Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Interview Session: The Fan Brothers

When young William wakes up in the Grimloch orphanage, he is amazed to find that during the night, what were ordinary trees have been transformed into larger-than-life topiaries of different animals. As the town is transformed, so, too, is William. 

Brothers Eric and Terry Fan are the creators of The Night Gardener, a wondrous picture book that is available today to purchase from your local bookstore or online. In this interview, they share a funny childhood memory involving both of them, their favorite books when they were kids, the magic behind The Night Gardener, and the character inspired in part by their father. Here, they were kind enough to answer some questions over email. 

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you do anything else in addition to writing and illustrating great books?

Eric: I was originally born in Hawaii. Our dad was studying there, working on his Ph.D in philosophy. We moved around quite a bit when I was younger, so we were all born in different states, but we eventually landed in Toronto where I’ve lived ever since. 

Terry: I was born in Champaign, Illinois. Currently Eric and I both live in “The Beaches” area of Toronto in separate condos about 5 minutes walking distance from each other. This really works out for us especially when working on collaborative projects. Aside from writing/illustrating children's books we’re both involved with numerous online companies that sell our work. These sites are basically our bread and butter and provide a steady income, which affords us the luxury of working on picture books.

Are you the only two artists in your family?

Terry & Eric: Our entire family is very artistic, in one way or another. Our younger brother Devin is also an artist, but currently only does it in his free time. Our sister Larissa is an award-winning independent filmmaker, and our other sister Tanya has just started to draw and post her work online and is also a talented singer. Our older brother Paul is an amazing musician and was the bass player, producer, and keyboardist for Grant Lee Buffalo and now has been working as a producer, and also doing digital paintings. He must have inherited his musical talent from our mom, who is an incredible harpist/composer with a long list of accomplishments. Our dad, along with being a philosophy professor, is also a writer and talented potter.

When did you get your start as a writer and illustrator? How long have you been writing and illustrating?

Eric Fan
Eric: When I was younger I wrote and illustrated a couple of children’s books with my younger brother Devin (he was 16 at the time) and we—in the brash and blissful innocence of youth—sent one off unsolicited to various publishers. Most were returned unopened, but we did get a few encouraging rejection letters that weren’t form letters, and even a phone call from a very kind editor who liked the book but couldn’t see it as something she could publish. She said we should be very encouraged though, but we both felt rather devastated. In retrospect, I’m regretful that we let that contact completely evaporate and never followed through with anything else. 

I ended up studying illustration and film at The Ontario College of Art in Toronto. After college, Terry and I had a long hiatus from art and spent quite a few years developing screenplay ideas instead, along with Devin. At the time we had an agent in Hollywood who was pitching our screenplays, so it was an exciting time, although we never managed to sell a script. We did get to work with one of our heroes, Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien and Total Recall. It was a happy time, but not a particularly prosperous one. After ten years on that rollercoaster, we finally got off, a little dizzy and not sure what to do next. I worked in the construction industry for a time, and then rediscovered illustration. On a whim, I decided to enter a t-shirt design contest on Threadless.com. When my design was selected to be printed it was my first real taste of success, and it lit a spark to keep working on more designs. 

Terry Fan
Terry: I also studied at OCAD University, and have been creating things for as long as I can remember. Apparently we were drawing all over the walls before we could even talk, so it's a good thing we had such accommodating parents. But, as Eric has recounted, it was a long, twisting road to working as self-employed artists. We’ve always been very creative, but also a little bit scattered and it took us a long time to find our place. All of this remarkable success with the books has unexpectedly arrived rather late in life, but in a way I think it’s made us appreciate it even more. 

When Eric first joined Threadless, and got his first T-shirt print, it really inspired me and that’s when I tentatively started to draw again as well. Then Society6 came along, and shortly after I also did my first work on a book, illustrating the cover and chapter headings for a lovely story entitled Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell. This is when I first worked with art director Lizzy Bromley at Simon & Schuster. It was such a wonderful experience and gave me a real idea of what was involved in creating a book. Then Eric and I were contacted by Kirsten Hall of Catbird Agency in NYC because she had seen our work on Society6. We were one of the first artists added to her roster and it’s been one amazing opportunity after another ever since then. We ended up working with Lizzy again along with editor Christian Trimmer on The Night Gardener, and it’s become an ongoing creative relationship as well as a friendship.  

What were some of your favourite books as a child? Authors, illustrators, you name them.

Age of the Giants by Terry Fan
Get the print here.
Eric: My favourite book as a child was Where The Wild Things Are. It completely transfixed and transported me and I must have read it a hundred times. I also loved anything by Richard Scarry, Dr. Seuss, and I loved Winnie the Pooh. When I started reading slightly longer books, I adored Charlotte’s Web, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, The Little Prince, the original Pinocchio, and The Phantom Tollbooth. 

