SCBWI Bologna 2008 Author Interview: Erzsi Deak

Erzsi Deak (pronounced “aire-zshee”); “Erzsi” is a Hungarian diminutive for “Elizabeth” (like “Beth” or “Betty”). She grew up believing that “Deak” meant “royal scribe,” but learned a few years ago that it’s closer to “Clark” or “Clerk.” The royal blood was good while it lasted. A journalist for more than twenty years, Erzsi has covered fashion and children’s features from Alaska to San Francisco to Paris. She has tramped the Alaska Pipeline looking for environmental problems, worked as a camp counselor managing the craft hut, and has always worked as a writer. Words, her children, husband, and puppy Bingley, are her life.

In addition to working on graphic novels, picture books, novels, short stories and some feature articles, she is the International Advisor Chairperson for and sits on the Board of Advisors of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) as well to organizing with Bridget Strevens-Marzo the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference. Erzsi was born in California before the time of things starting with I (the Internet, iPod, iPhone), or even the fax, and lives in Paris, France.

What led to your passion for youth literature?

My impatience with adult literature. Somehow, the majority of the time I’m reading a book destined for “big people,” I find myself groaning and reaching for the Xacto knife: Cut! Cut! Cut! Youth literature doesn’t have the luxury of being flabby or poorly written–I’m definitely a reader that won’t wander through the mire, waiting around for the story to grab me.

I find with the books I actually finish are generally for the under-18s, tightly written and exquisitely edited to bring the story, the characters, the voice right up front and keep me reading straight through to the end.

That said, even in my teens, when I worked at what I recall was called the Northern Lights Bookstore in Fairbanks, I was buying and collecting children’s picture books, so my passion has been around for a long time.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any bumps or stumbles along the way?

Bruises, maybe? Seriously, I had worked as a published journalist doing feature articles–travel, fashion, food, children’s topics–and editor for years and knew that I had no choice but to work with words and that it wasn’t the simplest of career choices.

I started writing fiction in my twenties for adults. I didn’t submit anything at that time; I was writing ad copy for Macy’s California and freelancing for small Northern California newspapers then, but I kept working on the fiction.

After I had children, often a genre turning point, I was working part-time as a Chemical Price Reporter and writing stories any other minute free that I had–having zero time is a great way to stay focused! Those stories are still in the proverbial desk drawer, though I have reworked one and I hope to see it come out as a successful quiet picture book in the not-too-distant future.

But the bumps and the stumbles… Coming also from advertising, I employed gimmicks that were not appreciated and quoted my children’s love of my work (don’t groan!).

And then I joined SCBWI. Joining was a big deal. I may be a doer, but I’m not a joiner, so this was major. But by doing so and launching the SCBWI France chapter, I managed to put myself through my own version of graduate school and came out knowing so much more about the business of children’s publishing.

Getting to actual publication with Period Pieces: Stories for Girls (HarperCollins)(anthologists interview) took two years from the inception of the book and five years from my getting involved with the SCBWI and children’s books in a real way. The journey was worth it, and I’m happy to see it continuing.

What are you working on now? Any goals for the coming year?

Besides the material that I have out with editors, I’m working on the sequel to a graphic novel, the prequel to a middle-grade novel, a number of picture books that are almost ready to go, a couple of easy-reader collections, an easy-reader series… I’m working out the details on a YA novel that started as a short story and also what it is I’m trying to do with my Alaskan adventure story and another mystery.

I’d like to do a follow-up to Period Pieces and see it go to paper. This is a book that’s usually checked-out of the library when I do random searches, so I’d like to make sure kids can also find it in a bookstore. Editing Period Pieces with Kristin Litchman was high point for me — it was great working with all those terrifically talented authors and the wonderful editor Rosemary Brosnan.

Writing short stories and working on anthologies is good fun, and I was happy to have my story, “Wild Strawberries” accepted into the anthology, Lines in the Sand: New Writings on War & Peace (Frances Lincoln, UK, & The Disinformation Company, US). “Wild Strawberries” was such a pleasure to write, I might do more with that story–especially considering the state of the world today.

Goals for the coming year? To tie up all wandering plot lines and buckle down with the historical YA for the summer.

You’re based in Paris. Do you have any particular insights to share about the European children’s book community?

The main thing to note is that there are some absolutely gorgeous books being made here. Stunning, really. We hope to share some of these with the attendees at the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in March 2008. It’s good to remember that the center of the universe is a moving target, if not merely subjective!

