By Michele Kirichanskaya
Today we’re pleased to welcome Terry and Eric Fan to the WNDB blog to discuss It Fell from the Sky.
Congratulations on your latest book, It Fell From the Sky. Could you please tell the readers a little of what the book’s about?
It Fell From the Sky is about a strange object that falls into a garden one day. It’s an ordinary toy marble, but to the insects of the garden, it’s a wonderful mystery. Each of them speculates about its origins and what it is, but it’s the spider who sees the potential to profit from it. He claims the marble as his own and begins to exhibit it and charge admission. In doing so, he eventually alienates his community and ultimately discovers that sharing is more rewarding than selfish materialism.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from? Where do you usually find the inspiration for your books?
The original idea for the story began as a standalone drawing from about ten years ago, before we had even published any picture books. It was a simple pen and ink drawing of some Victorian insects in top hats examining a toy marble. I think what appealed to us about the image was the humor of the insect “scientists” treating the marble with such wonder and curiosity. The Night Gardener and Ocean Meets Sky both started as standalone illustrations. As visual thinkers, we often look for an image to use as a springboard for a story.
How did each of you find yourselves getting into the art world? What drew you to picture books specifically?
Eric: Terry and I both went to art college in Toronto: The Ontario College of Art and Design. After attending OCAD, we both ended up working jobs that weren’t art-related for many years, while continuing to do art in our free time. Our path into picture books was quite a circuitous one. I had written and illustrated a children’s chapter book with my other brother Devin when we were younger. We sent it out to various publishers, without really knowing what we were doing. Most were returned unopened, but we got a few encouraging rejections, and even a phone call from a publisher, who said we should be “very encouraged.” Instead, we were devastated and gave up. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, which would take me too long to unpack here, but the short version is: failure is not the opposite of success, they are simply two sides of the same coin. I wish I had taken that encouragement and run with it instead of just giving up in frustration, but my ego at the time wouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t until many years later that we even started thinking about making a children’s book again. Terry and I had had some success selling our artwork online, on sites like Society6 and Redbubble, and it was through that exposure that we found our agent Kirsten Hall. I think what draws me to picture books is how visual they are, and how succinct they are in terms of storytelling.
Terry: Eric and I followed a very similar trajectory, and he’s covered most of it in his answer, but I’ll go into more detail about what enabled me to make a living as an artist. Like Eric, I struggled after graduating. I had some talent but was directionless, disorganized, and lacked confidence. Creative endeavors were pushed to the sidelines, and I wasn’t able to make a living off art until many years later, in my mid-forties. What made it possible was a confluence of several timely factors coming together and a heaping spoonful of good luck. A critical factor was the internet. Disruptive online platforms for artists began springing up—sites Eric mentioned, such as Threadless, Society6, and RedBubble. Society6 was such a lifesaver for me, and I credit them with enabling me to make a living as an independent artist. I received a royalty on every product sold, and critically, Society6 allowed artists to retain full rights to their work. My earnings crept up steadily, and it finally gave me the confidence to quit my day job. Eric followed suit about a year later. He had just purchased a condo and was understandably more cautious about taking that wild leap into self-employment.
Just as important as the earnings was the increased visibility due to the tens of thousands of people who collectively followed us on Society6 and other online art sites. Little did we know, literary agents and people from the publishing industry would often peruse Society6 searching for upcoming talent. We had always been interested in picture books but had no idea how to break into that world. As it happened, we didn’t need to do a thing. During that time, Kirsten Hall, a literary agent based in NY, started up a boutique agency. She was looking for fresh talent to fill her roster and noticed our work on Society6. So, out of the blue, she contacted Eric and me over email and asked us whether we had any interest in picture books, and if we did, would we be interested in joining her agency? The rest is history. When our first picture book, The Night Gardener, was published, I was fifty years old. Eight years later, we’ve published six books together, with two more in the pipeline. So that should give some hope to the late-bloomers out there.
As brothers, what has the collaboration process been like between you? What would you say are some of the benefits and challenges of working with family?
Eric: The benefits of working with family is that there’s a built-in familiarity and a shared sensibility. It’s so much easier to collaborate when you already have an established shorthand for communication. Our process involves a lot of back-and-forths, some compromise, and finding a way to synthesize our individual contributions. It can be challenging at times when we hit a roadblock or disagree about something, but there’s always that shared outlook of wanting the book to be as good as we can make it.
Terry: There are some challenges, but primarily benefits. Eric and I share many of the same interests and have a similar aesthetic, so we’re pretty much always on the same page when it comes to having a creative vision for a project. It’s almost as if a collaborative third eye opens up when working on a project we’re excited about doing. The execution of that vision is when it gets tricky, but I think that’s a built-in challenge that doesn’t have anything to do with us being siblings. When we get frustrated, it’s often a shared frustration due to some problem that has arisen.
Another significant benefit is that we fill in each other’s weak spots to a certain extent, and it’s just nice to have someone share the intense demands of creating a picture book. There’s such an overwhelming amount of work to do, and I don’t think many people realize what a challenge it can be, even when things are going well. We also rely heavily on honest, direct, back-and-forth feedback from one another, which is invaluable. I think we both do a pretty good job of checking our egos at the door, and we’re focused on trying to make the best picture book we’re able to, as a team.
What books drew you in as children? What stories inspired you to tell your own stories?
Eric: The first book that had a profound impact on me as a child was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. The moment when the walls of Max’s bedroom dissolve, giving him access to the magical world of his imagination, was the moment I realized how transporting and powerful a book could be. As a storyteller, I’m drawn to stories that emerge from the unique perspective of a child rather than being too “top-down” with an adult’s perspective. It’s sometimes hard to resist imposing that perspective, but my favorite children’s books, whether it’s Sendak or William Steig, seem to exist within that special unfiltered space, and I aspire to create those kinds of stories. Our dad also introduced us to stories he loved as a kid, growing up in Taiwan, including the classic Journey to the West, which was published in the Ming Dynasty, and is attributed to Wu Cheng’en.
Terry: Yes, our dad also shared many Chinese folktales that his grandmother had told him as a kid. He recounted them from memory, so I don’t know their exact regional origin, but he did tell us a version of The Ten Chinese Brothers, which had particular importance to him because he was one of ten brothers himself. Maurice Sendak definitely had a tremendous influence on both of us. Other inspirations include anything by Tomie dePaola, Richard Scarry, Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, and Margaret Wise Brown. When I grew a little older, I loved The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. These books, and many others, acted as a springboard for my imagination and inspired me greatly as a child.
What advice would you give to young writers and artists?
Eric: It’s easy to get discouraged by failure, but failure is what nudges you along the path to success, and you probably learn as much from failure as you do from success. It’s always nice to have validation, but it’s important to seek out criticism as well, and not be defensive about it. A supportive writing or artist community can be helpful, but an honest and critical community is probably more helpful. My first foray back into art was submitting t-shirt designs on a site called Threadless. It used crowdsourcing to determine which designs got printed, and the feedback from the community was sometimes brutal. It was a shock to my system, coming from the “supportive community” of friends and family who always praised my work, but praise is often what stagnates growth; it was that brutal and unfiltered honesty that really pushed me to do better. Being told your work is awful is not much fun, but it is a powerful motivator.
Terry: The best things that happened to me in life were completely unexpected and unplanned, so, leave yourself open to different possibilities, even ones you can’t imagine. It’s important to have goals, but it’s best to leave them as open-ended as possible. With an open mind and heart, you’re setting the stage for something exciting to happen. When an opportunity arises, you’ll have the mental flexibility to take advantage of it. Passivity, self-doubt, rigid thinking, and fear of failure are the worst enemies of creativity. In this goal-orientated society we live in, fear of failure often acts as a paralyzing obstacle, and many people give up before even trying. Also, I believe in not waiting around for inspiration to happen. Achieving success in almost anything is the cumulative effect of good habits practiced over a long period.
And the funny thing is, inspiration often comes from the work. As you’re toiling away at something, you’re actively problem-solving, whether you even realize it. It’s impossible to predict how something will evolve as you’re working through it, so the important thing is to start the process and get the mental gears moving. Even when feeling completely uninspired, doing anything is always better than sitting around and fretting about it. In an active, engaged state, innumerable possibilities open up. You’ll end up surprising yourself. Intuition also plays an important role; it’s your subconscious mind figuring things out in a way your rigid, rational mind can’t. Trust in your intuition to lead the way. It will always take you to an exciting place creatively. As your conscious mind grew up and learned all the rules, your intuition remained a child. I constantly strive to be in this intuitive state when I’m working on something. It’s the doorway to imagination.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked?
Eric: I love movies, so would like to be asked about my favorite movies. Here are some favorites, in no particular order: Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, My Neighbor Totoro by Hayao Miyazaki, Chungking Express by Kar-Wai Wong, Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock, The Wizard of Oz by Victor Fleming, Citizen Kane by Orson Wells, La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau, and City Lights by Charlie Chaplin.
Terry: We do tend to get asked similar questions in interviews, so it isn’t always easy coming up with new answers. I’ve never been asked the question you just asked, so I think you’ve just fulfilled that wish! That said, I’m having a hard time coming up with an answer.
Do you have any books to recommend for the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
Eric: I think we’re entering a golden age for diverse picture books. That’s the optimist in me speaking anyway, but I’m seeing some wonderful books being published that give me hope. When We Were Alone by David Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett is devastatingly poignant and timely. I’m a big fan of Christian Robinson, so anything written or illustrated by him is amazing. There are a lot of good picture books about the refugee and immigrant experience; I particularly liked Story Boat by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh. Being Eurasian, and growing up without seeing much representation, it’s nice to see more Asian picture books being published. A Different Pond by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui is terrific, and more recently, Watercress by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin is stunning.
Terry: I agree with Eric that diversity in picture books is becoming more common, and it’s a very encouraging development. Eric already mentioned some great examples in the picture book category, and I’d like to add I Am Not a Number, written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland, which is based on the life of Jenny’s grandmother, who is co-author of the book. It recounts her Grandmother’s horrifying experience in Canada’s residential school system and should be required reading in elementary schools. A few books I’m currently reading by diverse authors, and highly recommend: Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee, Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good, and The Good Immigrant, a collection of 26 essays on American culture and what it means to be an immigrant, edited by Nikes Shukla and Chimene Sulyman. I’d also recommend anything by Canadian author Kyo Maclear. Birds Art Life, by Kyo, is such a beautiful and evocative memoir.
Terry Fan received his formal art training at Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Canada. His work is a blend of traditional and contemporary techniques, using ink or graphite mixed with digital. He spends his days (and nights) creating magical paintings, portraits, and prints. Terry is the cocreator of The Night Gardener and It Fell from the Sky. Born in Illinois, he now lives in Toronto. Visit him online TheFanBrothers.com.
Eric Fan is an artist and writer who lives in Toronto, Canada. Born in Hawaii and raised in Toronto, he attended the Ontario College of Art and Design, where he studied illustration, sculpture, and film. He has a passion for vintage bikes, clockwork contraptions, and impossible dreams. Eric is the cocreator of The Night Gardener and It Fell from the Sky. Visit him online TheFanBrothers.com.
Michele Kirichanskaya (she/her) is a freelance journalist and writer from Brooklyn, New York. Currently studying at the New School, when she is not writing, she is reading, watching an absurd amount of cartoons to survive reality, and creating content for platforms like Hey Alma, Salon, The Mary Sue, GeeksOut, ComicsVerse, The Gay & Lesbian Review, and more. Her work can be found here and on Twitter @MicheleKiricha1.