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Interview with Allen Say by Stephanie Loer

Thanks to all the students, teachers, and fans who submitted many great questions! Because we received so many, it was impossible for Allen to answer every one, but he has answered most of them. We hope you enjoy the interview, and we hope your question was answered.


Q) How do you begin a picture book?

A) Usually, my books start with a very vague notion or idea. Then I begin to draw things that come into my mind. Eventually, I see a pattern within the pictures. It is this pattern that develops into a tentative plot. My next step is to complete all my paintings for the book. After they are finished, I write the story. This may seem like the reverse of what appears to be the natural storytelling process, but for me, the plot of the story develops through the pictures.

Q) Where do you get your ideas?

A) I often go for walks to look for ideas. Ideas are what I call "found objects." I can see them with the naked eye or visualize them in my mind. Finding ideas is a process of feeding one's mind with seemingly unrelated images and information. Then these things spark a thought or a progression of thoughts.

Q) How do you work once you have a story in mind?

A) In most cases, I work better with a deadline. Once the images are in my mind, I like to work pretty much nonstop until the book is complete. Over the years, I've learned to trust this process, because it works for me.

Q) In your opinion, is artistic talent an innate ability or does it take practice and persistence?

A) Most artists like to think we are what we are because of hard work, but I suspect it's a combination of both ability and discipline. There is no artistic talent in my immediate family, so it may just be pure luck. The whole process is a mystery and that's the wonderful part of it.

In my case, when I was young, my art may have been a rebellion against the way my father was trying to shape my mind and my life. My father was a beautiful athlete and a very successful businessman. And he was terribly disappointed in me — his eldest son — because I was this artist who would not follow the course he wanted me to pursue.

Q) Why did you write a story about your grandfather?

A) Well, you must keep in mind that I am an immigrant in this country. And so was my grandfather. The whole point of Grandfather's Journey is that as an adult, I began thinking about the two countries I had lived in — Japan and the United States. And I knew my grandfather had thought about this same thing in his adult life. So I recognized a cycle in my family. That fascinated me.

I wanted to talk about my own experiences in this country. This was important because I hated this country when I arrived. I was thrown into military school in California and was very unhappy with my family. It took a long time to change my thinking.

In a sense, I used my grandfather's experiences to tell my own life story. Of course, as our stories unfolded, the revelation was that my life in the United States was a mirror image of his — but in another time period. The loaded phrase in Grandfather's Journey is "After a time, I came to love the land my Grandfather loved . . ." And that is part of the inspiration for writing the story.

Q) Why did you write about Billy Wong, the bullfighter in El Chino?

A) This is an interesting story. Years ago, I read a newspaper article about a Chinese bullfighter. The article made an impression on me — because I'd never heard of a Chinese bullfighter. So I kept that story in the back of my mind. Then much later I was attending a first grade school party with my daughter. While I was there I met a woman whose last name was Wong. We got talking about backgrounds and families when she mentioned something about her brother-in-law — El Chino. I, of course, said, "You mean El Chino, the bullfighter?"

She was stunned that I knew about him. As it turned out, her husband was El Chino's younger brother. Mrs. Wong introduced me to the family. Although El Chino had died in a car accident, his family supplied me with information about his life. The result was the biographical story. The most interesting thing about El Chino came to me while I was doing a particular painting for the story. As I was painting Billy Wong when he was a young boy, I realized that what he wanted most was an identity and that's why he became a bullfighter. His search for self-identity became the inspirational force for the story.

Q) What do you think makes a good story?

A) A good story should alter you in some way; it should change your thinking, your feeling, your psyche, or the way you look at things. A story is an abstract experience; it's rather like venturing through a maze. When you come out of it, you should feel slightly changed. Now the question for the storyteller is — how can I achieve that effect upon the reader? As a storyteller, one strives patiently to recognize a certain enchantment about the story that will alter the reader's perspective.

Q) Is the book Tree of Cranes something that happened in your family?

A) Yes, it's a true story. My mother made me a tree of cranes when I was a young boy.

Q) You have said that The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice is the story of your work with the artist Noro Shinpei. Would you elaborate about his influence upon you and your art?

A) The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice is a fairly accurate account of my boyhood and how I sought out Noro Shinpei.
When I was twelve, my parents' marriage came to an end and I was sent to Tokyo to live with my grandmother. We took to each other like a match to gunpowder, so eventually I was allowed to live in my own apartment. It was at that point that I sought out Noro Shinpei to be my master or teacher. As my teacher, he gave me thorough, classical art training. My years with him were some of the happiest in my life. Noro Shinpei became my spiritual father as well as my mentor. I didn't realize this until I was an adult. You see, when I was a boy, I was not just looking for a master to teach me. I was really trying to replace my father. I was incredibly lucky, because Noro Shinpei recognized I was searching for a father and he adopted me. To this day, I am still his child. He is still living and is eighty-five years old. We continue to communicate. I send him all the books I do and he still critiques my work. He was only thirty-five years old when I met him.

Q) How long does it take you to write and illustrate a book?

A) I try to do one book a year. It's a ten to twelve month marathon while I'm doing the book; it's very labor intensive. But I just love what I'm doing so much that, although it's difficult, it makes me very happy.

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