You’re the International Chairperson for SCBWI and an organizing force behind SCBWI Bologna! What does all this involve?

Insanity would be the first thought that comes to mind. But if you are really on top of it, a fabulous Worker Bee Bonnet, because that’s what it takes: work.

The benefits are terrific, and I love the people I’ve met in the course of the last five years working on the Bologna conference, but my own writing has suffered from lack of attention.

Putting on a conference is great fun, in that you get immediate gratification. If you are an organization freak like I am, one who finds pleasure in checking things of to-do lists, then by all means, organize a conference. In fact, send me your resume!

It involves a certain vision, I suppose. And I can thank Bridget Strevens-Marzo, my longtime conference-organizing partner for sharing the same vision and working with me over the years to bring it to life: Bringing Quality Children’s Book Creators and Publishers together to talk shop, share, expand their horizons, cross borders, challenge the norm, and work together. The idea is to keep us all on our toes and thinking–creatively and broadly.

What inspired you to take on these jobs?

I took on the Advisor position for France when I launched the region because I was looking for a community of like-minded people. It’s lonely being a writer or an illustrator and being a mom in a foreign country can be pretty lonely, too.

I have to say that my best friends here are those I’ve met following this path. It’s true, I couldn’t live without them–they make me feel part of something, read my silly fifth drafts, send me Facebook drinks or sheep when I get a rejection or some form of mediocre news, and they jump for joy when the good news comes in. So the idea of community would be the first reason.

I took on the International Advisor Chair role for the SCBWI to keep the global vision alive. Living outside the U.S., one realizes there’s more than just the U.S. in the world though you can’t debate that it’s the biggest children’s book publishing market, even considering China’s population.

I wanted to bring these other countries and their literary voices out into the limelight. We’ve been lucky because Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver (president and executive director of the SCBWI) and the Board of Advisors have been very supportive of this growth of the SCBWI outside the U.S.

We are interested in helping writers, illustrators, and publishers in countries like Mongolia and Albania (just two examples) grow their writers, illustrators, and publishing houses.

There was a period when I was fed up with sharing information with people who “only” wanted to “get published”–these were people who just weren’t listening, not putting in the time to learn the trade, work their craft. That was the point when I was happy to help local regions with less established children’s publishing histories improve their lot, as-it-were. A noble moment!

What are their challenges?

Currently, I’m the International Advisor Chair, which is like being the director for non-U.S. chapters, or a godmother, and still on the Board of Advisors, and the Bologna Conference Organizer. They overlap a little in that we’re talking the international world of children’s books, but other than that, they are separate.

The challenges are: It’s mostly about not doing too much. These are both volunteer positions, and as I said above, with immediate gratification, it’s easy to get swept up in the doing and not in my own writing. As my mother, the psycho-therapist, would say, maintaining boundaries is an important challenge.

A concrete challenge is working with the regional advisors to surmount problems with local establishments that feel threatened by the development of the SCBWI in their country. I encourage the local advisors to view their mission to meet the needs of the local membership, working with the existing children’s book groups or organizations. Convincing certain groups or individuals that we aren’t out to steal their jobs or glory is a big challenge, as is convincing them that our goals are the same: producing great children’s literature.

But little things like sharing information or the concept of networking aren’t natural to all societies, so it’s a huge challenge to work within and adapt to the different cultures without stepping on too many toes.

Generally speaking, the SCBWI’s activities in local chapters provide continuing education in the form of talks, workshops, and critique groups. This usually differs with organizations like IBBY or other writers’/illustrators’ groups that act more as unions for their members.

And one of the greatest challenges is doing it all on a shoestring budget and keeping the price tag way down. Especially in countries where [average] annual salaries make children’s books or belonging to a professional organization like the SCBWI a luxury.

What do you love about them?

For both positions, it returns to the community for me. The community is my major love. I love that I’ve connected with people around the world who share my passion for youth literature. I love when I see their work published at home and abroad. I love shouting about the great things the advisors are doing and the growth of the global community of children’s writers and illustrators.

In the early days, I started SCBWI Expression OnLine, an online newsletter geared to the non-U.S. members around the world. Beaulah Taguiwalo took it over a few years ago and has turned it into a major resource for people on the tops of lonely peaks and others living in huge metropolises. How great is that to connect these people so that they don’t feel alone? To know that somewhere in the world, whether five minutes away or 10,000 miles away, someone else is reading their words, sharing in their experience?

