Interview with award winning children book author Gabor Nogradi
Although you are one of the most prolific and well-known children book writer in Hungary, you have never received any official state recognition so far. What is the reason behind this complete ‘black-out’?
Two reasons. First, I am very bad with ‘schmoozing’ and ‘socializing’, or as it is better known these days, networking. I don’t go to cocktail parties, I don’t mingle, I don’t have important friends in important places, which is vital, if you are after awards. And also, the power that be do not really understand what I do. Here’s an author, who writes for children, but also writes poems about lust and naked women, but also writes commercial films, and publishes and markets his own books, so he is also an entrepreneur… what is that?? The official view of a writer is very different from what I do. Many consider a ‘real’ author someone who writes one book in five years and starves to death. Well, that’s not me.
Do you consider awards important?
Only because it is good advertising that makes people know about the existence of a book. An award says ‘Hey, here is a book that worth to read.’ When Imre Kertesz received the Nobel-prize for Fateless, it was good because a lot of people read the book who would have never read it otherwise. For me, I agree with a famous Hungarian poet, Sandor Weöress, who once said “If he is any good, one should live his life in a way that he is not even considered for an award.” I certainly live up to that thought.
You are writing children books, movie scripts, theatrical plays, musicals, while you regularly visit schools and libraries to meet children, you are managing your own book store, you are known to publish educational books for children. How do you have time for all this?
Everybody has 24 hours in a day. Regarding that issue, we have perfect democracy. If I had a choice, I would spend most of my days reading, meeting smart children to discuss their goals and beautiful women to discuss their dreams. Unfortunately, I was not born into the Rockefeller family. So without proper funding, I have to manage my own books, ideas and projects. Over time, I have learned how to juggle with my time and resources. It takes discipline and a good assistant.
If you had to prioritize, how would you rate the importance of your work?
First would be my poems. Than my children novels. Then the lectures and speeches I give to children at schools. Then my various business projects. And last the films, theatre and everything else.
You are known as a scriptwriter in Hungary who wrote some of the biggest commercial successes in Hungary the '90s. But I can’t recall recent movies connected to your name. Why is that?
I have written a few scripts over the past years. Actually, I am currently working on a script about the last hours of Sissy. You have not seen recent movies by me because making a movie takes two years out of my life. I don’t have two years for someone else’s dreams anymore. Remember, when you write a movie, you are a small part in the whole system and you have to please the director, the producer, the actor, everybody. When you write a novel, you just have to please your reader and yourself. Then you are the boss.
You are known as a book writer, but you started out as a poet. Do you still write poems?
Yes, but these days I write poems for my drawer. I always said that writing poems is cheaper than therapy. I write real poems when I cannot not write. A good poem bursts out of a man like an explosion. I have been working on an anthology for over thirty years.
You worked as a journalist and publicist for many years. Then you decided to become a full time writer. Why did you make that decision?
That decision occurred because of the action of a ‘wonderful’ publisher. I went to see him when I was 45 and I asked him to publish my book. And he said, that he would pay me £250 if the book sold enough. So I decided to publish it myself and that’s how I started focusing only on my writing. That book made me at least a hundred times the profit that publisher offered me. And I am very grateful to him, by the way. Because if he offered me a £1,000 for that book, I would have taken it and then today I would still living in a small flat in the city, and not in a house on the bank of the river Danube.
If you started all over again, would you do everything the same way?
No. I would exclusively be a writer and nothing else. I would have given all my projects to someone else. And I would write ten times as many books as I did over the past forty years. Probably better ones too.
Did you get the gift of writing from your parents? Did they encourage you when you were a child?
I lost my mother when I was seven. She was thirty-one years old. She was a very literate person, read poems to me, taught my how to read before at a very early age. She left me two important things as my inheritance: the love of poems and reading and the trauma of the Holocaust. Should I go on…? I hated school, the everyday fear, stress, and the constant lies that was the foundation of survival under the communist regime of the 50’s. Reading and writing poems were my only escape. My father was a simple man, a woodworker. He never understood my ambitions to become a writer. Writing poems? What is that? That is not a real job. So I had to fight real hard to fulfill my dreams. Although I was an outstanding student, I couldn’t go to high school because of the political climate at the time, and therefore I could not go to university, although I wanted to. But this is all fine, because, as I later taught to my own children and I teach to all children, hardships and failures in life are good for us because they teach us how to fight, how to overcome barriers. A failure makes us tough. Success makes us soft.
