain stamps were and certain bureaucracy…

“And then I realised children can’t deal with it, so I had to strip the whole thing down and this is really what you see now with this book, which has got a slightly different version in Czech, it’s longer, and a simpler version in America, because nobody knows anything about communism.

“When I look at it I still have many, many more memories, but I thought at least it’s a beginning maybe of some discussion.”

Was it hard for you to write, and how do you now look back on that era in your own life, and in Czechoslovakia?

“It is hard because I get angry now thinking about things I didn’t angry about back then, when I was a child or a young man. You take for a fact some things that are so stupid and so ridiculous. You just know that’s the rule and you sort of follow the rules.

“At the same time I feel embarrassed by the fact that when we were into rock music and we would go drinking and talking about Led Zeppelin, there was this whole group of dissidents with Václav Havel and we thought these guys were pathetic.

“Then I somehow got the memoirs of my friend Mejla Hlavsa, who played with [underground rock group] the Plastic People of the Universe, and I had tears in my eyes because really the book is about him being a working class guy who just wanted to play rock music and wanted to grow long hair.

“And by all these circumstances and the rules, when he didn’t fit into the system, he became a political hero and they tortured him to the point that he died at age 50. So all these things make me angry now but they didn’t make me angry then.

“It’s sometimes a surprise to people of my generation who say – oh, it wasn’t such a big deal and we had great fun and don’t you remember you were in love with this girl when you were 19.

“But it sort of reminds me of the stories of the Czech writer Arnošt Lustig who was in Auschwitz at the age of 16, 17 and he fell in love then too. It’s a wonderful thing to fall in love, but it’s not the right thing to be in Auschwitz.

“There is a Czech expression…when people say – didn’t we have fun too? I always say yes, but it was ‘sranda v marnici’, which would be something like ‘fun in the morgue’.”

When you write do you write in Czech or English? And do you translate your own writing?

“I do not write if I can help it…I always come up with the pictures and then I have to somehow explain what I wanted to say in the pictures. Now I would usually make some short sentences in English. When things don’t work I try to write it in Czech and see if there’s some better solution…

“But I think I’m trapped in the middle, because English will not be my language ever, even though I have to communicate with my family and in everyday life. But the Czech I used to know I don’t use ever day, so I’m sort of in the middle.

“That makes it very difficult to translate things. I tried it with one of my books about Galileo [Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei] and I don’t like it. Sometimes people don’t understand – why wouldn’t you translate it, if you speak both languages? It’s really difficult.

“I remember when the book on Darwin [The Tree of Life] came out and it was very well translated. I thought, wow, I wrote a nice…because I had different comprehension, I guess. If it’s your mother tongue you feel the words and everything in a different way.

“It’s an interesting problem which Eva Hoffmann wrote a wonderful book about called Lost in Translation. I think forever I will be caught between two…realities. But that’s what gives me inspiration for my books, I would say.”

My final question is, how do you feel today when you return to the Czech Republic, or return to Prague?

“It depends. Sometimes I feel very much at home, but that’s mostly when I decide to walk at night and the houses still look the same.

“In the daylight when I see all the colours – and my family’s house is on Nerudova, a very touristy area – I feel very strange, because it’s changed so completely.

“Again, I go up to the Castle at 6 or 7 at night, and then it feels like in the old days. But I think the Prague I used to know and grew up with is gone. Probably thank God it’s gone, because it was grey and decrepit and everybody was afraid of the police.

“Now there’s another element, which I just realised last week, which is that I would always come back to Prague because my mother was there and now my mother has passed I realised all of a sudden that now I’m just stopping by in another city. I still have lots of memories, lots of friends, but something has changed again.

“It is home, but home is also where the children are…somebody said it’s like you get on a plane and you never get off the plane – you’re sort of flying forever.”