We always love to see members of the Threadcommunity doing really cool things. And while Terry and Eric Fan have been doing amazing things with their illustrations for awhile now, just recently they published their very first picture book, The Night Gardener.
The Night Gardener takes the magical, beautiful style the Fan brothers have become known for and uses it to illustrate an equally beautiful story that would fit right in on your childhood bookshelf.
We talked to the Fan brothers about The Night Gardener, what it was like collaborating on a book together, and about some exciting projects they’ve got coming up. Check it out!
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Congratulations on the book! When did you two start working on The Night Gardener?
Terry: We started working on The Night Gardener in April of 2014.
Eric: The story was acquired by Simon & Schuster around that time, and they were aiming for a February 2016 publication date. Books typically have a long lead time, so final art was due about a year before the publication date.
What inspired the story?
Terry: In early 2014 we got a fantastic literary agent, Kirsten Hall of Catbird Productions. She asked us if we had any story ideas she could pitch to publishers, and we remembered a design we did long ago, which was one of our first collaborations. It was called The Night Gardener, and was also printed as a t-shirt design on Threadless. We always thought there might be a story around that image, so we started thinking about ways to expand the narrative.
Eric: The earliest seeds of the story can probably be traced back to our childhoods. Our dad always had a great love of trees, nature and bonsai, having grown up in the Taiwanese countryside. I think living in Toronto, he missed that and compensated for the cold Canadian winters by turning our house into something of a jungle. We ended up basing the character of the night gardener on him.
What made you two want to write a book! Is this your first?
Terry: It is our first picture book! It’s more something I just fell into, to be honest. I was pretty successful just selling my work online at the time and wasn’t really contemplating doing anything outside of that. Our agent saw my work online and asked if I wanted representation, and the door to that world just sort of opened on its own.
Eric: I remember always wanting to do a picture book. When I was younger I worked on a picture book with my younger brother Devin (he was sixteen at there time) and we sent the manuscript out unsolicited to a bunch of publishers. Most were returned unopened, but we got a couple of very encouraging and lovely letters from editors, despite ultimately getting rejected.
It’s a bit of a cliche, but I think picture books are something that a lot of people have a desire to do. It’s an approachable thing, and maybe a way to recapture your childhood to an extent. It reminds me of a story I heard about someone who gets in a cab in Hollywood and asks the driver “so, how’s the screenplay going?” to which the cab driver responds in astonishment “how did you know I was working on a screenplay?” I think if you ask any number of people if they have an idea for a children’s book, a surprising percentage will answer in the affirmative.
Your styles are so similar, but I imagine there’s bound to be creative disagreements. How did you balance writing the story and working together on the illustrations?
Terry: It was a full collaboration in both the writing and the art. We’ve collaborated on art before, and actually submitted several collabs on Threadless, so I think over time we developed a good vocabulary as far as working together. Photoshop has made things easier as far as combining different elements that we worked on individually.
Eric: Sometimes we would work on a single illustration together, and other times we would each do different elements and bring them together as a composite. Occasional creative differences are natural, but I think it’s all part of the creative process. We always managed to work through them and eventually arrive at a consensus. I think that back and forth was ultimately a positive thing.
What was the story process?
Eric: The first step was creating a dummy, which went through several drafts. We were lucky to be working with an amazing editor and art director – Christian Trimmer and Lizzy Bromley. They had fantastic feedback and notes throughout the process, which really helped clarify and shape the final book.
What were some of your favorite books growing up?
Terry: We were both obsessed with Where the Wild Things Are growing up. I was also a big fan of Charles Schulz, The Hobbit, and The Wind in the Willows.
Eric: Yeah, definitely Where The Wild Things Are. I also loved Richard Scarry, Edward Lear, Dr. Suess, and anything by classic pen and ink illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Edward Gorey, and Ernest E. Sheppard.
What was the most challenging part of putting The Night Gardener together? The most rewarding?
Terry: Given that it was our first picture book, everything was kind of the hardest part; just figuring out how to tell a visual story in that format. Everything we had done prior to that was just stand-alone illustration, and there are a lot of challenges that come with telling a story with the same characters.
Eric: I think one of the most challenging parts came early on when we started working on the dummy. We really didn’t have any experience with the format and we had a hard time managing the page constraints. We had forty pages to work with, which sounds like a lot, but with double page spreads you run out of real estate very quickly. Our original concept had flashbacks bookending the story – a story within a story – but it was too much and we eventually had to simplify it considerably.
The most rewarding part was working with our editor and art director who were both so creative and generous and inspiring. Also, the day we saw the first pages and F&G’s of the book.
Would you guys ever do another book?
The Night Gardener really opened a lot of doors as far as children’s books, and resulted in a lot of projects coming our way (thanks again to our amazing agent.) We actually just finished illustrating a picture book called The Darkest Dark, written by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, which is being published September 10th 2016. Our current project is a book called The Antlered Ship, by Dashka Slater, which is being published by Beach Lane Books in 2017, and the following year we’ll be working on our next book that we wrote called Ocean Meets Sky.
Eric: A big thank you to Threadless for giving us both our start in art. We had a long hiatus from art after finishing Art College, and if I hadn’t seen a newspaper article about Threadless all those years ago, and been curious enough to submit a design, I’d probably be doing something completely different now. It was the first stepping stone in working full-time as an artist.
Terry: Yeah, thank you Threadless, and thank you Carlyn for doing the interview!