Interview with artist and author Allen Say
by Marjorie Coughlan*
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. His 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 Say's work in children's literature.
You have had a fascinating career and have received much well-deserved recognition for your work. Looking back, what for you have been the turning points? Did you have a sense from the very beginning that your evolution as an artist/writer would take you to all the places it has?
The first big turning point was my coming to the United States in 1953 and being put in a military academy in Southern California. The second was when I was drafted by the Army, which colored my perception of this society for good. The third was the birth of my daughter, which taught me what it is to be an adult. The fourth was the publication of The Boy of the Three-year Nap, which allowed me to work on picture books full-time. And then Grandfather’s Journey being awarded the Caldecott.
I like to think that I have always done what I wanted to do, but I never imagined that I would one day be an author of children’s books - an illustrator perhaps; author, never!
Can you describe how you like to go about your work?
I spend most of my time in my workroom - often I don’t stir out of the house for three or four days. I work on one book at a time and when I start working on a new book, I go through what I call the doodling stage: I just start drawing at random, without thinking much of anything; and if I’m lucky, something interesting might emerge and give me direction. There are times when I make a lot of drawings for an illustration; and there are times when I just start painting without any preliminaries. When it comes to work, I don’t have any set rules other than doing the illustrations in sequential order. This is my way of working out the story as I paint along: so the final story I end up with is usually very different from the outline that I had started out with - if I had an outline. The finished book often surprises me, and that’s the excitement.
You have said elsewhere that you line up your stories as story-boards before writing the text. Is that always the case? Is this influenced by your first introduction to painting cartoons under your Sensei or Teacher, Noro Shinpei?
I don’t have a set rule but often I start out with a storyboard, though there are times when I go straight to the finished painting without preliminary layout or storyboard. I’m very much ruled by my moods. And when I’m finished with the art, I put words to them; I paint first and write later, most of the time. Sometimes I make notes as I paint but more often than not they get lost by the time I need them. In other words, my usual work mode is to work out a story in terms of images - string out a series of visual situations or gags - and when all the pictures are laid out, the story is pretty much there, which I write down with a minimal number of words.
This storyboard idea is something that I learned in the advertising business - I was a commercial photographer for 20 years. Noro Sensei never worked out his ideas on paper: whatever was in his head went straight onto the beautiful Bristol boards as finished art. Imagine him allowing me, a 12-year-old boy, to work on them! What privilege! It frightened me at first, then I got cocky and started to put my name in the background. Only Tokida, my fellow apprentice, and I knew it was there - or so we thought. I don’t think I could let an assistant, much less a youngster, meddle with my watercolors; I’m afraid Sensei’s generosity didn’t rub off on me!
Was it also the cartoon style which influenced your extraordinarily detailed monochrome illustrations for one of your early successes, Under the Cherry Blossom Tree?
That book was made in the dark age of printing, when full-scale color production, being very expensive, was reserved for big-name illustrators. And of course when you are given only the black ink to work with, that pretty much dictates the style you can use – everything has to be outlined and shaded in one shade.
Then there was color separation. Many people think The Bicycle Man is a full-color production. It isn’t. I hand-separated the colors myself by first making the outline drawings in ink. Then I had to lay a sheet of vellum on top of it; take a black or orange pastel pencil and shade in, say, the soldiers’ uniforms; and designate the shading to be printed in a certain PMS color at what percentage. You go through the same process for each different color you decide to use. The problem was that you could never predict what was going to happen where the colors overlapped.
You describe your beginnings as a professional artist in your book The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice, including how you presented yourself to Noro Shinpei, asking him to teach you. In many ways, the book is about growing up but you had unusual freedom as a 12-year-old and met some very colorful characters along the way. Did you/do you still keep in touch with any of them?
I spent most of May in Japan and had a wonderful reunion with Sensei’s two daughters and a beautiful granddaughter, whom I had not met before. The sisters make a brief appearance in The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice, when Sensei takes me to his apartment - I had thought one of them was a boy!
Home of the Brave and the two promotional posters for it were the last work of mine I sent Sensei. When he died two years ago, Chieko-san, his younger daughter, told me that Sensei had caressed the images on the posters and said to her that I was the treasure of his life. I like to think that he meant I was his tradition carrier.
As for Tokida, I heard about ten years ago that he had become a Buddhist monk and that made sense to me: he was the purest human being I’ve ever known and I don’t think he could have survived in any other way. Meanwhile, my friend Michiko in the book is actually a composite portrait of at least three girls I was in love with.
