Author Interviews, Book Resources

Allen Say Interview Transcript 2

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

fThe author and illustrator Allen Say was interviewed by Scholastic students. You can also read the transcript of an earlier interview with Allen Say.

How old are you? I love your books; you seem like a nice man. Was Grandfather's Journey an experience from your life? Was it really your grandfather? The part with the woman with the baby in her hands, was that part about you and your wife?
I am 66 until August the 28th. Yes, it's really a slightly cleaned up story about my grandfather who I didn't meet until I was six. He was a very lovely man. He was a privileged Japanese man who never had to work a day in his life, the second son of a very old Japanese family. His older brother is the man who is depicted in Under the Cherry Blossom Tree as a very wealthy landlord, not very nice. But my grandfather was just a very gentle and kind man.

The part with the woman and the baby was not about me and my wife but just an imaginary tale, though the man is loosely modeled the way I looked as a young man.

Do you like your stories when you first write them or do you revise a lot?
You know, I paint the pictures first, in order from page one, page two, etc. I don't jump all over the place. Somehow when I finish the first painting, the second somehow pops in my mind. It's a sequential thing. It's almost like a cinematic approach. In other words, I tell my stories in pictures in my mind. I am not a trained writer and I never imagined I would be a writer especially in my acquired language. You know I didn't speak English until I was 16 when I came to this country, and it quite a shock. I never got over the shock of getting my papers back in college with all those red ink marks. It's still a great fear in me. Writing itself is one of the most unnatural acts, and writing English for me is doubly unnatural.

In Tree of Cranes, are you the little boy in the story? If yes, do you celebrate Christmas every year like that?
Yes that is me as a little boy, but now I don't celebrate Christmas like that. I didn't celebrate like that as a little boy. When peace descended on Japan, my mother did try to have a tree every year, but that was about it. It didn't last very long since I started living by myself when I was 12 years old. In the next four years, I became the apprentice of a famous cartoonist, and this is chronicled in The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice.

In Tree of Cranes, how did you draw the mother behind the window and the wood of the tub?
Laboriously! It is the out of focus look, and I probably scraped with all kinds of things like bristle brushes to blur the image. I studied photography for a year and had a teacher that said only in photography can you blur an image. Now, I am still getting even with him, and I always try to blur my images - selective blurring that is.

Did you really get sick from playing in the neighbor's pond?
Probably not. I was probably sick before then, but my mother had such a fear of water, she was always afraid that I was going to drown in the pond, especially since I was always running away. She would always come looking for me. But next door, they had these series of ponds, a large goldfish hatchery, which was sort of magical place for me. And there was an old man going around throwing handfuls of live worms into the ponds, and the fish would gather around like metal filings to a magnet. I have a very vivid memory of that. Some of the ponds had koi, which are multi colored carp, so it was very colorful.

We understand that many of your stories are memoirs - we have a question about How My Parents Learned to Eat. Where did you get that idea from? And did you eat with chopsticks or a fork when you were little?
I did not write that story but I illustrated it. It was my first full color work, and when it came out, I was so upset with the production and felt the quality wasn't good, so I said that I would never do another children's book again.

I ate with both a chopstick and a fork when I was a kid. Using a chopstick is an acquired skill. Most children start with using a spoon.

How has being an author illustrator changed your life?
I don't have to report to anyone, and I can do anything I want - which is exactly what I have always wanted to do (after a great painter).

How does it feel to be famous?  Does your hand hurt from writing all these books?
I can draw in my dreams and my hand never gets tired; it's my mind that rots, and quickly too. I can draw much faster than I can write. I probably will never get used to this notion of being famous. It is frequently surprising and unnatural. It's just that I'm Allen Say. I suppose if I had been a younger man, it would have probably amused me, but at my age it is surprising and a little bothersome.

Mr. Say, we are writing from a classroom in Rochester, NY. We are currently studying many of your books as a part of an Author's Study. The children would like to know how you write so well. They are having difficulty now writing their own narratives.
I think the best way to tell a story for young people is to make storyboards - sort of like cartoon strips. It can even be stick figures. Lay out the story like a storyboard, and somehow words will come to you. They do to me anyway. And this is much easier than if I start by groping verbally; then it becomes unworkable. I can sit the whole day at my desk, struggling to write an opening sentence, and this is crazy. If I don't have the first sentence down, I can't go on. I thought it was just me, but I was reading an essay by Mavis Gallant, and she said the same thing. She has to have the opening sentence just down cold or she can't go on and write the next sentence. And I thought, "It's not just me. This is a great writer." And it gave me great comfort. Writing is a very unnatural act, and using the images, particularly for a picture book, doodling is just perfect, and children like to do that.

We lived in Bishop, near Manzanar. What is your experience with internment camps?
I have no experience because I was on the other side of the pond. When I came to this country it was 1953. War had been over for eight years, and I experienced the animosity of Americans against the Japanese first hand, but the internment camp experience was second hand. That is, I only learned of it through others.

I have loved your books since reading Grandfather's Journey to my own children and feel your stories resonate with my experiences as a sansei. Your recent books address the US internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. What influenced your choice of topics, and why now?
There is a woman who works with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles who tried for years to get me to do a show of my work, and it came about in 2000. I kept going down there, and one of the first times I was there, I went through one of their permanent exhibits. They have a very powerful display of photographs and a pile of suitcases. It made a tremendous impression on me because I moved 37 times in my life.

