Author Minh Lê’s debut picture book, Let Me Finish!, features a boy in search of a quiet place to read. Lê’s forthcoming picture book, Drawn Together, illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat, explores the relationship between a Thai-speaking grandfather and his American grandson, which is made stronger by a shared love of art. We asked the author-illustrator duo to interview each other about the personal inspiration for the project, and their collaborative process.
Lê: Hey, Dan! I know you’re in the midst of a launch for one of your other (approximately) bajillion books, but I’m excited to finally get a chance to chat about our book. I’ll guess I’ll get the ball rolling: This story, inspired by my relationship with my grandfather, is obviously very personal for me. Was there something about the manuscript that resonated with you on a personal level too?
Santat: Absolutely. I never really got to know most of my relatives as well as I hoped and that was mostly due to region. My parents came to America in the ’70s and most of the family was still back in Thailand. I’ve met my grandmother a total of four times in my entire life, but those moments were really special to me. First of all, I never learned to speak Thai because my parents taught me English first and they thought that I would develop an accent if I learned Thai first, but we never got around to it. (I believe that was the linguistic theory back in the day.) As a result, I could understand about 80% of the language but I couldn’t really speak better than a three-year-old.
A lot of my conversations with my grandmother were about food. “This is good.” or “I would like more,” and as a result she fed me like crazy, but I totally related to the awkward silences that the characters experienced in our book. I remember one year when I was in Thailand and I saw all these pictures of my grandmother when she was really young. There were pictures of her with my grandfather, and great-grandfather, and all these other relatives I never got to know and it felt like there was a huge chunk of my history and identity that I wanted to understand but I couldn’t ask about.
There was always a sense of regret and shame that I had about not learning the native tongue. Lots of other Thai kids I knew growing up knew the language, but I never did, mostly because I’m just really awful at languages. I remember wanting to study Thai in college, but the university didn’t provide it as a language choice and I also knew that I was only going to improve with constant use.
I don’t know if you ever learned to speak Vietnamese but I’ve always felt like I’ve had a hollowness inside me because I never felt like I was “fully Thai” because I couldn't speak the language, not by choice, but because it’s a struggle for me because my brain isn’t wired that way. I see other Asian authors like Grace Lin, Gene Luen Yang, and Linda Sue Park embracing their culture in their work, and Drawn Together felt like an opportunity for a sort of redemption for me. This was the first book I’ve ever done that dealt with Asian culture and it was my opportunity to fill that void that I had in me for so long.
With that said, I hope you didn’t feel like I hijacked the manuscript in any way? When I got the script your notes had mentioned the family was Thai or Vietnamese and I know this story was deeply personal for you. I was in a state of mind where I knew I could get the Thai cultural aspects of the story right, like my mother could write the sentences for me in Thai, and they could double-check the garments and such.
I’m also curious if you’ve felt the same way as I do about not knowing your native language?
Lê: HA! I didn’t for a second think you hijacked the manuscript. In fact, that was exactly what I was hoping you would do. As an author, my dream scenario is that the illustrator takes the idea and makes it their own. So thank you for that!
Plus, even though the language and some of the cultural details are different, the story is still very much true to my experience. If you take everything you said above about your relationship with your Thai language and culture but replace it with “Vietnamese,” then that’s basically my life, too. Like you, my lack of fluency in Vietnamese has been a monkey on my back for as long as I can remember, so that internalized shame and regret that you mentioned are very much real for me too (and something I’m still grappling with).
It makes me so happy to hear that this project gave you a chance to engage with your roots in book form for the first time—that deep personal investment really shows on the page. Was there anything else unique about how you approached this book? For example, was your artistic process any different?
Santat: I have to say that this was the first time in my career when the manuscript actually pushed me as an artist and I was compelled to experiment and explore my skill set even further. This manuscript was asking me not just to tell a story using my style, it was asking me to incorporate the art styles of the characters in the book, which I’ve never done before.
It wasn’t a far stretch to think about how an old man would draw with traditional means like a brush pen and ink, but there’s a sophistication in long clean brush lines that differs from the sketchiness and controlled molding of a form that I usually exhibit in my book work. I shifted my thinking to more of a fine artist than, say, a concept designer. I was more conscious of things such as line weight, and the amount of pressure you put into the brush, and how much ink was loaded into the brush in order to vary the look of a clean line or that of a dry brush. Not to say that these elements are not issues when you work digitally, but when you work with traditional means you have less control and you are prone to more mistakes. As a result your process changes. You have to think a few steps ahead to make sure that you’re making good design choices, because if you screw up then you’ve wasted hours of work.
