The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Priscilla Tey
A resident of Singapore, Priscilla Tey is a debut illustrator/author. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), she loves woolgathering, writing stories, and being the architect of wonderful worlds that characters wander in.
Priscilla keeps her sheep obsession at healthy levels and balances that off with her fascination with gnomes. She has a strange affinity for staircases and enjoys people watching. Her first picture book - In-Between Things - releases tomorrow.
Happy Book Birthday!
ME: Welcome Priscilla, tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
Priscilla: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I began writing and illustrating stories actually. I guess in an informal capacity, I’ve been doing it since I was a teeny munchkin, crafting oddball characters with background stories. I definitely had an imaginary friend at some point.
Naturally, this was the result of my early obsession with the art of picture books.
My childhood was filled with Dr. Seuss’s books, the Richard Scarry series, Roald Dahl, illustrated encyclopedias and a smattering of other fairytales and illustrated stories, courtesy of my parents. They supported my love affair with these alternate realities. When I was 16, I did try to write and illustrate a full 32-page picture book, about a flock of birds, for my O Level art examination project. I knew I wanted to make picture books at some point in my life, I just didn’t think it was an attainable possibility. It wasn’t until I went to college (Rhode Island School of Design), and in my junior year, that I realized “Hey! I could actually make this work!”. I wrote In-Between Things that year, in a class taught by the wonderful Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges. (The book is dedicated to her) She encouraged and gave me the confidence to really develop the book. That’s how it all started!
Currently, I’m juggling between teaching full-time and picture book making, so I usually work on my books as and where I can. I always find that my best ideas come when I am in transit or commuting from place to place. There’s something about being on the move that keeps my creative juices flowing.
Right now, I am working on a story about witches. It is a nice change from In-Between Things which is a non-fiction book and I am glad that I get to dabble in different types of books at the moment. There are still so many types of children’s books, like chapter books, that I haven’t tried but would absolutely love to. Last year, I got hooked on Agatha Christie’s books and have been illustrating scenes from them when I need a break from my picture books.
That sounds like a great diversion! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I love music! (Everyone does, I know) I’ve been playing the piano since I was 4 and I still play it practically every day. Many of my family members and relatives are musicians so it was kind of like growing up with the Von Trapps when I was young. My mother got me really into Gershwin and jazz when I was a kid and, in some way, I think being surrounded by music growing up has influenced my art in some way or another. I also watched a lot of retro TV shows like Bewitched and was a fan of Elizabeth Montgomery. That was rather unusual for a kid born in the 90s in Singapore. I’m also terrified of caterpillars and can’t catch a ball.
A fear of caterpillars, this is a new one for me. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Doctor Seuss, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake! Their books were witty, wacky and wonderfully illustrated. I’d laugh so hard at Doctor Seuss’s silly characters like the Rink-Rinker-Fink and become enamored with his out-of-this-world settings. And then there was the genius pairing of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. One of my favourite books as a child was The Enormous Crocodile. My sister won that book at a competition, but I definitely hijacked it at some point. When it comes to visual irony, Quentin Blake is simply a genius. I still re-read that book once in a while now.
They were amazingly talented authors. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
Grit. If you want something bad enough, fight for it and work hard. But don’t forget to enjoy the ride, smell the roses and relish the sunlight in the process. If things get sour, just bite your lip and move forward. Not all sour patches are bad. Most sweet things taste better with a little sourness. Like Sweet and Sour Chicken. (That’s one of the tastiest treats I know)
I like that - enjoy the entire ride, all the ups and downs. What inspired you to write In-Between Things?
Wires in-between the television and the wall of my college apartment. I was trying to write a non-fiction book and was staring off into space when I noticed it. Then my head just spun in all sorts of directions. Subsequently, it was just a matter of developing the concept further and borrowing from my experiences of living in-between two countries at that point in time.
Oh, I love that image. How hard was it to get the rhyme perfect? Would you write another book in rhyme?
Very hard. It involved a lot of pacing up and down my room talking to myself like a mad person, counting syllables and clapping my hands. I was thankful to have a wonderful editor Mary Lee Donovan who helped me slowly refine the rhyme. I didn’t want to follow a traditional rhyme and meter, so that made the process more complicated for myself because I had to develop my own rhyming rules. But, at the end of the day, it was worth it. I chose to write In-Between Things in rhyme, because I felt that it gave the book the lyrical, rhythmic tone it needed to act as a ‘soundtrack’ of sorts to the book. Whether or not I choose to write another book in rhyme is dependent on its content and what I’m trying to achieve.
I am looking forward to discovering your new rhyming rules. What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest? (Here's a peek into her work space.)
Right now, I love working in gouache and digitally. I especially love combining the two mediums because the possible visual outcomes are simply endless and exciting. There’s also something liberating about working across 2 mediums that way. Perhaps it’s because it feels like I can break the rules.
Image © Priscilla Tey 2018
The hardest medium for me may be Chinese ink on rice paper. I love Chinese paintings but they’re incredibly hard to create, especially because the artist often makes it look effortless. I’ve dabbled in it a number of times as a kid. I may give it another shot at some point.
