Books Magazine

Interview: Etienne Delessert

By Winterthorn
INTERVIEW: ETIENNE DELESSERTTHIS IS THE MOST EXCITING THING that has grown out of We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. In September of 2011, I received a one-line email from Etienne Delessert, the illustrator of Eugène Ionesco's children's books, among many other things. He was unhappy with the way I had handled Ionesco's books in my original posts, in particular with the inclusion of later illustrators' works alongside his own. As detailed as I try to be in my research, I knew almost nothing about the books' original publisher Harlin Quist, or that Ionesco and Mr. Delessert had a falling out with him so severe that they abandoned plans to complete the last two of the four books that had originally been contracted. I invited Mr. Delessert to clear up any inaccuracies in my posts, and agreed to move the bulk of the other illustrators' works to my Flickr account. Now, Mr. Delessert has been kind enough to answer some of my questions about the Ionesco books, which will be re-published in his approved form this May by McSweeney's McMullens. All of Mr. Delessert's responses are presented here exactly as he emailed them to me, and should not be considered reflective of my opinion or the official position of We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.
WTWC: Why didn't you illustrate the final two Ionesco books for Quist?
DELESSERT: Quist was a talented editor and a terrible publisher. He was proud of being some kind of Don Quixote, battling the Big Houses...with a small team of an art director and an assistant. Later he expanded to France and had there a partner named François Ruy-Vidal. Both were real, vicious crooks.
I did four books with him: The Tree, that I wrote and was illustrated by Eleonore Schmid, The Endless Party, a very laic Noah's story, and the two first stories by Eugene Ionesco. Then we realized we would never be paid for all the reprints, and worldwide co-editions. Printers and photoengravers were not paid either. We were used as decoys to convince other artists and writers to work with Quist. So Ionesco and I decided not to continue anymore, even if we had a contract for the full four stories.
The Ionesco collaboration started one day at 5 PM on an overcrowded 42nd Street in New York, near Grand Central: Quist asked me what I wanted to do after The Endless Party, suggesting I could perhaps also illustrate someone else's text.
INTERVIEW: ETIENNE DELESSERT
--Bring me a manuscript of Beckett or Ionesco, I told him. He was quite startled, I remember, but two weeks later he presented my work to Ionesco in Paris. That did it. Ionesco never had written stories for children...
In fact I had thought that Eugène was going to write a long story, perhaps a modern equivalent of  Alice in Wonderland, and was surprised, almost disappointed when we got the four very short texts.
I had at first no idea on how to illustrate them. I picked one of them as the first one, just because I felt there was more potential for a visual interpretation... Story Number1 became the first book of the series almost by chance.
It's only when I saw the possibility that the Jacqueline characters could not only have the same name (a world of  Jacqueline...) but could also look the same that I understood how to stage the book.
I gave to the book a very cinematic rhythm. Sometimes you need images and dialogue, sometimes the story is carried only by the pictures: it was quite revolutionary at the time. Sendak or Ungerer can write wild stories, but they follow the text quite closely with their pictures (except for the rumpus of the Monsters in the Wild Things book).
The Endless Party, with all the animals and their eyes looking at you, and Story Number 1 went around the world, and had a real impact. They are considered in Europe especially, as the roots, with Where the Wild Things Are and The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, of the revolution in the picture book field that began in the 1970s.
It took me forty years to finish the work, and four years ago, it was quite a challenge to go back to the same characters, the same situations of a father (Ionesco himself) telling zany stories to his little daughter, with the idea of publishing the four stories in one book with Gallimard, in France. I am happy that McSweeneys picked the book up, and will issue it this Spring, at last, in the States. I was finally going back to a fresh interpretation of the stories.
I believe that any "pirate" edition that was published, way back, by the same Quist denatured totally the spirit of Ionesco's texts.
INTERVIEW: ETIENNE DELESSERT
WTWC: Why was Quist allowed to go on and use other illustrators, and to even reissue the first two books with new illustrations?
