The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Eric Fan and Dena Seiferling
In a bit of an unusual twist, I got to talk with the talented author/illustrator Eric Fan about his debut picture book. You read that right. Eric's newest book is his solo debut as an author. I also got the privilege to interview the talented illustrator, with the "daunting" task of illustrating Eric Fan's manuscript. Without further ado, here's Eric Fan and Dena Seiferling -
Eric Fan - A Sendak Fellow, Kate Greenaway Medal nominee, and Governor General's Literary Award nominee, Eric received his formal art training at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.
In collaboration with his brother, Terry, as the Fan Brothers, they are the author/illustrators of It Fell From The Sky (2021), The Barnabus Project (2020), Ocean Meets Sky (2018), and The Night Gardener (2016). They 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).
Dena Seiferling is an acclaimed picture book author, illustrator, and needle-felt artist who graduated from the Alberta University of the Arts, where she now works as an instructor. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Dena is the author/illustrator of The Language of Flowers (2022), and the illustrator of Bear Wants to Sing by Cary Fagan, (2021), Alice & Gert, by Helaine Becker (2020), and King Mouse by Cary Fagan (2019).
Their amazing picture book collaboration, Night Lunch, releases tomorrow.
Welcome Eric & Dena! Tell us a little about yourselves. (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 work at my desk mostly, or sitting on my couch by the window. My favorite type of books to write or illustrate are ones that expand the dimensions of my imagination in one way or another. I like stories that are slightly surreal, but emotionally resonant.
DENA – Like Eric, I started drawing at a very young age - from the moment I could hold a pencil, I was always asking for paper so that I could draw. I would spend hours at it, especially portraits of people and drawings of animals. I moved from Saskatchewan to Alberta to go to art college (it is now a University) where I currently teach drawing and illustration classes. I work in my home-based studio on illustration projects and I also needle felt sculptures for gallery exhibitions. My favorite stories to work on are ones with an animal cast. I did very much enjoy writing and illustrating a book recently, The Language of Flowers, published by the incredible team at Tundra/Penguin Random House Canada. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on books with them especially my editor, Tara. Picture books are BIG projects but at the same time I don’t think there’s anything more fun.
I think an emotionally resonant animal cast enjoying a slightly surreal evening is a terrific way to describe your book. 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 I 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.
DENA – I have always liked silly puns. When I was nine years old I wrote and illustrated a story about a Sand Witch.
*Chuckling* 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.
DENA – In the picture book world, I really loved Garth William’s illustrations, something about his characters really spoke to me. They were realistic yet anthropomorphized in a nice way. I suppose I strive for the same type of thing in my work. I liked the simple yet expressive style of Tommy Ungerer and the sense of humour in his stories. Where the Wild Things Are was also a favorite! I coveted Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit series and the beautiful details that she wove into her characters and paintings. I was also drawn to anything moving and melancholic like The Velveteen Rabbit, which I would love to illustrate one day.
Eric, what was the inspiration for Night Lunch? What was it like to work solo on writing a book?
ERIC – I was in Italy in 2019 for the Bologna Book Fair and happened to be researching Victorian night lunch carts, which are the precursors of today’s food trucks and diners. One of my publishers - Tara Walker from Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada - was also at the Book Fair, and I happened to mention the night lunch carts, and how I was thinking of writing a story about them. She seemed to like the idea, and so I wrote a first draft while attending the Book Fair. Bologna is a Medieval city, but its cobblestone streets served as a nice backdrop and inspiration for writing the story.
The first thing that struck me about the original night lunch carts is how resplendent and luxurious they were, despite the humble food they served. So often today, services aimed at people of lower income or the working class have a no-frills aesthetic that seems designed to reinforce social status. The unspoken implication is that people who are less well-off financially are not entitled to beautiful spaces, so I was struck by that reversal. The aesthetic generosity of the night lunch carts got me thinking about generosity in general, and that ultimately became the theme of the book.
Writing a book solo was a bit daunting at first, because I didn’t have the safety net of bouncing ideas off Terry, but Tara was a great support and offered so much great feedback. I couldn’t ask for a better creative collaborator.
I might be biased, but you did a wonderful job capturing generosity and the wonder of these carts. Dena, what about the Night Lunch manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator? And what was it like being asked if you’d illustrate a book by Eric Fan?
DENA – The message about generosity, paying it forward, and the way in which it is framed really appealed to me – I appreciate how Eric is subtly reversing status quo in this gentle and rhythmic story. I also couldn’t resist the characters - the Owl chef and the little street sweeping mouse are such a great combination.
In regard to being asked to illustrate the story, I was very excited and honoured to be asked! I greatly admire Eric and his work so it’s pretty special when an artist you respect so much wants to collaborate. It was also very special as my editor who was working with him on the story had shared the backstory of Night Lunch with me previous to beginning the project.
You did such a great job, Dena. I love all your intricate details. I keep finding more amazing things every time I read it. What's something you both want your readers to know about Night Lunch?
ERIC – Now, more than ever, it seems like the world is fraught with divisions and inequities, so I hope the book’s message of generosity and kindness resonates with readers. I hope readers can simply enjoy it as a fun and imaginative story as well.
DENA – I think at the heart of this story, told in a slightly spooky way, is empathy, generosity, and hope. And I hope that this book inspires readers to imagine the unexpected.
I think you'll both succeed beyond your dreams with this book. Dena, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Night Lunch? Could you share one or more with us?
