Outside, on a cold winter's day, there is a rough-and-tumble park. But, inside, in the room where I am is an artists' studio, a studio many Czechs, especially those with children, would recognise for the illustrated figures that look down from the shelves: St George and a comic-looking dragon, a cat that grumbles at a lumbering Golem, Rudolph II hiding on the shelf, and scraggly wolves creeping through an ancient Prague moat. The illustrations of legendary figures from Czech history can only belong to one person and that is artist Lucie Seifertova.
At 35, Lucie Seifertova has - together with her husband musician Petr Prchal, better known as Pancho - become a media darling on the Czech scene. Both well-known for some time, they captured an even wider audience last year when they published "A History of the Brave Czech Nation", a children's book which whimsically depicts 35,000 years of history in the Czech lands. It is a richly illustrated pop-up book which Lucie and Pancho went to great lengths to publish themselves.
But, the risk was worth it: the book ended up a run-away hit, and critics, too, were impressed. "A History of the Brave Czech Nation" received the prestigious Magnesia Litera award in the children's book category for its humour and design.
As I sat down with Lucie and Pancho in their attic studio, I found it natural to ask how they felt now, now that their investment had paid off. After all, it isn't every day you plunk down millions of Czech crowns in order to follow your dream, Pancho says:
"The most difficult thing about the project was deciding: deciding to borrow the money from a friend of ours and deciding to take the risk. At the same time, we'd come to the realisation we had no other choice: we realised we'd been getting fleeced by publishers who had put out Lucie's two earlier books which had sold relatively well, and here we were with barely any money! And things were tough: I'm a singer and Lucie is an artist, but there were times it was very difficult and jobs were few. At one point I was guarding a tennis court in the winter! I did all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet: But then we sat down and came up with a plan. After you reach 30, things come more sharply into focus, you realise you have to do something."
Lucie nods in agreement and says:
"We were lucky, no doubt about it. There are tonnes of children's books on the market, including so many books now from abroad. But, we did have one advantage: my books are pop-up books, which have a tradition here but were no longer really being created by anyone else."
The decision to go into business on their own was, above all, guided by an impulse to cut-out the middleman - publishers Pancho and Lucie say take authors for a ride. Profits are slim, which may be justified for authors just starting out. But, what if you've already proven that your books sell? Is it really fair then to take the slimmest cut?
On the other hand, sometimes beginning authors have only themselves to blame. Lucie explains:
"Some authors get so excited about the thought that their book will be published, that they become blind to the dangers and end up waiving their pay so long as the book comes out. They don't realise how much they've hurting themselves and others in the field. There's no logic in that kind of deal - a deal which profits the publisher and no one else."
The success of "A History of the Brave Czech Nation" seems surefire looking back; but, then, in hindsight, it would. Certainly Lucie Seifertova has no lack of talent and her images and stories have struck a chord among both Czechs and foreigners alike, especially children. The books are meticulously done and they are funny; even in this age of electronic gimics, pop-up books still retain a genuine thrill. In "Prague Castle and its Secrets" the most famous halls and gardens at the Castle come to life, and scenes are commented by little characters with various foibles - great and small - historic or "legendary". For example, a dragon tries to cut a deal with St George to let him be: he offers that together they open a "Jurassic Park".
In the meantime, Lucie and Pancho have taken their creation beyond book form, financing an exhibition at Prague's National Museum last autumn that reproduced parts of the book in massive size: a full 70 metre-long version. For the occasion Pancho produced a promotion CD with a song titled "Cechy krasne" - "Beautiful Bohemia", clearing want to keep his musical career in sight. Meanwhile, "A History of the Brave Czech Nation" sold 20, 000 copies in the first year alone.
"Yeah, everything worked out well and people now really know my wife's work. It was a very busy year. Lots of things we had to do ourselves. Nobody ever produced a book like this before, and towards the end I had to go the printers in Slovakia sometimes as often as three times a week. We did most of the marketing campaign ourselves, so it was truly time-consuming."
If Lucie's husband is happy in his new role as publisher Lucie does admit it sometimes puts them in an awkward position. Sometimes the role can put them at odds, with Pancho wanting Lucie to step up the pace: but he understands that in recent months she has not had quite the same peace of mind in working on new material as before. The entire process was difficult for both: because of all the stress Pancho's health has suffered: in April he was forced onto medication for a blood disorder. Supposedly taking better care of himself now he shows no regrets - though Lucie must have worried - she told one journal "everything is surmountable, but you've got to survive!"
After countless headaches and many sleepless nights, "A History of the Brave Czech Nation" is testimony not only a successful marriage but a successful partnership in work: Lucie and Pancho have gone against the grain, and so far it's paid off.
"So far it's all worked out, knock on wood. Pancho and I are pretty bohemian in our outlook, we're not accountant-types who would prefer spending our evenings counting profits and expenses! For both of us the number crunching is quite difficult and we're always relieved to discover we haven't gone bankrupt yet! Now that we've had a bit of success it's pleasant to be able to put finances back into new books and new projects. It's opened new opportunities for us in our work and that's very pleasant indeed."
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