You are also known to write educational books for children. For example, you wrote a book titled “Money isn’t grown on trees”.
This book was sponsored by a bank and was sent out to each and every school in Hungary. I wrote it for children because I believed that it was important to teach children on the basics of finances at an early age. People who do not possess basic financial knowledge can end up bankrupt, just like hundreds of thousands of people did a few years ago in Hungary, when the infamous Swiss frank based mortgage scandal broke out. Of course, one can say that the evil banks were behind all of this, but we have to remember: banks are created to make profit. Period. So they just did what they are there for. If those millions of people who now struggle to survive had been taught my someone, that you should not spend more than what you make, or that having an emergency fund is important and other basics financial laws, they might have come out at the end differently. I must add that the governments’ responsibility is enormous in failing to educate its people.
So where is money grown then, if not on trees?
In our heads. In our creativity. In our ambitions to become entrepreneurs. That’s where. In skills that are hard to teach, that are taught in life, not in school. Any government, which plans for the next hundred years, and only for the next four years must know, that the true values of a nation are in the souls and minds of its people, not in the vaults of the National Bank. But first someone must put it there.
A few years ago you started a project of rewriting a series of famous novels, the Classics. It was a very controversial project, one that many people loved, but some publicly attacked. What have you learned from that experience?
I learned that if you want to do something, you first have to learn how to market it the proper way. More diplomacy means fewer conflicts. With that project I put my hand into the wasps’ nest without realizing it, because I never thought that anyone would oppose to an idea of a rewrite. In all over the world, rewriting classics is very popular, because it helps to preserve the cultural treasures of a nation. The English re-write Shakespeare and Gulliver, the Spanish rewrite Cervantes, the Americans basically rewrite everything, they even rewrite the rewrites. Heck, even the Bible has several rewrites for different age groups – five year olds, seven year olds, ten year olds, twelve year olds! Why? Because for people, and especially children, who found the original “too heavy”, it is a good way to familiarize themselves with those stories that are important parts of a culture. But some college professors, who do not understand this, oppose the idea and try to force children to read “the original”, because they confuse literature with Coca-Cola… The project was loved by children and embraced by most of the teachers, but it was shunned by government officials and some publishers, who had thousands copies of the original novels in copies. They do not understand that in these times, if a child picks up any book, any book and read anything, we must celebrate. Whether if it is a rewritten edition of Les Miserables or the original Victor Hugo book, it does not matter. The fact that she reads is the most important, everything else is secondary.
Would you accept if someone rewrote your books?
Yes, if it would get my books into the hands of children who would not read or understand them otherwise. In fact, I wanted to rewrite a few of them for younger children, but my publisher disapproved my idea.
Nowadays it is almost mandatory to talk about the ‘doom of reading’, and it seems that the technological inventions make a major part of this. E-books, Kindle, I-Pads, computers, electronic libraries, ad infinitum… What do you think about all this?
As much as I like holding a ‘paper book’ in my hand when I am reading, I remember telling a friend forty years ago that the print books would one day become obsolete and we will read everything on microfilms – at that time, in the 70’s, that was the big thing, microfilms. As clay boards once gave way to papyrus, and papyrus to paper, and paper to printed books, it is a completely natural progress that paper gives way to E-books. Just like the tape and Walkman turned into CDs and Discman, and then came MP3 and IPOD. We used to have VHS, today we have Blue-Ray. If you ask me, I don’t care how the children of today read, as long as they do. But I do believe that printed books one day will become history, in the not so distant future. And I welcome this transformation, because the e-book revolution can actually make a big difference in our battle for the importance of reading. Why, people now can start reading a book they want in under a minute, not like years ago, when they had to put on their coat and travel all the way to a bookstore or a library.
Do you first consider yourself a poet, a book writer, a publisher or a publicist?
None of these. First and foremost, I consider myself an educator. With the exception of my poems, everything I ever wrote I did to educate people: novels, films, articles, interviews, even my work for the theatre. This self-afflicted role of the educator aims to help people to solve their problems. People usually know what they should do, what mistakes they made, what sins they have. Most times, they even know the solutions. My job is to say things out loud they do not want to say – or see. Also, as I said before, I believe the best investment one can make is self-education. It is almost unbearable for me to see when a talented child can not blossom, just because he does not get help, he does not get support from his environment. Talent is just like money: now you have it, but if you fail to invest it, if you fail to use it, by tomorrow it will be gone. That is why my books are so different, because they are all “handbooks for children”, really, about Life, about the problems they have to deal with, about conflicts they have, such as a divorce or rejection or the loss of a loved one. Most books for children or for young adults are full of lies, describing a world much nicer and more peaceful than it really is. They try to paint a better picture of life than it really is. Most of the times they have nothing in common with reality. Erich Kästner was a great writer because in The two Lotties or Emil and the detectives we read about real struggles of real children. And let’s not even start on Dickens…
How do you promote the importance of reading literature?
