The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with The Fan Brothers
Sendak Fellows, Kate Greenaway Medal nominees, and Governor General's Literary Award nominees, Eric and Terry Fan received their formal art training at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. Their work is a blend of traditional and contemporary techniques, using ink or graphite mixed with digital. The Night Gardener (2016) was their widely acclaimed debut picture book. And their second picture book, as authors/illustrators, Ocean Meets Sky (2018), received starred and rave reviews.
The Fan Brothers are also the illustrators of The Scarecrow by Beth Ferry (2019), The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater (2017), and The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield (2016).
They were already a double threat, an amazing duo of writing and illustrating genius. But then in his first foray into children’s literature, their younger brother, artist and poet Devin Fan, joined them in the creation of their newest picture book.
I get the distinct honor of interviewing all THREE of the Fan Brothers about their collaboration on their stunning new book, The Barnabus Project, which releases TOMORROW.
Welcome Eric, Terry, & Devin!
ME: Tell us a little about yourselves. (For instance - Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
ERIC – I’ve been drawing for as long as I remember. Terry and I both drew a lot as kids and both attended art college together. After college, I kind of fell out of art for a number of years, and a number of reasons. I got back into it, quite by chance, when I read an article about a new t-shirt site where anyone could submit designs that would be voted on by the community. The lack of any barriers to entry is what appealed to me – amateurs and professionals alike were welcome. I started submitting some designs and the process of thinking up new ideas, and the challenge of drawing them, re-ignited my passion for art. A good t-shirt design is a form of storytelling in a way. The idea for The Night Gardener actually sprang from a t-shirt design that Terry and I collaborated on about a decade ago. [I still find that amazing!]
I work at my desk mostly, or sitting on my couch by the window. My favorite type of book to write or illustrate are books that expand the dimensions of my imagination in one way or another. I like stories that are slightly surreal, but emotionally resonant.
TERRY – I’ve also been drawing for as long as I can remember. As kids, Eric and I were obsessed with dinosaurs and we drew together constantly. Actually, our first picture book was a crayon depiction of the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, with our mom acting as editor. It was entitled “Many Years Ago”. After it was bound into a book we brought it to school and it was read aloud to the class. I remember it being quite a hit with the other students! So, when I think about it, Eric and I have been collaborating on one thing or another for as long as I can remember. We also loved all things related to the ocean, which I think came from living in Hawaii for a few years when we were very young (Eric was born in Honolulu). We transformed our shared room into a magical undersea world by pasting up countless drawings of cut-out fish, coral, and huge whales. We would also create these elaborate stories that related to this undersea world. It was the way we entertained ourselves most of the time. [What a magical childhood.]
I write/illustrate in my little one-bedroom condo that doesn’t have any room for a studio. So, my workspace is spread out over my condo. My computer desk is crammed in my bedroom and I work there a lot when I’m doing stuff on Photoshop. When I’m drawing digitally on my iPad, I’ll usually be in bed or on the living room coach. If I’m working on a more traditional illustration then it’ll be at my kitchen table.
DEVIN – My favorite things to draw are scenes that are everyday or familiar and add an element of the surreal or otherworldly. I'd like to one day capture that thing that is just out of reach that I think that everyone must feel when they walk alone down a tree-lined street, past lit up houses just as night is falling. [Ooh, intriguing. I hope you do!]
You are all so imaginative. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
ERIC – That the first piece of art that I was ever paid money for I drew with a broken hand. At the time, I was working for a construction rental company and broke my hand while delivering a floor sweeper that fell off the back of my truck. With my hand in a cast, I drew a t-shirt design called The Helium Menagerie, which was my first winning design on Threadless. At the time it was a huge validation and probably gave me the confidence to continue creating art. I like to think that the accident that could have ended my art career ended up saving it. [Life's funny that way. I know a bunch of fans who are glad it did. It's available on his Society6 page.]
© Eric Fan.
TERRY – Not many people know that I’m almost completely deaf in my left ear. So, when someone talks to me from the left, there’s a good chance I won’t hear them. Sometimes people think I’m standoffish or rude because I don’t respond all of the time. Crowded, noisy parties are always a nightmare and I basically have to resort to lip reading. Anyway, I think that definitely contributed to my introverted personality. I started off as a very rambunctious kid, but as I grew older I kind of withdrew into myself more. [Yikes. Filed away in case we ever get to meet in person.]
DEVIN- The only tattoo I have is a line drawing of a cat on my left arm. When I was in high school, a girl that I was in love with but who was just my friend at the time drew it on my arm during class. It was a picture of her cat Wolfgang. That night, I went to a tattoo parlor and had the drawing tattooed on for life to show her what she meant to me. That girl is now my wife, Sarah, and we just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. [Wow! Congratulations.]
Thank you for sharing this bit about yourself. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
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. Seuss, 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.
DEVIN – My favourite book was D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, I love mythology and that book just swept me into another world every time I opened the cover. I can't imagine a better version of those stories, and the pictures were so perfect and effortless and beautiful.
That's a list of books that should be in every library! If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
ERIC – I would encourage my younger self not to be mired in self-doubt. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an artist but I allowed doubt to creep in which prevented me from fully embracing it for a long time. I would say to anyone who wants to be an artist to take all the well-meaning warnings with a grain of salt. Following the “sensible” path is not always following the rewarding path, or the interesting path.
TERRY - I second both Eric and Devin’s sage advice. I would also tell my younger self, kids today and everyone else to always trust your intuition. Every single time I’ve ignored my intuition I’ve gotten myself in trouble. Your intuition is basically like having a little Yoda inside your head. Listen to him. Even if your “logical” conscious brain is saying something is okay, heed your intuition instead, which draws its wisdom from the subconscious. It makes calculations and assessments that your conscious brain will never match and expresses itself as a “gut feeling”. This gut feeling will never lead you astray.
DEVIN – I would tell kids that whatever else they may have been told or made to feel that they came into the universe exactly how they were meant to be, and that just because they don't fit a standard mold doesn't mean they need to change to fit one. [Barnabus is going to be adored by many readers (of all ages) for this very reason - Thank you.]
Excellent advice, though sometimes the hardest to follow. Especially when that "doubt monster" squashes your "little Yoda." How did Devin get involved with The Barnabus Project?
ERIC– About 25 or 30 years ago Devin told me he had an idea for story and showed me a little drawing he had done of a character named Barnabus who was a genetic experiment – half mouse and half elephant. I always loved that idea, but like many ideas it languished in limbo for many years. One day, Terry mentioned the idea to our publisher Tara Walker, and she loved it too.
TERRY – Actually, Eric and I were having dinner at Tara’s and we were all talking about art and picture books, as we often do, and the subject of Barnabus just sort of came up. Like Eric, I always thought Barnabus had so much potential and also it’s been a longstanding desire for Eric and me to work with Devin on something creative again. We had collaborated with Devin on other things in the past and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So, I basically tried to pitch the idea to her. As Eric and I were explaining the premise, we also came up with some additional story ideas which really brought home some of the underlying themes. Anyway, Tara loved it so much she expressed interest in buying it right there. That’s one of the great things about the book world. Crazy, spontaneous stuff can happen and then suddenly we’re off on another adventure. [That's SO cool!]
Devin – I was so happy to have Barnabus pop up again. I somehow always knew he would get his own story!
I'm really glad Barnabus stuck with you all, until it was time for his story to be told. In previous interviews, Eric & Terry, you've said that your process is one of collaboration, both when you illustrate and when you create your own books. With Devin joining the process, did this change? How did you divide up the work on The Barnabus Project?
ERIC – This was our first formal collaboration, but we’ve collaborated before so I think we were accustomed to working together. For many years, we wrote screenplays together, hoping to get one produced in Hollywood. The collaborative process is similar to that, with everyone contributing story ideas (and in this case, also visual ideas and concepts). Bringing any specific page to completion was a process of gradually reaching a consensus.
TERRY - Yes, as Eric said, this certainly wasn’t our first collaboration with Devin so it’s a familiar situation for us. Luckily, we all share a similar aesthetic and I think we had a very unified vision for the book. It was a bit more of a juggling act coordinating with three people, but we settled into a system that worked out really well for us. Barnabus has been percolating for literally decades so it felt like the culmination of our shared dreams, finally taking physical form.
DEVIN – To me Barnabus is an homage to all of the failed projects we worked on together over the years. They're too numerous to list so to see something that all three of us worked on together actually come to fruition is really gratifying. I think we worked the same way we always did, constantly bouncing ideas and pictures around until hopefully the gems started to emerge from the rubble.
This is such a delightful story. I do hope you all collaborate again, perhaps with a sequel? Eric and Terry, do prefer being the author/illustrators of a picture book? What captured your attention or imagination and made you excited to illustrate Chris, Dashka, or Beth’s books?
ERIC – There’s a certain gratification and freedom that comes with working on your own story idea, but it’s also very rewarding to illustrate an authored text. I think with any story you are always searching for something in the text that resonates with you on a personal level first and foremost.