DELESSERT: After Story Number 2 was published, Quist broke the contract, without asking Ionesco or me, and instead of cleaning up his act, decided to give the illustrations to new artists, who made people believe that they did not know the ugliness of the scheme!  Quist books had such a good reputation with critics and the public at the time, that artists were begging to be part of the group, even when they were warned about the perils of the venture. For me they were "collaborators" in the worst sense of the Second World War. Nobody was paid either...
WTWC: What were your feelings about your experience with Quist? What were Ionesco's?
DELESSERT: Great at the beginning. Quist was a charmer. For the first two or three years: the small group of artists was quite close. For instance, Eleonore Schmid, Rick Schreiter and I were meeting each week to exchange our experiences and dream about conquering the children's book field.
Eleonore and I were also working for magazines and some advertising, so we were able to keep going without the income of successful books, but Rick, already quite unstable, was completely broken by the Quist gang. He was one of the really great new original talents, but soon disappeared to become a homeless. Thanks Harlin and Ruy Vidal. Neither Ionesco or myself ever forgave them.
Like Boris Vian wrote:"J'irai cracher sur vos tombes!"
WTWC: What were your feelings about the reviews?
DELESSERT: Reviews were mixed: Sendak wrote that Stories 1 and 2 were some of the most original books of the decade. Some reviewers did not get it at all, just like now: intelligent criticism does not shine in the States...Some critics felt that the fact that a great playwright would write for children meant that the books were not for children! Reviews were better abroad.
INTERVIEW: ETIENNE DELESSERTThat encouraged me to visit Jean Piaget to ask for his opinion. Not only did he reassure me, but he realized that over the years he had analyzed thousands of drawings by children, but never asked how children read and understand an image made by an adult. So we worked together for  eight months (in Switzerland, with a team headed by Odile Mosimann, visiting and interviewing classes) and came up with the picture book called How the Mouse Was Hit On the Head By a Stone and So Discovered the World. Piaget wrote the foreword. Published by Good Book (my imprint) and Doubleday, the book had also many co-editions. At that point, the venture even made French artists and writers tremble: would the publishers test their work before publishing it? Funny...
WTWC: If the stories were written for Marie-France, what made Ionesco choose to publish them after she was an adult? Was it because of grandchildren?
DELESSERT: No grandchildren! Just, before I suggested it, he never thought about publishing these stories that he had kept in a notebook: it was his home theater, and Marie-France
had some great lines...
WTWC: I'm also a little confused about the order in which things were published in the U.S. versus France. In France, as near as I can tell from Amazon.fr, Story Number 3 and Story Number 4 were both illustrated by Philippe Corentin and Nicole Claveloux, but in the U.S. Corentin's illustrations were only used for Story Number 3. Why? And why weren't you able to illustrate the final two books in France? Were Quist and the French publishers bound together contractually?
DELESSERT: Cannot answer, it was a mess, and I tried not to see the books! Quist and his partner Ruy Vidal had world rights. Some of the paperbacks by Naprstek, an unknown
 artist, are really despicable. I discovered them only recently. They came and went fast, a long time ago.
Quist went back to the theater production he had come from (and where the money was invested and lost?) and died. Ruy Vidal went on to other empty publishing ventures, and now is retired, and spends his time in writing very, very long defamatory letters, quite well written.
A few years ago, I went to see a Sendak show at the Morgan Pierpont Library in New York. There were only two visitors in the room: Quist and I. We did not speak.
Ionesco and I tried to sue the thieves, but Quist was very clever at having shell companies, and we gave up.
For sure Stories 1, 2, 3, 4 by Eugene Ionesco and Etienne Delessert had a very, very strange life!
INTERVIEW: ETIENNE DELESSERT
ABOVE IS A SNEAK PEEK AT THE DUST JACKET for the McSweeney's McMullens edition of Stories 1, 2, 3, 4 (courtesy of the publisher). The jacket will appear standard on the front, back, and spine (as at the top of the post), but will fold out to poster size to reveal the entire text of Story Number 3 and its illustrations (as seen here). Thank you to Brian McMullen (publisher and the brain behind the jacket design) for the image.
All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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