For the Conference Organizer job, it’s about bringing together different people who might never have met and making a little magic happen. The Bologna Conference focuses on craft and passion for youth literature. That said, we’re always happy to hear about a book sold or a contract made, of course, and we hope our efforts facilitate in creating long-lasting professional relationships and the best books possible.

Who are the other major contributors to the conference planning and organization? What are their roles?

Bridget Strevens-Marzo, as I’ve mentioned, is my primary partner in crime when it comes to both posts. Happily for me and the SCBWI membership (heck, the whole publishing world), she graciously agreed to take on the role of SCBWI International Illustrator Liaison and to co-organize the Bologna conference.

She is also on the SCBWI Board of Advisors and continues to create winning illustrations from perennials like Margaret Wild‘s Kiss, Kiss! (Little Hare, Aust. S&S US) to Philemon Sturges‘s How Do You Make A Baby Smile? (Harper, PW starred review) to the graphic The Big Book for Little Hands (Bayard, France/ Tate UK, British Book Design Award shortlist). Bridget writes and illustrates from France with publishers across the world, and her books come in many international co-editions. She could be the SCBWI’s International Publishing Poster Child!

Kathleen Ahrens is the Advisor to Taiwan as well as my amazing assistant and conference coordinator. She has made my job a hundred million (no exaggeration) times easier and more fun, due to her organizational wunder-skills and her fabulous sense-of-humor. A linguist and a writer, in addition to coordinating the volunteer staff for the Conference, she is in charge of the schedule for the SCBWI Showcase, the program of events for the first-ever stand at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (Hall 26, stand 66).

Angela Cerrito won the Kimberly Colen Grant at the SCBWI NY conference in 2005 for her project in Poland and was suddenly on my radar. Since that time, she’s moved from Italy to Germany, and we’ve stayed in contact. She continues to amaze me with her boundless energy, critique-group-building abilities and her can-do attitude. She’s the major force behind the reserved individual critiques and informal critique groups as well as uniting the Bologna conference community in a Yahoo! group.

Anita Loughrey is a writer and blogger from the U.K. who has interviewed all the speakers for the conference. What with the number of speakers we have, it’s no simple task interviewing busy people in a short amount of time! Proofreader and writer Claudia Classon helped make sense of a few conundrums in the interviews that will prevent much embarrassment for all of us!

In addition to these individuals, Doug Cushman created the gorgeous 2008 conference logo, really getting the feeling of Bologna–from the well-known Neptune Fountain in the Piazza Maggiore to the Bologna red-brown of the city’s meandering covered archways.

His logo combined with the fabulous illustration by Marc Boutavant for the closing party invitation, make for a sophisticated yet playful look for the conference and the SCBWI in Bologna. We can’t thank them both enough. We also appreciate Bayard coordinating with Marc to make the illustration possible. Marc Boutavant is co-creator with Emmanuel Guibert of the ARIOL comic book series published by Bayard Editions, France. I’m a major ARIOL groupie, so am also thrilled to have Ariol and his best friend Ramono with us in Bologna.

Happily, the Executive Office (in L.A.) has provided Web and registration support. In addition, we have Natalie Lorenzi coordinating the catering in Italian (so we eat what we think we’re eating) and Jeanne de Sainte Marie serving as “bookstore manager.” Jeanne was the only SCBWI member in France when I called to suggest we start a chapter and throw a “Literary Soirée” in Paris on a strike day. Bringing books from outside the country is always expensive and somewhat traumatic–we want to make the books available to the attendees and sell them for the speakers, but do not want everyone’s suitcases to break the airport scales.

The main thing to know and remember about this, and all local SCBWI, events is that they are run by volunteers on volunteer energy. Nothing would happen without them. That brings us back to my obsession with Community…

How has the conference evolved over the years?

It’s gone from one day to two very full days. The BolognaFiere has been incredibly supportive and generous in making the SCBWI Bologna Conference a reality. We hope by hosting the Conference, attendees will check-out the Fair and illustrators around the world will consider submitting to the esteemed illustration exhibit competition the Fair sponsors. Thank you, BolognaFiere!

Is there any thing you’d like to add?

This has been an incredible ride and I’m looking forward to the 2008 Conference, the Bologna Book Fair and the SCBWI Showcase. After that, I plan to take off that Worker Bee Bonnet, update my website, start a character-driven blog, and give the graphic novel and historical YA as much energy as I’ve given the SCBWI over the last twelve years!