Presumably writing The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice was a very different experience to your other books – how did you find it? An ‘autobiographical novel’ is a bit of a paradox: could you outline what you changed?
The Ink-keeper’s Apprentice was the hardest thing I’d ever attempted. I started on it thinking I would never be able to finish it and that was the whole point: I had promised my then wife that we could have a baby when I was through with the book, and the idea of being a father was so terrifying that I took on a project that I thought I would never be able to finish. Now I’m a very happy father, happily divorced for 16 years!
What did I change in that book? Or more precisely, what are the things in it that didn’t actually happen? Well, I was never in a public demonstration - I was too much of a coward - and Tokida was never hospitalized, though he could have been. But the thing that really disturbs me is that both my grandmother and my father come off as fairly decent human beings in the book. They were not. I discovered, too, that the writer loses control over the characters he or she writes about, that they start to act for themselves. I’m still surprised by this, and somewhat resentful.
So would you consider writing another novel, maybe a sequel?
William Maxwell said that sequels of autobiographies are never any good and he was right, as he was about most things. All the élan and freshness that go into the first book don’t seem to carry over to the next. So I stop while I’m ahead.
What I really want to do is to paint the rest of the way - paint with oils on largish canvases, just for the joy of painting. For me anyway, there is no joy in writing.
Did your grandfather’s stories about America, which you have since related in Grandfather’s Journey, resurface when you were making up your mind about emigrating? What was it like for you when you first arrived in America?
Actually, I thought more about my mother’s stories of her growing up in California; besides, most of my grandfather’s stories had come from her. My mother had been born in California and my father was a Korean orphan who had grown up in Shanghai, and I was always aware of being different from other children. This sort of personal history doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary today, but it was when I was a child. I was born an alien. And my sense of being an alien intensified in America. In Japan I could blend in with the crowd and disappear, but in America I was too conspicuous. Some years ago I noticed that there are a lot of doors and windows in my illustrations, which of course are the devices through which the outsider views the world.
Once you were in America, did you seek out new art teachers or life-drawing classes straight away? In what way did these differ from your studies in Japan? How do you think being an artist with both Japanese and American roots has influenced your work? Has it made you more aware of yourself as a multi-cultural author/illustrator?
Once in America, I didn’t seek out art teachers, they sought me. There I was, a 16-year-old who didn’t speak English but could draw in the classical French Academic style. The high school art teacher threw up her arms and said, “I can’t teach you!” She sent me to the art department at the junior college, and there the instructor said the same thing. I was given scholarships to attend the Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Art Center School, both in L.A.
Studying institutionalized art was new to me, in schools that looked like factories. I missed the master-disciple relationship I had with Sensei. My art training in Japan has given a certain perspective to my understanding of Western art, and vice versa. It’s like learning another language, which gives perspective to one’s native speech. I think of myself as a hybrid artist. I began making picture books perhaps 15 years before the term “multiculturalism” was coined, and I was deeply suspicious of it in anticipation. When a book is finished, I am surprised by it - by its structure, unforeseen complexity, its content - and I work hard to keep it that way.
Before becoming an author/ illustrator full-time, you were a photographer. Do you still take photographs? Many of your illustrations are set up as posed portraits, which give your characters an immediacy but also resonate with the notion of holding a moment for it to be captured, like on film. In Home of the Brave you based one of your illustrations on a well-known Dorothea Lange photograph of two small Japanese-American children from a WWII internment camp. This had unexpected repercussions, I believe?
Today I use a camera as a sketching tool, a recording device for research. Home of the Brave was going to be an adventure/love story. It took me 30 years to fall in love with the American desert, an expanse of space unknown in Japan,
and I wanted to put it in a book – it actually started with The Sign Painter. Anyway, I painted the first four frames and didn’t know where to go from there. Then I had to go down to Los Angeles for the launching of The Sign Painter at the Japanese American National Museum and there I saw the Dorothea Lange photo of the Mochida family. The older girl, Miki, has one of the saddest faces I have ever seen and I simply had to put her in my book. So yes, that photo was the seed that sprouted into Home of the Brave.
Then when that book was launched at the Museum, three generations of the Mochidas came to celebrate the occasion. What was so amazing was that the older members of the family - those who had been interned at a relocation camp during the war - showed no rancor or bitterness for their wartime ordeal. Understandably, some of the youngsters were angry for the elders, but my sense was that they all thought of themselves as normal, law-abiding Americans.
Many of your books offer scope to young readers to explore and shape their conceptions of universal issues such as adoption (Allison), old age (Music for Alice) or exclusion/ coping with being different (Tea with Milk). Do you deliberately set out also to inform about Japanese culture? What reactions to your books do you get from young readers?