With The Darkest Dark I connected with the idea of overcoming one’s fear in order to achieve a dream, and it also afforded us the opportunity to work with a genuine icon and personal hero of mine, Chris Hadfield. The Antlered Ship was a story I immediately felt drawn to – perhaps because it exists within the same kind of imaginative and poetic world that our own stories do; it was a story I wish I had written myself. The Scarecrow was appealing to me for its warmth and emotional resonance. It seemed like such a classic and wonderfully iconic idea; I couldn’t believe it had never been done before.
TERRY - Eric pretty much summed up the way I feel about the authored manuscripts that we’ve illustrated. It can sometimes be challenging and a little intimidating to try and bring another writer’s vision to life, but also extremely rewarding when things work out. I think they’ve all been such valuable, enriching experiences that have pushed us out of our comfort zone. When working on personal projects, it’s always something that we’re very passionate about, focused on imagery that’s custom-tailored to our strengths as artists. Having that kind of complete artistic control is something I really value.
All of these stories have been amazing, but your illustrations are breathtaking and transportive. Devin, have you been bitten by the kidlit bug? Would you collaborate with Eric & Terry again? Or perhaps even creating or illustrating a book of your own?
I absolutely would collaborate again, working on Barnabus together was such a great experience. As to creating a book of my own, anything's possible! [Fingers crossed! We'll definitely keep our eyes open!]
Many illustrators leave treasures or weave a story throughout the illustrations. Did any or all of you do this in The Barnabus Project? If so, could you share one or more with us?
ERIC- We populated the street scenes with friends and familiar places to us, but those aren’t things that will be noticed by anyone, other than the people depicted. Originally, there was a story element revolving around paperclips that ended up being cut, but it lives on visually since the Perfect Pets store is located inside an old paperclip factory. I like the idea of an imaginary world having layers of imaginary history. There are a couple little visual stories/jokes, like the character named Leaf gradually losing all his leaves as the story progresses, and then growing them back at the end of the story. [I have a feeling there are years of imaginary history in this story.]
© Terry Fan, Eric Fan, and Devin Fan, 2020.
TERRY – Yes, in the street scenes there are a number of family and friends mixed in with the rest of the characters, which is always fun. For example, our older brother Paul, who is a musician, can be seen strolling along with a guitar case in hand. The guitar case has a “GLB” sticker, which stands for “Grant Lee Buffalo," the band he was a member of during the 1980s and ’90s. Tara Walker, our editor for Barnabus, can be seen sitting outside the bakery, reading a book. Another funny Easter egg is that inside Anne’s Coin Laundry, astronaut Chris Hadfield can be seen, hands in pockets, patiently waiting for his laundry to dry. Albert, his pug, is waiting outside on the doorstep.
Also, some of the storefronts have personal significance to us. John’s Italian Cafe was a bistro once located near The Ontario College of Art. While attending art college, Eric and I often dined there. Willow Fish N’ Chips was a place located in the beaches area of Toronto, where we both live now, and it was the most awesome fish and chips place in history. The music store with the harp in the window is dedicated to our mom, who is a professional harpist. [And I found your father at the end.]
DEVIN – There was a debate as to whether or not Wally the Ripple should be in the sailboat that Project X is holding at the end of the book, my kids were part of it and I can tell you that they all started cheering and screaming and pointing at him when they saw him in there when I read the book to them for the first time. It was pretty funny. [How cool that they got to be part of the creative process.]
Thank you for sharing these special treasures within the illustrations. What is the hardest thing for each of you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books? About writing The Barnabus Project in particular? Which comes first – the text, a title, or an illustration idea?
ERIC – The Barnabus Project all started from the one character drawing that Devin made all those years ago. When we first got our publishing deal, I went on a quest to track down that original drawing. I knew I had it somewhere but couldn’t find it. Weeks passed, and finally one day while cleaning out my storage locker I moved some boxes and books, and there was Barnabus, peeking up at me from the bottom of a large stock pot. [It is so funny that this is where you found it!]
The hardest part for me is facing the initial blank page. Once you have an idea to put on that blank page there are a myriad of other problems and challenges that spring from that, but those seem manageable in comparison to surmounting that initial hurdle.
TERRY - It's hard to pick the hardest thing. It’s all pretty hard! Well, actually the toughest thing for me is always the actual illustrating, just because of the sheer amount of labor involved. It’s that painful process of trying to get what you see in your head on to a blank page or tablet.