On the other hand, when I created the artwork for the grandson I had to think about how a small child would draw, what materials he would use, and strip down everything I knew and understood about the foundations of classical art training and be completely uninhibited with the expression of that form. I had to remember how to draw like a kid again, which meant I had to be sloppy and impulsive and really enjoy the making of the form and be less concerned with the end result and more in tune with “the act of making”. A child isn’t concerned with staying in the lines, or what color crayon they choose, or how the light reflects off a face, etc. They’re in the moment of creating and they are done only when the feeling is right. The contrast in the forms between the grandson and the grandfather are two completely different disciplines of thought and I had to really explore my id and ego.
When it came time to combine the two styles it was a matter of pure experimentation, which went on for months. I was put to a challenge of trying to take these two extremely different styles and make them harmonize so that they felt intuitively like they belonged together. I actually borrowed from a lot of the philosophies of street art that my art teachers taught me in art school. Just add layers upon layers and then add and subtract elements from it as you go. You’re reacting to the composition as a whole and you don’t stop until it feels right. Usually I would spend a day or two on a spread, but for this book, I would spend anywhere from three to sometimes eight days on a piece until I got it right.
What was exciting was that I had absolutely no idea what the end result would look like, which is an absolutely terrifying approach for me. I need to hit a deadline, I need to know that all these hours of work are not going to go wasted. If I jump into a piece not knowing when I’ll be done or what it will look like, then what am I really doing other than just exploring for the sake of discovering something new for myself? At one point our editor, Rotem [Moscovich], was checking in from time to time to see if everything was okay, and all I could tell her was, “I think I’ve got something here but I don’t know for certain.” Yeah, publishers love to hear that.
You have no idea how much this book changed me as an artist. I used to work mostly digitally. Beekle was probably a good 80% digital and 20% traditional. Drawn Together was completely opposite. It was more of a 75% traditional and 25% digital. The computer was mainly just for collaging all the elements together and I moved parts around like a puzzle.
Now I work more in the manner of Drawn Together in my current projects. I’ve embraced the impulsiveness of creating and I’ve reverted back to using more traditional media over digital.
I imagine you went through some hurdles yourself, this being your second book. You’re really putting your heart on paper with this manuscript and I’m curious to know what earlier drafts of this story were like.
Lê: That’s amazing that this slim manuscript could push your creativity to that extent. My approach as a picture book author is to tell a story as streamlined as possible, to basically just create space for you illustrators to work your magic... so to hear that this actually got you to tap into new layers of artistry is totally mind-blowing.
As for earlier drafts, funny enough, since this is a story about the inability to communicate through language, when I first conceived of the book it was completely wordless. But I figured it wouldn’t be fair to make you do all the heavy lifting. ;-) I love where we landed with the text, especially since we kept the opening scene practically wordless. That (hopefully) lets the reader really feel the weight of the silence in the room.
What’s been amazing for me is sharing such a personal story and already seeing how it’s resonating with people. I’ve only shared it a few times in public so far, but each time people have come up to me in tears afterwards to share memories about their grandparents and other loved ones in their lives. Sometimes this is because they shared a language gap like the characters in the book, but people have shared stories where they spoke the same language but still had trouble finding common ground.
I guess what I’m saying is: We might want to consider carrying tissues with us to readings.
Also, I think I read somewhere that you actually put a little bit of yourself in both characters (the grandson and the grandfather). Is that true?
Santat: I could say that there is a bit of me in both characters. I looked very much like the grandson when I was younger and the grandfather would be me in another 25 years. There’s a scene in the book where the grandfather excitedly runs off to go get his sketchbook and I would say his body language is very much a mannerism of mine. I was also thinking about the dinner scene and the grandson was eating a hot dog, fries, and a small side salad for dinner. A bunch of my friends saw that and they were giving me a hard time about the side salad. That’s something my parents would do. If you’re going to have that for dinner then you’re going to at least have something healthy to go along with it.
I’m sorry to hear that your grandfather passed away before he saw the final version of the book. Did he get to see the sketches or any of the finished art? If so, I hope he was pleased with what we made.
Lê: Thanks so much, Dan. Unfortunately, my grandfather was admitted to the hospital at the same time that your sketches were coming in. As soon as I heard, I hastily printed everything out and made it into a little booklet to share with him. Sadly he never regained consciousness enough to truly see the book. That being said, I was able to read it to him so hopefully he heard it on some level—and I have no doubt that he would have adored the artwork (he actually wanted to be an artist so he would have really appreciated your brushwork).
One of the surprising benefits of working on this book is that even though he’s passed, my grandfather has felt very present in my daily life. In fact, a few weeks ago, when we got our finished copies, I sat down with my wife and sons to read it together for the first time. When we got to the dedication page and my three-year-old son saw the picture of his great-grandfather, he pointed to it and shouted, “It’s Ông Cố (great-grandfather)! And he’s smiling at me!”
So, needless to say, it’s incredibly special to me that my grandfather now has a place on the bookshelf. And I’ll never be able to put into words how much it means that you put so much of yourself into this project and brought him to life in such beautiful fashion.
Now, where did I put those tissues??
Santat: I was thrilled I could honor my grandmother as well. She was a rock for our family. One year, my mother had breast cancer, and my grandmother flew out from Thailand and stayed with us for a whole year. She just dropped everything and grabbed the first flight to California. The following year when my mom was recovering, we all went out to Thailand to visit various temples. She was 68 years old and she was jugging five of my cousins and attending to all their needs without dropping a beat.
When I arrived my grandmother was so excited to have me there that she made me try all sorts of foods because it was the thing we really bonded over together. She once presented me with this plate of what I thought was a yellow meat and it smelled awful, like someone had farted on the plate. My mom told me it was durian, which if you’ve ever had is absolutely revolting and tastes exactly like a fart. My mom told me to eat it because it was expensive and I didn’t want to hurt my grandmother’s feelings so I did. I ate it, and it was terrible. Up to the very end she kept thinking I loved durian and I never told her. The last time I ever spoke with her was when I was speaking with her over the phone with my mom. She was going to come to my wedding and she said, “I’ll bring you more durian!” to which I mentally prepared for the fact that I was going to have to eat it at some point. Unfortunately, six months later she developed a really aggressive form of Alzheimer’s and was unable to come to the States to attend. Now, I have this oddly fond memory of durian despite how repugnant it is.
Lê: Sorry to hear about your grandmother. One of mine also had Alzheimer’s and that can be such a difficult disease to deal with. But I’m glad that your grandmother now has a spot on the shelf too. Also, I am very familiar with durian and actually kinda like it (despite its repugnant qualities). Next time I have some, I’ll be thinking of your amazing grandmother—though I’ll be sure to eat it far away from you.
Santat: Throughout the 14 years of my career I’ve never really written or illustrated any Asian-centric books that celebrated our cultural heritage. One of the questions I’ve asked myself as a book creator is if there is a duty to do so. I just happen to be fond of drawing superheroes and robots and animals and so my books are focused on those things. The other issue is the feeling of having to represent an entire cultural identity when we represent a small percentage of the children’s literary world. I for one admittedly have a tough time with that responsibility because I have found that you can’t please everyone. I’ve received complaints that my characters are not Asian enough or too Asian, which quite frankly, I ignore for the most part. My question is if you have felt that pressure and if you feel it is a duty for us to write those types of books?
Lê: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think I felt particular pressure to write an Asian-centric story. For this book, I was compelled to write an engaging story that felt rooted in truth. At the time, I was in the midst of two major life events: my grandfather’s advancing age and the birth of my second son. So I was very much focused on generational dynamics and was engaging in some deep reflection about family, my relationship with my grandfather, and how my role as a parent was informed by being a first-generation Vietnamese-American. Looking back, it makes perfect sense that this was the story that came out of that time.
I’ve always enjoyed your superheroes, robots, etc., and known they were your strength. But it was when I first read Beekle that I started to get a deeper sense of the tremendous heart in your work. So when I knew I was writing a manuscript for your consideration, I wanted to incorporate fantastic and exciting elements with a story that was grounded in emotion. When this idea came to me I just thought: “I would LOVE to see what Dan could do with this.” Actually, I didn't even think about the Asian-American connection we had until after the fact.
As for responsibility, I do think that as an industry, children’s publishing has a responsibility to put out a rich variety of stories that reflect the full diversity of the world and its readers. When talking about the responsibility of individual creators, I do think it is a more nuanced conversation, and one that is evolving as we speak. Personally, I don’t want to pressure or pigeon-hole creators in a way that limits the creative process. But I do think that it is our duty to be thoughtful about what we put out into the world.
And you’re right: no one story is going to capture everyone’s cultural experience. That’s because there is no one Asian-American experience, there is no one American experience. I wrote Drawn Together from a Vietnamese-American perspective and you illustrated it from a Thai-American perspective and yet it still feels completely true to me. I think that’s because while the details are different, we both drew upon our relationships with our grandparents. Each part of our story was grounded in a personal truth and hopefully that strikes at something universal that will resonate on different levels with readers of all different backgrounds. (Fingers crossed!)
On that note, I think we should probably start wrapping this up. It’s been fun to finally chat with you about our book and I can’t wait to share Drawn Together with more people!
Santat: Well, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me on board the International Space Station! I love that we can interview each other and everyone has to read our words and everyone has to now picture this moment in their minds after we just poured our hearts out over our grandparents. Now, on top of all this it’s, “Wait. They did this from space?!!?”
And I’m looking forward to our next book together. Wait. Did I just spill a little secret?
Lê: My pleasure! Though turns out, crying about your grandparents is VERY messy in zero gravity.
As for the secret next book: Stay tuned, everyone...
Drawn Together by Minh Lê, illus. by Dan Santat. Disney-Hyperion, $17.99 June 5 ISBN 978-1-48476760-3