Terry: Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, James and the Giant Peach & Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Richard Scary, Dr. Suess, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Winnie The Pooh by A. A. Milne/E. H. Shepard (illustrator), Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Graham, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer (illustrator), Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Garth Williams (illustrator), Margaret Wise Brown/Clement Hurd, The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling, Babar The Elephant by Jean De Brunhoff, Madeline by Ludwig Bemelman, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Jules Verne, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow (illustrator), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Could you share a funny childhood memory? (Preferably involving both of you).

Eric: One of my earliest memories is following Terry around one day and imitating everything he did. If he jumped over a sprinkler, I would quickly follow suit. The pantomime continued until Terry walked past a bush and whacked it with his hand. I followed close behind and gave the same bush a triumphant whack, but this time I disturbed the beehive that was lurking inside and got swarmed by a hundred bees. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere!

Terry: I had totally forgotten about that!  Ok, here’s another funny one. Eric and I loved Halloween, and held on to it to the bitter end. One year we decided to go trick-or-treating, even though we were both quite tall at this point. We decided to go as zombies and hastily applied some ghoulish make-up. At one house we were surprised by a classmate of ours opening the door, treats in hand. He looked confused and taken aback by our hulking figures. We just held out our bags and yelled “trick-or-treat!” and he replied “Terry and Eric?” We were too embarrassed to admit anything and just stood there silently, holding out our loot bags. So he shook his head sadly and gave out the treats. We mumbled thanks and then skulked away, heads bowed in shame.

Who are some of your favourite authors and illustrators that inspire you today?

Eric: It literally is day by day, because every day I discover an amazing new illustrator (thanks for breaking my heart, internet). There are so many phenomenal writers and illustrators living right here in Toronto—Kyo Maclear, Sydney Smith, Frank Viva, Matt James, Cybèle Young, Sabina Gibson. I’m also a huge fan of Shaun Tan, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Benji Davies, Chris Van Allsburg, Brian Wildsmith, Camille Garoche, Ashley Crowley, Kennard Pak, Esme Shapiro, Jay Fleck, to name just a few. And we’d both like to give a shout-out to our agent Kirsten Hall who is also an exceptional writer. A favourite memory of ours from a recent New York trip was hearing her read the text from her upcoming book, while sitting on a rooftop looking out over the old water towers. It’s not often you feel you’re in the presence of genuine brilliance, but she definitely inspires that. 

Terry: I’ll second everything Eric said because I don’t want to be too repetitious. I’d also like to add Seth, a comic artist I knew in art collage that’s had a big influence on me, the fantastic author Katherine Rundell, who is also an accomplished tight-rope walker (in heels no less!) and Joe Carr of Antiquated Press. I’ve done a number of collaborations with Joe and it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. He’s one of the nicest people on the planet and the work he’s doing at AP is just stunning. Finally, we have to include our art director and editor for The Night Gardener, Lizzy Bromley and Christian Trimmer, both insanely talented creators who are a constant source of inspiration. 

William awoke to a commotion on the street.
He quickly dressed, ran downstairs, and raced out the door to discover....

The question everyone wants to know about The Night Gardener: who did the pictures, and who wrote the words?

Terry & Eric: The book was a complete collaboration, in both the story and pictures. The process for the writing and the art was somewhat similar—exchanging ideas and working on each element in a collaborative way. We both have a similar style and tend to compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Have you always collaborated on projects? Is The Night Gardener your first collaboration?

Eric & Terry: It’s our first picture book collaboration, but we’ve collaborated on other projects, including the screenplays mentioned before, as well as standalone illustrations. Our first legitimate collaboration was probably decorating our bedroom when we were kids, to transform it into an undersea world. We pasted dozens of fish and whales, and sea creatures, all over the walls, along with—inexplicably—some drawings of lollipops we called “look-up” lollipops because they said look up on them, and were supposed to inspire the viewer to look up towards the sky and be cheered up in the process. I’m not exactly sure what they were doing growing at the bottom of the sea. We were both obsessed with dinosaurs when we were little and that resulted in our first book collaboration. With the help of our mom we created this paper cut-out dinosaur book that chronicled the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. Actually, we still have that book.

Where did the idea for The Night Gardener come from?

Eric: The earliest DNA for the story can probably be traced back to our childhoods. Our dad always had a great love of trees and nature and bonsai, having grown up in the Taiwanese countryside. I think living in Toronto, one of the things he missed most was nature and being outside. I can see now that he tried to balance that love of nature with the cold Canadian winters, and so our house was always filled to the rafters with plants and trees. It was a veritable jungle. He even won the gold medal in a bonsai competition for his bonsai "Three Heavens" which was a banyan tree growing from a large rock, covered in orchids. It got its name because there were three levels to its canopy, that looked like three levels of clouds. So he was definitely something of a night gardener!