As far as what comes first, I’d have to say in a lot of cases it seems to come from a stand-alone image, which then inspires a more extended story. Both The Night Gardener and Ocean Meets Sky were inspired by stand-alone images, along with the most recent book that Eric and I are currently working on. Sometimes an image seems to contain a story within it or a suggestion of a story. For example, with The Night Gardener, questions automatically spring up from the image - “who is this mysterious Night Gardener character and why is he doing what he does?” etc.
When Eric and I are inspired by a particular image we’ll often brainstorm with one another and toss around different ideas. We’ll hammer out the basic narrative structure and then the manuscript flows out of that.
DEVIN – In this particular case, it started with an illustration but I'd say most of the time our collaborative concepts came from sitting around and talking, building on each-other's ideas. I think what made this one more challenging, is in the past we were able to physically work together more and this time a lot of the ideas came together through text.
I know a lot of creators (myself included) can relate to struggles with a blank page, capturing the image in your head, and Covid. Do you have a favorite “failed project”? What about a favorite spread in The Barnabus Project? Which one?
ERIC – For me, it would have to be Barnabus himself, since he’s the one who kicked off the whole adventure of making the book. My favorite spread is probably the one of Barnabus sitting in his bell jar dreaming about seeing the stars. For me, it encapsulates the central idea of dreaming big despite one’s current circumstances.
TERRY - I was going to say Barnabus as well for the same reasons, but if I had to pick another it would be Wally. He’s just such a cool-looking character and was so much fun to illustrate. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than a purple octopus with vampire fangs.
© Terry Fan, Eric Fan, and Devin Fan, 2020.
DEVIN – Other than Barnabus, I'd have to say Stick Two. I just love his face and I think he'd make such a cool pet. I would just let him wander around my house and see him walking by every once in a while doing who knows what. My favourite spread is the one where they're all on the hill together and the sun is setting. I remember when Eric did the initial rough for this one, I loved it so much and didn't think that we'd be able to capture the same spirit in a final illustration but I'm so happy with how it turned out.
I'd be hard-pressed to choose a favorite "failed project," but I today, I think it'd be the Owl. What was your inspiration for The Barnabus Project? (I think I mentioned to you how it reminds me of Rudolph’s Island of Misfit Toys.)
ERIC- The Island of Misfit Toys was definitely a touchstone. We all loved the animated Rudolf special when we were younger. There might even be parallels between the Abominable Snowman and Project X. I was terrified by the Abominable Snowman, but it was also something I loved about the story. We were all interested in the implications of genetic engineering when we were younger, and I couldn’t think of any picture books that really explored that idea. Growing up we were huge fans of Ray Harryhaussen and I think some of that comes through with Project X, and the kind of B-movie grandeur of a monster wreaking havoc on a city street.
TERRY – There is definitely some inspiration from The Island of Misfit Toys and I agree with Eric that there are probably some parallels between the Abominable Snowman and Project X. Both are huge and terrifying, but also misunderstood and sympathetic. Along with Ray Harryhaussen, we’re all big science fiction fans and I think that definitely plays into some of the themes of Barnabus. We seem to have a particular fascination with bio-engineered creatures. Years ago, we collaborated on a science fiction screenplay. In one scene, an eccentric “biohacker” is raising miniature, bioengineered animals in a secret lab. It was of course a totally different story than Barnabus, but I see some re-occurring themes/obsessions.
DEVIN – I remember when I first came up with the idea for Barnabus I was trying to design my own perfect pet. I really wanted a miniature elephant that could fit in the palm of my hand but then realized to engineer one you'd need the DNA from something small, so a mouse was a natural fit. To bring him to life I made a drawing of him sitting on a box of OXO cubes. He looked a bit more mousey in the beginning! [This also sounds a little like the scientist in Spy Kids 2 and his genetically created creatures.]
I share your feelings about the Abominable Snowman and I love how these different influences, as children and adults, contributed to The Barnabus Project. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
ERIC– As a writer and illustrator, it would probably have to be Maurice Sendak. As a child, both my parents were a big inspiration. My mom for her encouragement and artistic spirit. She was a harpist and pursued her dream of being a professional musician against considerable odds. My dad was inspiring for the vast range of his interests. He is a philosophy professor, but also a potter, parrot breeder, beekeeper, bonsai artist, writer, and storyteller. From a young age, he would engage us with invented stories that probably instilled in me an early love of storytelling. He would often challenge us to come up with solutions to escape various predicaments in the stories.
TERRY - I would also cite Sendak as one of my greatest sources of early inspiration. All of his work inspired my young imagination in a way that’s difficult to even describe. When I grew a little older, another would be Charles M. Schultz. Peanuts was much more than a comic strip to me and I’ve always viewed Schultz as a genius. As an adult, I’m very inspired by the many incredible artists out there, which includes all of my talented siblings. And of course, my parents were a huge inspiration. I grew up surrounded by their creative energy and there’s no doubt that it played a very important role in my development as an artist.
DEVIN – My greatest inspiration are my children – Napoleon, Ronin, and Juliette. They're so full of fun and adventure and mischief and wonder that they keep me in touch with everything that is magical in the world.
Your families have done a great job inspiring each of you. What's something you want your readers to know about The Barnabus Project?
ERIC – Thematically, that it’s ok to be different. You can still find your “tribe” whether it’s friends, fellow misfits, other artists, or dreamers. The takeaway from a publishing perspective is to never give-up on an idea, even if it’s 30 years old and gathering dust at the bottom of a stock pot. [Both excellent takeaways!]
TERRY - I’ll echo what Eric just said. It’s not only okay to be different, it can even be a source of unexpected strength. I’ve certainly found that to be the case in my own life. I’ve always felt like a complete misfit, due to being half-Chinese and also because of my creative interests, which set me apart. As a kid, those differences created difficulties and I faced my share of intolerance. I eventually found my tribe while attending art college. That’s when my whole perspective shifted. I was still a misfit, but I was surrounded by other misfits. The support and acceptance I received was as important to me as anything I learned there. Ironically, all the differences that were creating grief for me as I was growing up are the same differences that have contributed greatly to any success I’ve had. [Yep! If only we could have known this as children!]
DEVIN – That you're not defined by what others perceive you to be. All Barnabus' creators could see in him was that his eyes were too small and he wasn't fluffy enough, but they couldn't see that he was brave and strong and resourceful? Which qualities are the ones that matter? [I love that one of the themes is "stay true to yourself," not other's impressions.]
These themes are going to resonate with many children, and adults. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
ERIC – Terry and I are currently finishing up final art for our next book that we wrote together. It hasn’t been officially announced yet, so I’m not sure if we’re allowed to talk about it yet. [*sad*]
TERRY - I think we can share just a little. All I’ll say is this: It involves insects wearing top hats. Also, it’s very monochromatic with just spots of color, which is a first for us. It was an immensely fun project to work on and I can’t wait to share it with the world. [Oh my gosh! Thanks Terry - I'm intrigued!]
DEVIN - I wrote a poetry journal years ago called Peony that was a finalist for the CBC Tilden Award. I think what I liked about it was that I wrote it just for its own sake and for the love of poetry without any other goal in mind. Trying to recapture that now and working on a new poetry journal so we'll see what happens! [Good luck!]
How exciting! I'm looking forward to seeing the new book and the poetry journal. Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with. Why?
ERIC – I’ve always liked turtles. When we lived in Florida we would go out after it rained to rescue them from the roadways. For some reason, they seemed to wander out on to the streets whenever it rained. I like the idea that they carry a portable home with them on their backs, somewhere that keeps them safe. My dad’s profession as a teacher took him from university to university while we were growing up. Because of that rather peripatetic childhood, I never had a strong sense of permanence or “home.” My imaginative world became a kind of turtle’s shell – a portable home I could always escape to. [I'm glad you saved them.]
TERRY – I can’t really choose a favorite animal. There are just too many that I love! But one that I’ve always been obsessed with is hummingbirds because of their shimmering, jewel-like beauty, and the miraculous way they fly and hover. It seems like hummingbirds should be impossible. I’m a big fan of the impossible. Also, when I was younger there was once a hummingbird that flew into the window and bent her beak but survived. Our parents nursed her back to health and named her Woodstock. Woodstock was especially enamored with our mom. She seemed to love music and when mom practiced the harp she would perch on her music stand and just listen. [What a precious memory!]
DEVIN – That's easy my favorite animal has always been a fox. I'll never forget the first time I saw one - running through a graveyard. I was just mesmerized by how he moved. He floated across the grass like a lick of flame. [Awesome image, Devin. I hope one makes it into one of your poems or books.]
Thank you so much, Eric, Terry, & Devin for stopping by and sharing with us. It was amazing to chat with you all.
Be sure to stop back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Barnabus Project.
To find out more about Eric, Terry & Devin Fan, or get in touch with them:
Eric & Terry’s Website: http://www.thefanbrothers.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/opifan64 (Eric)