Most of the time, when I start on a book, I don’t know what the story is going to be; and if I have a vague plot in mind, I wouldn’t know what the revelation of it is. I discover that after the fact, when the book is finished: I never deliberately set out to inform anyone about anything. It’s like deciphering a dream - sometimes you understand some of it, other times you don’t understand any of it: but the images remain in your head. Dreams themselves are narratives in images that come uncensored out of your head, and those that I’ve tried to incorporate into books have always failed. It usually turns out the other way round: the finished book often has the feel of a dream. Like Stranger in the Mirror. Most American adults hate it and understandably so - it’s about aging - but a lot of children love that book, they think it’s very funny. And Under the Cherry Blossom Tree has always been popular because it’s a gross story. When I was a boy I had heard that the Westerners in general thought of Asians as humourless, and I wanted to refute that with the Cherry Blossom story. I am ashamed to admit this now, that I had such an intention, but it’s the only one I’ll admit to...
What reactions to your books do you get from young readers?
Recently I received some fan letters from a class of fourth graders in Medellin, Colombia. They wrote to say how much they liked The Lost Lake because the story reminded them of the wonderful camping trips they had taken with their families. And in the same month I received a packet of letters from a class of fourth graders somewhere near Akron, Ohio. They said they live in a dirty and polluted place where they have to stay all the time and that they love reading The Lost Lake because it’s the only camping trip they have ever known.
Your latest book Kamishibai Man came out recently. It appears much more deliberately nostalgic than your other books. How and why did you decide on this story?
Much of my childhood happiness had to do with kamishibai, which was the primary entertainment for children in those days. But by the time I was a middle school student in the early ’50s it had, thanks to television, pretty much disappeared. I started thinking of doing a book about a kamishibai man in 1973 - it was going to be my second children’s book. I even had a title for it, The Paper Theater Man, but as I laid it out, I felt that I had to do too much explaining as to what kamishibai was and gave up. So this story gestated in my head for 32 years, a longish dream, even for me.
Of all your books, which is your favorite?
Books - the ones I have written - are like diaries for me, and I don’t like reading my diaries so when I’ve finished working on a book, it pretty much goes out of my life. My favorite book is the one in progress. I’m just starting a book about a young American woman who lives on a small island of Japan.
* Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor
Posted July 2006
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More on PaperTigers:
View our Gallery feature, including examples of Allen Say's beautiful artwork and a Q&A.
More on the web:
Read a transcript of Allen Say's Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech for Grandfather's Journey.
Read what his daughter wrote about him when she was 13 years old.
Visit his pages on his publisher's website.
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A bibliography of books by Allen Say:
Drawing from Memory
(Scholastic Press, 2011)
The Boy in the Garden
(Houghton Mifflin, 2010)
(Houghton Mifflin, 2009)
Kamishibai Man (Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 2005).
Music for Alice (Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 2004).
Home of the Brave (Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 2002).
The Sign Painter (Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 2000).
Tea with Milk
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1999).
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1997).
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1996).
Stranger in the Mirror
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1995).
The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1994 - new edition; first published 1979).
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1993).
Tree of Cranes
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1991).
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1990).
The Lost Lake
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1989).
A River Dream
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1988).
The Boy of the Three-Year Nap
Illustrator; written by Dianne Snyder
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1988).
How My Parents Learned to Eat
Illustrator; written by Ina R Friedman,
(Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1984).
The Bicycle Man
(Parnassus Press/ Houghton Mifflin, 1982).
The Secret Cross of Lorraine
Illustrator; written by Thea Brow,
(Parnassus Press/ Houghton Mifflin, 1981).
The Lucky Yak
written by Annetta Lawson,
(Parnassus Press/ Houghton Mifflin, 1980).
Magic and the Night River
written by Eve Bunting,
(Harper & Row, 1978).
The Feast of Lanterns
(Harper & Row, 1976).
Under the Cherry Blossom Tree: An Old Japanese Tale
(Harper & Row, 1974; reissued Houghton Mifflin/ Walter Lorraine Books, 1997).
The Nose: A Tale based on Hana by R. Akutagawa
(Graham Mackintosh, 1973).
Dr Smith's Safari
(Harper & Row, 1972).
Two Ways of Seeing: An Anthology of Poems and Photographs
Photographer; compiled by Wilson G. Pinney,
(Little, Brown & Co, 1971)
Canticle to the Waterbirds
Photographer; poems by Brother Antoninus (William Everson),
(Sidebar updated July 2012)