DENA – There are a few things! The horse that pulls that cart was loosely based on my horse, Cassie. He was twenty years old and I was sixteen when I adopted him and he will always hold a special place in my heart. John Martz deserves the credit for this one as it was his suggestion - the book’s end papers were meant to appear as the same scene but there is a slight difference in the images on the front and back. The spider in its web on the last page was a little private nod to Charlotte’s Web.
© Dena Seiferling, 2022
The end papers are the perfect book ends to the story. Dena, as an illustrator and an author/illustrator do you find one role harder or easier than the other? What do you like about illustrating other’s books?
DENA – I think my brain communicates best through images, so I’m guessing that writing is and always will be the more difficult part for me. I only recently tried my hand at writing a book, with the help of my editor, Tara Walker at Tundra/Penguin Random House. It was a great learning experience and meaningful process to work through, it was so cool to see a little seed of an idea evolve into a completed picture book. But I really enjoy illustrating writer’s stories. It’s fun to translate and elaborate on another perspective – it’s like a blending of voices or instruments.
Ooh, I like the metaphor of blending voices in creating picture books. How many revisions did the text and the illustrations take?
ERIC – I did quite a few revisions. I actually wrote two entirely different versions of the manuscript – one that was entirely wordless, and one that had text. The version I originally presented to Tara was actually the wordless one, which she liked, but she suggested I try a text version. She saw it as a bedtime story, and it’s a little more challenging to “read” a wordless book to a child. The thing I liked about the wordless version was its sense of moonlit mystery and how the story unfolded visually in a kind of dreamlike way, so I wanted to preserve that feeling in the text by making the text quite spare and not overly explanatory.
DENA - Not too many I don’t think. I received helpful and constructive feedback from our publishing team during each stage of the rough process. I feel like I relied a lot on our art director for placing the typography within the images/staying out of the gutter with important elements - it was tricky as the illustrations went across two pages. Closer to the end of the project I had to work on the Owl’s expression in a one or two drawings. I may be forgetting some of the revisions, I finished working on the artwork last January so it has been a while!
Eric, when you first saw Dena’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? What was it like working with another illustrator? What is your favorite spread?
Text © Eric Fan, 2022. Image © Dena Seiferling, 2022.
ERIC – The whole thing surprised and amazed me, especially how she was able to so perfectly capture the imaginative world of the story. One of the reasons I initially wanted to work with another illustrator was because I’ve always been a little envious of authors who get to have their story illustrated by someone else. I wondered what that would be like – to hand off your story and see it come to life through someone else’s imagination rather than your own. Another person will always bring something different and unexpected, and I love that unique creative mixology.
There are so many spreads I love from the book. Some of my favorites are the night lunch cart surrounded by hungry patrons, the animals all sniffing the air, and the spread of the owl when he spots the little mouse outside his cart. Dena did such a wonderful job of communicating the emotional heart of that moment.
That's so interesting. So many wish they could write and illustrate. I love thinking about it as "creative mixology." Dena, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Eric Fan, 2022. Image © Dena Seiferling, 2022.
DENA – One of my favorite spreads was “Tick hum, oven’s on. Pots and spoons are clanging.” This scene, along with the previous one where we see the cart (above), sets the scene for the story. It is where we see Owl for the first time, which I wanted to be quite dramatic. I like the wildness of the animals emerging from the darkness to smell and line up for food. I also really enjoy the second spread of the book where we see mouse for the first time, steeped in the glow from the passing cart. I guess what I like about these scenes are that they capture the contrast between the two main characters.
I adore your illustrations of Owl! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
ERIC – We’re currently working on a sequel to The Barnabus Project, and I’ve also been working on a middle grade chapter book. I’m not sure if anything will come of it, but it’s been fun to stretch different creative muscles. I think it’s important to push yourself creatively sometimes since you never know what will come from it.
DENA – At the moment I’m working on needle felting sculptures for an upcoming gallery exhibition which is fun because I’m hoping to sculpt some of my book characters. I’m also starting on a social media collaboration project with Disney. It’s exciting because the character I’m creating a portrait of is a pretty interesting one in my opinion.
I am SO excited for a Barnabus sequel and a mysterious Disney character! The other projects sound interesting, too. I can't wait to see what you both create. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
ERIC – In Canada it would probably be Algonquin National Park. I’ve never had a chance to visit the old growth forests in B.C. but that’s definitely something I’d like to see. There are some lovely public parks in Toronto too. I’m lucky enough to live by the boardwalk, which was zoned as a park to prevent any commercial development. It’s my favorite place to walk and bike. © Aaron Spray
DENA – Alberta and Saskatchewan, where I am lucky to have grown up and live now, have so many beautiful parks. I think my absolute favorite is Waterton Lakes in AB. A couple of years ago it had large fire damage and hasn’t quite recovered yet. The Lake Louise park and area is the most magical place on earth in the autumn, there are larch trees that turn golden before losing their needles. I grew up near an interprovincial park - the Cypress Hills area that extends into Saskatchewan. The landscape is amazing with beautiful colour palettes – valleys covered in grass, sage and cactus. As for places I haven’t been, I’d like to visit Yellowstone National Park. It sounds like such an amazing place with diverse wildlife and cool landscapes. I’ve heard really interesting success stories around animal conservation there.
Thank you Eric and Dena for visiting with us and sharing about yourselves and the Night Lunch.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Night Lunch!
To find out more about Eric Fan, or contact him:
To find out more about Dena Seiferling, or contact her: