Terry and Eric Fan are the creators of the recently published, Ocean Meets Sky. This amazingly detailed and enchanting book is the second for the Fan Brothers as both authors and illustrators. In 2017 their first book The Night Gardener, won the prestigious Ruth Swartz Children’s Book Award and a Blue Spruce Award. They also illustrated the gorgeous The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater and The Darkest Night by astronaut Chris Hadfield. These incredibly talented brothers are from Toronto, Ontario.
MARMALADE BOOKS (MB): Terry, I assume you are the oldest? You were born in Illinois and then you moved to Hawaii where Eric was born? Which island did you live on and can you tell us a bit about your life in paradise?
TERRY AND ERIC FAN (E&TF): Yes, I’m about a year-and-a-half older than Eric. We lived in Oahu for about three years in the early 60’s. Dad earned his PHD in Philosophy at The University of Hawaii in Honolulu. I only have vague, but very happy, memories of that time because we were so young. One of my first memories is being on the beach - I’m pretty sure it was Waikiki Beach. From photos during that time it seems like we were always on the beach and very tanned! That may be the reason I feel such a strong affinity towards the ocean and am always happier when near a large body of water. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Eric and I ended up living in “The Beaches” neighbourhood of Toronto, which has a long boardwalk that runs along Lake Ontario.
MB: When and what brought you to Toronto? By the way, Canada is pretty happy to lay claim to you now!
E&TF: Our dad was offered a full-time teaching position at York University in Toronto, so we moved there in 1970. We’ve lived in Toronto ever since, but are still dual U.S./Canadian citizens.
MB: I recently saw a video of you both creating a picture. You passed the picture back and forth, each taking a turn working on it and then finally both working on it at the same time. It was fascinating to watch. It was almost like you were twins with the exact same image in your heads. Is this normally how you work? Do you ever disagree on the direction of the work?
E&TF: We live close to one another and whenever we get the chance we like to work that way. Sometimes, for the sake of practicality, we work on elements separately and then upload them to a shared Dropbox folder. Then we’ll both colour and put together full scenes in Photoshop and often refine/modify each other’s work to one degree or another. We’ve developed a kind of “artistic dialogue” over the years that’s intuitive and has served us pretty well so far.
Of course, as with any partnership, we occasionally have disagreements, but we always manage to work them out. When working on a project together we both have the same goal in mind, so we put aside our egos and focus collectively on getting the best result we can. It’s important to keep an open mind and to really listen to different ideas or viewpoints. This doesn’t just apply to our own working relationship, but also to the editor and art director of a project. Working on a picture book is a very collaborative effort so co-operation and respect on all levels is vitally important.
MB: How does it work with writing a story?
E&TF: Usually we’ll get together and have brainstorming sessions where we toss ideas back and forth and most of our story ideas come out of this process. Then we both work on the text and it invariably goes through many edits before we arrive at a final draft. Sometimes the text or story will also change depending on the art work. The “flow” is so important in picture books, so we try to create stories that can be understood on a visual level.
MB: Your new book, Ocean Meets Sky is an absolute work of art. There is so much amazing detail that it should come with a warning for parents “This book cannot be read quickly!” It feels like you could have many sequels as each page is a story in itself. Where did the idea for the story come from?
E&TF: Wow, thanks so much! The original inspiration came from a standalone design that was done many years ago. We always thought there was a good story behind it, but it took a lot of brainstorming and quite a number of different drafts to arrive at a story we were happy with. Even though the text in some picture books may seem simple, I think people would be surprised by how much thought and effort goes into it. It’s a real challenge to write within the confines of a typical picture book structure because the story has to be told in a very economical and concise way.
MB: One double spread from the book is the Library Islands. There are stacks of books (including your own The Night Gardener) and all sorts of beautiful birds. Many of the books on the page are classics, a book on astronomy etc. Were these your favourite books growing up?
E&TF: That was one of our favourite scenes. It was kind of our love letter to books and to libraries. We did that particular spread when we were attending the Sendak Fellowship, and it was a turning point where the book finally started to come into focus. Sendak collected books, and there were bookshelves in all the studios and farmhouses at Scotch Hill farm, all stacked with books... it was kind of like being on our own library island. Some of the books titles in that scene were made up, but the real ones were definitely some of our favourite books growing up.
MB: Are you working on a new project and can you tell us about it?
E&TF: We’re currently working on final art for The Scarecrow, written by Beth Ferry. It’s due to be published in the Fall of 2019 by Harper-Collins. After that we’ll be working on our own story entitled The Barnabus Project, which will be published by Penguin-Random House Canada. Our younger brother, Devin, will also be joining us on that one. The three of us working together should be an interesting experience!
My thanks to Terry and Eric Fan for this interview. It was a thrill and an absolute pleasure to get to know more about you and your wonderful work. Pat Oldroyd