I kept looking at that famous picture by Dorothea Lange taken in 1943, and there are two girls who really haunted me. Eventually, I decided to steal them and put them in my book, which became Home of the Brave. It's one of the saddest pictures that I know. It's a photo of a family; all the older ones are trying to be brave and the father is smiling, but the kids haven't developed that mask yet, and they have this bewilderment. I've experienced that. That is what a war does to you.

When the book came out, I sent a copy to the museum, and one of the women who worked there recognized the girls because they grew up together. They used to play basketball together! So she got in touch with them, and three generations of the Mochida family came to the book launching party. They bought crates of the books!

In The Bicycle Man, are the pictures drawn of your school? Are they from photos of Sports Day or your memory?
They are entirely from my memory. The school didn't look like that at all; it's all poetic license. I actually returned there in 1982 for my reunion, first grade reunion, and I had drawn my teacher from memory and she looks exactly the same. It was a little creepy. The landscape was so accurate, relatively speaking. Of course, it has changed with new buildings, but essentially the outline of the mountains is how I depicted it.

Eighteen out of 50 students came back for the reunion, including the teacher, Mrs. Morita, and no one remembered the incident. Only one classmate's older brother (he was three years older than us), he remembered the incident.

Our teacher saw your exhibition in the Japanese center in LA and wants to tell you he thought it was terrific.

I am one of the students from the New Brunswick Public Schools Adult Learning Center's ESL and Civics Education class who participated in the Grandfather's Journey Book Project. I think your book Grandfather's Journey was really interesting because it helped me to look back and see how valuable my culture is and everything I left back in Costa Rica. It also helped me to understand my life better and other people's lives. I want to thank you for sharing.

You said that every book is difficult and painful to write. What did you mean by painful? Physically, emotionally, morally? And why?
All of the above! Mental anguish can be more severe that physical pain. I'm not really a writer, and I'm almost embarrassed to be called an author. Call me an artist and that is okay, but I'm completely insecure when it comes to my writing.

I am interested in finding out when your new book, El Chino, will be finished and released?
El Chino came out in 1990. My latest book, called Music for Alice, just came out and we had a launching party with Alice, my informant and model who is am 89-year-old dancer.

I am struggling with the first frame and the first sentence of the next book. I've been working on it for days and months and will probably start painting that first frame on Monday.

Do you get inspired by music? If so, what type?
I do like music, but I have to work in complete silence. I can't read or draw when music is being played. Sometimes music does inspire me, but not often. I do listen to a lot of Bach, but there is nothing I could listen to for three months at a time. I don't own a TV set, and I've never turned the radio on in my car.

What sport do you like?
I used to like fly fishing; it was the only physically graceful thing I could master. My father was an athlete, so I hated physical sport. I couldn't do anything, really. I was the slowest runner at all the grade schools I went to. On the day of the Sport Day in Mrs. Morita's class, I was praying for a typhoon in order to get me out of those relays. And in the end, I was saved by those soldiers. That's probably why I remember the incident so clearly. You know artists are cursed with very acute memory. The only way we can go on is by putting it on paper. I feel as though I analyze myself and I get paid for it.

How does it feel to write all these interesting books about your life? What is your favorite book you wrote? Mine is A River Dream.
My favorite book is always the one I am working on right now. When I finish a book, it no longer means anything to me. It's almost like a work done by somebody else. Like when I walked into my museum exhibit, I was shocked and had never really looked at the body of work, all framed and looking very proper and official. I thought "Wow, who did those? One busy guy." There is a detachment after I'm done with a piece. It doesn't really belong to me, and I'm thinking about the next project.

What did it feel like to win the Caldecott?
I didn't believe it. I thought it was a grotesque joke, honestly. I had already won the Caldecott Honor (silver runner up), and I thought it was the same thing, not the gold. I didn't quite know what to make of it. I had no idea what it entailed. It did change my life.

How have things changed in Japan since you were there?
Unimaginably. Everything is so strange. Youngsters are called "space people" because old people like me don't understand them. I used to go there every year for my sushi fix.

I read your interview on the Web. You said that first you draw, and next, you write. Do you draw the picture considering the story, or do you draw the pictures and then think of the story?
All of the above. Both ways. Sometimes I have a vague idea and start drawing. Other times I have no idea and start drawing. Images come from a deeper place than words.

What is your favorite food or restaurant in US and Japan?
Sushi. But I only eat it in Japan.

Do you repeat yourself in your stories for impact or to stress a point?
It's kind of a rhythmic thing. It feels right, and I'm not sure if I can explain that. All artistic endeavors - whether painting, music, or writing - rhythm has a big part of it. Sometimes it just feels right to repeat or echo something.

I love your illustrations, and I identified with your feeling because I love two countries like you. Also, when you wrote the words, "My grandfather never kept another songbird," what came to mind was a vision of the tears of joy in the eyes of my grandfather when I visited him one time and my mother and I said goodbye to him. He spoke his favorite words, "When are you coming back?"
When I wrote "My grandfather never kept a songbird," it was a break in the life cycle, it was never going to happen again. In other words the end was near.

  • Subjects:
    Literature, Literature Appreciation, Writing Process, Japanese and Japanese American
  • Skills: