Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1937. He is and always has been an artist. When he was twelve, he apprenticed himself, unbeknownst to his family, to a well-known cartoonist, Noro Shinpei. His book The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice is based on his experiences at that time, until he left Tokyo for America at the age of sixteen. Say had already illustrated several books, working on a part-time basis, when he won a Caldecott Honor Award and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award as illustrator of The Boy of the Three-Year Nap. At this point he decided to write and illustrate children's books full-time and since then he has won many more accolades, including the 1994 Caldecott Medal for Grandfather's Journey.
Say's work has entered the canon of favorite books for children and adults alike. In 2000 the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hosted a retrospective of his work; and in 2007 the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art held an exhibition in honor of his 70th birthday.
Allen Say has been nominated by PaperTigers for the 2010 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.
He lives in Portland, Oregan with his wife, Miki.
I initially wanted to do a book about an American boy living in Japan (modeled on someone I know), who becomes so Japanized that his Japanese friends learn about their own culture and history from him. Then I met Ursala McCormick [to whom Erika-San is dedicated] in a local (Portland) sushi house; she had just returned from Amakusa, an island near Nagasaki, where she had taught English for two and a half years. The American boy metamorphosed into Ursala, and since Ursala is a name the Japanese can’t pronounce (Arsara-san!), I changed it to Erika.
Then I went to Japan and raised money by giving talks and flew Ursala back to the island where for a week she acted as my guide and informant. Every day we ate at Kamome, the restaurant, whose owners had adopted Ursala. The restaurant in my book is a faithful rendering of the place, and I never told the Kanazawas - the Mama-san and Papa-san - that they would have a part in my story; I sent them an autographed copy when it came out. So some of the people and places are real, but the love angle in the story is entirely my fabrication.
In the book, the first small city Erika comes to - one with low buildings and temples - is the city of Nagahama on the shores of Lake Biwa, the largest natural lake in Japan. They have a famous festival called the Hikiyama Matsuri, or Mountain-Pulling Festival, which goes on for four days every April. I was an honored guest there in 2006 and 2007, and I put the festival scene in the book to thank the people of Nagahama for their extraordinary hospitality. The town has a fascinating history: it was where Hideyoshi, the shogun, had his first castle, and the festival began in 1573, to entertain the warlord.
What kind of routine do you follow when you are painting, if indeed you have a routine? Is there anything special that you have to have around you?
I am usually in my workroom before 8:00 am; I sip hot water from a big mug (until recently it was tea with milk and honey, then I gave up caffeine) and start painting. I don’t listen to music or anything else while I work. But once in a while –- every four or five weeks, say –- I take out from the case one of my beautiful bamboo fly rods made by a dear friend, swish it a few times, put it back in the case and go back to work. At 11:00am I go downstairs and have lunch with my wife, take a nap for half an hour, then go back up to my room and work until 4:00 pm. I do most of my writing at night. Fortunately, my wife is almost as reclusive as I am.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
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