The Fan Brothers, Eric and Terry, have enchanted readers across the globe with their whimsical illustrations and fantastical stories. Their bestselling picture books are both customer and staff favorites, so we’re thrilled to kick off our da Shop Talk series with the extraordinarily talented Eric Fan to discuss his craft, creative influences, and memories of Hawai‘i.
Some people might be surprised to know that you and Terry lived in Hawai‘i when you were kids. How did your time in Hawai‘i influence your creative perspective or process?
I was quite young when we first lived in Hawai‘i so I don’t have a lot of memories from that specific time. Thankfully, we visited Hawai’i several times as I was growing up, most memorably when we rented a house for a month in O‘ahu on our way to living in Australia for a year. We spent a lot of time snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, and I think that’s when we both fell in love with the ocean. On subsequent trips I was sad to see that the reef had declined dramatically, but back then it was still flourishing with life and made an enormous impact on our imagination. We saw moray eels, a baby hammerhead shark, parrot fish, trumpet fish, enormous brain coral looming in the depths. We later decorated our shared bedroom with drawings of sea creatures completely covering the walls, to simulate an undersea world. There were drawings of whales, and sharks, octopus, and parrot fish covering every wall. Ocean Meets Sky probably springs directly from that same imaginary world of whales and sea life.
Your stories and illustrations have an ethereal, otherworldly feeling to them. Can you expand a little bit on what influences your fantastical elements?
It’s hard to say. I think imagination is the culmination of everything you’ve seen or been interested in over the entirety of your life. Some of it is subconscious, some of it is intentional. It’s a bit like putting fuel in an engine. The more things you put in your brain, the more fuel you have to run your imagination. I think when we create a story, we’re really creating it for the childhood versions of ourselves that still persist beneath the surface of adulthood. If you’re sensitive to that, you can still access that sensibility, and by connecting with your own “inner child” you can hopefully connect with your young readers, too.
Was there a conscious decision to embark on making books together with your brother Terry? Can you describe your collaboration process a bit for us?
Our journey into picture books was quite circuitous. When I was younger I had always dreamed of doing a picture book. I even made a few illustrated manuscripts with my other brother Devin, which we sent out unsolicited to various publishers. We were very naive about the whole process, to be honest, and Devin was only sixteen years old at the time. Shockingly we received a few encouraging rejection letters, critiques, and even a phone call from a couple of editors who took the time to contact us personally. Had we leveraged their helpful advice perhaps we could have succeeded even back then, but in our naïveté we were gutted and so that effectively ended our dreams of getting a book published. I still have one of those letters and I’m frustrated that I wasn’t able to recognize what a gift it was at the time – how encouraging and thoughtful they were, and how rare it was that they took the time to respond to us personally.
Fast forward to many decades later. Terry and I were both working in full time jobs outside of the art field, but we had both started to post artwork online. We were selling t-shirt designs on a site called Threadless, and art prints on a numerous other sites that were platforms for independent artists wanting to sell their work online. Long story short, our agent Kirsten Hall was just starting a new literary agency and was looking for artists to fill out her roster. She saw our work online and approached us about representation. In one of our first email exchanges she asked if we had ideas for a picture book, so we went back into our portfolio archive to see if there were any images that might spark a story idea. Ten years prior to this we had collaborated on a t-shirt design called The Night Gardener, which showed a gardener sculpting a tree into an owl. Something about that image suggested there was a story in there somewhere, and so we used that image as a springboard for writing our first book.
Our collaborative process is fairly organic. It’s a bit like two different musicians working on one song. We both have a similar style, so it’s not too difficult to mesh those styles into a cohesive whole. We always start with a rough dummy for the book, which has all the spreads and page-turns worked out in rough form along with the basic composition and page layouts. After that we will each tackle different aspects of an illustration and then bring the disparate elements together as a composite in Photoshop, the way you might assemble a puzzle. Then there’s a lot of back and forth as we gradually refine the image into the final form that appears in the book.
Can you share your work process? Do you have a designated studio? Pre-work rituals to help orient yourself?
We both work from home, so we have separate studios. My “studio” consists of my couch and my work desk and a computer. We don’t live very far from each other, so when necessary we’ll meet together to go over a project or discuss particular spreads. We also have a shared Dropbox so we can both see the files that we’re working on and any changes that have been made. I don’t have any specific pre-work rituals, unless making coffee qualifies.
You and Terry have both illustrated your own stories and created illustrations to someone else’s text. Do you have a different process or approach as an author-illustrator vs. illustrator?
I think the process is pretty similar. The only difference is that there’s a little less flexibility when you’re working on another author’s text. With our own stories, if something isn’t quite working or it’s not yielding the illustrations we want, we can retool the text on the fly to accommodate new ideas. With someone else’s text you need to be respectful of the text and try to honour that as faithfully as possible. That said, you also need to bring something of yourself to the story to help expand the text. I think when you decide to take on a project and illustrate it, there has to be something that resonates with you on a personal level. To really connect with a text you have to take ownership of it to a certain extent. It has to feel like the story is coming from you, even though it’s someone else’s words. I think all successful collaborations have that aspect of creative absorption.
Were there any specific books that influenced how you write and/or illustrate picture books or inspire you to want to create books for children?
Our favourite book when we were little was Where The Wild Things Are. If I had to point to one book that really impacted us in a profound way it would be that one. The moment the walls dissolved in Max’s bedroom, and a jungle grew in its place, was the moment I understood the innate power of storytelling – how a story could magically dissolve barriers and take you somewhere you had never been before... carry you into a whole other world of imagination. It was intoxicating, and probably why we pestered our parents into reading it to us over and over again.
Anything on your “creative bucket list” that you can share?
One thing on my creative bucket list was to write a story and have someone else illustrate it. I’ve always been a little envious of being on the other side of that equation – how writers get to write a story and then see it taken somewhere they couldn’t have fully imagined on their own. It’s that feeling of letting go of something creatively, the nervous anticipation of seeing what it might become in someone else’s hands without your direct visual involvement. So that’s something I’m currently working on, and hopefully will become a book at some point.
What are you reading these days?
I have a bad habit of juggling a lot of books at the same time so I have a rather teetering stack of books on my nightstand at the moment. I just finished the graphic novel This Was Our Pact by Ryan Johnson, and 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. They were both really good. By complete coincidence I’m also reading and enjoying two somewhat apocalyptic books: Bloom, written by my friend Kenneth Oppel and Zone One by Colson Whitehead. Two other books that I’ve recently started, but are on hold until I’ve finished the others are: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, and Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. Finally, Infinite Jest has a more permanent place at the base of the pile, as I seem to have permanently stalled a couple of hundred pages in. It’s like the lovely truck in the barn where you keep turning the ignition key hoping the engine will turn over. One of these days!
Is there something you wished you could talk about more in interviews, but never get asked?
I’ve never been asked about Hawai’i before, so that was fun to talk about! Terry and I live in an area of Toronto called the Beaches. It’s next to the boardwalk and the lake. I think subconsciously we both chose to live there because the ocean – or in our case the lake – still exerts that psychological pull from our childhoods.
Do you have any plans to return to Hawai‘i???
Yes, definitely. It’s one of those bone-deep feelings that at some point I need to go back, and I know I will someday. There is something magical about Hawai’i and I have so many memories and so much nostalgia for it as a place – both the physical place and the place it occupies in my memory and emotions.
Mahalo nui loa Eric Fan for giving us the gift of his time and words all the way from Toronto! You can connect with Eric on Instagram, Twitter, The Fan Brothers website, and buy his illustrations at Society6 and Threadless. Ocean Meets Sky, The Night Gardener, The Antlered Ship, The Darkest Dark, and The Scarecrow are all available for purchase through da Shop’s online store. Look for his newest book The Barnabus Project, a collaboration with Terry and their brother Devin, out September 2020 from Penguin Random House.
Credits: Photo of Eric Fan by Terry Fan