Brothers Eric and Terry Fan made their picture book debut in 2016 with The Night Gardener, a tale about a dreary community transformed by art. Their forthcoming picture book, Ocean Meets Sky, follows a boy on his journey to the magical land of his grandfather’s stories. We asked the siblings to interview each other about the inspiration for their new book, and the growth of their collaborative process, both as authors and illustrators.
Eric: Okay, I’ll kick this off. We have a new book coming out, Ocean Meets Sky. Can you tell the readers a little bit about it?
Terry: I should point out that this interview is being conducted over Messenger for maximum spontaneity.
Eric: Maybe we should be throwing in some emojis for extra verisimilitude.
Terry: I don’t really use emojis. Except for that new one with the monocle. That’s pretty much my go-to emoji.
Eric: Let’s talk about emojis for a minute.
Terry: Let’s not.
Eric: C’mon. We both know that irrelevant sidebars are pretty much the defining feature in the genre of unmoderated conversations. Also, I have a theory that everything you need to know about a person can be summed up by their top three emojis, so after this exchange we’re done.
Terry: Okay, top three: monocle guy, like I said, followed by tears of laughter, and tears of sadness.
Eric: That’s pretty much all you need to know about life, not just you. Okay, my top three: tears of laughter, emoji looking up thoughtfully with hand on chin, and my absolute go-to emoji—eyes closed with straight line as mouth. It’s the ultimate “you were expecting a reaction but I’m giving you this instead” emoji—“the world is falling apart but I’m meeting it with unreasonable but admirable calm” emoji.
Terry: Okay. Back to the question, before this whole thing derails.
Eric: Don’t worry, the emoji part will probably be edited out.
Terry: Ocean Meets Sky is the story of a boy named Finn, who sets sail one day to visit the magical place of his grandfather’s stories.
Eric: Since we’ve switched gears to serious business, can you tell us about some of the book’s themes?
Terry: We decided to explore our Asian heritage in this story, so there’s the theme of connection and family. Family—and remembering and honoring relatives—is a big part of Asian culture. It’s also a story about loss—Finn coming to terms with the loss of his grandfather by imaginatively visiting their shared world in memory. Lastly, it’s about my love of drawing whales.
Eric: Let’s talk about that.
Terry: Maybe it’s because we lived by the ocean in Hawaii when we were little. Remember how we decorated our bedroom as an undersea world, with drawings of fish and whales on the walls?
Eric: I do remember that. So, I was born in Hawaii and you were born in Illinois, and we spent the better part of our childhoods moving from state to state. What impact, if any, do you think that had?
Terry: Honestly, I think it’s one of the things that steered me towards being an artist. Not only were we exposed to a lot of different experiences, but when you don’t have a sense of a consistent “home” your imaginative, interior world becomes a kind of portable home, like a turtle’s shell. I think we both lived a lot of our childhoods in our heads.
Eric: What other things do you think influenced our path to becoming picture book artists and authors?
Terry: Mom always encouraged us to tell stories, even as kids, and was our biggest champion as far as our art. Our first picture book collaboration, “Many Years Ago,” was made before we could even really write. She added in our text for us and stapled the whole thing together—kind of our first editor and art director.
Eric: I can’t believe you still have that book.
Terry: And Dad used to tell us a lot of his own invented stories when we were little. He created that whole world of elves.
Eric: Which was pretty amazing.
Terry: He built a lot of themes into the stories, teaching us about tolerance and cooperation. A lot of it probably went over my head, but even at that age I really responded to the world-building, and the fact that he would make the stories a kind of “choose your own adventure” format where we had to participate in the stories and think our way out of the various elven predicaments.
Eric: Which brings up another theme from Ocean Meets Sky, which is the power of storytelling—the way it can inspire a child’s imagination and act as a bridge between generations. From the reader’s perspective, the story is mostly about Finn’s journey, but I had this idea that as the writers and artists of the book, our perspective is actually more in line with the grandfather’s.
Terry: In that he’s the primary storyteller?
Eric: Yeah. While Finn might be creating the narrative, his imagination is fired by his grandfather, even in absence. In that sense the book is kind of a reflection not only on loss, but also the legacy of the storyteller—what ideas and imaginative worlds you eventually leave behind as a writer, with Finn being a proxy for the reader who enters this world.
Terry: Okay, now I’m slipping into a bleak contemplation of my own mortality.
Eric: It was meant to be inspirational. On that note, what inspires you as an artist?
Terry: Wait a minute. How come you’re asking all the questions? Why don’t you answer that one?
Eric: Because I hate that question.
Terry: So do I. But since this is our interview I guess we can skip it. This next question might be unskippable, though, since we were supposed to ask which one of us resembled Finn more as a child.
Eric: Well, we both liked to build things when we were kids, and we both wore fishermen’s hats.
Terry: Yes, many a ramshackle fort was constructed.
Eric: But I think the winner would have to be our nephew Valentine. Photo entered as evidence.
Terry: I’ll now ask you the question we get asked more than any other, which is: how do we create our artwork together?
Eric: I’m going to throw down a metaphor for this one. Essentially, it’s like two musicians in a band who write songs together, except their instruments are pencils and their recording studio is a piece of paper.
Terry: I think the recording studio would be Photoshop in that metaphor.
Eric: Fair enough. My point was that the finished song is a little different than it would have been if only one musician had written it. I’m the drummer in this metaphor, obviously.
Terry: I’m going to ditch the metaphor and just say we basically start with a rough, which acts as our blueprint, and then we both work on the final art, whether it’s working collaboratively on the same drawing or in parts; we then bring the whole thing together in Photoshop where we edit and color the final image.
Eric: I think that pretty much covers it.
Terry: So, last question: use your favorite word in a sentence.
Eric: “I was awoken by a gentle tintinnabulation of bells.” I don’t even know if I used that correctly, but what a word! Okay, what’s yours?
Terry: “The monocled emoji regarded me with a perspicacious look.”
Eric: Okay, I think we’re done.
Terry: No. I think we should really flip the tables and end this on a note of mystery, like the film L’Eclisse. The last response can be three ellipses, the universal sign of “Eric is writing.” But the response will never come. It will be like Bill Murray whispering in the ear of Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation.
Ocean Meets Sky by the Fan Brothers. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 May ISBN 978-1-4814-7037-7