An interview with Katalin Szegedi
Katalin Szegedi is one of the most popular Hungarian children’s book illustrators. She always creates magical worlds with an enchanting athmosphere in her drawings. Through the tiny details of her exceptional works, children and adults both lose themselves in the tales, and her name on the book covers is a guarantee of high quality. I had the honour to ask my questions in her home, after her workshop.
No, there were no artists in my family before. My parents both worked as mechanical engineers. They only knew how to draft technical drawings, but we may have inherited something because my sister works as an architect and she is also good at drawing.
Did fairytales have a significant impact on you in your childhood? How often did your parents read bedtime stories to you?
Oh, tales played a very important role in my childhood. In the evenings we were sitting around my mother and listened to the tales while we were watching the nice pictures in the books. This remained the same even when me and my sister could already read, but our brother was still too young, so my mother had to read the tales for him. We also stayed in the room and listened to her, as it was a lot nicer to hear the stories from mum than reading them alone.
I was always fond of classic tales, my favourites were Benedek Elek, Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm. I loved fables that were a little scary or uncanny, those that were unsettling so you could cry and laugh at them at the same time. I also read all the Mary Poppins books. As a teenager however, my favourite author was Oscar Wilde.
Have you always wanted to work as a children’s book illustrator? If not, did you have any other plans?
Yes, I knew this since a very early age. I just always drew and drew and drew. I remember of a summer holiday at Lake Balaton, where we did not carry any of my drawing tools. It was a very hard week for me, I could not enjoy the holiday at all, as I was constantly thinking of the ideas I should sketch down once I got home. Then the day finally came and the moment I entered our house, the first thing I did was sitting down in my room and I started drawing. I drew exactly fifty chickens..and only after I finished all of them was possible for me to get up from the table and do something else. Why just chickens and why this many? I cannot remember (laughs).
Besides drawing my little characters, illustrations from my books pretty much influenced me as a reader, the first thing I did once I got a new book was to see who the illustrator is. But the turning point came a little later. One night I just woke up and went to my parents’ room, where I declared my intention to my mother that I definitely will be a children’s book illustrator myself.
Oh, this is so sweet. What did you do to make your dream come true? How did you start your career?
It was not that easy, I would rather describe it as a very long process with a lot of studying and struggle. I started with extra classes of drawing in primary school, and after finishing high-school I applied for the University of Industrial Arts. My major was graphics, and I got my degree in 1991. But as a young entrant, I did not manage to get any job for almost ten years. It was very hard. The change came only in 2000, when, after a lot of unavailing attempts at different publishers, I published my own book with the title “Dream Circus”. This changed everything and since then I get many illustration orders. Thank God.
I do not find the tales, I would rather say that they find me. I mean, the publishers find me. They are the ones who ask me to illustrate one tale or another.
I see. And what happens when the publishers offer you a story that you do not like? Do you still draw the illustrations?
(sighs) I am sorry to say this, but I often encounter stories that are oversimplified and tell the tale in such a silly way that gets me headaches. I do not like writers who think that children are stupid. Everytime I see something like this I refuse to illustrate it of course. If there is a story that I do not like, the final result is not of that certain quality that I would happily be proud of.
So what kind of tales do you prefer to illustrate? What is your favourite?
I like to work on classic tales the most, my favourite characters are princesses. When I was little, my sister and I were drawing princesses all the time, and we had many debates on who is who in the several tales. I have always loved classic fairytales.
In case of a new order, do you choose the technique you use for illustrating the book?
Yes, fortunately. The publishers have no voice in this choice.
I feel amazed looking at your working place, especially the table. What kind of technique do you use for the drawings?
But it is absolutely worth it. Where do you find the special objects you use for this technique?
It is always the most interesting part of the process. I do not know what kind of objects I will stick to the image. I just go out to the street and search for anything unique. In one case, I decided that the fairy I illustrated will have real dragonfly wings. It was complicated to collect so many wings; no, I did not kill any of these little animals of course. But there were a lot of spider webs around my house in the summer, from where I could easily collect the wings. All I mean is that you can never know what you find in your garden or on the street.
Your answer is connected to my next question. How do you work? It must be hard sometimes that your house and your workplace is the same.
Yes, it can be really hard in one hand, but it is also comfortable on the other. I need to work a lot on the drawings and I usually illustrate four or five books at the same time. This means lots and lots of working hours and it is not easy to find the balance between my work and my family. I always study with my son together, and there is always something to do around the house, so most of the time it is only the night when I can actually concentrate on my work a hundred percent. I am also happy that I live here in Göd, this place is still and calm.
Now I know that your hobby is your job. But I am still curious..do you have any other hobbies? What do you do in your free time?
I like gardening very much. It always helps me to calm down. I also like to go on little trips, and I enjoy hanging out with my friends.
Oh, this reminded me of an important question I wanted to ask. Are there real people behind your fairytale characters?
That is a good question. I had problems with one of my last works “Born to Be a Prince”. I have read the manuscript a thousand times but I was unable to imagine the main character. Then I looked at my little son..and I realized that the prince will look like him (smiles). So yes, sometimes there are real people behind the characters.
First of all, to be patient. There are many students who ask the same question from me over and over again. They send me letters and I try to help. They also send me their works, that are sometimes good, sometimes not. I always write them back and advise them what to do to be better or what to change in order to develop their style. It takes time to get to a certain level, and to acquire a knowledge you can use to succeed.
Thank you very much for the interview, I wish you inspiration and creativity for the future.