We Love Lila!
Photo courtesy of Lila Prap
Why? by Lila Prap
With grateful thanks to Kane / Miller Book Publishers
1001 Stories by Lila Prap
With grateful thanks to Kane / Miller Book Publishers
Lila Prap, Slovenian illustrator-author of books such as Why?, 1001 Stories, Daddies and Animals Speak, and 2007 Astrid Lindgren award nominee, talks to Transcript about the advantages of shortening your name, those pesky tax forms and the very unmodern habit of smoking while you work.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I was born in 1955 in Celje, a small industrial town in Slovenia, which was at that time part of Yugoslavia. After finishing primary and secondary school in Celje, I went to study in Ljubljana, where I graduated in architecture.

My first job was in an architectural studio in Wiesbaden in Germany, where I was involved in projects for a children's hospital. As I was very enthusiastic about having a family, I moved back to Slovenia after a year, married my boyfriend from Skofja vas, near Celje, and that's where I've stayed up until now. In Celje I first found a job in an urban design studio, then as a professor at a technical school, then as an industrial designer in the Gorenje household appliance factory in Velenje. As I was quite busy drawing cartoons for newspapers and doing small architectural projects for my friends alongside my job, I decided, some 20 years ago, to start out as a freelance artist. And that's what I still am today.

Your real name is Lilijana Praprotnik Zupancic. Was it your idea to work as Lila Prap?

I'm not very enthusiastic about my long name - can you imagine how much time I spend filling out different kinds of forms? And if you write such a long name on the cover of a picture book with thick chalk, you soon find out that the easiest thing to do is to cut the endings off the long monster. So I became Lila Prap as the author of picture books and Lilijana Praprotnik Zupancic as the author of my longer stories for teenagers.

Transcript's focus as a journal has always been on the 'smaller' countries of Europe and on its 'less widely used' languages. Our current issue is devoted to children's literature, and we are also looking at cooperation between small publishers in Europe across national boundaries. It's unusual for writers and illustrators from countries as small as Slovenia to achieve international recognition, not - of course - because there is no talent in so-called 'small' countries, but because it's difficult to get the linguistically more dominant countries to sit up and take notice. How did you manage to achieve an international profile, and did your international success come as a surprise?

My illustrations were noticed by publishers in an exhibition at the biggest fair for children's books, Bologna, in 1998, before I had actually produced any picture books. I was illustrating and writing articles for Slovenian children's reviews at the time. Mladinska knjiga, a Slovenian publisher, asked me to make a picture book out of my articles. So, this was the beginning. I found making picture books very entertaining, so I made another one and another one ... I never thought I would succeed in producing a whole picture book. The biggest surprise was that books like Why? and Animals Speak were so well accepted. A publisher from Random House also invited me to work with her and I did two picture books for them as an illustrator. After I had done the picture book Why?, the interest of international publishers began to grow and they showed an interest in the other books from my series, too, and also in other Slovenian picture books. Mladinska knjiga made quite an efficient presentation of Slovenian books at various book fairs. My latest project is an animation series, to be followed by a big merchandising campaign in cooperation with the Japanese TV NHK Enterprises. The animated series will begin this summer. Who knows what will come out of this! All kinds of surprises are possible.

Are your books always published in Slovenia before they are published abroad, or is it the other way around? Which language do you write your texts in?

I prefer to publish books in Slovenia, because I like to design my books, too, and to write them in the language that I know the best. I did two picture books for Random House, but then my publisher there lost her job because of the "crisis in children's books", so we're not working together at the moment.

Do you see yourself as part of a Slovenian graphic tradition?

I never thought about my "roots". As a child I mostly read Slovenian books, and a few world-famous children's books that were translated into Slovene, and usually illustrated by Slovenian authors. So, I probably learned my basic visual speech from domestic authors: Marlenka Stupica, Ancka Gosnik Godec, Lidija Osterc, Tone Kralj, Ive Subic, Bozo Kos ... and many more.

When you collaborate with other authors, such as with Barbara Jean Hicks on I Like Black and White and I Like Colours, how does that work on a practical level? Have you met, for instance, or is everything done in the virtual world?

Such "long distance" international books are usually produced virtually in most cases, I think. It's the easiest way nowadays. I met Barbara Jean after the book was published. Before that we only corresponded with the publisher, we didn't even have mail contact. I think this is the best way, each of the creators has a totally free hand and produces their own vision of the theme. Sometimes, when I speak to different writers, I often hear from them that a book should be illustrated as they would illustrate it if they could paint. I think that illustrators who cooperate directly with such writers have quite a hard job.

Your work suggests an abiding love of animals. Are there or have there been many pets in your life?

Pets were family members, present most of the time. I had cats and dogs. The cats had quite a strange destiny: most of them disappeared after a year, or even sooner, and for a long time I was afraid to have another cat. Now we have a cat, Sigmund, that mostly stays in the house and I hope he won't disappear too. And we have the dog, Oto, a total mixture of all kinds of dogs, it seems he will grow quite big. Both are driving me crazy, because they fight and run up and down the stairs all of the time! You can get mad!

Where do you draw inspiration for your work?

A lot of ideas were hidden in my head from my childhood on, some I get on different occasions, not connected to the books at all. Books for children are not much different from books for adults - you express your view on the world or your experiences through them, they are just a medium.

Which children's authors and illustrators do you admire?

There are quite a lot of them. Besides those that I admired as a child, I now also admire some authors who were a little too complicated for a child's perception. But now I see their themes from a different angle. Their "visual language" was too complicated back then. I like to buy good illustrated books even nowadays, just to enjoy the magic world they create. Shaun Tan, Lisbeth Zwerger, Calef Brown (I don't know if I would have liked him when I was a child :) and modern Slovenian authors like Alenka Sottler, Mojca Osojnik .... and many more.

What was your favourite childhood book?

Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking. The book is part of my soul, as are many other books that I have read.

Do you have a favourite time of day to work? And a favourite place? Do you have any rituals associated with working?

I usually work all day and night, if I have something interesting to do, but mostly I'm quite busy at night, when nobody disturbs me. Drinking coffee, light beer, smoking (not very modern nowadays), listening to music, when I remember to put a CD on, mostly something jazzy.

What do you like to do when you're not working?

I like sports, anything where I can move, mostly I play tennis on the neighbour's courtyard. Or lying on the sea coast, reading mountains of books.

Which future projects are in the pipeline?

I should do a new book, but at the moment I'm without any ideas. Over the past few months I've mostly been using my creativity to fill out the forms for the tax office. Maybe it's time to change my occupation again (or where I live).



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