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Meet the WritersImage of Peter Sís
Peter Sís
Good to Know
In our interview, Sís shared some fascinating anecdotes with us:

"My first job in Prague was as a D.J. while still in art school. I did not take it seriously and perhaps, because of that, I ended up with a radio show, taping interviews in London with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and many others. I also flew around Europe as an emcee of the Beach Boys."

"I painted a real egg (decorated with a map) for the cover of Print magazine. That caught the eye of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was then an editor at Doubleday. This led to the book The Three Golden Keys. Then I received a phone call from the American Egg Board. They asked me to paint an egg for the White House. So, there I was, on Easter Monday, with my family, presenting a painted goose egg -- or was it a duck's? -- to President and Mrs. Clinton. One never knows!"

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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads. Here's what made the list for Peter Sís:

  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

  • Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier

  • Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

  • The Voyage of the 'Beagle' by Charles Darwin

  • Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Emperors of Time by Peter Louis Galison

  • The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

  • The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

  • Spillville by Patricia Hampl

  • The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe


    In the fall of 2003, Peter Sís took some time to answer our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests.

    What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
    The book that most influenced my life -- perhaps even my career -- is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. My father had told me about it, and I was afraid I might not be up to it (my father had a very vivid imagination and sometimes it was difficult to live up to his expectations). But The Little Prince turned out to be just perfect for my age and my state of mind. It was completely different from anything I had known up to that point. I think I might even have cried when I read it. I guess it showed me that very special, very personal feelings could be written about -- and drawn.

    What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas -- I just loved it and read it over and over again. The engraved illustrations were a big part of it.

  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe -- As a boy, I believed I would be as resourceful as him. Now I admire him even more -- I could never build a house, ship, or anything else.

  • Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift -- Now, this was a wonderful map of imagination -- simple and smart.

  • Million by Marco Polo -- Another trip of imagination (or a travel log). Language and centuries passed make it even more difficult to understand . . . love it.

  • Saul Steinberg books -- My father smuggled a book of his drawings across the Iron Curtain and it was an eye-opener, revelation to me.

  • Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle -- Real life can be exciting. Or was, in Darwin's time....

  • Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes -- Just amazing. So strange and dreamlike. The only book he had written before being killed in World War I.

  • John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, Tortilla Flat -- My father pointed me in this direction. His enthusiasm was soon mine, and I was hoping to become one of the guys from the Cannery Row in real life. Not a chance.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • Federico Fellini, Roma, Clowns, 8 ½, La Strada

  • Carol Reed, The Third Man -- Black-and-white and magic. Old Vienna and the canal system. Lots of cobblestones.

  • Karel Reisz, Morgan -- I remember enjoying it immensely back then. The political message had something to do with it, I am sure. It was different and daring.

  • Jean-Louis Barrault, Children of Paradise -- I read a book on Jean-Gaspar Deburreau at the same time called The Greatest of the Pierrots, written by a Czech writer named Kozik. Deburreau was supposed to be Czech in part, and that made it extra-appealing. What a haunting film! What a face!

  • Michael Cacyoannis: Zorba the Greek -- Life-embracing.

  • Ivan Passer: Intimate Lightning -- Wonderful, witty, and I was on the location at age 14 or 15.

  • Albert Lamorisse, The Red Balloon -- This was the Paris I dreamt about as a child.

  • Jean Renoir, Grand Illusion -- Grand illusion, indeed.

  • Richard Lester, A Hard Day's Nigh -- It was so amazing when I saw it in dull, Communist Prague.

  • Akira Kurosawa, many films, many statements, many visions -- all of them unique.

  • Many, many animated films (Jiri Trnka most of all).

  • Many, many films with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

  • Many documentaries.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I would say I like world music now, and classical music when I am trying to calm down. I also listen to Neil Young, R.E.M., the Beatles -- but not as much as I used to. Also, my wife's paternal grandfather, Laszlo Lajtha's symphonies, which can change the course of your day -- check them out!

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    My book club would be reading books by Richard Halliburton, Redman O'Hanlon, Pico Iyer, Peter Matthiessen, and other writers of that caliber. They all celebrate the beauty of our planet -- I think we need that.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    My favorite books to give and get as gifts are books on art; I love books about history -- especially hidden or unexplained moments in history; I love the art of Saul Steinberg; but most of all, I love to get or give books, folios, or prints of beautiful old maps.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I used to have many ritual objects. A clay Buddha, a piece of meteorite, a lucky coin -- but it reached a point where it was more and more time consuming, not to mention putting them into proper constellation. It was fun, though. I remember touching them in my pocket, especially when delivering some difficult project. It is amazing that you asked -- all of a sudden, I realize that since my children came into this world I have somehow forgot about my ritual objects... where are they?

    What are you working on now?
    I am working on a mosaic/wall for the New York City subway system's 86th Street/Lexington Avenue station. Also, an animated series based on my book Madlenka for Sesame Street. And an etching based on my Manhattan whale poster that was featured in the New York City subways. I am also working on a new children's book (as always). And I am working on myself (to no avail).

    How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I think I am still trying to get to where I wanted to go many years ago... many years ago... was it me or someone else? It is hard to get a job as a beginning author/illustrator. So, was it me or someone else who had more than one style -- a simple style, a colorful style, and a pointillist style.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
    There is this Czech writer living in Chicago -- Jan Novak -- who I think is really good. He has written a biography of Milos Forman, and his latest book is Commies, Crooks, Gypsies, Spooks, and Poets, published by Steerforth Press.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    To be patient and choose the publisher as carefully as they possibly can. Not every author fits with every publisher. Like a bird laying eggs, the author has to choose the nest carefully. You cannot just grab your half-hatched eggs and go to another nest. You have to teach your little ones to fly. At the same time the nest inside of a cage has its own problems.

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  • About the Writer
    *Peter Sís Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    In Our Other Stores
    * Signed, First Editions by Peter Sís
    *Waving, 1988
    *Going Up! A Color Counting Book, 1989
    *Beach Ball, 1990
    *Follow the Dream, 1991
    *Komodo!, 1993
    *Rainbow Rhino, 1993
    *The Three Golden Keys, 1994
    *Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, 1996
    *Fire Truck, 1998
    *Tibet: Through the Red Box, 1998
    *Trucks Trucks Trucks, 1998
    *An Ocean World, 1999
    *Ship Ahoy!, 1999
    *Dinosaur!, 2000
    *Madlenka, 2000
    *Ballerina!, 2001
    *Small Tall Tale from Far Far North, 2001
    *Madlenka's Dog, 2002
    *The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, 2003
    *The Train of States, 2004
    Photo by Palma Fiacco Fotografin