It is hard, but oh so beautiful. I have few treasured paintings of my grandmother's, who loved to use Chinese ink on rice paper. I wish you luck. By the way, you have some beautiful whimsical illustrations on your website. Is there one you would like to share with us? Can you tell us a bit about it?
Thank you! I am always glad when people enjoy my illustrations. I guess the most recent image that I’m proud of is “Lost Sheep in Paris.” I did that after my 3 week visit to France with a good friend of mine in December. I loved that experience so much and we walked all over Paris in 5 days, letting ourselves get lost in the city’s tinier streets and tucked away corners. We walked an average of 22 kilometers a day. We didn’t speak a word of French, so we definitely fumbled our way through the vacation most of the time and tried so very hard to blend in as much as possible. (We still stuck out despite our greatest efforts.) The illustration was an expression of my simultaneous feeling of love, excitement, insecurity and confusion during that visit.
Image © Priscilla Tey 2018.
I painted it in gouache, as a part of a series “My Sheep Obsession” which has been ongoing since 2015.
I love the activity and history that you capture in this image. What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books?
Endings. I often find myself coming up with a smattering of satisfying and intriguing premises and then asking myself “now what?”.
That will sound all too familiar for so many people. Which comes first for you the story or the illustrations?
Ooh, it’s really hard to say. It’s a little bit of both. Sometimes, I get a clear image in my head or I draw something at random and an idea hits me. Other times, I develop a premise and my brain just runs wild with it.
What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
As mentioned before, it was most likely Doctor Seuss, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake when I was a child. When I was slightly older I fell in love with Tolkien and have since been a fan. I am constantly amazed by the level of depth and dedication he poured into creating Middle Earth and The Lord of the Rings books. Subsequently, I was inspired by Alan Lee and Richard Taylor who committed themselves to illustrating and designing Tolkien’s world for the films. Tolkien’s children's’ books like Farmer Giles of Ham are also hilarious and beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes. As an illustrator, I also really look up to Lisbeth Zwerger and her absolutely enchanting illustrations.
What's something you want your readers to know about In-Between Things?
Go out and find more in-between things! Write your own sequel, post it online! In-Between Things really just covers the tip of the iceberg. There are in-between sizes and in-between things that are in the middle but closer to here than over there. You can be In-Between time zones and have In-Between feelings. There so much more out there and I want to know what they find.
You heard it here, folks. Priscilla challenges you to find those "In-Between" things! Many illustrators leave treasures or weave special elements into their own story throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in In-Between Things? Could you share any with us?
The dog and cat are based off one of my good friend’s dog and cat. Their names are Spider (cat) and Jaycee (dog). They really are like that in real life. The cat tried to groom the dog once. Didn’t work out too well.
The black and white In-Between house is actually based off the black and white bungalows in Singapore which are a blend of eastern and western architecture.
Thank you. I love finding special nuggets in the images. How different is your next book, Witch (due out in 2019)? Can you give us any hints about it?
It is currently still in development. I recently made some major changes to its storyline, so I can’t say too much about what it is. It is quite a conceptual book like In-Between Things. Being more of a narrative, it’s definitely different, but will still have some In-Between Things flair to it. It’ll certainly have enough little details to keep the reader busy on each spread.
How intriguing, I can't wait! You comment on your blog – “The world is full of strange adventures and stories waiting to be excavated.” Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Apart from my next book about witches, I definitely have a few story ideas percolating in my brain. Every other day, I’ll see something strange or experience something puzzling and my brain starts to tingle. Especially as a teacher, I’m constantly surrounded by teenagers who can say and do the most bizarre things.
(Chuckle) Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?
I’ve been very lucky to have people around me to advise me or provide me support. I guess the one thing I wished I had known sooner was how possible it all is. It is not as impossible a dream as I had made it out to be.
Is there something you wished an interviewer would have asked you?
Why is the sea blue?
(because the fishes in the sea go “blu blu.. blu blu”) - Sorry, I had to make a dad joke here. I couldn’t resist.
No worries! I'm glad you did. What is your favorite animal? Why? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?
I love sheep. They come in the strangest forms. They’re great. I’ve loved them for years now. I do go through long term phases though. My favourite animal when I was 10 was a dolphin. The word ‘dolphin’ was incorporated into my first email address as an expression of my love for them. I regretted that decision when I was 14. I’ve since learnt my lesson. I won’t be adding the word “sheep” into my email address anytime soon.
Thank you, Priscilla Tey for stopping by and sharing with us both your journey and your great sense of humor. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Stop back by for the Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post for In-Between Things.
To find out more about Priscilla Tey, or get in touch with her: Website: http://www.priscillatey.com/about/
If you are in the area, check out Priscilla's Story Time:
Sunday Jun 10, 2018 11:30 am - 12:30 pm
POWERHOUSE on 8th [Park Slope] 1111 8th Ave Brooklyn, NY 11215
RSVP appreciated. Please click the above link if you plan on attending.
PLEASE NOTE: Submitting an RSVP for this event DOES NOT guarantee entrance. This is a free-access event — entrance will be on a first-come, first-served basis.