Well, I go to excessive measures, no other author ever done in history, as far as I know. Because not only I “attack” the problem through the Internet, my websites and Youtube, but I also regularly meet my readers in schools and libraries. Over the past decade, I attended reader-author meetings and gave lectures in over 800 times. I am known to go to even the tiniest village, as long as it has a zip code and a motorway leading to its school. During these talks and meetings I do not speak about my books, but I speak about the effect reading literature can have on our lives, about nurturing talent, about the ways a child can improve his creativity and imagination. And also, I try to answer the questions they have to deal with as children, such as ‘What kind of adult should I be?’ and ‘Why does my brother hate me?’ and ‘Why children don’t like me at school?’ or ‘Why this girl or that boy does not return my love?’ and ‘What should I do when I am sad?’
These are the questions children ask you?
No, of course not. Children they are taught not to ask honest questions, only ask "polite" questions, such as what my favorite book is and why I wanted to become a writer. But I know what is going in their minds because once I was a child myself. And actually, I still am. But don’t tell anyone.
You consider the role of a children writer more than just an entertainer?
Absolutely, although entertainment is very important, because that is the first step of education. If the child has no fun reading, he will put down the book. I think every adult who works with children has an enormous responsibility. Just as one must put extra care into nurturing a growing tree or a puppy compared to dealing with an old tree or a fully-grown dog. An author writing for youth can help his readers open the door to a new world, the mystery of social encounters, the secret of human relations. He can reassure the strengths of the child's personality, he can decrease his anxiety and fears, he has the ability to deepen his knowledge, he can help him better understand the world. He can direct him to good or bad directions. I strongly believe that the right book can be the best therapy, friend and teacher for the distressed child. I always tell the children at my lectures, that books have the vital roles in man's life just like any other art forms: they cure the soul, they educate us with the knowledge and the message within the lines, they improve self-knowledge, they enhance the imagination, sharpen the creativity. It is like medicine for the soul. It helps us to relief pain, get rid of our fears, lessen our depression. The significance of the right literature for the right person is downright more effective than any other form of guidance, including religion or parenting. It is therefore paramount that the child reads for his own pleasure from an early age. And the way to do this is to show him the type of books that he would likely to enjoy, which is not necessarily the book the school or society considers as valuable. To do that, of course, his family members and those who are trusted with the child's care must consider his personality and interest. My younger son, Ben was infatuated with the wildlife and the animal world. So what did I do? I lavished him with books by Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, and any book I could find on the animal kingdom, no expense spared. And before we knew it, he finished three books a week and soon began reading books, by own choice, such as the Jungle Book and Treasure Island and the works of Mark Twain and Dumas. And as far as I know, he still reads at least for an hour every day.
What do you think the responsibility of the parent is?
If a child's talent cannot blossom the way it should, that is not the child's fault, but the fault of the school system and the environment he lives in. The responsibility of the parent is small, because most parents have never been trained to be teachers. When something is wrong with the car, the washing machine or the lights, we call a professional to fix it. No one wants to repair these himself. In modern society, it is not enough to love the children. No seed will become a flower just because it gets love. It also needs professional care and nursing to bloom. So if we do not nurse and protect the child's talent, he will become a gloomy adult and the whole world will be poorer. The true values of a nation are in the souls and minds of its people, not in the vaults of the National Bank. This is my long life mission – to make reading, and especially reading literature such a vital element of our lives like eating supper or brushing our teeth. And looking at the sales figures of my books, I must do something right.
What would you like to have as your legacy?
I believe that the future readers of my books will find more and more of the 'subliminal messages' between the lines. Today's fads, trends, shortsightedness, ignorance can disguise a deeper understanding of what I try to get through to the minds. This is natural. For generations to come it is common sense what is hard to fathom today for many. In my life I have reached significantly less people compared to the masses I will teach after I am gone for many decades to come.