Allen Say - Illustrator
Allen Say is a much-honored author and illustrator. He was born and raised in Japan, where he apprenticed with a successful cartoonist when he was only 12. He moved to America at age 16, and eventually had a career in photography. He then worked as an illustrator for children's books, and moved on to creating books himself.
RIF: How many of your books are autobiographical?
Allen Say: Every picture I paint comes from something I had seen or imagined; the same is true with writing. So everything I paint or write is essentially autobiographic.
RIF: Why do you like creating books that explore your childhood and family beginnings?
AS: No one has a happy childhood when there is a war going on. And no child is happy in a broken home. I think a large part of what I do is to make my childhood happier than it was, and make sense of the things that I didn't understand as a child.
RIF: When you create a book, do you think about who will be reading it? In other words, do you try to create books for a certain age group?
AS: The only person I think of when I am working on a book is my editor, and I don't think of him very often. The most difficult person to please is myself, and myself is the only person I try to please. Artists are very selfish people.
RIF: When you paint pictures based in real-life events (like Tea with Milk or Grandfather's Journey), do you use photos or other artifacts to work from?
AS: I steal pictures from magazines, billboards, newspapers, and often take photos to copy from; then I take a face from here, a house from there, an old car from somewhere else and put them together like a collage. Putting together is what painting is about.
RIF: Which comes more naturally to you, writing or painting?
AS: Writing is the most unnatural thing I know of. No amount of words can paint what something really is. Thank goodness for paints and brushes!
RIF: When you begin a book, which do you do first -- write the story or create the pictures?
AS: First I doodle. Then I make pencil drawings. When I feel good about what's coming out, I put that on a stretched watercolor paper and start painting. When all the paintings are finished, I put words to them. My editor thinks the way I work is very unnatural -- I wouldn't get a good grade in school -- but it's the best method for me.
RIF: Your books deal with deep issues. How do you turn these big issues into books that children can enjoy?
AS: When starting a new book, I don't have issues in my head. Most of the time I don't know what the book is going to be about. I start painting the first picture, and by the time that's done the second picture -- I call it scene or frame -- forms in my mind. After the fourth or fifth frame I'm often surprised to see a story line developing. It's a kind of pattern recognition.
The important thing is to put enough stuff on the paper, then I can move them around and begin to see a pattern, and that's when it gets exciting. I believe that if you know what you are going to make before you make it, and if comes out the way you thought it would come out, the finished work is worthless.
RIF: Is May from Tea with Milk the same character as Mama from Tree of Cranes?
AS: Yes, May in Tea with Milk is the same woman as Mama in Tree of Cranes and also the daughter in Grandfather's Journey. I wasn't planning on making a trilogy of them, it just happened that way. I'm probably more surprised by my work than most of my readers.
RIF: Which of your books are most meaningful to you?
AS: The most meaningful book is the one that I'm working on; when it's finished, it goes out of my life, like a daughter leaving home after college. Then I start another book and so begins a new cycle.
RIF: What are some of your favorite books by other authors and illustrators?
AS: I became a children's writer and illustrator by accident and read very few picture books, mostly to my daughter when she was small. Our favorites were the "Ira" stories by Bernie Waber. Recently he very kindly sent me two signed copies, which I treasure.
RIF: What advice do you have for children who want to be writers or artists?
AS: Keep your eyes and ears wide open!
RIF: Do you have any projects or books coming up?
AS: I'm just starting a book about an old-time storyteller in Japan who was put out of work by the television. If I finish it in time, it'll come out in the fall of next year.
Write to Allen Say!
c/o Houghton Mifflin Company
222 Berkeley Street
Boston, MA 02116