Terry: Much later, Eric and I did a standalone illustration called The Night Gardener that eventually became the springboard for the story. It depicted a gardener clipping away at an owl tree (definitely inspired by our dad) under the light of a full moon. We always thought there was potentially an intriguing story behind this mysterious image and it evolved organically as we threw ideas back and forth. So when we joined Catbird agency and were asked for book ideas, we presented The Night Gardener along with a couple of other ideas. 

What is your favourite topiary in The Night Gardener?

Eric: For me it’s probably the cat tree, because it was the first illustration we did where I felt like we had found the stylistic rudder that would guide us through the rest of the book. With any creative project I think you need that moment where you feel like the right elements have fallen into place.

The following morning, William was not disappointed.

Terry: I'd have to say the owl tree because it's the topiary that started it all, and also encapsulates the spirit of the whole book. In fact my single favourite image might be the cover, I just love the drama of it.
The wise owl had appeared overnight, as if by magic.
William spent the whole day staring at it in wonder.

What is your creative process? Do you have illustrations in mind before the story, or does the story allow for the illustrations to happen?

Terry & Eric: In the case of The Night Gardener we had the first illustration we did seven years ago as a jumping off point. From there we wrote the story before we started the process of doing any roughs. We had plenty of help and advice from our wonderful editor and art director at Simon & Schuster, Christian Trimmer and Lizzy Bromley. Once the text was where we all wanted it to be we did a rough dummy of the book and then started the finals. 

Describe your illustration style and process.

Terry & Eric: I would say our style has a slightly old-fashioned aesthetic. We work in both traditional mediums as well as digital. Typically we’ll decide which parts of the illustration we want to work on, as a division of labour, and then we’ll do the drawings in pencil, pen, or graphite, and then scan the images and assemble and colour them in Photoshop. It’s rather like putting a puzzle together, but having certain elements on their own layers gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of changing an element, or rearranging it. 

I am reminded a bit of Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. The story is different, but there are large topiaries. Do you think there is magic in creating these larger than life topiaries?

Eric: Something that has always appealed to me is scale. I think it goes back to being a kid, and how much I loved going to the museum. It’s the feeling of being awestruck by something much bigger than you—whether its a dinosaur skeleton, a mountain, or a beautiful tree. With a topiary there’s also the element of transformation, and the unexpected fusion of the natural with the creative. 

Terry: I feel the same way about it. There’s an inherent drama to larger-than-life creations that’s appealing on just a visual level, but when you add a fantastical element then it really gets interesting. It’s the same feeling when gazing at the Sphinx or a sunken ocean liner, that heady mixture of awe and mystery. I’ve always been attracted to surreal imagery, transforming something ordinary into something fascinating, simply by combining different things in inventive ways. 

If you could walk into any of your illustrations, which one would you pick, and why? 

Eric: For me, maybe the autumn park in The Night Gardener. I love the Fall, the changing colours, and the slightly melancholy atmosphere. 

Terry: I'd love to walk through any of the parks in The Night Gardener, but especially the winter park. I picture myself trudging through the snow, just as William did. Like the fall park, there’s a wistful, yet lovely atmosphere to this scene that really speaks to me. 

Interior illustration from The Night Gardener

What do you love about creating picture books for children (and adults)?

Eric: Books had such a profound impact upon my childhood and imagination, I like to think that somewhere there could be a kid who reads one of our books and is inspired by it, or it sparks their imagination in some new way. 

Terry: With books, there’s that satisfaction in knowing that along with the artwork, a sustained story has been told. The art of storytelling is such an ancient activity. It has the ability to cut across cultural divisions and create a deeper understanding of the human condition, which connects us all. Books provide a structure for the imagination, and a practical way to envision our innermost dreams. 

What is a future project you hope to accomplish?

Eric: We’re currently working on our next picture book Ocean Meets Sky, and are illustrating a wonderful book called The Antlered Ship, by Daska Slater. That’s as far ahead as I can think in terms of the future, so my main goal is to finish those two projects and do justice to them.

Terry: At some point I'd love to be able to take a year off just to experiment with different styles/techniques and hopefully broaden my artistic vocabulary. Maybe work on a book idea, but at a leisurely pace with no deadlines. I don't ever plan on retiring, but as I get older I find my priorities shifting. I never want to get to the point where I’m feeling completely burned out, so hopefully I can slow things down and smell the flowers a bit more. 

The Night Gardener

For more amazing illustrations and art prints, visit Eric's Society6 Page and Terry's Society6 Page, or visit the brothers' website, www.thefanbrothers.com

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This looks like an awesome book! I need to find a copy!